Businesses for the Greener Good Lecture

Elisabeth Tone

On Monday, November 17, Brian Dumaine gave a presentation for the Center for Ethics and World Societies (CEWS) lecture series about corporations’ efforts to develop real solutions for global warming. Dumaine is the Editorial Director of Fortune Small Business, a publication for which he covers the rise of small, fast-growing business. He is also the author of a new book, The Plot to Save the Planet, in which he investigates the green ventures of visionary entrepreneurs.

Dumaine began his talk by relaying an anecdote about a private equity conference of the oil and gas industry that he had attended in New York City. The focus of the meeting was the industry’s plan to spend $800 billion over the next 20 years to drill for oil and build refineries. Dumaine recalls that he turned to his neighbor at the conference and inquired as to what the industry planned to do about global warming.

His friend responded with a two-word answer: sea walls. In the event of rising sea levels, coastal cities could surround themselves with sea walls like those that protect the Dutch cities. Sea walls, Dumaine explained, are of course not an adequate tool with which to combat global warming. After all, the severe climate change that is currently underway will have diverse and widespread consequences, including “droughts, floods and population dislocations.”

In light of the oil industry’s absurd sea wall solution, not to mention the U.S. government’s current hesitancy to take action against global warming, it would be easy to become pessimistic about the future state our environment and the safety our world. Dumaine, however, is an eternal optimist. He was especially “heartened” after interviewing various entrepreneurs about their creative solutions for global warming for his recent book.

Two professors at Princeton University, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, calculated that the U.S. would have to take 7 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere in order to decrease greenhouse gases by 80 percent in the next 40 years. In his new book, Dumaine divides these 7 billion tons of carbon into seven distinct “wedges,” each wedge representing a different solution to remove a billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere. He has explored these various green innovations and interviewed the entrepreneurs who are working to ensure that they succeed in combating global warming.

“Once I learned about Dumaine and his recent book, he seemed an excellent choice since the theme of CEWS for the year is on responses to climate change,” Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies and CEWS Director Bob Turner said. “His book is all about entrepreneurs and corporations responding to climate change by looking for new business opportunities. This is an angle that I don’t think most people think about when they’re considering societal responses to climate change, plus he had a much more optimistic view than most observers of the climate change problem.”

One way to improve the efficiency of domestic energy use is the Save a Watt project, which was organized by the utility company Duke Energy. The company installs solar panels, thermal window panes and efficient appliances in the houses of the project’s participants using all of its own capital. The company includes the cost of these installations in the energy bill, but the consumer actually ends up paying less because of their newly efficient use of energy. Seven utility companies and 22 million consumers have signed on to the Save a Watt project, which is the equivalent of taking 600 million cars off of the road.

Subsequently, Dumaine explored the green technology of the automobile industry and their production of electric and hybrid cars, like the Tesla and Aptera. High-powered electric filling stations are also being designed in an effort to prevent potential buyers from being discouraged by the inconvenient features of electric cars.

Other entrepreneurs are focusing on the architectural design of green buildings. The new Bank of America Tower in New York City, for example, is the “greenest skyscraper in the world,” as it uses 50 percent less water and electricity than a normal office building.

Additionally, a green “smart house” in Santa Monica, CA informs its residents of their energy use around the house, so that they may pinpoint areas in which they can improve their energy-saving efforts. The countertops of the house are made of recycled newspaper, the insulation is made of recycled blue jeans, and the roof is covered in solar panels. The house’s moveable walls and pre-fabricated construction cut down on the waste of building materials and manual labor. Overall, the 2500 sq. ft. house is 90 percent more efficient than a normal house of the same size.

As long as the government can put a “sensible energy policy in place for the nation,” Dumaine is hopeful that entrepreneurs will continue to develop their green innovations. For example, President-Elect Barack Obama intends to auction carbon permits to polluting industries. He can then invest the revenue he gets from these sales into the green technology industry and the creation of millions of new “green collar” jobs.

Far from painting a dreary picture of the world’s eventual destruction at the hands of global warming, Dumaine clearly explained the corporate world’s inventive endeavors to reverse the damage that we have already caused to the environment.

“[It is important for students to learn about the corporate world’s environmental efforts because] too many students interested in environmental issues think of corporations as creators of problems but not solvers of problems,” Turner said. “Too many students interested in the corporate world don’t know about the many interesting ‘green economy’ opportunities that exist.”