Climate Change Means Profits for Some, Meaningful Action for Few

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Hordes of dead fish float in Rio de Janeiro in Feb. 2010.  The death of the fish may be the result of an abrupt temp. change, falling 10 degrees C in 24 hours or possibly due to pollution.
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According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the impacts of a changing environment are here to stay.

“One of the most important findings is that we're not in an era where climate change is some kind of future hypothetical," said Dr. Chris Field, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the Carnegie Institution of Science, before a United Nations panel of scientists on Monday. "We live in a world where impacts of climate changes that have already occurred are widespread and consequential."

The panel concluded that global warming is real, it's affecting every continent, and time is of the essence.

Joining The Takeaway is Carol Browner, who served as director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy from 2009 to 2011 and as the head of the Environmental Protect Agency in the Clinton administration. She is currently a senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group.

Browner says the IPCC report about climate change is so important because "it is telling us, yet again, it is real, the scientists all agree it's real and we've got to get on with doing something."

But, despite this report, and dozens of other calls to action in Washington, it seems there is simply no political will to change business-as-usual policies or make any headway in combating global warming.

"What's going on in Congress are two things: Money and, quite frankly, the news cycle," says Browner. "The amount of time that members of Congress have to spend raising money, the amount of money they have to spend leaves little time. For a lot of the news media, they cover a story very, very briefly. They don't have the time or the willingness to do what you all do, which is to go in depth and really look at the issues. Folks aren't really getting the kind of news and they're not understanding the magnitude of the problem that we face."

Aside from the time allocation and the lack of out cry from the public at large, Browner says bipartisan gridlock is also stalling meaningful action in the nation's capital.

"There's a lot of chatter in Congress, but in terms of actually passing important pieces of legislation? That's not happening when it comes to the environment," she says. "The kind of bipartisan support that public health environmental protections enjoyed 10 or 15 years ago when I was at the EPA simply doesn't exist today."

While Congress may be dragging its feet on the environment, Browner says that President Barack Obama is using his authority and existing laws to propose standards for coal and natural gas power plants, and requiring a reduction in green house emissions from such plants. Additionally, the executive branch has required that cars reduce green house gas emissions and become more efficient.

"It's not as if nothing is happening, but we do need Congress to engage," she says. "Right now, the House day in, and day out seems to pass anti-environmental measures, and they don't seem to have any interest. You do have some in the Senate—I think more than a dozen senators took to the floor in an evening session all through the night talking about climate change and trying to raise the issue to get their colleagues to engage. But I go back to where I started—unfortunately the amount of money involved in running for Congress, the amount of money that outsiders and people who are opposed to strong environmental protections are putting into races is really sort of driving the day."

Some speculate that the office Browner used to head—the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy—closed after just two years because of political pressure from the forces in Congress that are against action on climate change, despite the Office's efforts to introduce several measures, including introducing some of the toughest car fuel efficiency standards ever.

"The president and I agreed from the very beginning that I would work with him for two years to get a program up and running," she says. "Now you have the agencies—Gina McCarthy at the EPA using her authority under the Clean Air Act to propose and set standards on power plants, and the president last summer laid out the Climate Action Plan. It's not as if nothing's going on, but it's very common in administrations that at the beginning you organize things and you get things up and established and then they day-to-day workings of the agencies take hold. As well they should, because that is where the power is ultimately vested to set the enforceable standards."

Turning a Profit From Climate Change

As odd as it sounds, some companies and a few small countries have actually found ways to benefit from climate change. Melting ice caps have brought new shipping routes to Iceland and Greenland, while companies like Monsanto have found new profits in drought-resistant crops. McKenzie Funk is an expert on these profiteers, and he found many others while writing his recent book, "Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming."

"There are hedge funds that are buying up all the land," says Funk. "One of the major targets had been Ukraine, that's obviously not as good a bet as it once was. There's a lot of interest in Africa as well because there's a lot of land there and there's a lot of water, so there's been a lot of purchasing along the Nile."

While many might believe that businesses that help to fight or reduce climate change—solar panel manufactures, for example–may be the ones with the most to gain from a changing environment, Funk says those looking to reap the benefits of the damage to the Earth will also profit. 

"There's a lot of money going into genetic modification," says Funk. "Monsanto and Syngenta are a big part of any climate fund's portfolio because they expect they'll do better in a warming world."

While many speculate that the next war will be over Mid East water instead of oil, Funk says it's difficult to turn a profit on water.

"A lot of governments have very protectionists laws about water so you can't just sell it across the border," says Funk. "It's very heavy—it's about 8 lbs. per gallon, so putting that in tankers and shipping it around the world, it's actually kind of a stupid idea. The people who are making some money off this are small hedge funds that invest in water rights. You can do that in the American West, you can do that in Australia, and you can do it in a few other places. You can separate the land title from a water title and you can trade water like it's a piece of stock up and down the river system."

In addition to agribusinesses and hedge funds benefiting from environmental damage, Funk says that some governments are also able to generate capital from climate change. 

"If you travel to Holland or the Netherlands and you talk to people, there's not a lot of gloom, there's a lot of talking about climate change as an opportunity," says Funk. "For a country that's spent generations preparing for sea level rise, they want to sell that expertise to the world and they're doing so increasingly. There are engineering companies that will build sea walls and storm surge barriers like that for New York City. There are ones that will build you an entire floating city–not just floating homes but floating parks, floating schools, floating streets. They're beginning to sell that technology everywhere."