Addressing climate change is possible but only if business gets onboard

Business must take a leadership role in the changes that need to occur around the world in order to address climate change, says David Suzuki Foundation CEO Peter Robinson, who visited York on April 1 as a guest lecturer in the second-year course Environmental Management.

Robinson told students in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) that, in Canada and the United States, only businesses are positioned in such a way that they can implement the changes necessary to address and mitigate climate change. Businesses are supple and innovative and can respond quickly to new scientific research, as opposed to government regulation, which must pass through a slow legislative process. Changes can be made in business products and services that can create different options for consumers, while maintaining a similar standard of living.

Right: Peter Robinson (left) with York FES Professor Peter Victor

Robinson, former CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-Op, pointed to the disjuncture that often occurs between environmental findings and people’s responses to those findings. “When environmentalists and scientists speak about environmental issues they tend to preach about caution and moderation,” said Robinson. “They urge people to make compromises that will lead to undesirable lifestyle changes – and therefore these experts and their ideas are often ignored or opposed.”

Therefore, despite the fact that research demonstrates a direct correlation between climate change and greenhouse gases, people continue to spew increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, asserted Robinson. Since the effects of global warming are not yet obvious in people’s daily lives, people tend to avoid making the changes that will address the situation.

But businesses have the ability to be social leaders in this area, said Robinson, since they have the flexibility and innovativeness that allows them to both prioritize addressing climate change as well as find solutions that will allow people to pursue the quality of life they desire. 

To help encourage this leadership, individuals need to take the impacts of global warming into consideration when making both short and long-term investment decisions – and choose to financially support organizations that are integrating sustainable practices that make sense in the context of the current environmental situation. “When making investment choices, adaptation to climate change must be at the forefront of decision making,” said Robinson.

The issue of climate change, Robinson emphasized, is not only an issue of prevention. People need to acknowledge and adjust to the changes that have already occurred and will occur from the damage already done to the environment. For example, certain parts of the world have already started to feel the effects of global warming – such as food shortages, infrastructure changes and mass displacement of people. Therefore, all decisions, both short-term and long-term, must be viewed “through a climate change lens” in order to insure that they take the many impacts of global warming into consideration.

"It is good to hear from someone like Peter Robinson, who had such a successful career at Mountain Equipment Co-Op that he expects business to play a key role in dealing with climate change. However, it will only happen if graduates from programs such as those offered by the Faculty of Environmental Studies carry their ideas, skills and enthusiasm for change into the workplace," said Professor Peter Victor, who co-teaches the course Robinson addressed.

Robinson highlighted the many reasons for optimism and hope in regard to climate change and the action that can be taken to address it. “The tipping point for this issue is coming,” he said. “Changes can be made immediately. Don’t be paralyzed by the bad news. If you listen to the negative voices too much, you will just give up. What we need is to shift our thinking in order to make the changes we need to, while maintaining optimism.”