It’s the day after the huge event Aimee Christensen helped organize — a “Climate and Capital” program on the sidelines of COP21, to inform and encourage investment in climate solutions—but she is not showing any signs of slowing down. She hops from one appointment to the next, from table to table in the posh bar at the Westin Hotel in Paris, pausing only to sip green tea and let her next meeting know she is running a bit late.
Christensen, a member of ecoAmerica’s Board of Directors, is founder and CEO of Christensen Global Strategies, a firm that consults with leaders in business, government, and nonprofits to develop solutions that are both environmentally sustainable and profitable. Her clients have included Microsoft, FEMSA, and the Clinton Global Initiative.
She has a long history working with businesses and investors on climate change: in 2010 and 2011, she helped orchestrate the first and second World Climate Summit (WCS), a CEO-level business, finance, and government forum that has pushed for successful outcomes to all COP talk.
At the previous night’s Climate and Capital event, “we had more than a trillion dollars in the room,” says Christensen. “People who are looking to mobilize capital to solve climate change, including many who haven’t invested in climate change at all yet, hearing from the investors who have, learning about the risks and opportunities."
For businesses interested in both the bottom line and a healthier planet, success at COP negotiations translates into predictability and transparency, explains Christensen. “Businesses are innovating and driving efficiency in their operations, but we really need governments to move more quickly to give us the certainty, the clarity on what the rules are going to be and what the deals look like.”
A global price on carbon would go a long way in providing that clarity and certainty, says Christensen. So would a complete understanding of what each individual country is promising in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and clear assurances they will stick to those promises.
For example, she says, “If India says it’s going to do a 100 gigawatts of solar, then as businesses and investors, we’re going to go to India. As long as India is going to live up to that commitment, as long as there’s a policy framework that as long as there’s a policy framework that provides the signals needed, that’s an opportunity. So businesses will know, ‘It’s worth my effort to have a presence in India and commit to solar development.’ And an investment firm knows it’s worth it to spend time to finance those deals. Businesses can adapt, as long as they know what the rules are.”
Is it the bottom line or a gnawing conscience about a warming planet that drives businesses to go greener?
“Every company is different in what motivates them to act on climate change,” says Christensen. “For some CEOs there’s absolutely an ethical imperative to be part of solving climate change. But, obviously, if you are a publicly held company there’s also the imperative of the CEO to show performance to their investors, to their board, to show those returns quickly in order to keep your job.”
But change is happening, says Christensen. “What’s important is CEOs like Paul Polman (head of Unilever) saying ‘Let’s look at long-term value creation. We cannot be constrained by the quarterly reporting requirements, because long-term value is aligned with value for people, value for the planet.’ Leaders like Paul have really helped change that framing.”
Christensen’s passion for a greener, healthier planet, which was cultivated from an early age by her parents — her father was a green builder in Marin County, California, in the 1970s, and her mother was a volunteer environmental educator for the local Audubon Canyon Ranch who brought young Christensen on long hikes in a toddler carrier on her back — is evident in everything she does, from bringing world leaders in business together in dialogue, to helping businesses of all sizes communicate about their commitment to climate. And she believes there are lessons the Goliaths could learn from the Davids of the business community worldwide.
Communicating how business is supporting local communities is key, says Christensen, who has just founded the Sun Valley Institute for Resilience in her home town of Sun Valley, Idaho. “Businesses need to say ‘we are part of solving this, this is how we are improving the quality of our air and water, how we are helping this community. Look at the jobs we are creating by putting solar on the rooftops.’” Local businesses know they need a local impact conversation, she says, “but I would argue that multinationals should be having local conversations and making local impact wherever they are too. Businesses can show what is possible and partner with community leaders to make it happen.”
What excites Christensen the most, she says, is the success of investors like Al Gore, who was keynote speaker at the pervious night’s Climate and Capital event. People are “investing well and addressing climate change and sustainability,” she says. Generation Investment now has “a ten-year track record of showing that we can do this and make money. A lot of money.”
The growing trend of business incorporating sustainability into their missions, operations, and profitability bodes well for higher ed. By providing students with interdisciplinary, hands-on, real world sustainability training, and giving them grounding in science and business, we can prepare them to meet the needs of an increasingly green economy.