Business Beat Perspective

Business Week’s John Carey On Outlook for Climate Coverage

John Carey is a Business Week Senior Correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has covered science, technology, medicine, health, energy, and the environment for the magazine since joining it nearly 20 years ago and has written extensively and insightfully on climate change. He earlier had worked for six years for Newsweek and in other journalism positions, and his reporting has earned a number of respected journalism awards, including one from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS.

Carey has a B.S. degree in biochemistry from Yale University, an M.Sc. in marine biology from the University College of North Wales, and an M.F.S. in forest ecology from Yale. In this e-mail Q&A, he looks back at coverage of climate change in the year now ending … and ahead to what 2009 may hold in store.


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Business Week‘s John Carey

Yale Forum  Do you see climate change and related energy issues as being distinct from issues related to the financial collapse and economic recovery efforts, or are they rather cogs – and important ones? – of the larger economic story?

Carey I think the conventional wisdom right after the election was that action on climate would have to be put on the back burner because the economy could not handle an additional cost (i.e., the cost of carbon emissions) in the midst of the financial collapse. Energy, however, was seen as a different story: there had already been several reports suggesting that one of the best ways out of the recession was a ‘green’ recovery, putting money into everything from energy efficiency (which could put people to work right away retrofitting homes and buildings) to renewable energy.

My own view from the beginning, however, was that the all three elements – the recovery, energy policy, and climate – are inextricably linked. Energy policy is clearly a major part of the larger economic story, and it makes no sense at all to take steps on energy without putting energy policy in the context of goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That view, I think, got a big boost from Obama’s November 18th video message to the governors’ climate summit in California. The President-Elect emphasized there that climate change and dependence on imported oil are problems that must be addressed, and that doing so will create the kind of good jobs the U.S. needed to pull out of recession. In other words, yes, climate change and energy are important cogs in the larger economic story. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that decades of failure to respond to energy and climate issues helped create the current crisis, because that failure led directly to soaring energy prices.

Yale Forum  Do you think the business community’s interest in, or Business Week‘s coverage of, climate change has been affected by the severe financial decline?

Carey I think there is less interest in news about the science of climate change (which is now widely seen as incontrovertible). But there is a growing interest in climate change policies. Businesses (especially industries like electric utilities) now face huge uncertainties at a time when they must decide where and when to invest. Should a utility build a new nuclear plant? Push harder for solar and wind? Invest in efficiency steps? Where should aluminum or chemical companies build their new factories, and where will their power and feedstocks come?

The answers to these questions may be very different depending on the future direction of energy and climate policies, which are inextricably linked. That’s why there’s such a clamor in many segments of the business community to get on with it already, and lay out the rules for the next couple of decades.

Yale Forum  How much interest do you think there is in the business community, and at Business Week, in the “green jobs” aspect of an economic recovery?

Carey  The interest clearly is growing. There was some sentiment in the early fall, both at the magazine and in the larger world, that a ‘green’ recovery was wishful thinking – little more than the pleadings of yet another interest group. Now it’s being taken more seriously, because it’s clear that there are good jobs to be had in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and clear also that the nation needs a better energy and climate strategy anyway.

This is also yet another example of the states being out in front of Washington. The states see green business as the next economic growth engine, and are already vying to attract ‘green’ companies.

Yale Forum  As a reporter covering climate change issues for primarily a business audience, do you feel it is no longer important to continue addressing physical science issues related to climate change? Or do you feel it is just more important to focus on potential “solutions” options, thereby somewhat accepting some of the most important physical science underpinnings?

Carey  It is still important to follow the scientific developments. One thing that helped executives to focus on the issue in the first place was the growing evidence of the potential for abrupt climate change. Suddenly, it was clear that the near-term risks of climate change were greater than they had expected. Now, I think, the basic science of climate change is less important to business.

What’s increasingly important, in contrast, is the issue of adaptation. What will changes in climate mean for individual regions of the world (and for key parameters like sea levels, rainfall, and drought)? How will those changes affect agriculture, water supplies, and energy? And what should we do now (and in the future) to best cope with those changes? In other words, I think, the emphasis of the business audience is shifting from the basic science to issues of adaptation, since changes in climate could pose risks, and also opportunities, for companies.

Yale Forum  What does your crystal ball – or more importantly your reporter’s ear-to-the-ground – tell you about major directions of the climate change story in 2009? Are there key decision points or action items you’ll be looking for?

Carey  The biggest single question is whether Congress and the Obama Administration move forward first with just an energy package (separately or as part of a stimulus package), or whether that energy package also includes climate targets.

Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) predicts that Congress will deal with energy in 2009, then take up climate in 2010. But Obama has said that the two must be done together, and both Representative Henry Waxman (D-Ca) and Senate Environment Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Ca) have vowed to have climate bills ready in January.

We need to keep a careful watch on whether or not this climate talk is real or just posturing, but initial signs are that it is real. Transition team sources say Obama is serious about doing both energy and climate in 2009. And his environment and energy nominees, including Secretary of Energy nominee and Nobel Laureate Stephen Chu of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory is passionate about the need to take action on climate change as quickly as possible.

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