Climate Corner: Our Best Hope is Enlightened Self-Interest

By Kathy Kuntz


I’ve spent almost 25 years encouraging people to adopt more sustainable practices at home and work. For me, the big motivator to change our behavior is climate change. I feel compelled to help people become part of the solution to the greatest challenge of our lifetime.

You might expect that I’d be ready to give up after our recent election. After all, President-Elect Trump asserted during the campaign that climate change is “a hoax” and he has pledged to reinvigorate the coal industry, which, if successful, would increase the likelihood of a climate catastrophe.

Of course, we don’t know what Mr. Trump really thinks, and a significant revival of the coal industry is unlikely due to economics and a very strong customer preference for clean energy.

While I’m deeply concerned about the bias against scientific research in our public discourse, I am optimistic about our efforts to become much more sustainable as a society. I’m optimistic because so much of the progress that we have made to date has not been the result of government mandates, but instead has come from voluntary action driven by economic self-interest.

In addition to individual action, businesses of all sizes are reducing their emissions. These actions come from a variety of motivations.

  • First and foremost, eliminating waste makes good business sense. The bottom-line benefit is obvious when a manufacturer can produce its products using less electricity, water or raw materials. In Wisconsin, we’ve had strong energy efficiency programs for decades, so many companies have significantly reduced their energy usage voluntarily. The bottom-line pressure for other businesses to follow suit, and for leaders to achieve even greater efficiencies, is very real.
  • Second, businesses are reducing waste to satisfy customers. Walmart has had an enormous impact on sustainability by requiring its vendors to demonstrate progress relative to energy savings, packaging and other metrics. Similarly, builders are touting their expertise in constructing green buildings because that is what is selling best. Recent surveys indicate that more than two-thirds of U.S. consumers prefer products and companies that are committed to being environmentally responsible. Businesses are responding by aligning their brands with sustainability. This progress is independent of politics.
  • Third, companies are reducing waste in order to mitigate risk. Looking at the rest of the world and the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, many believe that carbon regulation is inevitable and are seeking ways to reduce their exposure to this cost. Beverage companies that operate in water-scarce environments know it is prudent to ensure they are not part of the problem. Electric utilities know that to be successful their generating plants must become increasingly clean and that if they don’t provide customers with power from wind and solar resources, others will.
  • Finally, companies are showcasing their sustainability efforts to attract new talent. Millennials – who will be almost half of all workers in the next decade – want to work for companies with a strong corporate commitment to sustainability. This trend is already evident in tight labor markets like health care, but it is growing across many industries. As companies compete to hire the best and brightest, environmental responsibility will inevitably get greater attention.

How are these four different motivations similar? All are in the self-interest of business. In every case, businesses are embracing sustainability because it is in their best interest to do so.

The same is true for city-level sustainability initiatives across the country. Communities of all sizes and political stripes are adopting sustainable practices to save money and attract new businesses and residents by being forward looking and responsible.

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have trended downward in recent years even while the economy has grown because we are getting more efficient. Solar and wind energy are getting less expensive every year, prompting investments that will further improve economies of scale and reduce prices further. Businesses and communities are reaping the benefits of their investments in sustainability by gaining both financial and reputational advantages in the market. This will inspire others to step up.

The substantial sustainability momentum we are experiencing will continue because it is in the enlightened self-interest of our businesses and communities. In the current political climate state and federal elected officials are unlikely to provide leadership so it is essential that we all do our part to celebrate and encourage these voluntary efforts. Together we can continue the critical work necessary to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change and, as business illustrates, we can thrive in the process.


kathy-headshot-2015Kathy Kuntz is executive director of Cool Choices, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that inspires individuals, communities and businesses to adopt sustainable practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cool Choices collaborates with private businesses and public entities to engage employees around sustainability, promoting changes at work and at home via a fun and social online platform. Since 2010 Cool Choices has inspired more than 7,000 individuals in almost 100 organizations to adopt hundreds of thousands of sustainable practices. Kuntz has more than two decades of experience developing and implementing initiatives around energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainable practices. She previously led Focus on Energy, Wisconsin’s energy efficiency and renewable energy program; under her direction Focus on Energy exceeded its savings goals and deployed a number of cross-sector initiatives that provided deeper and broader customer engagement with efficiency. She has a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin and a Bachelor’s from the University of Minnesota.

 The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The column is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at [email protected].


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