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Pondering the Business and Politics of Climate Change American Public Square Hosts Event

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Above image credit: In this Feb. 1, 2021 file photo, emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted against the setting sun in Kansas City, Missouri. (AP Photo | Charlie Riedel, File)
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4 minute read

Elon Musk, miffed, tweets that Exxon makes the top 10 list of businesses dealing with our climate crisis. His baby, Tesla, fails to make the cut. 

Kansas City’s own Evergy, smack in the conservative heartland, rivals if not surpasses sister utilities in liberal California and Massachusetts when it comes to hooking up wind power and planting electric vehicle charging points across the Kansas City area. 

The River Market is home to one of the most energy efficient apartment complexes – in the world. 

Calculations that have governed business decisions and communities’ aspirations have been scrambled as America attempts to head off the most disastrous consequences of climate change caused by humans. Are we doing enough? Is more change coming? 

And to the extent we disagree about the scope of the problem or the dimensions of its solution: Is dialog possible among our divided political encampments? What might it look like? And where will it take us? 

American Public Square will convene a panel discussion on all these matters at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 24, at Donnelly College, in Kansas City, Kansas, in a program called “The Politics of Mother Nature – The  Climate is Changing – Should You?”  

Graphic for American Public Square event.

American Public Square, a member of the KC Media Collective, is hosting a program that explores the implications of climate policy on business and industry, and the role consumers play in larger efforts to address environmental concerns. The Politics of Mother Nature – American Public Square takes place Tuesday, May 24, at 6 p.m. at The Community Event Center on Donnelly College’s campus (608 N. 18 St. in Kansas City, Kansas).

The panelists include Chuck Caisley, chief customer officer of Evergy, which provides electricity to 1.6  million customers in Missouri and Kansas; Dominique Davison, founder of DRAW, which is focused on  sustainable architecture; and James Taylor, president of the Heartland Institute, a free market think tank based in Illinois. The event will have a live audience and be viewable online. 

The discussion could hardly be more topical. 

In business, said Nick Donofrio: “The issue of climate change is front and center. Generation X, Y, Z and Alpha all understand this.”  

Donofrio served as IBM executive vice president of innovation and technology and was senior fellow at Kansas City’s Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. He has served a combined 200 years on various corporate boards, which has given him a bird’s-eye view of corporate thinking and direction in America. 

Sweeping changes have already occurred at most major companies regarding climate change. “Three-quarters of the U.S. economy has changed and reflect these values today versus the 1960s,” he said. 

Business understands the demands of the moment, he said, while our political leadership is largely clueless. “This is all about leadership,” Donofrio said. “That leadership is on the corporate side, not on the political side.”  

That slows change, but does not stop it. Why? 

“Business puts a lot of pressure on government to get it right,” Donofrio said.

Davison at DRAW concurred, seeing the same dynamics playing out in our cities and the realm of  architecture. 

“Every boardroom, it seems, is committing to carbon neutral impacts,” she said in an emailed response to questions. “It’s clear that consumers want to support companies that care about our planet’s future and they are responding. There is strong activity in social impact investment and I see new funds focused on climate mitigation tech or positive impact businesses popping up every week. The private side is definitely trying to drive innovation that will solve the biggest problem we’re facing.” 

On the other side of the issue sits James Taylor, the president of the Heartland Institute, a proponent of market solutions to our problems and limited government.

“No, climate change is not a serious threat at  this moment, nor is it likely to be so at any time in the foreseeable future,” he wrote in an email. “A warmer climate has always been more beneficial to human health and welfare than a colder climate, and that will  almost certainly continue to be the case.” 

As for corporate America pushing an agenda that responds to climate change, Taylor said public policy should moderate or counter such efforts. 

KC Media Collective logo

This story is part of a series on climate change in the Kansas City region produced by the KC Media Collective, an initiative designed to support and enhance local journalism. Members of the KC Media Collective include Kansas City PBS/Flatland, KCUR 89.3, Missouri Business Alert, Startland News, The Kansas City Beacon and American Public Square.

“Individual shareholders largely – and wisely – don’t care about ‘tackling climate change’ with their  investments,” Taylor wrote. “To the extent shareholder pressure occurs, it is largely through large corporate entities colluding to impose an ESG (environmental, social, governance) agenda on other  industries. In a democracy, however, public policy is crafted by the people through their elected representatives rather than by corporate oligarchies imposing their will on other people, businesses, and  industries.” 

Regardless, the change in attitude and behavior in corporations and business is so sweeping and deep it  will not be rolled back, in the view of Simon Fischweicher, the head of corporation and supply chains for  CDP North America. CDP, formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project, runs a disclosure system for companies, cities and states on carbon emissions and environmental impacts.  

CDP today tracks carbon emissions of 13,000 companies representing almost two-thirds of total global market values. In addition, more than 250 companies that collectively procure $5.5 trillion of goods and  services have committed to get their suppliers to also disclose their carbon emissions. 

“Seven, eight years ago companies we would approach would say, ‘Why do we need to worry about  climate change?’ ” Fischweicher said. “The business community has shifted.”  

Now, lingering public ignorance about climate change must be addressed to spur government policy creation to match corporate resolve, he said. 

“Without it, we cannot establish a common denominator that all companies need to take,” Fischweicher  said. 

Finding a common denominator – or at least restoring civil discourse across the political divide – has  animated Allan Katz ever since he launched American Public Square more than seven years ago. 

Reached in Portugal, where he is working with students as visiting professor at William Jewell College, Katz said he was first motivated to bring diverse opinion holders together when he was a lone city  commissioner in Tallahassee, Florida, opposing city involvement in the construction of a proposed coal-fired power plant.  

After arriving in Kansas City to teach a course on money and politics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he launched American Public Square. Its budget has increased eightfold and its impact has grown at an even faster clip. At the height of the COVID pandemic lockdown, 30,000 people accessed its programs in 2020, he said. 

When it comes to climate change, Katz said: “We’ve done a lot of things some of us thought about 25-30  years ago. But there is still a lot to do.” 

Katz, a former U.S. ambassador to Portugal appointed by President Barack Obama, said we need a  carbon tax.  

Meanwhile, Evergy, which powers Kansas City homes and industry, has filed documentation with the CDP  expressing its intent to address carbon – carbon tax or not. 

“In April 2021 … Evergy announced a goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, which includes  an interim goal of a 70% reduction of CO2 emissions from 2005 levels by 2030,’ the filing stated.  

All this and more is up for discussion Tuesday evening at Donnelly College and online, courtesy of  American Public Square.

Flatland contributor Martin Rosenberg is a Kansas City journalist who created and moderates the U.S. Department of Energy podcast, Grid Talk, about the future of electricity.

Flatland logo, KC Media Collective logo

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