NEW YORK – Two views of multinational corporations and their role in the climate crisis clashed in the world's financial capital today.
Thousands of protesters converged on lower Manhattan in a "flood Wall Street" action, with a rallying cry to "stop capitalism" – described by organizers as "the root cause" of the crisis.
At the same time in midtown Manhattan, a 90-year-old museum and library dedicated to the memory of financier J.P. Morgan played host as executives from some of the most successful companies on Earth pledged to lead the way to a low-carbon future.
"We never try to steer the consumer," said Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple. "We try to provide them something really, really great, that when they see it, they couldn't live without it."
Cook didn't unveil a new climate solution that will have people lining up as for an iPhone 6. But he expressed faith that Apple can play a transformative role with steps like its drive for 100 percent renewable energy in its data centers. "We are transparent about what we are doing at the product level, and that will drive consumer behavior," he said. "If you have enough companies doing that, consumers will vote with their dollars."
CEOs assembled at the Morgan Library as part of an upbeat, corporate-oriented pep rally one day in advance of the United Nations' Climate Summit, the largest gathering of heads of state to discuss climate change since the ill-fated 2009 UN session at Copenhagen. The gathering, Climate Week NYC, was organized by non-profits that focus on the potential of business-environmental partnerships, The Climate Group and CDP, a nonprofit helping companies measure and disclose environmental impacts.
Climate Week participants sought to claim kinship with the People's March that saw a reported 300,000 take to New York's streets on Sunday.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, appearing before the business group, recounted linking arms with New York Mayor Bill Di Blasio and joining the protest, the most ardent he had witnessed since pro-democracy rallies in his youth in Korea. "I hope the leaders of the world are listening to these yearnings and aspirations," he said.
Although Monday's Climate Week session focused mostly on win-win stories of companies adopting clean energy and efficiency, there was acknowledgement that some members of the business fraternity have been part of the carbon emissions problem.
"Let's face it. There's a private sector, and there's another private sector," said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change. "That other private sector has a coordinated voice and it's pretty well funded. So the fact that you've all come together is a huge, huge plus."
Figueres said the People's March was "a very, very fervent call" for action. "Today, the message coming from you," she said, addressing the business leaders, "is that we can address climate change. We have the ingenuity."
"Tomorrow my expectation is that governments will step up and answer," she added.
World Bank President Jim Young Kim appeared at the corporate session to announce the formation of a new Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, with 73 national and 11 regional governments and more than 1,000 companies and investors that support putting a price on carbon. And a group of businesses – including IKEA, Swiss Re, BT, Formula E, H&M, KPN, Mars, Nestlé, and Philips – announced launch of an initiative to get 100 of the world's biggest companies to commit by 2020 to using 100 percent renewable power.
But in an acknowledgement that voluntary action by companies will not be enough, some of the executives noted that the biggest stumbling block they face in this drive is the lack of clear regulatory guidance.
Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer of the IKEA Group, said wavering government commitment on clean energy has held up or halted "screwdriver-ready projects" on renewable energy.
"We know where the wind is, we know where the sun is. The technology is extremely predictable. We know how to get the projects done," he said. "The only uncertainty we face is policy uncertainty."
Secretary of State John Kerry, who delivered the keynote address at Monday's daylong session, said that one of the greatest frustrations in the international talks is the failure by governments to see the economic benefits of action. "Think of the jobs that could be created," he said. The energy economy is "the mother of all markets."
Robert Rubin, the former Goldman Sachs executive who served as U.S. Treasury Secretary during the Clinton administration, told the gathering that he believes that one reason for national and international inaction is that economic reports and projects fail to incorporate the profound impacts and potential impacts of climate change.
Government fiscal projections should be including climate change impacts, he said. He called for development of a "parallel GDP" that incorporates the projected irreversible and cumulative impact that build-up of greenhouse gas can have on the planet and economic output.
"The non-linearity of the risks is what has most troubled me," he said. "These are risks we cannot put off. We absolutely must act now."
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.