This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Climate change and business part of Chicago Ideas Week

Climate change and business were on the agenda of Chicago Ideas Week amid the wide range of thought-provoking events scattered throughout the city these last few days.

At a gathering Wednesday night, local experts in climate change issues and economic matters shared their views in a panel discussion that highlighted both risks and opportunities for the Chicago business community, non-profits and government agencies. Matters affecting non-profits and government agencies were addressed as well, according to Joyce Coffee, vice-president in the corporate social responsibility & sustainability division at public relations giant Edelman, and the panel’s moderator.

About 50 people attended the downtown event in the 63rd-floor boardroom at Edelman, one of the evening’s sponsors. Net Impact, a non-profit focusing on sustainability issues, was a co-sponsor. Panelists includedJon Creyts, principal and leader of the U.S. climate change practice at McKinsey & Co., Aaron Durnbaugh, a deputy commissioner in the city’s Department of the Environment, Jacky Grimshaw, vice-president of policy at the non-profit Center for Neighborhood Technology, Shannon Schuyler, leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ U.S. corporate responsibility practice, and Alex Weiner, founder and chief operating officer of Inbalance, a Chicago-based management consulting firm that specializes in improving buildings’ energy efficiency and other green-related services.

One major audience concern last night was how to mobilize more climate action among businesses and other sectors. At PricewaterhouseCoopers, according to Ms. Schulyer, the major emphasis is on travel reduction. For all sustainability efforts, it’s important to appeal to employees’ interest and make sustainability part of their everyday job, she noted.

The conversation was wide-ranging. In response to questions about mechanisms to monetize carbon reduction and make carbon a priority within an organization, Mr. Creyts observed that you don’t count carbon like you count dollars. And McKinsey has developed a cost-curve tool that is helpful for understanding the costs (and benefits) of various carbon-reducing actions.  

Based on the panel’s insights, Ms. Coffee concluded that energy efficiency can have a net benefit to the economy and is an opportunity for any organization or company to see improvements to their bottom line while acting on behalf of climate protection.

Joyce Coffee
Ms. Coffee knows a thing or two about climate change and local issues.   Before joining Edelman, she led the team in charge of implementing the Chicago Climate Action Plan for the city of Chicago. One of the main objectives of the plan is to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Crain’s met with Ms. Coffee before Wednesday night’s gathering to talk about how local small businesses can prepare for climate-change issues that are already affecting Chicago.

Crain’s: What are some concerns locally in terms of climate adaptation risk? 

Ms. Coffee: The major risks Chicago has to worry about are extreme heat events and more precipitation when we don’t need it and less precipitation when we do. By the end of the century we’re expected to have over 30 days above 100 degrees every year. Right now we have one or two. Even on a 90 degree day we can have mortality. Heat above 90 in Chicago can be very deleterious to public health and so the morbidity and mortality related to that are really serious concerns.

We can already see the trending moving in that direction. A company really cares about events that are unexpected. Cellular storms are happening more frequently here and they’re not as predictable. Extreme precipitation has always been a concern in Chicago. The question of how do we handle more precipitation is a really big deal in Chicago.

How can companies deal with climate change as part of their overall business strategy?
You’ll find few companies that talk about climate change specifically. For most companies climate change is going to be part of their risk management and their continuity planning. But they’re always talking about resiliency and preparation for uncertainty, and talking about shoring up infrastructure. Climate adaptation on the corporate side relates to everything from ensuring that your employees are safe to ensuring that you have a supply chain that will be viable regardless of any extreme weather event to ensuring that your infrastructure and built enterprise is out of harm’s way.

A lot of companies are framing it in terms of climate opportunity. The city government has been very proactive in taking a leadership position on climate action and I think a lot of small companies in Chicago have taken a great deal of leadership and innovation around what it means to be innovative, efficient and risk-mitigating.

Are small companies thinking about climate change issues?

I don’t think any small company is going to think about climate adaptation as a priority, but they’re reflecting on extreme weather events they’ve seen recently and wondering how they can protect themselves. I think they put it in the context of risk management to prevent crisis.

One of the major reasons why a firm should be thinking about climate adaptation is to ask the question: How it will change the market and can I be part of that play? So if we’re talking about more extreme weather events, more extreme heat, how am I going to position my business to be able to grow in that scenario? In Chicago, we are likely to see a growth in population because its going to become a more pleasant place in climate for many to live.

If there’s a demographic shift towardmore people in Chicago, that brings bigger markets and companies should be ready for that. We don’t have the kind of cataclysmic expectations in the midwest of inundation or extreme drought that are going to drive people away. So given the potential that people are going to be coming in this direction, how do we prepare for that increased market? Many companies are looking out not just to tomorrow and next year, but 10 years in the future.

Do any local companies come to mind that are doing a good job of considering climate change adaptation within their business strategy?

Some companies that come to mind relate to water, because water availability in our climate change world is so dramatic. Goose Island Beer a great example of a company using resources very carefully and understanding what the risks are to the resources that they use if they’re not stewarded properly.


In other local green news:

This weekend, the Green Exchangewill open its doors as part of the Chicago Architectural Foundation’s OpenHouseChicago 2011. This citywide event features a behind-the-scenes look at many of the city’s greatest spaces and places. Green Exchange is included as part the Green Trail tour, which features properties that demonstrate a commitment to sustainable design. Green Exchange tenant, and sustainable design guruLisa Elkins from 2 Point Perspective Architecture will be leading guided tours on Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Visit for details.

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