The Copenhagen Summit: Lost Moment or Huge Opportunity?

Jonathan Greenblatt is a member of the faculty at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA and an expert on social entrepreneurship and sustainable business. He is the co-founder of Ethos Water and the former CEO of GOOD Worldwide.

The past 10 years have served as a remarkable opening act for the millennium, especially in the world of responsible business. Products like Ben & Jerry's (owned by Unilever since 2000) and Newman's Own were gaining share on shelves across the country but were considered peculiar outliers rather than the front-end of a major trend. Solar panels were a somewhat frivolous oddity; now they are a marketplace reality, with multibillion-dollar businesses such as First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR  ) and SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA  ) leading the way. Whole Foods (Nasdaq: WFMI  ) was a niche grocer but far from a cultural phenomenon. And whoever heard of Muhammad Yunus?

What a difference a decade makes.

As we begin 2010, prognosticators are using their crystal balls to look ahead and predict the trends. But I think the best indicators of the future lie in the past. The recently concluded conference in Copenhagen may provide an interesting prologue for the years ahead.

In case you were living in a cave, after years of preparation, elected officials from around the world convened in Denmark early last month. They sought to create a coordinated consensus around mitigating climate change -- and failed to do so. Presidents and prime ministers huddled and strategized and somehow managed to come up short. Regardless of the post-game analysis, the results remain the same: no binding agreement was established. As a result, we're left with a fair amount of uncertainty as to how (whether?) we will manage these uncharted waters.

My view? Not an ideal outcome, but actually, we should do just fine.

Now, I am not a dogmatic disciple of the notion of "rational markets." I disagree with Milton Friedman on many points, starting with the essential responsibility of business. I don't like "trickle-down" anything, whether it's rain or economic theory.

But I do have extraordinary faith in entrepreneurs to build the businesses and invent the technologies that will guide us through the turbulent times ahead. I trust the ability of markets to adjust for ambiguity, and consumers who vote with their wallets. This philosophy does not take government off the hook, however -- I am not a libertarian. I firmly believe that we need enlightened leadership and public policies that support the common interest. But we benefit from a business community that will not wait for change but instead, in a bottom-up fashion, build the future it wants to create -- while earning profits along the way.

Indeed, we see encouraging signs in the private sector, where many companies are navigating a path that combines ethics and economics, profits and purpose. This is not about cause marketing per se, but cause suddenly seems tightly tied to CAGR.

For example, General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) has shifted its business away from financial engineering to eco-engineering. Silicon Valley pioneer Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: JAVA  ) , raised over $1 billion in two funds focused squarely on clean technologies. Sales of hybrid vehicles continue to grow at a breakneck pace, and automakers like Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) and Ford (NYSE: F  ) are trying to satisfy that demand with new models. There's also a wide array of electric cars looming on the horizon.

The U.K.-based nonprofit group Fairtrade Foundation recently found that consumer spending on fair-trade products grew at an astonishing 30 times over the past decade. Former Vice President Al Gore himself has recognized that business has a major role to play in dealing with climate change -- and will earn tremendous economic dividends along the way. And a recent study by the Aspen Institute found the number of MBA courses incorporating social enterprise is on the rise.

Looking back, it seems inevitable that "Hopenhagen" fell far short of expectations. But we can still look ahead with optimism: It's not that climate change cannot be averted, and the business community will pave the way as we adapt to the new realities of global warming.

Let's hope that our elected leaders will follow their lead -- and all of us will profit as a result.

Guest contributor Jonathan Greenblatt does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Whole Foods and Ford are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. First Solar is a Rule Breakers selection. Unilever is a Global Gains and Income Investor pick. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (16) | Recommend This Article (12)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2010, at 1:08 PM, Fool wrote:

    Its too bad you believe in global warming as being something that is man made.

    You are another reason to ignore the Mot.

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2010, at 1:55 PM, spawn44 wrote:

    AGW has taken a long walk off a short peer. I would not be putting money in companies relying on cooked CO2 data to save the planet. The global environmental socialists picked the wrong gas as the catalyst for their hoax.

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2010, at 2:29 PM, IIcx wrote:

    This isn't a new topic.

    1980, Jeremy Rifkin; Entropy - A New World Vision

    source of the quote: http://www.foet.org/books/entropy.html

    "Once in a great while an idea changes the course of history."

    "The Entropy Law -- or the Second Law of Thermodynamics -- is such an idea. It states that all energy flows inexorably from the orderly to the disorderly and from the usable to the unusable.

    According to the Entropy Law, whenever a semblance of order is created anywhere on earth or in the universe, it is done at the expense of causing greater disorder in the surrounding environment."

    Here's an example:

    Centralized power generation and transmission grids in the US are inefficient. Assuming the information is accurate, for every 100 units of chemical energy (like coal) input into a thermal energy turbine (power plant), only 35 units of electrical energy are produced and 6-7% of the 35 units are lost in transmission to homes.

    Assuming the US declared the end of AC power tomorrow in favor of DC power generated in each home using hydrogen converted from tap water. How long do you think it would take to implement the solution and what percentage of Entropy will be introduced by politicians?

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2010, at 2:33 PM, IIcx wrote:

    sorry for the duplicate

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2010, at 2:35 PM, whereaminow wrote:

    Are you not aware that Global Warming is a total fraud?

    Check out this great video series by Aviation pioneer and master engineer Burt Rutan.

    http://caps.fool.com/Blogs/ViewPost.aspx?bpid=322574&t=0...

    Enjoy the video series. Copenhagen failed when the 3rd world leaders realized they were getting ripped off by the Industrial nations. They really weren't interested in staying poor while the Progressives got rich swapping carbon money back and forth.

    David in Qatar

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2010, at 2:43 PM, Ibeatmykids wrote:

    Okay whether global warming is a myth or fact. I would personally like to use LED lighting in my home, have a roof with solar panels or a cool roof. Perhaps have a wind trubine installed. If I could have not pay any utilities that would be awesome! The more money I save on a daily basis the more content I will be. Imagine not having any bills!!! I think green energy is the future to invest in whether going green yourself or buying stocks in green companies.

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2010, at 3:04 PM, IIcx wrote:

    Efficient systems and the products necessary to achieve the goal could ignite an economic boom for the next several decades.

    Imagine the recycling effort necessary to efficiently replace or retrofit every water heater, furnace, AC unit, and household appliance in every home in the US.

    It would also require a lot of new local jobs to eliminate unnecessary transportation of goods and services which burns resources.

    Decentralization has always been a goal and the internet is a perfect mechanism to share information necessary to localize the solutions.

    Paying a bit more in taxes to take the cost of energy off the backs seems like a fair trade to me.

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2010, at 3:21 PM, IIcx wrote:

    It's a huge opportunity if they focus on the right questions and ideas.

  • Report this Comment On January 06, 2010, at 5:57 PM, ecoloney wrote:

    We're all better off if governments stick to: 1)providing for the common defense, and 2) regulating FOREIGN trade. Otherwise, stay out of our lives.

  • Report this Comment On January 07, 2010, at 3:01 PM, Keal7 wrote:

    You will be excoriated for this article by the almost no longer fringe. This country is poisoned and folks can no longer reason beyond the bile and hate. We've drank the water of Rush, Beck, and Fox - a foreign-born owned media entity and we are getting to the point where we scare away the moderate.

  • Report this Comment On January 07, 2010, at 3:12 PM, IIcx wrote:

    No Keal7 you're wrong and right -- politics isn't hate but bile has a lot to do with it. ; )

    The question in this blog as I read it was, is this the opening act for the century.

    Yes it is!!!

    But, the Global Warming Scam isn't the point. Stewardship is the point and I agree with you in this opening act, we have absolutely NOTHING we can point to in every country in the world that we TRUST.

    Divid opened my eyes : )

    Burt Rutan on Global Warming Data Fraud

    1 of 6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gm8vaH8LEV0

    2 0f 6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=640AIJR38Pc

    3 of 6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJyAQmxIbJk

    4 of 6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SRzw-52plg

    5 of 6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naLfstuaBRE

    6 of 6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMeuHNgT0PA

    Additional Information:

    http://rps3.com/Pages/Burt_Rutan_on_Climate_Change.htm

  • Report this Comment On January 07, 2010, at 3:18 PM, IIcx wrote:

    sorry, that should read "David in Qatar" not Divid (devide) opened my eyes ; )

  • Report this Comment On January 07, 2010, at 3:43 PM, IIcx wrote:

    PS: Thank You Motley Fool!!! This is without exception the most insightful community I've enjoyed online since '96.

    Happy New Year -- Fool On!!!

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2010, at 11:48 AM, Radiance08 wrote:

    Global Warming is a myth. Listen to the news, the data had been corrupted. It is good that Copenhagen failed.

    The important thing is that we do have:

    "business community that will not wait for change but instead, in a bottom-up fashion, build the future it wants to create -- while earning profits along the way"

    This is the way of the future. Free market capitalism.

    Happy New Year!

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2010, at 5:59 PM, Jeannie67 wrote:

    Nuclear power do not create carbon. I will believe in Global Warming, when I hear the greens call for Nuclear energy. In the 70' and 80's the government was pushing solar power. I went on a solar power house tour. In one of the homes, they had a temperature readout, sort of like a ekg stripe. The average temperature in that house during the testing period was about 50 degrees. In the part of Maryland that house was located, a house without heat would stay about 50 degrees at that time of year. When the government stopped pushing solar, the industry went belly up. One thing is not mention is the environment concerns of making solar panels.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2010, at 6:11 PM, tkell31 wrote:

    I wish someone would tell the melting ice caps that it is all just a hoax, while they are at it push the enormous record setting icebergs back to their respective poles, and put the ice flows back that used to be three feet thick and now dont form anymore. This is one elaborate hoax, they even have the environment in on it.

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