Whatever people may think, climate change is affecting Americans -- period. It's hitting us where it hurts, too: economic strength and Americans' livelihoods. The National Climate Assessment (NCA) release is hot off the presses today, clocking in at 1,100 pages of data contributed by hundreds of scientists. 

The economic impact of extreme weather events, like hurricanes and droughts (including California's recent emergency), is plain to see. Massive property damage and withering crops are among the many consequences of the increasingly dramatic weather patterns.

Fortunately, many companies, nongovernmental organizations, and government representatives are gathering to talk about the challenges -- as well as the economic opportunities -- of dealing with this growing problem. It's not all bad, although there are still many companies that need to show improvements.

Companies leading the way
Many investors still shrug off sustainability risks as having little or no connection to financial growth and/or material financial risks. Regardless of the conventional wisdom, increasing numbers of companies are not only acknowledging material risks, but devising strategies to improve their own sustainability and mitigate those risks. They're sharing what they're doing and discussing additional ways that private industry can promote sustainable practices.

It might sound surprising, but oil companies like Chevron and ConocoPhillips were among the stakeholders that participated in the NCA report. 

Nonprofit organization Ceres, which advocates for sustainability leadership, has long tracked and released the many negative economic effects of extreme weather. It released its latest report, "Gaining Ground: Corporate Progress on the Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability," at its annual conference last week. Sustainalytics, which provides environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data, contributed research and analysis to the report, analyzing approximately 600 companies.

Amid frequent complaints that all climate-change headlines scream doom and gloom, the Ceres report's title is a break in the storm clouds. Some companies are making progress. That's huge in an environment in which sustainability has often taken a backseat to quarter-by-quarter profits.

The bad news is that many companies are still lagging -- big time. 

Looking for the leaders
Here are some of the interesting, positive, and surprising moves some companies are making. Ceres defines these companies as "Tier 1."

Of the companies Ceres monitored, 24% link executive compensation to sustainability goals, compared to 15% in 2012. However, only 3% of companies have connected executive pay to voluntary performance goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

  • Alcoa (NYSE:AA): For an industrial stalwart, Alcoa has an unusual executive compensation policy. A 20% share of its executive cash compensation takes into account safety, environmental policies, and diversity. Environmental targets include reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and increased energy efficiency. 

For years, investors who were vocal about ESG issues were generally dismissed as cranks. However, shareholders are increasingly calling for sustainability at annual meetings. Ceres' report revealed that more than half (52%) of companies now engage their shareholders about sustainability plans. 

  • PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP): Not only does Pepsi have sustainability initiatives, including development of healthful products, but it's also not brushing off shareholder discussions. These matters are on the agenda for its annual meeting. Further, its SEC filings outline some of its goals and challenges regarding climate change, water scarcity, and public health issues. The increasing amount of SEC disclosure by public companies highlights the material, financial impact of ESG issues.

Employees are an essential part of corporations' future growth and innovation. In 2012, 30% of companies included employees in their sustainability plans. According to the latest report, 42% of companies are doing so today. 

  • Intel: This giant chipmaker trains employees in sustainability and links some compensation to hitting sustainability targets.

The sustainable economy and sustainable companies
I like concentrating on the positives as often as possible, but Ceres' report does reveal discouraging data about how too many companies are behind the times. Investors should be concerned -- not only about the macroeconomic issues that the NCA report outlined, but also about their own companies' future growth potential. After all, all companies are tied to our entire economy's vibrancy -- or lack thereof.

Investors should note that many of Ceres' "Tier 1" companies are blue chips that are found in many portfolios. These are companies with lots of resources to tackle some of these issues.

When it comes to identifying the best long-term investments -- whether one is looking for massive growth or stability -- the above information should be considered as part of your overall qualitative analysis. Are the managements of the stocks you own tackling the biggest problems known today? Are they even finding ways to save or make money by dealing with needless waste, which is only one byproduct of unsustainable practices?

If they are, it says a lot about their leadership abilities. It's an indicator of whether they're willing to look past short-term profits to the risks of an ever-changing world. Companies that don't evolve are among the most dangerous for investors (and, often, everyone else).

Today, news headlines told us that climate change is touching our lives in many ways, whether we think about it or not. As investors, we can not only track how our companies are mitigating risk, we can also set up our portfolio for leaders, not laggards.

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Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

Motley Fool contributor Alyce Lomax has no position in the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool has recommended shares of Intel and Chevron. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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