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Originally published Sunday, September 25, 2011 at 4:01 PM

Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

When you remove the politics, climate science makes business sense

Some dismiss climate change as a concoction of misguided or self-serving scientists, writes Neal Peirce. But a growing number of Main Street and regional business leaders are taking the issue ever-more seriously, if not to save the world, at least to serve their bottom lines.

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Several Republican presidential candidates — Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the fore — are dismissing climate change as a concoction of misguided or self-serving scientists.

But a growing number of Main Street and regional business leaders, types often viewed as Republican-leaning, are taking the issue ever-more seriously, if not to save the world, at least to serve their bottom lines.

Each year the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, Partners for Livable Communities and the Institute for Sustainable Development give out "Green Plus" awards to local chambers and communities that have launched exemplary, communitywide efforts to "go green" with varieties of carbon-saving initiatives. Winners for 2011 include Cleveland, Chattanooga, Tenn., Savannah, Ga., North Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Local efforts have been getting hands-on carbon counseling for several years from ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA. ICLEI helped Chicago, in an effort inaugurated under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, develop its pace-setting "Green Office Scorecard" that measures climate-project progress of firms in the famed Loop area. With friendly competition among businesses, major advances have been registered in reduced electricity demand, carbon emissions averted, reduction of water use, and increased transit usage leading to cars off Chicago's streets.

More recently formed, the Climate Prosperity Project, headquartered in Washington, D.C., focuses on business-related carbon-saving initiatives for entire metropolitan regions.

ICLEI's latest star performer is Westchester County, N.Y., where a multifaceted climate program begun under a Democratic county administrator is continuing under his Republican successor. Modeled in part on the Chicago effort, Westchester's endeavor features a "Green Business Scorecard" that lets businesses check how far they've come, and how they compare to fellow firms, in carbon-saving steps they've taken in conserving electricity and fuel, water consumption, waste recycling and green procurement.

Companies are measuring, for example, energy they save through expanded employee carpooling, telecommuting and videoconferencing as a substitute for cars or flying. Firms with big land holdings are taking measures to install green roofs and permeable pavements along with planting more trees. The county itself is saving electric energy valued at $100,000 a year by installing software that automatically cuts off its 5,000 government computers at 7 p.m. each evening, then repowers them in the morning.

In Westchester, says county official Scott Fernqvist, there's "no real debate on climate — we start from the overwhelming climate consensus and scientific truth." But even if climate change "isn't real," he adds, businesses are seeing they can save substantial funds by reducing waste, cutting energy use, preventing flooding.

"There's lots of enthusiasm and positive energy," he adds, as 100 to 150 people show up for each of the meetings discussing the Green Scorecard policies and comparing companies' scores.

St. Louis' program, operated by the Regional Chamber and Growth Assn. (RCGA), also uses a variation of the Chicago score card to gauge firms' climate-saving progress. Except that the focus is expansive: an entire five-county area. And staffing of the St. Louis effort, notes Eric Schneider of RCGA, is actually contracted out to the "green team" of the EarthWays Center, a spirited women-led effort that's a division of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

This crossing of boundaries, its mix of public and private players in search of cost savings and climate progress, has become the hallmark of the business-led energy efficiency and carbon reduction front, from Austin, Texas, to Charleston, S.C., San Diego to Houston to Arlington County, Va.

And multiplying such efforts across the country, argues Andre Pettigrew, executive director of the Climate Prosperity Project, can have dramatic impact in creating new business-to-business partnerships and innovations, in generating stronger market demand for the clean-economy goods and services that will be key to America's future economic well-being.

Part of the benefit can be in stimulating overall U.S. demand for — and production of — clean-economy goods and services, an area in which the country now lags Europe, China and other growing economies.

The private sector role is key, it's suggested, because government resources — local, state or federal — are likely to be exceedingly short for several years to come. What's more, as businesses learn how climate-related moves cuts costs, more innovations and strategic partnerships are all but sure to emerge.

"This is a business/economic development-led strategy as opposed to environmental public strategy," Pettigrew argues.

So what about the argument over climate change science? It can, in part, be ignored, Pettigrew argues:

"When you get out into the real business world, you have to ask — 'Do you want to mitigate your risks? Do you want to achieve real economies? Do you want to expand your markets?' That's the point. And it won't change, whether the science of climate change is 20, or 50 — or zero — percent wrong."

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is nrp@citistates.com

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