FROM HIS TIME as the Chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force to his current role as the founder and president of Green Solutions, Roger Ballentine has committed his entire life to tackle climate change. He was listed among the Top Climate Change Speakers Pioneering Sustainable Practices, an achievement that reflects his ongoing fight for our planet.
In your position as the former Chairman of the White House Climate Change task force, what were the lessons you learned?
I learned so much! It was an absolute trial by fire, needing to learn the science, learn the economics, learn the technologies. I learned so much, but what I love about my job is learning new things every single day.
But it was really a trial by fire. It was also a tremendous privilege and honour and responsibility to oversee this issue across the Federal Government. At times, it was very frustrating and part of it was, you know, this is 1998, 1999, 2000…
I should go back to the inspiration and give some credit where credit is due, and that’s to President Bill Clinton, who himself passionately believed that dealing with climate change was a nearly unprecedented economic opportunity. If we seized it and did it right.
I said to him when I was leaving the White House: ‘your vision there is going to be my career’.
Why did you create Green Solutions?
Back in the late 1990s, at the end of Bill Clinton’s second term as President, I had spent that second term working on clean energy and climate change in the White House. At that time, the opposing party (Republican Party) controlled the Congress. Frankly, a lot of Democrats were very hesitant to make any policy measures of significance to address climate change. I found that frustrating.
We are making progress, but it’s been slow, and it was just not how I wanted to spend my career. The other thing I could have done is work in the environmental community, but it would have been the same thing for the most part, I would have been on the outside pushing for this policy change.
When I was in the White House, I had two different external-facing responsibilities. One, to deal with the environmental community and stakeholders. I learned a lot from them, and I recognized the critical role they play in bringing about the type of change that we’re going to need for the environment.
I also dealt with the business community. A lot of that was just businesses coming in and telling us, ‘don’t do this, can’t do that, it’s too expensive.’ But there were some who were looking at this differently. I found private sector players who wanted to proactively do something to reduce emissions and address climate change. The very nature of the private sector as opposed to the government means that could happen a lot faster.
What inspired me to create Green Strategies was, ‘how do you get companies to do that?’ Some were getting it, others weren’t. And to me, what you needed to do was make a business case. You needed to show that sustainability and dealing with climate change was both good for business and made you a better company.
Green Solutions was one of the first consulting firms to put our flag down in that space, and here we are, 21 years later and it’s very, very different. So, the inspiration was, ‘how do you leverage the power of the private sector to do good?’ And you do that by convincing them that they also can do well.
How impactful is capitalism on climate change?
I think it’s fair to say that historically capitalism was a major – if not the greatest cause – of man-made climate change. This is simple economic principles that historically, fossil fuels were cheaper than alternatives, fossil fuels enabled the modern economy.
I’m not criticizing this; this is obviously all the things that we’ve done as a society. So much of it was built on a fossil fuel economy of inexpensive and accessible energy, the flaw was that the price of that energy didn’t reflect all its costs, like carbon emissions. Capitalism was consuming resources, in this case, the atmosphere, for which it did not pay, so it sent a distorted market signal about how inexpensive these fossil fuels were.
Capitalism was very, very effective at privatising gain and socializing cost, so the profit motive – which is one of the great drivers of human behaviour, again not criticizing that – is very effective and impactful.
In many parts of the world, it has created tremendous wealth, putting aside how that wealth is distributed, the marketplace, profit motive and capitalism can be ruthlessly efficient. If there’s a market flaw in there, the result may not yield social gain and outcome.
My starting proposition is, ‘well, capitalism was so good and so effective at getting us into this problem, what if we turned those efficiencies, those natural human forces, the powers of the market, around to help solve the problem?’