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Star-Studded global climate summit mobilizes action plans to combat climate change

Aaron Dorman
Medill Reports

If climate activists and local governments can’t work with Washington on climate change, they plan to work around it. More than 300 U.S. cities including Chicago, New York and Los Angeles have vowed to uphold the Paris Agreement – bypassing the Trump Administration’s intention to withdraw. And now dozens of cities worldwide made or renewed commitments moving toward zero carbon emissions by 2030 at a global climate summit in San Francisco last week.

Against the backdrop of deadly Hurricane Florence and accelerating climate change, hundreds of leaders in government and business are taking solutions into their own hands. They came to the Global Climate Action Summit, a week-long series of events in the Bay Area to mobilize efforts that could put the planet on a path towards lower (or zero) carbon emissions to avoid the worst effects of global warming. A wide range of players from indigenous groups focused on preserving forests, to billionaire investors committed to financing a transition away from carbon fuels committed to more than 500 action steps during the summit.

Thousands of delegates, speakers and reporters convened in calls to action by some of the most prominent figures in the environmental movement – former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Vice President and “Inconvenient Truth” author Al Gore, naturalist and animal rights activist Jane Goodall, and actor-turned-environmentalist Harrison Ford, currently vice chair of Conservation International’s board of directors.

“Cities are where it’s happening,” Al Gore said during a kick-off event hosted by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. “Cities are where the solutions are being found. For reasons I don’t fully understand, but some of you may, cities are far more responsive and creative in finding policy solutions.”

“You wouldn’t know it from reading the headlines that we are making progress,” said Bloomberg, a co-chair and one of the main organizers of the summit. “The headlines focus on the political fights in Washington. But the real action is happening in cities, states and the private sector. And the good news is those groups are positioning the United States to uphold our end of the Paris Agreement no matter what happens in Washington.”

Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown, among others, spoke of the urgency of the climate crisis at the main summit plenary events on Thursday and Friday. The summit focused on ways to aid and inform the parallel climate negotiations of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). The calls to action focused on five key areas that cities and regions could undertake to bypass inaction by parent governments: healthy energy systems, inclusive economic growth, sustainable communities, land and ocean stewardship, and transformative climate investments.

“Since the White House announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris agreement, more than 3,000 U.S. cities, states, businesses and other groups have declared their commitment to the Paris agreement,” wrote Brown and Bloomberg in a Los Angeles Times op-ed during the summit. “Together, these groups form the third-largest economy in the world, and they represent more than half the total U.S. population. They have been ramping up actions to cut carbon pollution and move toward the goals in the Paris agreement, just as the rest of the world is doing.”

Summit leaders view inaction at the top acute in the United States, where President Donald Trump’s Administration has vowed to back out of the Paris Agreement while threatening to undermine the Clean Air Act and roll back President Barack Obama’s clean power agenda.

Bloomberg set the tone by stressing that solving climate change was an economic opportunity. “California is a great example of how fighting climate change and growing the economy grow hand in hand,” Bloomberg said. “That’s something we also saw in NYC. We created a record number of jobs while at the same time reducing our carbon footprint by 19 percent.”

Some of the major new commitments announced during the summit include:

  • 12 major cities—including Tokyo, Seoul and Oslo—joined an existing network (now of 26 municipalities) pledging commitment to the C40 Cities’ “Fossil Fuel Free Streets Declaration.” This means using zero-carbon buses by 2025 and “ensuring a major area of the city is zero emission by 2030.”
  • 72 cities committed to adopting a climate action plan by 2020 and become emissions neutral by 2050.
  • A coalition of companies launched of the “Climate-Resilient Value Chains Leaders Platform,” including Coca-Cola and Mars that will assess climate risk in their supply chains.
  • Some 277 cities and counties committed to upholding the Paris Agreement as part of the summit’s “We Are Still In” initiative, among them cities that originally backed the accord when Trump announced plans to withdraw in June 2017.

The business-friendly attitude of the summit proved problematic at points. On Thursday morning, entrance to the plenary sessions in the Moscone Center was blocked by protestors critical of California Governor Jerry Brown, who they believe has not done enough to move away from the state’s substantial oil and gas portfolio. California in particular has suffered in recent years from the effects of climate change, experiencing a mix of intense drought and historic wildfires that have ravaged the interior of the state.

Nevertheless, the choice of locating the summit in San Francisco was strategic, as both the city and the state of California itself have become leaders in supporting renewable infrastructure and industry. “My plan is an integrated plan built up over time,” Brown said. “And we welcome any suggestions but I believe California has the most far reaching plan to deal with emissions as well as oil and production.” Brown also reminded attendees that if California was a country, it would have the third largest economy behind China and the US.

Later this year, the U.N. Climate Conference will be held in Katowice, Poland. Earlier this year, a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warned that we are very close—less than one degree of global warming away—to producing a series of positive feedback loops that will generate what was ominously described as a “hothouse Earth” scenario.

“We are all rich or poor,” Harrison Ford said in a speech during the opening plenary. “Powerful or powerless. We will all suffer the effects of climate change, and we are facing what is quickly becoming the greatest moral crisis of our time.”

Photo at top: California Governor Jerry Brown called for urgent action to control climate change at  the “Global Climate Action Summit” on Friday. (Aaron Dorman/Medill)

Female Founders and Funding

By Alexa Adler
Medill Reports

Female founders receive less than 3 percent of venture capital funding. In this TV special, Alexa Adler interviews industry experts Nicole Yeary, Samara Mejia Hernandez, Desiree Vargas Wrigley and Sam Yagan to learn more about this disparity.

Photo at top: Alexa Adler hosts a TV special about gender related funding disparities for founders. (Alexa Adler/MEDILL)

For one urban farmer, the future is fungi

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

Terry Noland’s 1958 rockabilly hit “There Was A Fungus Among Us” may not have been a direct reference to mushrooms when it was released. But the title merits momentum today, when there are many fungi among us in nature and in our kitchens. Researchers  have recruited them for soil remediation, water filtration and even oil spill cleanup.

“I call them the digestive system of the Earth,” said Belkacem El Metennani, owner and sole operator of a small Chicago mushroom farm. “When a tree falls down, mushrooms decompose it and turn it into a compost, into a fertilizer, for the rest of the trees.”

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Opinions Differ on How Merged Bayer-Monsanto Affects Some Seed Businesses

By Yanchun (Roxanne) Liu
Medill Reports

Academics and independent seed companies have divergent outlooks on whether the merger between agrichemical giants Monsanto Co. and Bayer AG will drive away potential customers from companies that sell organic seeds and seeds that aren’t non-genetically modified.

German drug maker Bayer said in a press release on June 7 that it completed its $63 billion acquisition of Monsanto, the St. Louis-based provider of genetically modified organism seeds and crop protection chemicals. The tie-up further consolidates the global agrichemical sector, after Dow Chemical Co. merged with DuPont Co. in August and China National Chemical Corp. purchased Swiss biotechnology company Syngenta AG in June 2017.

The new company is likely to continue Monsanto’s strategy of increasing the prices of GMO seeds with new genetics each year, but the price increase will not be as aggressive as it was five years ago because of declining crop prices, said Chris Shaw, a senior analyst at Monness Crespi Hardt & Co., a New York-based equity research and trading firm. Prices have dropped and stayed at relatively low levels over the past few years, reducing farmers’ incomes and undermining seed companies’ ability to increase prices, Shaw said.

“If the price of GMO seeds rises as a result of the merger, that can sort of open up an opportunity for non-GMO seed producers to raise their prices a little bit, because their product will be more attractive if the rival product is more expensive,” said John Bovay, an assistant professor in agricultural economics at the University of Connecticut.

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Big Ten Media Days continues with Urban Meyer and Lovie Smith

By Nick Mantas
Medill Reports

Day 2 of Big Ten Media Days featured coaches with different realistic goals. Ohio State Head Coach Urban Meyer is searching for another national title while Illinois Head Coach Lovie Smith is looking to win a single game in the Big Ten conference this year.

Our reporters weighed on on both coaches and how one team is looking to heal after a death in the off season.


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Tech hub 1871 celebrates its seventh cohort of female start-up founders

By Alexa Adler
Medill Reports

The seventh cohort of WiSTEM, 1871’s pre-accelerator program for female start-up founders, celebrated the completion of its 12-week program and pitched its companies to a crowd of techies and investors.

Photo at top: WiSTEM participant Sara Taylor-Demos showcases her company, Cora, at 1871. (Reporter Name/MEDILL)

Dairy Farmers Struggle With Economic, Health Challenges

By Brian Baker
Medill Reports

Andrews University opened its dairy farm in 1907. For more than a century, the private college in southwest Michigan used the farm for educational purposes and relied on it for financial income. But after three consecutive years of losses, the university’s board voted in early June to close its dairy operations next summer.

“After three bad years you lose heart and say, ‘let’s face reality,’” said Larry Schalk, the university’s vice president for financial administration.

The dairy farm had typically generated about $100,000 in annual profits for the school’s budget, but over the last three years had losses between $750,000 and $900,000 due to low milk prices and rising production costs, Schalk said. The finance committee had been urging the board to close the dairy operations for the past year.

Dairy farmers across the country are facing similar situations as a downturn in milk prices hits its fourth year, leaving most farmers unable to breakeven. The financial difficulties can leave farmers feeling depressed and hopeless, a dangerous combination for an industry with the highest suicide rate in the country, according to a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of suicide for people in the farming, fishing and forestry occupations was 85 individuals per 100,000 people, according to the study.

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Motorola Solutions CEO brings in $15 million pay package

By Sarah Foster
Medill Reports

The head of Motorola Solutions Inc. is reaping the financial benefits of leading a well-performing company, analysts and compensation experts said.

The company’s directors raised CEO Gregory Brown’s salary by 27 percent in 2017, a year when Motorola Solutions grew profits and adjusted income, completed multiple acquisitions and launched 85 new products, according to its most recent proxy statement, which was filed on March 28 with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Last year, Brown complemented a $1.25 million base salary with additional incentives worth $13.81 million, making his total compensation package $15.06 million, the statement said. The Chicago-based company provides telecommunications equipment for public safety officials.

Brown’s total compensation package has nearly doubled since 2014, when he received $7.61 million, according to the company’s 2014 proxy statement. At the same time, Motorola stock price has nearly doubled over the past three years as well, analysts said.

“He’s benefited just as much as shareholders have,” said Keith Housum, managing director and equity research analyst at Northcoast Research.

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Berkshire Hathaway’s Governance Unique Among Public Companies

By Brian Baker
Medill Reports

Todd Combs, an investment officer at Berkshire Hathaway Inc., received $376,750 in total compensation last year for serving on the board of directors at JPMorgan Chase & Co. That’s nearly 140 times what Bill Gates earned as a director on the board of Berkshire.

“No Berkshire director is in it for the money,” said Charles Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire during the company’s 2017 annual meeting. “It’s a very old-fashioned system.”

Despite Berkshire’s wide following and general admiration for CEO Warren Buffett, its approach to corporate governance remains an anomaly. As the day when Buffett is no longer running Berkshire gets closer, some are beginning to question whether that governance can continue without him.

Brian Tayan, a corporate governance researcher at Stanford University, said Berkshire’s challenge when Buffett is gone will be to shift its governance strategy from being built around Buffett to being built around the company. Although he doesn’t expect immediate changes, Tayan said he expects Berkshire will look more like other businesses in the future.

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Former Athlete Helping Others Find Their Identity

By Nick Mantas
Medill Reports

High school athletes who don’t play sports in college all go through a transitional period of what life is like without a practice schedule.

Chloe Barnes went through that same transition and her experience, like that of thousands other athletes, wasn’t a smooth one.

So she created Elle Grace Consulting in order to help her fellow athletes find who they truly are underneath their jerseys.

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