Northern Exposure, Scandinavian Style

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How does one explain U.S. environmental and climate policies and related corporate practices to audiences in the progressive countries of Norway and Denmark?


Pondering that question became a near obsession for me over the summer, as I anticipated my recent weeklong speaking tour in those two countries, just now concluded. The tour came at the invitation (and sponsorship) of the U.S. State Department, whose Office of International Information Programs sends a range of speakers to various countries, often at the host countries’ request. I’d done such a tour in the past, in India in 2000.

According to the State Department’s invitation, there was an interest among companies in Norway and Denmark to learn how, and how much, U.S. companies were engaged in addressing their climate and other environmental challenges. So, I was sent to Scandinavia to offer my perspective, unadulterated by State Department officials or others who might have wanted to "shape" my message. (There was none of that: no stated agenda, no talking points, barely a pre-trip briefing.) Speaking engagements were arranged by staff in each country’s respective U.S. embassy.

I spent three days each in Oslo and Copenhagen giving roughly a dozen speeches — at business schools, trade associations, government agencies, and companies — along with a handful of media interviews. In Oslo, I lunched at the embassy with senior executives from the Norwegian offices of Coca-Cola, IBM, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Pfizer, and other companies, an event organized by the American Chamber of Commerce.

I arrived on European soil with my own set of assumptions. First and foremost: Norwegian and Danish opinions of U.S. companies weren’t very high, at least from the perspective of environmental leadership. American firms, I assumed, were seen as reactive and disengaged when it came to matters green, lobbying against change legislation and digging in their heels on most other environmental issues, lest their profits and share prices might suffer. I girded myself for criticism — criticisms that I, to varying degrees, shared.

In Copenhagen, where Danes are excitedly gearing up for the COP15 climate change conference in December (the successor to the 1997 conference in Japan that gave way to the Kyoto Treaty) I assumed that there would be disdain for the U.S.A., whose corporate and governmental leaders hadn’t managed to come up with even a tepid climate change strategy. As much as I looked forward to the opportunity, I dreaded the questions.

It was all in vain. The questions, the criticism didn’t come.

Norwegian and Danish companies, it seems, aren’t much further ahead than their North American counterparts in addressing environmental issues. Indeed, the state of the art of green business in those two countries seems relatively on a par with that in the U.S. The challenges they described were eerily familiar: How to make the business case, engage and motivate employees, identify the low-hanging fruit in efficiency improvements, stimulate customer demand, align supply chains with environmental goals, work effectively with activist groups, get public recognition for environmental achievements — and on and on.

The feeling was similarly familiar at the four business schools where I lectured. They were concerned about how to integrate sustainability themes into the curriculum — whether there should be separate classes on environmental and social responsibility, or whether it should be integrated into the overall curriculum. They wondered how they compared with other business schools in the green arena and how use environmental topics to differentiate themselves.

It was a long way to go to feel as if I’d never left home.

This wasn’t the first time this has happened. I’d been similarly surprised on previous trips to Europe and, as I’ve written, to Japan and Australia and New Zealand. Somehow, I keep being surprised how much things are pretty much the same all over, and how that never seems to change.

One thing that has changed: a newfound respect and excitement for America since Barack Obama entered office. Pretty much everyone I met volunteered that their, and their countrymen’s, opinions of the U.S. had risen sharply over the past few months. So, too, had their hopes for a newfound American engagement in Copenhagen in December.

I tried to temper their expectations, given the rough road that climate change has traveled in American politics. But they could not be deterred. Europeans seem to be convinced there’s a new dawn in America — that our government, and the country as a whole, has undergone a profound change. A change, as the old campaign slogan goes, they can believe in — perhaps even more than we do.

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