Caveat Venditor: Armed with Companies' Climate Scores, Consumers Wield Influence

Climate Counts has a simple, yet powerful message: "Everyday consumers can be the most important activists in the fight against global warming." And now, with their new open API, developers can get in on the action

In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies whose famous 1988 testimony before the U.S. Senate was heralded as one of the first warnings of global warming, writes, "My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true."

"There is still time to act and avoid a worsening climate, but we are wasting precious time," he writes. "We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 percent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution."

His solution is a good one, as putting a price on carbon is something that affects the almighty corporate bottom line, but if the fee is implemented as a carbon tax, it may not work, particularly if fossil fuel companies are still getting governmental subsidies. A 2003 study by Annegrete Bruvoll and Bodil Merethe Larsen of Statistics Norway found that even though Norway has among world's highest carbon taxes, the policy only amounted to a 2.3 percent reduction in emissions, while "the most important reduction factors are more efficient use of energy and a substitution towards less carbon intensive energy," factors that contributed a 14 percent reduction in CO2 emissions over the same period.


Another approach is to activate consumer and corporate awareness in a collaborative way to fight climate change. That's the mission of Climate Counts, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization launched with support from Stonyfield Farm, Inc., an organic yogurt maker based in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and the University of New Hampshire. Their goal is to inspire climate action and more responsible behavior in both the public and private sectors by increasing awareness and accountability. Specifically, using the public's help, they score the world's largest companies on their impact to the global climate to "spur corporate climate responsibility and conscious consumption."

"When consumers take action and raise their voices on issues that matter to them, businesses pay attention," the organization notes on their website. "The time for talk about global warming has passed, and significant corporate, consumer, and political action is now necessary."

Consumers are encouraged to download the latest Scorecard Report from the Climate Counts website, so that they can compare companies on their commitment to address and mitigate global warming. The higher the score, the higher a company's commitment to fighting climate change. The scorecard covers all industries and is updated once a year.

"Our goal is to motivate deeper awareness among consumers—that the issue of climate change demands their attention, and that they have the power to support companies that take climate change seriously and avoid those that don't."


And now, the public can get even more active in the fight against climate change, as Climate Counts has recently made their new RESTful API (application programming interface) open source, which means anyone who cares about the environment—and the measures businesses are taking to reduce their environmental impact—is free to experiment with it, develop it and use Climate Counts data to build any application they can dream up, whether it be a Facebook game or mobile app, widget or browser plugin. To add a little friendly competition to the project, they are offering a $100 gift card to the person who comes up with the best application.

One of the great things about open source developing is that it is based on transparency, so it makes sense to let users build their own apps—in particular with regards to driving solutions to global climate change mitigation and adaptation, as the transparency of governmental and corporate activity is a necessary condition for ensuring that we're getting things done in the right way.

The lack of transparency has been an significant issue in carbon markets. In November, Reuters reported that "he U.N.-backed carbon offset market needs an overhaul as it lacks transparency and is vulnerable to bribery and collusion that threaten efforts to help developing nations cut their growing carbon emissions," according to a 2011 report issued by the University of East Anglia and University of Sussex.


So, Climate Counts' open source approach is really a prerequisite for success. "We already use our open API to power our iPhone app and our mobile website," said the company in a recent blog post. "In the coming months we hope to make new apps available that engage, excite and educate a broader audience."

"e pride ourselves on transparency and the accessibility of our data to the point that we want to make it freely available to anyone wanting to use it. By making our scores available in a standard, unrestricted way, we can open the doors of creativity for the wider community to help us succeed in our mission of inspiring corporate and consumer climate action."

The Latin phrase "caveat emptor" means "let the buyer beware." But with the kind of transparency and accountability engendered by the kind of grassroots activism, consumer awareness and open source developing championed by Climate Counts, a different phrase is gaining currency: "caveat venditor," or "let the seller beware."



Climate Counts. Climate Counts presents Unstoppable. November 5, 2007. Accessed August 11, 2012.
James Hansen. Climate change is here — and worse than we thought. August 3, 2012. Accessed August 10, 2012.
Annegrete Bruvoll and Bodil Merethe Larsen. Greenhouse gas emissions - do carbon taxes work? August 12, 2003. Accessed August 10, 2012.
Climate Counts. Climate Counts - About Us. June 27, 2009. Accessed August 11, 2012.
Jeff Coelho. Bribery, collusion hinder U.N. carbon scheme: research. November 11, 2011. Accessed August 11, 2012.
Climate Counts. Introducing…the Climate Counts Data API! July 24, 2012. Accessed August 11, 2012.

image: Graffiti saying, "If the climate were a bank it would have been saved" (credit: Joost J. Bakker, Wikimedia Commons)