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How ice cream, chocolate just might save the planet

In Paris, food companies like Ben & Jerry's and Mars push for a plan to slow global warming

It's week two of the United Nations Climate Change Conference — the "high-level, ministerial" portion of the talks. Officials are striving for wide-reaching agreements that commit nations to reduce fossil fuel emissions amid rising global temperatures.

While some 200 assembled countries mingle in the main conference center, known as the "Blue Zone," you may bump into Ben & Jerry's CEO Jostein Solheim offering a scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. A fun gesture, for sure. But the stakes in the climate talks are real and high for many consumer-facing companies.

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From Ben & Jerry's to Mars, companies have already seen supplies of crucial ingredients like cocoa impacted by rising temperatures. "This transition to a low-carbon economy of the future is inevitable. It's going to happen," said Christopher Miller, social mission activism manager for Ben & Jerry's. "Is the U.S. going to be a leader in that transition, or will it be a laggard?" said Miller by phone from Paris.

Miller is among hundreds of U.S. business leaders, attending the Paris talks. Collectively they are pushing for a strong agreement, with some businesses including Ben & Jerry's calling for a tax on carbon emissions.

Bottom line? They're seeking an agreement to ensure future warming remains below dangerous levels. That would help secure more stable sources of key ingredients for many businesses including food giants.

"Make no mistake, many business owners fear the impact of climate change on their operations," said Richard Eidlin, vice president of policy at the American Sustainable Business Council. The advocacy group for a more sustainable economy is in Paris to make the business case for a carbon tax and other ways to cut fossil fuel emissions.

"From increased insurance costs and supply chain disruptions to the loss of entire companies due to extreme weather events, business is already feeling the cost of inaction on climate change," said Eidlin in a prepared statement.

Bracing for El Nino

A wooden boat is stranded on the riverbed of the Dawuhan Dam during drought season in Madiun, Indonesia's East Java province, on Oct. 5, 2015.
Siswowidodo | Antara Foto | Reuters
A wooden boat is stranded on the riverbed of the Dawuhan Dam during drought season in Madiun, Indonesia's East Java province, on Oct. 5, 2015.

For years, the issue of climate change was narrowly focused on energy efficiency, and feel-good corporate initiatives with little urgency. Scientists have since reported increased frequency and intensity of weather including floods in Bangladesh and droughts in California. And such major events have placed property, crops, ecosystems and human lives at risk.

Last month, the U.N. weather agency said the El Nino climate pattern, which is expected to strengthen further through the end of the year, is on track to be one of the three strongest such patterns in almost 70 years. While California and the West desperately need rainfall and a hefty snowpack — that would melt and refill low reservoirs — the growing fear now is of dangerous mudslides and flash flooding.

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For food companies, all these extreme conditions potentially jeopardize supplies of agricultural products, everything from coffee to cocoa. "We've already seen an impact in coffee production in Mexico," said Miller of Ben & Jerry's, based in South Burlington, Vermont.

Beyond an active strategy to reduce its carbon footprint, Ben & Jerry's created a new ice cream flavor, "Save Our Swirled," to bring attention to climate change. Ingredients are swirled into the new flavor, the idea being that once the ice cream — like the earth — melts, it's ruined and can't be saved.

Many food companies have supply chains potentially at risk amid rising temperatures.

Over the last 20 to 30 years, weather patterns in West Africa, for example, have reduced cocoa yields, explained Kevin Rabinovitch, Mars global director of sustainability, by phone from Paris. Food executives across the board have been wary of potential weather-related disruptions for years.

More recently in 2010 as another example, Russia — a major grain exporter — banned exports amid a drought. Combined with other global market shortages, wheat prices soared and impacted nearly every food company, including Mars.

The point is reducing climate risks shores up the supply chain. And that's why business leaders like Rabinovitch of Mars and Miller from Ben & Jerry's are meeting with policymakers. "We are planning for the long haul," said Rabinovitch.

Mars tackles climate change

Mesquite Creek Wind Farm construction
Source: Mars, Incorporated
Mesquite Creek Wind Farm construction

"We believe that tackling climate change is crucial not only to our business — because we rely on sustainable and efficient agriculture and food production — but also to the future of the planet," Mars said in a statement.

To that goal, Mars in 2014 announced an agreement on a wind farm in Texas. The company is moving toward eliminating all fossil fuel use from operations by 2040. The 118-turbine wind farm generates the equivalent of 100 percent of the electricity needed to power U.S. operations.

The long game

Of course, there are plenty of climate change doubters, who reject the science of human-induced climate change.

But there are also many for-profit companies — across industries — that not only acknowledge the science, but are preparing for the future. "Climate change and its risks are going mainstream," according to an October BlackRock report on global warming's impact on portfolios. According to the report, 4 of the top 10 "most likely" global risks cited were weather-related: extreme weather events, natural catastrophes, water crises and failure of climate change adaptation.

Food executives already know this. "We're not doing this just because we care about polar bears and ice sheets," said Miller of Ben & Jerry's. "It's about our business and people in our supply chain."

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