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3 ways to support employee climate activism

Children around the world are leading climate activism — here's how adults can provide support and solidarity.

On Friday, thousands of kids all over the U.S. joined in with millions of kids from 117 other countries in what was the largest Fridays for Future climate strike yet. In one of the more catalyzing actions, the Boston and New York public school systems, along with others, agreed kids could skip school without penalty to join the strike.

The adults also showed up as allies. Seventh Generation donated their ad space for a week to help mobilize more people and closed their offices so employees could participate. Ben and Jerry’s and Patagonia closed their doors for part of the day. Burton stopped taking online orders. Over 6,000 websites (including WeSpire) displayed banners of support. Nearly 1,800 Amazon employees walked out, as did thousands of Googlers and Microsoft employees. Early estimates are that more than 4 million people participated, making it one of the largest protests on the planet, let alone for the planet.

One of my favorite explanations from business leaders supporting the Climate Strike came from Atlassian’s co-founder & co-CEO, Mike Cannon-Brookes. In a blog post titled "Don’t @#$% the Planet," he started by linking support for the strike to one of Atlassian’s core values:  Don’t @#$% the Customer. He went on to describe what the company was doing more broadly in corporate social responsibility, gave details for how they were supporting the strike, then open-sourced all their materials from signage to sample out of office messages to encourage other businesses to take part. He closed his post saying, "The bottom line is this: our staff who attend will have Atlassian’s full support. As a company, we join them in sending a united message: Don’t @#$% the Planet."

Early estimates are that more than 4 million people participated, making it one of the largest protests on the planet, let alone for the planet.
What struck me most about Atlassian and its message is that it is not Patagonia or Ben and Jerry's, brands with a customer base highly aligned with activism and the environment. Atlassian makes software that lots of engineers and teams use to manage projects. Its customer base is highly educated, but it is not the Greenpeace donor base. 

Activism also is cited as critical by the scientific community. The Exponential Roadmap, a multi-stakeholder initiative to identify solutions to the climate crisis, stated growing social movements, that lead to behavior change, are one of the four key drivers for rapid transformation. An essay in the well-respected science journal Nature said that scientists need to join civil disobedience movements because "none of [our other] efforts have worked at the necessary scale. It is time for a new approach." When the scientists start to sit-in, it’s clearly a new day.  

To me, the confluence of these events is a sign that climate activism is about to go mainstream. Which means every leader needs to be prepared for an increasing level of employee activism on climate. If your company isn’t already taking significant action to reduce emissions internally, then it’s time to get moving and fast. But if you already are, how should you respond to employees desire for greater change?

1. Give employees time to participate

Make your support of their attendance explicit versus implicit. Let them use their company volunteer hours for advocacy or give them an excused absence, just like the schools did, to participate. Participating yourself is, of course, the greatest show of support.

2. Permit using the Intranet, social platforms, emails and other apps to mobilize 

It’s one thing to say an individual may attend, but active support looks more like what Atlassian did. Allow signs to be posted, emails to be tagged and blurbs added to the newsletters and Intranet about where to meet. To go further, leadership can take the opportunity to weigh in with their perspective on the climate crisis, a la the Atlassian co-CEO blog post. 

3. Share specific actions that they can take to make a difference 

Don’t just tell employees what you are doing to address the climate crisis. Tell them how they can get involved, both personally and professionally. People want to do something, but are often stopped by not knowing what to do and whether it actually will matter. Understand which actions in your environment will make the biggest impact and get them on board. Help employees understand which actions at home would make the biggest impact and encourage them to take action as well.

Why should companies do this? I’ll paraphrase from Greta Thunberg’s address to the U.S. Congress this week. "No matter how political the background to this crisis may be, we must not allow this to continue to be a partisan political question. The climate and ecological crisis are beyond party politics. And our main enemy right now is not our political opponents. Our main enemy now is physics. And we can not make 'deals' with physics ... you must unite behind the science. You must take action. You must do the impossible. Because giving up can never, ever be an option."

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