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Policy Voice

Are companies ghosting the planet on climate policy?

It’s past time for businesses to buckle up, lean in, and loudly and vigorously support bold equitable climate policy. This is the moment to show up.

Image of a ghost against black background.

Image via Shutterstock/Fotokita

It’s Earth Month, and a new poll from Pew Research Center shows two-thirds of Americans think the corporate sector is doing too little on climate change. It’s clear that we need more than well-meaning individual actions to change the scary trajectory of this challenge. What could do so? The powerful, focused, full-throated, fully mobilized corporate backing of bold climate policy — that is what’s needed to scale those heroic individual actions rapidly across the entire economy.

So let’s take inventory: How far have companies progressed since the early 2000s, when I had my awakening about climate, and where are we in Earth Month 2023? How far have they come, and how far do they still have to go? (Spoiler alert: A long, long way.)

Corporate leaders didn’t just wake up one day in the C-suite and decide to care more about climate. They’re responding to a larger context that has shifted dramatically. In the early 2000s, sustainability was a fairly new idea for many companies. Now it’s widely accepted across different industries. Climate legislation at the federal level was for decades a non-starter politically. Now it’s become a popular stand that got a big boost from exit polls last year. Most notably, their own employees are demanding that companies care about this issue.

So, in view of all this, what are companies actually doing for climate as we mark Earth Month 2023, in the midst of horrendous impacts of climate change unfolding all around us? I wish I had a better report to make. They are walking when they should be running, whispering when they should be shouting, soft-pedaling their climate advocacy and letting the foes of this planet in the fossil-fuel industry romp over them. Let’s take inventory.

Companies have made headway on sustainability in their operations — and their supply chains. Let’s give credit where credit is due, and there are lots of great strides forward on sustainability. Here’s just one example: Having been an early sustainability leader at Google and Facebook, I find it impressive that Apple is making such fast progress toward decarbonizing its supply chain by 2030. Bravo to its sustainability leader Lisa Jackson and others spearheading this effort. I know it’s not easy. But I wish the company had also shown up in the historic battle over federal climate legislation last year, instead of ghosting the planet at this pivotal moment. It would have an easier time reaching its own sustainability goals if the policy framework was even stronger.

What I didn’t understand until more recently is how much the business sector has been obstructing the work of government, and how government needs business to wield its influence in support of public policies that can accelerate the transition ...

Companies are investing billions in innovation to help solve some of the hardest remaining climate problems. This includes carbon dioxide removal, biofuels (especially for aviation and marine transport), nuclear power (both fission and fusion) and industrial processes. I’m all for innovation; indeed, that’s been my focus for much of my career. And some of these efforts will bear fruit, although the timing is hard to predict. It is clear, however, that most of these will have little material impact on emissions in the next decade, which means we need to also invest heavily ASAP in scaling the solutions we have on hand today — wind, solar, storage, electric vehicles, transit, heat pumps, etc. The very real danger is that a focus on innovation will be used as an excuse to delay other vital actions — and the hype around things such as carbon dioxide removal (CDR), especially from companies that are virtually silent on other climate policies, makes that outcome more likely.

Companies are sometimes speaking up for policy but not strongly enough and not in big enough numbers. We were delighted to see Microsoft and Walmart, among a host of smaller companies, get on the right side of history and endorse the game-changing Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) last year. (My alma mater, Google, endorsed the bill right after its passage; the rest of the top five tech firms, despite touting themselves as climate champions, remained loudly silent.) We won the battle for the IRA last year, in part because some businesses spoke up. But we’re still losing far too many fights. Even companies that get on board with policy don’t lobby like they mean it — in the focused, energetic, strategic way they would if they were fighting in their own self-interest.

Well, this is their own self-interest. The economy and everything else is being threatened by climate change. What are they waiting for?

Companies are letting their anti-climate trade associations dominate the debate and block policy progress on climate. Most companies, including avowedly pro-climate companies such as Microsoft, are still members of anti-climate trade associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which are fighting climate policy progress. Not only did the U.S. Chamber take aim at historic climate legislation last year, but it has a persistent pattern of getting in the way of climate progress. Companies that are still supporting the U.S. Chamber are complicit in its anti-climate activities. This is part of what they must face up to and reckon with this Earth Day. And it’s not just the U.S. Chamber and not just federal legislation. Companies are often silent — or in the opposition — on state policies, and are part of other trade associations that continue to obstruct policy progress. Witness the recent clean energy bill in Oregon, which failed to pass in part because of opposition from Amazon and from the Technology Association of Oregon.

Twenty years ago I was inspired to focus my career on climate, and saw the immense power of the private sector to invest and act. What I’ve learned over the last two decades, however, is that the private sector can’t do it alone. To decarbonize at the speed and scale we need, the private sector needs government — public policy — to set the market rules and to make catalytic investments that accelerate progress. I understood this on some level 20 years ago, and I think many business leaders also get this. But what I didn’t understand until more recently is how much the business sector has been obstructing the work of government, and how government needs business to wield its influence in support of public policies that can accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon economy.

Overall, the progress I’ve seen in the corporate sector over the course of my career so far has been one of sometimes remarkable and laudable actions, coupled with an avoidance of the really hard choices — like taking risks by leaning in on advocacy for climate policy and by speaking up to counter the ongoing obstruction from major trade associations.

We are running out of time for half-measures, delay and avoidance strategies like ghosting. It’s past time for businesses to buckle up, lean in and loudly and vigorously support bold equitable climate policy. This is the moment to show up.

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