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The big whiff: How corporate America missed the climate fix

Even the most committed of corporate sustainability leaders are undermining the cause.

One of the dirty secrets that we have to live with is that even the good-guy corporations don’t show up in Congress to lobby for doing something about climate change. Collectively, they do zero or less than zero to support climate legislation… That leaves the field to the bad guys.

 — U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island)

At 12:04 a.m. March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground, ruptured and spilled 11 million gallons into Prince William Sound in Alaska, a landscape that would make you cry even before it was covered in oil.

That disaster triggered a group of businesses to create the "Valdez Principles,” later called the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) Principles, a groundbreaking pledge to operate in an ecologically responsible fashion. There are now 60 CERES signatories.

The idea — that business ought to care about more than just profit — helped kick off a sustainable business movement that thrives today.

But the pledge missed something. And one consequence of that omission has been our failure to solve climate change, far and away the most important threat to a sustainable world.

What was missing was a call for corporate responsibility in the broader work of democracy. Instead, the focus was purely on internal operations — all that was asked of a business to be considered "responsible" was that it keep its own house in order. But that’s not enough. Voluntary pollution reductions never will achieve the scale needed to solve climate change or any other global problem.

You’ve got to have policy.

Voluntary pollution reductions never will achieve the scale needed to solve climate change or any other global problem.
The problem is that a primary barrier to the necessary policy fix has been corporate resistance, as modeled by Exxon’s now legendary deception around climate science, which made the New York Times this week.

Thanks to the loophole in the principles, that resistance also can come from some of the same "responsible" businesses considered sustainability leaders. Example: Ceres members Ford and GM advocate weakening Obama-era vehicle-efficiency standards, a key part of the previous administration’s climate plan. 

So, the carmakers benefit from the imprimatur of arguably the most visible and admired set of corporate responsibility principles, while taking positions diametrically opposed to the spirit of those principles. Such efforts aren’t isolated to climate. Ceres members PespiCo and Coca-Cola long have lobbied against bottle bills that would increase recycling rates, and against sugar taxes.

You could call this the go-to-church-then-shoot-heroin model of corporate environmentalism.

And it is pervasive. In 2016, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google — all of which have made legitimate progress in pursuing 100 percent clean energy for their operations — donated more money to Republicans than Democrats. Republicans in Congress have been opposing climate regulation since 2008. Irony becomes thick here: it is entirely possible that these businesses could achieve 100 percent clean power while simultaneously ensuring that society fails to solve climate change. 

Climate bureaucracy

The sad truth is that the most revered "sustainable" companies, even the ones that aren’t undoing climate policy at night, are often part of a dangerous climate bureaucracy that appears to work furiously on the problem (and therefore dodges public scrutiny) but undertakes that work in ways that are decoupled from what it means to actually slow warming. Instead of attacking the policy fight (which is controversial, but meaningful) they attend conferences, set targets, establish carbon baselines and produce sustainability reports.

If your job is 'Director of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability' and you’re not working furiously on climate change, what are you doing with your days?
Of course, none of those actions cuts carbon emissions. To tick that box, companies then dabble in globally meaningless cuts to operational carbon emissions (which is easy to do and hard to find fault with) while collecting the right pledges and memberships. When they do advocate, it’s at a murmur, not a shout.

A textbook example came in 2013, when the then CSR director at Sprint said, during a Washington, D.C. climate lobbying trip organized by Ceres: "It's not realistic for me to say this is going to be part of our core agenda."

If your job is "Director of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability" and you’re not working furiously on climate change, what are you doing with your days?

Once that non-action action model was established, others followed. The latest iteration of this is B Corp certification, a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for businesses. While being a B Corp is admirable in concept, and it does award (limited) certification points for progressive political advocacy, it’s not going to change the world because the conversation in B Corp circles focuses almost exclusively on responsible operations. 

Ceres does deserve kudos for trying to fix the essential problem it partly and unwittingly created: the fact that business widely has ignored the role corporations played in preventing action on climate change, and therefore their opportunity to help clear a path for meaningful action. One program, BICEP (for Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy), engages members in active lobbying on climate policy. Bravo! CERES also pushes on corporate policy through shareholder actions. Again, model work.

Flawed principles

It occurs, however, against the backdrop of a flawed set of foundational principles.

We now know with overwhelming certainty that by 2100, human emissions of carbon dioxide are hurtling us towards 4 degrees Celsius warming, and maybe beyond — a situation that is, in the words of Kevin Anderson, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, "incompatible with an organized global community." 

Discouragingly, despite that situation, businesses mostly have received a bye from the public and the press. As they see it, to be a B Corp, a Ceres member or to commit to aggressive carbon reductions (regardless whether you are realistically able to achieve them) is the sine qua non of climate responsibility. 

Only a few actors have gotten wise to this situation. One is Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who recently sent a thermonuclear letter to a range of corporations (mine included) decrying the total lack of political will on the part of so-called progressive businesses.

He wrote:

For too long the American business community has stood idly by while your fossil-fuel compatriots worked their wicked ways with Congress. You have let them suborn your major trade and policy organizations to their purposes. You have tolerated their dark money machinery. Your silence has been deafening.

The good news is that a fix is relatively simple. Ceres needs to modify its principles to require progressive advocacy and to ban anti-environment lobbying, expelling companies at odds with its mission. This would send a huge message to the business world that duplicity is unwelcome and that businesses no longer can wear the badge of environmental responsibility unless they actually behave accordingly.

Only a few companies need to speak out publicly before most realize they can do so too without repercussion.
Meanwhile, B Corp could modify its certification process to favor progressive political advocacy. In the corporate world, only a few need to cowboy up and speak out publicly on the need for climate action, before most realize they can do so too without repercussion. Businesses will be delighted to find that there is no longer any consumer risk in taking an aggressive public stand on climate change. The risk today is in not doing so.

Until those changes occur, it remains heartbreaking that we’re failing to address, let alone solve, the climate crisis, especially given what we know about the costs of inaction. But it’s tragic that we let some of the very actors who could solve the problem off the hook, even giving them a pat on the back as they "responsibly" guide civilization toward the precipice.

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