Brand advocacy vs. activism: Swinging the pendulum on climate policy

Brand advocacy vs. activism: Swinging the pendulum on climate policy

Bruce Rolff

It’s been a rough couple of months for those of us who particularly enjoy living on a habitable planet. Decades of progress on environmental policy lays on the chopping block, with an unpredictable president swiping away in the dark.

President Donald Trump has exhibited little restraint in exercising his newfound executive powers to threaten Obama-era climate policies, jeopardizing the National Parks System and imperiling America’s climate leadership by considering to pull out of the Paris Agreement, among other efforts.

“I feel like we’ve been having the same conversations for years,” the leader of my advocacy group told me this month during a lobby day organized by EDF Action — Environmental Defense Fund’s advocacy branch. Along with a half a dozen other alumni of the EDF Climate Corps program, I had joined with seasoned environmental advocates in Washington, D.C. to spend a day speaking with senators on both sides of the aisle about pending legislation with profound consequences for the environment.

"I feel like we’ve taken a step back on these issues," said another person in my group, who had been fighting for environmental justice since the modern movement began in the 1970s.

After exiting the Hart Senate Office Building, we stopped to take a quick group photo in front of the Capitol dome. As we stood still for the photo, I asked my newfound colleagues: "How do you stay motivated when all of our work can be undone just like that?"

The group leader turned to me and said with sanguine smile: "Progress in policy is like a pendulum."

Defending against 'regulatory demolition'

Protecting against "regulatory demolition" was a top priority for our lobby group.

While regulatory certainty is something businesses need to thrive, currently legislation moving in Congress threatens to undermine basic protections for our environment, health and safety. Under the auspices of "regulatory reform," a series of bills is imperiling a wide range of basic public protections in existing law.

In this way, elected Republicans will be able nullify such hallmark environmental laws as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act without even needing to repeal them.

This also doesn’t bode well for science — at least eight anti-regulatory and anti-science bills have passed the House so far this Congress. Combined with the President’s executive orders, a proposed 30 percent cut to EPA funding, proposed elimination of several EPA programs and drastic reductions in staff levels at the agency, this anti-regulatory effort is part of the broader agenda to cripple mechanisms in place to protect the planet and everyone living on it.

The Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome (SCRUB) Act, for example, would establish a review commission designed to repeal "unnecessary" regulations — focusing exclusively on costs to industry and ignoring the public benefits of these safeguards. The proposal also would require an existing rule to be repealed for every new one issued.

As many of these bills have been framed as being beneficial to business, having companies come out in opposition to this legislation could help push the pendulum back toward progress.

The climate impacts of methane are no gas

Throughout my day on the Hill, I was assigned to talk about the importance of voting to uphold an Obama-era regulation restricting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. As a greenhouse gas more potent even than carbon dioxide, methane emissions are a strong driver of climate change.

Senate Republicans were hoping to take advantage of the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which gives Congress 60 working days to overturn new regulations. To date, some 14 regulations issued in the last months of the Obama administration had been killed, and the prospects weren’t looking great for the methane rule’s survival.

We asked every office we met with to vote in support of upholding the rule, and for senators to voice their support on the Senate floor. The next day something remarkable happened; three Republicans joined Democrats to uphold the rule in a razor-thin 49-51. The pendulum had swung a little farther.

Congress wants political cover to act on climate

"I’d love to see more CEOs write us letters," one senator with a particular interest in clean technology told us during one meeting. "Many of of my colleagues are looking for political cover to act on climate and other environmental issues."

I told the senator about the more than a thousand business to have sign on to Business Backs Low Carbon USA, which urges Trump, Congress and world leaders to support the Paris Agreement, as well as calling for a low carbon economy. While the senator had been unaware of the letter, he said it was welcome.

But signing letters urging action by supporting the Paris Agreement is only a first step. Many forward-thinking brands often are conspicuously silent when it comes to calling for smart decisions on more mundane environmental policies that, in the aggregate, will make or break our ability to mitigate climate change.

Policy sets the rules of engagement

While the growing sustainable business movement is encouraging, a patchwork of volunteer actions won’t be enough to avert climate catastrophe.

We need smart policy to help shape the rules of engagement to create the regulatory certainty businesses need. This isn’t a radical notion — at Davos in 2015, some of the world’s biggest businesses called for better and more aggressive government policy to tackle the biggest global challenges, including climate change.

The recent rise of brand activism also shows how companies can and must act to effect positive social change in alignment with their brand purpose. However, there’s a difference between activism and advocacy, and we need more brands that are willing to take on the latter.

While there is a place for protest, there’s an equally important position for the advocate willing to sit across the table from an object of a protest to build a road map for reform. The most successful models demonstrate that you have to reform the system from within the system to change the system. In this vein, advocacy groups such as the American Sustainable Business Council and Advanced Energy Economy are helping companies come together to directly advocate for policies that will stimulate a low-carbon economy.

Sustainable brands must step up, find their political voice and lend it to the growing chorus against the long-purported lie that economic prosperity and environmental stewardship are mutually exclusive aims. We may be living in the Age of Trump — but, like a pendulum, sometimes you’ve got to be pushed back so that you can swing forward.