Power Player

Calling all CSOs: This is your defining moment


Indications out of Washington suggest that the Trump administration is on the brink of withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord. One could argue that the Paris Agreement, as a nonbinding framework agreement of national commitments, is already "dead letter law" here in the United States, with a guy like Scott Pruitt in charge of environmental protection.

But that ignores the immensely damaging impact of a formal U.S. withdrawal on the climate psyche of the other 194 signatories. The great breakthrough of Paris, after all, was getting the two great emitters, China and the United States, to sign on to a universally agreed plan aimed at a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions.

But you don't need me to tell you how important the U.S. commitment to Paris is to the fate of the planet.

What you do need me to tell you — right now — is that this is the moment when you must put your big boy/big girl pants on, hitch up your belt and storm past the praetorian guard that protects and allocates your CEO's time. You need to walk right through the CEO's outer office, into the inner office and through there into the CEO's sanctorum inner sanctum. You need to be the proverbial barbarian at the gate.

And once you get there, appointment-less, standing in front of your slacked-jawed CEO, taken aback by the effrontery of your visit, you might reintroduce yourself by reminding her of the words of Martin Luther King Jr., spoken obviously in a different context on a different issue:

Our generation will have to repent not only for the acts and words of the children of darkness but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.

You start with this because your CEO needs to know that the situation we face right now represents a starkly moral issue for each of us as individuals. Even more so for your CEO, as the principal steward of your company's core values, it is a pivotal legacy-defining moment. Withdrawal from Paris is not just a matter of public policy or regulatory policy or foreign policy for your colleagues in Government Affairs to whitepaper to death; it is a matter of right versus wrong.

And, no matter what business your company is engaged in, it is material.

Taking a stand

If your CEO is a doting parent, think of expressing it this way: this is our last best chance to avoid carbon adaptation being the defining issue confronting the next generation of Americans.

Your CEO, and your company, need to take a stand. When the history books are written, and this moment is taught in schools — which will occur in our lifetimes — will your CEO and your company be on the right side of history or the wrong side?

When I was a law student interviewing with a prestigious New York law firm, they sought to impress me with how important they were by listing landmark litigation cases that their firm had lawyered, one of which was Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, the 1954 decision that made segregation in schools unconstitutional. They were very proud of their list until I pointed out that they actually had represented the Topeka Board and, as such, had fought to preserve a historic injustice.

Leaving them visibly deflated, I started my legal career elsewhere.

Your goal today is to separate your CEO's thinking on this issue from other aspects of the proposed Trump agenda that your CEO covets. Maybe it is the prospect of a lower top marginal tax rate, or the (unfulfilled) prospects of a trillion-dollar infrastructure spending program, or comprehensive deregulation, but it seems to me that the corporate and banking c-suites have been pulling their punches with respect to the manifest injustices, incompetencies and conflicts of interests of the Trump administration.

You need your CEO to understand that most everything is negotiable when it comes to Trump World, but for your company, not this one. Not Paris.

If you get past this phase of the impromptu meeting without being escorted out of the CEO suite by a SWAT team of executive assistants, you then need to move quickly to what your CEO needs to do and when they need to do it.

Passive or defiant?

First and foremost, if you have the kind of CEO who actually knows any of the people in Trump’s inner circle, then your CEO needs to get on the phone with them ASAP in an attempt to reverse the momentum on this decision. If you have the type of CEO who can get booked on "Fox & Friends" or MSNBC's "Morning Joe," book 'em now so they can speak to President Trump directly. Right now!

Beyond this, you need to prepare for a bad outcome. You need to settle with your CEO how your company will respond if the United States does, in fact, pull out of the Paris Agreement.

Are you, as a company, going to sit passively by, singularly focused as a company on the prospects of a cut in the corporate tax rate? Or are you going to make a defiant climate statement to the effect that:

  • your company's focus on sustainability as a core value remains unchanged;
  • substantial progress is being made towards achieving (or adopting) the long-term net-zero carbon goals that your company has set for itself;
  • your company is "all in" with the 194 nations that remain parties to the Paris Agreement and share their collective commitment to fight the good fight against global warming.

You need to convince your CEO that, if there is to be a silver lining in the dark cloud of a Trump administration withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, it is this: It provides your company the opportunity to stand up and be counted at this — the defining moment of our time, on the defining issue of our generation. For you, it is an opportunity that likely will come only once in your business lifetime — and that time is now.

We are all the children of the light.