What happens when more than 300 business people descend, virtually, on Capitol Hill to advocate for climate action amid a pandemic and economic crisis?
Logic would dictate that these well-intentioned lobbyists-for-a-day would be met with a resounding shrug. After all, with two of the most devastating events to hit the United States happening simultaneously, there doesn’t seem to be much room to talk about anything else.
As with so many other things these days, logic is not always the best guide.
That’s my takeaway from last week’s LEAD on Climate 2020, organized by the nonprofit Ceres and supported by other sustainability-focused business groups. It was the second annual opportunity for companies to educate legislators and their staff on the need for congressional action on the climate crisis. Among the larger participating companies were Adobe, Capital One, Danone, Dow, eBay, General Mills, LafargeHolcim, Mars, Microsoft, NRG, Pepsico, Salesforce, Tiffany and Visa, along with hundreds of smaller firms.
Last year’s LEAD (for Lawmaker Education and Advocacy Day) event brought 75 companies to Capitol Hill. This year’s garnered 333 companies, including more than 100 CEOs, to have video meetups with 88 congressional offices — 50 Democrats, 36 Republicans and 2 Independents — from both the House (51 meetings) and Senate (37 meetings). Some had as many as 70 companies in attendance.
This year’s bigger turnout no doubt had to do in part with the ease of meeting from one’s sequestered location — no travel, no costs and a lot smaller carbon footprint — but also from the growing push to get companies off the sidelines on climate action advocacy, whether motivated by external pressure groups, ESG-minded investors, employee concerns or a company’s own board or C-suite.
To be quite frank, it was some of the most valuable conversations we've had with members on climate in a long time.
Last year’s LEAD event focused specifically on carbon pricing; this year’s focus was broadened, Anne Kelly, vice president of government relations at Ceres, the event’s organizer, told me last week. "We reframed it knowing that long-term solutions like carbon pricing are important, but that there were immediate opportunities that companies could speak to." That, too, may have broadened its appeal.
For Nestlé, the event was an opportunity "to have meaningful conversations with Congress on climate change and on our priorities," said Meg Villareal, the company’s manager of policy and public affairs, in an interview for last week’s GreenBiz 350 podcast. "To be quite frank, it was some of the most valuable conversations we've had with members on climate in a long time. I think the virtual platform created an opportunity for us to have very in-depth discussions about what company priorities are and how we want to see Congress engage on climate going into the future."
Among Nestlé’s interests, Villareal said, was scaling up renewable energy use in its operations. "We also want to develop agriculture initiatives for carbon storage and reforestation and biodiversity that help support our carbon initiatives. That was definitely a key piece of some of the conversations we had as well." Her company is a founding member of the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, along with Mars, Danone and Unilever. "We put out a set of climate principles last May that have five principles as part of it, the first of which is creating a price on carbon."
Several congressional allies participated, first among them Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), who has a strong record on climate advocacy. It appeared that his role in the event was primarily to cheer the companies on and give them insight into the Capitol Hill zeitgeist.
Whitehouse made it clear that while CEO pronouncements on their company’s climate commitments are good, they only go so far.
"CEOs may say we support a carbon price," he explained. "No, they don't. I happen to know that because I have the carbon price bill in the Senate. And nobody's ever come to me and said, ‘We want to support your bill.’ You can't underestimate the continued opposition and challenge that the fossil-fuel industry presents. They're still really strong here and really powerful."
The senator cited the American Beverage Association as a case in point. "Coke and Pepsi both have terrific climate policies. They do all the stuff they should be doing. But they pretty much control the American Beverage Association because of their size. And the American Beverage Association has not lifted a finger, period" to support climate action, he said.
CEOs may say we support a carbon price. No, they don't. I have the carbon price bill in the Senate. Nobody's ever come to me and said, ‘We want to support your bill.’
Whitehouse advocated what he called a "bank shot" — perhaps an unintentional play on words — as a way to build pressure on companies through their investors.
"We put pressure on Marathon Petroleum for the climate mischief that they have done — particularly the CAFE standards, the fuel efficiency standards mischief, that they've been string-pulling-on behind the scenes. They could care less when I call them out on that. But their four biggest shareholders are BlackRock, Vanguard, State Street and JPMorgan. And all those entities care quite a lot when they're funding climate misbehavior. And they get called out on it themselves. So, you can use the pressure that the financial community feels to defend itself now against these climate and economic crash warnings to bring pressure to bear on even very recalcitrant companies."
The human factor
I had the opportunity to speak during the LEAD training day, the day before they "hit the Hill" for their member meetings. As part of that, I interviewed Leah Rubin Shen, energy and environment policy advisor to Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware), who co-chairs the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus with Sen. Mike Braun (R-Indiana).
I asked Shen, a trained electrochemist with research experience in energy storage technologies and green chemistry, for some insights into what it takes to change minds on Capitol Hill.
"I'm a scientist," she responded. "I think there are plenty of things that we could do tomorrow, or today even, that would make all of our systems much more robust and resilient, and set us on the right path. But politically, it's just really difficult. As tempting as it is to just say, ‘Well, this is what experts say,’ or ‘This is what people say we should be doing’ — I wish that were enough; it's not. It needs to be something that will resonate back home."
Storytelling is key, she noted. "Don't discount the human element. Facts and figures are helpful — ‘This is how many jobs we have in your state,’ or ‘This is what our annual revenue was last year.’ Those things are important and helpful. But being able to tell a story is something that will resonate with a lot of staffers and members both."
Nestlé’s Villareal experienced that in a conversation last week with a congressman from Florida "with whom last year it was a bit of a difficult conversation, particularly around carbon pricing," she told me.
"So, this year, we tried a new approach with that office. We didn't go in and lead with the ask on carbon pricing but wanted to have more of a general conversation about the companies in his district and how we are prioritizing our carbon principles and our climate principles. And it led into a very healthy discussion on carbon pricing and why the companies in his district were supportive of it. It was a very productive and surprisingly good conversation, and we were really pleased coming out of it."
We have to make these introductions on a large scale so that Congress knows if they act on climate, the broad business community will have their back.
The whole exercise isn't just about getting members of Congress to support climate action. It’s also letting them know that if they do, they’ll get business support.
"We have to make these introductions on a large scale so that Congress knows if they act on climate, the broad business community will have their back," explained Anne Kelly. "Most lawmakers think that big businesses only want to break the rules, not call for new ones." Among other things, she says, members generally aren’t aware of corporate climate leadership, science-based targets or large-scale renewable energy procurement by companies. The LEAD exchanges help them understand such things.
According to Kelly, the success of the virtual advocacy day — which she dubbed a "high-impact, low-footprint and low-budget model" — and the enthusiasm by participating companies has led Ceres to consider upping the frequency of LEAD events, from annually to quarterly. "Based on the rave reviews, I'd say many colleagues are hooked," she added.
I asked Villareal, one of those enthusiasts, what advice she’d give someone who hasn’t yet dipped their toe into the congressional advocacy waters.
"It can always be scary to try something new, but it is so worth it," she replied. "In the end, you get tremendous benefit from using your voice and especially on critical and positive issues like climate."