U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the COP27 global climate conference with the grim statement that humanity is on a "highway to climate hell." But as the global discussions unfolded in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, here in the United States we saw really solid evidence that the urgency of this issue was finally being met with rising political concern. In the midterm election, climate was a top-tier voting concern for the first time in history. It is a major driver for Gen Z voters who helped propel surprising election outcomes.
"The zeitgeist has shifted," says often pessimistic author and advocate Bill McKibben in a podcast interview. He sees the election results, along with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act earlier this year, as powerful evidence that the climate movement has come of age — just in time to avert climate disaster. Now, as the policy focus shifts to federal executive action, and to implementation at the state and local levels, the power of that movement to withstand resistance from the fossil fuel industry will be tested. This calls the question for the corporate sector as never before.
Where will pro-climate companies land in this new landscape? What does it look like for a company to be "all in" on climate today?
Many (like my former employers, Google and Facebook, a.k.a. Alphabet and Meta) have already moved aggressively to address emissions in their own operations, and that’s great. Some (Amazon, with its rising emissions, comes to mind) still have a lot of work to do in that area. Almost all still need to clean up their act when it comes to their supply chains. And ostensibly pro-climate companies (I’m looking at you, Microsoft) need to quit focusing their sales and product development on artificial intelligence and other technologies to help Big Oil extract and sell more fossil fuels.
But that’s only the beginning of being "all in" on climate in today’s world. Passage of the Inflation Reduction Act was the starting point, not the culmination, of an era of bold action on climate policy. That era comprises not just the nuts and bolts of implementation but new state and local (and even federal) policies that move us even further toward a clean energy economy, much faster. Companies need to raise their voices and unlock their powerful influence to back these policies at every level.
It’s time for companies to step up their game — and there are good examples out there. Patagonia is often seen as a unicorn, its pro-climate stance hard to replicate in a larger company. But as former Unilever CEO (and corporate climate visionary) Paul Polman recently told ClimateVoices, a new interview series with climate newsmakers: "For CEOs, what’s needed above all else is willpower… I would also urge CEOs to be part of a new narrative around climate, where business sets out the opportunities and helps de-risk the ambitious policies we need from our political leaders." These policies will include electrification, investments in renewables and a full suite of measures to shift us quickly to the clean energy economy.
Companies are beginning to lift their goals and standards for what constitutes climate leadership in today’s world, moving beyond Scopes 1, 2 and 3 to support public policy that can help drive rapid systemic change across the economy. During COP27, the global pro-climate group Corporate Knights and InfluenceMap issued a declaration by over 50 companies that they will quickly align their engagement on climate policy with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement — including positions taken by their trade associations.
It all sounds good, but there is a big remaining obstacle in the path to progress on climate. Most companies are still members of trade associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that are beholden to the fossil fuel industry and fight climate policy tooth and nail. As long as companies such as Microsoft, Google and others who consider themselves "pro-climate" continue to be members of the chamber and other trade associations, they are not "all in."
As long as companies such as Microsoft, Google and others who consider themselves 'pro-climate' continue to be members of the chamber and other trade associations, they are not 'all in.'
Employees will be watching to see what their companies do on climate, and companies concerned about retaining the best and the brightest should care. Yes, the tech sector has recently endured painful layoffs across the board, and this is a major focus of concern in tech, as it must be. But climate activists still have clout because these same companies need to hold on to the talent they have to power growth and innovation well into the future. And they need to make sure there is a stable future for their employees and their company to thrive.
At ClimateVoice, we hear it from employees all the time: They are motivated by their climate concerns and expect the company they work for to have the same drive and motivation. The wildfires and other climate impacts have made this an existential crisis for many young people and the families they are hoping to raise.
Companies ignore young people’s passion for climate — as reflected very clearly in the midterms, in case they missed it before — at their peril. It’s high time for them to go all in.