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How corporate sustainability can (and must) bridge political divides

If our destiny is gridlock at best, reversal at worst, how can we avoid climate’s most devastating impacts in a decade where every year of progress counts?

People standing at two ends of a bridge, with a large gap between them.

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[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

Here we are, again. After two short years, we are back to a divided United States government.

The last two years saw the historic passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, America the Beautiful and Justice 40. There is still progress to be made, but it now may stall, especially if House leadership succeeds — although it’s unlikely — in rolling back the IRA. Elected officials, despite holding nuanced views in private (and occasionally in public), consistently vote on climate policy entirely along partisan lines.

If our destiny is gridlock at best, reversal at worst, how can we avoid climate’s most devastating impacts in a decade where every year of progress counts? And how can companies lead the way? There were both loud and quiet messages in the midterm results that offer hope.

No. 1: Polarization can be slowed or reversed

This pattern of political ping pong is, of course, a reflection of a deeply divided country. But recent history shows that it’s not inevitable; nor does it have to be permanent.

In 1997, Republicans (47 percent) and Democrats (46 percent) agreed that "the effects of global warming . . . have already begun to happen." When George W. Bush first ran for president, he adopted a strong position on the issue. Three years later, John McCain co-sponsored the Climate Stewardship Act. The legislation did not pass, but was applauded by environmental advocates as a significant step towards a national climate change policy.

While climate change remained an elusive topic — many candidates avoided mentioning it outright — energy and climate initiatives were on the ballot.

Several trends in the 2000s accelerated polarization. There was a breakdown in social capital and a weakening of friendly bipartisan relationships in Washington; more money influencing politics; a rise of hyper-partisan news media; and of social media platforms that allow for "information cocoons," stoke partisan fear and indignation, and spread false information.

Despite some studies suggesting the United States may have passed a polarization threshold of no return, more than 100 countries have successfully depolarized, giving me hope it is possible. We can shift today’s toxic dynamic in Washington — and accelerate progress on climate.

We saw this happen in the Midterms. While the volume of disinformation was actually higher than in 2020, the effects were muted because platforms were vigilant in monitoring content throughout the election cycle.

No. 2: Voters rejected extremism and upheld democracy

There were 291 candidates who denied or questioned the outcome of the last presidential election, according to a Washington Post analysis — including half of the 22 Republicans vying to be secretaries of state. Voters, however, overwhelmingly rejected election deniers, particularly in swing states.

Moreover, the elections ran peacefully. Candidates conceded respectfully and, despite alarming reports threatening violence and intimidation, Nov. 8 was a relatively calm day.

No. 3: Climate had hidden 'wins'

While climate change remained an elusive topic — many candidates avoided mentioning it outright — energy and climate initiatives were on the ballot. And there’s public pressure: 58 percent of Americans agree the federal government is doing too little to combat the climate crisis. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) conceded that, with a split Congress, Republicans and Democrats will need to find common ground.

The five states primed to accelerate a transition to clean energy are unlikely to do so, but there were other wins. Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham continues to combat methane pollution in New Mexico. John Fetterman (D-PA) and Tina Kotek (D-OR) promise to push for more climate legislation. New York, Colorado, Rhode Island and Texas passed critical ballot initiatives.

No. 4: Corporate leadership to bridge divides

The results are in; now we get to work. How can the private sector ensure we are moving fast enough?

  • Get out of our information cocoons. We must spot signs of misinformation, diversify what we read, and look to bipartisan and moderate groups that advocate for sustainability and social justice solutions. Business leaders can promote dialogue and foster inclusive, open environments where we co-create climate narratives that resonate across party lines.
  • Invest in our democracy. It is imperative that companies publicly support and fund fair elections. For example, by making it easier for employees to vote, supporting bills to end voter discrimination and suppression, and withdrawing support from lawmakers who run anti-democratic campaigns. After the insurrection Jan. 6, 2021, hundreds of companies pledged to stop funding the 147 members of Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 Election. It’s time to hold those companies accountable and encourage others to follow suit.
  • Advocate for political, financial and media reform. Companies advertising on social media wield influence, including over business models, and can apply pressure to adjust algorithms and monitor content. The business community can also champion reforms of campaign finance and broadcast and cable TV news.
  • Invest in new partnerships and solutions. Many organizations bridging divides and building social cohesion — including through a climate lens — could benefit from our support. We should also invest in research and solutions generated in university centers, like Cambridge and NYU.

The elections left me feeling exhausted, yet energized, apprehensive, yet hopeful — a cycle we have all come to know. But I’m grateful — to my fellow voters, and for the chance to begin tackling polarization and unlocking the climate action we urgently need. 

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