Two Steps Forward

Inside Bill Weihl’s quest to give employees and job seekers a 'ClimateVoice'

GreenBiz Group

A veteran corporate sustainability executive has launched an initiative to press companies to have a strong and active voice on climate policy in the United States. Your company and its campus recruiters just may be a target.

ClimateVoice, launched this weekend at the ClimateCAP conference in Charlottesville, Virginia, is the brainchild of Bill Weihl, who led Facebook’s sustainability team until leaving the company in 2018. Prior to that, he served as Google’s "energy czar" during the early days of that company’s ambitious clean-energy push.

Weihl’s new initiative is aimed at activating college students and rank-and-file employees to persuade their current or would-be employers to take a public stand on federal, state and local initiatives that address the climate crisis. It borrows a page from the LGBTQ movement, in which students and employees pressed companies to boycott states with laws that discriminated against lesbian, gay, trans and other individuals based on their sexual preferences.

(I’ve known Weihl for about 15 years, and I have brainstormed some of the ideas behind ClimateVoice with him over the past two years. I recently agreed to serve as an adviser to ClimateVoice.)

The LGBTQ movement gave Weihl — a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a 2009 Time magazine "Hero of the Environment" — a firsthand view of the potential for ClimateVoice. Facebook was among companies pressing states to change or repeal discriminatory anti-gay laws. "There was a fear that if companies didn’t speak up that they would be painted by college campuses as on the wrong side and that would make it hard to hire," he told me recently. Pressure by Facebook and other companies led North Carolina to rescind its controversial "bathroom bill" in 2017.

Today, Weihl’s target is climate policy: clean energy; green jobs; electrified transportation; and other measures intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a post-fossil-fuel economy. 

One initial target is the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates 100 percent renewable power on that state's grid by 2050 and includes provisions on green jobs, low-income ratepayers and energy facility siting. The bill is working its way through the legislative process.

"It’s not perfect," Weihl noted. "Last time I checked, no policy, especially legislation, is perfect." He calls the Virginia legislation "one of many cases in climate where the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Lots of people have problems with a given policy, and so none of them are willing to really stand up and support it. And the other side just has to stand over there and say 'No.' So, we need to get more companies to speak up on bills like that."

Behind the Virginia bill are others. In Illinois, for example, ClimateVoice is calling on workers and companies to back the state’s pending Clean Energy Jobs Act. ClimateVoice also plans to focus on the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a regional effort aimed at reducing transportation emissions in 13 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

Cheaper than coal

One big challenge, Weihl said, is that despite a long list of bold corporate commitments on energy and climate issues, emissions are still rising. "The question is not whether companies are doing good things," he said. "The question is what’s needed to actually address this problem."

Earlier in his career, Weihl demonstrated the role of leadership companies in growing markets for renewable energy.

At Google in 2007, Weihl launched an initiative called RE< C — for "renewable energy less than coal." At the time, coal was by far the least expensive way to produce electricity, as well as the most polluting. "Rather than just talking about grid parity, we wanted to make wind and solar power cheaper than the cheapest dirty energy, and without subsidies and penalties. The underlying premise there was if you did that, economics would take over."

Those efforts at Google led Weihl to become a champion for corporate renewable energy procurement. A decade later, he would play a pivotal role in founding the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a membership association of clean energy buyers, energy providers and service providers.

Thinking back to those early days, Weihl said, "Ten years ago, without those subsidies, very few companies or anyone else would have purchased solar. So those mattered. ... Markets can do a lot."

Taking the pledge

But markets have limits. ClimateVoice’s premise is that a pressure campaign by employees and college students could spur policies that further accelerate renewable energy markets, set a meaningful carbon price, support the electrification of buildings and vehicles, adopt climate-friendly agricultural practices and enact other measures seen as key to climate progress. And do so in the relatively short amount of time scientists say we have to head off the worst impacts of a changing climate.

Weihl and his team of 20 volunteers have the wind at their backs. Climate activism is growing inside companies. Amazon employees who protested against the company’s business offerings that support the oil and gas industry claimed some credit for CEO Jeff Bezos’ announcement last week that he would donate $10 billion of his personal fortune towards efforts to thwart climate change. (Those employees still aren’t happy with Bezos and Amazon, however.) In September, Amazon employees joined with their counterparts at Google and Microsoft in walking off the job to participate in a global climate strike.

It’s not just big tech. According to a 2017 survey from Povvado, just 35 percent of employees feel their CEO has "his or her finger on the pulse of employee attitudes towards important societal issues." And 57 percent feel that "Corporate America needs to play a more active role in addressing important societal issues." Given the rising apprehension over the climate crisis during the intervening years since that survey, I’d be surprised if employee concern hasn’t grown.

Weihl hopes that ClimateVoice can build on those sentiments to create demonstrable change. "Our goal is to recruit and empower many thousands of students to make clear to companies that they care about climate and that they want their eventual employer to be all in on climate."

To build that constituency, ClimateVoice will ask students and employees to sign a pledge committing to "prioritize," "vocalize" and "mobilize" on climate action. That's one reason Weihl launched his initiative public at the second ClimateCAP summit, an event convened by 18 universities, including Duke, Harvard and the University of Virginia, focused on building knowledge of climate change issues among MBA students. 

As Weihl explained, the pledge says, in effect, "I’m all in on climate. I want my employer to be all in on climate. I pledge to use my voice to push employers to be all in on climate. And that means I’m going to speak up. I’m going to use my voice. That could be at job interviews, at job fairs, signing petitions, maybe taking part in demonstrations, talking to the media and choosing where to work based in part on whether that company or organization is similarly all in on climate."

Over the coming months, ClimateVoice plans to connect with students and activists at other climate-related events across the United States, starting Feb. 28 with the Social Impact Summit at the University of Chicago and April 9 at the GoGreen conference in Seattle.

For now, ClimateVoice is being run by an all-volunteer army, including many in the tech sector from which Weihl came. He cited "students in machine learning, undergraduates in computer science, MBA students, communications professionals and people who have run businesses around voice processing." ClimateVoice has yet to incorporate as a nonprofit and has raised no money, although Weihl said it intends to do so this spring.

Could all this work? It remains to be seen, of course, but the moment is ripe. "I believe a lot of us involved in ClimateVoice believe that when companies realize that they might have a problem hiring young people if they’re not on the right side of this issue, that’s going to cause them to step up."

I asked Weihl how he’ll know that ClimateVoice is having its desired effect. "We know who the companies are who are really speaking up," he responded. "We know who the ones are who are beginning to speak up more. And we know who the vast majority of companies are who are almost always on the sidelines. If we start to see real movement there, that would be a sign of success."

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