It’s time for companies to make the leap from action to advocacy

ShutterstockRose Makin
The climate change strike Sept. 20 in Sydney.

I’ve spent the 18 months since I left Facebook thinking about (and talking with people about) how we could accelerate climate action. Everyone agrees we need innovation: How else will we decarbonize cement, air travel, ocean freight, steel manufacturing and other hard-to-decarbonize sectors? And everyone agrees we need finance to do its part: There’s a lot of money to be spent (a.k.a. invested) and money to be made.

But virtually everyone also agrees that innovation and finance alone won’t address the climate crisis — at least, not anywhere near fast enough. Nor will the kind of voluntary action that leading companies have taken in the last decade such as buying clean energy, investing in energy efficiency or investing in clean vehicles for their fleets. All of this is vital, but it’s clearly not enough to drive decarbonization at the speed and scale we need.

The IPCC has given us pretty clear guidance for what needs to happen: To have a decent chance of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we need to decarbonize 45 percent (below 2010 levels) by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. This is daunting, to say the least.

So we need to act — quickly, and at scale. I want to focus here on what we need companies to do to help society decarbonize at a rate aligned with the science. 

There are two key points. First, to have a hope of hitting the 2030 target, we need policies — market rules — that guide the economy onto a rapid decarbonization pathway. More on what those policies should be in a moment. Second, to get meaningful policies enacted quickly enough in enough places, we need to mobilize political power and influence in their favor. An enormous amount of influence is mobilized on the other side already. 

This is where the opportunity lies for companies: It’s time for companies to make the leap from action to advocacy. Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of companies have been acting on climate, decarbonizing their own operations and even their supply chains. We need them to step up and advocate for policies that will scale those same solutions to the economy as a whole.

What does this mean? It’s time for companies to move from focusing on science-based targets for their own operations to supporting science-based policies in every region where they operate. And ideally in every region from which they source materials and products.

I recognize that this is a big leap, and that there are lots of reasons why companies choose to stay silent. Yes, there are risks if companies speak out on policy. But those risks can be mitigated, especially if companies band together. Let’s focus more on how to mitigate the risks, do what needs to be done — and work together to accelerate progress.

Note that over 3,000 businesses have joined We Are Still In, expressing their support for the Paris Agreement, and pledging to do their part to help ensure that the United States meets its targets under Paris. But the Paris Agreement is non-binding. We need binding policies at the city, county, state and national levels to ensure we make progress at the speed and scale required.

And when those policies are debated — in legislatures, before regulatory agencies, in courtrooms or at the ballot box — most companies in favor of climate action stay silent most of the time.

Climate strike 2017
ShutterstockRena Schild
Protesters at the People’s Climate March highlight the need to take action on climate change April 29, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

A few organizations have been more visible. To name a few: In the tech industry, Adobe and Salesforce have been increasingly active on climate policy the last few years. In other sectors, Patagonia and Dignity Health have been outspoken. Many other companies have spoken up occasionally but have been silent far too often. To counter the enormous influence exerted against climate action, we need all companies that care about a sustainable future to step up and use their influence in its favor.

What would a science-based policy agenda look like for a company? A few principles to keep in mind:

  1. It needs to be aligned with the latest science. One study claiming that it will achieve the needed decarbonization rates is not enough, especially if said study is funded by interest groups wedded to one outcome or one approach.
  2. It should be rooted in climate justice. We can’t continue to perpetuate the environmental and economic injustices caused by decades of dirty energy development.
  3. It needs to be politically possible. Support for a policy that fits your ideological leanings, but can’t be enacted, isn’t helpful in driving progress.
  4. It needs to drive transformational change across the economy, not just incremental progress. That’s what’s needed if we want to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
  5. It needs to be reasonably certain to hit the IPCC targets, especially the 2030 goal of 45 percent decarbonization.

One kind of policy we clearly need is something that puts a price on GHG emissions, either a carbon tax or a "fee and dividend" or a cap-and-trade system. But that’s not the only policy we need. 

A politically feasible price on carbon will tip the scales in the electricity sector enough to accelerate change there. But it’s unlikely to drive the transformation we need in transportation and buildings. And we don’t have a decade to experiment and see if it has the desired effect.

In transportation and buildings, we need the kinds of policies that brought solar and wind to where we are today, where they are cheaper than the alternatives: tax credits; mandates for clean solutions; building codes; etc. In the hard-to-decarbonize sectors, we need R&D, support for early-stage pilots and other policies to drive innovation. The same is true for negative-emissions technologies.

So here’s my call to action to companies: go "all-in" on climate, not just in your operations, your supply chain and your products, but in your advocacy. Stop supporting climate deniers — whether politicians, think tanks or trade associations — and start using your influence to help pass policies that will drive the transformations we need. In other words, adopt a science-based climate policy strategy. The principles above are a good starting point.

Here are two specific policies that are a good place to start advocating:

  1. The Clean Energy Jobs Act in Illinois, which decarbonizes the power sector by 2030, and mandates 100 percent clean energy in the state by 2050. Corporate support could make a real difference in getting this bill enacted into law.
  2. The Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a regional collaboration of 12 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, plus the District of Columbia, aimed at reducing emissions from the transportation sector across the entire region. Corporate engagement in the development of the multi-state framework and in the subsequent policy decisions in each state will lead to better policies and help drive much faster progress on transportation emissions.

If you work for a company with a presence in Illinois or any of the TCI states or Washington, D.C., now is the time to get your company to step up and lead, and use its influence to get these policies enacted. 

One final thought, in case you’re wondering why your company should make this leap. I’ve argued above that it’s what we collectively need companies to do. 

Given the political dynamic on climate change, silence is no longer neutrality; it’s complicity with those who want to maintain the status quo. If doing what’s needed isn’t enough motivation, you can expect environmental NGOs to start demanding it. In fact, a number of them just released a letter urging companies to step up as advocates for climate policy. Also, you should consider the growth in youth activism on climate in the last year, and ask whether you want young people to view your company as complicit with the fossil fuel industry in stopping the kinds of policies we need.

If you’ll be at VERGE 19, I’ll be moderating a panel on The Purpose of Corporations, where we’ll be talking about how the role of companies is evolving today. Come join us for a fun and thought-provoking discussion.

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