It’s nice to see mainstream thinkers on business sustainability finally understanding the importance of corporate voice in the climate fight. Most recently, that came in the form of an article by Victoria Mills of the Environmental Defense Fund. She argues that businesses such as GM, which make electric cars and work on carbon reductions, aren’t all that green if they simultaneously support Trump rollbacks of auto efficiency standards, as they now do.
It’s about time the NGO and corporate world recognizes that, as we teeter on the precipice of climate disaster, typical corporate carbon footprint reduction plans are not "climate solutions" in any meaningful sense. This is simply because individual actions against a global system problem don’t scale.
What scales is voice, political pressure, super PACs and the elite cues businesses can offer customers and citizens. The winning game is to empower progressive lawmakers, replace bad ones, foster social movements and push aggressive, national climate policies.
While change seems to be in the air, a discouraging number of businesses (actually, most of them) equate climate action with carbon footprint reduction, but not power-wielding. Even the most successful businesses, including Microsoft, Facebook and Google, all of which have set aggressive internal carbon targets, "have not translated their climate-positive messaging into strategic, consistent policy engagement," according to Influence Map.
On a planet hurtling past 3 degrees C warming and beyond, you don’t have specific, personal obligations on carbon reduction. You instead have an obligation to change the system.
And despite the obvious need for this to change, NGOs still mostly endorse that view — or, worse, tolerate and even bless the hypocrisy of a GM. That automaker, for example, proudly remains a member of Ceres, one of the leading business coalitions attempting to address the climate crisis. In Ceres’ defense, Ford is also a member, and Ceres was able to move Ford away from the same damaging positions as a result of their relationship.
That’s fantastic. But it took years, and in the interim, climate policy catastrophe ensued. Meanwhile, today, new and existing Ceres members must recognize they are in bed with GM, which will assiduously work to undo Ceres own goals.
EDF’s Mills, meanwhile, lauds a recent article by Eric Rosten outlining a path to meaningful corporate action on climate. Rosten does, at the end, mention the need for advocacy. But that’s after prioritizing one of the oldest canards in corporate climate action, the notion of "science-based targets." In short, this is the idea that a business can calculate some scientifically determinable target that quantifies its appropriate share of carbon reduction to help stabilize the climate.
But in the world as it is, that’s madness, like asking what portion of the ocean you ought to drink to save fellow shipwreck victims. On a planet hurtling past 3 degrees Celsius warming and beyond, you don’t have specific, personal obligations on carbon reduction. You instead have an obligation to change the system.
Another example of disappointing de-emphasis of power wielding, advocacy and political action is B Corp, the very good and well-intentioned voluntary certification system administered by the nonprofit B Lab. But B Corp, too, focuses on individual business operations, and while there are points for advocacy in the certification, the conversations I’ve witnessed among B circles is all about the business itself, not its influence on the world at large.
Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are 417 parts per million. And even conservative estimate of planetary warming far exceed targets set in the Paris Agreement. It seems Gandalf the Wizard was right when he said to Bilbo: "You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m quite fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow in a wide world after all."
His words apply equally well to corporations as to Hobbits. On climate, it’s not about you or your business, it’s about the power you can wield.