The Climate Crisis Won’t Get Fixed Unless Big Companies Step Up

It’s up to companies and their employees to stop paying lip service to the environment and get serious about the climate crisis

Photo: Artur Debat/Getty Images

Thirty years ago, McDonald’s and the Environmental Defense Fund embarked on what they called “a groundbreaking collaboration to change the way environmental progress” is achieved. They created a template for business-friendly green groups to work with global corporations. EDF helped Walmart develop its landmark sustainability program. WWF helped Coca-Cola protect freshwater. The Nature Conservancy and Dow Chemical came up with tools to help companies invest in nature.

Such partnerships are fine, but they don’t go nearly far enough, particularly when it comes to climate change. At best, they generate modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. At worst, they deflect attention from a bigger problem: Most big U.S. companies have failed to do the most important thing they can for the planet, to use their political power to push for smart climate policy.

A new coalition of 10 environmental groups has set out to change that. They were joined just days ago by a new nonprofit called ClimateVoice, the brainchild of Bill Weihl, the former sustainability czar at Google and Facebook.

“Silence is no longer an option,” Weihl says. “America’s corporate sector has the power to…put us on a path of steep carbon reductions,” and companies need to use their political clout for good.

Victoria Mills, a managing director at Environmental Defense Fund, which is part of the coalition, adds: “We need to get all of corporate America off the couch when it comes to climate policy.” The coalition also includes WWF, the World Resources Institute, BSR (formerly Business for Social Responsibility), and CDP (the Carbon Disclosure Project).

Most big U.S. companies have failed to do the most important thing they can for the planet, to use their political power to push for smart climate policy.

They’re right, of course. No matter how many companies pledge to go “carbon zero” by some distant date, establish science-based greenhouse gas reduction targets, buy renewable energy, or sign up for membership in the alphabet soup of climate initiatives and organizations, the worst impacts of climate change won’t be averted unless big business gets behind climate action in the political arena.

“We are at our wit’s end,” laments Anne Kelly, vice president of government relations at Ceres, who has toiled for years, with limited success, to build a coalition of businesses to advocate for meaningful climate policy.

Recently, the coalition of environmental nonprofits published a call for climate policy leadership, called the AAA framework, by which they intend to hold companies accountable. They are asking companies to do three things: to advocate for policies consistent with achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, to align their trade association’s climate policy with that goal, and to allocate their advocacy spending to advance climate policies, not obstruct them.

Why big companies aren’t fighting climate change

A handful of big companies — including Unilever, Levi Strauss, Mars, and Ikea — have stepped up, lobbying Congress and their own trade associations. They are the exceptions. As U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and advocate for climate action, recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “Taken as a whole, corporate America is doing more political harm than good in Congress.”

It’s easy to find companies whose actions do not align with their sustainability rhetoric. Environmentalists are angry at General Motors and Toyota, for example, because, unlike Ford and Honda, they aligned themselves with the Trump administration in opposing the state of California’s authority to set tough rules to reduce auto emissions. “Your companies are attacking crucial clean cars standards that are helping address climate change,” leaders of environmental nonprofits wrote.

AT&T, Amazon, and Google joined oil and petrochemical companies to sponsor last year’s 35th-anniversary dinner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that opposes the “Paris Climate Agreement, Kyoto Protocol, cap-and-trade legislation, and Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gas emissions,” as well as “all government mandates and subsidies for conventional and alternative energy technologies.” CEI’s largest program, Energy and Environment, is led by Myron Ebell, a climate skeptic who led President Trump’s environmental transition team.

Google says that sponsorship or collaboration with a third-party organization “doesn’t mean that we endorse the organizations’ entire agenda, its events, or advocacy positions nor the views of its leaders or members.”

That doesn’t satisfy critics. Companies that support trade associations or think tanks that oppose climate action need to publicly distance themselves from those groups, or leave them, says Marty Spitzer, who leads the climate and renewable energy work at WWF.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, powerful trade associations that have downplayed climate risks and lobbied against climate regulation, have become high-profile targets of the green groups. Yet many companies that profess to take climate change seriously remain members of the chamber and NAM.

The “rank ’em and spank ‘em” approach

How, then, can companies be persuaded or pressured to step up on climate policy? It will require, first, transparency about corporate lobbying, advocacy, and association memberships and, second, pressure from activists, employees, or investors, or all three. (Consumers, in case you’re wondering, are mostly useless when it comes to influencing corporate behavior.)

Promoting transparency about corporate climate policy is the entire purpose of InfluenceMap, a London-based nonprofit launched in 2015. It collects and analyzes data on lobbying, communications, and spending, and assigns global companies and trade associations grades ranging from an A+ to an F.

InfluenceMap’s data-based approach is credible, which is, of course, crucial. “You need detailed analysis,” says Dylan Tanner, the group’s co-founder and executive director. “You can’t rely on anecdotes.”

Microsoft, Facebook, and Google have not translated their climate-positive messaging into strategic, consistent policy engagement.

Last fall, InfluenceMap published a detailed report on 50 of the most influential companies on global climate policy. Negative influencers included, not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry, led by ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell, and the automakers, led by Fiat Chrysler, Daimler, and BMW. Apple and Tesla were among the few U.S. companies to earn positive scores.

Most companies, though, were said to be disengaged from debates about climate policy at the federal, state, and global level. Microsoft, Facebook, and Google “have not translated their climate-positive messaging into strategic, consistent policy engagement,” the report says. Tanner adds: “The silence makes them complicit.” Since the report was published, Microsoft put forth a bold commitment to go carbon-negative by 2030 that includes a promise to “support new public policy initiatives to accelerate carbon reduction and removal opportunities.”

Once InfluenceMap points to the leaders and laggards — a time-honored tactic of nonprofits sometimes described as “rank ’em and spank ‘em,” — others will need to try to hold them accountable. Institutional investors, led by U.S. and European pension funds, have a demonstrated interest, Tanner says. They can sell shares in companies that are laggards or, more likely, approach them as large shareholders and ask them to more aggressively support climate action.

Nonprofits like WWF will ask such corporate partners as Coca-Cola, Target, and Procter & Gamble to play a larger role in climate policy, and BSR will reach out to key members.: “I think we’re going to have to make some of our best friends and allies a little more uncomfortable,” says BSR’s Eric Olson. WWF’s Marty Spitzer says: “I think we are going to see a cultural shift in the expectations around climate leadership.”

WRI is also playing an inside game, talking quietly with members of the U.S. Chamber who are unhappy about the chamber’s longtime opposition to any regulation of greenhouse gases. Last fall, the chamber formed a new task force on climate policy, and opened it to all members. Historically, fossil fuel companies shaped the chamber’s climate stance. “It’s an encouraging start,” says Kevin Moss, global director of WRI’s business center.

Sparking change from the inside

Weihl and his new organization, ClimateVoice, could also prove key. First as Google’s green energy czar, then as Facebook’s sustainability leader and a board member of the Sierra Club, Weihl has become a leading voice in the corporate sustainability world. He now wants to build an army of students and employees to spur companies to become activists.

Employee groups at Amazon and Google formed to pressure their employers to become more of a force for good on climate, immigration, sexual harassment, and other issues.

Increasingly, Weihl says, companies that want to attract and engage talented people will be motivated to step up on climate issues. “We were inspired by the way companies engaged in the policy battles over LGBT rights,” he says. He’s watched as employee groups at Amazon and Google formed to pressure their employers to become more of a force for good on climate, immigration, sexual harassment, and other issues.

To start, ClimateVoice is asking supporters to sign a pledge of support, urging companies to go “#AllinOnClimate,” in both business practices and policy advocacy. Its initial campaigns will focus on companies that are in a position to influence state clean-energy legislation in Virginia and Illinois, as well as a 12-state initiative to reduce emissions from transportation.

Change won’t come easily. Back in 2009, Apple and several utility companies left the U.S. Chamber over climate policy, to no apparent effect. Most big companies failed to back President Obama’s clean power plan to curb coal use, and they stayed silent when President Trump appointed a climate skeptic, Scott Pruitt, to the EPA. Inside companies, corporate sustainability teams don’t interact much with government relations people who typically focus on issues with direct and immediate impacts on their business, like taxes and trade.

Then again, without strong policy, climate change will have a direct and immediate, costly, and worrisome impact on their businesses — as well as on the rest of us.

Reporting on philanthropy, psychedelics, animal welfare, global poverty, etc. Ex-Fortune. Baseball fan. Runner. Seen in Gen, Marker, Elemental, OneZero.

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