With climate investments back on the table in Washington, DC, corporations are fast approaching a moment of highly public accountability over federal climate policy. Who they support and how much they support, the historic climate investments being re-discussed on Capitol Hill will have a huge impact on their reputation and recruitment over the next decade. Their actions will be closely watched, especially by those under 30.
In 2021, it seemed like even the most climate-friendly companies were doing little to advance the climate. $555 billion in climate investments in a clean energy economy included in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act. A few big players, including Apple, Microsoft and Google, checked in in favor of the bill’s climate provisions – but still allowed their trade association to undermine broader legislation in advertisements and intensive lobbying campaigns. As we all know, the big reconciliation package went off the rails in December when Sen. Joe Manchin, DW. Va., announced his opposition. But his declared intention rebooting the weather provisions (and a few other items) as part of a slimmer bill means congressional action is much more likely this spring or summer.
As discussion grows on a new climate-focused bill, there’s also renewed focus on what companies are doing — and not doing — to advance climate policy. Statements about policy positions are important, but it is far more important that companies vigorously and persistently advocate for bold climate policy.
It would certainly be refreshing to hear corporate sector leaders speak loud and clear in favor of federal climate investments and push the way they mean it – like they really want to win. When it comes to their narrow self-interests, such as tax breaks or fighting regulations, companies spend millions on their lobbying efforts and are not shy about exerting their powerful influence behind the scenes and in public. . They also spend millions to fund their trade associations to get their water on Capitol Hill. We’re used to the spectacle of Big Tech CEOs appearing on Capitol Hill — but it’s usually in their own defense, not the public interest.
When it comes to their narrow self-interests, such as tax breaks or fighting regulations, companies spend millions on their lobbying efforts and are not shy about exerting their powerful influence behind the scenes and in public. .
In this context, companies that exert their influence in the name of climate policy have the opportunity to look (and be!) the good guys – and to actually help bring these important investments across the finish line to DC The reputation gain for taking a pro – climate – and the risk of not doing so – has skyrocketed as more younger, sought-after members of Gen Z and X have embraced the climate as the cause of their life. And they want to see that cause reflected in the companies they buy from – and work for.
Maya Penn, a remarkable young activist and entrepreneur I spoke with recently, says it bluntly: “There’s been this pressure that has built up because as Gen Z, we’re the last generation that can turn the tide…Gen Z wants to work for companies that have a positive impact.”
To be fair, many companies are speaking out. Companies have weighed in to help pass serious climate policy in a number of states. (See, for example, VCEA in Virginia, requiring 100% clean energy on the grid by 2050, and CEJA in Illinois, requiring 100% carbon-free energy by 2030, with many equity provisions.) These successes show what is possible when businesses step up. But very few companies are speaking out forcefully and repeatedly, in a way that could actually counter the roar of opposition coming from within the fossil fuel sector – and from major cross-industry trade associations (including the United States Chamber of Commerce). (Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s are quite vocal; Aspen Snowmass is too. We need big climate-friendly companies to join them with much more intensive advocacy.) While opponents spend millions on advertising and lobbying to thwart climate policy on Capitol Hill (and state capitols), climate-friendly businesses tweet and sign letters. They play, but they don’t play to win.
It’s no secret that in a hot labor market, companies are struggling to recruit young employees and face a huge challenge with retention. Young creative workers they need to be competitive are waiting for them to take action about the impending climate crisis. They really don’t understand how anyone – including the corporate sector – could be left on the sidelines given the huge shadow this casts on their future.
When I started working on climate at Google in 2006, companies got a little involved in policy debates, but the main focus of corporate climate action was each company’s footprint. This is still important – each company should report and reduce its own scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions – but if we are to decarbonize our economy at the speed and scale required, it is far more important for each company that climate care to use their influence to help adopt fair and bold climate policy, wherever they operate. (This is what InfluenceMap calls their Impact “scope 4”.)
Even if companies somehow decide to turn a blind eye to the next generation – it’s never a wise business strategy – maybe their simple self-interest will spur them to act in the end. The destructive and unpredictable weather conditions cost $750 billion in the last five years alone. Climate change will eventually disrupt the supply chain even more than a global pandemic. Sector after sector – travel, health care, insurance – will be destabilized as the lives of Americans are relentlessly disrupted by floods, hurricanes, fires and excessive heat.
Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that companies are finally kicking into high gear when it comes to climate policy. Tech companies are would have made an effort to move the influential Business Roundtable to a more favorable position on climate provisions. We need businesses to take a stand for federal climate investments, and do it now – while there’s still time. They can skip the empty rhetoric and empty posturing of Earth Day this month, and give us all some real green signals on climate policy instead.