OP-ED: The world needs businesses to speak out on climate. Workers can lead the charge
When it comes to climate change, it’s easy to see why many people struggle to figure out what they can do. Changing habits is important but seems insufficient — and changing big systems often seems impossible. But if you work for, or are considering working for, an influential company, you are in an incredibly powerful position to affect our course on climate.
To understand why, it helps to understand what corporations are — and aren’t — doing about climate change. Companies are buying renewable energy, electrifying vehicle fleets and even committing to drawing down past emissions. Yet businesses aren’t going all-in on climate. Many companies are moving too slowly in reducing their emissions — or marketing products that increase emissions. Most important, even pro-climate companies rarely advocate strongly for public policy.
Avoiding dangerous climate change will require reducing global emissions 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 (with “negative emissions” thereafter). To decarbonize so fast, in a way that’s equitable for frontline communities and transitioning industries, we need policies that define market rules. To enact those policies, we need businesses to understand that climate silence is not neutrality, but complicity. While customers and investors can convey this message, I believe workers can drive change fastest.
I’ve come to this perspective through my experiences working in corporate sustainability. As Google’s “green energy czar” and Facebook’s director of sustainability, I spent 15 years moving two of the world’s largest companies toward 100% clean energy. I’m proud of my work and the work of my colleagues. But emissions are rising when they should be rapidly falling. Businesses must do more — and they’ve got an opportunity to go all-in on climate right in Illinois, where the state legislature is considering the nation-leading Clean Energy Jobs Act.
Consider an example from my state, California. In 2015, the Legislature considered a bill, S.B. 350, which would have mandated a 50% reduction in statewide gasoline use. Big Oil vigorously opposed the provision while other companies, many known as climate leaders, mostly stayed home. The resulting defeat of SB 350’s gas provision affected the planet’s trajectory — and the health of Californians — far more profoundly than any corporate sustainability program.
Employees and students could have changed the outcome on S.B. 350, and they can change the game going forward. Businesses are competing fiercely for talent, giving workers leverage to ask for change. And polls show that younger workers want aggressive climate action. Recent climate walkouts at Amazon and Google were the leading edge of a coming wave.
One analogy for the shift we need comes from the LGBTQ rights movement. A decade ago, companies proudly said, “We don’t discriminate.” Today, because of pressure from employees and customers, many businesses say, “We don’t stand for discrimination. We advocate for equality.” Today, on climate, companies proudly say, “We don’t pollute.” We need them to say, “We don’t stand for pollution. We advocate for a clean economy.”
To drive change, a group of us — students, workers, sustainability professionals and activists — recently launched an initiative called ClimateVoice. Most urgently, we’ll be asking businesses to support critical state and regional climate bills, including the Clean Energy Jobs Act in Illinois.
Corporate sustainability is no longer enough. We need aggressive, equitable, societywide decarbonization. Companies have influence, and we can and must demand that the businesses we buy from, invest in, welcome into our communities and, most importantly, work for, raise their voices on behalf of our future.
— Bill Weihl is a former sustainability executive at Google and Facebook and founder of ClimateVoice, a nonprofit advocacy group.