If not now, then when?
This is the defining moment when corporate America needs to stand up and publicly show leadership on confronting the biggest threat to our prosperity and social cohesion -- climate change.
Like a cornered wild animal, the fossil fuel industry and its supporters are recognizing the tide of history is beginning to turn against them, and they are going to act with increasing viciousness, supported by lobbying dollars, to protect their wealth and status.
President Barack Obama said as much when he predicted earlier this week that “when you start seeing massive lobbying efforts backed by fossil fuel interests or conservative think tanks or the Koch brothers, pushing for new laws to roll back renewable energy standards or prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding, that’s a problem.”
To have any hope of countering these forces, progressive politicians need Brand America to put their collective head above the parapet and make it clear to the world that countering global warming is not just a moral imperative but makes good business sense. September offers the perfect opportunity for this, as New York hosts Climate Week, which brings together leaders from across society committed to a low-carbon economy.
Obama needs all the support he can muster. It is not by accident that he highlighted Walmart, Google, Apple and Costco for investing in renewable energy, saying, “For decades, we’ve been told that it doesn’t make economic sense to switch to renewable energy. Today, that’s no longer true.”
But the truth is that while major corporations are starting to address sustainability issues within their own operations, they are in most cases still too afraid to be seen as supporters of specific climate-related policy changes.
Now is the time to call out the Republican climate deniers and make it clear that, far from being supporters of business, the party is at risk of being seen as the enemy of business.
I spoke with Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a nonprofit focused on sustainable business and climate action, who says companies are slowly becoming bolder, recognizing that global warming offers both a financial risk and an opportunity.
Even two years ago, she said it would have been difficult to conceive that 365 companies would come out in support of the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean power plan.
She singles out Citigroup, “not exactly bleeding heart liberals,” which earlier this year announced a $100 billion funding commitment for renewables, not just because there was money-making potential but because it was also the right thing to do.
In another encouraging sign, my colleague Shane Ferro this week highlighted business support for Californian legislation calling for tough emissions reductions. Beyond the usual suspects like Patagonia, the North Face and Ben and Jerry's, were companies less well known for climate advocacy such as Gap, Mars Inc, eBay, Los Angeles-based homebuilding company KB Home and Dignity Health, California's largest not-for-profit hospital chain.
But while this growing movement is welcome, Lubber acknowledges this has not yet reached a critical mass and that too few CEOs are still prepared to speak out.
She says most business leaders are wary of being seen to enter the political fray and generally use their interventions “judiciously,” often focusing on issues that are relevant to their particular business interests. Their lobbyists are also wary of calling in political favours that do not directly affect the company’s business interests. In most cases, saving the world does not figure on their list of priorities.
So what does Lubber want the corporate sector to do? “We need to see those companies committing to 100 percent renewables, setting goals to reduce their carbon footprint and expecting that from their supply chains. They need to pull their resources out of business associations lobbying against climate policies and stand up publicly at state and federal levels and fight for changes on climate policy as hard as the fossil fuel companies are opposing them.”
“Companies need to have a unified voice, just like the fossil fuel companies, and put resources into supporting politicians who are prepared to act boldly,” she added
The reason progressive companies are our only hope is that, Lubber says, there's little chance of the fossil fuel companies voluntarily transitioning away from oil, coal and gas.
“When I tell them they have got to pivot out of fossil fuels, many of them look at me as though I am asking them to sell women's underwear, rather than other fuel sources,” she said.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, showed courage at last year’s Climate Week by sticking his neck out and stating, “When you realize it and you see the urgency, it is time to act now. Everyone that hasn't been on board, that's OK, but now is the time to get on board."
Many other companies are lining up to make announcements this year that they are stepping up their game. I hope for their sakes and ours that they use the opportunity to follow Cook’s lead and display real leadership, rather than promoting their own pet projects.
Time is short, let’s not waste it.