In releasing its dire new report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it starkly clear that, in the words of United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: “Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.” And, in case anyone in the corporate community still doesn’t realize it, the report states that this includes public policy — and that companies have a key role in determining what policies are enacted: “Policy support is influenced by actors in civil society, including businesses…”
But to date the corporate sector’s engagement with climate policy isn’t everything or everywhere. As the planet’s climate clock ticks toward escalating disasters, even for those companies that claim to be climate champions, it’s still mostly nowhere.
Let’s start with the corporate reaction to this report. Did the corporate sector hear this call to arms and spring into action? Guess again.
Among the sustainability leads at the avowedly pro-climate top five tech firms, only Melanie Nakagawa, new chief sustainability officer at Microsoft, spoke out about the IPCC report, tweeting that “from policy to investment in innovations, we all have a role to play on the road to net zero.” And from the others — Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Apple and Meta? Even after I made a public call for them to meet the moment, a worried world heard crickets from these supposed friends of the environment.
Of course, it takes more than statements of concern to propel climate policy forward, especially with powerful forces including the U.S. Chamber still promoting Big Oil’s agenda.
As Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and I recently wrote: “The corporate sector needs bold climate policy to meet its own sustainability and long-term financial goals. For example, Microsoft is an ambitious sustainability leader and climate policy advocate. Given its strong pro-climate stance, why on earth is it still paying presumably expensive dues to the Chamber — and even serving on its board of directors?”
That’s not being “everything, everywhere” for climate. It’s showing up sometimes — as Microsoft importantly and laudably did in backing the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), while still allowing the Chamber to oppose the IRA and other climate bills and remaining a member.
This is a pivotal time for public policy, to build on the momentum toward a clean energy economy set in motion by the IRA. There’s a full-court implementation effort underway, and there are major fights over environmental policy. (See the recent setback with the Willow Project, yet another win for Big Oil that has galvanized online activism.) There’s a robust federal and state policy agenda that includes clean buildings, clean transportation and transforming our power grid.
Policy support is influenced by actors in civil society, including businesses…
If you want to see an example of the urgency, boldness and speed we need now on public policy, check out Minnesota. Within weeks of convening this year, the state legislature passed (and the governor signed) legislation mandating a move to 100 percent clean energy by 2040 — with backing from the business community.
What can companies do? They can push for similar legislation in every state where they do business. They can back up their climate pledges with real muscle, whether it’s speaking up against further fossil fuel extraction, backing rapid implementation of the IRA or pushing on the bold new frontiers of state policy.
Why should companies engage forcefully to help pass bold climate policy — other than it being the right thing to do?
First, companies with serious net-zero targets will find it hard to meet them without public policy. Second, many companies are already engaged with climate policy, but on the side of obstruction and delay, through their big trade associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers. They support the obstruction of those organizations with their names, their reputations and their membership dues — even while saying they support climate policy.
This misalignment is bad for our collective future, and it also puts companies’ reputations at risk. Companies can correct that misalignment by insisting that their trade associations represent them, not just their fossil-fuel company members, on climate policy; by canceling their memberships if the trade associations continue their pattern of obstruction; and by leading business efforts to support climate policy.
This isn’t to say that corporate innovation and sustainability efforts aren’t important. They are. For example, it’s great that a new generation of iPhones are designed to charge when the grid is at its cleanest, and that companies are purchasing many gigawatts of clean energy every year.
But as the IPCC report makes abundantly clear, we need to be buying electric cars and installing heat pumps and scaling solar and pushing hard on public policy at the local, state and federal levels. This really is an “everyone, everything, everywhere, all at once” moment for climate change.