Actions Speak Louder Than Words: How Business Leaders Can Help Us Get the Climate Policy They Say We Need

There’s much we can learn from the USCAP experience in 2008.

This is The Instigator, a bi-weekly newsletter that focuses on accelerating environmental problem-solving at scale and in ways that make business sense.  Please share the newsletter with friends and provide me feedback.  Thank you.


The Quick Rundown: 

Most business leaders today say they favor strong climate legislation — the kind that works both for the environment and the economy.  But talk, as they say, is cheap.  We need these business leaders to walk their talk. We can learn from the lessons of USCAP’s near success in 2008.  We showed then that business leaders can lobby effectively for climate policy.  But this time around we’ll need a more diverse coalition, stronger policy proposals that will drive innovation and results, and better efforts to build broad political support.

The likelihood of finally getting long overdue and urgently needed climate legislation is rising —  especially now that Joe Biden is up in the polls and armed with an ambitious and comprehensive climate plan.  For the business community, environmental nonprofits, and concerned citizens, this is not only a welcome development; it's a call to action. There are specific things that all of us, especially business leaders, can do to help realize this possibility and shape the contours of landmark climate regulation. To see what I mean, let’s travel back in time.

The Good Old Days (Almost)

It was 2008 and both presidential candidates — Barack Obama and John McCain — had made addressing climate change centerpieces of their campaigns.  Mainstream environmentalists saw their opportunity and joined with Fortune 100 industrial leaders to form a climate policy coalition. It was called USCAP.  

Why did business leaders team up with environmentalists?

CEOs recognized 3 big things: 

  1. Climate policy would inevitably come; it was just a matter of when. 

  2. Command-and-control regulations would be more costly than market-based approaches.

  3. Better to engage and try to shape the policy as a coalition than be on the sidelines or lobbying on your own.

What about environmentalists?  Why did they team up with polluting industrialists? 

Simple. The enviros reasoned it would be easier to pass legislation with the full support and engagement of business leaders. What better way to demonstrate that reducing greenhouse gas emissions made economic sense? 

Okay, so what happened?

I got involved in USCAP when I joined The Nature Conservancy as CEO in mid-2008.  It was exciting but hard work. We weren’t just writing another white paper or making some kind of grand statement on policy. The group of us were trying to reach an actual consensus on detailed regulations. That's not the kind of task you can delegate.  

I was a brand new CEO and enjoyed being on the USCAP team. Our rule was that all of the participating CEOs had to show up in person for every meeting. The meetings were frequent. They were also long and often heated.  

Big-time CEOs from companies like GE, GM, Ford, Dow, PG&E, Dupont, Caterpillar, and Duke Power weren’t used to getting pushback like they did in our meetings. The same was true for environmental CEOs like me. We debated almost everything. Several companies and one NGO dropped out along the way. It felt like the whole coalition could blow up any minute — and several times it almost did — but we kept hanging in there. It was worth it. We were learning a lot from one another and we seemed to be making progress.

Meanwhile, Obama won the election. That added some momentum and optimism to our effort.  

We continued to plug away and . .  . Hooray! Our coalition finally reached a consensus. Next, the CEOs went to Capitol Hill together to aggressively push our detailed proposal. The House dubbed it the Waxman-Markey bill (known formally as “The American Clean Energy and Security Act”). When it passed in June 2009, we were thrilled. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as well in the Senate. 

One brief shining moment.

Three senators championed our proposal: John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham — a Democrat, an Independent, and a Republican. I remember their press conference vividly. It was a great display of bipartisan collaboration. “The green economy is coming,” declared Graham. “We can either follow or lead.”  Kerry and Graham even co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times strongly supporting the legislation.

But then the Republican base went after Graham, accusing him of supporting what they framed as a tax, and his support dissipated. 

Perhaps more importantly, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s then Chief of Staff, had seemed uncommitted from the beginning. He kept challenging us:  “Where’s your political support?” I was naive. I thought that was his job. 

Either way, by the time our proposal was making inroads, so was Obama’s other main initiative — reforming healthcare — and doing so much more rapidly. The administration decided where to place their bets. The whole thing unraveled, and it went down in the history books as a complete failure.  

But I have a different take. 

We came close to achieving landmark climate legislation. That should give us some confidence to try again, not to mention some important lessons we can draw on. But of course, we’ll need to be smarter this time around and do some things differently.

What went wrong last time?  

We didn’t have the right bill, and we didn't garner enough political support.

The environmentalists on the left didn’t like Waxman-Markey. Most of their criticism was directed toward the NGOs for letting their guard down and allowing big business to write a bill that worked too well for them. It wasn’t nearly ambitious enough, they said. That's probably right.

Many on the right didn’t like it either. Critics called our proposal a tax in disguise. Others complained it was overly complex. I remember Senator Bob Corker saying, “I can’t believe you would bring us a Rube Goldberg scheme like this,” referencing the cartoonist known for depicting simple mechanisms in stupidly convoluted ways.  Ouch.

There will be critics on all sides this time around too, which is fine. Critics will see things we miss. We probably should have engaged more with them last time. Also, any broadly supported climate plan will include compromises and tradeoffs that upset purists on both sides. Such criticism will probably mean the coalition is doing something right.

But one lesson from USCAP is very clear: the business community can be an effective champion for environmental policy and, by flexing its muscle, get serious attention on Capitol Hill. 

Here’s How We Do It in 2020

1) Let’s start with what we’ve got. As of right now, things are looking pretty good that Biden will be our next President. (Please don’t be overconfident — go vote and get out the vote). The Biden campaign has put a very strong climate policy framework on the table. Business leaders might not agree with all of the Biden plan, but they don’t have to. It’s the opening gambit and can be treated as such.  

Business leaders should understand those policy ideas to accelerate climate progress have moved far beyond relatively simple plans for a carbon tax or cap and trade program. We can expect much of the climate ambition in a new administration to be expressed in big green infrastructure programs, rigorous clean portfolio standards, efforts to involve growers and others in regenerative agricultural, regulations requiring huge improvements in energy efficiency, and a real — but belated — focus on vulnerable communities.

Business leaders will be making a mistake if they don’t engage on these specific proposals. For example, consider the Business Roundtable’s recent climate statement. After years of silence on climate, it's good news that the Roundtable is finally speaking up. Better late than never. And the statement says some nice and important things (the benefits of market-based approaches, the need to minimize social and economic costs on those least able to bear them, the importance of government-led R&D, etc.)  

But all of this could have been said — indeed, was said — more than 10 years ago. More importantly, the statement stands wholly apart from the actual proposal Biden has now put before us. Further, the Roundtable says nothing about what the group or its members will do to bring about such policies. It’s not too late.

2) Time to step up. How about digging into the Biden plan and other proposals out there and trying to shape the policy agenda in a way that benefits the climate and the economy? How about getting in front of Congress and making sure policymakers know what you think? That would be real climate leadership.

Maybe that's too big of an ask for the entire Roundtable. The group is huge, diverse, and likely includes some climate resistors. Maybe their recent statement is as far as they can get on a consensus basis. But the Roundtable includes some real leaders on corporate climate initiatives. Shouldn’t we ask them now to step up and do more on the policy front?  The leading CEOs could form a coalition of the willing to speak up for the policy they champion.

I’m reminded of a lesson I learned right after President Trump was elected. You’ll remember the moment in time when we thought (alas, mistakenly) that we could talk him out of dropping from the Paris climate accord. Most environmental leaders, myself included, did everything we could to get business CEOs to tell the White House that quitting Paris would be a big mistake — bad not just for the climate, but for the economy too. The CEOs were very responsive and sent letters, signed ads, and issued big proclamations about why the US should stay the course.  

I was really jazzed about it and advocated my heart out. Until two Senators took me aside and said “Mark, it's nice that you and your peers are getting CEOs to speak up about Paris. But you should know that when the same CEOs show up in person on the Hill with their various requests for favors and policy, they never talk about climate change. Until that changes, their statements, letters, and ads won’t matter very much. 

It was a lightbulb moment for me. It’s not enough to get climate policy on the list of business wants. Until it ranks high among business needs and priorities — and CEOs treat it as such — their statements alone won’t mean much on the Hill. 

3) To get anywhere, everyone involved will need to be less self-interested. Back in 2008, companies participated in USCAP in order to guard their interests. The spirit was reflected in the overtold joke, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” This time, any coalition will need to forsake short-term interests for the long-term goal, or it won’t go very far. Is that too much to ask?

This also means businesspeople and left-leaning civil society leaders will need to negotiate with one another in good faith. This is rarely easy, but I remember dialogue along these lines as a real highlight of USCAP.  Some relationships were awkward or contentious at the start but they developed into positive ones. This was essential to ultimately get everyone on the same page. Of course, no one got everything they wanted. 

4) This time, we’ll need a broader coalition than USCAP. Joe Biden seems to get this. Take a look at who’s advising him. You’ll see a diverse group, including representatives of environmental justice orgs, labor, the Sunrise Movement, and moderate members of Congress. Biden’s approach can guide recruitment for the coalition. If CEOs have learned anything in 2020, it must be the need to have a dialogue with broader cross-sections of society.

So What’s Next? 

For the Business Roundtable, member companies or other corporate leaders who seek progress on addressing the climate challenge:  

Recruit a diverse coalition of companies and NGOs (not just environmental ones).  Participants should commit to trying their best to find consensus on a comprehensive climate policy — one that engages the proposal on the table and where no one gets everything they want.  It won't be easy but it's not impossible.

Next, get to Capitol Hill and start lobbying for it the way USCAP members did back in 2008.  We all know that big business is very good at fighting for the policy they want. (Maybe better than we like.)  But this time these resources and capabilities can be put to very good use. 

And in the meantime, when elected officials say things about climate that are contrary to science, business leaders should speak up and set the record straight. 

For readers of The Instigator

Speak up and use your clout.  You’re business leaders, employees, customers,  shareholders, students, and activists. It's clearer every day how much corporate management teams now listen to you. Tell your corporate leaders you want them to fight for the policies they say they support.

Stakeholders have much more clout today than ever before.  This is a very positive development.  Let's take full advantage of it. As an encouraging case study, let's consider Amazon. About one year ago some employees started talking about organizing a walk-out to call attention to what they viewed as the company’s inadequate climate position. Amazon has been announcing strong new climate commitments ever since. Lesson: smart companies listen to their employees.

NGOs will listen to all of you too. You are their supporters, volunteers, and key constituents.  Speak up. Encourage NGOs to join this fray.  

Remember, our politics these days are even more divided than they were in the Obama era.  We can’t count on 2020’s edition of Lindsay Graham (even briefly) showing up. We have real work to do in building and sustaining a strong coalition focused on climate policy.

Think this is pollyannaish?  

Think again. We did this in 2008, and the urgency is much greater today.   

Take a look at the economic impact COVID is wreaking. In hindsight, don’t smart business leaders wish they had publicly supported scientists’ calls to address such risks? Wouldn’t it have been good business to push harder for pandemic preparation? 

Worse, consider the likely climate outcomes ahead. It doesn't take a lot of imagination. Just look at the news: fires, floods, unhealthy air, and heat waves that thwart outside work. And in the not-so-distant future, this will be followed by cities underwater, huge numbers of climate refugees seeking sanctuary, an inability to rely on global supply chains, horrific health outcomes, and a complete loss of confidence in government or big business. 

If all of that comes to pass, we’ll ask ourselves why we let each of our particular interests hinder progress, because any would-be savings from arguing for our parochial concerns will seem minuscule in comparison to the destruction. 

Lastly, remember Rahm Emanuel’s advice from last time

No matter how worthy the cause or how righteous your position, without enough political support, it doesn’t mean a thing.

So let’s start talking — and working — and move as quickly as possible. Like our lives depend on it. Because they do.   

The Index: (links of the week)

  • Here’s a great look at how thinking on climate policy has evolved beyond simply putting a price on carbon.  Business leaders should pay close attention. Smart policy proposals are now focused on “standards, investments, and justice” and more.  Kudos to Matto Mildenberger and Leah C. Stokes! 

  • Why should business leaders push for comprehensive and ambitious climate policy?  Because “business is screwed if we don’t fix climate change” says Harvard Business School Professor Rebecca Henderson in this powerful TED talk from last week's Countdown Global Launch.  (There were many other great speakers on climate at this event worth checking out).  

    • I also recommend Rebecca’s excellent new book — Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire.  Here’s my take on why her book is so important.

  • Need some encouragement that policymakers in Congress can pass complex legislation?  Me too.  We’ve done this before.  It's the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act — likely the most important environmental legislation in the history of the United States.  Here’s a fascinating and thorough look from the Hastings Law Journal on how policymakers made it happen. Let's hope we can regain our mojo on the Hill and work across the aisle to pull this kind of thing off again.

One Last Thing

Even though I’ve devoted the last 16 years of my life to protecting nature — dare I admit it? — I’m not really a huge fan of nature documentaries. I respect them but don't really love them. But I do love — really love —  My Octopus Teacher.  Wow. The film stars Craig Foster as himself as he spends a year freediving daily and getting to know a single wild octopus.  Viewers get to know the octopus very well too. I think it's an extraordinary film — an amazing look at how another species lives.  Please watch this great movie (streaming on Netflix).

Until next time,