Veteran corporate sustainability executive Bill Weihl spent over a decade in Silicon Valley’s top companies, but before landing a job at Google as its green energy czar, he taught computer science at MIT. His passion for numbers and facing hard-to-swallow truths on the sustainability front led to his new endeavor, ClimateVoice. We recently video chatted with him to discuss how companies can mobilize to support the system change needed to address the climate crisis.
Bill: The conclusion that I’ve come to over the last four or five years is that the world needs more than what companies are doing on climate. Let me be clear: The actions companies have been taking are vital, behavior change is vital, innovation is vital, and investment is vital. But emissions are still rising. We’re not anywhere close to being on track to decarbonize at the rate the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says we need to do. That has led me to the conclusion that well-intentioned companies acting individually are not enough. We also need public policies to guide the whole market much faster down the path we need to be on. Yet when I look at the public policy arena—we’re stuck.
Polls now show that 70% of the American people think that climate change is real and that humans are at the root of it. They also show that people believe we need to be doing a lot more and that the government has a big role to play. With that much public agreement, you’d think that we’d have public policy that reflected the social consensus, but we don’t. There are a lot of reasons for that, but a major one is that our corporations don’t put their weight behind climate policies.
Bill: It’s a vestige of the way corporations have been structured and the siloed thinking that often results. The folks that handle public policy inside a major corporation are far apart from the people working on sustainability. Public policy tends to have a legal mindset that prioritizes reducing risk for the company. As a result, companies only weigh in on policy issues when it really matters to their core business. If an issue directly affects your business, your expenses, your revenue or your ability to do business from a regulatory point of view, you’re going to weigh in—and companies do. For instance, the big tech companies are very active on public policy issues around the internet and privacy. They spend their political capital when it affects their bottom line.
We want to raise the bar for companies in terms of what it means to be all-in on climate.
Bill: It’s a problem because it gives the oil companies outsize influence on climate policy. The fossil fuel industry is all-in on fighting useful climate policy. On the other side of the issue, you don’t have the same resources or commitment. A company can have a strong sustainability program, but when it comes to the public policy arena, they will still tend to say, “Well, this isn’t my business, so I’m going to stay quiet because there’s no benefit to me. There’s risk if I speak up.” Most companies still choose to stay silent on climate-related policies, even when they have a strong commitment to sustainability in their business.
Bill: We are asking that companies become more transparent about their public policy efforts and align them to their sustainability goals. The leadership that society needs over the next decade is for companies to step up and help us all get to a 50% cut in emissions across the board by 2030 and net zero by 2050. That means companies have to actually support the public policies that will drive that. We want to raise the bar for companies in terms of what it means to be all-in on climate.
Bill: We are actively working to raise the expectations for companies to engage in public policy that drives broad, systemic decarbonization, not just in the narrow sliver that they touch in their own operations. We’re focused on students—the employees of the future—as well as current employees at companies. We want to help them understand what companies are doing in terms of public policy and provide them a platform to organize and communicate. We’ll do this by looking at specific examples of public policies, state by state. We’re going to ask companies, “Are you supporting this climate bill or not?” If you’re not, then we’re going to point that out to people. If you are, then we will point that out too so that people know that you’re doing the right thing. Where today’s companies see risk if they speak up on climate policy and no risk if they stay silent, we want them to see real benefit from speaking out and real risk in staying silent.
We launched with campaigns around three specific policies: the Virginia Clean Economy Act, 100% clean electricity by 2045; the Illinois Clean Energy Jobs Act, 100% clean electricity by 2030; and the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a cap-and-invest program for transportation emissions in 12 eastern states and the District of Columbia. The Virginia bill has been signed into law, with the support of several non-energy companies. We need to see similar leadership on the Illinois bill and TCI—and on many other climate policies at the state and regional levels. And we need many more companies to step up.
It’s a shift from thinking about this through an individual lens to thinking in terms of the whole.
Bill: Yes. Over the last decade, we’ve seen hundreds of companies shift from just doing internal work to being strong advocates for equality and against discrimination in public policy. What drove that shift was employee sentiment, employees speaking up—and management realizing that for young people this was a no-brainer and a basic civil rights issue. Companies saw that if they did not step up, they would be seen as being on the wrong side of the issue, and they would have a hard time hiring. This really showed up in Indiana in 2015 with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, basically, an anti-LGBTQ bill. A number of companies with operations in the state stood up and said to Indiana, “You need to fix this, or we’re going to have to rethink our presence.” Indiana fixed it.
I think we’re at this same juncture on climate, where companies realize internal actions aren’t enough, and they have to advocate more broadly for the future we all want. Our goal with ClimateVoice is to accelerate this shift from individual efforts to collective action.
Bill: If I were at a big company in a CSR, HR or other leadership role, I would immediately ask if my company’s public policy actions are in line with its sustainability goals, because that question will soon be coming to you from employees and the public arena. More broadly, I’d be asking if my company is still focused on where the bar has been on corporate climate action for the last decade, and if we’re grasping the new reality and the changing expectations people have of companies. We can’t fully grasp what the ultimate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be, but my guess is we won’t be going back to business as usual.
I think the message and the mandate for the CSR community is this: Align everything you’re doing as a company with a one-and-a-half-degree of warming future. That includes direct political contributions, as well as PACs and super PACs, your lobbying, your trade association memberships. If your trade associations are either silent or actively lobbying against useful climate policy, then you’ve got to work to change them. Honestly, if you can’t change them from the inside after a year, you should probably exit, and you should make clear to them that they’re going to lose your support if they can’t change what they’re doing on climate.
Bill: It’s a shift from thinking about this through an individual lens to thinking in terms of the whole. A company might start by saying, “I use a lot of energy, so I’m going to focus on electricity and on electricity policy and, particularly, on policies that make it easier for me to buy clean energy so we can meet our sustainability goals.” What we’re asking for and what the science demands of us is to say next, “I’m going to also focus on policies that help the entire grid decarbonize so everyone gets to zero carbon electricity.” And then to say, “We don’t have a big fleet of vehicles, but we need to decarbonize transportation, so we’re going to focus on policies relevant to that as well.” Why? If we’re going to make it, we need to bring everyone along. We need to believe that our companies actually can help drive this kind of change and the policies that we all need.