From Action to Advocacy: Corporate Climate Leadership in the Next Decade

Bill Weihl Speaks on the Climate Emergency

By Steve Schaefer

Bill+Weihl+cropped+headshot+August+2018

Consultant and climate activist Bill Weihl addressed an audience of about 80 people at The Foster gallery in Palo Alto on October 16, 2019. Weihl, an MIT graduate, worked for computer companies Digital and Akamai before moving to long stints at software giants Google and Facebook managing their corporate sustainability programs. The talk was part of a continuing series put on by Acterra.

Action to Advocacy

On this particular evening, Weihl addressed what large companies must do in the next decade to make a major impact in the fight to keep the climate emergency from becoming unstoppable. That means moving from actions to advocacy—with strong policies to speed the changes we need.

Weihl began by touching on the heroic, focused efforts that put Neil Armstrong on the moon in the 1960s, and then stated that what we need to do for the climate will be far more difficult. He moved on to reference Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, who is delivering the right message for the times.

“Young people are terrified,” said Weihl. “They are angry and are taking action.”

While Weihl doesn’t believe that things are hopeless, he presented the choices we have to make now to prevent global temperatures from rising to unacceptable levels. A six-degree Celsius rise would be catastrophic versus 2 degrees C—so it’s a question of “less bad” rather than “good.” Climate change has already started.

Sadly, despite a leveling off over the last few years, energy consumption and emissions increased at a record rate in 2018.

“We have to act with urgency,” said Weihl.

He mentioned Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation, who discusses “speed and scale” in his 2018 book, Designing Climate Solutions. That means moving at a “crazy fast rate” and tackling the big pieces first. It’s a 10-year problem, with a need to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and 100% by 2050, per last year’s UN IPCC Report.

We Need Systemic Change

What do we need to do to meet this? Individual actions by people and companies are not enough.

“We need systemic change,” said Weihl. We all need to take responsibility and set good policy. Weihl proposed:

  • Market rules and a decarbonization path
  • Carbon pricing
  • Clean energy mandates

However, per Weihl there is no “silver bullet.” We need to do everything we can now to decarbonize transportation, buildings, electricity generation. and more. Technology can help this process, but it is also being used by the “bad guys.” For example, Weihl described how oil companies can use high tech to make drilling for oil easier and cheaper, negating the positive climate actions being taken with, say, increased solar and wind energy generation.

Weihl brought up business travel. Although we have ways of reducing it by scheduling more Zoom meetings and online interaction, by creating more long-distance collaboration we also introduce more interest by engineers in meeting those partners in person, which in turn increases air travel. Also, while green finance on one hand removes investments in fossil fuels, 33 banks are lending $1.9 trillion to fossil fuels in legacy investments. That’s why we need to deal with the whole system.

“It’s time for companies to make the leap from science-based targets to supporting a science-based policy agenda,” said Weihl. “Companies must be strong advocates for decarbonization based on science (the 1.5-degree scenario) everywhere they operate and everywhere they source.”

Here are key principles Weihl laid out to make action on the climate emergency effective. They must be:

  • Aligned with the latest science (which will change)
  • Rooted in climate justice (young people see the climate emergency as a human rights issue)
  • Politically possible (we have to get it done)
  • Transformational, not incremental (there isn’t time to move slowly)
  • Reasonably certain to hit the IPCC targets in 2030 (or risk losing the ability to stop it)

Why Aren’t We Acting with Urgency?

If we know what we need to do, why aren’t we doing it? Decarbonizing the whole system is hard, Weihl says. In the language of finance, as a business case, taking action now is a no brainer considering the risks and costs of inaction.

“However, climate change is a moral and human problem, so we need to get businesses to speak the language of morality and humanity”, said Weihl.

Companies need to think about youth, who are worried about human rights and are expressing empathy for others and the whole world.

“These young people are companies’ future customers, employees, and eventually, stockholders,” said Weihl. “Silence is not neutrality,” he continued. “Young people want to work for and do business with companies they believe are helping solve the climate crisis—not causing it—so it’s a good business decision to do the right thing now, supporting science-based policies.”

The next decade is crucial to keeping global temperature rise in check, so we need good policy and coordinated action now. Weihl suggested aiming higher than the minimum, as it will be hard to be successful in this great effort.

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Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.

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