On the eve of milestone Congressional vote on climate, we interview Bill Weihl, a potent tech climate policy champion who is fighting against corporate predatory delay .
Stony silence can be deadlier than vocal denial. So far, America’s Big Tech Companies have offered tepid support at best and have been missing at worst in the quest to Build Back Better (BBB) and in response to last week’s dramatic reviving of long-stalled climate legislation.
Make no mistake; this is a milestone piece of legislation. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA22) contains important remnants of Build Back Better, plus some tasty goodies for the fossil energy crowd. It proposes an investment of $370 billion in clean energy research, manufacturing, and construction, with a projected 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. In return, vast swaths of the Gulf of Mexico will be re-opened for oil and gas drilling.
But to ClimateVoice founder and executive director Bill Weihl, something even bigger is afoot in Washington. Weihl is perhaps the world’s foremost authority on how Big Tech thinks about climate: Bill is a Silicon Valley veteran who served as Google’s Green Energy Czar and Facebook’s Director of Sustainability, to name a few key roles.
Now he is fighting for real change in Washington. While he thinks the latest climate bill is “transformational,” it does not solve the underlying problem of ongoing corporate resistance to substantive climate policy. “This bill is a fantastic step forward,” he says. However, “Obstruction by the business sector is the core problem. And many ‘pro-climate’ companies are at least complicit in that. Both they and NGOs need to step up, speak up and engage in a way that effectively counters that obstruction.”
While he thinks the latest climate bill is “transformational,” it does not solve the underlying problem of ongoing corporate resistance to substantive climate policy.
And more than their business interests are at stake. If businesses don’t switch from climate predator to climate champion, they risk alienating “a generation of potential employees, not to mention customers and shareholders.“
Climate & Capital sat down with Bill to get his take on the present state of Big Business’s shiny objects disease, its influence-peddling in Washington and what needs to happen next to accelerate real climate policy action.
A matter-of-fact conversation with the founder of ClimateVoice
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 climate bill may be the “art of the possible.” How comfortable are you with this bargain? Does it tackle the problems of the energy transition?
All of the analysis indicates that this bill will be transformational. And it has some things that will boost fossil fuels, which many of us would rather not see. But I trust people like Dr. Leah Stokes, who said the analysis shows that for every additional ton of emissions created by those provisions, there will be 24 tons of emissions reductions from the other climate and energy provisions.
Also, it’s important to think about second- and third-order effects. First order: some pipelines will be built and leases will happen. On the other side, some EVs will be sold, chargers installed, homes electrified and wind and solar built.
We need to accelerate market transformations and to bend those curves now, which means rapidly bending the curve upward on climate solutions. If we can do that ASAP, the impact in 5 years will be enormous. Some increase in fossil fuels — while not good — won’t have the same market-transforming impact of driving up clean solutions. If companies want to invest in drilling that will be uneconomic in five or ten years, it’s their dime. So on balance, I think this bill is politically possible and will make a massive positive difference.
How would you describe Big Tech’s engagement on climate legislation in Washington over the past 18 months?
Big Tech has enormous influence. They know it, and so do most other people. We see them use that influence on issues they consider core to their businesses — tax, antitrust, trade, intellectual property, internet regulation, etc. They lobby and support some candidates and choose not to support some others. And they use their bully pulpits — their corporate social media accounts, access to journalists, online presence and reach to customers and users. They have many tools, and they use them when it really matters.
But we’re mostly not seeing that on climate. They weigh in vigorously occasionally, especially when there’s a policy that directly affects their ability to meet a goal they’ve set publicly — e.g., 100% clean energy for their operations. But their engagement on other climate and energy policy has been either non-existent or fairly tactical and muted.
We saw that on Build Back Better (BBB) — they were slow to speak up and then did not speak loudly. Meanwhile, they’re often members of one or several big trade associations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). Those three, in particular, were instrumental in blocking BBB. And all three quickly stated strong opposition to the new legislation. We’re tracking 21 big U.S. companies on our updated scorecard. Only Constellation Energy, Salesforce, and Walmart have spoken up publicly.
Has Big Tech responded differently to this new bill?
IRA22 is on a very fast timeline. The Chamber and NAM voiced strong opposition less than 24 hours after it was unveiled. We’re now a week in, and Big Tech is silent.
That eerie silence: Is that why you started ClimateVoice in the first place?
I’ve been deeply concerned about climate since 2004. I was lucky enough to land jobs at Google and then at Facebook to develop and lead their climate and sustainability programs.
I saw the enormous impact and leverage that companies could have in all of this work. But I came to understand the limitations – and the critical role that public policy plays in accelerating, scaling, and turbocharging everything we need to transition to a zero-carbon economy.
I was unable to convince companies to step up on public policy just through making the business case on the inside.
Big Oil, pro-fossil-fuel companies, trade associations and others have enormous power and influence, and they use it to stymie progress on climate policy. Meanwhile, most other companies sit on the sidelines. They weigh in occasionally — but far too rarely and with far less intensity and volume than those seeking to preserve the status quo and delay real action.
I saw an opportunity to change that — to get “pro-climate” companies to use their influence to counter the opposition business voices and, in the process, help drive much faster progress on climate policy.
But I was unable to convince companies to step up on public policy just through making the business case on the inside.
How are you doing it differently at ClimateVoice?
The key lever we’re focused on is the corporate workforce. And the reason is that companies care a lot about recruiting and retaining employees, especially the highly educated professionals they compete really hard for.
By educating employees about the critical role their companies play in climate policy, through vocal advocacy or silent complicity, we empower them to speak up and push their employers to engage.
ClimateVoice specifically encourages students to join together with employees to engage companies. Why students? Why not scientists or women or millionaires?
Companies have heard the scientific evidence. They’ve heard from millionaires. They’ve heard the business case that “it’s the biggest market opportunity since whenever.” None of that provides a strong enough motivation to change and really lean in to support public policy on climate – the last 15 years of corporate climate action has shown that clearly.
Our focus is the talent pool. We believe that, for most companies, it’s a faster and higher leverage place to focus. Consumers matter too, but changing consumer perception is hard.
The key point is that young people don’t see climate as a political issue. They want serious policy. They want to see our leaders – government and business – lead.
We’re creating a recruiting and retention benefit to “speaking up.” And a risk to staying silent. That means we focus on current employees – and on students as the talent pool companies draw from. The key point is that young people don’t see climate as a political issue. They want serious policy. They want to see our leaders – government and business – lead. They’re starting to understand (with our help) that most “pro-climate” companies are virtually silent when it comes to climate policy. And when they get that, they’re pissed off.
One of your central campaigns is “Urge Tech to Lobby for Change.” Aren’t they just like other big American companies, who only talk an enlightened talk?
We started with more of a focus on tech – especially the big ones, in part because I spent years in tech and know the companies – and I may have some credibility there. But we’ve broadened to more sectors, and our latest scorecard covers 21 big US-based companies, including Big Tech, and consumer brands like Tesla, Walmart, Nike, PepsiCo, etc.
Recruiting and retention is a big pain point for all of them. Companies that fail to speak up for historic legislation — such as the climate bill being debated right now — will find it harder to recruit and retain young workers.
During this whole affair, some thought that climate NGOs had failed miserably and were out of step with the American public. Your thoughts?
I would divide climate NGOs into two camps: the ones focused on building a movement and the ones working “inside” with companies to leverage the power of business to drive change.
The movement builders are in step with the public — especially with Millennials and Gen Z – and we’ve made it this far in large part because of their work over the last five to ten years. Tons of youth leaders in the U.S. and around the world deserve enormous credit and respect – and our thanks.
It’s only in the last 2 or 3 years that business-engaged NGOs have made it a priority to push companies to engage in climate policy.
The business-focused NGOs are mostly playing an “inside game” – cajoling companies to step up. But they don’t criticize companies, and many of them have been focused until quite recently on carbon pricing as the “silver bullet” policy solution. We need a range of complementary policies, and I think their focus primarily on carbon pricing has caused some in the business community to think that’s the only policy we need. That has hampered efforts to get companies to speak up for other climate policies.
Most business-engaged climate NGOs were, until recently, focused on getting companies to reduce their Scope 1, 2 & 3 emissions. Over the last 15 years, that has led to a lot of target setting and significant real progress by many companies.
For the pace and scale of the systemic change we need, however, we need public policy. It’s only in the last 2 or 3 years that business-engaged NGOs have made it a priority to push companies to engage in climate policy. And almost none – other than us, InfluenceMap, and Change the Chamber – actually name and criticize companies that are on the sidelines in policy debates. That’s a serious problem. Companies see risk in speaking up on politicized public policy issues; if there’s no risk in staying silent, they usually make the safe choice and stay on the sidelines.
InfluenceMap calls policy engagement a company’s “Scope 4 emissions impact.” At this stage in our collective work, Scope 4 engagement is arguably the most important thing for companies to do.
If there was one thing you could whisper in the ears of climate NGOs, what would it be?
Make it clear to companies that it’s time to “fish or cut bait” and stop the obstruction (in their names, with their money) by their trade associations— or be called out for greenwashing. It’s time for NGOs to hold companies accountable — and not praise them for their Scope 1, 2 & 3 reductions while ignoring their continued silence on public policy.
Is indirect and/or direct public policy advocacy now an intrinsic part of modern investment stewardship and responsible investing?
Millennials and Gen Z increasingly get this. And companies who ignore this are taking an enormous risk. To the point you just made: it’s all forms of advocacy, direct and indirect. Investors need to be considering a company’s Scope 4 impact and ranking that very high in their assessment.
A company that cuts its own emissions while letting its trade associations kill climate legislation is deeply complicit with those who want to delay real action and are helping drive us all off the climate cliff. This is what Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay.“
Companies that focus on their own emissions are bystanders.
In other contexts, people talk about “bystanders” versus “upstanders.” Companies that focus on their own emissions are bystanders. In effect, they’re not actively beating other kids up on the playground, but they’re also not actively intervening at a level to make a real difference to stop the beatings by the bullies. They’re standing right behind the bullies supporting them.
The top-line message I would highlight: we need public policy. Broad obstruction by the business sector is the key obstacle. This bill (IRA22) is a fantastic step forward. It is not everything we need. It is not perfect. It is public policy, which is never perfect.
Obstruction by the business sector is the core problem. And many “pro-climate” companies are at least complicit in that. Both they and NGOs need to step up, speak up, and engage in a way that effectively counters that obstruction, or they risk alienating a generation of potential employees, not to mention customers, shareholders and stakeholders.
Overall, they should treat climate the way they would treat any other issue that’s existential to their business. I think that covers it.
Featured image: Duke Fuqua School of Business