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Put Me in Charge — How I’d Make My Private Equity Firm A Climate Leader

The Quick Rundown:

Companies and investors are starting to make big things happen — and fast — to address the climate challenge. The private sector is investing in climate solutions, mobilizing talent, innovating, committing to GHG emission reductions and better climate disclosure. This is just what we need for climate progress.  But one large, talented and influential sector can and should be doing more: private equity.


How to Win Friends and Influence People

As my fellow Dale Carnegie acolytes know, salesmanship is a key success factor for building a bigger environmental coalition. More on that in a moment. But first, some background.

Back when I ran The Nature Conservancy (2008-19), I worked hard to persuade business leaders to prioritize environmental problem solving.  Thanks to capable colleagues at TNC and courageous partners in the private sector, CEOs across diverse industries and all over the world stepped up and made bold commitments to address climate change. 

How did we sell this idea?  We showed that doing the right thing for nature was not just good for the environment, but it was also good for business.  Well-designed, ambitious environmental initiatives make business sense.  They create new opportunities to grow the top line, reduce costs, lower risks, make better long-term decisions on things like capital spending, and inspire key constituents including employees and customers.  Just as importantly, they also please the growing number of shareholders who now care deeply about environmental strategies.

I tried to make the same argument with the titans of the private equity (PE) sector. PE firms have enormous influence on markets, control a huge number of companies, employ brilliant people, manage large sums of capital, and enjoy extraordinary profitability. Their very modus operandi — buying companies, investing in improvements, and selling them at a profit —  is a massive opportunity for environmental leadership.

Alas, my sales pitch here was less successful.   

To be sure, we had some nice victories in the broader financial sector.  We persuaded a number of individuals, and one PE firm, to donate generously.  We built an innovative nature-focused technology accelerator in partnership with the VC firm Techstars.  With JP Morgan, we launched NatureVest, a hugely successful first-of-its-kind initiative to catalyze donations funding important conservation deals with billions of investor-provided dollars. And near the end of my time at TNC, we co-launched and were a full partner in a $1 billion investment fund with PE firm RRG that is a game-changer in water conservation investments. That’s a lot to be proud of. 

But still . . . I thought we would do much better than that.  I’d been optimistic that we could persuade PE firms to pursue environmental opportunities with the same bold approach they took to managing their everyday business. I thought I was a good salesman, and I knew that I had a superb sales pitch. And yet, I wasn’t making the headway I expected. 

WWDCD? What would Dale Carnegie Do? That’s easy. He’d advise the following:  “Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.”  “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.”  “Appeal to nobler motives.”  “Throw down a challenge.”  And so on.  Perfect, right?

So, I urged PE firms to team up with my organization in order to tackle together some big environmental projects.  These would be initiatives that would draw on their sophisticated financial engineering skills, bolster their reputations, and improve their standing with key constituents like national governments and multilateral banks.  I suggested that they lend us some of their talented staff to boost our creativity and to give their younger deal-makers new problem-solving opportunities to accelerate their career development. I pointed out that capital is now abundant and increasingly seen as a commodity, therefore if an investment firm wanted to differentiate themselves and improve returns, they needed another angle — and what better one could there be than addressing societal challenges like climate change? (See examples here and here).  

I had plenty of proposals, rationales, and ideas.  I think Dale Carengie would have approved how I pitched them. But I didn’t close any big partnerships along these lines.

Why? A combination of tunnel vision and habit. Maybe I was ahead of my time. And while maximizing returns is still (and will always be) the highest priority for PE, what that requires today is different than in the past. True, if a deal-maker views the world only through an IRR (internal rate of return) cash flow model, anything that raises costs, requires more capital spending, or delays the exit will by definition lower returns. But certainly the PE business is more complicated than that.

What does success look like for private equity firms in a world transitioning to net zero emissions?  

As an outsider, I see PE firms engage in five essential activities: 

  1. Fundraising  
  2. Purchasing good companies at the right price  
  3. Helping these companies improve performance 
  4. Selling these companies at attractive valuations, and 
  5. Recruiting and retaining talented people to keep the cycle going 

Now ask yourself:  

  • How will succeeding in each of these five areas look different in the years ahead as the major economies are forced to truly confront the climate challenge?  
  • What will cause my PE firm to stand out as a global business leader? 
  • What can we do to be viewed as a preferred partner to prospective selling companies? 
  • How can we improve our appeal to LPs, employees, and recruits?  
  • How can we ensure our portfolio companies don’t get left behind in a rapidly decarbonizing world?  
  • And, most importantly, where can we find new breakout investment opportunities?

These may seem like disparate questions but they all have an answer in common. Focusing on an enormously challenging global issue like climate is one likely way to guarantee your place in a future economy and realize major opportunities. And that’s even before we get to the moral argument: What climate-addressing actions should we take to be a responsible member of a society that seeks to transition to net zero? 

Climate change is happening right before our eyes and with deadly consequences. Customers and shareholders insist that their companies do something about this crisis. And most governments and companies are prioritizing this challenge. 

Forward-thinking PE firms should jump in and help lead the climate transformation.

I was whining about all this with a friend over the weekend. She finally became exasperated with me. 

She asked: “What would you do if you ran a big PE fund today and wanted to really go after the climate challenge?” 

Now that’s a great question, I thought.

Here’s my answer:

What My Private Equity Firm Would Do to Address the Climate Challenge

One obvious step is to study what leading companies are doing on the climate front right now.  Why would I want my PE firm to lag behind top companies?  

My PE firm commits the following:

1) Align with the Paris Climate Agreement 2050 goals

First, we will sign up to be members of the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTI).  We’ll commit not only at the parent level, but we will also include all of our portfolio companies.  Why not? As of today, exactly 1052 companies have signed up for SBTI.  If they can do it, we can too. 

The SBTI recognizes that different companies and industries face different challenges and therefore allows different levels of ambition. My PE firm, since we choose to be leaders, will set targets for our portfolio companies that are consistent with the 1.5 C goal that is aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement.  Since some of our portfolio companies are very carbon-intensive now, we’ll take the next two years (as SBTI allows) to set and validate appropriate and ambitious targets for each of them.

2) Set ambitious interim goals to be achieved by 2030

In the PE business, we know that “what gets measured, gets managed.” We need to ensure that we are on track to meet our long-term goals.  Since SBTI targets are goals for 2050, we’ll also set ambitious interim goals to be achieved by 2030. 

3) Disclose climate risks 

We are aware that financial regulators are calling for all climate risks to be fully disclosed. As a sophisticated financial organization, we think we can add a lot to the efforts underway to get this right. We will pledge to collaborate with the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and other initiatives to determine the best way to make this happen. 

4) Prioritize direct emissions and offset the rest 

Our top priority will be reducing direct emission reductions. But we will also use nature-based offsets to get beyond what we can do firsthand.  We will comply with the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting.

5) Launch a philanthropic conservation fund 

We’ll support NGOs with a mission to protect important intact ecosystems and also to improve climate equity and environmental justice outcomes.  We’ll do this because we recognize that we are drawing on these organizations’ great work, and therefore, we owe them and need them to be well-funded.  We’ll look for opportunities to partner with NGOs too, as we know the two sides can learn a lot from one another.

6) Establish GHG reduction committees: We will form advisory councils for our investors, firm employees, and portfolio company teams to generate new ways to address GHG emission reduction and other climate addressing opportunities.  We want to hear from all of our key stakeholders.  This is not a “feel good” move.  We’re excited because we know these key stakeholders have great ideas, they want to be heard, and facilitating this will strengthen our culture and improve outcomes.

What’s Missing? 

The focus of this essay is on addressing the climate challenge.  But I want my PE firm to be a leader across the spectrum of ESG challenges.  So expect us to take parallel steps on that front. [The Instigator will address these important opportunities in future posts].

But Aren’t PE Firms Doing Some Good Things on the Climate Front Already?

Yes, there is positive momentum underway that PE firms can build on.  Many firms have launched “impact funds” and are also emphasizing investments in clean energy and other climate addressing businesses. Some firms are also acknowledging a need to lengthen investment horizons. And there are probably other worthy initiatives that I’m unaware of (disclosure can be improved).  

This is all positive but insufficient.  To reach our climate goals, we need a concerted effort that binds these tactics together. We need across-the-portfolio bold and transparent commitments to get to net zero by 2050, along with robust milestones along the way, period.

We can see how to do this by looking at any number of corporate climate leaders, like this humble yet bold statement by Microsoft’s President Brad Smith. Here’s another good one — this time from Walmart.  There are many others 

It Can’t Be As Simple As You Suggest? 

I suspect that’s right.  I’ve learned in all of my collaborations with the private sector on environmental projects that it’s always more difficult to run a company than it looks. And, likewise, it’s also more complex to set up and achieve the right environmental initiative than an outsider might understand.  That’s probably even more true for PE, given the diversity of companies they control.  

But I’ve also learned this: the key is to get started. That’s the only way to make progress. My checklist will work well — as a starting point.  Maybe some of the goals will need to be revised, which is fine.  Maybe we’ll learn that there are other initiatives for PE firms that can make a bigger difference.  All of this is new and everybody is learning as we go forward.  The best way to develop an ambitious, but doable plan is likely through some good back and forth between PE firms, outside advisors (including NGOs), and other key constituents (investors, employees at both the parent and portfolio companies). But we still need to start somewhere. 

Start A Race to the Top

The upside here can be very significant.  All we really need is for a few PE firms to step up and take on this challenge.  Stakeholders will inevitably encourage the rest to hustle and catch up.  The reward for doing so will be two-fold: progress in achieving our climate goals, and PE firms that are more successful in a rapidly changing world. 

Onward.

Take the Leap: How to Launch Your Own Personal Environmental Game Plan

The quick rundown. 

It’s been a tough week. We could all use some leadership right now. The Instigator usually focuses on organizational strategies — how companies, investors, and NGOs can tackle environmental challenges. But personal strategies matter too. To achieve the change we seek, we need more people across society to step up, get outside their silos, think big, and devise personal engagement plans that will work in the real world. The best way to do this is to start now, play to your strengths, and find ways to reinvent yourself.


Think Big

In 2016, I was speaking in front of a huge audience at the Paris climate convention.  And I’ll let you in on a secret. 

I thought I was killing it. 

At the time, I was the CEO of the Nature Conservancy, and I was speaking on a panel about food, agriculture, and climate change.  Just as I was making what I thought was another absolutely brilliant point about sustainable ranching, another panelist interrupted me.

“Sustainable ranching? That’s like saying you’re in favor of making torture less painful.”  

His line got some laughs from the crowd. Ha ha. But not from me. Who is this jerk and why is he disagreeing with me?

It turns out that it was Pat Brown of Impossible Foods.  Neither Pat nor his company were well-known at the time.  (Today both are world famous giants in the booming plant-based meat business). 

Onstage in Paris I tried to defend myself.  I elaborated on my point, ticking off the many benefits and practicalities. To demonstrate my unbiased stance, I even mentioned that I was a vegan.  Pat — quite the showman — didn’t miss a beat. He immediately had one of his colleagues bring out a mini Impossible Burger, right there on  stage so I could try it before the big crowd. 

I had to admit —  the burger was delicious. 

Long story short, it turns out this guy wasn’t a jerk at all. He was a real leader.

Pat told me his story afterwards. An accomplished (and arrogant, as he put it) Stanford professor of chemistry, he was about to take a hard-earned sabbatical a few years earlier.   He thought he should do something very important on his break.  Pat thinks big. He decided he should try to solve one of the world’s biggest challenges. He picked climate change.   

Even Pat recognized it made sense to narrow his focus a bit.  So he set his sights on meat consumption. The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector worldwide. Pat understood that if people in China, India, and other economically rising countries chose to eat burgers and steaks like Americans, we were (pardon the pun) cooked.  Pat decided to do something about that.

Where others (like me) focused on the need to improve agricultural practices, Patrick viewed the challenge as diet.  He decided to make a delicious burger entirely from plants for people who love meat. He was certain that consumers would prefer his plant-based meat substitutes —  not for lofty environmental reasons (although he would have no objection to that) but because they would taste better, cost less, and be healthier. 

So how’s his little project going? Impossible Burgers are showing up on menus everywhere, from Michelin-starred restaurants in Manhattan to value meals at Burger King. They have raised more than $1.5 billion in equity funding and attracted high-profile investors like Bill Gates, Temasek, Khosla Ventures, Jay-Z, and Serena Williams. (Not me — sigh —  I wasn’t smart enough to ask Pat to let me buy some shares back in 2016.)  The company also sells plant-based sausages and soon will offer plant-based chicken and milk too.

I can tell you firsthand that the Impossible Burger lives up to its name: they are impossible to stop eating. I hosted a fundraising event at my house in DC a short time after meeting Pat.  The burgers weren’t on the market yet but Pat sent a big supply for my event. Our guests were mostly fancy Washington, D.C. bigwigs. We had planned a lofty conversation about reducing greenhouse gas emissions through better agriculture, ranching, and conservation practices. But we couldn’t get guests to focus on our speakers — they were too busy scarfing down their plant-based patties. 

Fast forward to today: Pat’s burgers are a household name. There are many other great meat substitutes widely available, such as  Beyond Meat. The alternative protein food business is booming, and no one thinks plant-based foods are weird anymore. Real change can happen faster than we expect and make a very big difference.  All it takes is leadership.

Not everyone can drop everything and take on a completely new and enormous challenge like Pat did.  But you don’t have to.  We need engagement at all levels and in all fields.  Further, we can all learn from Pat’s example.  Pat thinks big and plays to his strengths.  He went from being a prominent, successful and big-thinking professor of chemistry at Stanford to an iconoclastic businessperson who argued that everything responsible for making a burger taste, feel, and smell like a burger could be recreated with ingredients from the plant world. As a chemist he was sure he could pull this off.  So he went for it.  What can you do in the same way? 

* * *

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.

When it comes to a huge challenge like climate change, the more strategies the better. That’s why people like Pat — and fortunately there are many of them — make such a huge difference. Long-term projections for climate change rarely include huge unpredictable breakthrough scenarios like transforming diet patterns. 

Examples abound of folks in varied fields who leave their comfort zone and follow their passion toward world progress. In the weeks that follow, we’ll be discussing them (and talking to them!). You’ll meet my friend Jacqueline Novogratz, a banker who wanted to reduce poverty. All she did was create a global leadership development and micro financing network called Acumen that has now invested some $125 million in 126 companies tackling poverty in 14 countries. (Check out Jacqueline’s great new book Manifesto for a Moral Revolution to learn more).

Podcasting for Progress

Here’s another cool example of bold leadership.  When COVID struck last winter, I was stuck at home like many of you, and looking for a good podcast to listen to while I worked out.  I discovered “My Climate Journey” and was immediately hooked.  The podcast is hosted by Jason Jacobs, a former startup guy who was wondering what he could do to address the climate challenge. He decided to learn everything he needed to know by interviewing key players in the climate space. He shares what he learns in real time, conducting his inquiry over the podcast.  

His program is outstanding for staying current on climate matters and hearing directly from a diverse group of players. Jason talks to clean-tech entrepreneurs, atmospheric science professors, grassroots activists, elected officials, NGO leaders, and various others in the climate world. I’ve been a professional environmentalist for more than 15 years and theoretically know my stuff, but I still learn a lot from every episode.  

One of the really smart things Jason does is acknowledge that there is a lot he doesn’t know about how to address the climate challenge. He’s like most of us.   So he does the work. He lines up the experts, asks all of the questions we would if we could, and he makes us all much smarter.

It turns out that as a former startup guy, Jason is very good at stepping back and thinking about the big picture, assessing different strategies, and networking so he can talk to all of the right people. He’s not shy or afraid to ask obvious questions. And he is in a hurry.  Just what you would expect.  Note: Jason is playing to his strengths.

Jason’s impact goes way beyond his weekly podcasts. He’s also formed a superb climate-engaged community on Slack for his listeners. I joined the group and right away I started hearing from various people working on promising climate projects.  I’ve made some great friends and even a few new business partners.  The back and forth dialogue between a very diverse group of people all trying to figure out their personal climate engagement plan is really exciting.  Looking back, it seems like an obvious initiative to launch.  But it takes someone like Jason to make these things happen.  They don’t get started by themselves.

More recently, Jason has launched a start-up investment fund focused on climate solutions. One good thing leads to another.

All of this is happening because one more person decided to step up, reinvent himself a bit, and engage in a way that would likely make a big difference.  More of us should do the same. 

How? 

Start now but know that it’s okay go slow and lay the groundwork. 

Not everyone is ready to make a giant leap like Pat and Jason did, and that’s fine! The truth is, most of the time, it’s only hindsight that makes it look like people made drastic moves to become climate activists. That’s because you’re only seeing the highlights. The reality usually involves much more legwork. 

My own case might be a good example. My resume reads as if I seamlessly transitioned from Goldman Sachs to CEO of The Nature Conservancy.  But that’s not really what happened.  For the prior 15 years, I volunteered with several NGOs, ultimately joining their boards, and even serving as chair of two. These were much smaller organizations than TNC, but size doesn’t really matter.  They faced the same kinds of issues and challenges that big non-profits like TNC must confront. I learned a ton.  I also went out of my way to make friends in the environmental community.  It was fun and —  again — I learned so much, especially about how the different NGOs do their work. I had also been teaching finance courses at NYU’s business school, so I shifted gears and co-taught a semester-long program on environmental strategies for business. These different activities led to me running Goldman’s first environmental initiative, which of course was another extraordinary learning opportunity.  I even persuaded my wife Amy and our then school-aged children to go on various environmental-themed and rather geeky vacations with me.  And so on. 

When I showed up at TNC in mid-2008, there was still a huge amount that I didn’t know (just ask my colleagues). But all of my prior environmental experience helped me make a pretty smooth transition. 

Now obviously, I realize that I was very fortunate to be in a position to do all of these things. But I want to emphasize that one way or another most people can lay a foundation for meaningful action from whatever position they are in.   

Some Ideas:

  1. A number of my friends recently volunteered to be on the front lines of Get Out The Vote efforts in connection with the election.  What a great way for them to see how politics works firsthand and really make a difference.  It’s easy to stay home and criticize politicians with whom you don’t agree. But it’s so much more effective (and fulfilling) to roll up your sleeves and engage. They all returned home energized and excited about new ideas they now have on doing more going forward.
  2. Many college students are doing a nice job on the climate front too.  Often they start by pushing for their colleges to divest of fossil fuel stocks. That, in turn, leads to campus-wide ghg emission reduction campaigns; efforts to add more on climate to the curriculum; and engagement with local communities on renewable energy. All of this activity not only makes a difference in their schools; it positions students to make a real difference after graduation.
  3. Employees of companies can and should push for more ambition on the climate front. The Instigator has already noted how employee leadership made a big difference at Amazon.  It’s a good idea  to keep a close eye on climate leaders in your company’s sector. Encourage your employer to match such efforts. See if you can spark a “race to the top.”
  4. Volunteer for your favorite NGO (like I did).  It’s fun, you can help the organization a lot, and the learning opportunities are huge.  (Also, please support them financially.  All gifts, including small ones, are hugely appreciated.)
  5. Learn as much as you can. It’s easier than ever to do so now. Find your favorite podcasts and newsletters.  Look for inspiring role models too and imitate them. See the links below for some suggestions.

There’s a common thread here. 

We need more people to step up and make things happen on the climate front.  This might even mean you.  Think about how you can make an impact.  Don’t feel stuck in a silo.  Don’t expect the “experts” to get the job done.  Don’t think blaming others is a good substitute for sticking your own neck out.

Maybe that means speaking up at your org, pushing for change like the Amazon folks did.  Maybe that means edging up your engagement in your day-to-day life, like many of the folks on the My Climate Journey Slack community.  Or maybe it means diving all the way into something new and transformative, like Pat Brown or Jason Jacobs did.

You don’t have to figure this out all at once — none of these folks did.  Take your time.  Ask for help.  Reach out and make new friends. Learn what you need to know.  But please, get in the game. It’s up to you. It’s up to all of us.

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. 

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 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 the 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 Repbulican 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 that 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 business people 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 everyday 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 miniscule 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.