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We need a new definition of corporate climate leadership

Today’s definition of corporate climate leadership centers on how companies can do less harm. It needs to be about creating a thriving future.

We need a new definition of corporate climate leadership
[Images: yewkeo/iStock, paitoonpati/iStock]
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Some of humanity’s most foundational learnings have been taught to us by our planet. Earth’s natural systems demonstrate everything from how to thrive in times of disruption to how to appropriately social distance. And so too has it has provided us with clues as to how humans might adequately respond to the climate crisis. When waters come gushing over a levee, they have a power that can flood or disrupt anything that tries to contain them. Trying to put parameters or constraints around the climate crisis is like trying to hold back the deluge with our hands. We’ve got to meet Earth’s expansiveness with an expansiveness of our own.

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The structures that we’ve built to try to define how we respond to the crisis and who has a say in it are being flooded with new and diverse voices—and are leading to a much more expansive vision for what’s possible. Youth climate activists have injected the movement with new life, no longer constrained by the orthodoxy that only grown-ups should have a say. So has the environmental justice movement, the calls for a feminist climate renaissance, and the journalists that have left the fold of traditional media to do their own reporting when old models of coverage proved insufficient.

How can we use our full resources, scale, influence, the passion of our employees, and our broader community to help build a world where all living things can thrive?

And now even inside corporations—perhaps one of the last, most consequential gatekeepers to progress on the climate crisis, and where the burden of responsibility for the crisis lays most heavily—the floodgates are starting to burst.

Today’s definition of corporate climate leadership centers on how companies can do less harm, gradually reducing their emissions—and the damages they cause—over time. But viewing the climate crisis only through the lens of their own contributions to the problem leads companies to focus on a very narrow slice of the available climate solutions. When seen from a more expansive viewpoint, one that includes sources of emissions as well as the Earth’s natural carbon sinks and the societal changes needed to sustain it all, you see a more complete picture of the world that is possible, and a roadmap for how to achieve it.

Every business must now ask not only “how can we reduce our emissions as quickly as possible,” but also “how can we use our full resources, scale, influence, the passion of our employees, and our broader community to help build a world where all living things can thrive?”

To begin to more fully address the crisis at the speed, scale, and level of expansiveness required, companies should not only focus on emissions reductions but also the acceleration of three critical areas:

  • More ambitious and expansive goal-setting
  • Employee and customer activation and enablement
  • Bridging the outside/inside strategy
  • Using their influence to advocate for climate policy at all levels of government

In The Drawdown Review, we identify a number of “accelerators” that create the conditions for climate solutions to scale in the world. One of these is setting goals. Goals are crucial because they govern direction, define what we are reaching for and what resources are needed to get there. And goal-setting is the primary way that most businesses articulate their climate ambition.

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But the current gold standard of corporate climate goals, net zero by several decades from now, is grossly insufficient to the scale of the problem. This kind of long-term target is only adequate if every company on Earth not only makes the same commitment but achieves it before the deadline, a highly unlikely prospect. And long-term emissions-reduction targets too often lack intermediate targets and accountability mechanisms to ensure that these promises are turned into reductions in greenhouse gas concentrations that the atmosphere actually notices.

More expansive and ambitious goal-setting can articulate things like how businesses are showing up for their communities, getting involved in zoning and city planning, and the resilience and engagement of their employees and communities. It can represent how companies might work together, the culmination of thousands of individuals; workers, customers and community members, with their peers and society at large to reimagine entire sectors. As Rebecca Henderson, author of Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire puts it, “At their best, corporations are cooperative communities, persuading hundreds of thousands of people to work together toward a shared goal. Reimagining capitalism requires taking this ability to cooperate and mobilizing it to solve public goods problems at larger and larger scales.”

Long-term emissions-reduction targets too often lack intermediate targets and accountability mechanisms to ensure that these promises are turned into reductions in greenhouse gas concentrations that the atmosphere actually notices.

For example, to reimagine one of the most heavily emitting sectors in the U.S., the transportation sector, how might public transit agencies, policymakers, ride-sharing companies, EV charging companies, airports, and workers themselves come together to reimagine the system to be zero emissions, equitable, and accessible within 10 years?

Broadening the kinds of climate goals companies set can also bring more people into the work. As the indigenous rights advocate and attorney Tara Houska recently wrote in Vogue, “Surely a crisis at the scale of eradicating all life requires diversity of thought, but I’ve heard nuclear, renewables, carbon offsetting, and electoral politics presented as solutions more times than I can count.”

A narrow focus on reducing a company’s emissions often limits the discussion to technical experts or policy wonks and deprives more workers inside those companies of bringing their full selves to the work, unnecessarily restricting the work to those problems that can be solved by technology.

The thing is, we need to not only achieve “drawdown”—the moment when atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases peak and begin to decline—we need to also build the world where we can sustain it. This requires the technological solutions but also the social and cultural changes and the relational, community-building work to carry us forward.

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And so many people want to contribute. Given how all-encompassing the issue is, and how big and complex and inter-related, how is it that only a handful of people with ‘sustainability’ in their title get to work on it in their day jobs? In this, the greatest, most all-encompassing challenge of any generation ever, every job can and should be a climate job. The Amazon Employees for Climate Justice represent the kind of levee-bursting power that the planet has modeled for us, refusing to settle for an insufficient level of climate ambition and taking it upon themselves to hold their company to a higher standard. Every company should welcome this level of organizing and see it as an essential element of true leadership on climate.

This is where the inside and outside strategies meet: deep engagement inside company walls and activism on the street, where employees can be activists and activists can be employees. Where how far we push and how ferociously we fight are not dampened by who we’re employed by but are welcomed and encouraged by our employers. Where, beyond our place of employment, we have our eyes on the same goal and are marching toward it together.

For too long, we have been trying to put parameters and constraints around something that is uncontainable. But the climate crisis does not fit into our neatly defined boxes, as much as we wish it would. It spills into every other aspect of life so responding to it with this level of expansiveness is the only way forward. We must enable the work to happen everywhere, at all levels, and for the work to take a much broader shape than we’ve ever imagined. Let’s open the floodgates.


Jamie Beck Alexander is the director of Drawdown Labs at Project Drawdown