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How Business Leaders Can Lobby for Climate Action

In the US alone, fossil fuel supporters spend $500 million per year to block low-carbon policy. Here’s how to help balance the scales.

Fossil fuel companies have the most to lose as the world transitions to clean energy in order to slow climate change. That’s why these companies aggressively use lobbying to block policies that would reduce fossil fuel demand.

Lobbying means any attempt to influence government decisions. It can take many forms, like meeting with an elected official or providing feedback on new regulations. Lobbying is legal, but it’s problematic when certain interest groups have far more influence than others.

For example, in 2016, the American Petroleum Institute spent USD 65 million on lobbying to block low-carbon policy in the United States. That number doesn’t include anti-climate lobbying by other American companies and trade associations, which likely totalled over $500 million. In the same year, US environmental organizations spent less than 3% of that amount on lobbying – about $13.5 million. That difference in spending translates to a difference in how loudly each party’s message will be heard by government leaders.

Many companies – and individuals – want to see climate action by government. Maybe their businesses have a stake in the new green economy, or they’re concerned about the instability and risk caused by a changing climate. The right policy can make businesses pay for pollution, so that there’s a clear business case for reducing emissions.  

What can business leaders can do to help balance the scales in climate change lobbying? I asked two experts:

There are two ways that business leaders can get involved in pro-climate lobbying, according to Doty and Nyberg:

  1. Corporate lobbying: Your company can lobby for pro-climate policy that’s strategically aligned with its goals. For example, an automaker that produces electric vehicles could lobby government to install EV charging stations. Lobbying can also happen as part of a coalition that might include other sectors and even NGOs.

  2. Personal lobbying: If you have no say in your company’s lobbying decisions, you can get political in your personal life. (This could be even more impactful. At work, you have to do what’s best for the company, which usually means maximizing profit. But at home, you can fight for what is best for your family and community.)

In this article, climate-concerned business leaders from any sector will learn:

  • More about what lobbying is, including examples

  • How your company can create a pro-climate lobbying strategy

  • How to get politically involved outside of work

(And if you’re wondering which policies you should be advocating for, check out our primer on climate policies for the low-carbon transition.)

What is Corporate Lobbying?

Most medium and large companies are already involved in lobbying. But if your company isn’t, or if lobbying just isn’t part of your job description, let’s start by exploring examples of what corporate lobbying looks like.

3 types of corporate lobbying

Direct lobbying

Direct lobbying means engaging directly with government leaders. If you’re an executive at a large company, that might mean an in-person conversation with a policy maker. If you’re anyone else, it could include contributing to the political campaign of a pro-climate political leader, or responding to a call for public comment on proposed regulation.

Direct lobbying can also happen through coalitions, where diverse stakeholders come together around a shared cause. Coalitions can be a powerful way to increase the impact of your lobbying efforts. For example, farmers in Australia successfully joined forces with environmental interest groups to lobby against fracking on agricultural land.

Trade association lobbying

Trade associations, sometimes called industry associations, are organizations that defend the shared interests of all companies in an industry. Lobbying is a core activity for most trade associations.

Corporate leaders indirectly support their trade association’s lobbying activities by paying the association’s membership fees, which helps fund its lobbying. Corporate executives and government affairs staff can also get more directly involved by joining the trade association’s planning committees.

Grassroots engagement

Grassroots engagement is when a company uses its existing communications channels, such as news releases, a newsletter, social media, billboards, or even radio ads, to tell investors, consumers, and employees how they can advance pro-climate policy. This can sway the actions of those stakeholders, including voting behaviour.

4 Steps to Create A Pro-Climate Lobbying Strategy for Your Business

If you decide to get your company politically involved on climate change, you’ll need a strategy to guide your action. The steps below can help you (or your government affairs team) identify the right issues to work on and high-leverage tactics to move your political agenda forward.

Then, in the section that follows, you’ll see options for political engagement in your personal life.

4 steps to create a pro-climate lobbying strategy

Step 1: First do no harm.

Companies have a lot of issues to think about. If your company lobbies on other issues, like tax policy, staff may not have thought about how that position affects climate change or the low-carbon transition. It’s easy to lobby for a policy that makes perfect sense for one area of a business, but accidentally encourages fossil fuel use. Ask, “What else are we lobbying for, and how might that impact climate change?” If you see misalignments, try to fix them.

A trade association’s lobbying priorities can also be misaligned with a company’s climate change goals. Perhaps an automaker wants a carbon tax to make electric vehicles more competitive. Its trade association could be lobbying against the same tax because other auto companies fear it will hurt their sales. What to do? Try talking to peers at other companies to understand their concerns. Policy options may exist that meet everyone’s needs.

Step 2: Find a focus for new lobbying efforts.

There are many causes of high emissions and many ways to address those causes. It’s easiest to justify lobbying for low-carbon policies that align with a company’s strategy. For example, an investment firm could advocate for policies that require publicly traded companies to disclose carbon emissions. A construction company could push for climate-friendly changes to the building code or land use rules. A car manufacturer could push for policy that makes electric vehicles more competitive.

To guide strategic thinking, business leaders can ask: “What can this company do to shape policy, so that it rewards decarbonization in our industry?” Answering that question probably requires you to ask other questions, too, like:

  • What are the main sources of emissions in my sector?

  • Why haven’t companies already reduced those emissions?

  • How could policy incentivize emissions reductions in those key areas?

Let the answer to these questions inform a tactical set of lobbying activities.              

Step 3: Consider a coalition.

There’s already broad public awareness on climate change. That means other groups are already lobbying for pro-climate policy.

To make resources go further, a company can partner with other organizations – like NGOs – that share the same goal. Partners can complement, rather than duplicate, one another’s efforts. This type of coalition can also ensure lobbying stays aligned with the public good, and build the legitimacy of a company’s message.

If the idea of partnering with someone like Greenpeace feels scary, don’t fret. Members of a coalition don’t need to agree on everything. Partners will probably have different views on many issues. They only need a shared vision on the climate issue they’re lobbying for. (This article offers 4-tips for business-NGO partnerships.)

Step 4: Patiently work on the roadblocks.

If implementing low-carbon policy was easy, it would already have happened. As you push for new policy, you will almost certainly hit roadblocks. Don’t be discouraged. Those roadblocks are simply the next step in your work.

For example, do people in your sector have misconceptions about carbon taxes? Think about how to educate them. Have conversations, or ask your trade association to host a talk on the subject.Are key actors in your sector actively blocking low-carbon policy? Hear their concerns and see whether those concerns can be addressed within a low-carbon policy framework.

Overcoming persistent challenges will test your patience. Just know that the slow pace of progress is normal.

Personal Pro-Climate Lobbying

Corporate lobbying can help advance pro-climate policy, but it also has limitations. “Let’s be under no illusions,” Daniel Nyberg told NBS. “Companies don’t lobby for the public good. Even pro-climate lobbying will be about changing the competitive environment to the company’s benefit.”

Luckily, business leaders have many identities outside of their work. You are a citizen, a parent, a child, and a friend. Maybe you’re also a skier, a bird watcher, a sports enthusiast, an environmentalist, or a volunteer. You can also participate in these areas of your life in a way that encourages climate action.

Nyberg recounts an experience teaching executive education class: A coal company manager asked him, “What am I supposed to do about climate change!? I work for a coal company!” Nyberg responded that while the manager had to do what was best for the coal company during work hours, he could still bring his family to a pro-climate protest on the weekend.

Here are some ways you can get politically involved outside of work:

  • Be a board member for an environmental non-profit. Your business experience can help any organization, and you’ll learn about new issues and perspectives. Even if the organization doesn’t focus explicitly on climate change, connections will emerge.

  • Run in an election or support political candidates. Think about who represents your views in the political process. From local school board to national leadership, government officials help shape our world.

  • Participate in a school or community education program. Effective climate action is often very local. If you have children or neighbors, help educate them about the climate-related changes to come. Maybe you know how climate change will affect your hobbies, like skiing or bird watching? Consider running a workshop to raise awareness – and make the connection to voting for pro-climate policy.

  • Attend a climate rally. Being part of a group publicly supporting a shared cause can be energizing and inspiring. In addition to creating impact, you may meet like-minded people who share your fears and encourage your hope.

4 ways to get involved in climate advocacy outside work

Change Is Slow and That’s OK

I am a mother, writer, small business owner, and environmentalist. In all these roles, I think about how my efforts can make the world better. (And I worry about whether they’re enough.)

After talking with Doty and Nyberg, one of my key takeaways was this: Overcoming the power of fossil fuel lobbying will be a slow and challenging process. Success is not even guaranteed.

AND, it’s still worth doing.

That message is food for my soul. Let’s accept – rather than resent – the reality that change is slow, and keep trudging forward with hope and resilience. Let’s keep taking slow steps, one foot after the other, until our little steps add up to something.

Because the alternative is not trying. And what is the point in that?

Additional Resources

  • Global Climate Lobbying Standard: This standard identifies clear criteria to evaluate your own climate lobbying.

  • CERES: This organization advances market-based and policy solutions to climate change and other sustainability challenges.

  • Organising Responses to Climate Change, by Daniel Nyberg, Christopher Wright and Vanessa Bowden (2022): This book explores how governments, corporations, and civil society have shaped past climate change decisions, and how social movements can shape a positive climate future.

  • Erb Principles for Corporate Political Responsibility: The Principles offer actionable, non-partisan guidance to help companies engage in civic and political affairs responsibly.

  • The Good Lobby: A European organization dedicated to making lobbying more democratic.

Why we wrote this

NBS surveyed readers in January 2023 on their priority business sustainability topics. NBS’s Content Committee  then helped identify ways to address the top priorities. This article emerged in response to the question: “How can policy accelerate the climate transition?”

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  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

    Hi, I’m Chelsea. I have a Masters degree in Sustainability, where I studied ecosystem health. I'm also a Certified Life Coach. I used to be the Operations Manager for NBS, but now I just focus on my favourite part of that job – the writing! I also run a social enterprise, called Creating Me, dedicated to strengthening maternal and family well-being. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to balance career goals, impact, and one’s own well-being. When I’m not working on my own impact goals, I offer executive coaching and writing support to help researchers and change-makers grow their impact and well-being. (creatingme.ca/sustainability).

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