Build sustainable infrastructure and create clean jobs for a resilient future

Build sustainable infrastructure and create clean jobs for a resilient future
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With Americans losing their jobs at record-breaking rates, it’s now clear to political leaders (including the president) that a $2 trillion infrastructure investment will be a key step to getting our country back on its feet. 

Now the big question is: what will our huge infrastructure investment look like? Beyond essential spending on public health infrastructure to cope with COVID-19, where will this massive expenditure of our tax dollars go in the next jobs-focused stimulus? Will we take this opportunity to invest in preventing another public health threat, or will it be more of the same sort of thinking that led to this crisis? 

This mammoth investment comes in conjunction with another threat to our survival: climate change. As we invest in our nation’s survival, we must build in the goal of zero carbon by 2050 (and the interim step of 50 percent cuts by 2030) that scientists say is necessary to ensure a safe, healthy and productive future for humanity on this planet. Planes may not be flying, but zero carbon isn’t a goal we want to reach by shutting down our economy.

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To get there, we don’t need an old-school boondoggle infrastructure bill. We need future-focused legislation to build sustainable infrastructure and create clean jobs to begin to bend the curve of carbon emissions. States like Virginia have been showing leadership: the Virginia Clean Economy Act will eliminate pollutants from electricity generation, invest in clean renewable energy and create thousands of new jobs in an industry that’s resilient to the whims of Saudi Arabia or Russian oil producers.   

To bake sustainability into the federal infrastructure bill, we need companies that have clout on Capitol Hill to step up and be allies. We already see many companies stepping up to the COVID-19 crisis — building ventilators, donating PPE, etc. Yet at the same time, lobbyists in Washington, D.C. are taking whatever they can get for their corporate clients as the floodgates of federal investment stand wide open. If every company and every industry sector 6simply fights for their own “fair share” of this enormous pie, we will preserve and perpetuate the status quo — which will mean we decarbonize far too slowly to stop the devastating impacts of climate change.

This is the time to ensure that companies do their part to ensure that we are building toward a safer America — including by protecting our climate. Of course, many companies will need a lifeline to recover from this pandemic. But these are investments, not a gift, so they should include requirements that move our entire economy toward that zero-carbon future. 

We’ve seen some companies speak up on these kinds of policies, even when it’s not in their direct short-term interest. In Virginia, clean energy companies supported the Clean Economy Act. But so did Akamai Technologies, IKEA, Kaiser Permanente, Mars Incorporated, Nestlé USA, Schneider Electric, Unilever and Worthen Industries. We’ve seen similar examples in other states. We need many more companies to follow their example — and especially to step up to this moment of crisis.

I started my career as a professor of computer science at MIT, but have spent most of it in industry. I spent the last 12 years leading clean energy and sustainability work at Google and then at Facebook. For them and for most companies, action on climate is limited to their own operations, their supply chain and their products. When it comes to public policy on climate, most companies, including my former employers, are almost always silent. They may view this silence as neutrality, but in reality, it’s complicity: it allows the fossil fuel companies to be the dominant business voice on climate policy, ensuring that we make progress far too slowly. 

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I founded ClimateVoice in February of this year to get companies off the sidelines: to urge them to go “all in” on climate – in their operations, and in their use of their influence on public policy.  Hiring may be slowed now by COVID-19, but in the coming years, companies that speak up will see a competitive advantage in recruiting and retention over those that stay silent. Employees and students (potential future employees) want companies to step up and lead on climate solutions for all of us. 

Companies have a long-term interest in promoting public health, rebuilding our economy and protecting our planet. They need to step up and help lead us out of this historic crisis — by advocating not just for their own self-interest, but also for our collective interest in a zero-carbon future. The climate movement will be watching to see how companies respond and is ready to demand action if they do not. 

Bill Weihl is a former sustainability executive at Google and Facebook and Founder of ClimateVoice, a new initiative rallying the workforce to urge companies to be pro-climate.