[I’ve been watching, with some joy, the rise of the youth climate movement. A month ago, a couple million kids took to the streets to protest inaction on climate change which, as they see it, threatens their entire future. Unfortunately, they’re right. They’re also serious…and business should listen. Here’s what I wrote about it for my HBR column.]
In one of the many oddities of biology, kids hear differently than the rest of us. There are frequencies that only teens and young adults can make out. Lately it seems that the under-20 crowd is hearing one particular high pitch much better than the rest of us, including most business leaders: the alarm that climate scientists have been sounding.
Consider the young Swede, Greta Thunberg, who just turned 16 in January. Last year, Thunberg stopped going to school to protest inaction on climate change, saying there was little point in studying for a future that may not exist. Within months, Thunberg urged immediate action from business leaders at the World Economic Forum and the told the UN’s Secretary General and others at the global climate summit in Poland that they are “stealing [childrens’] future in front of their very eyes.” What she started is growing, and she’s been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.
Every week, thousands of Belgian youth are marching on the EU capitol of Brussels. And on March 15, in what may be the largest youth-led protest in history, an estimated 1.6 million students in 300 cities around the world walked out of school to march for climate action. I went to the New York march and the energy was electric — and I didn’t even take it personally when a group of teens called some colleagues and me “old people who need to do something.”
There’s more: A new youth group, the Sunrise Movement, recently held a somewhat contentious meeting with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California about her support for climate policies. And a group of teens has sued the U.S. government for failing to protect them from climate change. Younger politicians are making their voices heard, too. Also consider what 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has achieved in just a few months in office. By pushing a broad set of climate and inequality goals under the banner of a “Green New Deal,” the youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress has moved the terms of the climate debate significantly.
Before writing this off as a lot of noise, consider the role of youth in previous social movements. Baby Boomers, when they were kids and teens, led the anti-war movement. The famed Greensboro lunch counter sit-in was led by four young men aged 17, 18, and 19. African-American kids bravely desegregated schools, and the first person to get arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat was not actually Rosa Parks, but 15-year-old Claudette Colvin. A generation later, Gen X and then Millennials shifted the debate on LGBT rights and gay marriage at a remarkable pace. In fact, it’s hard to think of any substantial social movement that didn’t have young, fearless people at the center.
And now, with the powerful tools of social media and 24×7 connectivity, the pace of social movements is quickening. The “Parkland Teens,” the survivors of the horrific school shooting in Florida last year, attracted millions of Twitter followers in days. Within just a few weeks, they called for marches, which over one million people showed up for around the world. Cut to a year later, and the U.S. House of Representatives just passed the first real gun control legislation in many years.
Will this climate movement end up as significant as the anti-war, civil rights, and gay rights movements? It’s hard to predict. But what’s clear is that we’re in the middle of a major re-alignment of values around climate. It’s now unacceptable to young activists, and the millions of people they inspire, to espouse climate denial or play the “let’s go slow” card. They don’t appreciate being handed a disaster movie for them to live with for 70 to 80 years.
This brings me to business, and a warning: no organization can avoid values shifts. Remember, there were moments in history where it was generally acceptable to use slave labor or children in supply chains, to wink at rampant sexual harassment in offices, and to freely dump pollution in rivers and the air. None of these problems are eliminated today, but very few in business would suggest that they’re ok. Morals changed, and then laws.
And while executives do increasingly seem to be moving toward action on climate change, with public pronouncements to cut their own emissions or buy renewable energy are becoming the norm in large companies, it’s not clear whether those actions are enough to satisfy this next generation of customers and employees. In fact, companies seem to be more comfortable taking public stands on issues like race, immigration, gun violence, and transgender rightsbefore speaking strongly on the environment.
But that needs to change now. It’s time, in the words of U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, for “corporate good guys” to “show up in Congress to lobby for climate action.” We need CEOs in the halls of power at the state and federal level pushing for aggressive policy.
This isn’t a new idea, of course, but the history on climate lobbying is sparse. There are “DC visit” days organized by a few focused NGOs, and they’re always hoping for bi-partisan climate solutions. But in reality, with a few exceptions, only smaller companies have been willing to put themselves out there. The big guys sign on to public statements like “We Are Still In,” which is a good start, but is inadequate to the level of change required. They need to put some skin in the game and become more vocal and more aggressive.
In practice, this will mean disagreeing with politicians, up to and including the president, who say it’s too expensive to act, or that climate is a hoax. In fact, a recent survey shows that 76% of Americans want companies to take a stand for what they believe, even if it’s politically controversial.
It may just take the youngest Americans to get companies to take a real and public stand for aggressive global action on climate change; after all, if they don’t, they risk getting out of step with an entire generation of employees and customers.
(This post first appeared in HBR here)
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