The writer was chief executive of Hewlett Packard from 1999 to 2005.
In recent months, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been under siege by an army of professional activists. Its weapons: radically oversimplified arguments and online pressure campaigns. Its victim: free and open debate. The attacks have prompted Google, among other tech giants, to part ways with ALEC, an alliance of state legislators who advocate limited government, free markets, and individual liberty. Unfortunately, such shortsighted thinking all too often shapes corporate strategy at a time when policies with enormous, and potentially damaging, economic implications are gaining ground.
ALEC and its supporters are not alone as the targets of such attacks. While climate change is these activists’ current wedge, they strive to drive business out of politics by any means necessary, including protests, online petitions, letter-writing campaigns, attacks on secondary targets or membership organizations and shareholder resolutions.
This month, a climate-related pressure campaign by Greenpeace forced the Danish toy-maker Lego to end its relationship with Shell. Too often companies succumb to the interests of a small minority of well-organized, professional activists intent on chilling speech and marginalizing the voice of business and job creators in U.S. society. The goal of these activists is to have business bow to their ideological will and reshape companies in their desired image. Their attacks on businesses’ protected speech and political participation are intended to sideline the entrepreneurial perspective and silence the opportunity for nuanced policy discussions.
More pressure campaigns are underway, and the attacks won’t stop until companies — and their leaders — take a stand.
Climate change is a big issue; informed discussion is desperately needed and solutions are not immediately obvious. It is counterproductive and dishonest to assign people and companies to one of only two possible camps when complicated policy and economic issues need to be addressed. Decisions on climate revolve around energy production and consumption, which in turn have implications in such vital areas as job growth, innovation, global air quality, grid maintenance and power generation. These are not small considerations.
When discussing climate, scientists may agree that some policy change is warranted, but they also agree that action by a single state or nation will make little difference. China and India are the biggest and third-biggest producers, respectively, of carbon dioxide emissions, and their leaders were absent from the recent U.N. Climate Summit. At a time when American families are still recovering from joblessness and the recession, should the United States commit to an energy policy that puts U.S. jobs, and the economy, at risk?
Last month, 15 governors sent a letter to President Obama expressing their concern over the power-plant regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency that are estimated to retire enough electrical capacity to power 60 million homes. To be sure, the Cato Institute used an EPA-supported climate model to find that if the power plant plan is implemented entirely, a mere 0.018 degrees Celsius rise in global temperature would be averted.
But this information seems to be lost on the activists, who are all too willing to brand companies and groups as “climate change deniers.”
No form of energy is perfect. The debate is so much more complicated than the simplistic notion of switching from traditional energy sources to renewable ones. Energy sources generate power in very different ways, and unlike traditional coal-burning power plants that reliably generate power, wind energy is volatile and unpredictable.
As we head into the election season, corporate leaders should remain aware of the cyclical nature of campaigns and understand the source and purpose of activist pressure. Caving on an issue only invites more attacks. If a company is a good steward of customer and shareholder interests, pursues appropriate policy and delivers on its brand promise, there is nothing to fear.
We need more business leaders who are willing to stand up and contribute to our public discourse. Reasonable people can disagree on the substance of policy while they engage in civil discourse, and business leaders should not let the urgency of a manufactured crisis direct their policy priorities. Our democracy has never — and should never — demand consensus, but a forced consensus will surely be on our horizon if companies keep bowing to activist pressure.