Lessons of the LGBT Struggle for Climate Change

Is it possible, even in the current economic crisis, to move companies from inaction to action on climate? Yes, if we take a page from the LGBT movement and learn its valuable lessons. During Pride Month, it’s a good time to look back and remember that success on gay marriage and other struggles was far from assured for many years. It took time and effort by many people and groups. One key turning point came when LGBT-friendly businesses got off the sidelines and became vocal allies. Now is the time to make the same thing happen for climate.

If you look at the key state-level and federal-level fights over LGBT rights in the last decade, these were hard-fought policy battles, many of them uphill fights against the odds. What turned the tide? One of the biggest factors was public corporate support. We saw a lot of companies speak out for marriage equality — 379 companies urged the Supreme Court to uphold gay marriage rights in 2015. We saw companies stand up against the “bathroom bills” (a coded attack on transgender rights) in North Carolina and other places.

Within just a few years, companies moved from being bystanders who were saying “we’re good people, we don’t discriminate,” to being upstanders, saying “we are strong advocates for equality, against discrimination.”

Most dramatically, the Indiana controversy shows the pure power of the corporate sector to influence policy. When Indiana passed a controversial religious freedom law that would have exempted business owners with religious objections from serving same sex couples, Apple, Nike, Salesforce and Walmart all threatened to stop doing business in the state. Companies based in Indiana, including Anthem, Cummins and Eli Lilly, were also vocal opponents. The pressure from companies eventually forced lawmakers to weaken this destructive law. The voice of companies changed the game almost overnight in a very conservative state.

So here are some of the lessons of LGBT success for the climate movement:

  • Companies care what workers think. At many companies, when visible LGBT groups formed affinity groups and began speaking out, it gave the companies a business reason — worker retention — to speak out for LGBT rights. Climate change is now emerging as a top concern for the talented millennials many companies want to attract.
  • The combination of internal advocates and allies will help spur activism. In activating companies for LGBT rights, a key factor was senior advocates and allies who held key posts in diversity and inclusion, HR, or public policy. In the climate field, many companies now have a in-house sustainability leader who can be an important ally.
  • Companies have influence well beyond their own sector or geography. Neither Apple, Nike nor Walmart has their corporate headquarters in Indiana — but they have employees and customers there, and that gave them influence. Ikea, Akamai, and other companies that endorsed the Virginia Clean Economy Act aren’t based in Virginia, but they helped get this law enacted.

It’s not going to be easy to put the policies in place to reach the goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050. But there is plenty of inspiration and solid lessons to learn from the LGBT movement that can help us get there.




Founder and Executive Director of ClimateVoice. Former Green Energy Czar at Google and Director of Sustainability at Facebook. Climate warrior.

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Bill Weihl

Bill Weihl

Founder and Executive Director of ClimateVoice. Former Green Energy Czar at Google and Director of Sustainability at Facebook. Climate warrior.

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