The Value Gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, policy makers and activists on reducing racial and social inequalities.
In many ways, Lisa Jackson sees herself in the young climate activists who have confronted climate denialism and urged world leaders to act.
“It’s not unusual for young people to feel very connected to the future, and I was motivated like many of them are,” Jackson, the vice president for environment, policy and social initiatives for Apple Inc.
Even as an 8-year-old, Jackson had a conscientious attitude toward sustainability growing up in the South, where environmental hazards were widespread. It emboldened her to write a letter to then President Richard Nixon, asking what he could do to protect the planet and communities like hers.
“Back then, there were very vivid examples of pollution. We had rivers on fire; skies that were polluted and you could barely see,” Jackson said. “In New Orleans, we were learning that our drinking water from the Mississippi River was not healthy.”
Unbeknownst to her, Nixon in 1970 cemented one of his greatest achievements — establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, which Jackson would go on to lead under former President Barack Obama. The agency became the impetus for the rise in American environmentalism, and is perhaps the most controversial today.
But environmentalism didn’t always toe a partisan line. In the 1970s, lawmakers were largely bipartisan on implementing climate policy before conversations took a polarizing turn. Data has shown that congressional attitudes toward environmental issues became turbulent when Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992.
Things got even rockier in 2008 after Obama was sworn in. Broad-scale legislative proposals on ozone pollution and efforts the U.S. can take to reduce carbon emissions rarely received sweeping support during the Obama administration, and in fact were scaled back to tackle low-hanging fruit through the Clean Power Plan, which limited the amount of CO2 emissions from existing power plants.
The law was repealed in 2017 by then EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump. The Biden administration is currently looking to restore and even expand some of the federal protections for waterways in the U.S.
During the 26th United Nations climate summit in Glasgow this month, known as COP26, government ministers and officials from around the world took a collective step forward in accelerating their goal for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
At the close of the summit, 197 countries adopted the Glasgow Climate Pact, which states that the use of unabated coal should be “phased down,” as should subsidies for fossil fuels
The language originally stated that coal should be “phased out” entirely, but was watered down after India dissented in the final hour — a move that climate scientists believe could give a free pass for countries reliant on coal and fossil fuels to continue using them.
Scientists say that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and help fuel global warming, which is contributing to extreme weather events, putting human health at risk, and threatening ecosystems and infrastructure. And these harmful effects are not felt evenly: An EPA analysis this year concluded that underserved communities bear the brunt of harm from climate change and that racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately impacted.
Taking action on climate policy can not only benefit the health outcomes of underserved communities globally, it can also boost economic growth. If countries were to adopt a low-carbon, sustainable growth path, they could increase economic output upwards of $26 trillion and create over 65 million new jobs by 2030, according to a 2018 report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.
During Jackson’s tenure as EPA administrator during the Obama administration, her bold plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions were often impeded by fossil-fuel lobbyists and GOP lawmakers.
Congressional divisiveness and incremental progress on decreasing the burning of coal has now made Americans even more attentive. The majority of Americans believe the government hasn’t done enough to reduce the impact of climate change on communities. Young Republican voters have increasingly supported initiatives to fight climate change and tend to favor private-sector solutions. Public pressure has also compelled tech leaders to do their part by implementing viable green-tech solutions to curb climate change.
Apple announced a few goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through its Power for Impact initiative and its own pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. Its global operations are already carbon neutral, and the tech giant is on an ambitious track to have all of its 175 suppliers transition to using renewable energy.
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Jackson, who was among a group of business leaders who attended COP26, says that “innovation and urgency are essential for fighting climate change.” She spoke to MarketWatch about the wide range of sustainability efforts she’s leading at Apple, the disparate impacts of climate change, and her lifelong advocacy work for environmental justice.
MarketWatch: You said you’ve always had a passion to protect the planet since you were a child. How did you understand the importance of the environment at that age?
Jackson: Young people feel this connection to the future. It’s our future, it’s their future. Some people call that idealism. What kind of inspires me now is how that idealism is transferring into young adults.
I grew up in a beautiful city and I was inspired by the incredibly close connection between air quality, water quality, land and health. I realized that sometimes people are the first victims of progress — those communities can be poor and communities of color. I feel it’s our responsibility as humans to ensure that our progress and our economy don’t come at the expense of other people’s health or lives.
MarketWatch: You’ve said that equity should be the “bedrock of environmental progress.” What do you mean by that?
Jackson: On the simplest level, air doesn’t stay in one place and water doesn’t stay in one place. You can pollute the air in one community, but you’re actually polluting the air we all breathe. Climate change is a global problem; it’s not a localized issue. Water pollution that happens far upstream can have a devastating impact on a community far downstream.
We may think that it is OK to write off or not worry about certain communities because they’re poor and they don’t have political power. The truth of the matter is that we can’t have environmental protection unless those communities that are most vulnerable are protected as well.
“‘The truth of the matter is that we can’t have environmental protection unless those communities that are most vulnerable are protected as well.’”
MarketWatch: Communities of color were suffering a dual health crisis with COVID-19, on top of the air and water pollution that has plagued minority neighborhoods and low-income communities for decades. How urgent is it to take action to address this issue?
Jackson: There’s a system of systemic levers that are not working in the right direction for many communities, and certainly communities of color. When you think about fossil-fuel generation of power, you think about air pollution. There were studies that showed that if you live in a place where it is more polluted, you are going to be more susceptible to impacts from COVID-19.
Healthcare and the opportunity to access healthcare is a real concern from a COVID-19 perspective. That’s less related to climate change per se and more [related] to inequities in healthcare access. And then education: Apple has a Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, which we started after George Floyd was killed. Part of what we do is work on educational equity and opportunity. For too many communities, where you’re born, the ZIP code you live in determines what access to what kind of education you’re going to have.
So a lot of these things exacerbate the other, or as young people would say today, they’re intersectional. I don’t think you can separate justice from environmental health and environmental protection anymore.
MarketWatch: Apple also launched its Impact Accelerator Program for Black and Latinx businesses that are in the sustainability space. What was the idea behind that?
Jackson: The idea was, can Apple use any of its skill in growing and scaling companies to help grow and scale more companies that are Black and brown-owned in the green-energy and clean economy? A group came through the accelerator and they now have a wind project that they’ve been working on for years. Now Apple is going to be investing in them. They have incredible wind resources in the Dakotas and these tribes are one place on the map where the wind resources haven’t been tapped, so there’s real justice and economic opportunity there.
“‘The sector in general has a role to play in realizing that technology uses energy — and if we don’t clean that energy, we are a part of the problem, not the solution.’”
MarketWatch: Last year, a study showed that climate change is expected to force between 32 million and 132 million additional people into extreme poverty by 2030. Shifting to clean energy can help fight climate change and alleviate poverty in some of the most impoverished parts of the world. What role does the tech sector play in ensuring that vulnerable communities in the U.S. and the world aren’t forgotten about as we move toward decarbonization technologies?
Jackson: The sector in general has a role to play in realizing that technology uses energy — and if we don’t clean that energy, we are a part of the problem, not the solution. It’s not all part of the tech sector; there are still places where folks aren’t making the problem better.
For Apple, we’ve realized for well over a decade that we should be investing in clean energy. We had a comprehensive carbon footprint [goal], which we’ve changed over the years to make it more accurate, and we’ve been transparent in reporting on that. It was really big for us to announce last year a 10-year goal to be carbon neutral across all of our suppliers, and for our customers. We put these devices in the world, so we know we have a responsibility to help clean grids around the world. The tech sector has [been] and will continue to be an incredible benefit to people, but there has to be intentionality to ensure that happens.
MarketWatch: What are some of the economic opportunities that can be unlocked when making renewable energy more accessible?
Jackson: First and foremost is jobs. If we’re going to build an economy around clean energy and energy efficiency, those are all jobs that we would like to see be available to communities that need them. We don’t want to see clean energy just for big businesses; we want it to be for communities as well. Another thing to remember is that as more deployment happens, renewables are cheaper than conventional sources of power.
It’s really just getting these technologies deployed in communities and giving them a little bit of help with initial investment. All of those things become a virtuous cycle.