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Congress must act against climate change to keep America competitive

October 20, 2021, 3:30 PM UTC
Climate activists hold signs outside the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 7. “The toll of climate change will only worsen if Congress fails to make commonsense climate investments now,” writes Liz O’Neill.
Stefani Reynolds—Bloomberg/Getty Images

At the United Nations General Assembly last month, world leaders discussed the existential crisis of our time—climate change—with President Biden stating that how the world responds now “will reverberate for generations to come.” As someone who oversees a global supply chain for a nearly 170-year-old company with deep American roots, I can attest that those reverberations are already being felt—and that how we collectively respond is the single most critical issue for companies around the world, including ours.    

Being the chief operations officer at Levi Strauss means the most important aspect of my job is ensuring that our operations evolve to address climate change. To that end, we’re working towards achieving the science-based targets for emissions reductions and clean energy usage that we first set in 2018, innovating our products and practices to use fewer resources, and driving a long-overdue conversation about consumption within the fashion industry—all of which is outlined in our recently released sustainability report.  

This work is urgent—there are more reminders of this every day—and it’s heartening to see many peers make similar commitments, given the size of the apparel industry’s global carbon emissions footprint. But if we’re going to counter the worst effects of climate change, we can’t rely on any one company, or any one industry. Business and government must work together, which in this country means that Congress must include a comprehensive climate agenda in its final reconciliation package.  

Congress cannot miss this opportunity to make long-overdue investments to protect our economy and communities from climate change. Congress must extend and expand clean energy incentives, specifically solar and wind investment and production tax credits. And importantly, it must take into account the needs of frontline communities that have borne the brunt of climate change. 

These steps, if fully implemented, will serve as a catalyst to a clean energy transition and position the U.S. to cut our overall emissions by more than half by 2030. They will help put millions of Americans to work in good-paying jobs, make our communities safer and healthier, and support the efforts of businesses like ours to go further, faster to deliver on our sustainability commitments. Such steps will encourage others to step up as well, driving action at the scale needed to address the climate crisis and build stronger, more just, and more resilient economies. 

As the details of reconciliation continue to be debated, there has been a lot of focus on the cost of the bill and not nearly enough on what we’d be paying for and what it will deliver. The fact is, the climate crisis has reached such a critical stage that we cannot afford half measures when it comes to investing in solutions. The cost of inaction—or not enough action—would be staggering. If we fail to curb global emissions and continue on our current trajectory, G7 economies will lose an estimated $4.8 trillion every year. Businesses throughout the country are already experiencing more supply chain disruptions, more shortages of essential natural resources, and more stresses on operations from extreme weather events than ever before. Climate-induced weather events cost U.S. taxpayers $99 billion last year—on top of the lives, homes, and businesses lost in fires, heat waves, storms, and floods fueled by climate change.  

No region has been spared and no place will be immune from the effects if we continue down this road. The toll will only worsen if Congress fails to make commonsense climate investments now. Most Americans, in fact, want Congress to do more to make climate and clean energy investments. They are seeing what I’m seeing in my position—that investing in climate solutions is critical to safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of family members, coworkers, and fellow citizens.  

We’re taking steps at Levi Strauss to future-proof our business, but a whole-of-government approach is needed to prevent further devastation and keep America competitive. Congress must act, and we’re committed to doing our part. Any company interested in its own future should also be ready, if not eager, to make the necessary investments. Because this isn’t just about what will happen “for generations to come.” It’s about what’s happening right now, and the need to do everything we can to secure our shared future.  

Liz O’Neill is the chief operations officer at Levi Strauss. 

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