Long before Hertz Fellow Bill Weihl earned a PhD in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was devoted to the environment.
He and his mother piled into the family car once a month to take their glass to recycling center dumpsters and composted their kitchen waste in the woods behind their house. Now his career path working with some of the biggest names in technology has led him back to his environmentalist beginnings.
“I grew up in Cincinnati in the ’60s and ’70s, suffering the effects of various kinds of pollution,” Weihl said. “We heard news reports about chemical spills into the Ohio River. The air quality in the summer was horrible because of emissions from various factories.”
When Weihl and his wife had children, his concerns about the environment mounted. At the time, he was doing interesting technical work as a researcher at Digital Systems Research Center and as the chief technology officer of Akamai Technologies. But it wasn’t enough.
“Climate change was an existential crisis that seemed so much more important than what I was working on,” Weihl said. He pivoted in his work to focus on sustainability.
As Google’s green energy czar from 2006 to 2011, he bought clean energy for its data centers and helped found the Climate Savers Computing Initiative. As Facebook’s director of sustainability from 2012 to 2018, he worked on sustainability and energy efficiency, driving projects to track and reduce the company’s environmental footprint. He also helped found the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a membership association for large-scale energy buyers seeking to procure renewable energy across the United States.
Weihl has been amply recognized for his efforts. He received Time magazine’s 2009 Hero of the Environment for his work at Google, the 2016 Global Green Award for environmental leadership, and GreenBiz’s 2018 VERGE Vanguard Award.
Now he has altered direction again, this time to focus on climate change policy.
Companies can have a powerful impact on climate change policies, yet many have steered clear of the highly politicized issue, Weihl said. To address that, he established the nonprofit ClimateVoice in February 2020. The organization works with current employees and college students entering the job market to urge companies to go “all in” on climate and be vocal proponents of caring for the planet.
Companies that ignore staff and stay silent on the issue will have more difficulty recruiting and retaining highly trained employees, Weihl predicts. “Politicians listen to big influential businesses, and successful businesses listen to their employees,” he said.
Pledge to Make Change
To trigger this chain of influence, employees and students first sign the ClimateVoice Pledge, which states that they will seek a workplace that is #AllinOnClimate, ensure that companies understand that climate matters to them, and encourage colleagues to activate their companies on the issue. ClimateVoice provides companies with statistics on the number of pledges signed by their employees or by students in a given field. Employees from dozens of companies, many of them in the tech sector, have already signed ClimateVoice’s pledge and petitions.
ClimateVoice’s approach models itself on LGBTQ community activism, Weihl said. Starting 20 years ago, hundreds of companies implemented progressive internal policies on LGBTQ. About 10 years ago, they started to support external public policies. Both were in response to employee pressure and the shift in attitudes among the college-student demographic. Such policies outlawed discrimination and provided equal benefits for gay employees and domestic partnerships.
When it comes to climate change, making internal changes is a start, but doesn’t go far enough, Weihl said.
“Lots of companies are buying clean energy, cleaning up their own operations, and encouraging their suppliers to clean up their operations. All of that is really important,” he said. “But by the time I’d been working on sustainability for 10 years, it was clear to me that we were moving far too slowly if we want to stay below 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius of global warming,” which is generally regarded as the threshold for avoiding catastrophic consequences.
He is now focused on the vital role public policy plays in addressing climate change and points to a new law in Virginia as evidence of progress. In early April, the governor of Virginia signed into law the Clean Economy Act, which mandates 100 percent clean energy on the state energy grid by 2050.
“The law passed with significant support from businesses and from ClimateVoice,” Weihl said.
He’s not just concerned about his children’s future; he’s concerned for all people.
“There are billions of people today who are undernourished and don’t have access to clean water. Whether it’s people in the United States or in developing nations, climate change is going to make those problems much, much worse. We need everyone who cares about climate change to band together and support public policies that can drive rapid decarbonization,” he said.
Weihl also sees a role for the Hertz community. “Hertz Fellows are brilliant scientists, engineers, and business people who could push for aggressive, rapid climate action,” he said. “If this group of smart, accomplished, and respected people could devote a small percentage of their time to driving change through their companies and universities, it could really help move the needle.”
By Jeannine Mjoseth