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In February, Bank of America offered its employees a notable perk: If they had worked at the bank for at least three years, and made less than $250,000, then it would give them $4,000 to buy a new electric car. (Employees interested in merely leasing an EV could claim $2,000.) The move, attached to a company-wide round of salary increases, wasn’t the first time that the bank had made the offer; it had made a similar one in 2015, and again in 2020, although those incentives had also applied to gas-electric hybrids.
Bank of America’s move isn’t going to make a major dent in climate change, but it’s also far from the worst piece of corporate climate action I’ve ever heard of. Many corporate actions to reduce global warming don’t actually help the climate—and if they involve carbon offsets, they can even add carbon to the atmosphere. But about 15 percent of U.S. carbon pollution comes from cars and light-duty trucks, although gasoline use, and thus carbon emissions, is disproportionately concentrated among a small group of consumers who drive larger vehicles and live in rural areas (which likely doesn’t include many bank tellers or financial analysts). You’ve heard the spiel by now: Electric vehicles are cheaper to run and own than gas-burning cars in many states—but that’s if buyers can stomach the larger down payment. An employer-provided subsidy helps get there.
Companies pursue climate action for a number of reasons, but Bank of America’s announcement helped clarify one of the least-discussed aspects of corporate climate action: It is a job perk. When companies try to look like they’re decarbonizing—or more broadly, doing right by the climate—it isn’t only out of their fealty to anxious asset managers. In many instances, it’s also because they want to retain their employees—and their largely left-of-center employees, in turn, want to feel like they’re working at a virtuous place.
Bank of America’s offer makes this fact unusually prominent ($4,000 handouts make for good headlines), but you can see the same idea in some of the tech giants that first pursued aggressive climate action in the 2010s. When Google went “carbon neutral” in 2007, it was already sitting on a massive river of cash. It has since begun to power all of its data centers with renewable energy, slashing emissions. Apple and Microsoft have done the same. Some tech companies now aspire to go carbon negative; Frontier, an initiative housed inside the payments company Stripe, is paying to remove carbon from the atmosphere so as to help that carbon-sucking technology along. But these firms have (and had) something in common: They are competing in some of the country’s tightest labor markets, demanding highly technical talent from a relatively small pool of qualified workers. These disproportionately young, urban, and highly educated engineers and programmers skew to the left as their demographics would suggest, and so the bulk of tech workers are eager to see climate action.
Nor has the recent movement been limited to tech companies. McKinsey sponsored Frontier, and dozens of Fortune 500 companies, including McDonald’s and United, have made some kind of net-zero pledge. This has been understood as corporate do-gooderism, but it’s also a type of employee perk. In part, that’s because education has become an even stronger predictor of one’s political beliefs in recent years, aligning some segments of corporate America and its workforce more closely with the left. At the same time, the need for companies to follow their employees’ wishes might be particularly acute right now, with labor markets across the United States so tight. In other ways, too, firms are taking actions that straddle the line between political statement and job benefit: Many companies have already committed to paying for their employees to travel out of state to receive an abortion.
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