Roger Martella ’95, Chief Sustainability Officer and Global Head of Engagement, Government Affairs, and Policy at GE, emphasized the importance of private-sector solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the 2023 Distinguished Lecture on Climate Change Governance.
Martella’s lecture was sponsored and made possible by the Sally Shallenberger Brown EELU Fund, and he was introduced by Energy, Environment and Land Use Program Director Michael Vandenbergh.
In his current role at GE, Martella is focused on the challenge of navigating the transition to sustainable energy globally. “We have a problem when it comes to climate change, and I have an idea of what to do that you’re not going to like: approach climate change the same way companies run businesses,” he said. “The problem is lack of action.”
Martella divides the past half-century into two eras: the Conventional Environmental Protection Era, which relied primarily on government regulation spurred by activists and non-governmental advocacy groups, and, starting in 2007, the Greenhouse Gases Era, when the increase of carbon in the atmosphere became a globally pressing issue. While government has been the primary driver of environmental policy, he notes that the U.S. saw strong improvements in air, water quality, and environmental contamination from 1960 through 2007, but that progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been “virtually flat” due to political polarization.
“Using the same ‘tools in the toolbox’ is not working in the Greenhouse Gases Era,” he emphasized.
Given a polarized political environment that stymies government action, he proposes that multinational corporations that have cultivated a culture of corporate social responsibility step in as a new driver of change, working with NGOs, activities, and governments where possible to usher in the Global Sustainability Era. “Multinational companies can deliver and finance the technology and innovation needed to achieve the goal of reducing carbon emissions,” he said. “To make the needed progress, we need to change the who, what, how, and when.”
Allowing multinational companies to take the lead on the transition to clean energy, Martelle emphasized, allows governments to avoid political polarizing while enabling progress. He cites the Inflation Reduction Act as a good example of government enabling the private sector to step up and invest in clean energy. “A lack of faith in societal institutions triggered by economic anxiety, disinformation, mass-class divide, and a failure of leadership has brought us to where we are today—deeply and dangerously polarized. Business is the only institution seen as competent and ethical,” he said, noting that citizens of nations around the global had greater trust in companies and NGOs than in government and the media.
“We’re in a transformative era after too much delay, so we must seize the opportunities to take action now and focus on outcomes,” Martella said. “The way we work together to solve problems is changing. What’s really motivating people to act today is not climate change—it’s electrification. People want to know that, going forward, they’ll have access to reliable, sustainable energy.”
Before Martella joined GE’s legal staff in 2017, he co-led the global climate change and environmental law practice at Sidley Austin. Early in his career, he served as the Principal Counsel for Complex Litigation for the Department of Justice’s Natural Resources Section and as General Counsel of the EPA. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, serves on the boards of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and the Environmental Law Institute. He co-edited a textbook, Corporate Social Responsibility—Sustainable Business: Environmental, Social, and Governance Frameworks for the 21st Century (Wolters Kluwer, 2020), and teaches international Environmental Law and Justice at Howard University Law School. He was recognized with a Racial Justice Champion Award by the Racial Justice Institute in 2022.