Evaluating Corporate Influence on the Climate Debate

Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a new report, A Climate of Corporate Control: How Corporations Have Influenced the U.S. Dialogue on Climate Science and Policy. It’s an important topic, as we know there are professional merchants of doubt whose sole purpose is to exaggerate scientific uncertainty on environmental issues where in fact the science is quite clear. As the report points out, we have seen this time and again with topics such as tobacco, leaded gasoline, SO2, asbestos, DDT, and now climate change. 

Here’s how the authors describe their aim: “…Ultimately, we seek a dialogue around climate science and policy that prioritizes peer-reviewed scientific information over the agendas of specialized interest groups.” That’s a goal we at C2ES certainly share. And toward that end, we’d encourage a somewhat more nuanced and realistic perspective on how companies behave and why. Let me explain.

The report reviews the actions and statements of 28 companies (five of which are members of C2ES’s Business Environmental Leadership Council, or BELC). The 28 were selected because they either had publicly commented on the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Endangerment Finding or had contributed to the campaigns for or against Prop 23 in California (Prop 23, which failed, would have suspended the state’s landmark climate change law, AB 32). The authors attempt to determine “who helps and who hinders the climate conversation,” and rank the 28 companies as consistent (5), contradictory (12), or obstructionist (9) based on their statements and actions on climate science and policy.  

The rankings are based on criteria that include several “direct” actions, such as executive statements, SEC filings, earnings calls/reports and EPA Endangerment Finding comments.  While these criteria are generally straightforward, the report also relies on a number of “indirect actions,” such as contributions to political candidates, memberships in trade or other industry groups, and financial support for think tanks and other organizations.  

Here’s where things get murky. The challenge with attempting to interpret or ascribe a motive to such indirect actions is that the intent behind them is not always clear. While the authors acknowledge that they cannot determine the extent to which climate positions lead companies to lobby or support certain politicians, or necessarily link a company’s support of an NGO to that organization’s climate-related activities, the report nevertheless goes on to use those criteria as critical ranking metrics. Indeed, one of the report’s conclusions is that companies should cease funding, or publicly withdraw from, those think tanks, trade groups, and other organizations that spread misinformation on climate science.

By all means, companies should strongly consider the organizations to which they belong, how those groups represent climate science and policy, and how those positions align with the company’s own stated views. As a general rule, we’d certainly prefer that companies not associate with organizations that misrepresent climate science. At the same time, we also recognize that membership in industry groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) usually is based on a wide variety of issues that have nothing to do with climate change. The same can be said for support of political candidates and NGOs. 

While we have seen a few examples of companies withdrawing support from a group over a single issue, this generally isn't realistic. Recognizing that associations and trade groups often cater to the “lowest common denominator,” rather than having an issue-driven litmus test, a more reasonable ask would be for companies to clearly and publicly state when their positions on climate science and policy differ from groups to which they belong or support, and to work to reverse those groups’ positions.

We agree wholeheartedly with two of the report’s other recommendations: that corporate leaders take responsibility for ensuring consistent company-wide positions that align with established climate science, and that companies already behaving responsibly encourage other companies to do likewise.  

In working with members of our BELC (membership in which counts in a company’s favor in the study), we don’t expect that the companies will agree with everything we say as an organization, nor do we purport to speak on their behalf. But in joining the BELC, a company subscribes to a four-part public statement of principles, the first of which states: “We accept the scientific consensus that climate change is occurring and that the impacts are already being felt. Delaying action will increase both the risks and the costs.” This principle reflects our belief that the corporate community can play an important role as a positive messenger about the scientific consensus on climate, and that without their support, strong policy will never be possible.  

Tim Juliani is Director of Corporate Engagement at C2ES.