Six corporations that talk green and spend dirty

This is a special joint edition of Popular Information and HEATED, a climate newsletter by journalist Emily Atkin. HEATED is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of the planet earth. Sign up HERE.

Last week, 42 major corporations signed a letter calling on President-elect Joe Biden to work with Congress to enact "ambitious” climate policies. But, since Election Day, at least six of those companies have also donated to Republican candidates whose victories in the Georgia Senate run-offs would make meaningful climate legislation effectively impossible. 

Organized by the non-profit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), the letter says the world is already experiencing "rising costs of climate change," including "record wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, and other extreme weather." It says swift action in 2021 is "a business imperative," and that unless Congress takes steps now, "future generations will face far greater environmental, economic, and health impacts." 

The public statement stands in stark contrast to recent political spending of several participating corporations. Since Election Day, signatories including Microsoft, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and General Motors have contributed thousands of dollars to the high-stakes re-election bids of Senators Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA)—races which will determine control of the Senate. 

If either Loeffler or Perdue win on January 5, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will remain in charge—an outcome which experts agree would cripple the outlook for ambitious climate policy. Comprehensive climate legislation would be “off the table for at least two more years,” Scott Irwin, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois, recently told Reuters

Climate scientists say a further delay of two years for comprehensive climate policy would be enormously consequential. Still, many companies had no problem quietly funding races that would almost certainly prevent that outcome, while loudly declaring their commitment to climate action. 

Microsoft defends its $5,000 campaign contribution to Perdue as “engagement” 

One of the signatories of the C2ES letter is Microsoft. The company has positioned itself as an advocate not just for aggressive climate action, but against corporate greenwashing. 

“The time of raised ambitions and grand announcements without clear action plans is also past,” the company’s chief environmental officer wrote last year. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said the world "is confronted with an urgent carbon crisis," and Microsoft President Brad Smith pledged that the company will "use its voice" to "advance public policies" to address climate change. 

Just days before signing the letter, however, Microsoft was knowingly funding a candidate whose victory would keep the Senate in Republican hands. On November 19, Microsoft's corporate PAC donated $5,000 — the maximum allowable contribution — to Perdue's campaign. 

In a statement to Popular Information and HEATED, a Microsoft spokesperson defended its donation:

We recognize that to make progress on the issues that matter to our customers and to our business, we must engage with candidates and officeholders who hold a range of views. Given the breadth of our policy agenda, it’s unlikely we’ll agree on every issue, but we’ve learned that engagement—even when individuals hold different positions—is an essential part of achieving progress.

Microsoft is trying to have it both ways. When its executives are making a glitzy announcement, climate change is an issue of paramount importance. But when Microsoft is asked to justify a contribution to a political candidate who would obstruct climate action for years, climate change is just one of many issues. Donating to a candidate that denies basic climate science is part of Microsoft's strategy of "engagement" with politicians that hold "a range of views." 

Microsoft's approach is not atypical, and helps explain why a robust response to the climate crisis remains elusive. Big corporations will do anything to convince their customers they are committed to addressing climate change, unless that thing is changing the current U.S. political landscape to be less hostile to climate policy.

Five other corporations that signed the climate letter and then donated to Perdue, Loeffler or both

Popular Information and HEATED found five other companies that signed the C2ES letter but also donated to Perdue and Loeffler since Election Day. There may be more; the most recent campaign finance data from corporate PACs, filed on December 3, only includes donations made until November 23. 

Bank of America signed the letter urging Congress to act. The company has said there is a "climate crisis" and "climate change can no longer be ignored." “The 2010s were a lost decade when it comes to ameliorating climate change. As we head into the 2020s, we need to move forward very fast,” Bank of America's Haim Israel said.

At the same time, on November 10, Bank of America's corporate PAC donated $5,000 to Perdue. 

Asked how that donation was consistent with its call for ambitious action on climate in the next Congress, a Bank of America spokesperson said the company had no comment. 

General Motors also signed the C2ES letter as part of a broader public relations offensive on climate change. In a November 23 letter to environmental groups, it embraced President-elect Biden's call to move the U.S. auto industry into an "all-electric future."

On November 16, General Motors' corporate PAC also donated $5,000 to Perdue. 

The company did not respond to a request for comment. 

Goldman Sachs has said that "climate change is one of the most significant environmental challenges of the 21st century," and "urgent action by necessary to curb greenhouse gas emissions." It also said that "delaying action on climate change will be costly for our natural environment, to humans and to the economy." 

Goldman Sachs signed the C2ES letter calling on Biden and the new Congress to take aggressive action on climate change. But on November 12, Goldman Sachs' corporate PAC donated $5,000 to support Perdue, and thus the effort to keep McConnell in control of the Senate. 

The company did not respond to a request for comment. 

Ford has said that "addressing climate change impact is a salient human rights issue and a strategic priority for Ford." The company pledged to work with "elected officials to shape policy actions that address climate change, protect the environment and promote technology innovation."

The company, which signed the letter urging the new Congress to act on climate, has claimed it has "consistent internal and external policy and messaging that is aligned with our overall climate change strategy."

On November 10, Ford's corporate PAC donated $5,000 to Loeffler. On November 17, it donated $1,000 to Perdue. 

The company did not respond to a request for comment. 

Dominion Energy, which operates coal-fired power plants and lobbies for the construction of natural gas pipelines, is an unlikely signatory of the letter urging action on climate change. But it is attempting to craft a more progressive image on the issue. "Climate change is one of the most challenging issues of our time, and Dominion Energy is committed to doing our part to reduce carbon and methane emissions," the company website says

On November 18, Dominion Energy's corporate PAC donated $5,000 to Perdue.

The company did not respond to a request for comment. 

“The stakes could not be higher”

The outcome of the Georgia Senate run-offs will define Joe Biden’s presidency. They will also define the fight for a livable planet. 

The stakes of the upcoming Congressional term “could not be higher” when it comes to climate change, the Washington Postreports. “As Biden’s term soon begins, the world faces ever more dangerous and irreversible levels of warming because of the continued buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from not just the United States but countries around the world.”

The safest level of warming is 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Achieving that, according to the IPCC, requires the world to slash its carbon emissions by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030. Then it must reach net-zero around 2050. This is the only scenario at which the catastrophic health, economic, and ecological impacts of warming are reversible.

Meaningful climate policy is, in other words, a gargantuan task that must be accomplished very quickly. And it’s very unlikely the entire world will achieve it if the United States does not lead, because the United States has contributed more to climate change than any other country in the world.

There’s a lot Biden could do on climate change without the support of a Democratic Congress — re-joining the Paris climate accord, reinstating Obama’s climate regulations, and implementing more executive-level climate regulations across the federal bureaucracy, to name a few. But that only brings the U.S. back to where it was four years ago. The fastest way Biden could advance the U.S. toward effective climate action would be to pass an economic stimulus package focused on clean energy. But experts agree that likely wouldn’t happen with a Republican Senate

Fossil fuel executives, for their part, are counting on this to be the case. “Biden is not going to be able to ram through a costly, zero-carbon mandate through a Republican Senate,” Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and oil executive, recently told Bloomberg. “Obama couldn’t do it with control of both the House and the Senate.”

Perdue and Loeffler have no record of supporting bipartisan action

The climate-friendly corporations donating to Perdue and Loeffler aren’t just supporting a Republican-led Senate. They’re supporting two candidates with no record of supporting the type bipartisan climate policy they claim is an urgent priority. 

Perdue has long been an outspoken climate denier, and has shown little evidence of changing his stripes. In a debate with Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff in October, he said the climate was changing but refused to acknowledge that greenhouse gases are the cause. Perdue also is “a first cousin of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and golfing buddy of Trump,” who “vowed to protect the coal industry and was endorsed by the Koch-affiliated Super PAC, Americans for Prosperity," the Intercept reported.  

Loeffler, according to InsideClimate News, is a “former energy executive” and “the richest member of the U.S. Senate.” Though she’s said little about climate change in general, she doesn’t have to; she’s positioned herself “as an ardent supporter of President Trump and his pro-fossil fuel agenda.” That agenda is not just to ignore climate change, but to make it worse by propping up fossil fuels and slowing down the clean energy transition. 

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