Why isn't business lobbying Congress about climate change?

Tom Steyer onstage at VERGE 2015 in San Jose
The Photo Group2015
Tom Steyer onstage at VERGE 2015 in San Jose, California.

At a meeting of the minds in sustainable business this week, one CEO asked an elephant-in-the-room type question amid a flurry of positive statistics indicating that big companies have increasingly acted to lower carbon emissions and invest in renewable energy.

“What will it take before companies at the conference stand up to Congress and say we’ve got to move, we’ve got to do something about climate change now?” asked Elliott Hoffman, CEO of REV during a workshop at the VERGE 2015 conference in San Jose.

It’s great that so many companies have sustainability goals and have publicly committed to reduce emissions, he said, but why are they not communicating their worries about climate change to Congress? Why are their lobbying efforts not going to this issue?

The question provoked a long conversation that carried on after the session ended, but most agreed that business has been shy about lobbying Congress to do something about climate change.

Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact at Starbucks Coffee, said the companies proactive on Capitol Hill are the ones “whose businesses are at risk because of climate change.” Those tend to be agriculture and food companies whose supply chains have been hurt by droughts, floods, change growing seasons.

“My supply chain is at risk, therefore it gives us much more political permission to be active on this issue. You are able to prioritize these conversations internally because it is a business risk," he said as an example.

The Starbucks website states that its coffee farmers report shifts in rainfall and harvest patterns that are hurting their communities and shrinking the available usable land in coffee regions.

Ingersoll Rand’s Owen Smith, director of Global Energy Policy & Strategy, said elevating climate change to a lobbying issue in-house is complex.

“It is complicated to really force a legislative conversation” on climate change because of the many issues corporate lobbyists work on. “All big companies have lengthy legislative agendas,” he said, and prioritizing those is an internal juggle. “There is only so much political capital, and no one wants to be on the wrong side of the powers that be.”

Yet Tom Steyer, the venture capitalist and hedge fund manager who has invested his personal fortune to defend California's Global Warming Solutions Act and now is investing tens of millions in a national quest to tackle climate change, suggested that government is needed in the "fix" equation.

“Since I think this is our generational challenge, my dream is that regardless of party, regardless of income level, we are all in this together," he said in a keynote address at VERGE. "So I would like all people to participate, clearly politically, and let their elected officials know that this is important to them.” 

Steyer spoke about the importance of Congressional action. “For us to get action out of Congress we not only need to get the traditional Democratic coalition but we also need Republicans. So we are spending a lot of time in 2015 to convince people about the solutions. Let’s talk about which solutions are most effective ... At this point it is not about convincing people, it is convincing people that it is important.”

And later that same evening during the Republican presidential candidates' debate on national TV, NextGen, Steyer’s nonprofit organization, aired two 30-second commercials about climate change that called on the nation to reach 50 percent renewable energy by 2030.

"Americans have never been quitters," one ad starts." We don’t ignore problems ... With American-made clean energy, we can end our dependence on foreign oil, spark new innovation and create millions of new jobs. Solving our climate crisis starts with 50 percent clean energy by 2030."

Climate change is not a political issue in other countries. And it wasn’t one in the United States a generation ago when problems associated with polluted air and global warming prompted Republicans in Washington to act: Richard Nixon's administration launched the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and George H. W. Bush issued the Clean Air Act of 1990.

However, environmental bills, particularly legislation that recognizes the impact of carbon emissions on climate and seeks to regulate or reduce emissions, are voted upon within strictly partly lines, with nearly all Republicans rejecting them and Democrats approving.

Among the Republican candidates in this upcoming presidential election, only two or three have acknowledged that climate change is a problem. Some have denied it exists.

The conversations at VERGE about lack of political action on climate by business underscored a reality of sustainability work. Before sustainability directors lobby Congress about climate change, they have to lobby their own corporate government affairs people to prioritize this issue.

Ingersoll Rand has an ambitious goal to halve the greenhouse gas emissions related to the refrigerants in its products and to cut by 35 percent the GHGs from its operations. It also is investing $500 million in R&D to make emissions-free products.

For corporations, not taking action in Washington or in operations carries its own political risk — a risk that will increase as today’s youth gain clout.

“I’ve had people ask me, what are we doing about sustainability?" said Candace Taylor-Anderson, the sustainability director at the Belk department store chain. "We are now attracting the proverbial millennial customer,” which is important to their decisions about where to shop or where to work, she said.

And Jake Layes, Autodesk’s head of clean tech and entrepreneur impact, said environmental action on climate change is likely to be less of a political issue in the future and more of an imperative because of that generational shift.

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