Across corporate America, there is broad support for action on climate change. Leading businesses and executives vocally supported President Obama on the Paris Agreement. Many companies have committed themselves to getting onto a sustainable path, and many are pushing their commitment out through their supply chains. This is good, and it’s important.
But it makes us in Congress feel a little left out. The corporate lobbying presence in Congress is immense. But in my experience, exactly zero of it is dedicated to lobbying for a good, bipartisan climate bill.
Dante wrote that above the Inferno was a sign: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” But there is hope in Congress. Many of my Republican colleagues are eager for some political support, to counter the fossil fuel industry’s relentless onslaught.
Despite the statements emitted from oil companies’ executive suites about taking climate change seriously and supporting a price on carbon, their lobbying presence in Congress is 100 percent opposed to any action. In particular, the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry trade association, is an implacable foe. Given the industry’s massive conflict of interest, there is every reason to believe they are playing a double game: trying to buy a little credibility with these public comments while using all their quiet lobbying muscle to crush any threat of bipartisan action on the carbon pricing they claim to espouse.
I am a sponsor of a Senate carbon fee bill, so I know this firsthand. I see their destructive handiwork all around me — and they have no corporate opposition.
Let me use the example of two good guys: Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. I believe they care about climate change. They have no conflict of interest like fossil fuel companies do. Both signed a public letter urging strong action on climate in Paris. Pepsi signed two major business climate action pledges, Ceres' BICEP Climate Declaration in the United States and the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group Trillion Tonne Communiqué in the UK.
Coca-Cola’s website says it will reduce CO2 emissions by 25 percent by “making comprehensive carbon footprint reductions across its manufacturing processes, packaging formats, delivery fleet, refrigeration equipment, and ingredient sourcing.” Coca-Cola says: “We…encourag[e] progress in response to climate change.”
Indra Nooyi, chair and CEO of PepsiCo says: “Combating climate change is absolutely critical to the future of our company, customers, consumers — and our world. I believe all of us need to take action now.”
And they are taking action. Their effort puts Coke and Pepsi at the forefront of corporate climate responsibility. But they lobby Congress through a trade association, the American Beverage Association (ABA), and through the business lobbying group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The ABA sits on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and contributes a lot of money to it.
The ABA, as far as I can tell, has never lobbied on climate change. When the Association thought Congress might impose a soda tax to fund health care, they lobbied like crazy — nearly $30 million dollars’ worth. They know how to lobby, when they want to. But on climate, I’ve never seen it.
Everyone in Congress knows that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is dead set against Congress doing anything serious about climate change. The U.S. Chamber is very powerful, and its power in Congress is fully dedicated to stopping any serious climate legislation. We see their hostility everywhere.
The result is that Coke and Pepsi take great positions on climate change in their public materials and private actions, but here in Congress their lobbying agencies don’t support their position.
No corporate lobbying force is exerted for good on climate change. Mars is going fully carbon neutral. Its climate performance is spectacular. No lobbying. Walmart, America’s biggest retailer, is spending tens of millions of dollars to become sustainable. No lobbying. Apple, Google and Facebook are forward-looking, cutting-edge companies of the future, and they lead in sustainability. No lobbying.
The reasoning I am given is always the same. People fear retribution, so embedded is the fossil fuel industry in Congress. The result is the good guys abandoning the field to the worst climate actors in America: the fossil fuel industry and its array of front groups. They don’t just lobby. The roughest of these, Americans for Prosperity, boasts loudly that it will spend $750 million in this election (it’s already through $400 million and climbing) and that any effort to address climate change will put candidates in “political peril,” that they’ll be “at a severe disadvantage.” Subtle like a brick.
My response is twofold.
Climate change is not just any other issue. It’s so big an issue that the world’s leaders just gathered in Paris to address it. It’s so big an issue that it has its own page on most corporate websites. It’s so big an issue that our former Pacific commander, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, said it was the biggest national security threat we face in the Pacific Theater. To use his words, climate change “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen…that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.” So it’s big enough for corporations to treat it as more than just another issue in Congress.
Second, they can’t hurt you if you organize. An antelope alone may fall to the hyenas, but the herd will protect itself. The fossil fuel industry can’t punish Coke and Pepsi and WalMart and Apple and Google and Mars and all the other 100-plus companies who rallied publicly around a strong Paris agreement. You have to stand together.
Around Congress, the bullying menace of the fossil fuel industry is a constant. If the good guys cede the field to them, the result is predictable: members of Congress frozen in place, often against their better judgment. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m in Congress, and I’m writing here to say: We need you guys to show up.
This post first appeared in Harvard Business Review on February 25, 2016.