May 20, 2019 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

The big corporate shift on climate change

Illustration of an oil barrel with a flower made of cash growing out of it.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Corporate America is calling on Congress to pass big climate policy in the most aggressive and united way since 2009.

Driving the news: Companies across virtually all sectors of the economy, including big oil producers, are beginning to lobby Washington, D.C., to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions.

  • A new coalition launched last week, a similar advocacy campaign is unveiling new corporate money today, and in yet another separate but parallel effort, executives from more than 75 companies will be on Capitol Hill this week lobbying on the issue.

The intrigue: This is happening against a tumultuous background that may not welcome such a shift.

  • On one side, President Trump outright dismisses climate change as a serious issue.
  • On the other, a loud chorus of environmentalists and progressive leaders, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, say big corporations — especially fossil-fuel producers — can’t be trusted.

Where it stands: Three separate but similar corporate-led campaigns are calling for an explicit price on carbon emissions.

  • 3 big energy companies — Shell, BP and EDF Renewables — have committed new funding over the next 2 years, to a lobbying group, called Americans for Carbon Dividends. Shell and BP are offering $1 million each and EDF is promising $200,000. That group wants Congress to pass policy putting a tax (backers call it a fee) on carbon and returning the money raised to consumers. It already has funding from numerous other big companies, including ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips.
  • In a sign of the influence of investors, the nonprofit Ceres, which works on sustainable investments, is organizing a lobbying push this week with more than 75 companies, including BP, Microsoft and Tesla.
  • A new coalition of more than a dozen major corporations and four environmental groups launched last week to urge Congress to pass legislation putting a price on CO2 emissions.

“They see a rising public demand for action and they’re smart enough to know this extreme denial of the Trump era will not last and may be coming to a halt in 2020,” said David Doniger, a strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group not officially connected to any of these new campaigns.

The big picture: Several years-long trends are driving corporations to ask for government policy — but it’s not really about saving the planet. It’s about investor and legal pressure, falling prices for renewable energy, new bounties of cleaner-burning natural gas and growing public concern about a warming planet’s impacts.

  • The fervor around the Green New Deal, backed by AOC and Sanders, has accelerated this shift among businesses, which are worried about the far-reaching impacts of that progressive proposal.

What we’re hearing: The messaging firm Luntz Global released a survey today that found broad support for the plan that returns money raised from a carbon price back to consumers.

  • “This is the first time we’ve polled a climate plan that has real positive appeal across Republicans and Democrats,” said Nick Wright, a partner at the firm, which has been conducting surveys on climate change for decades.
  • Luntz Global’s founder, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, is known — notoriously so by some — for suggesting in a 2002 memo that Republicans should start using “climate change” over “global warming” because it sounded less scary.
  • The sheer fact that this firm, which rarely discloses its work, is publicly releasing a survey that’s positive for action on climate change is a sign of how much the public consensus has evolved since then.

What they’re saying: Republican Rep. Tom Reed of New York said he opposes a “straight-out” carbon tax, but finds the dividend idea “more intriguing.”

“If it’s coming out of American pockets, and going back in, at least it’s not going into government bureaucracy,” Reed said in an interview in his office last week. He cautioned: “But as I generally am opposed to carbon taxes, I would have to see a compelling case made to me to support that."

But, but, but: Reed is so far an outlier among a Republican Party that is almost universally and categorically opposed to explicit prices on carbon — at least publicly. Most of the GOP is heavily influenced by special-interest and conservative groups that steer them away from such proposals, arguing the policies would hurt average Americans.

  • While some Democrats think they can push through big policy if they control enough of government, research and past precedent suggest that some Republican support will be necessary.
  • Meanwhile, AOC, Sanders and other politicians on the far left side of politics are unlikely to be satisfied with corporate-led pushes whose goals aren’t aggressive enough in their eyes.

What’s next: Bubbling beneath the presidential campaign where climate change is featuring more prominently than ever, big fights loom over wonky policy.

  • Such as: Whether a carbon price is the best approach, whether regulations should be repealed in exchange, and to what extent (if at all) big oil companies should get protection from lawsuits related to climate change.

Editor's note: This piece was corrected to show new funding for Americans for Carbon Dividends is $1 million each from Shell and BP and $200,000 from EDF Renewables (not each offering $1 million).

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