These corporations say they support a green recovery. Their PAC donations tell a different story.
How five companies’ statements in support of green coronavirus recovery legislation line up with their actions.
It’s only Monday—but it’s already a huge week for corporate climate promises.
Amazon, for example, just recently announced it has acquired the rights to Seattle, Washington’s NHL stadium—and will be renaming it “Climate Pledge Arena.” As the Verge reports, this is “a nod to the $2 billion initiative CEO Jeff Bezos announced last [week], which sets goals for Amazon to become net carbon neutral by 2040.”
And in objectively much bigger news, the oil giant BP announced this morning it’s selling its entire petrochemicals business for $5 billion in order to “compete and succeed through the energy transition.” This is a big deal climate-wise, since petrochemical plants are poised to be the next big carbon superpolluters.
Are these promises really meaningful? After all, Amazon’s climate initiative “only came after thousands of Amazon employees signed an open letter to Bezos and Amazon’s board of directors asking the company to adopt a wide-ranging plan to fight climate change,” the Verge reports. And BP divesting from petrochemicals doesn’t mean that the pollution from petrochemicals is gone. It just means BP is stepping away from it.
You can expect to hear more about that later this week. In today’s issue, Raz Godelnik, a professor at The New School who focuses on design solutions for the climate crisis, exposes how five companies’ statements in support of green coronavirus recovery legislation don’t line up with their actions when it comes to political donations. I reached out to each of the comments for comment, and haven’t yet gotten a response. I’ll update you if I hear anything back.
Later in the piece, Godelnik offers thoughts on what could be done to ensure greater climate accountability from corporations.
Enjoy—and thanks for helping make climate accountability journalism like this possible.
5 corporations say they support a green recovery. Their PAC donations tell a different story.
By Raz Godelnik
As COVID-19 continues to ravage the economy, huge companies across the United States have been calling on lawmakers to pass economic recovery legislation that also addresses the climate crisis.
Last month, 155 companies signed a letter put together by the Science-Based Targets Initiative in support of “policy that pairs recovery with ambitious climate action.” A few days earlier, another organization, Ceres, organized 300 companies to sign a letter calling on Congress “to pass a resilient economic recovery plan while working toward long term climate solutions—including a price on carbon.”
In both cases, it was impressive to see powerhouse companies publicly connecting the dots between COVID-19 and the climate crisis. Though the idea of green recovery is supported by many economists, Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump have been trying to frame it as an attempt to use the pandemic for “unrelated” efforts to promote a “radical Green New Deal.”
But while some companies might say they want climate-focused coronavirus recovery legislation, their corporate PACs support lawmakers who routinely oppose and obstruct any type of meaningful action to fight climate change.
I did a scan of a few of the letter-signing companies’ recent PAC donations, then looked at the LCV voting records of the candidates they donated to. Here’s what I found.
Note: we define “climate obstructionists” as lawmakers with lifetime environmental voting records of 20 percent or less, according to the League of Conservation Voters.
Intuit says it supports a green recovery, but 75 percent of its recent donations have gone to climate obstructionists
Intuit has signed the Science-Based Targets Initiative’s letter in support of a climate-friendly coronavirus recovery package. At the same time, according to the company’s report, 75 percent of the donations made by its PAC between August 2019 and January 2020 were made to 11 Republican legislators who routinely oppose climate policy.
One of these donations ($2,500) went to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, who has been using his power and influence for many years to block any sort of climate legislation. In all, Intuit has recently donated $15,500 to climate obstructionists.
Intuit describes its PAC as supporting candidates with “policy position(s) of importance to Intuit and/or the customers that we serve.” Intuit did not return a request for comment.
Visa says it supports a green recovery, but has recently given $151,500 to climate obstructionists
Visa has signed the Ceres letter in support of a climate-friendly coronavirus recovery package. At the same time, the company’s PAC supports 44 Republican lawmakers who routinely oppose climate policy.
Approximately 51 percent percent of Visa’s PAC contributions for the 2020 campaign cycle went to lawmakers with LCV lifetime scores of 20 percent or less. In all, Visa has recently donated $151,500 to climate obstructionists. In addition, five out of seven of Visa’s top recipients—who each received $10,000 in the 2020 cycle—are Republican legislators with an average LCV lifetime score of about 6 percent.
Visa describes its PAC as supporting candidates who align with its “business interests and policy goals.” Visa did not return a request for comment.
HP says it supports a green recovery, but 51 percent of its recent donations have gone to climate obstructionists
HP has signed the Science-Based Targets Initiative’s letter in support of a climate-friendly coronavirus recovery package. At the same time, their employee PAC supports nine Republican congressmen who routinely oppose climate policy.
A little over 50 percent of HP Employee PAC’s contributions in the second half of 2019 went to lawmakers with an LCV lifetime score of 20 percent or less. In all, HP company has recently donated $11,500 to lawmakers with an abysmal record on climate legislation.
HP describes its PAC as supporting candidates “who share HP's public policy views.” HP did not return a request for comment.
Nike says it a supports green recovery, but has recently given $49,500 to climate obstructionists
Nike has signed the Ceres letter in support of a climate-friendly coronavirus recovery package. At the same time, the company’s PAC supports 20 Republican lawmakers with lifetime LCV scores of under 20 percent.
Approximately 34 percent of Nike’s PAC contributions in the second half of 2019 went to lawmakers with abysmal climate voting records. In all, Nike has recently donated $49,500 to climate obstructionists.
Nike did not return a request for comment.
Salesforce has it supports green recovery, but 30 percent of its recent donations have gone to climate obstructionists
Salesforce has signed both letters in support of a climate-friendly coronavirus recovery package. At the same time, their employee political action committee supports six Republican congressmen who routinely oppose climate policy.
According to the company’s own report, Salesforce.com Inc PAC contributions in the second half of 2019 included a combined $7,500 to six Republican lawmakers with an abysmal voting record on climate legislation. These donations make up 30 percent of all the PAC’s donations.
Salesforce’s description of its PAC says it “supports candidates and eligible organizations who champion our policy priorities, align with our core values.” Salesforce did not return a request for comment.
Consumers—and employees—are starting to put pressure on companies. But it hasn’t been enough.
In the past, there were few consequences for companies that touted progressive social values publicly while quietly undermining them financially. This is changing—but not fast enough.
Last year, for example, a group of Microsoft employees complained about donations Microsoft PAC made to politicians who were very far from Microsoft’s positions on issues like diversity and inclusion. Microsoft responded by temporarily suspending the PAC donations and promising that future donations would align with the company’s priorities.
It’s not clear, however, if the company actually made any realignment with its positions as promised. While the company, which also signed the Ceres letter, made headlines this January with its commitment to become carbon negative by 2030, its PAC continued to donate to Republicans opposing climate legislation. According to FEC records, Microsoft PAC donated this March $5,000 to the campaign of Republican Senator Dan Sullivan, who has an LCV lifetime score of 8 percent, and $2,500 to Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who has even a poorer LCV score: 2 percent.
We need more than just pressure from stakeholders
Consumer and employee pressure is important, but clearly it’s not enough. We need to have stronger levers to make sure companies don’t have double standards about climate change.
One opportunity to do this is through the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which is considered by many to be the golden standard for efforts taken by companies to address climate change. The SBTi has created rigorous protocols and processes to evaluate companies’ direct and indirect carbon emissions.
Right now, however, the SBTi doesn’t take a companies’ political contributions into consideration when evaluating the climate-friendliness of companies. They only evaluate each companies’ Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions—technical terms that, for the purposes of this article, most importantly do not cover companies’ impact on the political sphere via contributions.
This is why we need a new category—Scope zero—that will cover companies’ climate impacts that are not covered by scopes 1-3, starting with their political contributions. Adding this scope will make sure that no company can claim to be part of the solution to climate change while donating to the people who are sustaining the problem.
Would SBTi consider adding the new category? It’s unclear for now
I emailed SBTi to ask whether they might consider adding the scope zero category to its criteria. Here’s the full statement I got back from SBTi partner Kevin Moss, who works at the World Resources Institute:
It’s an ugly truth that companies’ public statements about climate change often conflict with their political activity and spending. This must change: climate policy advocacy is an essential element of corporate sustainability leadership. WRI was one of 11 organizations that wrote an open letter to the CEOs of corporate America in October 2019 calling on them to align their political spending and activity with their public position on climate change. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t dismiss the very important and difficult work some companies are doing to reduce emissions from their operations and value chains. Many leading companies and investors know that a sustainable, net-zero emissions economy is crucial to their success in the long run.
Moss would not say whether SBTi was considering adding the criteria. But SBTi is a unique position to make it happen, given the growing number of companies that want to demonstrate to their stakeholders that they are taking climate change seriously by adopting a science-based target. If SBTi would adopt scope zero as part of its requirements it could force companies to, perhaps for the first time, truly consider the downside of donating money to politicians that stand against it.
Hopefully, the result will be the elimination of corporate double standards on climate change.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Kevin Moss’s last name.
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