US companies pledged to fight climate change, but will they really?

Some of the largest US companies, including Verizon and Google, pledged their support for President Obama's climate policies. A recent study, however, reveals that what those companies do with their political money sends the opposite message. 

Seth Perlman/AP
A Pepsi truck delivers products to vendors at the Illinois State Fair Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, in Springfield, Ill. A Reuters study this week on companies including PepsiCo, Dupont, and Google finds a disconnect between public statements on the environment and their political contributions that favor business friendly policies over environmental ones.

What your favorite environmentally friendly company says about its green policies and what it does may be two different things, according to a Reuters' review of public records.

Several of the United States' most reportedly environmentally conscious companies are not as green as they claim, with such companies as PepsiCo and Google publicly offering their support for President Obama's environmental policies by signing Mr. Obama's American Business Act on Climate Change Pledge, while donating to political action committees (PACs) that are the most ardent opponents of those policies.

The Reuters study involved the political contributions made during the 2016 election cycle by 30 companies that signed Obama's climate pledge. As part of their decision to sign the pledge, those companies committed to setting targets to reduce their environmental impact, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last year: 

The companies participating in American Business Act on Climate Pledge set their own goals personalized to their specific industries. Apple, for example, pledged to generate an estimated 280 megawatts of clean power online by the end of 2016. Bank of America says it will increase its current environmental business initiative from $50 billion to $125 billion by 2025 through investing and other services. Wal-Mart aims to increase the production of renewable energy by 600 percent and double the number of on-site solar energy projects at their US stores, Sam’s Clubs, and distribution centers by 2020.

These companies may be fulfilling their pledges for specific action. But the companies that signed that pledge are also expected to support stricter environmental oversight, as established by the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Yet, despite their pledges, 25 of the 30 companies Reuters studied were found to fund politicians that appear on a "climate deniers" list generated by Organizing for Action, a nonprofit that advocates for the Obama administration's agenda.

The list of candidates that these environmentally friendly companies support includes 130 members of Congress, a list that Reuters calls the "who's who" of Obama's environmental opponents. Many are self-described climate change "skeptics" who understand the gray areas that companies must navigate when considering supporting members of Congress who favor business-friendly policies.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, one of those skeptics famous for holding up a snowball on the Senate floor as evidence that climate change is not occurring, said in response to the Reuters study that it simply makes business sense for large publicly traded companies to sign the American Business Act on Climate Change, even if the companies are not fully behind the pledge ideologically.

"These are competitive companies, and the board might have said 'Look, right now it might be a popular thing to join this, and there's no downside since we’re not really committing to anything.' That absolutely goes on," said Senator Inhofe to Reuters.

PepsiCo, for example, gave 56,500 to PACs that supported individuals on the list. Other companies that spent a third or more of their donation money on individuals on Organizing for Action’s list include Google, AT&T, Verizon, and GE, according to Reuters.

For their part, climate skeptics say that the climate change debate is not as clear-cut as Obama presents it as being.

"It is not a black and white issue, like if you agree with Obama you're enlightened, and if you don't you're in the dark," said one such skeptic, Congressman Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who once argued that the Earth was cooling instead of warming: "It is more of a spectrum."

Yet while several of the climate deniers (or skeptics) who feature on the "climate deniers" list say that companies should not be judged harshly for their views on climate change, some say that increasingly, environmentally conscious investors care about companies putting their money where their mouth is on climate change.

"No company should want to be perceived as espousing progressive climate policies on the one hand, while funding climate deniers on the other," said Lauren Compere, managing director at sustainable investment manager Boston Common Asset Management.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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