The international climate-fighting pact would create jobs, Google said. Leaving the deal known as the Paris accord would be bad for business, top executives from Bank of America and Coca-Cola argued. When President Donald Trump committed to yanking the U.S. out anyway, PayPal and Western Union countered “We are still in.”
These corporate titans and at least 22 others were among those who sought to preserve the United States’ role in the landmark Paris agreement ratified by about 160 countries. So why exactly would these 27 business powerhouses also support a GOP group that’s fought to undo a key Obama-era domestic climate initiative?
The answer is, well, complicated. The overwhelming majority of these companies have no overt incentive to undermine the U.S. climate effort. One leading solar company, in fact, had a driving financial imperative to cheer it on. These companies’ donations of more than $3 million to the Republican Attorneys General Association over the past three-and-a-half years speaks instead to the difficulties for corporations trying to navigate the political system in a country that's polarized — particularly on climate change.
The Obama-era Clean Power Plan provides a stark example. Starting in 2014, the group comprising many states’ Republican attorneys general spoke out against this Obama-era rule aiming to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions in the U.S. power sector. Nearly all the Republican attorneys general sued in 2015, alongside fossil fuel groups, to quash the power plan. A few Democratic attorneys general did as well; the majority pushed back in court to try to save it.
In giving to the GOP group, many of the big businesses said they were simply following a time-honored corporate tradition of donating to both parties — though most of these companies donated more to the Republican group than its Democratic counterpart. And they nodded at the political reality: A business needs to engage with elected officials on both sides of the aisle to influence policy, they said.
“This is a function of our democratic system,” Verizon subsidiary Oath said in a statement, speaking on behalf of one company on the list that it recently acquired, Yahoo.
But campaign finance experts countered that business officials can influence policy without writing a check to decision-makers like attorneys general — advocating their policy positions through lobbyists, for example. Because these businesses have said climate action is a priority, making political contributions that can work against that goal puts their reputations or even revenues at risk, these experts said.
“I don’t doubt that their public statements about the Paris climate agreement are sincere but it matters that when it actually comes down to how they spend their money, they’re giving to politicians that have almost the exact opposite goal,” said Daniel Weiner, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, which advocates for campaign finance reform. “It doesn’t mean that they’re actually lying, but it does lead one to wonder how strong their commitment to fight global warming actually is.”