Corporate America May be Best Hope to Re-Engage Trump on Climate

You’d think U.S. companies would be ready to throw in the towel after they failed to sway President Donald Trump to stay in the landmark Paris climate pact.

But companies that favor U.S. engagement on climate are exploring ways to push the White House to re-think its approach to climate change and clean energy. They include bolstering formal business alliances; working with California and other states whose governors seek to engage business on the issue; and trying to reframe the climate discussion by using terms such as “more resilient infrastructure” in place of “adaptation.”

Corporate voices are considered the last, and perhaps only, hope of getting Trump to focus on climate impacts at home and get him back to negotiations in climate talks abroad after his announcement June 1 that he is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement.

Dozens of Fortune 500 companies want to ensure they aren’t left outside the room in future talks that could impact whether their renewable energy and low-carbon technologies are able to compete with the more than 195 nations still in the pact.

Nothing in the work toward addressing climate “is as impressive as our business leaders saying we need America back at the table,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

‘Lead By Example’

Microsoft, which urged the Trump administration not to abandon the Paris agreement, seeks in the wake of Trump’s decision “to lead by example,” Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA.

The technology giant wants to invest in more renewable energy to power its global data center operations and expand its use of an internal carbon fee, which it began in 2012 to make its data centers, offices, manufacturing, and other business units accountable for their contributions to the company’s overall carbon footprint.

BP, which along with others in the energy sector such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Shell backed the Paris climate pact, sees climate change as “an important long-term challenge justifying global action” in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris deal, and it continues to back an economywide price on carbon, BP America said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA.

The company said it will continue to back increased production of natural gas, which is less carbon-intensive than oil or coal, and support more innovation in carbon-mitigation technologies.

Other large companies are part of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions’ Business Environmental Leadership Council, a group of mostly Fortune 500 companies launched in 1998 to back mandatory climate policies. Earlier this month, the group’s members—which include Bank of America, Duke Energy, and Berkshire Hathaway Energy—were joined by Amazon, which the council said was the leading U.S. corporate purchaser of renewable energy last year.

“It has never been more important to bring business leaders together with policymakers to explore pragmatic steps toward a clean energy future,” Bob Perciasepe, the center’s president, said in a statement.

Beyond those corporate efforts, a total of 14 states including California, New York, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington also have launched the U.S. Climate Alliance, pledging to fill the gap from the federal retreat on climate.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has announced plans to host a September 2018 international climate summit in San Francisco in which he envisions entrepreneurs, world leaders and others exploring solutions. And the nonprofit Climate Group will host Climate Week NYC in New York Sept. 18 to 24 featuring business leaders and others to advocate for climate action to coincide with the annual UN General Assembly.

Reframing the Discussion

Some say reframing the discussion could help in pushing policies that ensure roads, bridges, and other projects are better able to weather sea level rise, more flooding and higher temperatures.

“The data shows that as we get temperature increases, we get more cracking potholes, increased flooding, and you end up with more infrastructure loss,” Lisa Grice, global director of sustainability services at the Ramboll Environ, an environmental consulting firm, told Bloomberg BNA.

The Trump administration is more likely over time to be receptive to ideas that benefit the clean energy industry or bolster reliability of the power grid if framed not so much as climate-friendly projects but rather “wins for driving jobs or providing other economic value,” according to Grice, who worked during the Bush administration to launch the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Leaders program, which recognized voluntary corporate action on climate.

“You need to think of these as climate change tactics,” she said, such as completing infrastructure projects that the administration can tout as simply making good on Trump’s pledge for improved roads and bridges. They may include what Grice calls improved “asphalt road resiliency” that—without directly mentioning climate change—will shore up defenses against climate impacts.

Some of that change in terminology may appear subtle at first but is likely necessary, according to Grice, who said a preference for the more neutral-sounding term of “resiliency” over climate adaptation is already underway.

“We have a challenge not just from extreme storm events but also a combination of typical storm events with modest sea level rise, which also creates all kinds of property loss and impacts and elevates the cost of climate adaptation,” Grice said. “Finding a way to frame the federal government as a hero or savior would really appeal to this administration” if it could point to progress in shoring up communities from those threats, even as it will likely do so without even mentioning climate, she said.

“Now, the more individual companies can help frame anything that the federal government is doing around, say, energy efficiency, renewable energy, or climate resilience as a win for driving jobs or other economic value will incentivize this administration to do more,” she said. 

No Letting Up

The Trump administration so far has shown no signs of letting up on its campaign against climate policies, from ending overseas climate aid to rolling back Obama administration rules cutting vehicle and power plant greenhouse gas emissions.

A coordinated business campaign to keep the U.S. in the Paris deal also didn’t sway Trump. About 1,000 companies and investors urged the president to stay, including U.S. industry leaders in technology, energy, health, and manufacturing such as Apple, Google, Facebook, HP, Intel Corp., Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Johnson Controls and Mars Inc.

More recently, climate-friendly corporate voices may also have to overcome what appears to be a growing schism between some corporate leaders and Trump over his response to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month. Trump disbanded two advisory groups made up of CEOs—the Strategy & Policy Forum and the Manufacturing Council—but only after corporate chiefs began resigning.

Also scrapped: an Advisory Council on Infrastructure, which Trump only created in mid-July to advise him on his $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Among the projects the infrastructure panel was to make recommendations on were two that could impact the U.S. carbon footprint: renewable energy generation and electricity transmission.

The Trump administration argues that it isn’t losing a seat at the table in international climate talks even as it walks away from the Paris deal because it can continue in negotiations under the parent treaty to the Paris deal, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Even with Trump’s announcement, the U.S. cannot technically withdraw from the Paris pact for four years, a span that gives U.S. companies and other supporters years to push Trump to reconsider his withdrawal. 

Still Prodding Trump to Tweak Pledge

Some continue to argue that Trump can address much of his concern by taking advantage of flexibility in the Paris accord that allows nations to adjust their pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions. That would allow Trump to pare back the U.S. pledge Obama made to the Paris deal, which is to cut emissions up to 28 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels.

“Rather than withdrawing from the agreement, a process that will take several years to accomplish, the U.S. is free to adjust its commitment if the [Trump] Administration feels the original commitment is inappropriate,” Stephen Harper, Intel Corp.'s global director of environment and energy policy, said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA.

“The Paris process will also provide a forum for countries to strike additional bi- and multilateral deals on technology transfer, particularly in the area of renewables and alternative energy,” Harper said.

“U.S. companies will lose business if we are not part of such deals,” he said, and the specter of a U.S. withdrawal from a deal signed by more than 190 parties could isolate it from world efforts to confront global warming and develop the renewable energy technologies those nations will need for such a global effort, he said.

Staying outside what is now a “virtually global effort to address climate change could make it vulnerable to border taxes and other trade retaliation by countries who are part of that effort,” Harper said, and such policies “would punish U.S. exports and our economy.”

‘Open to Re-Engaging’

Trump “is open to re-engaging in the Paris Agreement if the United States can identify terms that are more favorable to it, its businesses, its workers, its people, and its taxpayers,” according to a State Department statement issued Aug. 4 as the U.S. notified the UN of its plans to withdraw.

One theme the Trump administration intends to bring to future climate change negotiations, according to the statement, is finding ways to help other countries “access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently.”

Myron Ebell, energy and environment director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who favored withdrawal from the Paris accord, said he reads any hint of a renegotiation as little more than a token acknowledgment to those in the Trump camp who favor international engagement.

“The president has clearly said that the only deal the U.S. would be interested in doing would be one that would serve America’s interests,” Ebell said. “As he has defined it, America’s interest is to be the world’s largest energy producer and to become one of the major coal, oil, and liquefied natural gas exporters in the world.”