Climate Change is More Than a Business Risk

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President Trump announced Thursday that the United States will withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord and will only re-enter after negotiations to make the agreement “fair to the United States.” French President Emmanuel Macron has stated that the terms of the agreement are non-negotiable. With a characteristically “America first” rationale, Trump’s remarks on the withdrawal centered on the agreement’s threat to U.S. industry, noting the costs to coal and manufacturing in particular. The decision fulfilled his campaign promise to pull out from the agreement he calls, “a massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries.”

Many powerful figures have publicly condemned the decision. Top U.S. tech companies, oil producers, and the typically reticent former President Barack Obama have all issued statements supporting a U.S. commitment to the Paris agreement.

The electronic commerce company Amazon stated on its corporate Twitter account: “We believe that robust clean energy and climate policies can support American competitiveness, innovation, and job growth. We remain committed to putting our scale and inventive culture to work in ways that are good for the environment and our customers.”

Microsoft President Brad Smith detailed in a LinkedIn post the business advantages of the Paris accord, declaring: “a global framework strengthens competitiveness for American businesses. It creates new markets for innovative clean technologies, from green power to smart grids to cloud-enabled solutions…these investments and innovations are good for our planet, our company, our customers and the economy.”

This isn’t the first time that corporate leaders have come into conflict with the Trump administration. The biggest business opposition to Trump’s travel ban came from the tech sector, an industry heavily reliant on immigrant labor. The firms most outspoken about “diversity” as a company value are predictably those with workforces composed of skilled immigrants. The corporate criticism of withdrawal from the Paris agreement shares a familiar line of reasoning that champions sustainability insofar as it protects the bottom line.

These concerns by business leaders have been cited by Paris accord proponents as evidence that pulling out threatens U.S. primacy in low-carbon markets. Todd Stern, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change under Obama, claims that the “most astonishing thing about the possibility of withdrawal…is that such a decision would fly in the face of nearly across-the-board support for Paris among top American companies.”

The former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, warns that “if the Trump administration fails to show leadership on domestic climate actions and support the Paris Agreement on climate change, it will cede a competitive economic edge to nations like China” and “would be sending the wrong signal to clean-energy investment dollars.”  

Though these arguments refute Trump’s assertions that the accord stifles economic growth, they employ the very same nationalist market reasoning driving the administration’s decision. The persistent appeal to U.S. competitiveness frames action on climate change as a business opportunity rather than a global ethical imperative. It is strange to fault Trump for reducing an existential threat to short-term economic concerns while also rationalizing those priorities.

Even the former president’s statement offered little reason to remain in the Paris agreement beyond the risk that the U.S. will no longer be “at the front of the pack” in the low-carbon tech industry. The loss of U.S. investment leadership in alternative energy appears to be more concerning to Obama than the irreversible environmental devastation that current rates of emissions will cause.

While U.S. participation in the Paris agreement offers overlapping benefits to both the environment and business, technocratic reasoning fails in the frequent event that climate change action runs counter to corporate interests. Climate activists should challenge the Trump administration’s dubious claims about the agreement, but also resist the temptation to cede authority on climate change action to U.S. businesses.

Companies that have expressed disapproval of the Paris climate accords include coal producers Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, and equipment manufacturers Caterpillar and Komatsu. While some companies reject the climate accords, the potential to appear sustainable influences businesses’ marketing strategies. A firm’s ability to capitalize on expanding sustainable energy markets and brand PR seem to be the prevailing factors in reactions to the agreement rather than a testament to environmentalism. The sheer irony of Shell and Nestle supporting the agreement are proof.

Despite Amazon’s superficial support for the environment expressed on social media, the firm is no bulwark of sustainability either: Amazon scored an F in the category for energy transparency and a D on renewable energy commitment in a 2017 Greenpeace report. It is the largest U.S. public company to not disclose its carbon footprint.

Given ExxonMobil’s current scandal over funding climate change denialism, its backing of the Paris accords should be seen as a transparent effort in greenwashing. Continued U.S. commitment to the terms of the Paris agreement would push demand for negative emissions technologies in the probable scenario that we fail to limit emissions to target levels. Exxon’s recent investments in carbon capture and sequestration would incentivize support for the agreement as well.

Approaching climate negotiations in terms of its consequences to U.S. business is the strategy of both the Trump administration and the companies in favor of the Paris agreement. Curbing emissions is necessary not because Microsoft profits but because unmitigated warming is a matter of global survival. Those with already limited mobility in poor countries will be harmed the most by reduced crop yields, natural disasters, and disease as a result of rising temperatures. Presenting climate change as an opportunity for the U.S. to beat China to green tech market is as “America first” as it gets.

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