The Big Waffle? New Report Exposes Corporations That Try to Split the Difference on Global Warming

Read time: 7 mins

We hear a lot about the Koch brothers. And before them, we heard a lot about ExxonMobil.

In other words, we all know the names of the corporations, and the corporate leaders, who have sought to undermine public understanding about global warming—for instance, by supporting think tanks that misrepresent the science and, in some cases, literally launch attacks against top scientists.

But you don’t hear as much about the companies that kinda waffle on the issue. That maybe give a little money to conservative think tanks, but also support lots of environmental groups. That donate to politicians on both sides of the climate battle, and sometimes take apparently contradictory stances on the issue: either on the science, or on what we ought to do about it.

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, though, appears to catch some of them in the act.

The UCS sought to analyze the influence of corporate America on the debate over climate science and climate policy. So it sampled a large group of S&P 500 companies that involved themselves in two major climate policy events of the past few years: Either they commented on the EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding on greenhouse gas emissions (pro or con), or they donated to the 2010 battle over Proposition 23 in California (either for or against the ballot proposition).

This yielded a sample of 28 S&P companies, including many expected names—ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Valero—but also some surprises (Nike). Then, UCS drilled down further by examining a host of other actions bearing on climate change that these companies have taken.

Did they fund think tanks that misrepresent the science (or, that represent it accurately)? How do their websites represent the science? Do they support science based policy action, or not—or just sometimes?  What do they say on their earnings calls with financial analysts? Do they give campaign donations to climate science defenders, climate science opponents, or both—and in what ratio? What trade associations do they belong to, and are those organizations pro-science or anti-science?

The result is a massive data dump—it must have been incredibly time consuming to compile–but some intriguing patterns emerge from this novel exercise.

First, there are the companies with a clear history of undermining the science, like Peabody Energy, whose website claims that “The greatest crisis society confronts is not a future environmental crisis predicted by computer models but a human crisis today that is fully within our power to solve…with coal.”

Peabody backed that up by funding 4 times as many anti-climate politicians as pro-climate politicians, in UCS’s analysis, and through its membership in groups like the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Mining Association.

And then there are the clear climate “good guys,” like NRG Energy, the New Jersey based utility that declares global warming “one of the most significant challenges facing humankind—and we want to be part of the solution.” NRG actually declined membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over its position on global warming. (Nike, another hero in the UCS report, actually resigned from the Chamber’s board of directors for this reason.)

Something very striking emerges, already, from this analysis. It turns out that among the 28 companies examined, there’s a industry-related pattern. Companies that are traditional energy producers of oil, or coal, or natural gas—Peabody, ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil—tended to fare considerably worse in UCS’s analysis than electric utility companies that provide power—Progress Energy, Xcel, NRG Energy, and Sempra Energy.

But that’s not the most interesting aspect of the UCS report. That distinction is reserved for its highlighting of what you might call the climate “wafflers”: Companies that never come in for the kind of scorn directed at the ExxonMobils and Kochs of the world, and yet kind of seem to want it both ways. Two such companies that are particularly highlighted by UCS are the oil major ConocoPhillips, and the heavy machinery manufacturer Caterpillar.

Let’s start with ConocoPhillips. In May 2008, UCS reports, a company exec testified before Congress, fully accepting the science of climate change and supporting “a mandatory national framework in the U.S. for reducing carbon emissions.” Yet ConocoPhillips later dropped out of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which had precisely this goal, and opposed the pending cap-and-trade bill.

And then there’s Caterpillar, a mega-cap ($ 60 billion market capitalization) and Dow company that you rarely hear about in the climate debate. As UCS charges:

Caterpillar boasts about its strong commitment to sustainability, including climate change mitigation strategies, on its website. In its SEC Form 10-K, the company noted that it had continued “its commitment to make sustainable development a ‘strategic area of improvement’” and it highlighted its recognition as a member of the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index for nine consecutive years (SEC 2009). Behind this climate-concerned public image, however, Caterpillar serves on the boards of two outspokenly anti-climate-science trade groups (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers) and it funds the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, two think tanks that misrepresent climate science (Oreskes and Conway 2010).

Like ConocoPhillips, Caterpillar also withdrew from the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. Both companies did so, UCS charges, “on the eve of climate legislation’s introduction in the Senate.”

Overall, UCS observes, these “inconsistent” companies—a list that also includes the utility DTE Energy and General Electric and Boeing, although these last two get less attention in the report–“create confusion by representing the scientific consensus accurately in some venues but not in others, and by supporting politicians, trade groups, and think tanks whose positions are in direct conflict with one another. The resulting defeat or delay of policy efforts to address climate change has huge implications for government, the economy, public well-being, and the planet.”

In fairness, the UCS analysis is susceptible to some criticisms (most of which are unavoidable in this sort of analysis, as the group fully acknowledges). For instance, it is not at all clear how to interpret, say, Alcoa giving money to the American Enterprise Institute, or Boeing being affiliated with the National Association of Manufacturers. Certainly it is questionable whether these “ties” have anything significant to do with the climate issue.

Indeed, one thing that becomes apparent from the report is that really big companies like GE, Alcoa, and Caterpillar have a lot of affiliations with a lot of organizations…period.

And then there’s the issue of “contradiction”: It tends to be in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure that ConocoPhillips and Caterpillar will have a defense of their moves in relation to the climate bill and Climate Action Partnership. But the value of the UCS report is putting this evidence before the public in one place—where people can make up their own minds. (ConocoPhillips also gave UCS an interview; Caterpillar declined.)

Finally, companies change over time, particularly as they get new leadership. Is that the same thing as inconsistency? For instance, ExxonMobil has very much changed its tune on global warming in the last few years, as Steve Coll documents in his new book on the company. So when UCS includes Exxon’s 2002-2006 funding of the Heartland Institute as a strike against it, that really seems like old news.

Still, the UCS report provides a wealth of new data on corporate actions on the climate issue. And it concludes by recommending—naturally—more public disclosure of precisely what corporations are up to and where their money is going within large organizations, such as think tanks or advocacy groups. That seems eminently sensible.

Most important, the study definitely shows that some companies are in a posture of, let us say, trying to stay friends with everybody in the climate debate. As climate denial increasingly threatens our planet—and climate action becomes increasingly urgent—that’s going to become a tougher and tougher act to pull off.

Read the new Union of Concerned Scientists report, entitled “A Climate of Corporate Control: How Corporations Have Influenced the U.S. Dialogue on Climate Science and Policy.” A press release from UCS can be found here.

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At Reason’s Hit&Run blog, Ronald Bailey looks at the UCS report (with a focus on GE) and says UCS cooked the books.

“Digging further into GE’s 990 forms one finds that with just a few significant exceptions, all of the money donated to the various groups is in fact corporate matching funds for employee donations. In other words, GE executives had no hand in directing these donations.”

“But there’s more. Just combing through the GE 990 forms, it appears that lots of non-profits that work on climate change issues that were “supported” by the company were unaccountably overlooked by the UCS researchers. Among those missed are Greenpeace, Earthjustice, Environmental Defense, Friends of the Earth, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club.”

From Ronald Bailey in the comments to this post: “And why did the UCS leave out GE employees contributions to itself?”


In a follow up post on Reason’s Hit&Run blog, Ronald Bailey reports on an email reply from UCS, where they acknowledge their error and correct their report: