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Study accuses corporations of hypocrisy on climate change

By Neela Banerjee (Los Angeles Times) - June 1, 2012

Some major U.S. corporations that support climate science in their public relations materials actively work to derail regulations and laws addressing global warming through lobbying, campaign donations and support of various advocacy groups, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental and scientific integrity group.

The multinational oil giant, ConocoPhillips, for instance, said on its website in 2011 that it “recognizes” that human activity is leading to climate change, the view supported by the overwhelming majority of scientific research. Yet in 2009, ConocoPhillips argued against the Environmental Protection Agency’s determination that heat-trapping greenhouse gases were pollutants endangering public welfare.

The report, “A Climate of Corporate Control,” notes that General Electric has backed six environmental and non-partisan research groups that accept the scientific consensus on climate change, including the Brookings Institution and the Nature Conservancy. At the same time, it has funded four organizations that reject or question the consensus, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation. Moreover, it was a member of several organizations that have doggedly fought greater environmental regulation, including the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.

The report provides the outlines of corporations’ activism, but much remains murky, the study’s authors said. Most notably, the report could not quantify how much money the companies give to so-called independent political groups that run ads supporting or bashing candidates because federal law doesn’t require corporations to disclose their giving.

“The difference between what many of these companies say and what they actually do is quite stark,” said Gretchen Goldman, a primary contributor to the UCS report. “And because we know only limited amounts about their activities, it’s relatively simple for companies to show one face to the public and another to policymakers.”

The report tracks the participation of 28 publicly traded companies in the debate over climate change from 2002 to 2011, focusing mostly on the last three years. Listed on the Standard & Poor 500 stock index, the companies were chosen because they had contributed to campaigns for or against Proposition 23, a 2010 California ballot initiative would have halted the state’s ambitious climate change mitigation law, or they commented on the EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health.

UCS looked at a range of corporate actions, from tax and SEC filings, earnings calls, government tetsimony, press and website comments and funding to think tanks, trade groups and others. The report did not look at the activities of privately-held companies or individual executives, like the petrochemical billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, thay have long cast doubt on climate science.

The report found that all the companies said they were taking voluntary steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change. But “half of them also misrepresented some element of established climate science in their public communications.”

Caterpillar , for example, was a member of seven groups that have fought rules addressing greenhouse gas emissions, and has a seat on the board of the Chamber of Commerce. It was a member of four that sought new rules on greenhouse gases, though it dropped out of one. For every member of Congress it has given money to who accepts the scientific consensus on climate change, it has backed five who don’t, according to the UCS report. It also backed groups that reject the scientific consensus on climate change.

Caterpillar did not answer questions from a reporter about its positions, referring instead to its sustainability report.

“Caterpillar works with policymakers on developing economy-wide emissions reduction programs in the United States that work in conjunction with international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the Caterpillar sustainability report said.

GE and ConocoPhillips did not immediately answer requests for a response to the UCS report.

Some corporations showed a consistent backing of climate science, according to the report, including Nike Inc., and the energy companies AES and NRG Energy.

Companies spent far more money for activities opposing climate science than they did in support of it.

The report’s authors urged new laws and rules that would encourage greater disclosure from companies of their political activities and contributions, including passage of the 2012 DISCLOSE Act now in Congress. But in light of the looming election, the Act’s co-sponsor Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) said it would be a tough fight to pass it this year.