The world’s largest automakers doubled down on their call for the Trump Administration to rethink the scope of a rollback on limits on pollution from cars that were designed to fight climate change.
In a letter signed by 17 companies including Ford, General Motors and Toyota, the automakers asked the Trump Administration to halt an effort to undo Obama-era vehicle emissions standards set to last through 2025, arguing it could create uncertainty that hurts their bottom line.
The move is an about-face for an industry that had sought to loosen regulations earlier in the Trump Administration. But it comes as some of the world’s largest corporations are changing their approach and seeking more aggressive action to fight climate change.
After years of treating climate change as a back-burner issue or even denying the science behind it, companies from big tech to the oil and gas industry now say they support measures to tackle global warming.
There are several reasons behind the shift. The science, already well-established, has shown increasingly serious threats if temperatures increase at current projections. Polls show a two-thirds of the public believe that climate change is occurring, near the all-time high. And Trump’s broad-brush rollback of climate change regulations has sparked uncertainty.
The automakers, for one, fear that the Trump Administration’s bold rollbacks will lead to more aggressive state policies, particularly from California which has legal authority to make its emissions standards. For them, Obama-era regulations across the country are preferable to a patchwork of regulations across the country.
For corporate America, climate policy represents a careful balancing act: executives feel compelled to support moves to address climate change but they also don’t want any legislation or regulations that would hurt their business interests.
“I’ve never met a CEO of a Fortune 100 or 500 company who didn’t believe climate change was real,” says Heidi Heitkamp, a former senator from North Dakota. But “as long as you’re working for profitability of your company, you don’t have any more important goal.”
A new survey from the consulting firm EY — seen by TIME and scheduled for release later this month — highlights that dynamic. A majority of corporate leaders believe their companies could actually benefit from new policies to combat climate change, according to EY, but their views vary dramatically by policy.
While 90% of executives said their company would benefit from legislation that would lower the cost of energy, less than half as many said the same about creating green jobs, for instance. And half of respondents said the Green New Deal pushed by climate change activists with support of progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would hurt their company.
Industry by industry, it’s easy to see that thinking in action. Many of the world’s largest oil and gas companies have coalesced around a carbon tax proposal that would charge for emitting carbon dioxide and use that money to fund a tax cut. The group of companies, which includes giants like ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, has contributed millions to a lobbying group dedicated to supporting the legislation. Supporters of the legislation say the proposal would aim to cut U.S. greenhouse emissions 32% by 2025.
But the proposal isn’t altruism. For one, it includes a provision to repeal regulation and provide the companies immunity from certain lawsuits related to the cause of climate change. More broadly, its agnostic approach to energy sources provides a way for oil and gas to stay viable economically compared to more dramatic climate change proposals that would seek to phase out fossil fuels more rapidly.
Many of the world’s big energy consumers — including tech companies like Google and retailers like Walmart — have actively lobbied for legislation to support the deployment of clean energy. Those companies would be able to save money by buying power from renewable electricity sources like wind and solar while also receiving protection from the volatile costs of fossil fuels.
“The business community is not debating whether we need to solve this,” says Miranda Ballentine, the CEO of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a trade group that represents some of America’s largest companies. “If you’re a big consumer of power, the most important thing you can do is change energy policy so you can actually buy renewables.”
Piecemeal policies and corporate action have certainly moved the climate needle, but companies will need to continue to adjust as the demand for dramatic policy moves increase. And, if the aggressive proposals from Democratic presidential candidates and the continued activism are any indication, that demand isn’t going away anytime soon.