A Corporate Greenwashing Bonanza Just Descended on New York City

7 minute read

With a pivotal gathering of international climate delegates in Egypt just six weeks away, tides of international business people, government officials, and non-profit staff convened in New York City event spaces and auditoriums last week for perhaps the year’s second-most ballyhooed climate event: Climate Week NYC. The program centered on businesses, and a survey of name tags at the week’s opening ceremony revealed a who’s who of international banks and corporations.

The event started out on a somber tone, with the chief of the World Meteorological Organization, Petteri Taalas, warning that the world faced a 50-50 chance of exceeding 1.5 degrees of warming in the next five years. His report was followed by something more positive: a presentation from McKinsey & Company consultant Laura Corb, who described—with a healthy dose of business jargon and corporate leadership metaphors—the “opportunities” the energy transition would bring for businesses.

It was a strange choice for such a prominent role, though perhaps unsurprising, considering McKinsey sponsored the event. In recent years, the management consultancy has endured a drumbeat of criticism for its role in exacerbating America’s opioid crisis and advancing the interests of autocratic governments like China and Saudi Arabia. The company has also consulted for some of the world’s worst polluters, helping to maximize profits for companies like ExxonMobil, Russia’s Gazprom, and Saudi Aramco. As recently as 2019, it worked to help “improve productivity” at Teck Resources, one of the world’s largest coal companies, according to the New York Times. But these topics weren’t broached during an on-stage interview with Corb conducted by Helen Clarkson, CEO of Climate Group, which organized Climate Week NYC. When I approached Corb after the event, she politely suggested I talk to McKinsey’s public relations representatives. (Over email, they referred me to an op-ed defending McKinsey’s work with polluters.)

Organizers had made clear that Climate Week NYC was supposed to be a positive event. “Threats of doom and destruction do not motivate people,” Clarkson told attendees during her opening address. “What does motivate people is hearing about work that’s being done to tackle the crisis at all levels.” And while event attendees from the scientific or advocacy community were unlikely to be sanguine about the current state of climate progress, representatives from the world’s most powerful corporations were more than happy to comply. Amazon announced it would begin using low-emission electrofuels to power its long haul trucks. PepsiCo and food processing giant ADM promoted their collaboration on regenerative agriculture. National Grid, one of the event’s “headline partners” unveiled a plan for a clean energy and hydrogen hub on Long Island.

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There has been progress on climate action in recent years. But the fact is that the world has not moved nearly fast enough to keep the atmosphere from warming to catastrophic levels. Global emissions are still going in the wrong direction, rising 6% in 2021. Many big companies have made commitments to zero out their emissions by 2050, but few have presented adequate details of how they’re planning to get there. “That’s actually worse, in a way,” says Catherine McKenna, chair of the UN High-Level Expert Group on Net-Zero Commitments of Non-State Entities. “It makes us all feel good, but we’re not actually doing the work.”

Some of the very companies represented at Climate Week are part of the problem, but they took the opportunity to frame less-than-stellar climate progress as game changing environmental breakthroughs, or, worse, to greenwash active efforts to slow the energy transition. National Grid’s proposed hydrogen project, for instance, contains a controversial provision to use piped hydrogen to heat homes, a move regarded by many in the environmental community as a preposterous waste of resources compared to simply rolling out electric heat pumps. (Over email, a representative from National Grid said that the company is not against electrification, but favors “a hybrid approach.”) National Grid is also on the steering committee of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, which advocates against state efforts to cut natural gas use through Facebook posts, local op-eds, and, recently, a six-figure ad campaign to drum up opposition against clean energy legislation in the state. Clarkson says Climate Group does “a lot of due diligence” on sponsors like McKinsey and National Grid.

“We are members of many coalitions,” the National Grid representative wrote over email. “While we may not agree with every point of view, it is important for us to be part of the conversation.”

The theme of this year’s Climate Week—“Getting it done”—seemed to try and tackle concerns around inaction by focusing in large part on how companies could turn their climate goals into actual emissions reductions in the near term. But some observers said the tone of the event felt out of touch with the urgency of the crisis. Abbie Dillen, president of environmental nonprofit Earthjustice, says she noticed that many executives at Climate Week tended to speak mostly in generalities, avoiding the hard specifics of exactly how and when they will implement emissions cuts. “We don’t want to be in the triage room talking philosophy,” she says. “We want to be ordering the scalpels and scissors.”

Part of that lack of urgency may have to do with who wasn’t present at Climate Week: people on the frontlines of climate change—like workers contending with extreme heat, or families fleeing immense floods—whose lives might well be directly impacted by decisions made by the executives present, but who often felt a million miles away from the event’s heady corporate presentations. Among Climate Week organizers, the logic is that closed-door sessions between business leaders can encourage them to take positive action and share important ideas about sustainability. Clarkson, the Climate Group CEO, told TIME that she isn’t concerned about the dearth of representation from outside the business community and high levels of government. “It’s not that we’re trying to exclude those people,” she said. “It’s being pragmatic about what makes change happen.” She noted that executives and other decision makers already understand the stakes of the climate crisis because they read the news.

The issue, though, is that there are few forums where people outside circles of money and power can get a say over what powerful companies are doing in the name of sustainability. In the Midwest United States, for example, a vast network of carbon capture projects is being planned despite outcry from landowners opposed to having the carbon dioxide pipelines crossing their land. At Climate Week, a panel on carbon capture brought in experts from Credit Suisse, Citi Bank, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. Not present, though, was anyone from the communities that might actually be affected by their plans.

And sometimes at Climate Week, there simply wasn’t a chance to challenge companies’ version of things. In a panel discussion on climate communications, an executive from Meta (formerly Facebook) talked up the platform’s fact checking partnerships, describing how the company was “inoculating” people against misinformation on its platform. Standing in the back of the room, I waited for a chance to ask about the millions of dollars the company had received in recent years to show ads promoting fossil fuels. Then, without taking questions from the audience, the organizers ended the panel discussion and moved on. The company did not respond to requests for comment over email.

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com