By Rachel Leven and Jamie Smith Hopkins email
The international climate-fighting pact would create jobs, Google said. Leaving the deal known as the Paris accord would be bad for business, top executives from Bank of America and Coca-Cola argued. When President Donald Trump committed to yanking the U.S. out anyway, PayPal and Western Union countered “We are still in.”
These corporate titans and at least 22 others were among those who sought to preserve the United States’ role in the landmark Paris agreement ratified by about 160 countries. So why exactly would these 27 business powerhouses also support a GOP group that’s fought to undo a key Obama-era domestic climate initiative?
The answer is, well, complicated. The overwhelming majority of these companies have no overt incentive to undermine the U.S. climate effort. One leading solar company, in fact, had a driving financial imperative to cheer it on. These companies’ donations of more than $3 million to the Republican Attorneys General Association over the past three-and-a-half years speaks instead to the difficulties for corporations trying to navigate the political system in a country that’s polarized – particularly on climate change.
The Obama-era Clean Power Plan provides a stark example. Starting in 2014, the group comprising many states’ Republican attorneys general spoke out against this Obama-era rule aiming to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions in the U.S. power sector. Nearly all the Republican attorneys general sued in 2015, alongside fossil fuel groups, to quash the power plan. A few Democratic attorneys general did as well; the majority pushed back in court to try to save it.
In giving to the GOP group, many of the big businesses said they were simply following a time-honored corporate tradition of donating to both parties – though most of these companies donated more to the Republican group than its Democratic counterpart. And they nodded at the political reality: A business needs to engage with elected officials on both sides of the aisle to influence policy, they said.
“This is a function of our democratic system,” Verizon subsidiary Oath said in a statement, speaking on behalf of one company on the list that it recently acquired, Yahoo.
But campaign finance experts countered that business officials can influence policy without writing a check to decision-makers like attorneys general – advocating their policy positions through lobbyists, for example. Because these businesses have said climate action is a priority, making political contributions that can work against that goal puts their reputations or even revenues at risk, these experts said.
“I don’t doubt that their public statements about the Paris climate agreement are sincere but it matters that when it actually comes down to how they spend their money, they’re giving to politicians that have almost the exact opposite goal,” said Daniel Weiner, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, which advocates for campaign finance reform. “It doesn’t mean that they’re actually lying, but it does lead one to wonder how strong their commitment to fight global warming actually is.”
Attorneys general and climate change
The job of state attorney general has in recent years become increasingly high-profile and partisan. The GOP group, also known as RAGA, and the competing Democratic Attorneys General Association didn’t even exist until 1999 and 2002, respectively. Now, both are sharply focused on election fundraising to increase their parties’ control of top state prosecutor jobs.
Attorneys general have flexed their muscles in a variety of ways, most recently when the Trump administration said it was partly threats of litigation from GOP AGs that caused the president to halt a program protecting from deportation certain immigrants brought to the country as children. A coalition of Democratic AGs then promptly sued.
But it’s the domestic Clean Power Plan that has received an outsize share of energy from Republican attorneys general. RAGA has called the rule “unlawful” and a prime example of the federal Environmental Protection Agency exerting authority that it doesn’t have to carry out a political agenda against fossil fuels. The GOP group has warned that it would kill jobs, raise electricity prices and put in jeopardy the power grid’s reliability. (These arguments were disputed by the Obama administration.)
RAGA, which did not respond to requests for comment, isn’t the only Republican fundraising group whose elected officials have doubts about global warming or the necessity of combating it through federal action. But the attorneys general association has stood out for making the power plan specifically its Enemy No. 1. The victory that tops RAGA’s list of accomplishments on its website: Convincing the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 “to halt implementation of Obama’s signature climate change initiative.”
The Republican attorneys general were likely crucial in securing the Supreme Court decision to keep the rule from taking effect while a lower court considered its legality because they “gave the opposition to the plan a legitimacy it wouldn’t otherwise have had,” said Daniel Farber, a law professor with the University of California, Berkeley. That pause left the still-in-limbo plan more vulnerable to the new administration, which is now determining its next steps after Trump vowed to dismantle it.
“As we’ve seen with Obamacare,” Farber said by email, referring to health care reform efforts, “once something has gone into effect, it becomes a lot harder to undo it.”
Pro-Paris companies’ donations to group fighting climate rule
These companies recently advocated for the U.S. to stay in an international climate change-fighting pact known as the Paris accord. Still, they donated from 2014 to 2017 to the Republican Attorneys General Association as it organized against the Clean Power Plan, the domestic effort to reduce the power sector’s planet-warming emissions. Here’s what these companies contributed to RAGA and its Democratic counterpart during that period. See the companies’ comments here.