Big Tech is shifting the climate narrative in Washington

As tech firms’ influence grows in Washington, D.C., they’re pushing a major trade group to embrace and lobby for climate policy.

U.S. Capitol building

Companies including Microsoft and GM have been publicly arguing in favor of more support for Biden’s climate policies.

Photo: Don Shin/Unsplash

Tech companies are bending a major business trade group toward backing President Joe Biden’s climate agenda.

The Business Roundtable — a lobbying group representing the most powerful CEOs in the U.S. — has voiced support for some of the climate policies in the Build Back Better agenda, even as it worked to undermine the tax increases in Democrats’ social spending bill that would have paid for the climate provisions in the measure.

Companies including Microsoft and GM have been publicly arguing in favor of more support for Biden’s climate policies, which can affect the positions that BRT takes internally, according to several people familiar with the firms’ priorities. The business group also has strong ties to the energy sector and a deep skepticism of regulation. But tech companies’ advocacy has extended to closed-door talks with BRT, two people said.

“In our discussions with sustainability leaders at a number of companies, including the big tech ones, it sounds like they have been advocating pretty hard inside BRT,” said Bill Weihl, executive director of the nonprofit ClimateVoice. Weihl previously spent years inside Google and Facebook as a top environmental official.

GM CEO Mary Barra, who took over as chair of BRT’s board at the beginning of the year, appears to have been particularly important to realigning the group’s positions, two other people familiar with the companies’ talks, who asked not to be named discussing their approaches, told Protocol. Her company is betting its future on EVs, and the Build Back Better Act contained significant boosts to tax credits for certain American-made electric vehicles. Sen. Joe Manchin (along with 50 obstructionist Republican senators) effectively killed the legislation last December in part because of Manchin’s opposition to increased tax credits from union-made vehicles. But the senator has since expressed interest in passing some of the climate provisions.

BRT supported Congressional action on climate investments as part of the Build Back Better Act at least as far back as October. That was under Barra’s predecessor as chair, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon. Yet the group’s messaging during most of the fight aligned with other business groups that opposed Build Back Better. The Roundtable focused its criticism on what it called “harmful tax provisions,” and was largely silent on the climate provisions.

Then, in January, a few weeks into Barra’s tenure, BRT reiterated its support for investments, and added its backing to “incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” The statement of support came as Barra attended an event with Biden in support of Build Back Better, where she touted the need for investing in electric vehicles.

Tech is changing Washington

Microsoft President Brad Smith was by Barra’s side at the White House. At the event, he touted multiple sections of Build Back Better.

“I think there’s a very important connection … between the pieces of Build Back Better and what matters not just to Microsoft’s business but to every American business,” Smith said. The company, which is represented in BRT by CEO Satya Nadella, has outlined ambitious climate goals, as have Alphabet and Apple. Amazon’s framework — dubbed the Amazon Climate Pledge — even became a model for other companies.

Microsoft and other companies, though, are failing to meet their climate goals. That’s in part because of the rise of their Scope 3 emissions, which are tied to supply chains and customers using their products, from Xboxes to iPhones. The reality is that strong federal regulations and funding are needed to bend the global emissions curve, something no individual company’s climate plan can do.

To get those policies in place, Google, Netflix and Salesforce have joined a partnership, Drawdown Labs, that bans lobbying against climate change measures as a condition of membership. Salesforce has also been open about trying to push the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, another major Big Business lobbying group, on climate issues. The companies’ CEOs are all BRT members.

Washington lobbying by Big Business has long been dominated by organizations like the Chamber, which is closely aligned with fossil fuel interests. The group openly spearheaded campaigns to water down regulations and stop measures to decrease pollution, and trafficked in climate denial.

But as the tech sector has grown and taken up leadership positions in major trade groups, the companies have begun to bring incremental shifts to the priorities of those lobbying associations. One area is climate, where tech companies’ liberal West Coast workforces, relatively lower emissions (compared to oil and gas, anyway) and interest in government support for green tech have given the companies an incentive to stand up for limited climate measures inside their trade groups.

BRT’s membership is also composed of the companies most able to adapt to policy changes thanks to their wealth and power. BRT famously declared in 2019 that it wanted to redefine the purpose of a corporation as serving a much broader range of stakeholders (including workers and the environment), and last fall, it backeda well-balanced convergence of carbon pricing across regions and sectors” to meet Paris Agreement goals.

Tech is 'barely scratching the surface of what's possible'

Of course, BRT is still a business group that represents energy companies, utilities, manufacturers and other carbon-intensive industries. A study from Harvard found that BRT member companies did little to expand their notion of stakeholders after the group’s statement, even when prompted to, and many companies that are savvy to the ways of Washington have backed policies for good PR when corporate leaders know the associated measures will never pass.

Environmental activists also blame opposition to tax increases by the business community, including BRT, for helping sink Build Back Better. And it’s not clear if the tech firms or the BRT itself are using their considerable clout to push for a standalone bill on the specific climate provisions in Build Back Better, even as they talk about investments and incentives.

In addition, while tech companies cultivate a green image, there are real environmental downsides to massive data centers and international shipping operations. Some Big Tech climate pledges have also come under criticism for being non-binding marketing ploys that don’t go far enough or employ fuzzy math. An analysis published last month found that Amazon, Apple and Google were all lagging behind their own commitments, and the researchers scored Amazon and Google low on transparency.

Tech companies could also be pushing harder in Washington, said Jamie Beck Alexander, director of Drawdown Labs, which is the group partnering with companies like Google.

“When you stop and think about the scope and scale of resources that large corporations have at their disposal that they could bring to bear to support climate policy when it matters, they're barely scratching the surface of what's possible,” she said.

Beck Alexander said blog posts and op-eds in support of vague investments are not enough when the companies could be working, actively and often, on behalf of measures that Congress is already considering.

“When so much is on the line we need to rethink the playbook,” she said. “What about committing their lobbying dollars to help pass climate policy?”

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