When Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement, Lynelle Cameron, CEO of the Autodesk Foundation and vice president of sustainability for Autodesk, the philanthropic arm of the software company, wrote that the while the decision was “deeply troubling, it may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened for the planet.” To be clear, she thinks it was a bad decision. But it is activating the private sector’s support for climate action–along with that of many cities and states–in a way that past advocacy efforts haven’t.
After the announcement, many CEOs immediately denounced it. Elon Musk said that he would quit the president’s business advisory councils because of the decision; Disney CEO Bob Iger, who was also a member of the council on job growth and economic activity, said that he would step down as well. Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff tweeted his disappointment, saying that the company would “double its efforts to fight climate change.” Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein–the former boss of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin–used the occasion to tweet for the first time. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric (which depends on the federal government for billions in sales) tweeted his disappointment and that industry must now lead. Google CEO Sundar Pichai also tweeted his disappointment, and said that Google “will keep working hard for a cleaner, more prosperous future for all.”
By June 5, one and a half business days after Trump’s speech, more than 900 companies had signed on to a letter called We Are Still In, in addition to cities, states, and universities, pledging to pursue ambitious climate goals “to ensure that the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing emissions.”
“Anger catalyzes action more effectively than fear,” Autodesk’s Cameron tells Fast Company. “I think that’s what this is showing us. We’ve had the fear of climate change for more than a decade. Now we have the anger and embarrassment [because] of our president, which is catalyzing.”
Many companies do already have ambitious goals to cut their own emissions. The breakfast cereal giant General Mills is the process of reducing its emissions 28% by 2025 (compared to emissions in 2010) across its entire value chain, which means not only saving energy in its own factories, but working with farmers to reduce climate pollution and solving the problem of emissions when its products end up in landfills. The candy company Mars plans to cut all greenhouse gas emissions from its operations by 2040; in 2014, the company built a massive wind farm to offset the power use of all of its operations in the U.S. Google expects to run all of its operations on renewable energy in 2017, Apple is close to the goal of 100% renewable energy, and Facebook runs all of its data centers on renewables (and plans to power 50% of its operations with renewables by 2018). Walmart plans to cut emissions 18% by 2025 (compared to 2015) and is also working to cut a billion tons of greenhouse gases–the equivalent of Germany’s entire yearly emissions–from its supply chain between 2015 and 2030. PepsiCo plans to cut emissions 20% across its value chain by 2030, compared to 2015, and operates the largest electric delivery fleet in the United States.
That’s not to say that all of these companies always act in ways that support the climate. Nearly half of the money PepsiCo’s political action committee donated in 2016 went to candidates that opposed Obama’s climate agenda. Both Google and General Electric’s political action committees gave more than a third of its contributions to those candidates. Google and Facebook were formerly members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch-funded group that opposed renewables (they left in 2014). Facebook’s political action committee gave heavily to Republican candidates in 2016. General Mills’ PAC gave more than two-thirds of its contributions to Republicans. Apple CEO Tim Cook, who strongly advocated to stay in Paris and denounced the decision to withdraw, hosted a fundraiser for Paul Ryan in June 2016.
Still, it’s clear that the companies are making progress in their own operations. For those that are leading most aggressively, the Paris decision may simply mean publicly recommitting to the work already underway. “I think many of them already had very well articulated plans in place,” says Anne Kelly, senior program director, public policy, at Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit that works with companies and investors. “From what I’ve heard from companies, they have said, ‘No matter who is in the White House, we’re going forward with our plan.’ This is partly a message that it is not all about the Trump administration. There’s tremendous effort going on in civil society.”
“In some regards, nothing’s changed,” says Cameron. “We’re still pushing forward in terms of our own operations and the commitments we’ve made.” Autodesk, which makes software used by architects, engineers, and other designers, already uses tech to help its customers design buildings that can make more energy than they use, and products that don’t require digging materials out of mines. (Incidentally, the company doesn’t have a political action committee, and employee donations in 2016 went almost entirely to Democrats). The company’s work building tools to reduce emissions will continue, in part because Autodesk, like many companies, realizes that addressing climate change is both necessary and a business opportunity.
“We have to design a different way for 10 billion people to live on this planet without continuing to increase the warming of the planet,” she says. “That is the ultimate design opportunity that we, and our customers, have in front of us… I absolutely think that when the economics make sense, which is what we’re seeing, and this issue is material to shareholders (as it is now because it’s included in so many 10Ks), it’s a different situation than it was five or 10 years ago. And we’ll see a different level of progress and innovation because it’s coming from a different place.”
While Autodesk, along with many others, is already far along its path to becoming more sustainable, it expects that the Paris decision may directly spark more interest from its customers in the opportunity to reduce emissions. Some companies say that they are already seeing that impact.
For some companies, the decision may push existing efforts farther. Levi Strauss & Co., which first did a full lifecycle assessment of its jeans in 2007–including the energy impact of making and washing the clothing–is a leader in sustainability in the apparel space and was heavily involved in advocating for the Paris agreement before the world adopted it. Trump’s decision to withdraw is motivating the company to do even more.
“It creates an environment where we’re going to double down on our efforts… We’re in the process of updating our climate and energy policy and program, and I think we now look at it with new eyes, as to prioritizing leadership in this space,” says Anna Walker, senior director of policy and advocacy at Levi Strauss & Co.
Some smaller companies are beginning to prioritize trimming carbon emissions because of the decision. Hylink Global, China’s largest digital advertising agency, decided to make a series of small changes in its office of about 20 people in Los Angeles after the announcement. Half of the employees are committing to walk, bike, or carpool to work, the office will switch off air conditioning for a few hours a day, the dishwasher will run on cold water, and the office will switch to hand dryers from paper towels. Though minor in comparison to the changes happening in global manufacturing and technology, the company calculates that within a year the office will save the equivalent emissions of driving a car more than 30,000 miles.
The decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement has inspired other companies to voice support for climate action when they haven’t been vocal in the past. “I think one of the good things that have come about in the last few days is that we know where so many companies and cities stand in regards to climate change, and I don’t know if we would have known that before,” says Cameron. “The companies that have added their names to this list that haven’t been as public in the past about their commitment to climate are now stepping up their commitment and more committed than ever.”
“Business broadly doesn’t agree with Trump on immigration or climate,” says Carl Pope, senior adviser to Michael Bloomberg, who helped coordinate both the We Are All In statement and a separate effort to submit a new pledge to reduce emissions to the United Nations. “Many don’t agree on trade either. But they don’t want to fight with the president. On climate, they were sitting it out. When Trump started threatening to pull out of Paris, they thought they could head him off. Instead, they took him on head first. They had to stand up to him. Elon Musk had to resign. Trump has started a much bigger war than he intended. The climate will be the winner.”