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Protecting the Business: Why Conoco, Caterpillar, and Exxon Resort to Double-Talk on Climate Change

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When Galileo promoted the idea that the earth revolves around the sun in the 1600s, the church rejected his claims as heresy and subjected him to a lifetime of house arrest. Understandably, such theories could contaminate the minds of good Christians, and would therefore be bad for business.

Four hundred years later history is repeating itself, albeit with corporations (mostly those deeply invested in fossil fuels) as the ones seeking to discredit the scientific community in hopes of protecting their economic self-interests.

In the recent study A Climate of Corporate Control, the Union of Concerned Scientists uncovered several S&P 500 companies that had "made statements in support of climate science and policy in some public venues, while spreading misinformation on climate science or hindering science-based policy elsewhere." In fact, of the 28 companies researched, 21 of them acted in direct contradiction to their stated positions on climate change, largely employing methods that skirted direct accountability (e.g. sizeable political contributions, lobbying expenditures and the funding of trade groups and think tanks). Of the most egregious offenders are companies such as Conoco Phillips, Caterpillar Inc., Exxon Mobil and Peabody Energy Corporation.

In large part, these companies are doing exactly what's expected of them by their investors: mitigating risk and maximizing profit. By outwardly appearing as stewards of the environment, these companies retain a respected brand image (see Conoco's webpage on climate change). If these companies can simultaneously funnel money through conservative think tanks to muddy the waters of climate science -- thereby stalling Big Brother's efforts to levy a carbon tax -- all the better.

The practice of shining an undeserved halo around a company's environmental integrity is hardly uncommon. BP, as a low-hanging example, spent years and billions of dollars re-imaging the company brand as Beyond Petroleum prior to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. As the scientific evidence mounts that climate change is caused from greenhouse gases like CO2, however, a tough reality comes into focus for corporations that depend so heavily on fossil fuels: either prepare for a world of new rules, or adopt whatever means necessary to maintain the status quo.

Earlier this year, Tom Horton, CEO of American Airlines, trumpeted the airline's position as the "Greenest" U.S. airline rated in Newsweek's Green Rankings. "We remain devoted to the highest standards of energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions reduction" Horton said. Yet, at the time his message was posted, American Airlines was one of several airlines engaged in litigation against the European Union regarding a carbon tax for airlines flying over European airspace.

Similarly, the multi-media conglomerate News Corp, parent of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, has gone to great lengths as a company to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and instill sustainability into its corporate culture. News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch even stated at one point, "Climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats. We may not agree on the extent, but we certainly can't afford the risk of inaction." Even with this type of admission, Fox and WSJ continue to fill American minds with doubt on the reality of climate change as part of their programming.

For many decades the tobacco industry was successful in casting doubt about the adverse health effects of cigarettes simply because to say otherwise would have been a threat to their business. Today, companies are using this same tactic as a way of avoiding increased regulation on greenhouse gas emissions, even if those regulations are market-based versus "command and control."

The risk of this approach lies in the fact that, unlike tobacco, which primarily affects the individual, long-term climate disruption impacts entire ecosystems, food supplies and access to fresh water for all living species. What's more, is that by casting doubt on the science and creating an atmosphere of divisive "us vs. them" political rhetoric, the U.S. as a nation is essentially hamstringing its potential to rise above the problem collectively, proactively and with the respect of foreign countries that see us as a leader.

Suffice it to say, admitting there is a problem is the first step in breaking society's addiction to fossil fuels. Depending on which day you talk to some of these companies though, you may remain undecided as to whether we have a problem or not.

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