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The Corporate Chaos Behind Republicans’ Silence on Climate Change

Speakers aren’t even taking the time to deny climate change at the Republican convention. They’re just ignoring it.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
President Trump greets guests ahead of Melania Trump's RNC speech Tuesday night.

Republicans didn’t mention rising temperatures in their first two nights of convention programming. They didn’t even call it a hoax. Climate change doesn’t appear in Trump’s bullet-pointed second-term agenda, released in lieu of an updated 2020 platform as wildfires burn in fifteen states.

In a sense, it’s not that surprising: The coronavirus has also been sidelined at the Republican convention, mentioned mainly as a means to praise Trump’s handling of it—not discussing how to prevent further death and economic depression. But usually, in lieu of climate or economic woes at GOP podiums, there’s at least corporate bluster. Why do CEOs seem to be missing in action?

The modern Republican Party is the party of big business—specifically, a practical alliance between big business and racists. Groups like the National Association of Manufacturers backed Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, intended to tear down the New Deal order by stoking racial resentment and destroying unions. Ronald Reagan—who ginned up public ire against so-called “welfare queens”—was groomed to run for higher office by General Electric. The Koch Brothers used the fortune from their fossil fuel empire to direct racist anger at a Black president against the cap-and-trade bill in 2009, helping to catalyze the Republican Party’s shift toward Trumpism with a series of successful and uncompromising Tea Party primary challenges. The 2016 RNC featured speeches from fracking magnate Harold Hamm, who warned that “Every time we can’t drill a well in America, terrorism is being funded!”

This year’s confab looks a little different, though it’s sticking to some reliable themes. Trump’s first-night speech included his usual tributes to so-called energy independence (“we’re now number one in the world, by far”) and fossil fuels, taking a few jabs at solar, which, he argued incorrectly, is “very, very heavily expensive.” (That’s now a more accurate way to describe coal.) Speakers throughout the night cited regulatory rollbacks among Trump’s accomplishments in the White House and complained that Joe Biden was going to ban fracking and energy exploration, which by all accounts he would not. The rest of the week will probably feature more of the same.

Just as the Republican Party under Trump has grown increasingly unhinged from reality, it may also now offer a less straightforward value proposition for America’s biggest companies, who lack a unified approach to climate change now that denial is increasingly untenable. While the Chamber of Commerce proclaimed its commitment to the Paris Agreement last fall after years spent battling climate policy in Washington, it’s still supporting politicians defending their members’ right to pollute. Corporate donations continue to flow to Republican candidates up and down the ballot. Last year, the American Action Network—one of the secretive dark money groups that serve as black box funnels for corporate funds and a favorite tool of fossil fuel interests—gave more than $9 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is dedicated to electing Republicans to the House. The Republican Senate Leadership fund collected $7.6 million from another dark money group, One Nation, over the same period. As in 2016, Charles Koch—who heads Koch Industries alone after David’s death last year—hasn’t thrown his empire’s weight behind Trump, though his flagship super political action committee Americans for Prosperity is now doing door-to-door canvassing in support of Republican congressional candidates and taking out a seven-figure ad buy. Although Koch has expressed ambivalence about the Trump administration, he probably hasn’t been unhappy to see it push through his longtime goals, from environmental rollbacks to defunding the U.S. Postal Service.

In the past, CEOs could easily agree on minority rule for the wealthy, backing PACs, politicians, and think tanks who supported tax cuts and deregulation. Within that broader mission, however, corporate America isn’t a monolith—particularly on climate.

Executives in the insurance industry and on Wall Street—with its traditionally close ties to Democrats—have found the sort of outright climate denial associated with Trump to be a liability, particularly when doing business internationally. While tech magnates sell logistical support to drilling companies, companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Salesforce are eager to claim they’re helping save the planet. There’s a straightforward profit motive to looking green in 2020, a mantle easier to take up for tech monopolies than oil giants.

Further widening the gap between big oil and different arms of the corporate world, the fossil fuel industry is experiencing what may well be the deepest crisis in its short history; after having been the largest company on earth in 2013, ExxonMobil on Monday was unceremoniously removed from the spot it’s held since 1928 on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Just one oil company, Chevron, remains in the index. From Blackrock to BP, companies are trying to cash in on climate-friendly branding for what are now merely common-sense investment decisions.

Against the backdrop of climate chaos and turmoil in the fossil fuel sector, both parties’ conventions have felt oddly disconnected from reality. Big oil companies are now more likely to talk about the importance of addressing climate than are their Republican allies, who are still delivering wins for them in Washington, touting the unlimited potential of companies currently crashing on the rocks. During the DNC, Democrats—who take far fewer coal, oil, and gas industry donations—declared boldly that “climate change is real” during a climate-themed interlude on Day 3. Biden’s keynote speech mentioned the climate crisis as one of the core challenges facing the nation and brought it up four times throughout his address. Most of the time, though, you wouldn’t have known that the party is running on the most ambitious climate platform in its history—a platform, nevertheless, that still treats the world’s biggest carbon emitters with kid gloves, leaving the door wide open for expanded oil exports. Like other Democratic climate plans, his mostly sidesteps the problem of how to scale down polluting industries, seeing the energy transition as a problem primarily of adding clean energy rather than subtracting incumbent fuels.

Whether avoiding the issue will actually pay off is unclear. While Democrats have been reticent to give Republicans any ammo to attack them on climate, Republicans have shown they don’t need any grounds at all to accuse Joe Biden—who enthusiastically backed the Iraq War, NAFTA, the lifting of the crude export ban, and the infamous 1994 Crime Bill—of being a pawn of radical Marxists promising to ban all fossil fuels. Meanwhile, some Republicans worry the party is “ceding” ground to their opposition by not offering any meaningful solutions on the issue, although the RNC’s hellish Monday night vision of hardened borders and militarized cops protecting white Americans from non-white invaders clearly qualifies as a sort of dystopian plan to handle rising tides and temperatures.

Where the various arms of big business fit into that bleak picture remains to be seen. No one should underestimate corporations’ ability to profit off whatever floods, fights, and fires the next few decades have in store. If they never again take the stage at the RNC, it will only be because they’ve figured out how to manage discreetly from the wings: Eco-fascism, after all, isn’t great branding.