U.S. CEOs generally panned President Trump’s decision to withdraw America from the Paris accord on climate change as a bad idea for the planet—and even for business.
But some business voices were willing to cheer Trump’s move as sensible for the American economy and for national sovereignty.
“It’s about time someone in power has identified that throwing money at the problem doesn’t solve it,” Jeff Garbus, founder and CEO of Soaring Eagle Consulting, told Chief Executive. “It was going to cost the U.S. billions of dollars, but there was no accountability for what was going to happen.”
The view that mankind’s activities have contributed to a change in the climate has become conventional thought among American CEOs just as among most scientists and, according to polls, a majority of the American population at large.
“Rejecting a confused and costly international agreement, with questionable benefits to climate, should be a slam dunk.”
As a result, Trump got hit by more negativity from fellow business chieftains for this move than for any decision he’s made since CEOs gave him an earful in March over his attempted immigration ban.
One high-profile CEO after another said it was a bad idea, including General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt and even ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, successor to Rex Tillerson, who is now Trump’s secretary of State. In fact, a Google search for CEO opinions about the move turned up dozens of links to stories and statements about business leaders’ condemnations of Trump’s decision, while almost literally no mentions of CEOs who supported it.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Disney CEO Robert Iger even pointed to the move in making noisy exits from Trump’s CEO advisory council.
But Trump didn’t reject the Paris accord by rejecting the science undergirding the theory of man-made climate change. Rather, he said that the agreement handicapped U.S. sovereignty in running its own economy, that the accord unfairly targeted U.S. contributions to global carbon-dioxide emissions and that it would hurt American jobs.
In that assessment, respected business voices including The Wall Street Journal agreed with the president.
“It is a pledge of phony progress,” the Journal said in a June 2 editorial about the agreement signed by 195 nations that volunteered carbon emission-reduction curtailments. Developed nations generally “made unrealistic assurances that even they knew they could not achieve,” the newspaper opined in endorsing Trump’s exit. “Paris is thus an exercise in moral and social signaling that is likely to exert little if any influence on atmospheric [carbon dioxide], much less” global temperatures.
Meanwhile, the agreement didn’t recognize that the United States has been leading the world in reducing carbon emissions over the past five years. And the Paris accord would burden the U.S. economy “with new political controls” that would get in the way of “technological progress and human ingenuity,” the Journal maintained.
Garbus, whose Apollo Beach, Fla., database-consulting firm employs about 20 people full-time and contracts another 20, concurred: “The agreement is just going to create a huge bureaucracy, but not a solution,” he said. “It is just politics as usual on a global level, with small countries sticking their hands out.”
Despite the fact that big oil producers such as ExxonMobil panned Trump for his decision, Garbus observed that some of the most vocal opposition to Trump’s move came from American green-energy companies that would have the most to gain from enforcement of the Paris agreement. “As in general,” he said, “in this case you need to follow the money.”
Among the green-energy CEOs who rued Trump’s decision was Al Frasz, owner of Dovetail Wind and Solar, in Ohio. “It really is garbage,” Frasz told TV station WKSU about any skepticism that the effects of climate change are real.
On the other hand, Trump’s thinking drew predictable praise from coal-company CEOs. “Mr. Trump’s obligation is to do what is in America’s best interest,” Cliff Forrest, CEO of Rosebud Mining, which mines coal in Ohio and Pennsylvania, wrote in the Journal right before the president’s decision was announced. “Rejecting a confused and costly international agreement, with questionable benefits to climate, should be a slam dunk.”
Some other CEOs, while supporting the Paris agreement, admired Trump’s political strategy. “He made a great decision for Trump,” Julio Daniel Hernandez, founder and CEO of Enlight Energy, an Austin, Texas-based energy-conservation firm, wrote on the company’s blog.
By riveting the world’s attention and diverting coverage from investigations of potential Russian influence peddling, said the head of one of the “green” energy firms that stood to benefit from the Paris accord, Trump and his team proved that they are “genius marketing executioners.”
Justin Danhof, who runs a conservative think tank that speaks out on business issues, believes he understands some of the dynamics dictating CEOs’ responses to Trump’s withdrawal. The general counsel for the National Center for Public Policy Research believes that many CEOs personally support the move, but that many leaders are cowed by the fact that the typical American corporation these days has thrown in with progressive political causes.
“They don’t want to get ‘Exxoned,’” said Danhof, referring to the vote by ExxonMobil shareholders last week that, by about a two-to-one margin, approved a plan that could force the oil company to release more information concerning its efforts to combat global warming. “The left has made CEOs very afraid to speak their minds if they tend to be conservative.”
Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, on Monday told CNBC he believed that “over 70% of the business community overwhelmingly wanted to stay in Paris.” Trump himself may have misread this balance and expected more CEO support for his move, but in the end, it probably didn’t matter to this go-it-alone president.
In any event, CEOs will have plenty of time to solidify or modify their opinions about Trump’s action concerning Paris: It’ll take four years, under terms of the accord signed by President Obama, for the formal withdrawal process to be completed.