A House Republican and a Senate Democrat said yesterday that corporations taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint could help create a comfort zone for GOP members to act on climate change.
During a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill, Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — both proponents of Congress stepping in to address climate change — advised leaders from several major food and beverage companies to stress cost savings that come with taking steps to reduce emissions.
The companies, they said, should reassure lawmakers that the business sector would have their back politically on climate change.
"There is no place that is more significant in getting things right on climate," Whitehouse said, "than business community leadership stepping up in Congress and actually showing up here and putting weight here and reassuring members that when the other guys come after them, they will have friends."
"They will not be left — what’s the TV show? ‘Naked and Afraid,’" Whitehouse continued, referring to the Discovery Channel program that drops contestants in a remote region and pushes them to survive in the wild without clothing.
The roundtable — which featured executives from Kellogg Co., PepsiCo Inc., Mars Inc., Unilever NV, Stonyfield, Clif Bar & Co. and Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Holdings Inc. — was the second gathering of food and beverage companies coordinated by the sustainability business group Ceres.
Gibson and Whitehouse sponsored the first briefing last fall in the runup to the international climate negotiations in Paris.
Most of the companies are members of Ceres’ Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, which advocates on Capitol Hill on issues related to climate and energy issues.
The first meeting with food and beverage firms occurred shortly after Gibson introduced a resolution with a dozen GOP colleagues calling on Congress to address climate change.
Since then, Gibson said what he called little wins in Congress on climate change were encouraging. He cited the creation of the House’s first bipartisan caucus on the issue as an opening for Republicans to talk openly about climate change.
"I think it’s important that we persist and drive on," he said.
‘Like talking to prisoners’
Gibson estimated that there were probably 14 to 15 House Republicans who publicly support action on climate change.
Similarly, Whitehouse said that there were between 12 and 20 Senate Republicans who "would like to be more engaged" in a discussion about legislation on the issue but don’t see a safe path politically.
"Talking to Republicans in the Senate about climate change is like talking to prisoners about escape," Whitehouse said. "They may like the goal, but they’re really nervous about being caught in a conversation by the guards."
The lawmakers said that the business sector could be doing more to persuade Republican colleagues to be responsive on the issue of climate change.
As an example of a lack of climate debate on Capitol Hill, Whitehouse said he had lobbying meetings three weeks ago with the technology, lumber, and property and casualty insurance industries. None of the groups talked about climate, he said.
Food and beverage companies at the meeting yesterday ticked off a host of actions they were taking to address climate change, including consulting with their supply chains and powering facilities by renewable energy.
Brad Figel, vice president of public affairs at Mars, said he agreed that companies could help make climate change an "easier conversation" among Democrats and Republicans.
To that end, Figel said he met with key Republican staffers in 15 to 20 congressional offices on the Hill yesterday "and got a lot of really good discussion on what’s going on with climate change."
"We need more," Figel said. "And what we need, and what the business community needs to do, is to make the business case for Republicans and Democrats for why this is imperative."
Gibson offered to have his staff work with the food companies to help identify the "next tier" of Republicans that may be ready to sign on to climate change policies.
Letters to the editor of hometown newspapers are key to helping reach Republican members, both he and Whitehouse told the roundtable participants. Corporations should stress that addressing climate change is good for profits, Gibson said.
Gibson said he would like to see companies make arguments like: "We believe this is in the greater good, to be sure, but also please know that we see this central to our bottom line. We’re also doing it for our sort of Adam Smith selfish reasons."
He said, "I think that’s a very important piece of it because once my party sees there is real job creation here, there’s wage rising, I think there’s a real opportunity for us."
A "key moment" for having a conversation on the Hill about climate change will be whenever Congress tackles comprehensive tax reform, Gibson predicted. Gibson, however, is leaving Congress at the end of this term and likely won’t be around to see it happen.
Support goes both ways, said Paul Boykas, vice president of public policy at PepsiCo.
Boykas said his company was looking toward Congress to help create a "comfort zone" for corporations to go back to shareholders and show why they are taking steps to reduce carbon footprints.
"We can’t get there without the government taking action and moving forward," Boykas said. "I think coming out of Paris, and the hope in Paris, our hope is that there can be a framework that comes from Congress, a legislative framework that comes from Congress, that is bipartisan."