UWith a major gathering of international climate delegates in Egypt just six weeks away, waves of international businesspeople, government officials and non-profit officials converged on New York’s event spaces and auditoriums last week for perhaps the second-highest event ever on climate for the year : Climate Week in New York. The program was focused on business, and a study of the name tags at the week’s opening ceremony revealed a who’s who of international banks and corporations.
The event began on a somber note, with World Meteorological Organization chief Petteri Taalas warning that the world faces a 50-50 chance of exceeding 1.5 degrees of warming in the next five years. His report was followed by something more positive: a presentation by McKinsey & Company consultant Laura Korb, who described – with a healthy dose of business jargon and corporate leadership metaphors – the “opportunities” the energy transition will bring to business.
It was an odd choice for such an important role, though perhaps not surprising given that McKinsey sponsored the event. In recent years, the management consultancy has come under heavy criticism for its role in exacerbating America’s opioid crisis and advancing interests of autocratic governments such as China and Saudi Arabia. The company has also advised some of the world’s biggest polluters, helping to maximize the profits of companies such as ExxonMobil, Russia’s Gazprom and Saudi Aramco. Back in 2019, he’s working to help “performance improvement” at Teck Resources, one of the world’s largest coal companies, according to New York times. But those topics were not brought up during an onstage interview with Korb conducted by Helen Clarkson, CEO of the Climate Group, which organizes Climate Week NYC. When I approached Korb after the event, she politely suggested that I speak with McKinsey’s PR representatives. (By email they directed me to op-ed defending McKinsey’s work on polluters.)
Organizers made it clear that Climate Week NYC was meant to be a positive event. “Threats of doom and destruction do not motivate people,” Clarkson told attendees during his opening remarks. “What motivates people is hearing about the work that is being done to address the crisis at all levels.” And while those attending the event from the scientific or advocacy community are unlikely to be optimistic about the current state of climate progress, representatives of the most powerful corporations in the world were more than happy to comply. Amazon has announced that it will start using low-emission electric fuels to power its long-haul trucks. PepsiCo and food giant ADM are promoting their collaboration in regenerative agriculture. Introducing National Grid, one of the “major partners” of the event plan for the Long Island Clean Energy and Hydrogen Center.
There has been progress in climate action in recent years. But the fact is that the world has not moved fast enough to keep the atmosphere from warming to catastrophic levels. Global emissions are still going in the wrong direction, up 6% in 2021. Many large companies have committed to reducing their emissions by 2050, but few have delivered adequate details how they plan to get there. “It’s actually worse, in some ways,” says Catherine McKenna, chair of the UN’s High-Level Panel of Experts on Net Zero Commitments by Non-State Entities. “It makes us all feel good, but it doesn’t really get the job done.”
Some of the very companies represented at Climate Week are part of the problem, but they’ve taken the opportunity to frame less-than-stellar climate progress as game-changing environmental breakthroughs or, worse, to sideline active efforts to slow the energy transition. National Grid’s proposed hydrogen project, for example, contains a controversial provision to use pipeline hydrogen to heat homes, a move considered by many in the environmental community to be a ridiculous waste of resources compared to simply running electric heat pumps. (By email, a National Grid representative said the company is not opposed to electrification, but prefers a “hybrid approach.”) National Grid also sits on the steering committee of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, which advocates against state efforts to reduce natural gas use. through Facebook posts, local articlesand recently a six-figure ad campaign to spark opposition to clean energy legislation in the state. Clarkson says the Climate Group does “a lot of due diligence” on funders like McKinsey and National Grid.
“We are members of many coalitions,” the National Grid representative wrote in an email. “While we may not agree with every point of view, it’s important to us to be part of the conversation.”
The theme of this year’s Climate Week — “Let’s Do It” — seemed to try to address concerns about inaction, focusing largely on how companies can turn their climate goals into actual emissions reductions in the near future. But some observers said the tone of the event fell short of the urgency of the crisis. Abby Dillon, president of the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice, says she noticed that many leaders at Climate Week tended to talk mostly in general terms, avoiding the hard details of exactly how and when they would implement emissions cuts. “We don’t want to be in the triage room talking philosophy,” she says. “We want to order the scalpels and scissors.”
Part of this lack of urgency may have to do with who isn’t at Climate Week: people who are on the front lines of climate change — like workers battling extreme heat or families fleeing massive floods — whose lives could be directly influenced by decisions made by the executives present, but who often felt a million miles away from the heady corporate presentations at the event. Among Climate Week organizers, the logic is that closed-door sessions between business leaders can encourage them to take positive action and share important ideas about sustainability. Clarkson, CEO of the Climate Group, told TIME that she is not concerned about the lack of representation outside the business community and high levels of governance. “It’s not that we’re trying to exclude these people,” she said. “It’s pragmatic what makes change happen.” She noted that executives and other decision makers already understand the stakes of the climate crisis because they read the news.
The problem, however, is that there are few forums where people outside the circles of money and power can have a say in what powerful companies are doing in the name of sustainability. In the US Midwest, for example, a vast network of carbon capture projects is being planned despite the outrage by landowners who oppose carbon dioxide pipelines crossing their land. At Climate Week, a panel on carbon capture included experts from Credit Suisse, Citi Bank, the US Department of Energy and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. However, none of the communities that could actually be affected by their plans were present.
And sometimes at Climate Week there was simply no chance to challenge the companies’ version of things. In a panel discussion on climate communications, an executive from Meta (formerly Facebook) talked about the fact-checking platform’s partnerships, describing how the company is “inoculation” people against the misinformation on his platform. Standing at the back of the room, I waited for an opportunity to ask about millions of dollars the company has been allowed in recent years to run ads promoting fossil fuels. Then, without taking any questions from the audience, the organizers ended the panel discussion and moved on. The company did not respond to email requests for comment.
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