It is not often that big business comes to Washington to seek regulation. But a group of companies including IKEA, Jones Lang LaSalle, Mars, Sprint, and VF Corp did so this week, asking Congress to take steps to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Executives organized by the business coalition BICEP (Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy), testified before a Senate and House task force on climate change, telling lawmakers about their own corporate commitments to reduce carbon pollution. Then they fanned out across the Capitol to lobby on behalf of a clean-energy financing bill.
They did so on the first anniversary of the release of the Climate Declaration, a corporate call-to-action that has been signed by more than 750 companies. It was a reminder to legislators that the US Chamber of Commerce, the coal industry and the Wall Street Journal editorial page do not speak for all of corporate America when they oppose government action to regulate carbon pollution.
"Business is not a monolith," said Anne Kelley, who coordinates BICEP's lobbying efforts. "That's been the message of BICEP since the beginning."
But if BICEP has shown that hundreds of companies favor political action on climate, its efforts so far have been drowned out in Washington by those of the US Chamber and its allies, a US Senator told the group.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and a strong advocate of climate action who convened the hearing, said BICEP's voice is "a murmur and not a message", and he urged companies to spend more of their political and reputational capital on the climate issue.
"You've got to take the next step, and say, 'our lobbyist in Washington is going to add this issue to the agenda'", Whitehouse said.
He called on big, brand-name companies that are ordinarily fierce competitors – Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, Fedex and UPS, Target and Walmart – to unite around the climate issue.
"I'd love to see the CEOs of Coke and Pepsi on a screen saying that we compete like crazy with one another, but one thing that we all agree on is that climate change is real," Whitehouse said.
That's unlikely to happen anytime soon. Even those companies that have joined BICEP and back climate regulation admit that the issue has yet to rise to the top of their Washington priority list. While climate change is a pivotal issue for coal companies and the utility industry, it is not front and center for most firms.
"It's not realistic for me to say this is going to be part of our core agenda," Amy Hargroves, director of corporate responsibility and sustainability for Sprint, told me after the hearing. Sprint understandably pays more attention to telecommunications issues or antitrust policy. Jim Hanna, director of environmental affairs at Starbucks, said many companies don't align their government relations work with their sustainability efforts.
Sprint and Starbucks have both signed the Climate Declaration, joining such companies as eBay, Gap, GM, Intel, Microsoft, Nestle and Unilever. But the declaration is an anodyne call for a "coordinated effort to combat climate change", without specifying what that effort will entail. An insider described it to me as "a gateway drug", designed to start a conversation that will progress as momentum builds.
Similarly, this week's lobbying effort focused not on an economy-wide program to curb climate pollution but on an obscure piece of legislation known as the Master Limited Partnership Parity Act, which is intended to lower the cost of financing clean energy.
BICEP members also attended a White House briefing about forthcoming EPA rules to curb pollution from existing power plants. "You are going to see full-on support from BICEP for the carbon rules," Kelley said.
Whitehouse urged the BICEP members to aim higher. "We are tantalizingly close" to a "significant piece of climate legislation", he said, expressing a view that is not widely held in Washington. He predicted that EPA's power plant rules will be a "game changer" that will force big emitters to rethink their use of fossil fuels, that climate change will be a winning issue for Democrats in the 2014 congressional elections and that a corporate shift in favor of climate regulation could make a decisive difference.
"The denial castle is built on sand, and the sand is eroding fast", he said.
Speaking of erosion, several of the corporate executives who spoke described severe weather which may be climate-related as a threat to their businesses.
Kevin Rabinovitch, director of global sustainability at Mars, a major buyer of chocolate, said: "We see crops suffering from climate change, and that flows through to us in terms of price."
Letitia Webster, senior director of global corporate sustainability at VF Corp, whose brands including Wrangler, Timberland and North Face, said their operations could be affected by climate change because they buy a lot of cotton, which is affected by drought in terms of its price and availability. VF also sells into the ski industry, which is threatened by warmer weather.
Webster said the company would like to buy more clean energy, but that the economics are challenging. "Renewables are difficult right now," she said. "It's often a six or seven-year ROI (return on investment)", which isn't quick enough to satisfy top executives.
By contrast, IKEA said it is stepping up its commitment to low-carbon energy. The company announced that it is making its first wind investment in the US by purchasing an 98 megawatt wind farm under construction in Illinois. IKEA – which is privately-held company owned by a Dutch Foundation – has allocated $2bn to invest in wind and solar by 2015, and it aims to generate as much renewable energy as the total energy it consumes by 2020.
That's a bold and expensive commitment – and one that few US companies, including those in BICEP, have been willing to match.