In September 2020, a powerful tech executive named Pat Gelsinger says he was slapped in the face by reality.
Sheltering at home in California with his family, Gelsinger watched a nearby wildfire spew smoke and ash and turn the sky orange. Never before had society experienced crises at this scale, he realized, a “global triple threat” of climate chaos, racial inequality, and an out-of-control pandemic. Gelsinger, who is now CEO of Intel, felt a moral duty to get the climate emergency under control while bridging social divisions. “For me, these are no longer just important issues to debate,” he later explained. “It’s personal. It’s urgent. And it’s the right thing to do.”
The Biden administration is right now attempting to pass a $3.5 trillion spending package known as the Build Back Better Act that activists say could be a massive down payment on addressing climate change that also eases racial disparities by directing investments to disadvantaged communities.
But “woke” CEOs such as Gelsinger are part of lobbying efforts trying to torpedo it.
“Make no mistake, these policies are a step backward for the U.S. economy that will harm all Americans,” reads a statement earlier this month from the Business Roundtable, a lobby group that Gelsinger belongs to along with top executives at corporations like Apple, Microsoft, BlackRock, and Disney. The Roundtable is reportedly waging “a significant, multifaceted campaign” costing potentially millions of dollars to defeat the corporate tax hikes which would help fund and make possible Biden’s Build Back Better plan — even as its individual members say there is nothing more important than stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions.
That lobbying effort includes social media posts claiming the proposed tax increases would destroy one million jobs, along with an initiative called “Recover. Compete. Win” that urges people to contact their members of Congress with the message “that higher taxes on job creators will harm American workers, stifle wage growth and slow economic recovery.”
“Frankly, what’s clear about watching these business leaders and billionaire CEOs,” Janet Redman, the director of Greenpeace USA’s climate campaign, tells Rolling Stone, “is they only really care about padding their own wallets.”
A spokesperson for Intel said in a statement to Rolling Stone that “we believe climate change is a serious environmental, economic, and social challenge.” The statement explained that while groups like the Roundtable might not align with the company “100 percent on every topic,” Intel believes “the overall benefits of our membership in these organizations outweighs our differences on some issues.”
The Business Roundtable is not the only business group fighting against a plan that would raise the top corporate tax rate by 5.5 percentage points. That tax increase is also fiercely opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Business. But two years ago, the Roundtable sent shockwaves through the business world by stating that the purpose of a corporation is no longer just to maximize profits — things like healing the environment and fixing social issues are also important.
“At this moment of historic urgency, every leader of nations, of companies, and of communities has a particular burden to act,” Apple CEO and Business Roundtable member Tim Cook subsequently said at the 2020 Climate Ambition Summit.
BlackRock CEO and Roundtable member Larry Fink earlier this year released a widely read and influential letter calling on corporations “to disclose a plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net-zero economy.”
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said that unless businesses step up to lower humankind’s carbon impact, then capitalism “will fundamentally be in jeopardy.”
“There is no ambiguity or doubt about Microsoft’s commitment to the aggressive steps needed to address the world’s carbon crisis,” the company said in a statement to Rolling Stone, referencing its plan to be “carbon negative” by 2030. “We will all need to work through many complicated issues to address this challenge, including how to pay for these steps. We welcome the opportunity to engage with numerous organizations that are addressing this and many other issues simultaneously, including the Business Roundtable, which we respect and appreciate.”
Neither BlackRock, Apple, nor the Roundtable responded to a request for comment.
If the CEOs who belong to the Roundtable are successful in defeating the corporate tax increases at the heart of Biden’s spending plan, however, it could drastically reduce our chances of avoiding the 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures that scientists say is required to prevent climate catastrophe, says Danielle Deiseroth, senior climate analyst at the progressive polling organization Data for Progress.
“This is our last best chance to pass meaningful climate legislation,” she says. “If we delay action any longer, we’re going to be really screwed.”
Proposed policies in the bill such as expanding tax credits for electric vehicles and renewables, bringing in a tax on methane gas, and pushing utilities to use more clean energy could potentially lower U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by up to 936 million tons by 2030, according to an analysis from the independent research firm Rhodium Group.
The package also contains proposals to spend over $30 billion replacing lead pipes, which could have huge benefits for Black, Latino and low-income neighborhoods exposed to toxic drinking water, as well as a $27.5 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction fund that’s required to make 40 percent of its investments in disadvantaged communities.
“The corporate tax increases are incredibly important, because that’s a source of revenue that can help pay for the plan,” Deiseroth says. The revenue is also crucial because the Biden administration is attempting to pass the Build Back Better Act through a process called “budget reconciliation,” removing the need for Democrats to have a 60-vote supermajority with Republican support provided the plan meets strict budgetary rules — which in this case could mean offsetting its $3.5 trillion price tag with new federal revenue from higher taxes.
Kibosh the tax increase, and the plan as it currently exists could go down with it.
“While we know you have pledged to fight for climate action, you are also connected to a massive effort to sabotage and gut the critically important set of climate investments,” reads a letter that dozens of environmental groups recently sent to Business Roundtable CEOs. “There is no time to waste in distancing yourself from these efforts.”