How Business Leaders in Davos Are Pretending to Take the Climate Crisis Seriously

Marc Benioff, the Salesforce CEO, announced on Thursday that over 300 companies have signed onto his Trillion Tree Campaign, which aims to plant, restore, or conserve one trillion trees by the end of the decade. Benioff broke the news in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum, which is sponsoring the initiative.

“The next decade must see unprecedented levels of collaboration if we are to meet global climate, biodiversity, and Sustainable Development Goals,” WEF CEO Klaus Schwab said in a statement. “1t.org presents an important example of how stakeholders from all walks of life and all ages can work together to achieve a single, globally significant goal.”

Earlier this week, Benioff — a WEF trustee who is considered one of the more forward-thinking CEOs when it comes to social and environmental issues — and Schwab were seen getting along swimmingly with President Trump, who delivered the WEF’s opening address on Tuesday. Though climate change is ostensibly at the top of the Forum’s 2020 agenda, its headlining speaker spent nearly 30 minutes touting how he’s slashed regulations, praising how he’s lifted up the fossil-fuel industry, and bashing climate activism.

Trump also announced that the United States will join the Trillion Trees Campaign. Herein lies the problem.

Regardless of Benioff’s motivations, signing on to the Trillion Tree Campaign offers an easy way for Trump and business leaders who care little about the climate crisis a convenient, hassle-free way to make it appear like they’re taking meaningful action to address it. Though the Trillion Trees Campaign is undoubtedly a good initiative, it’s not going to matter much if the banks and investment firms Davos welcomes with open arms don’t rethink the way they do business and divest from fossil fuels. As 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg put it: “Planting trees is good, of course, but it is nowhere near enough of what is needed.”

For Trump and others, signing on to the initiative is a textbook case of “greenwashing,” a practice that has become all-too-common as climate activism has ascended to the mainstream and corporate interests have been pressured to adopt more sustainable practices. Because these interests aren’t about to sacrifice any of their profits, even if it means saving the world, they’re saving face by making promises to cut emissions they have no intention of keeping, or throwing money at initiatives like the Trillion Trees Campaign. Though 300 companies and a handful of governments may have signed on to Benioff’s initiative, a PwC survey of CEOs at Davos found that chief executives rank “climate change and environmental damage” as the 11th greatest risk to their companies’ potential for growth. Number one? “Over-regulation,” of course.

One CEO who may have ranked “climate change and environmental damage” higher than 11th is Larry Fink of BlackRock, the investment firm with (ahem) nearly $7 trillion in assets. Earlier this month, Fink announced in a letter to investors that the company will seek to move away from investing in the fossil-fuel industry. “Awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance,” he wrote. “The evidence on climate risk is compelling investors to reassess core assumptions about modern finance.”

For now, though, the letter is only a letter. Fink, who has in the past faced severe backlash for BlackRock’s fossil-fuel investments, still needs to follow through and put the company’s money where his mouth is. If he doesn’t, the highly publicized letter will go down as a pre-Davos PR stunt. “I think the proof will be what happens next,” Greenpeace Executive Director Jennifer Morgan tells Rolling Stone. “What does Larry Fink do next? How much time does he devote to this? What timeframe does he have on the coal phase out? When does he bring other fossil fuels into the mix? That’s what we’ll be looking at.”

Morgan and Greenpeace are in Davos this year to put pressure on financial executives like Fink, and to raise awareness about how the banking industry is just as responsible for the climate crisis as the fossil-fuel industry. In addition to taking to the streets, the organization built a website, WorldEconomicFailure.com, to highlight the ways banks have tried to greenwash their fossil-fuel investments, which, of the 24 participating in the 2020 WEF, total $1.4 trillion since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016. Here are some examples:

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan: “Climate change is a global challenge that has presented — and will continue to present — risks for businesses and communities around the world.”

JPMorgan’s fossil-fuel investment since the Paris Agreement: $195.663 billion

Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America: “We believe in the science at Bank of America, We believe we have to get off fossil fuels.”

Bank of America’s fossil-fuel investment since the Paris Agreement: $106.678 billion

David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs: “Companies have traditionally treated sustainability as a peripheral issue, focusing narrowly on the way they manage their impact of the environment. We don’t have the luxury of that limited perspective anymore. The evidence of climate change is clear. There is not only an urgent need to act, but also a powerful business and investing case to do so.”

Goldman Sachs’ fossil-fuel investment since the Paris Agreement: $59.257 billion

A trillion trees is nice, but it’s not going to be anywhere close to enough to offset the trillions of dollars Davos attendees are pouring into the fossil-fuel industry. Until this investment stops, anything else the companies and countries responsible do is nothing but a load of greenwash.

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