At last week’s annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a fossil fuel industry consultant teamed up with a right-wing culture warrior to lobby ALEC lawmakers to move legislation that punishes companies embracing sustainable business practices.
The “Stopping ESG (aka Conscientious Capitalism)” workshop held in Orlando last Wednesday had professed that it would “educate [legislators] on how to identify and avoid politically motivated investing strategies to help keep the promises made to retirees and taxpayers,” as the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) reported. However, according to materials obtained from the workshop by CMD, the speakers instead used the venue to fan the flames of the Right’s manufactured crisis around sustainable investing and to attack net-zero alliances that are working to address the climate emergency.
Will Hild, executive director of Consumers’ Research, led the discussion with Catherine Gunsalus, state advocacy director at Heritage Action for America, and Richard Belzer, a self-described consultant on regulations, economic risks, and the “quality” of information.
A CMD analysis of IRS filings found that the vast majority of known funding for Consumers’ Research comes from DonorsTrust, the preferred donor conduit of the Koch political network, which contributed $12.3 million to the organization between 2013 and 2021. Much of that is reportedly from Leonard Leo’s Marble Freedom Trust, which was established in 2020 with a $1.6-billion donation from Tripp Lite CEO Barre Seid.
Leo—who is also known as Trump’s “judge whisperer” and is credited with pushing the federal judiciary to the far Right in recent years—is deeply tied to the anti-ESG campaign, partially as one of Hild’s mentors and an advisor to Consumers’ Research.
ALEC is a pay-to-play operation in which state legislators and corporate lobbyists meet behind closed doors to write model legislation that advances a radical right-wing, pro-corporate, and pro-Republican agenda on everything from suppressing voter access and denying climate change to crushing unions and undermining public education.
Flush with cash, Consumers’ Research has become an increasingly influential player with ALEC by taking advantage of its pay-to-play scheme to drum up support for attacks on “woke capitalism.”
That level of sponsorship apparently bought Hild the privilege of presenting its new Consumer Champion Award to Texas State Sen. Bryan Hughes (R) during ALEC’s opening lunch.
While waters off the coast of Florida hit hot-tub temperatures, Hild began his presentation by explaining why he opposes the practice of considering environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors when making business investments. Many corporations consider ESG factors—along with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—in evaluating return on investments in light of their larger environmental and societal impacts.
In talking about the “E” in ESG and global goals of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, Hild said, “This is not something that the average American wants or needs or has voted for. This is something that corporate America is trying to shove down our throats, through the corporate management processes or corporate governance process.”
However, facts refute this. An April 2023 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that almost “seven-in-ten Americans (69%) favor the U.S. taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050, a goal outlined by President Joe Biden at the outset of his administration”—and that includes “two-thirds of Republicans under age 30.”
Hild also echoed the conspiracy theory that “we have both domestic government powers and foreign government powers that are colluding with groups like Climate Action 100 to push our domestic corporations here in a way that’s going to be extremely disruptive, both for their own sake, but also us as consumers.”
Of course, Hild didn’t define what he means by “disruptive” and failed to mention just how disruptive the climate crisis already is and will continue to be as U.S. corporations and consumers deal with the impact of increasingly more severe droughts, wildfires, storms, water and food shortages, and related health threats. A January 2022 report from the Deloitte Economics Institute found that “insufficient action on climate change could cost the U.S. economy $14.5 trillion in the next 50 years.” At the same time, it noted that the economy could actually “gain $3 trillion if [the country] rapidly decarbonizes over the next 50 years.”
At last week’s ALEC session, Gunsalus opened her remarks with dramatic hyperbole, claiming that ESG is “not just a wonky acronym. It’s truly the Left’s latest strategy to circumvent the legislative and democratic process.”
She offered the resources of Heritage Action and its allies in the anti-ESG movement to help get two model bills passed in more states: ALEC’s State Government Employee Retirement Protection Act, which prohibits anyone managing state, local, or university public pensions from considering the climate emergency or other social or political factors when investing pension funds, and Heritage’s Eliminate Economic Boycotts Act (aka the Eliminate Political Boycotts Act).
An email from the Pennsylvania treasurer’s office obtained by CMD confirmed that Heritage fellow Andy Puzder, ALEC’s Jonathan Williams, and State Financial Officers Foundation (SFOF) CEO Derek Kreifels drafted ALEC’s State Government Employee Retirement Protection Act.
The Eliminate Political Boycotts Act was introduced and passed by two ALEC task forces (Energy, Environment, and Agriculture, along with Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development) at its State and Nation Policy Summit last December, but ALEC’s board of directors rejected it due to opposition from the bankers industry.
Heritage Action and Consumers’ Research, along with SFOF, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), The Heartland Institute, the Independent Women’s Forum, America First Works, and the Foundation for Government Accountability all promoted the anti-boycott bill at ALEC’s meeting, CMD reported.
In offering her advocacy group’s help, Gunsalas said, “We alone at Heritage Action have state directors across the country ready to help both partner with the grassroots and leverage their voice as well as partner with you and your state houses and your colleagues to advance positive legislation and join the number of states that have already enacted [similar legislation].” She also recommended publishing media op-eds and collaborating with groups like “Consumers Defense and Consumers’ Research, State Financial Officers Foundation, Heartland, TPPF” and told legislators: “The point is you’re on the frontlines. You’re doing great work. Let’s continue it. Let’s see more legislation passed.”
Hild also runs Consumers Defense, the sister organization of Consumers’ Research.
The workshop culminated in research presented by consultant Richard Belzer, a member of the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project who has consulted for the climate-denying, right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute.
His “clients include Exxon Mobil, the American Chemistry Council and Fitzgerald Glider Kits, which is pushing EPA to roll back air pollution protections on heavy trucks,” according to Politico.
In his talk, Belzer tried to employ the strategy of “woke washing,” which Heated defines as trying “to trick environmentally-conscious voters into supporting a pro-fossil fuel agenda by co-opting the language of the progressive climate movement.” In other words, disguise “anti-climate extremism as pro-environmentalism.”
“Net-zero 2050 will entail enormous environmental damage that will not be accounted for primarily [due to] mining of rare earths, and copper, and aluminum, and what have you,” Belzer claimed. “It’s all going to be done under terrible environmental conditions, [with] virtual slave labor.”
He also argued that moving to a carbon-neutral economy will be extremely costly to U.S. consumers. “I’m assuming all costs are going to be borne by households. It’s going to happen either in prices, in wages, and lost returns on investments… or in taxes. Households are going to bear it,” he said, maintaining that corporations will simply pass any associated costs on to consumers.
Like Hild, Belzer did not address the costs households already face in dealing with the climate emergency.
Belzer concluded his presentation by directing ALEC meeting attendees to the research paper he published on July 21 on the costs associated with transitioning to a net-zero economy, and Hild urged lawmakers to pick up printouts of research papers on 10 states Belzer analyzed that were available at the workshop.