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‘Climate change is real’: CEOs share their disappointment over Trump’s Paris accord exit

Apple CEO Tim Cook, right, and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, center, listen as President-elect Donald Trump speaks with technology leaders in New York in December. According to a report in Bloomberg, Cook placed a last-minute call to the White House Tuesday in an effort to urge Trump to stay in the Paris climate agreement. (Evan Vucci/AP)

This story has been updated. 

Despite last-ditch appeals from the top chief executives and months of letters and outreach to the White House from some of America's largest companies and CEOs, President Trump announced that the United States would exit the Paris climate agreement, breaking ranks from nearly all the world's countries and saying he would try to renegotiate the deal or enter into a new one. "We’re getting out,” Trump said in a Rose Garden announcement Thursday afternoon, “but we will start to negotiate and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. If we can, that’s great. If we can’t, that’s fine.”

In response, one corporate titan after another tweeted their disappointment at the announcement, companies issued statements committing to action on climate change and two high-profile members of Trump's business advisory council said they would leave the forum in response.

After threatening Wednesday to leave if Trump made the exit, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted Thursday afternoon that he was "departing presidential councils. Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world." Disney CEO Robert Iger followed him, calling his departure from the president's advisory council a matter of "principle."

Other companies and CEOs joined the chorus. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, who had said during a speech to students at Georgetown University in May that the business community "has kind of moved on in this debate," tweeted a similar refrain, calling upon business to lead the way on global climate standards. "Disappointed with today’s decision on the Paris Agreement," he wrote in a tweet. "Climate change is real. Industry must now lead and not depend on government."

Other tech leaders shared their disappointment. Apple's Tim Cook wrote a letter to employees, obtained by the Washington Post, saying he spoke with Trump on Tuesday and "tried to persuade him to keep the U.S. in the agreement. But it wasn't enough." He wrote that "we will never waver, because we know that future generations depend on us," and said in a tweet the withdrawal "was wrong for our planet." Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said he was "deeply disappointed," and Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith wrote on LinkedIn that the company had "actively engaged the Trump Administration on the business case" for staying in the agreement and "we all live on a small planet and every nation needs to work with others to protect it." In a statement, Intel said it "firmly" believes the United States should keep participating in the accord.

Meanwhile, Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris, who was the driving force behind a letter signed by 30 high-profile CEOs earlier this month encouraging Trump to honor the U.S. commitment, said his company was disappointed, but would "continue to collaborate with President Trump as well as other businesses, NGOs and academics" on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The responses follow months of letters and outreach to Trump from companies in industries as diverse as manufacturing, technology and energy to remain part of the more than 190-nation accord, making arguments that went well beyond sustainability, good corporate citizenship or the need for American leadership. While Trump's explanation for exiting the accord was, in part, that it would hurt domestic manufacturing and cost U.S. jobs, CEOs' appeals to the president have been largely business-focused, saying instead that an exit threatens American competitiveness, raises the risk of negative trade implications and could hurt their ability to create jobs.

Trump’s Paris decision comes today, with the world watching

They also come after several last-minute arguments to Trump for staying in the deal. In addition to Cook's call, Musk tweeted an open threat, saying Trump would lose him on the business advisory councils if he exited the accord. “I've done all I can to advise directly to POTUS, through others in WH & via councils, that we remain,” Musk wrote.

When a follower asked him what he would do if Trump makes the call to exit, Musk said he would have “no choice” but to leave the White House councils of which he is a member.

The final push by CEOs also included letters that were featured in full-page ads in newspapers, such as one signed by 25 companies that ran in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on Thursday and earlier in May. The ads were sponsored by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and the sustainability nonprofit Ceres and included a shorter version of a letter that was first signed in April, arguing that “the United States can best exercise global leadership and advance U.S. interests by remaining a full partner in this vital global effort.” Google, Intel, Uniliever and Schneider Electric were just a few of the names that signed the letter.

Even ExxonMobil had appealed to Trump to stay in the agreement. In a letter dated May 9, CEO Darren Woods wrote to Trump in what the Financial Times called a “last-ditch personal plea,” arguing that staying in allows the United States to remain “at the negotiating table to ensure a level playing field” on energy sources. That letter followed a prior appeal by the fossil fuels giant, which remains under fire from shareholders over climate issues, to the White House in March.

Financial firms lead shareholder rebellion against ExxonMobil climate change policies

Efforts by Corporate America to influence Trump on the agreement date to at least to shortly after the election, when hundreds of large and small companies, ranging from Starbucks to Monsanto, signed a letter in support of the Paris climate agreement. “Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk,” the letter said, calling the Paris climate agreement a “historic opportunity to tackle climate change.”

Read also:

The cost of silence: Why more CEOs are speaking out in the Trump era

Trump invited the CEO comparisons, and now he's being held to them

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