GE’s Immelt Retreats from Global Warming Rhetoric

Published June 13, 2011

One of the world’s most outspoken corporate advocates of a national cap-and-trade system to limit manmade emissions of greenhouse gases now acknowledges he may have overhyped the virtues of his company’s green policies.

Expresses Regret at MIT
General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt told a May 3 gathering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology his enthusiastic support for green energy, including wind turbines and solar panels manufactured by his company, may have misled the public about GE’s commitment to sound business principles.

“If I had one thing to do over again, I would not have talked so much about green,” Immelt told the MIT audience. “Even though I believe in global warming and I believe in the science, … it just took on a connotation that was too elitist; it was too precious, and it let opponents think that if you had a green initiative, you didn’t care about jobs.”

Longstanding Activism
Under Immelt’s leadership, GE emphasized green initiatives. GE was, and still is, a member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), a group of companies and environmental activist groups dedicated to imposing a nationwide cap-and-trade scheme. 

Appearing on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” with Becky Quick in May 2009, Immelt showed his impatience with the refusal of Congress to adopt a cap-and-trade system. “There’s going to have to be a price for carbon,” he said. “In some way, shape, or form, you’re going to have to create some certainty.”

While Immelt was championing carbon dioxide restrictions on “Squawk Box,” GE was the parent company of NBC Universal, owner of NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC. Immelt reportedly used his position to ban scientist and television commentator Steve Milloy from appearing on CNBC because of Milloy’s criticism of GE’s embrace of the theory of a forthcoming human-induced global warming catastrophe.

Shareholders Still Angry
Immelt’s expression of regret at damaging GE’s business reputation has not repaired all bridges between him and GE stockholders. Tom Borelli, a shareholder who directs the National Center for Public Policy Research’s Free Enterprise Project and has challenged Immelt at recent GE shareholder meetings, says Immelt still has a great deal of damage to fix.

“Immelt is backtracking from a national law to put a price on carbon, because his high-profile support of what amounts to an energy tax was very unpopular with the public, especially among grassroots Tea Party activists,” said Borelli. “The work our group did with FreedomWorks at GE’s annual meeting was the tipping point for Immelt’s reversal. With gasoline prices soaring and with cap-and-trade dead politically, there was no upside to being on the wrong side of the energy issue.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.