Richard Branson and think tank also trade barbs over "global warming spending" and greenwashing accusations

What might have been a comment from a top tech executive aimed at stemming rebellious shareholders has quickly devolved into the latest hypersensitive reaction from those who feel global warming "deniers" are endangering the planet.
I. Investor Unhappy With Apple’s Social, Political Efforts
The incident began last week at Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) annual shareholder meeting when The National Center for Public Policy Research -- which has invested some of its funding in Apple shares -- put for a proposal calling on Apple to be "more transparent" about how it spends money on political or environmental issues.

Tim Cook
Tim Cook found himself in the crosshairs of one investor over his company's political and "green" efforts. [Image Source: Getty Images]

In a letter the National Center writes:

Our  Proposal  highlights  an  area  of  concern  to  all  shareholders:  Company affiliations that may  primarily advance social or environmental causes  rather  than  promoting shareholder  value.
We  are  asking  the  Company  to  be  transparent  about  its  membership  in,  and payments  to,  trade  groups  and  outside  organizations  that  are  actively promoting top-­down  environmentalism  rather  than  working  to  advance  shareholder  value.

The letter clearly wasn't aimed solely at Apple's environmental efforts.  The company's top executives spent $128,000+ USD on wooing President Barack Hussein Obama (D) and Republican challenger Willard Mitt Romney [source].  This was among the policies that the National Center was unhappy with, as the libertarian leaning think-tank found both candidates to represent the bloated spending ideology that's come to dominate the neoconservative/neoliberal Republican and Democratic parties.

epeat award
Apple has bragged of its products' "greeness" in recent years.

But the group also wasn't pleased with the spending on global warming efforts, such as trying to make Apple a "carbon neutral" company.

The National Center's mission statement describes the group as:

A conservative think tank and policy institute covering Congress, insider political information, global warming and the environment, legal reform, Social Security, and campaign reform.

The focus of the rather broad amendment, though, quickly narrowed in on the "global warming..." part of the think-tank's mission statement.
II. Green or Greenwashing?
Apple long paid no mind to global warming or the environment. But given that its rise to dominance in the electronics industry was driven by a counterculture, rebellious image, it quickly became the prime target of environmentalists with a bone to pick over manufacturing practices.  In recent years Apple has done its best to please these groups, even if that cuts into profits a bit.
After getting knocked by environmental advocacy group Greenpeace in 2012, Apple looked to prove itself, expanding its global alternative energy portfolio aggressively over the last year. Currently, 75 percent of Apple's power comes from renewable sources.  The company says on one of its publicity pages that it plans to reach 100 percent in years to come.

Apple green energy
Apple is backing up its renewable energy promises. [Image Source: Apple]

Apple currently offers no such accounting to shareholders, lumping such unmentioned expenditures into its operating expenses.  Shareholders like the National Center were pushing to get line-item style accounting of political or environmental spending.
But other shareholders were opposed to the move or felt it unnecessary.  Profits haven't seemed to suffer much, given Apple's trademark ability to squeeze record amounts of productivity out of workers in China and elsewhere for the lowest cost.  On the other end, its expertise at squeezing carriers just as hard for fees to carry the iPad and iPhone, have also helped the cause.
CEO Tim Cook had remarked on his company's cash pile in 2012, "It's more than we need to run the company."
But rather than get aggressive about increasing shareholder incentives such as stock repurchasing and dividends, he's instead moved to spend money on things like a 50 percent hiring binge and a pricey new "spaceship" headquarters, which has suffered delays and budget overruns.
III. Applied, Applied, Denied
At the annual shareholder meeting Tim Cook announced that Apple's CFO Peter Oppenheimer would be retiring after a decade with the company. Luca Maestri -- former CFO of General Motors Comp. (GM) Europe – will be installed as the new financial face of Apple.  Mr. Maestri's global credentials drew relatively positive reactions, but did not quell investor anxiety over Apple's sizeable $160B USD cash pile.

Luca Maestri
Luca Maestri is Apple's new CFO. [Image Source: Reuters]

But Mr. Cook beat back the proposal of Justin Danhof, a general counsel for the National Center.  In a vote, only 2.95 percent of shareholders supported the proposal, with the majority of major shareholders voting in opposition.

The CEO -- who has seemed a bit on edge of late, as witnessed in his infamous Europe rant -- appeared genuinely angry when Mr. Danhof tried to push his client's issue in the Q&A session.  Tim Cook commented:

When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind.  I don't consider the bloody ROI.  If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.

While Tim Cook gave no hint what part of the proposal he took such umbrage at, MacObserver reportedly initially that he "rejected the group's climate change denial".  Things snowballed from there with most reports ignoring the group's political side of the claim, and the fact that Tim Cook had kept his response purposefully vague in terms of his guiding views on specific environmental topics.

Tim Cook Angry
Tim Cook appeared to get angry at the insistence of the think tank at the annual shareholder meeting. [Image Source: Bloomberg]

Meanwhile the National Center fired up a provocative response, commenting:

I'll be posting that tomorrow after the newspaper in question has a chance to quote from it (if it wants to), but in the meantime, I refer everyone to an article by the British writer Tim Worstall that, we believe, explains what happened -- why Tim Cook got so mad, and why he said a few things that not only were non-responsive to the question, but also not particularly wise things for a corporate CEO to say -- perfectly.

The article: "Apple’s Tim Cook And His Dilemma Over Sustainability And Climate Change."

We'll be saying more tomorrow, but Tim Worstall "gets it."

That's a pretty fiery rebuttal, but the situation was about to grow even hotter.
IV. Sir Branson Backs Up Cook
At this point things started to get really out of hand, with the founder of Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, writing in his blog in defense of Mr. Cook's (supposed) stand.  The media and airline mogul has prided himself in a green image by trekking through juggles, diving into the oceans, and using biofuels in his airlines, comments:

Enormously impressed with Apple CEO Tim Cook for his strong words on climate change deniers, and demanding business should have benefits for people and the planet, beyond just profit.

Cook also touched upon what should be at the heart of any business – its purpose. “We do a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive," he said. "We want to leave the world better than we found it." This goes for Virgin too, and should go for every single organisation in the world.

The NCPPR stated there is an “absence of compelling data" on climate change. If 97% of climate scientists agreeing that climate-warming trends over the past century are due to human activities isn’t compelling data, I don’t know what is.

Richard Branson
Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group chairman, holds up a vial of biofuel. [Image Source: Reuters]

The UK tycoon's remarks will obviously stir up controversy, particularly with the U.S. suffering one of the coldest, snowiest winters on record.
And even among the majority of scientists whom believes in global warming, there is a growing contingent that believes that mankind cannot "stop" global warming.  Such critics believe that most global warming "solutions" are basically ineffectual wealth redistribution schemes.  Such people are often lumped in as part of "the consensus", despite the fact that their views are radically different from those who support such questionable solutions (e.g. Al Gore, a "carbon credit billionaire").
V. Think Tank Points Finger at Al Gore, Roasts Branson
The furor from the Nation Center has been flying back with equal intensity.  In a press release, it characterizes Tim Cook's rebuke as him telling investors to "drop dead" and blaming Al Gore (a major Apple shareholder) for leading the majority to strike down the proposal.  Mr. Danhof claims he was "greeted by boos and hisses from the Al Gore contingency in the room" when he broached the topic.

Al Gore
The think tank accused leading global warming fearmongerer Al Gore of mind-controlling Tim Cook and fellow shareholders. [Image Source: Sodahead]

The PR goes on to quote Mr. Danhof, Esq. as saying:

Here's the bottom line: Apple is as obsessed with the theory of so-called climate change as its board member Al Gore is.  The company's CEO fervently wants investors who care more about return on investments than reducing CO2 emissions to no longer invest in Apple. Maybe they should take him up on that advice.

Although the National Center's proposal did not receive the required votes to pass, millions of Apple shareholders now know that the company is involved with organizations that don't appear to have the best interest of Apple's investors in mind.  Too often investors look at short-term returns and are unaware of corporate policy decisions that may affect long-term financial prospects. After today's meeting, investors can be certain that Apple is wasting untold amounts of shareholder money to combat so-called climate change. The only remaining question is: how much?

Virgin Airlines

In a brief comment targeting Richard Branson they responded:

"Richard Branson, Jet-Fuel Burner, Criticizes Us on Climate"

Richard Branson, who isn't green, criticizes us for criticizing Apple, which isn't green, either.  Big talk from a guy who got rich burning jet fuel.

We hear he wants to go to the moon or Mars or something now. Solar-powered rocket?

That response seemed pretty funny and tongue in cheek.

VI. Advocacy Then Offers Up Bizarre Nazi Analogy

But it would shortly fire off a far more controversial and inflammatory response, writing "Meet Sir Richard Branson: Concentration Camp Commandant", in which it makes a bizarre analogy likening itself to a holocaust denier and the British media mogul to a commander in the facscist Nazi genocide attempt.  It writes:

I wonder if Sir Richard Branson, when he called us "deniers" in response to our activism at the Apple shareholder meeting (a suggestion that we’re like holocaust deniers), realized that under a scenario in which we are akin to holocaust deniers, he's akin to a concentration camp commandant?

For the record, Richard Branson never brought up the whole "holocaust denier analogy", so at this point the think-tank has effectively likened itself to that -- at least in terms of how it believes others to perceive it as.
It goes on to try to justify the questionable and inflammatory analogy by arguing that people accuse global warming "deniers" (as the think tank member writing the post appears to identify themselves) as equivalent to holocaust deniers.  To their credit they do give a lot of examples of such questionable comparisons:

(hereherehereherehereherehere, here, or here)

The comment was likely well intentioned and meant to be clever.  But we're guessing it's an unwise move to liken yourself to a holocaust denier, even if your critics have called you that and even if you meant it to be a tongue-in-cheek assertion.

Sources: The National Center for Public Policy Research, Richard Branson's Blog, Mac Observer, The National Center for Public Policy Research

"So, I think the same thing of the music industry. They can't say that they're losing money, you know what I'm saying. They just probably don't have the same surplus that they had." -- Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA

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