Feeling the Heat on Climate Policy from Members and the Public, U.S. Chamber Announces Climate Task Force
A decade ago, Apple Inc. and three large power utility companies famously ended their membership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over its policy of obstructing any and all meaningful climate action. This may have stung for the Chamber, but not enough to move the dial: Under President and CEO Tom Donohue, the Chamber has done little over the years to change its antagonistic stance toward meeting the demands of our climate emergency and has continued lobbying on behalf of fossil fuel interests. Just two years ago, the Chamber was instrumental in pushing President Donald Trump to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
The Chamber has spent much of 2019 reckoning with the reality of a Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives as well as growing consensus among even many corporations about the climate emergency, by making efforts to clean up its image and present a climate-friendly face. In April, the Chamber unveiled its American Energy: Cleaner, Stronger agenda, which we demonstrated to be an attempt at image rehab rather than a substantive change in climate policy. Now, however, the Chamber may have found itself backed into a corner and pressured into making more significant changes—ones that, of course, deserve scrutiny and skepticism given the Chamber’s history on the issue.
In late September, the Chamber announced its “Task Force on Climate Actions,” a task force open to all U.S. Chamber members. The task force’s one-pager uses the same trick the Chamber used earlier this year with its American Energy: Cleaner, Stronger agenda: vague, noncommittal rhetoric that largely lets fossil fuels off the hook and pretends that private sector innovation is a sufficient solution to the dire conditions we face.
However, a few of the changes the Chamber has recently unveiled go beyond just the surface level. The first section of the Chamber’s “Our Approach to Climate Change” web page, for instance, begins with “[t]he climate is changing and humans are contributing to these changes.”
While it is in no way revolutionary for the Chamber to make a statement like this when its truthfulness had been well-established through scientific consensus decades ago, it nevertheless marks a drastic about-face for the trade association that has long trafficked in disinformation and antagonism on the topic. In 2009 claimed to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that “a warming of even 3 C in the next 100 years would, on balance, be beneficial to humans”. Even as recently as 2017, the Chamber’s “American Growth Agenda” signaled an intention to “[o]ppose the EPA efforts to regulate greenhouse gases under the existing Clean Air Act.”
Perhaps the most surprising new feature of the Chamber’s public-facing messaging on the climate crisis can be found on its “Addressing Climate Change” web page. About halfway down the page is a section with the heading, “Government Agencies Have a Critical Role to Play Too.”
This is somewhat astonishing given the hostility the Chamber has historically shown toward even a whiff of environmental regulation. Public Citizen found in 2016 that of the 501 most recent cases in which the Chamber was involved, the Chamber overwhelmingly participated as amicus rather than as a plaintiff. The exceptions are illuminating: it was party to 25 cases challenging environmental regulations, and in 60% of those cases, the Chamber sued the EPA. This includes lawsuits challenging the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Clean Power Plan.
Now, we should treat the development of the Chamber’s task force with a great deal of skepticism. For instance, within that “Government Agencies Have a Critical Role to Play Too” section, the Chamber notably does not endorse policies like limiting greenhouse gas pollution, setting standards for sustainability in building construction, mandating wider access to charging stations for electric cars, or any of the other numerous things these agencies could do via regulation.
The Chamber’s new rhetoric may be less outwardly combative toward the executive branch than before, but there is no indication that it plans to stop fighting environmental regulation. Indeed, as recently as September 12, the Chamber’s Global Energy Institute praised the Trump Administration’s move to roll back the Waters of the United States rule. This rollback would severely undercut the Clean Water Act, curtailing the number of protected waterways and wetlands and allowing for more pollution in America’s water sources, harming the safety of our drinking water and putting aquatic wildlife at risk. The message seems to be that government action on the climate crisis may now be acceptable, but only within a narrow, limited scope the Chamber deems appropriate.
The governmental roles that the Chamber envisions are vague enough that we have little ability to assess them. But largely, they seem fall along the lines of expanding private sector innovation: increasing funding for corporate research and development, enacting trade deals that advance the Chamber’s existing agenda, and passing the relatively small-scale bills the Chamber endorses. Characteristically for the Chamber, this agenda leaves plenty of room for corporate profiteering, and there is no guarantee that the Chamber is remotely serious about versions of these policies that help on climate.
Outside of the limited role for government, the Chamber claims that climate change can be solved by “[l]everag[ing] the power of business.” “It will be largely up to the business community to develop, finance, build, and operate the solutions needed to power economic growth worldwide, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and build resilient, lower-carbon infrastructure,” reads the “The Chamber’s Position” page, even alluding to the notion that we can rely on the private sector rather than coordinated public action to build a sufficiently climate-resilient infrastructure.
Nevertheless, as small as the Chamber’s steps may be from its previous climate policy, it’s clear that the Chamber sees that climate change is being taken seriously enough on a widespread, mainstream scale that it cannot stick to the same old talking points. Given the Chamber’s bullheadedness on this issue stretching back decades, it’s clear it is feeling the pressure of its critics.
Over the summer, for instance, members of Congress and online influencers decried the Chamber’s role in lobbying on behalf of fossil fuels and obstructing climate action through the #ChamberofCarbon campaign, designed to educate the public and expose the Chamber, funded in secret, as an enemy of climate science and advocacy.
And given that Americans increasingly see climate change as a crisis, the Chamber may be frightened of dissension within its ranks. Presumably, many of the companies that make up the association’s membership do not want to risk bad PR and loss of profit by appearing to condone climate obstructionism. The Chamber does not want another high-profile exit like that of Apple a decade ago—much less a mass exodus.
The announcement of the Chamber’s climate task force and the changes to its public stance on the climate crisis, limited though they are, show that activism and pressure are working. In turn, that shows that we need to keep it up with our aggressive tactics. It will take massive people power to neutralize the influence the fossil fuel lobby and obstructionist trade associations like the Chamber have over public policy. But that power is ours, should we choose to wield it.