The U.S. Chamber’s climate blunders

So now America’s biggest business lobby and late-night comic David Letterman have something in common: They have really, really embarrassed themselves.

Of course, there are significant differences between Letterman’s womanizing and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s backward-looking opposition to climate-change legislation, which is causing the chamber to lose members, prestige and, worst of all, clout.

For one thing, the chamber’s blunder was entirely unnecessary.

For another, the chamber has yet to apologize.

CBS's Letterman
CBS's Letterman

But the bottom line is that the chamber is embarrassed, or should be. It has lost a number of high profile members – utility companies Exelon, PG&E and PNM Resources and, most recently, Apple, whose image as a forward-looking company left the chamber looking stuck in the past. (One clever headline put it, Apple, citing climate, tells U.S. Chamber iQuit) A Nike executive resigned from the chamber board. Today’s New York Times and Washington Post featured full-page ads from big companies and environmentalists calling upon the U.S. Senate to “pass clean energy legislation with a cap on greenhouse gas emissions this year.” The ads were signed by, among others, Dow, Exelon, United Technologies, Duke Energy, GE, Weyerhauser, Constellation Energy, Interface, PSEG, Deutsche Bank, Entergy, Johnson Controls and NRG. That was a direct slap at the chamber, too.

The Chamber's Donahue
The Chamber's Donahue

Chamber CEO Tom Donahue can’t say he wasn’t warned.

Consider the fact that more than two and half years ago–on January 22, 2007, to be precise—the CEOS of some of the chamber’s most important, high-profile members—GE’s Jeff Immelt, DuPont’s Chad Holliday, Duke Energy’s Jim Rogers, among them—stood besides some of America’s most important environmentalists, including Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund and Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute, to declare that anthropogenic global warming is a problem and

to call on the federal government to enact legislation requiring significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

True, there weren’t a lot of policy details when the U.S. Climate Action Partnership was launched but the message was clear: Big Business, or at least a significant number of big businesses, wanted mandatory U.S. government regulation to curb global warming. Since then, U.S. CAP, as it’s known, has attracted new members, including AES, Chrysler, ConocoPhillips, Deere & Company, Dow Chemical, Exelon, Ford, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, NRG Energy, PepsiCo, Rio Tinto, Shell, and Siemens. Not a list you’d want to ignore.

But the chamber, for reasons that remain unclear, continued to oppose—and not just oppose, propagandize against—any climate legislation with a real chance of passage.

In other words, the association did what no smart association should do: It ignored some of its most powerful members. Starting last year, the problem became glaringly evident. Environmentalists (led by Pete Altman of NRDC) and reporters were putting the spotlight on the gap between the chamber’s position and the position of some of its most visible members. I wrote a column called Climate Change Schizophrenia that ran on Slate’s The Big Money back in April and asked, Why do corporations support regulating greenhouse gases but fund a lobby that opposes it? Sources tell me that a delegation from companies that belong to U.S. CAP went to see Tom Donahue, the chamber’s CEO, to talk about climate policy, and they got the brushoff.

To be sure, the chamber, which calls itself “the voice of business” and spent about $62 million lobbying Congress last year, also has lots of members from the oil, coal and energy-intensive industries who oppose federal regulation of greenhouse gases. Its 122-member board includes executives from Consol Energy, Massey Energy, Peabody Energy, and the Southern Co.

The smart thing for the chamber to do would be to stay neutral—to admit that business is divided on the issue and to leave lobbying up to individual companies. Instead, some chamber officials offered up reasonable arguments against the bills pending in Congress and others went off the deep end. In a remark that was ill-advised at best and downright dumb at worst, William Kovacs, the chamber’s senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs, called for a public trial about climate science that he said would be “the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century.”

That wasn’t an isolated remark. In comments filed with the EPA when the agency said it would regulate carbon emissions, the chamber argued that maybe global warming wasn’t so bad after all. As Kate Sheppard reported for Mother Jones, the chamber submitted a document called “Detailed Review of EPA’s Health and Welfare Scientific Evidence,” that says:

Humans have become less susceptible to the effects of heat due to a combination of adaptations, particularly air conditioning. The availability of air conditioning is expected to continue to increase.


Overall, there is strong evidence that populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.

And finally:

[T]he scientific evidence is clear that cold is a more potent hazard than heat.

This is a little nutty, and it’s hard to know why the chamber would venture so far outside of the mainstream. Maybe ideological blinders? It’s long been more friendly to Republicans and opposed to government regulation. Maybe conflicts of interest. In a provocative blogpost, Pete Altman argued that Donahue, who sits on the board of the Union Pacific Railroad, has a personal interest in the issue–he’s been paid more than $1.1 million by the railroad, and given another $3.8 milion in stock–because the railroad is a major shipper of coal.

In the end, it doesn’t matter much. What matters is that the chamber can’t any longer pretend to be the voice of  business on the climate change issue–the biggest business controversy of the decade. Now that’s embarassing.


  1. D Taylor says

    What a ridiculous comparison. As someone who is not a scientist with the ability to evaluate the data independently, is hard not to agree with seemingly overwhelming consensus that anthropogenic global warming is real. But occasionally I hear such outrageous rhetoric (such as global warming doubters being compared with holocaust deniers) I have to scratch my head and wonder. If strong proponents of global warming have to resort to extreme statements to belittle dissenters, then they must be hiding a flaw in their position.

  2. says

    I wasn’t comparing the chamber to David Letterman re climate science. I agree with you that there is room for debate there, at least around the seriousness of the threat, pace of change, particular impacts, etc. I don’t think those who question the science of global warming should be compared with Holocaust deniers.

    The chamber’s climate blunder was in not listening to a substantial portion of its membership, and as a result alienating or losing important companies–although I also think that the chamber’s comment to the EPA that air-conditioning could help ameliorate the threat of global warming was ludicrous. Sort of like saying umbrellas or rowboats could have helped New Orleans adapt to Hurricane Katrina.

  3. Ernie says

    It seems that most of the companies that are supporting “climate change” legistlation are in position to make “windfall” profits from its passage. Investor owned utilties will make a larger profit because they are guaranteed profits by the various utility commissions, the more they are required to spend the more money they can pick from their consumers pockets. The non-profit electric cooperatives are against the legislation because they are truly acting in their members best interest, not the profit motive (the investor owned utilties should follow their example). GE, Siemens, and others stand to make huge profits on selling “green” equipment…paid for out of the pockets of hard working Americans who use energy. Chrysler and GM are now government controlled so they have to toe the line. What is your educational background that allows you to speak with any authority on this subject? Perhaps this is why so many newspapers and main steam media are failing…because reporters with little education in the area of concern are pushing agendas instead of reporting the news.

  4. says

    Ernie, of course you are right that GE, Siemens, PG&E, Exelon and the rest are acting in their own self-interest. So are GM and Chrysler, whichsupported climate change legislation before they became wards of the state. The coal and oil companies have another view, of course, and I’m sure the electric cooperatives do as well, although I don’t know where they stand or why.

    If I’m pushing an agenda in this blog–and I suppose I am–it is one that takes what I’ve been able to learn as a reporter about climate science (not much, frankly, but I trust the mainstream view), economics (a little more, mostly self-taught), business (hopefully a good deal) and combines it to say, what’s best for the world? The world’s economy, the planet’s health, the U.S.’s national security, etc. Not an easy question but there you have it. I also ask lots of questions and try to keep an open mind.

    My formal education isn’t especially relevant but since you asked, I have B.A. in English from Yale.

  5. says

    Ernie, you`re right to be asking the “who benefits” question, but you can`t ignore that it cuts more than one way: coal interests have benefitted greatly under the current regime of state-granted public utility monopolies, federal environmental laws that leave dirty plants in place (and no liaibility for downstream damages), and for the free use of the common, unowned atmosphere as a CO2 dump. That`s why they`ve been paying dearly to protect their current position.

    Anyone who understands what happens to unowned resources and listens to any of the academies of science has to be troubled.

    The policy question is how to steer a better course, without wasting too much money on pork justified on the basis that various interests need to be paid off in order to change course.

  6. OsamaBinLogin says

    I just watched a Nova show all about a photographer who spends his life photographing the ice retreating in Alaska and Greenland. Spectacular videos of glaciers breaking up into icebergs. It’s happening way faster than ever before, and the place where they break off is creeping further upstream, like 50′ or 100′ per year.

    They say that all the mountain icecaps are going to melt. Too bad for the scenery, but that’s not the problem. A lot of your streams and riverflows come from those icecaps; it snows every winter and melts year round. That’s going to turn into winter floods and summer droughts. OK so what’s the effect upon agriculture? Places with two or three growing seasons a year, will have only one. More soil will erode, and that never comes back. How much will that cost?

    Maybe we’ll have to make more reservoirs. Well the people in Africa are going to have to, too, and South America and Asia and everywhere. Some of these places already have big water problems, and famine problems, and money problems, and they don’t need this.

    Air conditioners. That guy should be strangled.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>