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A Chamber Divided: Companies Balk at the U.S. Chamber's Climate Policy

Pete Altman

Posted May 5, 2009 in Solving Global Warming

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When it comes to climate change policy, staff at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have reliably been the  go-to voice for doomsayer and naysayers. But things got interesting today when it became clear that U.S. Chamber staff may not be really representing its own membership.

A Politico story today, entitled "Chamber under fire on warming", reports  that:

"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is taking heat from Johnson & Johnson, Nike and other corporate members over its opposition to global warming legislation pending in the House...Lobbyists at business coalitions that support federal climate change legislation say other companies are discussing the possibility of sending their own letters to the Chamber - or of threatening to withhold dues from the Chamber in protest."

So that raises the question:  Who exactly is the U.S. Chamber representing when it comes to global warming?

NRDC took a look at the Chamber's board of directors and their public positions on global warming and gee, what we found... it turns out that the staff of the U.S. Chamber appears to be projecting the views held by a tiny sliver of its board of directors - just four out of 122 members on the board.

The Chamber's oft-stated views, which question the scientific consensus on climate change and reject the need for federal regulation to reduce global warming pollution, stand in sharp contrast to the views expressed by 19 members of the Chamber's board that support federal regulations with goals to reduce total US global warming pollution.  

You read that right: only 23 members of the U.S. Chamber's board have a publicly stated position on climate change and more than 80 percent are not on board with the U.S. Chamber's "Dr. No" position on climate policy action.

So who is in the minority that has shanghaied the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on climate policy? Be prepared to be shocked!  Three of the four climate are coal companies:  Peabody Energy, Massey Energy Corp., and CONSOL Energy.  (The fourth - Con-Way Inc. - is "a freight company and logistical services company.")  

How far out there are some of the fringe types in the U.S. coal industry who are apparently now dictating climate policy to the U.S. Chamber?

To get a feel for how extreme this crowd can get, check out "Caught on Tape: The Big Lies of Big Coal."   Watch the video of Massey Energy CEO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Director Don Blankenship's now infamous November 20, 2008 speech in West Virginia.   See him deny the existence of climate change.  See him label Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Al Gore as "crazies" and "greeniacs" bent on taking over the world. 

Of course that's mild stuff for Blankenship - ABC reported that he threatened to shoot one of their reporters  who was filming a piece for "World News With Charles Gibson" and "Nightline."

With the U.S. Chamber of Commerce staff mimicking Blankenship and his ilk, it's no surprise that companies like Johnson & Johnson are feeling, well, left out in the cold.  In an April 16, 2009 letter to the U.S. Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue,  a top J&J official reminded the trade group that many major companies in the Chamber's ranks support federal action on climate change.

Another of those companies is Nike, as Politico reports:

"Nike spokeswoman Anne Meyers said her company has also been "vocal" with the Chamber's leaders "about wanting them to take a more progressive stance on the issue of climate change."

It isn't surprising that Johnson & Johnson, Nike and others are concerned that the U.S. Chamber staff are representing the coal lobby's position on climate, because it makes them look bad by association. As Marc Gunther points out in his "The Big Money" column for Slate

A recent luncheon of the Washington Coal Club was a low-key affair-ham and turkey sandwiches, buffet-style, eaten off paper plates and washed down with soda in a basement room of the Rayburn House Office Building. Congress was in recess, so there was not a power broker in sight. But the speaker, Karen Harbert-who is CEO of the Institute for 21st Century Energy, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce-did not disappoint. Harbert served up a litany of reasons for why it would be a terrible idea for Congress to enact a law to regulate the greenhouse gases that cause global warming-legislation aimed squarely at coal, the dirtiest of all fuels.

That the coal industry opposes climate change legislation, a top priority of the Obama administration, is no surprise. But why is the chamber taking sides in this battle? That's a mystery.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1912 and last year spent about $62 million lobbying Congress on behalf of what it says are 3 million businesses that belong to national, state, or local chambers or affiliated groups. Not surprisingly, the chamber calls itself "the voice of business." But these days, it's hard to find a major U.S. corporation that shares its voice on the issue of federal regulation of greenhouse gases. General Electric (GE), General Motors (GM), Ford (F), Shell (RDS.A), ConocoPhillips (COP), Dow Chemical (DOW), DuPont (DD), Alcoa (AA), American Electric Power (AEP), Caterpillar (CAT), John Deere (DE), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), and Nike (NKE) all support mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions.

Gunther says that the corporations are now suffering from "climate change schizophrenia".  And while that may be true to some extent, we think the problem is a little narrower than that. Could this just be a case of the U.S. Chamber staff letting the lunatics run the asylum?

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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