Climate strife divides US Chamber. Will departures follow?

By Corbin Hiar, Timothy Cama | 03/26/2024 06:51 AM EDT

At least 37 member corporations have objected to the powerful business lobby’s climate policies.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks at an event in January.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speaks at an event in January. Microsoft is among 37 businesses airing concerns about climate advocacy by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Kin Cheung/AP

The world’s most valuable company quietly rebuked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce earlier this year for hindering its climate goals by opposing national efforts to slow rising temperatures.

Microsoft isn’t alone.

The technology titan is one of at least 37 corporate members that are airing concerns about the powerful trade association’s climate advocacy, according to a review of business filings by POLITICO’s E&E News. The voluntary disclosures — often made in obscure reports requested by activist shareholders — are seen as a potential first step toward leaving the lobbying group. But some companies that have previously raised concerns with the Chamber, including Microsoft, remain members years afterward.


The growing divide between the Chamber and its membership comes amid sharpening scrutiny by lawmakers and investors around the trade association’s efforts to undermine policies that could force businesses to overhaul polluting facilities or build cleaner products.

For years, the group disputed the reality of human-caused climate change and has more recently opposed meaningful efforts to address the problem. That includes lobbying against the biggest climate legislation ever passed by Congress and suing to block a climate disclosure rule supported by Microsoft and other members.

“We publicly oppose their current position” on climate change, the social media firm Meta said of the Chamber in 2022.

“We attempted to influence them but they did not change their [climate] position,” pharmaceutical maker Pfizer said the following year.

“We have found [the Chamber] to have some misalignment with our climate and energy transition-related policy positions,” the oil giant Shell said in 2023.

Like Microsoft, all three corporations have seats on the Chamber’s board. In total, 10 companies on the trade association’s 84-member board of directors have reported some level of climate disagreement with the Chamber, the review found.

Two of those corporations — Shell and Ford Motor — also have representatives on the Chamber’s influential 14-person executive committee.

When asked for comment, the Chamber argued it’s following the wishes of corporate donors and highlighted the climate-focused trade missions the group has led in the past couple of years to the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey and Brazil.

“We’re proud of our work to facilitate the private sector’s role in delivering climate solutions that accelerate the clean energy transition while enhancing energy security at home and abroad,” Marty Durbin, who oversees the Chamber’s climate policy, said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our members on their priorities and always welcome their feedback.”

The Chamber doesn’t disclose its full list of members but claims to collect dues from approximately 300,000 companies. It spent $69.6 million on federal lobbying last year, more than any other group.

E&E News reviewed hundreds of pages of business filings and public statements from more than 50 top companies with ties to the Chamber. Their views were found in reports requested by shareholders or in databases maintained by the environmental groups CDP and InfluenceMap.

The findings indicate that a key segment of top Chamber members is worried that the group has failed to follow through on its 2021 promise to embrace “market-based” policies to slow global warming. While Microsoft and other donors have said they would use their influence to shape the Chamber’s views on climate policy, some companies have left open the possibility that they could withdraw from the group if it continues to fight efforts to slow rising temperatures.

“The Chamber is out of step with where a number of particularly large companies are” on climate change, said Tracey Rembert, an associate director at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a sustainable investment advocacy group. “It is a red flag when there’s a misalignment and an even bigger red flag when a company has noted a misalignment and then hasn’t said what they’re going to do about it.”

Shell noted that it has a long track record of "candidly discussing" the climate lobbying of its trade associations and has left the groups when "we consistently find material misalignment," spokesperson Curtis Smith told E&E News. For instance, the British oil producer dropped its support for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) association in 2019 due to climate concerns.

"Sometimes, we maintain memberships where we believe we can have a more positive impact as a member," Smith added.

Microsoft and Pfizer declined to comment. Meta and Ford didn't respond to questions. The other Chamber board members that have raised concerns about its climate policies didn't comment.

"The Chamber’s supposed climate effort has dragged on for years with no actual results, as the Chamber fought tooth and nail to try to kill the Inflation Reduction Act and other climate measures," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who has used his chairmanship of the Budget Committee to investigate the nation's top lobby group.

"I will keep calling out who the bad guys are on climate change, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a really big one," he told E&E News. "These [member] companies should be well past starting to ask questions."

It's unclear how widespread climate disagreements are among the Chambers' members. Yet the objections come from a broad range of industries: oil drillerslike BP and ConocoPhillips, the utilities American Electric Power and FirstEnergy, pharmaceutical companies Bayer and Johnson & Johnson, the financial firms MetLife and Truist Financial, and soda giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

Climate disclosure test looms

Now a new climate disclosure rule promises to test the uneasy dynamic between the Chamber and its climate-focused members.

The regulation, which requires big businesses to reveal their emissions and the risks associated with their carbon footprints, was scaled back before it was finalized earlier this month, in a win for large polluters.

Nevertheless, the Chamber sued the Securities and Exchange Commission to block the regulation, arguing that it was overly burdensome and exceeded the agency’s authority. In January, the group also launched a legal challenge over a similar California law.

Those moves collided with the interests of Microsoft and other Chamber members, which welcomed the emissions disclosure rules.

Microsoft noted in January that it supported the SEC proposal, as well as a rule that would amend the Federal Acquisition Regulation system to require climate disclosures from government contractors. Microsoft highlighted another concern: The Chamber has "not stated a position on taxing emissions directly," which the software maker favors.

The mining giant BHP is also at odds with the Chamber over the climate risk regulation as well as a climate rule for new cars and light trucks released by EPA. The Australian company supports requiring companies to detail their so-called Scope 3 emissions — the pollution caused by the suppliers and buyers of its products — an issue at the center of the SEC debate.

"We believe there is room for the US Chamber to strengthen its position on fuel efficiency standards and mandatory Scope 3 reporting," BHP said in an industry association review published last June.

BHP didn't respond to questions about its conflicting positions with the Chamber. But the miner previously emphasized that the company values its membership in the Chamber for the group's advocacy on other priorities, like international trade and fiscal policy.

Investor pressure rising

There has been a surge in shareholder resolutions since 2022 urging corporations to determine whether the lobbying activities of their trade associations align with the climate goals established by the Paris Agreement, according to Georgeson, a corporate advisory firm. That deal involving almost 200 countries aims to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Last year, "11 such proposals went to a vote, with an average support of 34%," Kilian Moote, the managing director of Georgeson US, said in an email. An additional eight climate lobbying proposals were withdrawn, he said, in a sign that corporations likely acceded to the demands of shareholder activists to avoid a public vote.

"We have already seen a number of similar proposals filed this year and would expect to see sustained attention on this topic from proponents," Moote wrote, referring to efforts that would require companies to assess the climate actions of their trade associations. "Such proposals are likely to attract more investor support [than] other climate-related proposals that may be perceived as more prescriptive."

Wall Street's enthusiasm for climate-related shareholder resolutions has waned, in part due to pressure from Republican lawmakers. But some European investment managers are signaling that they intend to punish companies whose climate advocacy — directly or via trade associations — doesn't align with their emissions commitments.

Last month, Axa Investment Managers announced that it would support trade association proposals "at the highest emitting companies that fail to appropriately report on their climate lobbying activities."

The Paris-based firm, which had $915 billion in assets under management at the end of 2023, said the move "highlights the importance of climate lobbying issues as the political backlash on climate-regulated regulation intensifies, in contrast with the urgent need for effective policy intervention."

Reviews can prompt action

Environmental advocates prize lobbying reviews because they force companies to openly grapple with their involvement in groups like the Chamber that often work behind the scenes to fight climate efforts. Sometimes companies conclude that those relationships are no longer worth defending publicly.

That seems to have been part of the calculation for Exxon Mobil, which in January revealed that it had left the Independent Petroleum Association of America in 2022, citing a disagreement over climate policy. The move came after the oil major determined in 2021 that the trade association was "misaligned" with its climate priorities.

Other oil companies have taken similar actions. Norwegian driller Equinor left IPAA over its climate advocacy in 2020, and BP departed the AFPM that same year. In 2019, TotalEnergies was one of two oil majors to pull out of AFPM due to differences regarding climate change.

It's been more than a decade since companies quit the Chamber over its obstruction of climate policies. In 2009, the trade association worked to kill a House-passed bill that would have capped climate pollution and created an emissions trading system. Several utilities and the tech giant Apple decided they'd had enough.

Other companies, including Microsoft and Nike, sought to distance themselves from the Chamber but didn't sever ties. (The legislation, known as Waxman-Markey, died before receiving a Senate vote.)

"It seems to take a lot for a company to actually leave a trade association," said Rembert of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, who has worked on shareholder engagement campaigns for more than two decades. An easier path, she argued, is to restrict contributions to groups like the Chamber to programs that a company actively supports.

At least one corporation already has an arm's-length relationship with the Chamber. Walmart only fully embraces groups whose priorities on major issues align with its own, the retailer said in a disclosure filing last year.

That's not the case with the Chamber. Instead, Walmart contributes to "certain specific U.S. Chamber of Commerce initiatives including the Institute for Legal Reform, Rule of Law Coalition, Workforce Freedom Initiative, and international programs."

Those initiatives generally don't weigh in on climate issues.

A top priority for sustainable investment advocates is to get other companies to scale back their involvement in the Chamber and be more specific about what it would take for them "to make the decision to leave," Rembert said.

"Because it sometimes is a big deal," she added.