Democrats mull punishment for US Chamber ‘greenwashing’

By Emma Dumain, Timothy Cama | 03/15/2024 06:27 AM EDT

Two senators said Thursday they’re considering multiple options in their campaign against the Chamber of Commerce’s action on climate — or lack thereof.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on Capitol Hill in January. Whitehouse on Thursday accused the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of lying about its work on climate. Susan Walsh/AP

This story was updated at 9:46 a.m. EDT.

Two Senate Democrats are unleashing a public shaming campaign against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, accusing the group of “lying” about its commitment to tackling climate change while plotting next steps in their offensive.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii briefed reporters Thursday morning about new findings they say prove the Chamber has done little, if anything, with a Climate Actions Task Force it created in 2019.


The two claim to have a “smoking gun” in the form of emails, though the Chamber disputes the lawmakers’ accusations.

There are multiple options for retaliation against the nation’s largest business lobby, which Whitehouse and Schatz contend purposefully misled lawmakers into believing it would take meaningful action to support policies to combat climate change.

Whitehouse, for instance, is chair of the Senate Budget Committee, which will next week convene its 15th hearing linking global warming to economic instability around the world. But Whitehouse was noncommittal when asked whether he would use his gavel to compel the Chamber to testify under oath about its activities.

“We tried” to issue subpoenas, said Whitehouse, “and they told us to go pound sand and that they’d litigate us to death because they’d assert first amendment rights not to disclose who their donors are.”

One strategy, Whitehouse said, was to continue to exert pressure on the Chamber as Democrats wait and see whether their party will be able to recapture control of the House in the November elections.

There, prior to the Republican takeover of 2022, Democrats on what was then called the House Oversight and Reform Committee were working through an investigation into whether the nation’s largest oil companies — and the Chamber — were systematically working to cover up the contributions of fossil fuels to global warming.

That investigation, led by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), resulted in a slew of subpoenas that are still outstanding, even as Republicans now in charge of the renamed Oversight and Accountability panel shut the probe down.

“We do have a November election coming up in which the House could return to Democratic hands,” said Whitehouse, “in which case its existing subpoenas could be pursued and enforced, so we’re working in concert with … our friends in the House.”

A spokesperson for Khanna could not immediately confirm whether the lawmaker had heard from Whitehouse and Schatz directly on the matter.

In the meantime, Whitehouse acknowledged this strategy could be complicated if Republicans retain control of the House in 2025, but he said not to discount the effect a more narrow, stand-alone public relations campaign — including social media posts and floor speeches — could have on changing behavior among the Chamber and its members.

“I think the public accountability aspect is not insignificant,” he said. “These are companies that have very strong consumer and investor sentiment that they need to be good on climate. And when, in fact, they are not — and when, in fact, they are participating in a sham task force led by the worst climate obstructor in America — that is a very dangerous look for them.”

‘Smoking gun’?

Schatz said even though he and Whitehouse were “not going to signal what we will do next, we thought this was an important enough moment because now we really have a smoking gun to indicate this was a lie all along.”

Last month, Schatz and Whitehouse sent letters to as many as 20 companies they believe may have been original members of a Climate Actions Task Force, which the Chamber created with great fanfare in September 2019.

The senators would not produce physical copies of the letters they received in reply, but they told reporters many of these companies confirmed in writing that the task force was never a serious proposition.

Whitehouse said there is interest in determining whether many of these companies — which could include Toyota, BP America, Bank of America, Walmart and Coca-Cola — were “sort of unwitting victims of a Chamber scheme to pen them into this conversation and do nothing, … or was there some mutuality in them being able to say, ‘Oh, we’re part of this climate conservation,’ and look a little bit better on climate, while not insisting that anything be done, because they were obviously not insisting that anything be done … [and] absolutely nothing was being done.’”

E&E News reached out to these groups and others that received a Feb. 12 letter from Whitehouse and Schatz requesting information about the Chamber of Commerce’s climate activities, asking if they had communicated with the lawmakers and whether they would be willing to assist in any related congressional probe down the line. A spokesperson for BP declined to comment, and the other organizations did not respond to the inquiries.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce building in Washington.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce building in Washington. | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Matt Letourneau, a spokesperson for the Chamber, rebutted Whitehouse and Schatz’s accusations.

“The Task Force on Climate Actions met around 20 times between 2019-2023,” said Letourneau, before being absorbed sometime last year into the larger Energy, Environment Climate and Sustainability Subcommittee.

He noted that “some meetings included speakers, including those from the White House, State Department, Department of Energy and other agencies.”

During its existence, Letourneau continued, the task force was responsible for guiding the Chamber’s work on carbon pricing, phasing out hydrofluorocarbons, trips to promote clean energy investments and “the largest US business delegation ever” to last year’s U.N. climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, known as COP28.

‘Reduce the antagonism’

This explanation likely won’t be enough to satisfy Schatz and Whitehouse, who noted Thursday that the Chamber has not been able to prove the task force ever had an administrative staff, a clear set of objectives, meeting notes or concrete outcomes.

Robert Brulle, a Brown University professor who studies corporate climate denial and “greenwashing,” wasn’t impressed, either.

“A key component of greenwashing is that the organization has to create the impression that they’re addressing the issue. It’s not a very plausible greenwashing campaign if you don’t do anything at all,” Brulle explained.

The Chamber’s task force, he continued, “appears to be less than greenwashing, and more window dressing. … The onus is on the Chamber of Commerce to demonstrate that they were telling the truth and actually did convene a task force that accomplished something.”

Tracey Rembert, associate director for climate change and environmental justice at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility — a shareholder advocacy organization that pushes companies to change their policies and disclosures on topics including the climate — agreed it was “troubling that the US Chamber has such sparse transparency about who its members are, how the association takes stances on divisive issues with little disclosure about its governance or the processes involved with its members, and especially on its closed door lobbying efforts, including around issues like climate change.”

Schatz said he believed that ultimately, “We’re reaching a fork in the road about whether or not it is possible to look at your customers in the eye and say, ‘I am committed to climate action,’ and then engage in this organization that is among the worst climate obstructors on the planet.”

But Alex Flint, the executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions — an organization working to bring conservatives and business leaders together in support of climate policies like a carbon tax — cautioned lawmakers against alienating themselves from the business community that has without question “evolved” on the issue of climate change.

“Everyone needs to seek to reduce the antagonism in the conversation between corporate America and the Congress on climate change,” he said.