The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has notably shifted its posture on climate change in recent months, moving from a history of focusing on opposing climate action to the unequivocal statement now up on its website: "Inaction is not an option."
Long a major force in conservative politics, the Chamber's climate flip could be a congressional game-changer, especially given the recent advocacy by some of its larger corporate members.
But Democrats are concerned it's all a mirage. Despite the group's words and broadening support for carbon pricing policies in the business community, some lawmakers fear the U.S. Chamber and other trade associations remain an undercurrent stalling the climate debate.
Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) for weeks have embarked on a targeted campaign to attack the chamber for its climate views, complete with its own "#chamberofcarbon" social media tagline.
Whitehouse has gone after the group relentlessly on Twitter and at nearly every other opportunity — in interviews where it's not the primary topic of conversation and in his weekly "Time to Wake Up" climate change speeches.
"It's going to take more than just a few tweaks on a website," Whitehouse told E&E News after one such speech last week. "We're going to need to believe that they actually are sincerely pushing, really, for a result, and I don't believe that yet."
Whitehouse and the Chamber both said they've had a respectful private dialogue. The senator said he thinks there's a "lively conversation" within the organization about where to go next on climate.
But to satisfy Democrats, the Chamber would have to actively push for legislation, likely a carbon tax, and curb the anti-regulatory and anti-climate advocacy that's continued even over the last few years.
"If you really think climate change is serious and we're causing it and we need to make changes, at a minimum you've got to support a price on carbon," said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who sparred with Christopher Guith, a witness from the Chamber, at a recent hearing in the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. "They're not even willing to go there, at least not without a whole bunch of trapdoors."
For now, the Chamber openly acknowledges it's undergone a change and it's comfortable in the role it's playing: supporting the kinds of energy innovation policies that GOP lawmakers have pitched as solutions to climate change.
"Ultimately, our goal is to communicate where consensus is," Guith, a senior vice president and the acting head of the Chamber's Global Energy Institute, told E&E News last week. "And right now, the largest common denominator is innovation.
"The climate hawks, the scientific community as well as business community all agree that we need to develop technologies that we don't have yet," he said. "Otherwise, this problem cannot be credibly addressed."
An 11-year veteran of the Chamber who worked at the Department of Energy during the George W. Bush administration, Guith insists the organization is playing a constructive role in harnessing its influence to build support for policies to reduce emissions that are also politically achievable in the near term.
Innovation is hardly a new position for the Chamber, but it's an area that Guith says has become more urgent in recent years, which is reflected in the messaging and rhetoric on carbon capture, utilization and storage; utility-scale energy storage; and advanced nuclear technologies.
'The biggest tent in town'
Still, the Chamber's policy and messaging shift has given climate hawks plenty of reason to be skeptical.
The group strongly fought the failed 2009 Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, and its Global Energy Institute has vocally opposed regulations and proposed greenhouse gas reduction policies, particularly those that would seek to eliminate or reduce fossil fuel use.
When EPA was preparing to release its endangerment finding for greenhouse gases in 2009, the Chamber called for the agency to have a public debate about climate science, which organization officials said would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century."
More recently, in 2017, President Trump cited a study sponsored by the Chamber and the American Council for Capital Formation that said the Paris climate accord would cost the U.S. economy $3 trillion by 2040 during his speech announcing U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.
It has supported other Trump administration policies, too, including its review of vehicle fuel efficiency standards, and opposed regulatory policies such as the Bureau of Land Management's methane rule.
"They are adamantly — on the legislative side and on the electoral side — dedicated not just to climate inaction but to making climate change worse," Schatz told E&E News. "And there's no evidence that they're going to stop what they're doing. There's plenty of evidence that they're refining their language so that it's more difficult to determine what they're doing."
The Chamber handles such criticism politely, such as it did in March, when it responded to a letter from Senate Democrats by listing an assortment of climate-related policies it wanted to work with Congress on.
And while Whitehouse and others appear intent on browbeating the Chamber into supporting a carbon price, Guith says there currently is no consensus for doing so within the organization.
That is due in part to the wide array of interests among its diverse membership, which the Chamber says numbers more than 3 million businesses.
"It's fair to say that we do have the biggest tent in town," said Guith. "And while it's certainly our largest strength, you know, that tension can sometimes be a circus.
"And it's not always easy to triangulate where everyone is, especially when there are some industries and some companies that are shifting more quickly than others. But I mean, our goal is to consistently consult and collaborate with our members so that we know where they are, and keep that tent over all of them."
'Believe it or not, that was progress'
It's clear the Chamber has made changes, embodied by the catchphrase "inaction is not an option."
After Trump cited its Paris study in 2017, Whitehouse penned letters to corporate members questioning why they would stay with the Chamber.
That prompted a small group of members, including DSM North America, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc., to form a Climate Solutions Working Group to ask for change, said Hugh Welsh, president and general counsel of DSM North America, the arm of a Dutch multinational.
"There was a handful of us that came and said rather than quitting or taking our ball and going home, why don't we try to influence the Chamber to change its position on climate change in a more productive way," Welsh said.
The first thing the group asked for was a senior-level staffer at the Chamber to handle climate and sustainability issues.
The organization granted the request and hired Chuck Chaitovitz, a former Virginia-based consultant and executive director of the U.S. Water Partnership, as vice president for a new Environmental Affairs and Sustainability program.
But the working group also wanted clarification of the Chamber's climate positions, which it got from Suzanne Clark, the current president who's in line to take over for CEO Tom Donohue when he retires in 2022 (E&E Daily, June 6).
At the working group's first meeting, Clark "clarified the Chamber's position by recognizing that it perceives climate change as a real threat and that mankind and humans contribute to it," Welsh said.
"Believe it or not, that was progress," Welsh added.
The climate solutions group now has about a dozen corporate members, but about 50 attended its last meeting in March in Washington, D.C., according to Welsh.
The companies are hoping to put together a report, with help from Chaitovitz, reflecting their views and offering a call to action on climate for corporate America.
While the report won't be officially affiliated with the Chamber or reflect its official views, "certainly this is something that is happening in cooperation with the Chamber, not outside of the Chamber, and I think that that's important," Welsh said.
The ultimate goal is to get the Chamber to support a price on carbon — or at least stop opposing climate legislation and supporting lawsuits against regulations.
"At the very least, don't be adverse," Welsh said. "But we would of course very much like for them to be supporters, to see these initiatives not as anti-business but really pro-growth."
The Chamber acknowledges there's been a "material shift within the business community" on climate policy over the last decade, said Guith, who insists that the nation's largest business trade group's climate positions have kept pace.
But adding to the internal complexity is the rise in interest in climate change in recent years among the Chamber's non-industrial members versus its industrial-based companies, which are much more attuned to policies such as a carbon tax that would have more serious near-term economic impacts.
Guith highlighted the electric power sector as an example, noting that utilities have made some of the largest emission reductions to date while also pledging deeper long-term cuts over decades that he said could be out of reach if a carbon tax undercuts their ability to continue operating and investing in new technologies.
"There's near unanimity that carbon pricing right now would serve to disrupt their plan to the point where they would no longer be able to make the commitments that they committed to," he said.
Leading the Chamber's internal climate conversation is Chaitovitz, with whom Guith said speaks constantly with a variety of member companies, while also cataloging activities by individual companies.
"It's indicative of good trade association management," said Guith. "Understanding where our members are on any number of mechanisms is important."
Such efforts ultimately will help the Chamber develop a position on a carbon tax should a proposal ever emerge that seems destined for floor debates, said Guith, who noted that a politically viable carbon tax proposal has yet to emerge.
But until a specific carbon tax bill is going to be on the House or Senate floor, "it's a little bit of a fool's errand to run down different proposals to the fullest extent," Guith added.
"It doesn't mean that we don't have conversations about them," he said. "But when you need to actually figure out where the Chamber is going to be on a specific piece of legislation, that's a lot of energy and a lot of time, and you're not going to run down every single aspect of it until it's completely ripe."
Another wild card for climate policy is what effect, if any, the upcoming departure of Donohue, the longtime Chamber CEO, will have.
Guith noted that Clark, Donohue's successor as president, has already taken on a larger role in day-to-day operations.
"But ultimately, we're an association, we reflect our members, not the other way around," he said. "So I don't see there being any change in our positioning."
However, critics of the group and Donohue are nonetheless hoping for a change in direction after he leaves.
"Donohue has totally shaped the Chamber, and he is hugely responsible for what it is," said David Arkush, the managing director of Public Citizen's Climate Program. "It's hard to imagine who's next, and who's next is deeply linked to sort of what direction the organization is going to take."
Noting that Donohue over two decades has "sort of built his DNA into the organization," Arkush added that "it's just not clear how it changes. It'd be great if it does."
Welsh said that word of Donohue's impending departure has not changed much for companies pushing the Chamber on its climate stances. But he said Clark is generally seen as more progressive on climate and other issues.
The association has also seen a few other big retirements in recent years, including longtime chief lobbyist Bruce Josten, who left in 2016.
Piling onto the pressure on the Chamber is the larger movement among its members to advocate on climate change, in part to protect their interests when federal climate legislation becomes inevitable.
A price on carbon could be a better proposition for companies, especially those that stand to make money off clean energy, than alternatives like the Green New Deal.
Groups like the Climate Leadership Council have emerged to push for a carbon fee — in exchange for regulatory rollbacks and a liability shield for past climate damages — with backing from corporate America.
And Welsh, for instance, participated in a corporate carbon tax lobby day last month, which featured representatives from nearly 80 companies, including a few oil majors.
"Candidly, when I've spoken to other Chamber members or even in Chamber leadership, I've said to them, look, if you don't subscribe to our philosophy that climate change is a threat to business but also an opportunity, understand this: Climate change is becoming a proxy war on capitalism," Welsh said, citing proposals like the Green New Deal.
"And that is an existential threat to the Chamber's purpose in total."
A 'spring day'?
Companies that do want Congress to move on climate are already making their presence known on Capitol Hill, and the reactions so far illustrate the kinds of political dynamics the Chamber faces with a sticky issue like climate change.
On the one hand, there is a certain breed of Democrat who is open to overtures from corporate America, including oil companies, and believes it will be a necessary partner in passing bipartisan climate legislation.
They include lawmakers like Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who hosted Welsh and other executives on their advocacy day last month.
Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas), who represents Houston's energy corridor, said oil and gas companies speak frankly about climate change behind closed doors.
"I think in my experience meeting with my constituents and folks in Houston who are in the industry, they are very much thinking years down the road," she told E&E News last month.
"They are concerned about climate change. They are looking at their businesses, and they want them to be there in 20, 40, 100 years. And they are actively taking steps to reduce their own carbon footprint and develop technologies that will lead us forward."
Frequent topics of discussion include the benefits of natural gas, the need to make carbon capture technology commercially viable, as well as "whether a carbon tax is a good idea," Fletcher said.
"It's certainly a part of the conversation," she said.
But Republicans are largely unswayed by discussion of carbon pricing, even those who acknowledge man-made climate change. Instead, they still largely stick with "energy innovation" rhetoric that mirrors what's coming out of the Chamber's public affairs shop.
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), ranking member of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said he met with "numerous executives that have been working the Hill over the last few weeks" about carbon pricing but came away unconvinced.
"Folks see a little bit of a muddying of the water as a result of all this climate talk," Graves said. "I think some folks see some liability concerns in the long term and want certainty there."
Some see certainty in carbon pricing, while Graves noted that others see potential clean energy profits.
"I'm not knocking any of them; I understand what their motivations are," Graves told reporters. "I just don't think it's the right solution right now."
Meanwhile, some progressive Democrats are turned off by corporate carbon pricing plans, which they see as a cop-out for companies that have done inalterable harm to the planet.
And more broadly, the party has moved away from carbon pricing in recent months amid the 2020 presidential campaign and the rise of Green New Deal-style proposals that focus their effort on regulation and government spending.
Huffman said he sees the rhetoric coming from fossil fuel companies and the Chamber as "disingenuous." The ultimate path for climate action will be for fossil fuel companies to become clean energy companies, he said.
"I'll certainly hear them out. I'm interested to understand where they think this is heading," he told E&E News last month. "But I'm also deeply skeptical because the essence of their business model is to continue developing and burning more fossil fuel. If we do that, we ruin the planet."
But while there's a healthy skepticism of corporate carbon tax advocacy on both sides, the Chamber and other big trade groups could be a tipping point for the debate.
At an event last month featuring Welsh and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Whitehouse compared the Chamber's historical views to snow that piles up on the roof of a house over the winter.
When the organization substantially changes its position, "that will be like that spring day when the snow comes off the roof," Whitehouse said.
"However long it took to pile it up, however many storms, however many snowflakes, however many years of nonsense, it will end, I think, very suddenly," Whitehouse said. "And then we'll be in a really good position to move forward in a bipartisan way."
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