The US Chamber of Commerce Has Helped Downplay the Climate Threat, a New Report Concludes

Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab reviewed 41 chamber pronouncements from 1989-2009 and found the trade association to be “a powerful force in obstructing climate action.”

The Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America building facade in Washington, D.C. on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll CallThe Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America building facade in Washington, D.C. on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

For 20 years, the United States Chamber of Commerce has played a central role in national and global campaigns to thwart ambitious legislative efforts to curb the world’s rising carbon emissions and downplay the threat of climate change, according to a new report that analyzed dozens of documents issued by the nation’s biggest business association.

The report, published Tuesday by Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab, adds to a growing body of work that has revealed how the fossil fuel industry, and other organizations tied to its business interests, have spent decades mounting sophisticated messaging campaigns that have aimed to quell public concern over climate change and protect the bottom line of some of the world’s biggest corporations.

The Chamber of Commerce, during what the report called the “formative period” for U.S. climate policy from 1989 to 2009, consistently characterized climate science as needing more time to develop and said various solutions being proposed to reduce carbon emissions “would be harmful to the American economy and put us at disadvantage to other countries.” And the organization’s board of directors has more often included energy executives than owners of main street shops, the report said.

The chamber “has long been a powerful force obstructing climate action and an active funder, leader and participant of many countermovement groups,” the report said. “Chamber boardrooms and committees have long been staffed by executives from fossil fuel corporations like Shell, ConocoPhillips and Southern Company, whose leadership has helped shape its climate change strategies.”

Matt Letourneau, the chamber’s managing director of communications, declined to comment on the report, but pointed to the trade association’s recent commitments to addressing global warming.

In January, the chamber updated its climate stance, following other major U.S. lobbying groups like the American Bankers’ Association, by advocating for the need for market-based solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as implementing carbon pricing or funding research in technologies like carbon capture and storage.

“We are proud of the work we’re doing across the broad Chamber membership to bring meaningful, achievable solutions to the global climate challenge,” Letourneau said in an email. “The business community is at the leading edge of innovation and investment in the technology necessary to reduce emissions, and will be an important voice in the international and domestic policy dialogue.”

Cole Triedman, a research graduate at Brown University who wrote the report, analyzed 41 official chamber documents on climate change between 1989 and 2009, finding that the trade group was tied to several major campaigns aimed at derailing national and international policy to tackle climate change.

The Chamber “channeled its influence through participation, funding and leadership of several coalitions, front groups, and ad-hoc groups opposed to climate action,” Triedman wrote. “These groups have often carried out the ‘dirty work’ of climate denial research and messaging, anti-climate policy advertising campaigns, and promotion of climate denying scientists.”

Most notable among those groups tied to the chamber was the Global Climate Coalition, the study said. For more than a decade, the group led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming, the New York Times reported in 2009.

The group was also significant in persuading the Bush administration in 2001 to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol, the first international treaty that aimed to tackle climate change by limiting countries’ carbon emissions, the Brown University report said.

Another major group the chamber helped to lead was the Partnership for a Better Energy Future, which “was completely dedicated to fighting Obama’s Clean Power Plan,” and on which former chamber executive Karen Harbert served as co-chair, Triedman said.

The Brown University report, one of the first to make a comprehensive analysis of the chamber’s climate stances, found that the group changed its messaging over the years from denying or ignoring the existence of climate change, to highlighting ambiguity about the scientific consensus and severity of climate change, to accepting climate change and promoting voluntary solutions to address it.

That pattern tracks with another recent study that looked at the messaging campaigns of oil giant ExxonMobil. That research analyzed language in public and internal Exxon documents and found that the oil major used “the subtle micro-politics of language to downplay its role in the climate crisis.”

A growing number of youth activists, who have re-energized the climate movement and pushed companies to take more progressive stances on addressing climate change, have faulted the chamber, including its new commitments on global warming, for “greenwashing”—making an official stance seem more environmentally friendly than it actually is.

A new youth-led campaign, Change the Chamber, aims to replace the trade group’s “pro-fossil fuel” board members with ones that will take stronger action on climate change.

The youth-led coalition, along with Climate Change Lobby, an international, grassroots lobbying group, released a report in 2020 suggesting that while the chamber publicly began to advocate for climate action in 2019, the trade group continued to lobby against legislation that would have likely advanced efforts to reduce carbon emissions and helped to mitigate negative consequences from industrial pollution.

The chamber in 2019 successfully lobbied the U.S. Senate to vote down a joint resolution to nullify the EPA’s repeal of the “Clean Power Plan,” which had introduced emission guidelines for states to follow in limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, the report said. And in 2020, the chamber also successfully lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency to decline tightening environmental rules around PM 2.5 pollution, or fine particulate matter, which is tied to combustion of fossil fuels and is a leading cause of premature deaths in the United States and around the world.

Earlier this month, Change the Chamber urged the chamber’s member corporations in a letter to quit the association or risk being branded anti-climate action.

“The U.S. Chamber continues to use its political influence to promote public policy on climate issues that, if adopted, will contribute to catastrophic levels of climate change,” the youth-led campaign wrote in a statement. “Companies and brands that fund obstructionist lobbying groups in this ‘decade of action’ will likely become objects of public ire for the oncoming trauma resulting from climate change.”