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These senators are going after the biggest climate villains in Washington

Sens. Whitehouse, Heinrich, and Schatz discuss how to hold the Chamber of Commerce accountable.

Senate Environment Committee Holds Confirmation Hearing For Andrew Wheeler To Become EPA Administrator.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) questions Andrew Wheeler during his confirmation hearing to lead the Environmental Protection Agency on January 16, 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Tuesday, November 19, the Chamber of Commerce will meet to discuss its climate policy approach. It has prompted renewed pressure from a group of Democratic senators for the Chamber to play a more constructive role. I discussed their criticisms of the Chamber and other business trade groups in June, when this piece was originally published.

Business trade groups are known for throwing their weight around — and getting their way — in Washington.

The US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Farm Bureau, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the American Petroleum Institute — these names strike fear in the hearts of members of Congress. They have enormous, well-funded lobbying arms and links to dark-money groups that can mobilize against any politician who crosses them.

Among other things, these groups have helped completely block climate policy at the federal level. In 2009, the Chamber of Commerce claimed to Congress that “warming of even 3 [degrees] C in the next 100 years would, on balance, be beneficial to humans.” And it has backed its denialism with money and lobbying. In 2017, NAM helped convince Trump to begin the process of pulling out of the Paris climate accord.

But the ground is shifting beneath the feet of the Chamber of Commerce and its cohort. More and more corporations are cleaning up their energy use and supply chains and lining up behind climate action.

US Chamber Of Commerce CEO Delivers Annual State Of American Business Address
Thomas Donohue, CEO and President of the US Chamber of Commerce.
Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

In 2009, Apple left the Chamber of Commerce over its position on climate change, along with Nike and several other high-profile companies. Since then, at least 13 more large companies have followed them out the door. Under mounting pressure, the Chamber of Commerce has recently softened its stance on climate change, claiming to be a partner in the fight, not a denier. Through its Global Energy Institute, it released “cleaner, stronger” energy agenda, which was mostly about staying the course on fossil fuels, along with some hand-waving about “innovation.” The National Association of Manufacturers has adopted similar rhetoric.

For now, it is widely seen as a smokescreen. The leadership of these trade groups is dominated by fossil fuel money and loyal to the GOP. The Chamber of Commerce employs a revolving roster of ex-GOP congressional aides and, as of 2016, directs 100 percent of its election spending to Republicans.

The big trade groups are coming out of alignment with their own members on climate change. And a group of Democratic senators, spearheaded by Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse, wants to highlight that growing tension, making sure that every member of these trade groups knows the effect they are having on federal climate politics.

I recently chatted with Whitehouse, along with two Democratic colleagues in the Senate, New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich and Hawaii’s Brian Schatz, about the role trade groups play in climate politics and what might be gained by increasing the political pressure on them. (Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

David Roberts

These trade associations have been lobbying against progressive priorities for a long time. What’s new?

Sheldon Whitehouse

What’s new is that climate change has reached an unprecedented level of priority and popular interest. And with that, corporate America has made a fairly significant move toward getting serious about it. That has exposed a rift between the direction of a great number of the corporate members of the COC [Chamber of Commerce] and the Chamber itself.

It looks to us as if the COC is no longer representing its nominal corporate board. My suspicion is that one of the reasons they don’t reveal their funding is that they’re taking huge amounts of secret money from the fossil fuel industry to become its front group. Between service to the fossil fuel industry and properly representing the corporate members of its board is a fissure we want to expose and exploit.

Martin Heinrich

This younger generation of millennials has created a situation where most of corporate America understands the reputational risk of denying or delaying action on climate. That has not caught up with the Chamber, and that mismatch has allowed us to drive a wedge.

David Roberts

The Chamber has lost members, for instance Apple and Nike, over its position on climate before. Do you know of other members who are making noise about this issue now?

Brian Schatz

We believe there is an ongoing rebellion among Chamber members. Some of them are going to be more public about it than others. But the bottom line is, some of these companies — for commercial reasons, or ecological reasons — are no longer comfortable funding the primary actor against climate action, even as they tell their customers that they are reforming their supply chain.

If they’re doing minor things internally on the one hand, but funding the organization that is most effective in preventing federal climate action on the other hand — they know this situation cannot stand. So some are pushing the Chamber to reform its position, and some are just simply cutting ties and deciding they don’t need the Chamber anymore.

David Roberts

How much power do the Chamber and NAM [National Association of Manufacturers] still have in Washington? Does the power match the myth?

Martin Heinrich

That’s what we’re trying to test here, right? There’s a lot of inertia in decision-making in Washington, DC. There are always powerful interests that continue to have power as incumbents long past when structural changes start to occur in the country. So we have to test that.

Brian Schatz

The Chamber has spent $150 million on congressional races since the Citizens United decision. A lot of that spending has targeted Democrats specifically, but also, they make ads about carbon taxes. They make ads about climate action. They are not just theoretically opposed to doing the right thing, they are spending money where it counts and attacking the people who attack the climate problem.

Sheldon Whitehouse

If you’re a Republican, all five [of the major trade groups] are telling you the same thing, which is, don’t touch climate change, don’t limit carbon emissions. And the two worst, according to Influence Map, are the Chamber and NAM.

So I think it will be very consequential if the two worst obstructors on climate change can be forced by their own membership to change their position and go from being enemies to allies.

David Roberts

The chamber has been making conciliatory moves on climate change, at least talking about it in a more sensible way, and even putting climate-forward businesses out front to speak for it. It seems — and you could say this of the GOP as well — to feel some pressure to move on this. How seriously should we take these rhetorical shifts?

Brian Schatz

I think they are going to see how little they can get away with doing. Our job is to make sure that actions follow the words.

Changing your congressional testimony or the climate section of your website is not a significant move unless it’s an indicator of a real shift, and we have no reason yet to believe that they’ve changed their calculus. That’s why we’re going to keep pressing.

Martin Heinrich

One of the things all of us experience here on the Hill is, corporations will take a position that nominally may be good for the country and the planet, but they won’t always make it a priority. We know what it looks like when they come in and start seriously lobbying for a set of policies. And we’ve just never seen that for climate action, even when the rhetoric has been there.

David Roberts

There seems to be a critical mass around climate action in the corporate world — lots of big names and big initiatives. Are those climate-conscious corporations collaborating and lobbying? Are they a force in DC?

Sheldon Whitehouse

It’s just begun, so it’s a little hard to tell. You’ve got the four food companies that have agreed to lobby for a price on carbon. You’ve got Microsoft, which has followed them and stepped up. You’ve got some strong signals out of the Climate Leadership Council. And you’ve got the Climate Dialogue Group of 13 CEOs.

CEO Climate Dialogue
Companies and organizations involved in “climate dialogue.”
CEO Climate Dialogue

I think it’s a good, strong signal that those things are starting to happen. But when push comes to shove, the Chamber is here lobbying day in and day out. And it backs up its lobbying with electioneering muscle. And it’s interconnected with climate-denying groups that it can launch at candidates.

So the companies that want to participate in trying to get good climate legislation out of Congress need to understand how mature, powerful, and remorseless the opposition is.

Martin Heinrich

All those other businesses are finding their footing on this. They want to know, what is the social impact and pushback from their colleague corporations of taking this new leadership position? We’re in a very unsettled time right now, but I think it’s also a very important time for the right feedback loops to occur, to allow for some real leadership positions to develop and solidify.

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