The US Chamber of Commerce: A Record of Obstruction on Climate Action

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Yale Environment 360

The US Chamber of Commerce: A Record of Obstruction on Climate Action

In 1883, New York faced an environmental crisis, but intervention from the city's Chamber of Commerce led to the creation of the Adirondack Park - a move that is a far cry from the US Chamber of Commerce today.

by
Shaun Goho

The New York Chamber of Commerce was the unlikely champion of environmental protection of the Adirondacks in 1883. (Photograph: Amos; James L.)

In 1883, New York faced an environmental crisis. Water levels were
falling in the state's rivers and canals, impeding travel and shipping.
Scientists and editorial writers placed the blame on the logging and
burning of the Adirondacks, which prevented the forests from exercising
their usual moderating influence on stream flows. With the loss of the
forests, it was feared, the steady release of water would be replaced
by a cycle of floods and low water.

To make matters worse, these
impacts were the result of logging only on the fringes of the
Adirondack region. But in 1883, the Adirondack Railroad Company
proposed to build a line through the heart of the forest. The
inevitable expansion of logging into the interior would, in the words
of a New York Tribune article, result in "disastrous climatic changes,
... wasting freshets and parching drou[ghts]."

As the newspapers
filled with editorials calling for the protection of the "North Woods,"
an unlikely champion of environmental protection responded: the New
York Chamber of Commerce. A chamber committee proposed that the state
purchase up to 4 million acres and "keep it for all time as a great
forest preserve." This was the crucial first step toward the creation
in 1892 of the Adirondack Park, which today encompasses 6 million acres
and is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United
States. Given the powerful railroad and timber interests arrayed on the
other side, the birth of the park would not have been possible without
the early advocacy of the chamber.

Contrast this history with the
actions of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today. The chamber, by far the
largest lobbying force on Capitol Hill - having spent more than $65
million in 2009 - is actively campaigning against meaningful climate change
legislation. It is also taking a lead role in challenging the
Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) attempts to regulate greenhouse
gases under the Clean Air Act. More fundamentally, it continues to cast
doubt on climate change science and sow fears through exaggerated
claims about the economic consequences of greenhouse gas regulation.

These
influential business lobbies, acting 125 years apart, took two sharply
different approaches to the most pressing environmental issues of the
day. Their divergent paths cast the U.S. chamber in a sorry light, and
ensure that it will one day be judged harshly by history.

One
major difference between the two groups is that the New York chamber
sought out - and followed - the advice of scientists. That era, too,
had its deniers. One member of the State Assembly suggested that "the
Hudson River is an arm of the sea, subject to tides, and there will be
plenty of water upon which to float the commerce of the State if not a
drop of water flows into it from the Adirondack region." The chamber
did not side with those views, but instead followed the advice of
scientists like Charles Sprague Sargent, director of the Arnold
Arboretum at Harvard. Sargent told the chamber that "no doubt could
possibly exist as to the necessity of putting a stop to the work of
destruction now going on in the Adirondacks."

By contrast, the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a long history of disputing the human
impact on climate and of promoting the work of climate change deniers.
In 2001, William Kovacs - then the Chamber's Vice President of
Environmental Policy - claimed in an appearance on CNNfn that "there's
no link between greenhouse gases and human activity." In a 2008 memo to
the Chamber's Board of Directors, chamber President Thomas J. Donohue
claimed that "scientific inquiry" into global warming "should
continue... given the recent reports indicating a cooling trend." The
National Chamber Foundation, the chamber's nonprofit affiliate, named
books by climate change deniers among its top ten recommended books of
2008 and 2009.

Moving from words to actions, last spring the
chamber formally challenged the findings underlying the EPA's decision
that greenhouse gas emissions endanger the public health and welfare
and should therefore be regulated. Kovacs claimed that the goal of this
challenge was to create the "Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century" -
a reference to the infamous prosecution of a Tennessee schoolteacher
for his teaching of evolution in the 1920s. According to Kovacs, a
public hearing on the endangerment finding "would be the science of
climate change on trial." This month, the chamber became one of more
than a dozen groups, states, and corporations filing petitions to block
the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide emissions.

A second key
difference between the two chambers is that the New York chamber took a
broad and long view of its members' economic interests. The timber and
railroad industries stood to make large profits from the destruction of
the Adirondack forest. Nevertheless, the New York chamber focused not
on these lost short-term profits but on the potentially devastating
long-term economic impacts of Adirondack deforestation for all of its
members. Declining stream flows meant, Harper's Weekly wrote, that
"agriculture will suffer, manufactures will languish for want of power,
and the great internal waterways of the continent will be rendered
useless for commercial interchanges."

Today, the U.S. chamber
appears not to recognize the economic threat posed by climate change.
Instead, the chamber's leadership continues to trot out exaggerated and
one-sided claims about how the regulation of greenhouse gases would
eliminate jobs and "strangle the economy." While some companies in the
fossil fuel and power sectors will face reductions in profits under a
cap-and-trade scheme, the long-term consequences of unchecked climate
change will be harmful and expensive for everyone.

In fact, as
many forward-looking companies recognize, cap-and-trade legislation
will be good for business. Among other things, it will provide
incentives for U.S. businesses to invest in the next generation of
clean energy technologies. This impetus is long overdue, as the country
falls behind China and Europe in this area. In an unprecedented show of
dissent, corporations such as Apple, Exelon, Johnson & Johnson,
Nike, and Pacific Gas and Electric have either renounced their
membership in the chamber or expressed dismay at the chamber's
position. Moreover, many local chambers - including the Greater New
York Chamber of Commerce, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and
the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce - have distanced themselves
from the U.S. chamber on climate change.

In recent months, the
chamber, apparently stung by the series of resignations and the
withering criticism in the press, appears to have softened its tone.
But underneath the new rhetoric there appears to be little, if any,
change in substance. The chamber's chief legal officer said the chamber
was not challenging "scientific issues related to climate change." Yet
despite that statement, the chamber continues to do all it can to block
any regulation of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, clearly
demonstrating that it has still not learned the lessons that the New
York chamber mastered more than 125 years ago. The U.S. chamber still
stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the scientific consensus that climate
change is real and it continues to brush aside the serious economic
risks that climate change poses.

In the words of Peter Darbee,
chairman and CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric, "an intellectually
honest argument over the best policy response to the challenges of
climate change is one thing; disingenuous attempts to diminish or
distort the reality of these challenges are quite another."

As
long as the chamber adopts the latter approach, it cannot be a
legitimate participant in the public debate on cap-and-trade
legislation.

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