March 3, 2020

Time to Wake Up: The Chamber Knew

As-prepared for delivery.

Mr./Mdm. President, I am here today for the 267th time to call this chamber to wake up to the threat of climate change.

Let me dive right in with a report from over 30 years ago that was presented to a major conference here in Washington, D.C.  On the first page, it reads:

Increases in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other key gases . . . that are opaque to portions of the infrared spectrum result in the “greenhouse effect” or global warming. When short wavelength infrared radiation from the sun warms the earth’s surface, and this heat is later radiated from the earth, some gases in the atmosphere are not transparent to the longer wavelength re-radiation, the heat does not escape, and the atmosphere becomes warmer, much as does the interior of a greenhouse.

That’s a flawless description of climate change, Mr./Mdm. President. 

Now, after some hedging about the state of the science and the uncertainty surrounding how much climate change could be attributed to humans at that point in time, the report delves into the expected effects of climate change on our planet.  It reads:

There is qualitative agreement among prognosticators that sea levels will rise, wetlands will flood, salt water will infuse fresh water supplies, and there will be changes in the distribution of tree and crop species and agricultural productivity.

A significant rise in sea levels will flood now habitable land in some countries . . . .  Developed countries may be able to protect their cities, at least for some years, by building levees and dikes at a considerable cost to avoid major displacements of people and their economic bases.

These same actions will affect wetlands and it may not be possible to protect both coastal and wetland areas.  Flooding will intrude into water supplies, such as coastal cities (e.g. Miami and New Orleans). . . .

Changes in temperature patterns will affect natural ecosystems by altering the distributions of species, and affecting forestry and silviculture.  Under various scenarios, commonly harvested species will move north and try to grow in different soil types.  Ranges of particular species are likely to change because trees in the southern part of the present range may die off much more quickly than they can propagate further north. . . .

Similarly, crop lands will change.  In present farm areas, there will be greater reliance on irrigation.  The stress will depend on changes in precipitation patterns, which is now difficult (at best) to predict.  Grain production will move north and productivity may fall because of differing soil types.  Global warming could expand the northern range of livestock disease and pests. . . . .

Global warming will affect snowfall patterns, hence melt, and affect water supplies.  Most of California’s water supplies are from snow melt and if snow is reduced to rain, or melts quickly during the winter, water supplies in the summer will be less than now.

Fast forward to today and that’s what we’re seeing.  All of it – already.  Sea level rise is well underway; the tide gauge in Naval Station Newport in Rhode Island shows about 10 inches of sea level rise over the last century.  Temperatures are up globally, with some areas measuring increases well above 2 degrees Celsius.  Wildlife and plants are shifting away from the equator, like the maple trees that are creeping out of the United States toward Canada.  And, of course we have seen water tables continue to drop as temperatures rise and snowpack dwindles.

What about the prescriptions this report lays out?  Those are pretty good for 30 years ago, too.  Here’s what its authors reckon typical – sensible – governments will do in response to climate change:

(1) Reduce the emissions of CO2 by reducing the use or mix of fossil fuels; (2) reduce the emissions of potential pollutants; (3) improve energy efficiency; (4) ban or restrict the manufacture of certain chemicals; and (5) seek to affect the natural emissions of key chemical compounds.

Indeed, governments around the world have adopted these policies.  There are dozens of carbon pricing regimes in place, including in some of our biggest global competitors – like the program China is rolling out this year.  There are comprehensive energy efficiency programs, and bans on climate-damaging chemicals like HFCs, and global efforts to harness natural processes – like growing trees – to sequester carbon.

This rigorous analysis was so good that its authors eagerly thrust it into the hands of political leaders.  Not only did they present it to the Symposium on Industrial Development and Climate Change in May 1989, they submitted it to the U.S. House of Representatives at a hearing on the same day.  In that hearing, the authors “commended” the House committee on the legislation and expressed support for “coordinat[ing] federal research and national global climate change policy efforts.”

So what was this sensible, forward-thinking group lauding a smart bill designed to prepare us for climate change?  Who was it over 30 years ago presenting these sound findings and recommendations to international business leaders and members of Congress? 

It was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—the biggest, most powerful trade group in Washington and one of the biggest obstructors of climate action in Washington today, according to the non-partisan watchdog Influence Map. 

Here’s a chart showing the big corporate players in Washington on climate.  Here are the good guys – the ones pressing for smart climate solutions – on one end.  And here’s the Chamber, on a sparsely populated island here on the other end.  As Influence Map’s Dylan Tanner testified last fall, “The US Chamber of Commerce . . . is likely the most authoritative voice of American business” and it has been one of the most ardent opponents of climate action.

Gross.  The Chamber knew about this problem early on.  It took its own sound climate report to business leaders and the U.S. Congress in the 1980s.  It was poised to be a part of the solution to climate change, early on before it metastasized into the crisis we see today.

But here’s what the Chamber did instead:

It has opposed one comprehensive climate bill after another in Congress.

First, the bipartisan cap and trade bill in 2005, the Energy Policy Act; the Chamber sent out a “Key Vote Alert” signal that whoever voted in favor of the bill could face an onslaught of political attacks in the next election.

In 2007, the Chamber ran political TV ads against climate legislation claiming that it would prevent people from heating their homes and driving to work.

In 2009, the Chamber led the charge against the Waxman-Markey bill.  

Since the Chamber tanked Waxman-Markey, Republicans in Congress have refused to hold hearings on, mark up, debate, or vote on any legislation proposing a policy framework for economy-wide reductions in carbon pollution.

The Chamber fought climate action in the courts and at the executive branch.  Here are some lowlights of that mischief:

In 2010, the Chamber sued the EPA, seeking to overturn the finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare.  Disabling the “endangerment finding” would cripple the agency’s ability to regulate carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act.

When courts rejected the Chamber’s lawsuit, the Chamber became central command for corporate lawyers, coal lobbyists, and Republican political strategists who devised the legal schemes to fight climate regulations.  This produced another Chamber lawsuit, to block the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

Once President Trump took office, the Chamber switched from defense to offense, and began attacking Obama administration rules limiting carbon pollution.  The Chamber even funded the phony report the Trump administration used to justify leaving the Paris Accord.

Perhaps worst of all, the Chamber has been fighting science itself.

It proposed putting the evidence of climate change on trial in what its own officials branded “the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century.”  Indeed, the Chamber said the trial “would be evolution versus creationism.”

And of course, the Chamber has been the 800-pound gorilla in elections that every member of Congress and candidate for Congress knows all too well.

Since the 2010 Citizens United decision allowed outside groups to spend unlimited sums on electioneering activities, the Chamber has funneled roughly $150 million into congressional races.  This makes the Chamber the largest spender of undisclosed donations or dark money on congressional races.

Cross the Chamber and you risk triggering an ad against you — like the one run against a US Senate candidate in Pennsylvania in 2016 suggesting her climate position was akin to stealing youthful energy from American children.


So what gives?  How did the Chamber go from sensible climate realist to hardened climate obstructor? 

The answer is pretty simple:  fossil fuel money.  As Influence Map’s Dylan Tanner told us at our hearing, big trade groups like the Chamber “tend to adopt the lowest common denominator positions on climate of their most oppositional members.”  For the Chamber, that lowest common denominator is Big Oil and other fossil fuel giants.  Fossil fuel needs the Chamber to defend at all costs what the IMF estimates was a $650 billion subsidy in the U.S. in 2015.  So that’s exactly what the Chamber does.

Ok, but what about the rest of the Chamber’s big members?

Big Tech?  What about you?  After all, you’ve got companies in your ranks who claim to care a lot about climate.

Google’s company motto is don’t be evil.  Google warns investors that climate change threatens its operations; that its “systems are vulnerable to damage or interruption from . . . natural disasters [and] the effects of climate change (such as sea level rise, drought, flooding, wildfires, and increased storm severity).”  Google also tells investors that “[c]limate change is one of the most significant global challenges of our time,” and that its goal is to reach 100 percent renewable energy for our operations.”  Google signed the Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles and the American Business Act on Climate Pledge. 

Yet Google too funds the Chamber’s anti-climate crusade.

Or big food and beverage companies, what about you?  After all, those crops that Chamber report told us would be affected by climate change, those are your bread and butter.  Indeed, many food and beverage companies say they understand the threat of climate change.

Pepsi signed the Ceres BICEP Climate Declaration and the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group Trillion Tonne Communique — both important commitments to climate action.

Coke says it plans to reduce CO2 emissions by 25 percent, and that to do so it “will work to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions across its value chain, making comprehensive carbon footprint reductions across its manufacturing processes, packaging formats, delivery fleet, refrigeration equipment and ingredient sourcing.”

Yet both Coke and Pepsi fund the Chamber of Commerce!  And they fund the American Beverage Association, which in turn runs money to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The end result?  Two companies that are actively reducing their carbon emissions and enthusiastically supporting good climate policy have the position, via their funding of the Chamber, of opposing climate action in Washington, the place where it really counts.

Mr./Mdm. President, decades ago one of the most powerful political forces in Washington, the U.S. Chamber, knew climate change was coming.  It understood the risks.  It knew what we need to do to head off the worst consequences.  It even supported legislation to help us prepare.

Nevertheless, due to the greed of one member industry and the indifference of many others, we have yet to act.

At the close of the Chamber’s report is a quote from the satirical comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

Corporate America, until you extract yourself from the thrall of evildoers in your midst, you will remain the enemy of action on climate change. 

Please, at long last, wake up.

I yield the floor.