My local Chamber of Commerce is located in a historic train depot and is run by a woman named Lynn, who also runs the town’s visitor information center. A kindly older woman named Pam is president of the board, and is the best; she shows up to most community events with a big smile on her face and a donation from the chamber. Hard to believe that these two are a front for the nation’s most sinister and secretive pack of weasels. In fact, they probably don’t even know it. And yet.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce counts on the friendly, local vibe cultivated by city and county chambers to function, under the radar, as one of the most powerful and aggressive lobbying organizations on earth. It spends around $100 million a year to influence policymakers and push what it calls “pro-business policies.” But while your local chamber is showing up at city council meetings to advocate for more parking spaces on Main Street, or to shut down a road so that people can mill around at the farmers market, the national chamber was the staunchest opponent of the original New Deal way back when, and has consistently fought against public programs ever since.
The U.S. Chamber is also one one of the country’s biggest promoters of climate change denial. Since the Chamber doesn’t disclose who its members are, we can’t say with certainty that oil companies are among them, but this whole strategy—hiding behind an organization that seems to represent mom-and-pop businesses, but really serves the interests of multinational fossil fuel companies—is very much their M.O.
For decades, oil companies have funded think tanks, trade associations, front groups, and even fake energy blogs, to push the message of climate change denial: humans have nothing to do with climate change, and cracking down on oil production won’t do anything but limit the country’s economic prosperity. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been among the loudest such voices.
The organization claims to represent 3 million member businesses, local chambers, and trade associations, but Mother Jones reported in 2010 that it’s more like 300,000 (the Chamber downgraded its estimates for a while, but is now back to claiming 3 million members on its website). It’s not possible to fact-check the website’s claim that 96% of its member businesses employ fewer than 100 employees because again, they don’t disclose who their members are. The claim seems unlikely, though, given that the Chamber typically receives most of its donations from a handful of large and powerful companies. In 2008, half of its donations came from 45 corporate donors, including Goldman Sachs, Chevron Texaco, and Dow Chemical. In 2009, a year during which the Chamber was fighting against healthcare reform, nearly half of the Chamber’s money came from America’s Health Insurance Plans, the health insurance industry trade association. Local chambers are unlikely to have much influence at the national Chamber in D.C., which claims it has “no say in how chambers decide to run themselves. Any community can organize and support a chamber of commerce.”
Indeed not all local chambers even belong to the national organization. The Berkeley, California chamber, for example, is not a member of either the California Chamber or the U.S. Chamber, about which it says: “The Berkeley Chamber is entirely independent of both the state and national chambers, with whose policy positions we often disagree, especially when it comes to our unwavering support for the environment, certified green businesses, and sustainability.”
A few local chambers do seem to be important to the national Chamber, though, which appoints leaders from a few select local and state chambers to sit on its “Committee of 100,” an elite circle of chamber representatives with a direct line to Chamber leadership. Members are selected from “accredited” chambers, of which there are 209 out of 7,000 local chambers. To become accredited, a chamber must meet pretty extensive financial and operational requirements, and then be selected by the national leadership. The most recently appointed members to the Committee include a D.C. councilman who was disciplined by the ethics board; the state of Kansas chamber president, who served as senior advisor and national director of coalitions for the Trump campaign; the head of the chamber in Lubbock, TX, where the oil and gas industry is booming thanks to exports; the head of the Orange County chamber, who is a staunch opponent of minimum wage increases; and the former vice president of a bank busted for mortgage fraud.
The business of the U.S. Chamber is lobbying on behalf of large, powerful industries, including tobacco and fossil fuels. The documentary Merchants of Doubt, and the book on which it’s based, examine the long, weird connection between tobacco and climate change: The same researchers who helped Big Tobacco deny the impacts of smoking for decades quickly shifted gears and put their skills to work for Big Oil the moment the tobacco jig was up. Literally, some of the very same publicists, scientists, and think tanks really just switched from smoking to coal and oil. So, it’s not a big surprise to find climate change and tobacco together again, as the U.S. Chamber spends millions of dollars to fight smoking bans, push climate denial and undermine action on climate change—via everything from PR campaigns to direct mail marketing to lobbying politicians, helping to write policy, and endorsing and funding climate denier candidates—all the while posing as the neighborly champions of small business.
It works, too. Their climate denial shenanigans have attracted little notice outside of climate activist circles, aside from the loss of the occasional member. The vast majority of people still lump the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in with their friendly town chamber.
The U.S. Chamber started really pushing climate denial around the late 1990s and early 2000s, right around the time U.S. oil companies, utilities, coal companies and manufacturers were freaking out about the Kyoto Protocol. It was an early member of the Global Climate Coalition, a fake-friendly-sounding group of companies and industry trade groups that joined forces to kill the Kyoto Protocol, and then to stop regulation on climate more broadly. Their story, printed up in a handbook, was that climate science was too uncertain to be relied on. But in its draft form, the final chapter of that handbook had focused on alternative explanations for climate change—normal climate cycles, volcanoes, glitches in climate models—and debunked them all, noting that none could account for the amount of warming we were seeing. That was back in 1995. The final chapter was pulled, for obvious reasons, and the GCC member companies went on to fund various scientists who promoted their theories for decades. The organization was disbanded in 2002, but the Chamber kept beating the drum.
In 2009, the Chamber tried to challenge the EPA to a duel. The EPA had found that CO2 and other greenhouse gases “threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations,” empowering them to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act; the Chamber asked the EPA to hold a “Scopes monkey trial” on climate, having evidently forgotten that the scientists had won the Scopes Monkey trial, and would have won this one too. The EPA declined the challenge, stating only that its ruling was based on peer-reviewed science. But the Chamber kept fighting, complaining about “government overreach,” and generally throwing a tantrum that only ended nine years later, in 2018. With Trump in office repealing environmental regulations and pulling out of the Paris Agreement, and a fossil fuel-friendly head at the EPA, they’d won.
The Green New Deal is the Chamber’s new enemy, just as it opposed the original New Deal, and especially the establishment of Social Security. (Not that the Green New Deal is a comprehensive solution to the climate crisis, as Joshua Clover detailed here.) The Chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer Neal Bradly made this official statement [on February 7, 2019]:
“There are two competing approaches to addressing our country’s challenges… one approach, as exemplified by the “Green New Deal,” government asserts control over most of our economy, passing along the enormous costs and bureaucratic inefficiencies to everyday Americans. In the other, our robust system of free enterprise rises to the challenge, tapping into our deep well of ingenuity and creativity. This is the approach that built our nation and made us a land of opportunity for all, in stark contrast to failed socialist policies that have plagued many other countries over time…. The Chamber stands firmly behind the power of free enterprise, and we welcome this debate.”
The thing about these guys who want to leave things up to the free market is (just to tell you something you already know, but who doesn’t need a reminder), they are almost always caping for industries that are heavily subsidized and not operating according to free market principles at all. The fossil fuel industry has more permanent subsidies than almost any other industry, and here comes the U.S. Chamber spending millions of dollars to lobby for it. The power of these organizations, their funding, and the skillful way that they hide big business interests behind the Normal Rockwell vision of the good old American family business, is what has made broad social issues like climate change so impossible to tackle.
But don’t take it out on Pam, she has no idea.