The earth is spinning toward climate catastrophe. The international community has about a decade to take the steps necessary to avoid breaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius safety zone that the scientific community has established. It will take American leadership to achieve that goal, which means not only bold action in Congress, but meaningful leadership from the president, our allies around the globe, and leadership from powerful forces like major corporations.
Unfortunately, much of corporate America so far failed to step up and sufficiently support policies that would begin to address the existential threat of climate change. Many individual corporations, perhaps out of conviction, perhaps out of the desire to keep and win over new customers, profess to be on the side of fighting climate change. But in an act of rank hypocrisy, they turn around and support business associations, like the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, which have been relentless adversaries of climate action.
Take the Chamber. The US Chamber is not the local chamber of commerce sponsoring your main street businesses. It runs a massive influence machine on behalf of big corporations, touching every part of the federal government.
In federal agencies, the Chamber is an 800-pound gorilla in virtually every room where climate policy comes up. It lobbies agency officials, files regulatory comments by the dozen, and deploys its public relations machine whenever regulators turn to matters affecting the fossil fuel industry.
In courts, the Chamber is in a league of its own. During a three-year period late in the Obama administration, the Chamber filed friend-of-the-court briefs in 476 cases and was a litigant in another 25. Environmental issues were its third most litigated subject, and its position always aligns with polluters.
In Congress, the Chamber is the largest lobbyist, spending roughly three times more than the next biggest group. Energy and environmental issues are a big part of that lobbying effort. Every year, the Chamber sends out dozens of letters and key vote alerts telling members which way it expects them to vote. Those letters and alerts inevitably support fossil fuel and oppose reducing emissions.
The Chamber aggressively attacks climate action with the last piece of its machine: election spending. The Chamber has spent almost $150 million on congressional races since the Citizens United decision of 2010. In most congressional election cycles, it is the biggest dark-money spender. The Chamber is known for having sharp political elbows. Cross them 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.
Some Chamber members who say they support climate action may well be funding the efforts to oppose climate action in Washington through the Chamber and other groups. This doubletalk needs to end.
To fight back, companies that care about climate ought to demand full disclosure of who funds climate obstruction at the Chamber, as well as at API and other big lobbying and influence groups. Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is . . . the best of disinfectants.” Send sunbeams into the dark-money corners where climate denial and obstruction fester.
Better yet, these “pro-climate” companies should demand that those organizations stop blocking climate action and instead support real action in Congress to address climate change. Corporate shareholders ought to know whether their company funds groups that block climate legislation. And corporations who are board members of these denial and obstruction groups have their own governance obligations to know if they’re throwing good money after bad, allowing their goals to be diluted by the influence of the fossil fuel industry.
The stakes are high: There are massive economic risks flowing from climate change. Don’t take our word for it; listen to the Bank of England, Freddie Mac, Nobel Prize laureate economists, and hundreds of our own government’s most knowledgeable experts.
Corporate America can still choose which side of the climate fight to be on. But the clock is running out.
US Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat from New York, is the Senate minority leader. US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democrat from Rhode Island.