Quitting the US Chamber of Commerce: The Newest Eco-Fad?

Now that a third large utility has dropped out of the US Chamber of Commerce over its stance on climate change legislation, the question arises: is this just a passing squall or the beginning of a serious public relations brouhaha?

Exelon, the country’s largest provider of gas and electricity, has joined Pacific Gas & Electric of California, and PNM Resources of New Mexico, in withdrawing from the chamber in protest over the body’s opposition to the carbon cap and trade legislation slowly working its way through Congress.

The carbon-based free lunch is over,” said CEO John Rowe, “But while we can’t fix our climate problems for free, the price signal sent through a cap-and-trade system will drive low-carbon investments in the most inexpensive and efficient way possible.”

Many Motives

Energy companies are often the most sensitive to public opinion surrounding climate change, and moves by Exelon and others could be, and have been, seen as cynical public relations maneuvers.

Perhaps more important, PG&E and many other utilities have already made large investments in renewable energy; a cap and trade or carbon tax system would benefit these investments immensely. Exelon owns nuclear power plants, which, as zero-carbon emitters, would also benefit.

But utilities are not the only ones that have a problem with the Chamber of Commerce.

Just Do It

Johnson & Johnson VP Clifford E. Holland wrote a letter in April to Thomas Donohue, the chamber’s chief executive, requesting that “statements made by the chamber reflect the full range of views” on climate change legislation.

Nike has also come out strongly against the Chamber’s stance. From a company statement:

“Nike fundamentally disagrees with the US Chamber of Commerce’s position on climate change and is concerned and deeply disappointed with the US Chamber’s recently filed petition challenging the EPA’s administrative authority and action on this critically important issue.”

New Rallying Cry?

Smelling blood in the water, perhaps, Green Century Capital Management, Inc., a green investments firm, released a statement today urging the shoe company with the carefully cultivated reputation to “just do it” and quit the chamber.

Emily Stone, a shareholder advocate for Green Century, said in an email she was not aware of a concerted campaign to get companies to leave the US Chamber (prior to their letter). But with the noise these three dissidents are making with their departures, it may be only a matter of time before “Quitting the Chamber” becomes the newest rallying call of climate activists.

Different Priorities

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce has been digging in its heels when it comes to climate changing, going so far as to lobby for a “Scopes monkey trial” of the scientific theory behind global warming this past summer (chamber reps backed away from this, speaking to the Times). The chamber’s chief Donahue, has come out against cap-and-trade in the chamber’s magazine.

Conservative consensus on cap-and-trade, or any other such legislation, is that any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will increase prices for individuals and consumers, and those increased prices will push down demand, lower profits, and slow economic growth. While various studies, from all sides of the climate debate, have argued just how expensive such legislation might be, all agree it will not be cost-free, at least in the short-term.

As the Johnson & Johnson letter suggests, however, there are non-energy companies that are supportive of climate regulations of some sort, and probably even more are standing on the sidelines, waiting to see who ends up on top. For chamber members, especially high-profile corporations, the artful balance between maintaining profits/reducing costs, and not being perceived as carelessly trashing the planet is constantly being reassessed.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

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