Will Chamber Stance Spur Exodus?

General Electric, Caterpillar and Nike targeted for environmental campaign

Environmentalists are ratcheting up the pressure on General Electric, Caterpillar and Nike to follow the example of several large utilities and quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to protest its stance against climate change legislation.

All three companies have maintained their membership in the Chamber, the world’s largest business federation, while also belonging to coalitions pushing for climate legislation that would cap greenhouse gas emissions.

The Chamber and the National Association of Manufacturers “are fighting tooth and nail against legislation that would vastly expand the markets for [the three companies’] products,” said Josh Dorner, spokesman for Clean Energy Works, which supports the climate change legislation. “It would be financially smart for them to abandon” the two business groups, he argued.

In the past two weeks, three major utilities have left the Chamber because of the business lobby’s opposition to climate legislation. On Monday, Chicago-based Exelon Corp. said it would not renew its membership in the Chamber; last week, Pacific Gas & Electric, a major California utility, and PNM Resources, a holding company that includes a large New Mexico utility, withdrew from the group.

A large part of the campaign against Chamber membership stems from the group’s call to launch a “Scopes Monkey Trial of the 21st century” about the science of climate change, referring to a 1926 trial that challenged Tennessee law mandating the teaching of the divine creation and forbidding the teaching of evolution.

“We find it dismaying that the Chamber neglects the indisputable fact that a decisive majority of experts have said the data on global warming are compelling and point to a threat that cannot be ignored,” wrote PG&E in a letter to the Chamber. “In our opinion, 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.”

But those utilities, experts note, would benefit financially from the climate change legislation. Exelon, for instance, is one of the country’s largest nuclear power plant operators, and the bill that emerges from the Senate is likely to include greater support for nuclear power, which emits no greenhouse gases.

Nonetheless, environmentalists heralded the utilities’ decision to leave the Chamber as a sign that there are fractures within the business community’s traditional opposition to climate legislation. Now, they’d like to see even larger, more prominent brands leave the group.

“Exelon was a game-changer,” said Anne Kelly, director of governance programs at Ceres, a coalition of investors, environmental groups and other public interest organizations. “There is a mounting pressure [to leave the Chamber] on any major company that is trying to do the responsible thing.”

Climate change legislation faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where coal-state Democrats and Republicans fear the bill could hurt manufacturing and other businesses.

Nike, environmentalists hope, could be the next to leave the Chamber. The company helped found Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy, a coalition of businesses supporting congressional action to address climate and energy legislation. Last week, Nike released a statement noting that the company “fundamentally disagrees” with the Chamber’s position on climate change.

On Tuesday, Boston-based Green Century Capital Management Inc, an investment adviser focused on environmentally responsible funds, sent a letter urging Nike to drop its membership in the Chamber.

“As a long-term shareholder of the company, we are dismayed that Nike has not taken a more aggressive stance despite this clear misalignment of its positions with those of the Chamber on climate,” it wrote. “While we understand that companies join trade associations for many reasons, we firmly believe that Nike’s publicly stated positions on climate, founding membership in BICEP and strong sustainability reputation should compel the company to follow PG&E’s and PNM Resources’ lead.” 

General Electric acknowledges that it says it has common interests with the Chamber on issues like health care and financial regulation — even if the company disagrees with the group’s position on climate change.

“We’re a member of the Chamber because a lot of our customers are there, a lot of our competitors, so we get a good perspective on issues of national import,” says GE spokesman Peter O’Toole. “The Chamber does not speak for us on climate legislation, but we are still a member.”

In recent months, companies have also withdrawn from other prominent industry groups that have voiced serious concerns — if not opposition — to a cap-and-trade system.

Duke Energy withdrew from the National Association of Manufacturers in December, citing climate as a factor. In August, the Southern utility left the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Alcoa, an aluminum company, and Alstom, a French manufacturer of power plant parts, also left the coal coalition during the past few months.

The Chamber of Commerce says it’s not opposed to tackling global warming but fears any legislation that could raise costs for business. It opposed the climate legislation that passed the House in late June.

“The debate in Congress has left the nation with two terrible options: expensive, complicated, regulation-heavy, domestic-only legislation like ACES, or an ‘even worse’ set of mandatory CO2 controls on everyone and everything through existing Clean Air Act programs,” wrote the group in a May letter to Congress. “Congress should stop, take a breath and consider sensible policy alternatives that increase our energy security, promotes a strong economy and contributes to a global reduction in emissions.”

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