The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the most powerful business lobbying group in the country, brought on a new leader two weeks ago. With that change, the Chamber opened a window for a new approach to climate policy.
Suzanne Clark takes the helm as CEO after 24 years of leadership by Tom Donohue, whose tenure was often marked by aggressive opposition to climate action. The signals Clark sends in her early days will be important, including whether she will lead the century-old institution to join the momentum building in businesses across the country to address climate change.
Clark won’t be starting from scratch. In 2017, the Chamber created a position for a vice president of environmental affairs and sustainability and created a Task Force on Climate Action. Her predecessor, Donohue, began to shift his narrative on climate change in recent years, saying that “inaction is not an option,” also reflected on the Chamber’s website. In January, the Chamber indicated general support for a market-based carbon policy but conditioned by a long list of limitations.
Now, Clark can turn the Chamber’s words into action. Doing so would align the Chamber with a growing number of major businesses that have adopted science-based emissions targets and with the majority of the U.S. population, which supports climate action.
Here are four indicators to watch for:
Will the Chamber take a consistent stance on climate policy?
In 2020, the Chamber supported legislation to phase down use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a type of greenhouse gas (GHG). But nearly simultaneously, it filed an amicus brief in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to back the Trump administration’s rollback of federal vehicle emission standards. Clark should establish and consistently apply a science-based policy agenda to address the climate crisis.
Will the Chamber represent all of its members?
The Chamber disproportionately represents fossil fuel interests. But a large number of Chamber members pursue climate action, including those that are party to America’s Pledge, an agreement signed by a broad range of local governments, businesses and others to help the U.S. reach its Paris Agreement goals. The Chamber’s membership also includes many of the 1,200 companies that have committed to setting science-based targets to reduce their GHG emissions.
Will the Chamber support lawmakers committed to climate action and stop endorsing climate deniers?
Nearly half of the lawmakers who received the Chamber’s most recent Spirit of Enterprise award, which includes financial support, can be classified as climate deniers. Clark should shift the Chamber’s coveted endorsements and funding toward lawmakers that are pro-climate action.
Will the Chamber back an ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target for the U.S. under the Paris Agreement?
The Biden administration will soon announce a reduction target to cut U.S. emissions by 2030. The Chamber has expressed support for U.S. membership in the Paris Agreement but on March 17 they published a statement about the development of a "realistic and achievable” Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). “Realistic and achievable” is code for maintaining the status quo at a time when we need leadership and transformation to address the climate risk. The devil is in the details, and the details reinforce this lack of ambition.
The Chamber’s “Principles and Priorities for NDC Development” fall back on classic fear tactics, casting doubt on American competitiveness and protecting specific sectors, including coal and oil. This is an indicator that the Chamber’s underlying priorities have not changed.
The U.S. can cut emissions 50 percent or more below 2005 levels by 2030. The data proves this, and doing so would boost American businesses, generate more well-paying, middle-class jobs and ensure a stronger economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chamber should revisit its position, be outspoken about its support for an ambitious NDC that leads rather than inhibits change and urge its members to follow suit.
Clark will face opposition from within the Chamber and throughout some sectors of the business world if she pivots support away from fossil fuel interests. But such a pivot would bring the Chamber in line with global business trends that recognize sustainable practices as the future of their industries.
Clark can help the Chamber’s members thrive now, through the 21st century and beyond by promoting robust climate action. The companies she represents and the competitiveness of U.S. industry depend on it.
Kevin Moss is the global director of WRI’s Center for Sustainable Business. In this capacity, he leads the institute’s private sector strategy, guides research and engagement and oversees WRI’s business-oriented initiatives.