The U.S. Chamber: A Record of Obstruction on Climate Action
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In 1883, New York faced an environmental crisis. Water levels were falling in the state’s rivers and canals, impeding travel and shipping. Scientists and editorial writers placed the blame on the logging and burning of the Adirondacks, which prevented the forests from exercising their usual moderating influence on stream flows. With the loss of the forests, it was feared, the steady release of water would be replaced by a cycle of floods and low water.
To make matters worse, these impacts were the result of logging only on the fringes of the Adirondack region. But in 1883, the Adirondack Railroad Company proposed to build a line through the heart of the forest. The inevitable expansion of logging into the interior would, in the words of a New York Tribune article, result in “disastrous climatic changes, ... wasting freshets and parching drou[ghts].”
As the newspapers filled with editorials calling for the protection of the “North Woods,” an unlikely champion of environmental protection responded: the New York Chamber of Commerce. A chamber committee proposed that the state purchase up to 4 million acres and “keep it for all time as a great forest preserve.” This was the crucial first step toward the creation in 1892 of the Adirondack Park, which today encompasses 6 million acres and is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. Given the powerful railroad and timber interests arrayed on the other side, the birth of the park would not have been possible without the early advocacy of the chamber.
Contrast this history with the actions of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today. The chamber, by far the largest lobbying force on Capitol Hill — having spent more than $65 million in 2009 — is actively campaigning against meaningful climate change legislation. It is also taking a lead role in challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) attempts to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. More fundamentally, it continues to cast doubt on climate change science and sow fears through exaggerated claims about the economic consequences of greenhouse gas regulation.
These influential business lobbies, acting 125 years apart, took two sharply different approaches to the most pressing environmental issues of the day. Their divergent paths cast the U.S. chamber in a sorry light, and ensure that it will one day be judged harshly by history.
One major difference between the two groups is that the New York chamber sought out — and followed — the advice of scientists. That era, too, had its deniers. One member of the State Assembly suggested that “the Hudson River is an arm of the sea, subject to tides, and there will be plenty of water upon which to float the commerce of the State if not a drop of water flows into it from the Adirondack region.” The chamber did not side with those views, but instead followed the advice of scientists like Charles Sprague Sargent, director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard. Sargent told the chamber that “no doubt could possibly exist as to the necessity of putting a stop to the work of destruction now going on in the Adirondacks.”
By contrast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a long history of disputing the human impact on climate and of promoting the work of climate change deniers. In 2001, William Kovacs — then the Chamber’s Vice President of Environmental Policy — claimed in an appearance on CNNfn that “there’s no link between greenhouse gases and human activity.” In a 2008 memo to the Chamber’s Board of Directors, chamber President Thomas J. Donohue claimed that “scientific inquiry” into global warming “should continue... given the recent reports indicating a cooling trend.” The National Chamber Foundation, the chamber’s nonprofit affiliate, named books by climate change deniers among its top ten recommended books of 2008 and 2009.