In 2019, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been reacting to the public catching on to its blatant partisanship and prioritization of corporations and ultrawealthy donors by undergoing some image rehab. Unfortunately, the Chamber’s substantive policy agenda remains as regressive as ever—anti-family, anti-worker, anti-consumer and anti-climate.
For an example of the Chamber putting lipstick on a pig, look no further than its recently-unveiled “American Energy: Cleaner, Stronger” agenda released through its Global Energy Institute (GEI). The agenda uses lots of buzzwords like “clean,” “renewable,” and “sustainable,” and its acknowledgement that climate change is a clear and present danger demanding action could easily trick you into thinking that the Chamber has softened its historical opposition to meaningful climate action. But this is merely PR-driven smoke and mirrors.
A closer look at what the agenda proposes reveals that it’s actually a continuation of that opposition, proposing that climate change be “resolved” through the private sector rather than through legislation and regulation, and advocating America’s continued reliance on fossil fuels. By the Chamber’s own admission, the purpose of the agenda is to obstruct public action on climate: it warns of “state and national leaders go[ing] too far with policy recommendations” and proposes that instead the private sector should lead the way through “innovation and technology.” This is a tactic Frank Luntz promoted all the way back in 2002: use language that makes you sound knowledgeable and reasonable to get away with maintaining inaction on climate change.
This plan is not remotely sufficient to meet the enormous challenge of addressing our climate needs. The international consensus on climate change estimates that we have only 12 years to cut global greenhouse gas pollution in half in order to avoid potentially catastrophic amounts of global warming. No one who has studied the issue could say with a straight face that we can reach that target through “innovation and technology” alone drastic government policy change is needed to zero out U.S. pollution on the timetable we need. In fact, the Chamber even posits that climate action should not be time constrained (with targets like 10 or 12 years in mind), even though the nature of the climate change problem requires that we solve it quickly.
The Chamber does not intend to actually meet the task of preventing unacceptable levels of climate change; it just wants plausible deniability against accusations of being a bad actor on climate. The Chamber knows it needs to adjust to the reality that voters are increasingly concerned about climate change, but has chosen to do so in a way that opposes real solutions. The reality is that deregulation and continued reliance on fossil fuels will make things worse, not better.
Goosing Up the Numbers
The Chamber justifies taking this inadequate approach by using some very suspect public opinion polling, commissioned by the Chamber/GEI and conducted by FTI Consulting. As argued by clean energy policy analyst Joel Stronberg, the survey’s questions are designed in a loaded way aimed toward achieving the kinds of results the Chamber wants. For instance, the Chamber’s results show respondent sentiment is only weakly in favor of “[r]equiring all aspects of the U.S. economy to eliminate greenhouse gas pollution in 10 years, including in all electricity generation, vehicles, agriculture, homes, commercial buildings, and manufacturing, regardless of cost.”
This question is clearly designed to invoke various connotations. For one, the “10 year” time-frame primes respondents to be thinking about the proposed solution as a stand-in for the Green New Deal (GND), which has been widely vilified through right wing media’s disinformation about its actual contents. Furthermore, the long list of types of institutions that would require elimination of greenhouse gas pollution is meant to feel exhaustive to the respondent, thereby priming them to think what is being suggested is excessive or an “overreach.” Finally, the phrase “regardless of cost” is suggestive of criticisms that taxpayers as a whole will shoulder an unreasonable financial burden in order to pay for large-scale government action on climate.
It’s worth noting that, even despite the many ways this question was loaded, it still received 55% total support, meaning a majority of respondents still approved of the policy.
Another of the Chamber’s findings from its survey is even more dubious. It pits the “Cleaner, Stronger” agenda against the GND, and asks respondents which approach they prefer, and finds that across the political spectrum, the majority of respondents preferred “Cleaner, Stronger.”
Specifically, respondents were asked “Which option would you prefer as a focus of our national and state elected leaders?” and given to options to choose between:
- ‘Cleaner, Stronger’: America focusing on using its resources responsibly and safely by implementing a ‘cleaner, stronger’ energy agenda that prioritizes investments in innovation and advanced technology to reduce emissions.
- Eliminating Greenhouse Gas Emissions: America focusing on requiring a transition to the Green New Deal’s proposal to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. economy in 10 years, regardless of cost.
As Stronberg argues, “The comparison of its announced Cleaner, Stronger America Agenda with the GND alone is deceitful. Only in a two-way comparison of the GND and the Chamber’s American Energy: Cleaner, Stronger campaign can rejection of the one be considered support for the other—even then such a conclusion would be suspect.”
The question falsely implies that pursuing a GND-style approach will not involve any investment in innovation and technology. It also uses the same misleading language to stand in for the GND as it did earlier, portraying the GND as a radical policy and “Cleaner, Stronger” as more measured and therefore reasonable. A GEI press release calls “Cleaner, Stronger” a “realistic alternative to addressing energy and environmental issues.”
What this framing leaves out is that a reliance on the private sector could itself be easily portrayed as the more radical policy. Taking strong legislative action against climate change is a commonsense way of ensuring that the United States meets its global climate action responsibility; pursuing a deregulatory agenda is a recipe for making climate change worse rather than better. But the Chamber wants us thinking about only about the political ease of each approach, rather than what is actually needed to properly address climate change.
The Cleaner, Stronger agenda’s use of PR-friendly buzzwords and highly questionable survey methods is all aimed at a singular goal: deregulating the energy industry, allowing fossil fuel industries to continue to profit off the emission of greenhouse gases that will have a devastating effect on the climate. We should not fall for this deception. The Chamber may pretend its plan is a sufficient response to climate change, but we must be honest that avoiding catastrophic levels of global warming requires significant legislative and regulatory action.
But then, honesty never was the Chamber’s strong suit.