U.S. Chamber of Commerce president shrugs off defections

The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Thursday brushed off decisions by a string of high-profile companies to break with the nation’s leading business organization over what they considered its backward-looking position on global warming.

The companies, which included Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and computer giant Apple Inc., announced they were leaving the chamber after one of its officials said it planned to stage the environmental equivalent of the “Scopes monkey trial” -- a reference to an early 20th century court case in which prosecutors attacked the scientific foundations of the theory of evolution.

Chamber President Tom Donohue said he was “not particularly worried” about the companies’ departure, blaming their actions on an “orchestrated pressure campaign” by environmental groups.

In addition to PG&E; and Apple, PNM Resources Inc., a New Mexico utility company, and Exelon Corp., based in Chicago and the nation’s largest power company, have quit the U.S. chamber entirely. Sports footwear maker Nike Inc. resigned from the group’s board of directors but remains a member.


The companies that left have largely argued that business should come to terms with the future implications of climate change and seek ways to prosper in a greener environment. The chamber, and many of its members, have argued that policies that attack climate change too aggressively could cost jobs, hurt profits and raise consumer prices -- weakening an already battered economy.

The chamber opposed the climate bill that passed the House, but Donohue said at a news briefing that the organization favored what he called sensible legislation designed to curb climate change without impeding job growth -- possibly including a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The group has also threatened to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over proposed greenhouse gas regulations the chamber says could bring the American economy to its knees.

Donohue has worked to distance the chamber from the source of the Scopes remark, which has plagued the group since late August, when a chamber vice president, William Kovacs, said in an interview with the Tribune Washington bureau that the group was pushing for a Scopes monkey trial on whether global warming truly endangers human health.


On Thursday, Donohue called those comments unfortunate and said they went too far.

“We are not arguing the science” of global warming, he said. “You are not going to get me to go against the science because, by the way, I know a lot of things, but I don’t know about the science.”

Environmentalists, who frequently clash with the chamber on policy issues, have sought to capitalize on the Scopes remark.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has issued news releases celebrating each defection from the chamber, and it has launched an accompanying ad campaign online and in print this week.

The chamber has responded, first with a news release reiterating its support for “sensible” climate legislation, then with an aggressive response to Apple this week that accused the company of having its facts wrong on the chamber’s climate stance.

“We’re not changing where we are” because of the companies that have left the group, Donohue said. “We thought long and hard about what was important here, and we’re not going anywhere.”

He said there was “almost nobody” among the chamber’s 3 million members pushing for changes in the organization’s climate policy.

He said the chamber would continue to pressure the EPA to be transparent about the research it is using as a basis of greenhouse gas regulations. But he raised the possibility of amending a complaint against the EPA to remove passages that questioned whether rising temperatures would erode human health.


“The chamber believes that if EPA continues down a regulatory path that will impact virtually the entire economy, it should be as transparent as possible and explain how it arrived at its decision,” said chamber spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel.

Environmentalists rejected the distinction.

“You can’t say the science of global warming is fine, but the science behind [EPA regulation] is not,” said Josh Dorner, a spokesman for Clean Energy Works, a consortium of groups pushing for climate legislation. “That’s a distinction without a difference.”