A new report from Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab deconstructs the messaging from one of the most aggressive climate denier organizations in the U.S.
Using publicly available internal documents from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the findings chronicle the group’s shifting methods of denial in a crucial 20-year period when it one of the most active groups lobbying against climate policy and casting doubt on climate science. The report analyzes different tactics the Chamber used in its messaging in this time period, giving us a glimpse into how the organization may rebrand itself in the future.
The Chamber is an incredibly powerful force in American—and even global—politics. The organization says it is the largest business group in the world, claiming to represent 3 million businesses of all sizes. In reality, the Chamber keeps member rolls and funding pretty close to the vest; analyses of tax documents have found that groups with dark money ties have consistently donated to the Chamber. Its current board includes representatives from FedEx, Nasdaq, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Facebook, the retired president of Shell, and several state and city chambers of commerce members.
Even though the Chamber claims to represent businesses of all stripes, it has a long history of perpetuating climate denial. The report looks at the period from 1989 to 2009, a time when the organization exerted widespread control on the discussion around climate change.
As late as 2009, the Chamber claimed that climate change would be good for the planet, saying in a comment submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency that year that the agency was “ignoring” analyses that showed “a warming of even 3 [degrees] C in the next 100 years would, on balance, be beneficial to humans because the reduction of wintertime mortality/morbidity would be several times larger than the increase in summertime heat stress-related mortality/morbidity.” That same year, the Chamber called for a Scopes monkey trial-style process to put climate science through a public hearing of sorts, intended, a senior vice president said, to put “the science of climate change on trial.” The Chamber’s extremist views that year led to a number of high-profile exits from members including Apple, Nike, and utilities PG&E and Exelon.
Even for someone who may know the Chamber’s dark denier past, seeing the tactics of denial laid out like this in a report is pretty illuminating. While the Chamber was repeating climate denial, the new report shows the organization knew how serious the climate crisis was going to get. An internal document published by the Chamber in 1989, which consisted of testimony from a scientist to the International Chamber of Commerce, states plainly that “sea levels will rise, wetlands will flood, salt water will infuse fresh water supplies, and there will be changes in the distribution of tree and crop species and agricultural productivity” due to climate change.
“He was describing in great detail all the adverse impacts climate change would have to places all around the world, including specific stuff like forced migration, Amsterdam and Miami flooding, things like that,” said Cole Triedman, an undergraduate co-coordinator at the Climate Development Lab and lead author of the report. “I was shocked.” That testimony was right before the Chamber stopped referring to climate change altogether, Triedman said, until the late 1990s, when it began more and more aggressively ramping up into denial.
“By the time 2009 came around, the Chamber was comparing institutional climate science to creationism,” said Triedman. “That was a pretty mindblowing backwards trajectory.”
The analysis also shows that the Chamber’s language changed depending on the political climate, shifting from presenting a forward-thinking, business-focused vision of how industry could help solve climate change during the George W. Bush administration. But the group began attacking climate science and action when threats to the status quo emerged, such as the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 or efforts to pass cap-and-trade legislation in the late 2000s.
“When there were significant threats to its bottom line, the Chamber completely pivoted gears and attacked whatever what was in front of them and used arguments like, we’re going to become less competitive than other countries, or the economy is going to suffer, or this policy is not achievable, and we’re doomed anyway,” Triedman said. “It’s all very cyclical, and this tells researchers and advocates that there’s a certain recipe organizations like this operate and message on with how they talk about climate change.”
That last point, Triedman said, is what’s most relevant to thinking about how the Chamber operates today. In the past couple of years, the Chamber of Commerce—at least publicly—seems to have had a change of heart. In 2019, the Chamber announced it was forming a “climate change task force,” claiming it was “learning from [its] members” about the issue. It also updated its website to insist that “inaction is simply not an option” on climate.
Triedman pointed out that despite this might also have been calculated. In 2019, it was actually a relatively safe time to be a climate denier with Trump in power and the U.S. in the process of pulling out of the Paris Agreement.
“It makes a lot of sense to me why the Chamber used that moment to rebrand itself as a bipartisan actor on climate change, willing to act across the aisle, promoting market-based solutions,” Triedman said. “That was a moment they didn’t feel threatened, and they desperately needed a rebrand. Now, in 2021, that set of circumstances is in the process of shifting dramatically.”
The 2019 pivot also came after Shell left the Chamber in a high-profile move over its positions on climate change. The group has since inched closer to endorsing at least some climate measures. In January 2021, the Chamber endorsed climate action in Washington and hinted it may be in a position to support a carbon tax. It’s possible that climate denial may be impossible to swing back to for the group. But there’s still evidence that denial and support for the oil industry may be impossible to ferret out completely; the Chamber’s energy initiatives leader came to the organization in 2019 from the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm of the oil and gas industry.
“The Chamber is really, really good at maintaining a dynamic set of messages on climate change that fit whatever their circumstances demand,” Triedman said.