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Is the U.S. Chamber Changing its Tune, or Just its Tone?

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Yesterday the US Chamber sent a letter to Senators Boxer and Inhofe about the climate bill. It seemed to be singing a new tune on climate policy, leading Senator Kerry to wonder whether the letter reflects a real change in the Chamber's position. 

While we welcome the US Chamber's desire to sound more constructive, reading in between the lines - and reading the lines themselves - raises big questions about how much the Chamber's objectives have really changed - setting aside their obvious need to strike a more conciliatory tone. Which prompts us to contemplate how we'll know when the Chamber does decides to engage the climate debate constructively.

The letter starts off with a more positive tone than many are used to the Chamber taking:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce believes climate change is an important issue for this Congress to address. The Chamber stands ready to work with Congress to resolve this issue in a bipartisan manner that recognizes regional differences, the state of the technology, and the compelling need for a solution that minimizes overall economic impact.

Hey, sounds good so far. Then the Chamber references the recent oped by Senators Kerry and Graham, saying:

There are many good ideas out there that can serve as a solid, workable, commonsense and realistic foundation on which to craft a bill. The Chamber commends Senators Kerry and Graham for their recent New York Times editorial on the need for comprehensive climate legislation. The Chamber welcomes the call for a new conversation on how to address the issue, and believes their editorial can serve as a solid, workable, commonsense foundation on which to craft a bill. Many other important details are needed, but the Chamber agrees that the objectives outlined in that editorial, coupled with their clear recognition that "this process requires honest give-and-take and genuine bipartisanship," can move this important policy objective forward in a bipartisan manner that garners strong business community support.

Overall, the letter does a fine job of suggesting that the US Chamber is prepared to take on a more constructive approach. But, here's where you have to read between the lines. The Chamber embraces several of the principles listed by Senators Kerry and Graham, except for the one calling for "aggressive reductions in our emissions of the carbon gases that cause climate change."

So here's something that isn't new. The US Chamber's criteria for climate policy traditionally exclude the main point of having one: reducing global warming pollution. The press release the Chamber issued about the letter really emphasizes the point, as Bruce Josten, the U.S. Chamber's executive vice president for government affairs, says:

"The Chamber believes the Senate has an opportunity to promote a workable bottom-up plan that starts by addressing the fundamental building blocks-rather than the top-down approach of targets and timetables it has taken thus far."

And the Chamber tweeted this as well - sending out this short message last night:

Josten on climate legislation - need a workable bottom-up plan not top-down approach of targets and timetables -http://bit.ly/36HXQu.

Tweets are a good way to get a sense of what the messenger thinks is really important, since there's no room for beating around the bush. Which raises the question why, if the Chamber's main point is that it doesn't want top-down "targets and timetables" why did they exclude mention of that from their letter to the Senators?  

Digging in here, the Chamber's press release and tweet talk seem to be implying that we won't have the technologies we need to cut carbon emissions.  This is what's meant by their language on "state of the technology" and their call for a "bottom-up" and "building blocks" approach.  But analysts have repeatedly found that the goals in legislation are achievable with clean energy solutions, which is why EIA and EPA have documented that the costs are negligible because the building blocks exist today and the bill includes provisions to ramp up the use of those building blocks (efficiency, renewables, ccs, even nukes are given a path). 

Is the chamber trying to draw up a seat at the table just so it can press a reset button by making phony claims about how the bills are actually designed? If the chamber wants to be taken seriously, it needs to start by being honest about what the bills actually do.

The letter also includes the Chamber's usual litany of reasons it will reject a climate bill, reasons which can be so broadly interpreted that they can be used to reject anything the Chamber staff decides it doesn't like.

Disappointingly then, the new letter raises as many questions as it answers. We can't answer those questions--only the Chamber can, by its actions in the weeks ahead.

Now we do take heart that at least the Chamber recognizes the need to appear be constructive on this issue. But we're all ready to fast-forward and get to the point where the Chamber actually does engage in a constructive manner. But how will we know if we're getting there? If the Chamber starts addressing some of the following questions, it'll help us sort out the reality from the illusion:

Does the US Chamber consider emission reduction targets and timetables to be essential to include or exclude from a climate bill?

If the US Chamber thinks targets and timetables should be included, what does it believe should be the basis for setting emission reduction targets and timetables?

What emission reduction targets is the Chamber prepared to support and on what timetable?

When will the US Chamber lay out an actual proposal for climate legislation?

We'll let you know what we hear.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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