Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Pacific Gas and Electric, the Northern California utility, has pulled out of the US Chamber of Commerce, citing what its chairman, Peter Darbee, called its "disingenuous attempts to diminish or distort reality" in the debate over climate change.

Darbee's often harshly worded letter to the Chamber, excerpted on the company's blog, expressed dismay that the Chamber "neglects the indisputable fact" that climate change is "a threat that cannot be ignored." 

With 3 million member businesses of all sizes, the nation's biggest business lobby has come under increasing fire for taking a hard line against this year's climate legislation. In May, a letter from Johnson & Johnson and Nike asked the Chamber to stop speaking about the issue as if it represented the entire business community. PG&E is the first business to move beyond those objections to publicly break with Chamber over its position. "[N]ot every issue is created equal," the company, a major investor in green power, said on its blog, "and sometimes companies decide they have to take a more decisive stand on really big ones."

It remains an enigma why the Chamber, which has called for a "Scopes Monkey Trial" on climate science, is working so hard to undermine climate legislation. The NRDC recently pointed out that Chamber president Tom Donohue has deep financial ties to the coal industry. The Chamber stresses that it position on global warming was hammered out by the its Environment and Energy Committee, which is chaired by Donald J. Sterhan, the owner of an affordable housing company. But a web search reveals that the Montana native is also a board member of the Billings Petroleum Club. The club's members often include people outside the oil industry, yet the club's September 2009 newsletter, the Gusher, lists numerous oil companies as sponsors, among them Devon Energy, Montana Wyoming Oil Company, and Petro-Hunt.

 

Climate Change Back on the Agenda?

After months of obsessing over health care, President Barack Obama could give the climate debate a much-needed shot in the arm this week. Tomorrow he'll speak at the United Nations' Climate Summit in New York, a test run in advance of the Copenhagen conference in December. While Majority Leader Harry Reid has signaled that the Senate may not take up climate legislation until next year, Obama's unofficial "green cabinet" has been quietly lobbying senators behind the scenes to assure them that the climate bill is viewed as a priority by the administration, the Washington Times reports. But the real test of Obama's climate commitment will come later in the week when he addresses the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Though the climate isn't officially on the agenda there, watch how Obama does or doesn't talk up green jobs and a carbon market to get an idea of how fast he wants to move on cap and trade.

Some of the world's biggest financial players gathered in New York on Wednesday to urge bold global action on climate change. The gathering was the largest of its kind in the history of the climate debate. The International Investor Forum on Climate Change brought together 181 investors who manage a whopping $13 trillion in assets. To put that in context, the Gross World Product is around $69 trillion.

A statement released by the group urged global leaders to craft a "strong" climate change agreement in Copenhagen, including a global target for emissions reductions of 50 to 85 percent by 2050. "Global emissions of greenhouse gases must be cut significantly in order to avoid dangerous climate change with catastrophic economic and social consequences," the statement said. "Beyond the potential macroeconomic impacts, investors are concerned about the ways in which climate change and climate policy will affect their investments in individual companies and assets."

The meeting was, in effect, a powerful rebuke to the politicized U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has tried to portray domestic climate legislation as anti-business but is led by an executive with ties to the coal industry. The investment groups signing yesterday's statement included Blackrock, HSBC Global Asset Management, and the ING Group--clearly members of the business mainstream. The group also pointed out that tackling climate change will create new investment opportunities in "low-carbon infrastructure or energy efficiency" and "climate friendly products and services."

MIT's Trash Tracking Project

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are attaching tracking devices to pieces of garbage in Seattle and charting their journey through the global disposal and recycling system. I'll admit to being a bit jealous. Earlier this year, I too followed my trash, starting in my apartment in San Francisco (which recycles more than any other major city), and continuing through the city dump and beyond. I'd wanted to employ tracking devices but after consulting with everyone from a friend at Wired to device manufacturers in Taiwan, couldn't find anything sufficiently small and affordable. Indeed, the Times reports that MIT's plan to use battery-powered tags based on cell phone technology will cost more than $300,000:

Through the project, overseen by M.I.T.’s Senseable City Laboratory, 3,000 common pieces of garbage, mostly from Seattle, are to be tracked through the waste disposal system over the next three months. The researchers will display the routes in real time online and in exhibitions opening at the Architectural League of New York on Thursday and the Seattle Public Library on Saturday.

Interestingly, the $300,000 is coming from Waste Management, the nation's largest landfill company. When I followed my own trash to Waste Management's Altamont Landfill, the project had seemed novel the company's spokesperson. Most of my story focused on the recycling efforts of Waste Management's competitor, Recology, which handles garbage pickup and recycling in San Francisco (but dumps at Altamont). Could the MIT project be a way for Waste Management to co-opt the idea for its own PR purposes? Probably so. But it's also just plain cool, and I'm glad they're doing it.

I have frequently wondered on this blog why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is taking a leading role in opposing the climate bill when many of its 3 million member companies actually support the legislation. Now comes an interesting post from the NRDC's Switchboard blog (via Climate Progress) that begins to answer that question. It turns out that for the past 11 years Chamber President Tom Donohue has also served as a highly-compensated board member of Union Pacific Railroad, which earns some 20 percent of its revenues from carrying coal. Moreover, Union Pacific has given $700,000 to the Chamber since 2004.

Conflict of interest? Sure sounds like it. Maybe it's time for those Chamber members who first questioned its climate approach to raise a stink about this.

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