Is American Business More Progressive Than Its Consumers?

As some high-profile corporations publicly embrace the reality of climate change, are they moving faster than the American population as a whole?
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The week began with a hoax, a fake press conference at the National Press Club in Washington during which the biggest business lobby in town, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, seemed to be suddenly embracing climate legislation.

It turned out it wasn't the real Chamber of Commerce, as the actual Chamber of Commerce revealed when one of its officials dramatically interrupted the event, spoiling the send-up. No, the real chamber still opposes cap-and-trade. Environmentalists, disappointed the news was fake, still celebrated the imposters behind it, the corporate pranksters the Yes Men.

It has been a rough stretch for the chamber, which has been in the news constantly of late, as the symbol of dwindling business opposition to climate legislation some now consider inevitable. In the last month, the chamber has had several big-name defections over its stance on climate change (which includes opposing not just legislation, but occasionally the very science itself): Apple, Pacific Gas & Electric, PNM Resources and Exelon have all left. Nike, for the same reason, resigned from the chamber's board of directors.

Several of those companies, including Exelon and PNM, are members of another business alliance that, by week's end, was holding a decidedly different demonstration on Capitol Hill. The U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a group that also includes Chrysler, ConocoPhillips and Alcoa, held a green technology showcase today strategically set amid congressional office buildings.

DuPont was showing off a corn-based carpeting that could one day blanket your office building. Duke Energy brought diagrams of the $2.35 billion "cleaner" coal plant it is building in southern Indiana, set to be the world's largest integrated gasification combined cycle plant when it comes online in 2011. General Electric was demonstrating its line of smart-grid appliances, which would automatically adjust to eco-friendly settings during peak energy hours, should power companies start charging more for energy used at 6 p.m. than at 10 a.m. And Dow Chemicals was introducing congressional staffers and reporters to solar-powered shingles a roofer could tack onto your home starting in 2011.

The common denominator among all of the technology in the room was that it anticipates a world, and an economy, in which there is climate legislation.

"The focus is to show what can happen, and what's going to happen, if we get a price on carbon," said Tad Segal, a spokesman for USCAP.

The organization, which formed in early 2007, marrying both big business and traditional environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, is actively advocating for the kind of climate bill the chamber opposes. Segal said USCAP isn't necessarily trying to fill the void where the chamber's voice has grown outdated, and several companies still remain members of both groups. USCAP, which is entirely led by the member companies' CEOs, has no actual staff in Washington.

Still, with the weighty reputation of many of its members, USCAP represents the growing segment of the business community that doesn't just accept climate legislation, but that also considers it a business opportunity.

That migration of influential business interests — and, perhaps, the waning of the chamber's muscle — also offers a counterbalance to a more curious trend. Poll numbers released this week by the Pew Research Center show that fewer Americans today believe global warming is a serious problem than just a year ago. Only 35 percent agreed with that statement, down from 44 percent in April of 2008. And only 57 percent say there is solid evidence the Earth is warming, down from 71 percent a year ago.

If both trends continue, it will be an odd moment in environmental history when Big Business is more progressive than the average American.

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