When Apple (AAPL) said Monday it would be leaving the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the computer company joined a growing list of large corporations that have dumped the country's most prestigious business advocacy group over global warming issues. The New York Times reported Apple's departure and the the Cupertino, Calif.-based company distributed a statement from Catherine Novelli, the company's vice president of worldwide government affairs.

Apple CEO Steven P. Jobs' decision should send a clear message to chamber CEO and President Thomas Donohue: The chamber no longer represents a key segment of its most powerful members on what may be the most important business and social issue of our era. With the most influential consumer electronics company in the world lining up against Donohue and his policies, it's no longer just about alienating a few poorly recognized utilities. Instead, Donohue risks making the chamber a posterchild for U.S. intransigence and indifference on an issue of critical importance to the entire planet.
No doubt, the chamber is facing a serious challenge to its authority. Apple joins a growing list of high-powered companies that have left the august chamber over global warming issues and related positions. It has been against carbon taxes and cap-and-trade legislation, which allows cleaner companies to sell pollution credits to dirtier companies. The chamber has broadly opposed such steps, arguing that charging for emissions is too expensive and will significantly retard the recovery and future economic development.

But many U.S. businesses have acknowledged that some sort of carbon tax is inevitable. They would prefer clarity on the topic to be able to plan and develop new cost structures to take into account the changes. Those businesses are not all as clean and green as Apple.

Large utilities Exelon (EXC) and PG&E (PGC) have expressed public displeasure with the chamber's climate change policies. Both left the chamber earlier this year, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Footwear and athletic apparel giant Nike (NKE) resigned from the chamber's board of directors this year, as well, although it decided not to exit the chamber entirely.

Apple has been burnishing its own green cred of late. The company recently released extensive information detailing its carbon footprint (as DailyFinance reported), a move to counter environmentalists claims that Apple lagged its competitors. The move to leave the chamber furthers Apple's standing as a green company, a reputation it has done much to deserve. It was the first company to eliminate PVC from packaging and to stop making lead-laden monitors using an old type of technology called cathode-ray tubes.

Now that Apple has elected to break free from the chamber, a stampede of marquee companies could follow suit, spurred on by green investment activists who have played a key role in the moves by the utilities and Nike. Such a stampede could put the already reeling chamber on weaker footing with its traditional constituency.

Beyond the chamber, the schism in American industry reveals just how deep the divide is over the seriousness of global warming. Major industries such as coal and steel have been vehemently opposed to cap-and-trade measures proposed by the Obama Administration.

Meanwhile, polar ice caps continue to melt and temperatures around the world continue to rise. While climatologists warn that low-lying coastal areas of the U.S. could start to suffer the effects of rising oceans within a few decades, the first real casualty of global warming could well be the old business establishment.

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