By Karen Savage
Microsoft is a prominent example of an American company walking a public relations tightrope on climate change. It professes a serious commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, touts its clean energy bonafides and vocally supports the Paris Climate Agreement and the dire need to combat a growing climate crisis. But it also remains a member of a trade group, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which has worked for decades to delay action on climate change and defend the fossil fuel companies whose products cause it.
NAM, in fact, has been so proactive in anti-climate action projects that it draws comparisons to its support for the tobacco industry as it faced a liability battle in the 1980s. NAM, along with other trade groups, backed tobacco companies as they faced hundreds of lawsuits and were charged with racketeering by the federal government for deceiving the public about the catastrophic health hazards of smoking.
NAM has even hired the same law firm that defended the tobacco industry to launch an assault on climate liability lawsuits.
As then, NAM’s member companies face public pressure for supporting those efforts. Microsoft, along with other companies, including Intel and Proctor and Gamble, told Climate Liability News that they disagree with NAM’s actions and policy positions on climate change.
But they have not ended their memberships. While other climate change-denying groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council have suffered membership losses because companies like Google and Apple felt they could no longer be publicly associated with its tactics, NAM has experienced no such repercussions so far.
“The views expressed by NAM do not reflect Microsoft’s position on climate change,” a Microsoft spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Microsoft is committed to sustainability and addressing climate change. We work with many groups on various technology policy issues and do not expect that any organization’s agenda will align to ours in all policy areas.”
The Trade Group Tango
Whether a company joins—and remains—a member of NAM or any trade group depends on how much it agrees with the association’s activities and how its membership in the association affects its reputation, said Michael Barnett, a professor of management & global business at Rutgers Business School who has studied trade groups.
“[Trade associations] are effective by influencing what others outside the industry think of the industry, like regulators, like customers, like communities,” Barnett said.
Trade groups help shield individual companies from the public relations backlash of lobbying on behalf of their industry. They often work as organizing forces to oppose regulation of industries and to lobby government for favorable laws and policies.
“The member firms want cover, they want that legitimacy, they want an improved reputation, but they don’t want to do those things necessary to gain that,” Barnett said. “It’s sort of like they’ve hired a personal trainer and they want that trainer to say, ‘Eat cake and you’re going to get fit.’”
Sharon Eubanks, a former Department of Justice lawyer who led the government’s racketeering case against the tobacco industry, compared efforts by NAM to defend the fossil fuel industry’s inaction on climate change to efforts by trade groups to back the tobacco companies. She cited the Tobacco Institute and the Center for Tobacco Research, which provided faulty research and inaccurate testimony to support the tobacco industry’s lies about the harms of its product.
“I would say that this group is a little more in your face and direct than the tobacco industry was in what they are doing,” Eubanks said. “They tried to put on a fig leaf, the tobacco industry did, but NAM, there’s no fig leaf—it’s out there.”
NAM has attacked climate scientists, undermined international climate negotiations and worked to delay the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions through the Global Climate Coalition, a fossil fuel front group that operated from 1989 to 2002. NAM and the Global Climate Coalition were so closely intertwined that one recently discovered document instructs members to make dues checks payable to “NAM – Global Climate Coalition.”
More recently, NAM launched its Manufacturers’ Accountability Project to defend big polluters against climate liability suits. Formed in 2017, the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project has attempted to discredit municipalities filing suits against oil companies for the damage they’ve caused to the climate.
Last year NAM launched the Main Street Investors Coalition to fend off shareholder resolutions calling for more transparency and action on climate change.
Why Do NAM’s Members Abide Its Backing of Fossil Fuel Companies?
NAM doesn’t publicly list its members, and companies with executives on NAM’s board include large fossil fuel companies with a clear interest in preventing climate liability suits.
At the same time, other board members come from a wide variety of companies, some which appear to have a strong commitment to protecting the climate and have little or no chance of being named in a climate liability suit, including Pella, Microsoft, Intel, Mueller WP, Volvo, Ball, Proctor and Gamble, Corning and Baker Boy, a North Dakota-based donut chain, among others.
Microsoft, which has recently come under fire for joining the Climate Leadership Council, an industry-backed group advocating for a carbon dividend plan that could do away with climate liability suits, has tried to back away from NAM’s work without leaving NAM.
Intel is also carefully distancing itself from NAM’s campaigns to delay action on climate change.
Intels positions don’t always align with NAM’s, said William Moss, an Intel spokesperson.
“In the case of climate change, we have raised it directly with NAM, and state in our climate change policy our support for the IPCC and the Paris Agreement, and our own commitment to reducing our carbon footprint,” said Moss, who added that the overall benefits of Intel’s membership in NAM outweigh its differences on issues like climate change.
“In areas where we may have significant differences, we often publish our position separately so our stakeholders know where we stand,” Moss said.
Proctor and Gamble said its NAM membership is aligned with its general business goals and strategies, but the company does not agree with NAM’s position on every issue.
“We also respect and value the views of our shareholders, especially on topics that are of importance to the company,” said a Proctor and Gamble spokesperson in a statement. “The trade associations of which we are members are aware of our policy positions, including our views on climate policies. We are consistent in the positions we share with external stakeholders as well as in our trade association engagement.”
NAM did not respond to a request for comment, but in a radio interview last year, its president, Jay Timmons, claimed NAM’s 250 board members are “unified in their concern about what lawsuits like this will do to manufacturing operations if they are successful,” Timmons said, referring to climate liability suits.
Guy Moos, president of Baker Boy, said his company remains a member of NAM because of other membership benefits, not its stance on climate issues.
“In North Dakota, we’re probably wired a little differently because the Bakken oil field is a pretty big deal around here and so I personally don’t take a position of anti-fossil fuel,” Moos said.
Barnett said the more trade associations try to serve a narrow focus, the more difficult it is to retain a broad industry base.
After a recent review of its membership in several trade associations, Shell found it had “some misalignment” with NAM’s climate-related policy positions. While the oil giant announced it would not renew its membership in the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, it said it would “continue to engage with [NAM] and closely monitor our alignment on climate-related topics.”
Shell is facing climate liability suits in the U.S. for the damage its products have done to the climate and for failing to adequately plan for and protect its facilities from climate change. Seven environmental and human rights organizations in the Netherlands have filed suit against Shell for failing to align its business model with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Barnett said fossil fuel companies will continue to accrue liability as long as they deny responsibility for climate change.
The cost of that liability will only increase as more and more evidence comes to light showing they knew about the catastrophic effects of climate change, hid that danger from the public and fought to continue business as usual, he said.
“If you think about companies like Exxon that are facing lawsuits on many fronts now for clearly recognizing the dangers—a la tobacco, recognizing the dangers decades prior to actually admitting it—it becomes a time bomb and eventually it’ll explode,” Barnett said.
This is the third in a series of articles on the trade group coordinating opposition to climate liability suits, the National Association of Manufacturers.