03/22/2016 10:29 EDT | Updated 03/23/2017 05:12 EDT

Are Canadian Companies Undermining U.S. Climate Action?

Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters Building in Washington DC

Would you be surprised if I told you that Canadian corporations are contributing to a legal challenge against the U.S. government's foremost program to tackle climate change? That they are helping to fund an army of lawyers and lobbyists aggressively challenging climate regulations south of the border?

They are. Yet some of these companies may not even be aware they are doing it.

In January, a group of trade associations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to temporarily halt efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. If their lawsuits are ultimately successful they will prevent the EPA's Clean Power Plan -- a centrepiece of the U.S. government's greenhouse gas reduction plans -- from ever going ahead.

The Clean Power Plan is a set of national standards designed to ensure that fossil fuel-fired power plants operate efficiently and cleanly in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Without the Clean Power Plan, the Obama government's greenhouse gas reduction commitments at the recent Paris summit may be unreachable.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently acknowledged that its legal action may have turned the gap between the U.S. government's greenhouse gas reduction pledges and its effective programs into a "chasm".

Last week the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE) released a new report revealing that Canadian companies are helping to widen that gap.

Canadian companies have joined these large U.S. trade associations, and have done so for good reasons -- networking opportunities, membership benefits and programs, educational opportunities, and collective policy advocacy.

Some of those companies are taking prominent positions in favour of good climate regulations here in Canada.

But unless they are effectively overseeing the lobbying activity of those associations, they may not even be aware that their member dues are helping to obstruct continental action on climate change.

That's why Canadian institutional investors, working with SHARE, have been approaching Canadian and U.S. companies to establish clearer guidelines and board oversight for trade association memberships.

That doesn't mean companies have to leave trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over its climate stance -- though some prominent companies have -- but where a trade association's policy interventions may have the effect of undoing the framework of hard-won international agreements on climate change, a company may need to take additional actions to publicly distance itself from its association's activities.

Otherwise, the lawyers and lobbyists that are blocking real climate action will continue to claim to speak on behalf of all the association members that pay their fees.

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