Climate Change and Big Money in Politics

Although the overwhelming majority of Americans of every political persuasion support government action to mitigate climate change, the fossil fuel industry’s massive financial contributions to influence policy keep our nation from making meaningful change—leaving us lagging behind other leading nations in jobs, energy security and economics.

As the world marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this month, many people around the globe are witnessing how climate change is more than a political issue. The effects of our warming planet increasingly disrupt economies and affect the lives of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Leading climate experts warn of growing food shortages and wildfires, as well as widespread die-offs of coral reefs as soon as 2040.

Sweeping and unprecedented changes are necessary to mitigate this climate crisis—looming beyond a 1.5C temperature rise from pre-industrial levels—which was made clear by a report issued last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While the worst is yet to come, we’re already starting to see natural disasters and extreme weather as evidence of global warming today. The time for action is now.

Despite an increasingly polarized democracy, global problems such as climate change are among the issues that unite citizens on both sides of the aisle. The majority of all voters—95% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans—support the transition to clean or renewable energy policies. Americans understand the threat and have become increasingly supportive of government action, with a recent survey showing that two-thirds of U.S. adults say protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress, while about half say the same about dealing with global climate change. Citizen activism and public support are building the movement behind a sustainable future, so why hasn’t anything been done to implement it?

One reason may be the fact that increasingly public opinion has little impact on policy, and most Americans believe they don’t play a role in policy outcomes because of the undue influence of wealthy special interests. The fossil fuel industry spends millions of dollars each year to drown out the voices of the people and prevent meaningful outcomes for clean energy.

But as fossil fuel money hinders progress toward sustainable energy infrastructure, citizen leaders are making strides toward a solution. The 28th Amendment to the Constitution offers an answer by getting to the heart of the problem: big money in politics. This constitutional amendment is aimed toward campaign finance reform so that citizens rule instead of wealthy special interests. An informed democracy is a powerful one, so continue reading to learn more about how the 28th Amendment can keep big money from bringing the heat—in both government and climate.

Fossil fuel industry lobbying

While the tide of money around climate policy rises, so do our oceans. Fossil fuel interests spent more than $2 billion lobbying Congress between 2000 and 2016, outspending renewable energy advocates 10 times over. Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron and Shell are among the highest contributors of carbon emissions. These corporations put so much money into the system because they get a good return on the investment: Studies show fossil fuel companies get an average of $119 back in subsidies for every $1 spent in lobbying, and by funneling money into campaigns for politicians who will vote for their interests, they ensure that politics favors the profits of polluters.

A majority of Americans are concerned about climate change.

Lobbying usually happens in private. The large political contributions from the industry prevent open public debate and exchange of ideas. This holds the American economy back from benefits many European countries are already experiencing, as they lead the world on sustainability initiatives. Many European Union countries have already reached their 2020 goal of renewable energy use shares of 20 percent, stimulating employment and diversifying cost-effective energy supplies, while the United States lags behind. Even having lost $350 billion in climate change-related costs over the last decade isn’t motivation enough for American policymakers to incite change.

The wealthiest fossil fuel companies are among the most influential, using money to distract from the fact that the top 100 are responsible for 71% of all global emissions. The 28th Amendment would fix the cause—not just the symptoms—of the problem. The effects of big money in politics are far-reaching, but especially important when our climate hangs in the balance between a few special interests and the many people around the world whose lives are already directly impacted by global warming. The World Health Organization estimates that conditions induced by climate change, such as malaria and heat stress, will cause 250,000 additional deaths every year between 2030 and 2050.

Some movement after years of blocked bills

Due to the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money, Congress often fails to take action on environmental policy efforts. The most recent example of blocked legislation is the Green New Deal resolution. It received widespread attention and bipartisan support for providing a comprehensive solution to decarbonizing the American economy and providing jobs in transitioning industries. The proposal would reduce U.S. emissions by 100 percent within 10 years.

But even smaller, less challenging pieces of legislation have been rejected. Here are other recent legal obstacles America has faced toward a cleaner environment that illustrate how big money can affect policy outcomes:

  • 2020: While the session opened with some indication that climate and clean energy legislation could advance, the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled any progress as Congress instead focuses on how to stabilize the economy amid increasing unemployment. 
  • 2019: In March, House Democrats introduced the Climate Action Now Act, designed to keep the United States in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. With a 231-190 vote on May 2, the House passed the bill, making it the first climate bill approved in a decade and sending a signal to the rest of the world that Americans still want to uphold their obligations to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But the Senate has not voted on the bill. 
  • 2018: The EPA is now drafting a policy to roll back the Clean Power Plan, which was set into motion in 2015 to regulate carbon emissions where most of them are produced: power plants. This replacement policy calls for more limited regulations like “improving efficiency or substituting fuel,” contrasting the original plan’s goals of extensive changes to the energy and oil and gas sectors.
  • 2017: The EPA canceled a requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions and other information about the equipment they use. Although the dialogue around global warming often revolves around carbon dioxide emissions, methane is 30 times more potent when trapping heat in the atmosphere. This action comes at a time when global methane emissions are hitting all-time highs.
  • 2017: An executive order on “promoting energy independence and economic growth” was recently issued to stop measuring the “social cost of carbon,” a measure to calculate long-term economic damages caused by carbon use, expressed in dollars for every one ton of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • 2016: With construction plans underway for the Dakota Access Pipeline, thousands of indigenous people and environmental activists gathered in protest at the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota. The underground pipeline was to be built crossing through ancestral lands and endangering the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s clean water supply. Protestors celebrated when the permit was denied, but a change in the executive office soon after led to that decision being reversed and the permit ultimately approved. The fear of oil spills, which was one of the most controversial aspects of the construction, was realized when 200,000 gallons of oil leaked just a few miles from another Native reservation.

Reclaiming our future

Everyone’s future is at stake when it comes to global warming, but our poorest communities are the ones hit hardest. Average citizens must make their voices heard on this issue, because the elite special interests who influence climate politics won’t drive this change. With the majority of voters (63%) worried about what global warming means for the planet, the lack of government action shows that factors beyond public opinion are coming into play. That factor is, more often than not, the influence of money. But what is the solution?

The 28th Amendment is the most comprehensive platform gaining momentum to help solve this problem—and lay the foundations for conversations around many others—by getting the undue influence of big money out of politics. This is the best way to ensure a government that works for and listens to its constituents, not just wealthy corporations that use their economic power to maximize profits at the cost of the public good and influence politicians to protect their interests. Join American Promise in the fight to restore the “We the People” power in our democracy.

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