An Uneven Playing Field
In the Face of Superstorms
|As Hurricane Sandy headed to the East Coast, a group of activists with 350.org, a global climate campaign, unfurled a giant parachute banner with the words “End Climate Silence.” For more info, visit 350.org. (Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/350org)
By Ryan Patterson, USCAN Operations Director
Both Presidential campaigns were put on pause this week as Hurricane Sandy converged with extraneous weather patterns and battered the East Coast with unprecedented force, prompting National Wildlife Federation climate scientist Amanda Staudt to describe the effects of climate change as akin to ‘putting hurricanes on steroids.’ This fatal event contributes even more evidence to the annals of climate change data, and some media have connected the storm to
climate disruption, such as Bloomberg Businessweek, which ran a front page article titled It’s Global Warming, Stupid and CNN, which ran a story called Experts Warn of Superstorm Era to Come. Unfortunately, top politicians have not followed suit and have failed to publically connect the dots to climate change, which is dispiriting at best and unethical at worst.
With less than a week to Election Day, it is important to think about how we found ourselves in the position where key decision-makers are not substantially addressing climate, despite broad efforts by climate change activists. I will argue here that a band of carbon billionaires have effectively influenced public opinion and national and state legislation on climate change using a three-pronged strategy that funds think tanks, Astroturf campaigns, and legislative outreach.
The Money Bag: Funders
Of course, corporations like Exxon Mobil, Shell and Southern Company have long funded the climate denial machine. However, it seems likely that no funder is more dangerous than the Koch Brothers, who are estimated to have a net worth of $50 billion dollars1 and are funding skeptical groups at a phenomenal rate. According to Greenpeace, the leading benefactors of Koch money include Americans for Prosperity ($5.7 million since 1997), the Heritage Foundation ($2.7 million), the Cato Institute ($1.2 million), and the Manhattan Institute ($1.2 million)2. Of course, the Kochs are all too happy to bring together politicians, strategists and other dirty funders for collective planning.
The Street Cred: Think Tanks
The carbon-intensive corporations have heaps of money, and they are looking for some credibility. Of course, there isn’t a better way to gain that than by publishing something that at least sounds scientific, like How the “Scientific Consensus” on Global Warming Affects American Business – and Consumers, a report by the Heritage Foundation. Plenty of other groups have pumped out skeptical reports lambasting global warming evidence, climate scientists, and opposition research methods. Thanks to glossy paper and great communication teams, these think tanks have positioned themselves as “credible” news sources and are often cited by major national news organizations.
The Concerned Constituents: Astroturf Campaigns
At some point, the bankrollers and their think tanks realized that a perception of public support would be helpful to their cause, and so their Astroturf campaigns were born. They hoped these campaigns would make it appear as if heaps of people were on their side, create media exposure, and might even sway a few voters to their side. One such campaign was Americans for Prosperity’s classic yet preposterous Hot Air Tour, which warned of “global warming alarmism.”
More recently, the American Energy Alliance’s American Products and Power bus tour hit the road “to promote affordable and reliable domestic energy sources, free energy markets, and less burdensome regulations on American job creators.”3 By playing on patriotic themes, and rebuking regulatory action (“job killers”), these groups have gained some genuine grassroots support. But their primary goals are to appear as if they have broad support and to garner media in politically relevant places.
Of course, heavy advertising should be mentioned. These groups are buying ads, billboards and air time just about everywhere in the country, as recently described in the New York Times article, Fossil Fuel Industry Ads Dominate TV, which pointed out that two months before Election Day:
“(…) estimated spending on television ads promoting coal and more oil and gas drilling or critizing clean energy has exceeded $153 million this year (….). That tally is nearly four times the $41 million spent by clean-energy advocates, the Obama campaign, and Democratic groups to defend the president’s energy record or raise concerns about global warming and air pollution.”4
The Tried and True: Lobbying and Campaign Finance
Naturally, junk science and a few field campaigns are not enough to really ensure the status quo, and so the energy barons turned to the most effective firewall in American politics: lobbying and financing campaigns. Big Oil, King Coal, and other dirty energy industries lavish politicians with campaign donations and supply a steady stream of lobbyists at the local and federal offices. According to the Center for American Progress, the total lobby spending disparity is grim; from January 2009 to June 2010, the oil and gas industry spent $250M, and electric utilities spent $264M, while renewable energy clocked only $17M.5 Granted, 2009 was a big year for spending to defeat climate legislation, but 2011 hardly looked better. Environmental groups mustered $18M while oil and gas pumped out $149M and Electric Utilities produced $145M in lobby spending.6 Of course, 2012 figures are also expected to brutal. With so much money flowing into congressional and administration lobbying, it is no surprise it has proven to be effective for decades.
Outside the beltway, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promotes state-based initiatives to hinder progress on climate change. Where other groups have failed to influence real change, ALEC has created a winning formula that fosters collaboration between state politicians with corporate interests. In fact, they have two boards: The Board of Directors, which is comprised of local politicians, and the Private Enterprise Board, which features representation from familiar climate foes as Exxon Mobil, Peabody Energy, and Koch Companies. It is no small wonder that groups like these sit on ALEC’s board; the organization is primarily funded by corporate interests, such as the Koch Brothers (about $600,000 over the last decade) and Exxon Mobil (over $1,400,000 in the past decade).7
Electric utilities are also manipulating the political game by exerting influence on public service commissions. Although more nuanced, the formula is well-tested: First, donate money to both parties so that no matter who wins elections, they “owe” you a favor. Second, use those favors to make sure that the Public Service Commission (PSC) sets high or steady return-on-investment numbers. Also make sure that cost of power formulas don’t include social, environmental or health costs. Third, always tell the public that are your number one interest is ensuring a low price for consumers. Do not tell the public that the power is being subsidized and do not differentiate between price (of power) and cost (to produce that power). Make sure your billing statement is ambiguous so it doesn’t show electric utility profits, but instead only the price charged. Forth, always donate to little league teams where PSC members live, but never site power plants there. Using this recipe for success, electric utilities have guaranteed status quo energy production: carbon intense and high profit.
Certainly, there is no other area where money influences politics more than in the climate arena. From 1998 to August 2012, electric utilities ranked third in a list of total lobby dollars by industry, while oil and gas came in sixth. However, if you combine the total spending together, they blow away the top ranking industry, pharmaceuticals/health products, by spending a combined $2,930,047,646. In the same period, Big Pharma spent $2,450,860,305.8
The Solution: Exposure, Coordinated Work and Campaign Finance Reform
The carbon billionaires have a tremendous financial advantage, savvy and effective front groups, plenty of “research” to draw upon, and an impressive nexus of lobbyists, politicians and profits. However, they also have the distinct disadvantage of being well-known and disliked by many citizens, and their oily revenues are well documented.
Money in politics is out of control, and several U.S. Climate Action Network groups are working on this issue. Among many groups, 350.org has a campaign to end fossil fuel subsidies; Greenpeace has multiple reports exposing the Koch Brothers; International Forum on Globalization has launched an emergency effort on Koch cash and tracking of the Kochtapus; and Oil Change International has a project on Dirty Energy Money. All of the excellent work by USCAN members on corporate/fossil fuel money in politics has prompted us to start bringing together groups that are focused on this issue (for more information contact email@example.com). Campaign finance reform is critical to ensure a clean energy future, especially considering that the playing field has become even more uneven in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Let’s continue, as a community, to point out the undue influence of fossil fuel in our political system, and hope that next time a storm like Hurricane Sandy hits the US, politicians will do more than suspend their campaigns, but instead actually address the climate change catastrophe.
- MSNBC, Rachel Madow Blog. September 23, 2011
- Greenpeace, Koch Brothers Exposed: Fueling Climate Denial and Privatizing Democracy. April 2, 2012
- MasterResource, Energy Freedom Bus Tour: Hitting the Open Road for Consumers, Tax Payers and Common Sense. Robert Bradley, Jr, August 7, 2012.
- The New York Times, Fossil Fuel Industry Ads Dominate TV Campaign. Eric Lipton and Clifford Krauss, September 30, 2012.
- The Center for American Progress, Oil Companies and Special Interests Spend Millions to Oppose Climate Legislation. Daniel J. Weiss, Rebecca Lefton and Susan Lyon, September 27, 2010.
- Center for Responsive Politics, Influence and Lobbying: Alphabetical Listing of Industries. 2011.
- The Center for Media and Democracy, A CMD Special Report on ALEC’s Funding and Spending. July 13, 2011.
- Center for Responsive Politics, Influence and Lobbying: Top Industries, 1998-2012. Viewed August 16, 2012.