Dirty Energy Dollars

Dirty Energy Dollars

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US NEWS & WORLD REPORT 10/28/14
By Michael Shank and Julia Trezona Peek

Members of Congress should refuse campaign donations from fossil fuel industries.

Despite the fact that the American people mobilized in historic numbers last month to demand climate solutions, with the march in New York City drawing up to 400,000 people, Washington remains reluctant to listen. And while this public outpouring was further bolstered by an announcement from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund – which was built on an oil fortune – that the foundation will divest from fossil fuels and invest in a sustainable and clean energy economy, the U.S. Congress remains recalcitrant to do the same.

But the tide is quickly turning against Congress. In fact, last month in New York the Divest-Invest initiative announced that more than 180 institutions and more than 650 individuals have divested more than $50 billion from the fossil fuel industries, demonstrating massive civil society support for climate solutions. The point was a highly political one: to pressure Congress, President Barack Obama and world leaders to take action. The United Nations, while trying to lead on climate, remains hamstrung by member states unwilling to do what’s necessary to prevent further global warming.

What’s blocking many U.N. member states and their parliamentary or legislative bodies from committing to substantial reductions in greenhouse gasses is the pervasive influence of moneyed interests. Our Congress is equally culpable, hobbled by the fossil fuel industries’ oversized influence on the Hill. The fossil fuel industries, which spent $536 million on lobbying and donations to the 112th Congress alone, have a clear incentive to keep funding Congressional campaigns, as they receive an estimated $37.5 billion annually in U.S. subsidies.

The contributions to Congress aimed at quieting members when it comes to climate change legislation are not limited to fossil fuel companies. Last month, two grassroots groups, Sum of Us and Forecast the Facts, released the report “Disrupt Denial,” which traces the role of corporate money in financing members of Congress who deny climate science. These 160-plus members of Congress have received $641 million in campaign contributions from U.S. corporations, including General Electric and Goldman Sachs, that are keen to keep Congress quiet.

This comes as no surprise to most Americans, who are well aware of corporate influence in Congress. The Corporate Reform Coalition found that more than 80 percent of Americans believe that corporations and CEOs have too much political power and influence.

While the role of money in politics and climate change might feel too overwhelming for any one person to fight, members of Congress can tackle both problems at once: They can join the divestment movement in their professional capacity by refusing donations from oil, gas and coal companies.

There’s a precedent for this kind of move. Earlier this year, 193 members of Congress were certified as “Tobacco Free” by the Action on Smoking and Health. The certification recognizes members who have not taken tobacco money in the last 10 years. Far from being a political liability, Dr. Alfred Munzer, chair of the Action on Smoking and Health board, notes that political leaders are demonstrating “that the health of their constituents is far more important than the wealth of the tobacco barons.” In other words, this is good for votes because it’s good for constituents.

Refusing oil, gas and coal contributions would be equally protective, if not more so, of constituents’ public health. Last month, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a new study showed that the health impacts of climate change will cost billions of dollars, from increased spread of infectious disease and asthma rates to waterborne diseases and extreme weather events.

Divesting Congressional campaigns from fossil fuel contributions would be a solid step in the direction of demonstrating American commitment to action on climate. It would win back some of the broken trust of the American public, move other policymakers towards similar commitments and pave the way for more progressive policy, such as a price on carbon. Mainstream America now sees tobacco contributions to lawmakers as “dirty money.” Likewise, the fossil fuel industries’ money should be seen as equally tainted, especially since climate change is now the biggest threat to human health.

Today, on the heels of actions and commitments in New York, we have a new opportunity for Congress to get on board. Never before have this many sectors of American society demonstrated their strong support for climate solutions. Among labor, faith, environment, business, public health, security and countless other communities, America is raising its voice and asking for change. Tens of millions of Americans are looking for leadership and ready to rally behind Congressional candidates who are keen to divest. It is time for a few courageous Congresspersons to stand up, be counted and quit the dirty campaign contributions. The time for divestment is now.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
Julia Trezona Peek, MSc, is the campaign associate at Divest-Invest Individual, a movement of individual investors divesting from the fossil fuel sector and investing in a sustainable, equitable and clean energy economy.