A Return To The Basics In Approaching The Existential Threat Of Climate Change

The strategy of climate change activists thus far has been clear: disseminate climate science in a comprehensible way and awaken the public consciousness surrounding the issue. It is clear in the “No Straw Campaign1” or now ubiquitous school strikes that climate change was to be branded a moral issue. In return, the information campaign was sure to spark a global movement to fix the existential challenge we face. It would catch like wildfire, and finally, it would culminate in a moment, perhaps one large demonstration, that would awaken public officials and produce a legislative solution. Now that solution is very real. In fact, I am intensely interested in research into carbon vacuuming, plans for renewable energy subsidies, and the practicality of a carbon tax. However, that defining moment as a whole is nothing but fantasy in our current political system, one so closely entrenched with corporations and thus corporate interest that it is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to provide the necessary remedies. With the public support for climate change policy in the high 60s2, a budding social media movement, and a wide-spread acceptance of climate science, it is undeniable that the largest roadblock faced by climate change activists today is the murky intersection of our electoral systems and private business. In order to deliver the necessary result, we must first dedicate our collective mind to the reform of this system before we can move on to the endless policy prescription.  

It is vital, at the outset, to characterize the problem. Oftentimes, we speak of “the system” in vague terms that do a disservice to credible criticisms of our governmental institutions. It is not difficult to find a pundit or even presidential candidate who will opine that we need to change, fix, or even recreate the “system”. The problem with this rhetoric is that it is lazy, emotional, and imprecise. There is a system at play, and it has a name. It is called lobbying (I would attribute that name less to its true denotation and more to the power and skill of lobbyists in the first place, but…), and it is the revolving door which connects the political world to the world of business. It takes form in superpacs (which have become central to American politics), fancy “consultant” positions at powerful companies (handmade for a specific elected official after their tenure), and frequent meeting between politicians and corporate representatives (oftentimes more welcome than the politicians own constituents. Their modus operandi is to subvert the will of the people in favour of corporate interest. Money is the language, 3.42 Billion3 last year to be exact, and no moral campaign is equipped to confront this operation. Polls suggest a sustained increase in awareness across the American public in regards to the climate crisis. This year, a Pew Research poll4 found that 67% of Americans believe more must be done to tackle climate change. The tide has turned, but action seems slow. In fact, it seems hopeless. It is because the system of lobbying has corrupted a fundamental democratic truth, the idea that the majority wields control. 

The story is simple. In the current political environment, candidates must make a play to the corporate world in order to get elected. In the pursuit of continued election, these candidates much work within a window of policy that does not aggravate those corporate donors. Those donors who, in today’s fossil-fuel powered economy,  rely heavily on a system of pollution to operate. This, of course, ties the hands of lawmakers in addressing the issues central to solving the climate crisis. In some cases, the connection is even more explicit and sinister. A U.S lobbyist organization called ALEC5, outlined in Ava Duvernay’s seminal documentary 13th, was formed by major corporations such as AT&T, Exxon Mobil, and State Farm6 in order to draft legislation. That is right. The organization was not just a venue for corporations to meet with politicians and align interests. It was a machine built to churn out legislation meant to benefit America’s wealthiest companies. This machine, mistake it for nothing else, churned out the gutting of environmental regulation at the state level, Florida’s disastrous “Stand Your Ground” law, and dangerous voter suppression strategies7.  This machine is the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, it is unfortunately a valid symbol of the system as a whole. 

Luckily, there is a solution for justice. There is a policy plan to create a system which harks back to the core tenants of democracy. There is a path forward for an electoral system where voters have equal power to their corporate counterparts and lawmakers are not compromised in the process. The first step is publicly funded elections. This model would equalize the power of citizen and corporation alike. At the same time, it would take away any potential “debt owed” to their corporate donors. Instead, they would only be indebted to the taxpayers whom they would represent. Second, the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street must be closed. Whether or not we are going to promote publicly funded elections, lobbying after a stint in public office must be prohibited. There should be no distinction between a cash payout to a congressman following a term in office and a cushy position as a “consultant”. We are sophisticated enough to see through this payment as a compromising transaction, and the current ethical bans enforced by many states on lobbying in the first two years after office should be extended further. Lastly, we need to make the turnaround of the century. I am sure you have read essay after essay on the plethora of policy prescriptions available to lawmakers in enacting climate justice. After these reforms, we will need to move as quickly as possible to adopt a bold agenda to mitigate future harm and even rehabilitate old damages. However, first we must create the environment for change. The fields of activism are ripe for change. We must now cultivate our political systems in Washington and beyond.

  1. Whitaker, Hannah. “The Sticky Problem of Plastic Wrap.” Plastic Wrap Saves Your Sandwich but Pollutes the Planet. Is There a Better Solution? July 12, 2019. Accessed August 01, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/07/story-of-plastic-sticky-problem-of-plastic-wrap/.
  2. Funk, Cary, Brian Kennedy, Cary Funk, and Brian Kennedy. “How Americans See Climate Change in 5 Charts.” Pew Research Center. April 19, 2019. Accessed August 01, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/19/how-americans-see-climate-change-in-5-charts/.
  3. “Lobbying Spending Reaches $3.4 Billion in 2018, Highest in 8 Years.” OpenSecrets News. January 25, 2019. Accessed August 01, 2019. https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2019/01/lobbying-spending-reaches-3-4-billion-in-18/.
  4. Funk, Cary, Brian Kennedy, Cary Funk, and Brian Kennedy. “How Americans See Climate Change in 5 Charts.” Pew Research Center. April 19, 2019. Accessed August 01, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/19/how-americans-see-climate-change-in-5-charts/.
  5. Scola, Nancy. “Exposing ALEC: How Conservative-Backed State Laws Are All Connected.” The Atlantic. April 16, 2012. Accessed August 01, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/04/exposing-alec-how-conservative-backed-state-laws-are-all-connected/255869/.
  6. “Corporations Represented on ALEC’s Private Enterprise Board Are Big Spenders in Washington.” OpenSecrets News. September 12, 2011. Accessed August 01, 2019.https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2011/09/alec-corporations-are-big-spenders/.
  7. Hertel-Fernandez, Alexander. State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States – and the Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019
Omar Farah

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