The National Climate Assessment released earlier this month confirmed that climate disruption is already affecting our health, our communities, and our economy. It also shows what the future will look like across the U.S. depending on whether we take strong action to cut carbon emissions.
Unfortunately, the U.S. response to this crisis has been hamstrung by a different but closely related problem -- the crisis in our democracy. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, which allowed unlimited corporate political spending "independent" of candidates and campaigns, and now McCutcheon, which has lifted the cap on the total contributions that very wealthy people can make to candidates, campaigns, and political parties have given a financial boost to political injustice. Well-funded opponents of democracy are engaging in unprecedented efforts to suppress the votes of working people, communities of color, the elderly, the disabled, and immigrants -- the same people who are the most economically insecure, who are exposed to the most pollution, and who are hit first and hardest by climate disruption.
We all know that money talks, but can it really buy elections and distort our national priorities? Sadly, the answer is yes. A new report compiled by Oil Change International and the Sierra Club documents the money trail and its impact on our democracy. From 2008 to 2012, "outside spending" on elections increased by a whopping 11,761 percent. How much did oil and gas companies spend on lobbying and campaign contributions to the 111th Congress in 2009 and 2010? $347,282,110. Did they get their money's worth in that two-year span? You bet -- to the tune of $20,489,340,000 in federal subsidies. That's $59 back for every dollar oil, gas, and coal spent!
This incredible disparity puts working people at a serious disadvantage when it comes to advocating for policies that protect their communities from the threats posed by climate change.
”Dark money” groups are not content to only spend vast sums on money on preventing environmental policies from progressing. Hundreds of millions in donations from corporate backers have helped drive the passage of new state "right-to-work" laws, restrictions on collective bargaining, and public-sector layoffs. All this money is not charity -- it's an investment in the erosion of our democracy and the continued disruption of our planet's climate.
When Florida's Senator Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate GOP campaign arm outraises Democratic counterpart in September House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Senators call for answers from US firm over reported use of forced Uyghur labor in China MORE (R) says that he doesn't believe scientists about the causes of climate disruption, it's unlikely that he's actually read and digested the work of the scientists whom he's dismissing. But you can bet he's read and digested the checks from campaign contributors like Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, and Chevron (in 2010 Rubio received more money from Koch Industries than any other Senate candidate that year). And when he calls on the federal government to subsidize big companies that don't pay their workers a living wage, it's hard not to hear the voices of benefactors like the extreme right-wing, anti-worker, Club for Growth.
The problem is that the wealthiest corporations (and people) in our nation have been handed a gold-plated bullhorn that threatens to drown out the voices (and best interests) of everyone else.
Fortunately, great injustice often provokes a powerful response that can bring new allies together. The enemies of climate action and environmental justice are often the same forces that are attacking workers’ rights, and holding our economy hostage. That has brought environmental groups like the Sierra Club into partnership with unions like the Service Employees International Union. We're both part of the Democracy Initiative, which seeks to restore the core principle of political equality. Whether it's coming from fossil fuel mega-corporations or billionaires, the corrupting influence of anti-environmental regulation, anti-worker rights money in politics needs to be stopped.
And stop them we will. We may be outgunned financially, but we have a few things in our favor. First, these corporations and would-be oligarchs are swimming against the tide of history. The clean energy and economic justice revolutions are already happening in this country, and they're gaining momentum daily. Through investments in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies, fossil fuels are steadily being replaced by a robust clean energy economy. At the same time, we are seeing a growing movement of low-wage workers standing up for their rights.
Second, we know we can win. History is filled with examples of organized people beating organized money. With the Democracy Initiative, we can organize and fight together for a true one-person, one-vote democracy with public financing, impartially drawn legislative districts, an end to voter suppression, First Amendment protection for people (not corporations), and real immigration reform with a path to citizenship for the millions of aspiring Americans forced to live in the shadows.
When we do that, we'll be able to reverse the trends that have endangered our middle class, put a chasm between the wealthiest one percent and the rest of us, and placed our climate in peril. We'll also be able to make sure that millions of clean energy jobs are also good jobs while supporting American workers and their communities in transitioning to a new clean energy economy.
But let's not forget our greatest advantage: We know we're fighting for what is right. And as a great man reminded us, the arc of the moral universe may be long, but it bends toward justice.
For all those reasons, we're confident we can not only protect our climate but also reclaim our democracy. Millions of working people, civil rights advocates, and environmental champions have found common ground on which to stand and fight together for the future. Believe it.
Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club; Henry is president of SEIU.