If there’s hope for addressing climate change in the wake of Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and ongoing hollowing-out of the EPA, it might be found in a little-noticed vote in Virginia’s House of Delegates last month.
On February 12, the House voted on a provision to limit the powers of utility monopoly Dominion Energy, the largest political donor in the state. To the surprise of all present, Dominion lost the vote by a slim margin. While the ultimate policy ramifications are uncertain – since the bill is still working its way through the legislative process – observers saw it as a sea change.
“I’ve never seen Dominion lobbyists look so sad,” a senior Democratic aide told the Huffington Post. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen Dominion lose on the floor. This is a game changer.”
Dominion’s opponents – including grassroots groups Clean Virginia, Activate Virginia and others – have been building toward this breakthrough for at least a year. Before they could defeat Dominion on the House floor in 2018, they had to first defeat them at the ballot box in 2017. That year, 85 candidates for the House signed Activate Virginia’s pledge to refuse donations from Dominion, and 13 of them ended up winning their races.
Among those 13 delegates were Democratic Socialist Lee Carter, first-ever transgender delegate Danica Roem and recent State of the Union Spanish-language responder Elizabeth Guzman. Each helped lead the charge to oppose Dominion and are continuing their fight as the bill progresses.
Of all progressive issues, climate and energy policy may be the most suited to empty promises from political candidates. Climate-concerned voters have endured decades of disregard from candidates for office. While Republican mockery is bad enough, even more galling is the tendency of Democrats to go completely silent on climate change in high-profile moments like Joe Kennedy’s response to Trump’s State of the Union.
Years of derision and neglect have resulted in a climate activist base that is hungry for political validation, but ill-prepared to distinguish serious allies from frauds. Witness the widespread grassroots support for the “Climate Solutions Caucus,” a bipartisan group in Congress that has offered few solutions and whose GOP members voted for the Arctic-drilling tax bill. While thousands of activists around the country are single-mindedly focused on lobbying representatives to join the caucus, others see it as little more than a PR gambit. RL Miller of the political action committee Climate Hawks Vote told ThinkProgress, “Other than sending out press releases regarding who’s joining, they’re not doing anything.”
In comparison to the seemingly empty gesture of joining the Climate Solutions Caucus, the early results in Virginia suggest that elected officials at all levels of government – unbought by fossil fuel companies – are more likely to take meaningful stands against their climate-destroying, monopolistic agenda. This bodes well for a national coalition of climate organizations that are taking Activate Virginia’s model to states around the country with a No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. Launched in June 2017, the pledge asks all candidates for office to “not take contributions from the oil, gas and coal industry and instead prioritize the health of our families, climate and democracy over fossil fuel industry profits.”
For a grassroots climate movement that spent the Obama years largely disengaged from the task of winning or influencing elections, the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge reflects a new hunger to directly challenge the power of Big Oil in the electoral arena. Having substantially won the public debate about the threat of climate change, organizers now aim to translate public support for climate action into real political power.
Not a moment too soon
The latest scientific data, as well as the weather outside our windows, reveal a global climate system on life support. Emergency action is needed, soon, and that means we all must demand more from our political leaders.
As one Puerto Rican who suffered through Hurricane Maria recently told the Center for Investigative Reporting, “We didn’t just lose the facilities … We lost our dream. We lost the future of our children. We lost belief in the government, trust in everything … My house was filled with sewage. I slept in a garage. How do I explain that to my daughters?”
This woman, now displaced to New York City, is one of the United States’ first climate migrants. She’s not alone. 2017 may be remembered as the year when climate change showed its face to the American people, and the cruel diversity of ways it can harm became evident. Hurricane Harvey’s winds were comparatively mild next to Maria’s, but the storm practically took up residence in Houston, barely budging for five days as it unloaded more water than any storm in U.S. history. More than four months later, 10,000 families remain in temporary housing, and risk losing even that if FEMA fails to renew its assistance funding. Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, avoided the feared direct hit on Miami or Tampa, and ended up as “only” the third-costliest hurricane in American history.
As the winds of change whipped up storm surges in the Southeast, they fanned fires in the West. The Tubbs Fire, which damaged or destroyed more than 5,600 homes and killed 22 in October, was the most destructive of the more than 9,000 wildfires in California in 2017. The biggest one, called the Thomas Fire, encompassed an area larger than the D.C. Beltway. Like others in Puerto Rico, Houston and Florida, fire-weary Californians are questioning if they should rebuild or retreat in the face of what many called the “new normal.”
If only it were actually the new normal. As journalist David Wallace-Wells has noted, “the truth is actually far scarier.” This is our world at roughly 1 degree Celsius of warming, and scientific estimates project that we are headed for at least 3 or 4 degrees total, meaning that the current floods and fires are only a fraction of what is on the way. Even at 2 degrees – the internationally agreed-upon limit, which at this point looks like a best-case scenario – Miami, New Orleans, most of Boston and parts of every other coastal city will be permanently evacuated before rising seas. Meanwhile, the amount of land in the Western United States consumed by wildfires will increase by at least four times over current rates.
As always, when discussing climate change, the impacts will be most pronounced in the Global South. Southern nations’ representatives to the United Nations have repeatedly referred to 2 degrees as a “death sentence.” And it’s not hard to see why: At such a temperature increase, the once-in-a-generation Indian heat wave that killed over 2,500 in 2015 will be an average summer. Fifty million Bangladeshis will have to flee as the rising Ganges River Delta drowns their homeland – a figure that dwarfs the current estimate of three million people displaced in the Syrian refugee crisis.
The cause of all this chaos
Coal, oil and natural gas account for over 80 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why to avoid catastrophe, scientists say we must cut carbon emissions from fossil fuel to zero before 2040.
Fossil fuel corporations – ranging from regional utilities like Dominion to the large international outfits that extract most of the Earth’s fuel – would have us believe they are undergoing a climate-awareness renaissance. Darren Woods, who succeeded Rex Tillerson as the head of ExxonMobil, has said, “I believe, and my company believes, that climate risks warrant action and it’s going to take all of us … to make meaningful progress.” At the same time, a recent Exxon ad depicts a young and energetic cast of characters holding beakers and touting biofuels research. Meanwhile, Shell recently ran a spot highlighting solar energy entrepreneurs in Nigeria, and BP declared that the “human spirit is the most powerful energy of all.”
In truth, Big Oil’s investments in renewable energy are minimal, though if the human spirit were combustible they would surely extract it and sell it back to us at a mark-up. The current blitz is only the latest stage in a decades-long PR campaign, expertly crafted to protect corporate profits in the face of an existential threat to their business model.
Recent reporting has revealed that the world’s largest fossil fuel companies – including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell and others – understood the threat of climate change as far back as the 1970s, long before it came to public attention, and chose to bury that information in favor of profit.
By lying to shareholders and the public about an imminent threat to civilization as we know it, a very small group of oil executives committed what the Pulitzer-prize winning InsideClimate News described as “a crime of historic proportions” and got filthy rich in the process – Rex Tillerson took home $300 million during his time at ExxonMobil.
Yet, stifling science was only one plank of their strategy. By the mid-2000s, fossil fuel barons had begun a systematic plan to purchase politicians through the legalized bribery of campaign donations. To this day, the ringleaders in this effort are Charles and David Koch, the brothers whose bedrock business is moving oil and gas through a nationwide network of refineries and pipelines. Their combined net worth of $86 billion puts in perspective the $750 million their network spent on the 2016 election cycle.
By funding attack ads and primary opponents running against Republicans who espoused climate action, the Kochs and allies made climate denial a litmus test for all Republican candidates. Those who wanted to get elected ignominiously reversed their prior positions to become born-again deniers, none more conspicuously than Donald Trump, who as recently as 2009 signed a letter calling for Congress to “reduce the harmful emissions that are putting our planet at risk.”
While Republicans have been the main recipient of Big Oil’s largesse, Democrats have gotten in on the action too. Mother Jones reported that “nearly all” of Hillary Clinton’s lobbyist fundraisers had worked at one time or another for the fossil fuel industry. In the 2016 election cycle, 93 percent of direct fossil fuel contributions in Congressional races went to Republicans – but the 7 percent still totaled nearly $4 million, spread among 146 Democrats.
The coming ‘blue wave’
Directly appealing to Exxon and other fossil fuel companies to change their position is likely a dead end. But we do live in a country where our representatives are sworn to uphold the Constitution and pursue the ideals set out in the Declaration of Independence – the right to life foremost among them. It has never been clearer that collaborating with Big Oil irrevocably compromises this oath.
The record shows an industry that is irreparably rotten at the very top, whose leaders have recklessly endangered billions of lives for the sake of expanding already unfathomable fortunes. These men – and they are, almost exclusively, men – have enough money to support their families for generations, and yet they have systematically threatened the lives of every family on the planet who has less than them.
Based on early polling and special election results, many observers anticipate a “blue wave” of Democratic victories in 2018. This wave offers an opportunity to clean up the oil-soaked corridors of Washington, but only if it doesn’t arrive already covered in oil. Recall, it may be particularly difficult for climate advocates to distinguish friend from pretender, given that the bar has been set so low. We can’t afford to fall head-over-heels for any candidate who admits that climate change is real and gives it some airtime. And, given that the fossil fuel executives are looking at the same poll data as the rest of us, we can expect them to increase donations to Democrats in this wave year.
Considering this challenge, the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge holds appeal as a mechanism for sorting out the candidates who will ultimately fall in line behind the Exxon- and Dominion-funded conventional wisdom, and those who will be outspoken and unbought champions for swift and comprehensive action. Seeing the potential, a coalition of 16 groups has begun collaborating to push the pledge nationwide in 2018. (Full disclosure: I am an active member of Sunrise Movement, one of the involved groups.)
In California, the pledge is well on its way to becoming a fixture in state politics. R.L. Miller of Climate Hawks Vote played a major role by encouraging a bit of showmanship. “I came up with the idea of blowing up the pledge onto a big foam core board, and having candidates sign it in front of cheering activists at the California Democratic Party convention,” Miller said. “It’s become such a signature of the environmental caucus that candidates bring their staffers to livestream them signing it with a flourish.”
Early experiments of this sort in California, Virginia and Massachusetts were essential to lay groundwork for the current coalition. “After these state campaigns started gaining momentum and attention from national campaigns we began comparing notes and coordinating efforts to build a more cohesive national push that would help to scale up the success that we were seeing at the state level,” said Brant Olson, campaign director at ClimateTruth.org.
The national effort has already scored a few high-profile successes, including Paul Ryan challengers Randy Bryce and Cathy Myers. And on January 31, Bernie Sanders committed to the pledge during a live-streamed event in Washington, D.C. The ensuring surge of local and state-level candidates, inspired by Sanders, has pushed the total number of pledge-takers from just under 200 to 233, as of this writing. Activists in the No Fossil Fuel Money coalition hope to surpass 1,000 pledge signers by November 2018.
Perhaps not surprisingly, early experience suggests that outsider candidates are much more likely to swear off fossil fuel cash. When asked how candidates coming through the official Democratic Party recruitment pipeline responded to the pledge, Josh Stanfield of Activate Virginia said, “They never responded to our question. They just ignored it. A couple of them have since accepted contributions from Dominion or its executives.” Meanwhile, candidates outside the pipeline “weren’t aware of the party line requiring deference to Dominion.” These are the candidates who are now leading the resistance to Dominion within the halls of power.
Given this dynamic, activists are planning to pursue a two-front strategy: sign up hundreds of progressive candidates to the pledge with little effort, and pick a few high-profile fights with “establishment” Democrats to challenge the national party on its compromised climate position. Sara Blazevic of Sunrise NYC identified New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as one such target.
“Cuomo paints himself as a leader on climate change,” she said. “But he’s let the most ambitious climate legislation in the country flounder in the state legislature. New Yorkers deserve better than a politician who takes money from corporations in exchange for corrupt bargains cut with fake Democrats and the party of Trump. He can’t call himself a climate leader while taking money from the oil, coal and gas companies threatening our state.”
The day when government is answerable to the people
By building momentum through local, state and congressional races, advocates say they ultimately hope to lay the groundwork this year for a much higher-profile showdown over fossil fuel money and climate policy in the 2020 presidential primary.
After the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks and Waxman-Markey climate legislation in 2009, the U.S. climate movement spent several years floundering in search of direction and vigor. In the absence of direction from many national organizations, community members on the fencelines and frontlines of fossil fuel infrastructure nurtured a more confrontational approach, which gained strength by openly naming the fossil fuel industry as the enemy. This view found mainstream expression in an 2012 article by Bill McKibben, called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” In calling for mass divestment from fossil fuel stocks, McKibben wrote, “We need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”
Divestment was considered impossible at that time. Many of the necessary financial instruments didn’t exist, oil companies were considered wildly profitable, and institutional resistance was strong. But the moral truth of the argument resonated across the world, and a movement was born. Today, institutions representing $5 trillion worldwide have divested from oil, gas and coal.
To advocates who have been involved with both efforts, the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge represents the extension of divestment’s logic into the political sphere. If fossil fuels are Public Enemy Number One, it is simply immoral to accept their money. And if the pledge catches fire in the same manner as divestment, it’s not unreasonable to imagine January 20, 2021 as the day when Congress and the president are answerable to the people, not the fossil fuel billionaires. Then, and only then, will political action at the scale of the climate crisis begin.
Research for this article was contributed by Aru Shiney-Ajay and Jonathan Guy.