Last month, record-breaking temperatures set off hundreds of heat advisories across the United States. Extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the country, and it’s getting worse.
Consider that in 1999, the year I was born, my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, experienced an average of 37 days a year at or above 90 degrees. Just two decades later, that number has increased to 45. Forecasts predict that this number will double – to almost three months of 90+ degree weather – by the time I am 80.
123 records for the warmest daily low temperature are forecast to be broken or tied this week.
The daytime temperatures will be soaring across much of the nation this week – and when readings stay so warm overnight too, it wears on the body even more. pic.twitter.com/FpAP7SKy90
— National Weather Service (@NWS) July 16, 2019
As a society, we must act decisively to avoid the coming climate crisis by weaning ourselves off our dependence on fossil fuels and shifting to a carbon-free economy by mid-century. But despite growing public support for government intervention, the U.S. Congress has been unable to pass legislation that meaningfully addresses this issue. That’s for one reason: our system of governance is fundamentally flawed, and genuine change cannot happen as long as industry money lines pockets in Washington.
In other words, we cannot save our planet until we fix our broken democracy.
In 2009, ambitious climate legislation almost passed Congress with bipartisan support. South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham was even a co-sponsor. Yet, today, the most basic regulations to limit carbon emissions are politically dead-on-arrival. Indeed, the Republican Party now holds climate denialism as doctrine. Since 2010, no legislation to regulate carbon dioxide has gotten a single Republican co-sponsor in the Senate.
What has changed since Senator Graham acknowledged climate change? The leaders of a multibillion-dollar industry recognized that their livelihood was under threat, and they responded.
Sponsoring Republican Campaigns
In the past decade, natural resource and energy industry political expenditures have skyrocketed; the sector has cumulatively donated $440 million to Republican campaigns. Oil and gas moved from eighth highest industry contributor to Republican campaigns in 2010 to the fifth in 2014. Moreover, between 2008 and 2018, the industry spent over $4 billion on lobbying. And just in 2018 – in a show of power – the fossil fuel sector spent $100 million on lobbyists who worked to oppose four green energy ballot initiatives in three states. None of the green proposals passed.
In total, the industry has spent an astonishing $5 billion dollars on influence in Washington D.C. over the previous 10 years. These dollars have created an environment in which support for climate legislation is perceived as a career-ending move.
Beyond direct political influence, profit-motivated corporations have also corrupted our media: fossil fuel companies spent almost $1.4 billion on PR, advertising, and communications contractors over the past decade. This greenwashing of nonrenewable energy has polluted climate-related dialogue among many consumers, especially those who follow right-wing media.
The standstill around climate policy is thus the product of deliberate, systemic forces.
Green New Deal
But change is possible. Indeed, almost immediately after the Democrats regained the majority in Congress in 2018, a revolutionary climate resolution was introduced with 60 House cosponsors: The Green New Deal.
But partisanship – stoked and maintained by relentless special interests – continues to impede progress. The Democrats’ efforts floundered when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an effort to stop its momentum, put the resolution to a vote for continuing debate before any expert testimony could take place, knowing that the Senate would vote it down.
Senator Ed Markey, who introduced the deal alongside Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said of McConnell, “He and his colleagues want to make a mockery of the national debate we have started with the Green New Deal because they have … no intention of passing legislation to combat change.”
What Senator Markey politely declined to acknowledge is that McConnell has received $3 million in campaign contributions from energy and natural resources in the past 10 years.
The fossil fuel industry’s outsized influence is undemocratic. And it should trouble all Americans that profit-driven corporations have established an influence that works in direct opposition to the wellbeing of voters – both present and future – and their preferences.
Despite the circulation of special interest talking points, the vast majority of Americans support climate action, including Republican voters.
Luntz Global, a conservative pollster, released a memo earlier this summer that showed the climate to be a top concern, especially among young Republican voters. The Sierra Club likewise released polling showing that in North Carolina, a state that voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016, 80 percent support transitioning to 100 percent clean energy by mid-century.
In a functional democracy, changing public opinion would change Washington. Yet, this is far from the case today.
This inaction is fundamentally unfair to my generation.
The only way to prevent this injustice is to democratize campaign financing. As long as established industries hold overwhelming sway throughout Washington, our democracy will be compromised, and voters demanding climate action will be ignored.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.