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Money’s Chilling Effect on Climate Change

Brennan Center Fellow Ciara Torres-Spelliscy looks at climate change through the prism of money in politics.

September 16, 2014

I live five minutes from the beach, which is great for quick year-round visits to the Gulf of Mexico. A big hurricane in the Gulf could be an exist­en­tial threat to my home and family.

As a Flor­idian I have to take climate change more seri­ously than most Amer­ic­ans. I’m a recent trans­plant to the state and when we were house-hunt­ing, we looked for a home on the top of a ridge. But between my house on a hill and the sea is devel­op­ment after devel­op­ment, hotel after hotel, restaur­ant after restaur­ant right up to the water’s edge.

With a whole state that is basic­ally at sea level, millions of us are living on borrowed time if sea levels rise as scient­ists predict. Truly, these are years of living danger­ously and Flor­ida is one big danger zone.

If anyone has an interest in being the squeaky wheel on rising sea levels and killer hurricanes, it really should be every­one who owns seaside on three sides of this state and the elec­ted offi­cials that repres­ent them. Yet some Flor­ida politi­cians like Senator Marco Rubio have claimed that humans are not caus­ing climate change. 

There have been some moves in the right direc­tion like a Senate field hear­ing on sea level rise in Miami Beach earlier this year. And members of Cent­Com in Tampa likely have to plan around climate change as they chart out the future defense of the home­land. But the general silence on the issue of climate change from Flor­id­a’s elec­ted lead­ers (both statewide and from most of the Congres­sional deleg­a­tion) is deaf­en­ing.

Scient­ists are nearly hoarse from repeat­ing their warn­ings again and again because the rest of us are only half heed­ing them. For example, the Union of Concerned Scient­ists has been arguing for years that global warn­ing “is happen­ing and that human activ­ity is the primary cause.” They have an alarm­ing “hot map” that shows negat­ive effects of climate change around the world includ­ing impacts on fresh­wa­ter, food supplies, and human health.

The prob­lem of climate change is also a money in polit­ics prob­lem because keep­ing the status quo of inac­tion is being brought to us by incum­bents who get big campaign finance support from extract­ive indus­tries—regard­less of party. 

And this is where campaign finance is truly madden­ing since the vast major­ity of the Amer­ican public believes climate change is a man made prob­lem. And yet the Congress has taken vote after a vote to not be proact­ive on envir­on­mental protec­tions. This may be because less than half of one percent of Amer­ic­ans give campaign cash to federal candid­ates and this tiny percent­age has our elec­ted offi­cials ears instead of the major­ity.

The Union of Concerned Scient­ists put out a report that linked dark money in polit­ics to climate change denial. The report, entitled Tricks of the Trade: How Compan­ies Influ­ence Climate Policy Through Busi­ness and Trade Asso­ci­ations, noted the prob­lem of dark corpor­ate money flow­ing through trade asso­ci­ations like the Amer­ican Petro­leum Insti­tute (API) and Amer­ican Chem­istry Coun­cil (ACC). And envir­on­mental advoc­ates at Earth Justice also note that at least in Congress, climate change deniers receive 3.5 times as much money from “dirty energy sources” than the rest of Congress.

But this is still a demo­cracy and two events give every day people a chance to voice their displeas­ure with the current path. First, there will be a People’s Climate March in New York City on Septem­ber 21, 2014 which is sched­uled to coin­cide with the United Nation’s Summit on Climate on Septem­ber 23. In the lead up to the Summit, UN Secret­ary­­Gen­eral Ban Ki-Moon has urged govern­ments to support an agree­ment to signi­fic­antly reduce global warm­ing pollu­tion. The People’s Climate March is one way to get the envir­on­ment back on the Amer­ican agenda two years after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast.

The second key event where the aver­age citizen can have an impact is by voting in the midterm congres­sional elec­tion and in state elec­tions for 36 governors includ­ing here in Flor­ida. So if you are on a rope line with a candid­ate asking for your vote this fall, ask him or her what action they are plan­ning to take to address climate change.  

While some of the money in polit­ics is annoy­ingly opaque, much of campaign finan­cing is as they say “an open secret.” To be an educated voter, look up where your Congress­men and Senat­ors got their support at­ For state candid­ates follow the money at Call them on their dirty energy funders and let them know that the ostrich’s head in sand approach to climate policy is no longer accept­able. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Wiki­me­dia Commons)