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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)