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Why the Climate Crisis Demands Democracy Reform

Fixing America’s broken political system and building a healthier democracy can contribute to a more just and sustainable world.

July 1, 2021
Democracy Reform and the Climate Crisis
Spencer Platt/Getty

The recent record-break­ing heat wave on the West Coast, among other extreme weather events, has under­scored the urgency of address­ing the global climate crisis. Such efforts will require signi­fic­ant action from the federal govern­ment, includ­ing policies to reduce carbon emis­sions and adapt­a­tion meas­ures to prepare communit­ies for rising sea levels and extreme weather. Too often, however, the U.S. polit­ical system inter­feres with the govern­ment’s abil­ity to carry out the signi­fic­ant action required to address the climate crisis. 

The United States needs a healthy system of demo­cracy — one that repres­ents the will of the people — in order to combat climate change, which has emerged as a lead­ing voting issue for Amer­ic­ans. This includes repair­ing the nation’s campaign finance system, which has allowed corpor­a­tions and special interest groups — includ­ing big spend­ers from fossil fuel indus­tries — to wield outsize influ­ence in Wash­ing­ton. And it requires ensur­ing that communit­ies of color and low-income communit­ies, who often bear the brunt of envir­on­mental hazards, aren’t disen­fran­chised.

Suppress­ing the vote suppresses climate action

The right to vote is a crucial element of a func­tion­ing demo­cracy. But in recent years, a surge in voter suppres­sion has threatened Amer­ica’s progress toward a more inclus­ive demo­cracy. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which weakened a number of the Voting Rights Act’s key protec­tions, states have accel­er­ated their efforts to pass laws, such as reduced early voting and strict ID require­ments, that make it harder for many citizens to vote. These restrict­ive laws, along with manip­u­lat­ive prac­tices such as extreme gerry­man­der­ing, are often designed to target low-income communit­ies of color, threat­en­ing their rights to fair polit­ical repres­ent­a­tion. 

These are often the same communit­ies that are dispro­por­tion­ately exposed to pollut­ants and  other envir­on­mental hazards — along with the asso­ci­ated health consequences, such as a higher risk of certain respir­at­ory and cardi­ovas­cu­lar diseases and cancers. And these are the communit­ies that are most vulner­able to the devast­at­ing effects of a chan­ging climate, such as extreme heat, rising sea levels, and displace­ment. 

Perhaps unsur­pris­ingly, the communit­ies most affected by envir­on­mental injustice are those that are most likely to express concern about the climate crisis. Over the past decade, polls have consist­ently found that people of color — includ­ing BlackLatino, and Asian Amer­ic­ans — over­whelm­ingly support govern­ment action on climate change and envir­on­mental protec­tion. And, accord­ing to a 2017 poll by ecoAmer­ica, 91 percent of African Amer­ic­ans and 90 percent of Lati­nos surveyed were “person­ally concerned” about climate change, compared with 76 percent of people nation­wide and 69 percent of white Amer­ic­ans. Simil­arly, of those surveyed, 82 percent of African Amer­ic­ans and 81 percent of Lati­nos suppor­ted govern­ment action to protect against climate impacts, compared with 70 percent of people nation­wide and 66 percent of white Amer­ic­ans.

The communit­ies that are most vulner­able to envir­on­mental injustice are often the same ones targeted for voter suppres­sion and gerry­man­der­ing. A demo­cracy that is more respons­ive to the concerns of these communit­ies — and, more broadly, to the will of the Amer­ican people — will be better posi­tioned to address the climate crisis.  Federal legis­la­tion that is currently under consid­er­a­tion would, if enacted, help bring about that more repres­ent­at­ive demo­cracy. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act would restore and strengthen the protec­tions of the Voting Rights Act, which prohib­its racial discrim­in­a­tion in elec­tions. And the expans­ive For the People Act would reverse voter suppres­sion through a vari­ety of reforms — includ­ing auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, nation­wide early voting, and a ban on partisan gerry­man­der­ing — all of which would make it easier for eligible voters to parti­cip­ate in Amer­ican demo­cracy and have their voices heard in elec­tions. 

Big money and climate change

But voter suppres­sion is far from the only anti­demo­cratic force that threatens to thwart substant­ive climate change legis­la­tion. Another major factor is the role that big money plays in Amer­ican polit­ics, includ­ing in elect­oral campaigns. This dynamic has allowed corpor­a­tions and the wealth­i­est indi­vidu­als to hold an astound­ing amount of influ­ence over the lawmak­ing process in Wash­ing­ton, often spend­ing aggress­ively to kill climate change legis­la­tion, such as the Amer­ican Clean Energy and Secur­ity Act in 2009, which passed the House of Repres­ent­at­ives only to fail in the Senate. Accord­ing to some estim­ates, groups spend up to $1 billion per year on lobby­ing against climate legis­la­tion.

If the polit­ical system gave an advant­age to the fossil fuel lobby and other special interest groups prior to 2010, it tilted even more in their favor with the Supreme Court’s consequen­tial ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion. The decision, which permit­ted corpor­a­tions and other groups to spend unlim­ited money on elec­tions, sparked a massive increase in polit­ical spend­ing from special interests. In partic­u­lar, Citizens United gave rise to the creation of super PACs — organ­iz­a­tions largely powered by the wealth­i­est donors — and a surge in secret spend­ing from dark money groups, which don’t disclose their donors.

These devel­op­ments have further expan­ded the polit­ical influ­ence of corpor­a­tions, wealthy indi­vidu­als, and special interest groups — includ­ing the fossil fuel lobby, which has signi­fic­antly increased its elec­tion spend­ing. In 2006, for example, the oil and gas industry spent an estim­ated $23.6 million in federal elec­tions, a figure that skyrock­eted after Citizens United to $85.7 million in 2012, $104.5 million in 2016, and $138.8 million in 2020. (These figures don’t account for contri­bu­tions from dark money groups, whose spend­ing is secret.) Crit­ics have poin­ted out how this spend­ing, combined with lobby­ing efforts, has stalled climate change legis­la­tion in Wash­ing­ton.

A Supreme Court reversal or consti­tu­tional amend­ment to undo Citizens United is extremely unlikely in the short term. In the mean­time, however, federal legis­la­tion could help counter the role of big money in Amer­ican polit­ics. The For the People Act includes a provi­sion for a nation­wide small donor public finan­cing system for congres­sional and pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. Under this system, small donors who give to parti­cip­at­ing candid­ates would see their contri­bu­tions matched by public funds. The program would come at no cost to taxpay­ers, as it would be funded primar­ily by a surcharge on crim­inal and civil penal­ties on corpor­ate defend­ants and their exec­ut­ive officers.

If enacted, the system would signi­fic­antly expand the power of small donors, and polit­ical candid­ates would rely less on big checks from wealthy donors and special interest groups, includ­ing big fossil fuel spend­ers. And it would amplify the voices of ordin­ary citizens, a vast major­ity of whom support govern­ment action to address climate change.

The For the People Act also includes provi­sions that would increase trans­par­ency in elec­tion spend­ing. It would, for example, require groups that spend signi­fic­ant amounts of money on campaigns to disclose their donors, clos­ing the legal loop­hole that led to the rise of dark money.

Climate change threatens our demo­cracy

It’s not only that case that a dysfunc­tional demo­cracy jeop­ard­izes our abil­ity to address the climate crisis. The inverse also holds true: climate change threatens Amer­ican demo­cracy, includ­ing the integ­rity of the U.S. voting system itself. For example, schol­ars have docu­mented how during Elec­tion Day in Novem­ber 2005, three months after Hurricane Katrina, 80 percent of New Orleans voters (two-thirds of whom were African Amer­ican) remained displaced and nearly three-quar­ters of polling places had been damaged or destroyed. Such cata­strophic events threaten to under­mine voter parti­cip­a­tion even years after they take place.

The stakes of these inter­sect­ing crises are high, but there are solu­tions. Lawmakers can take note of what the vast major­ity of Amer­ic­ans support, includ­ing bold climate action and the demo­cracy reforms needed to achieve it. And they can discern how a health­ier demo­cracy can contrib­ute to a more just and sustain­able world.