Climate deniers in the dark

by Erin Kesler

Climate change and pollution affects everyone. Global warming-induced hurricanes pummel our coasts and droughts ravage our farmland. Our neighbors, friends, and children develop asthma and heart attacks because of air pollution and our favorite parks and hunting grounds are withering away.

The science is conclusive and polls reflect the concern of many Americans about global warming and its related pollution. So what can account for the lack of government action on the issue? The answer has a lot to do with our broken campaign finance system and the ability of individuals committed to denying the existence of climate change to dump huge amounts of money (much of it secret) into elections and in the political process.

During the 2012 election, outside spending groups, many of them newly created in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, reported spending more than $1.28 billion to influence voters and politicians. Of the amount disclosed, just 132 individuals who contributed over $1 million each were responsible for the bulk of Super PAC spending. Significant amounts were dumped into the campaign coffers of members of Congress by regulated industries that have taken an active role in opposing any new efforts by the President to move forward on greenhouse gas regulations.

In addition, veins of secret money whistled their way through the campaign to the tune of over $300 million. Financial juggernauts of vague origin “donated” even more money to still more groups organized under the section of the tax code reserved for nonprofits and trade associations and continue to spend and influence policy debates and elections throughout the country, with a particular focus against environmental protection and anti-pollution measures.

Enterprising journalists have traced one-fourth of the secret money back to libertarian petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch. Greenpeace has reported on the efforts of regulated industries to fund climate denial “think-tanks”, and the newly secret nature of this funding. According to their report, “Dealing in Doubt":

[T]he massive campaign against climate science and action on climate - funded by oil barons, the Koch Brothers - has come to light. And while fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, whose very products are causing global warming, continue to fund think tanks driving the campaigns, much of the foundation funding has now been driven underground, masked by a funding front-group called the Donors Trust and its associate Donors Capital Fund, two “donor-advised” funds created to hide the real givers and thus shield them from negative exposure of their support for these campaigns.

Funding to the organizations that comprise the denial machine has risen during the Obama presidency, just as the urgency of climate solutions and promise of policy advances also rose.

Voters should not have to rely on investigative journalists and advocacy groups to reveal information that ought to be a matter of course in democratic debate. Policymakers are responsive to their campaign funders to an enormous degree and the environmental concerns of a typical American take a back seat to the prerogatives of a climate change-denying 1 percent. In addition to the slowdown on meaningful action on climate change, all that money has also helped sustain annual tax breaks and subsidies in excess of $4.6 billiona year for an industry that is making money hand over fist.

Disclosure of the interconnected nature of these relationships is a first step to repairing the campaign finance structure. After all, Justice Kennedy himself wrote for the majority in Citizens United that:

With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are “ ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.” 540 U. S., at 259 (opinion of Scalia , J.); see MCFL supra , at 261. The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

Unfortunately, the Federal Election Commission and Congress have been unable to implement a successful campaign finance disclosure regime for the new reality of corporate, and subsequently secret, expenditures in elections.  A move toward disclosure lies in a proposed Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule that would force disclosure of political spending by corporations to shareholders. The proposal received more than 700,000 comments in support, from grassroots activists, businesses and academics alike. The SEC has recently signaled that it is holding off on the proposal, however. Such disclosure is a crucial first step in restoring needed transparency to our democracy as well as in corporate governance. Scientific and academic debates are infected by the push to create a culture of denial fueled by dark money, which is then funnelled into the political debate and ultimately all branches of government.

What this means for the average American is that our air is less clean to breath, our water less safe to drink, and we are less protected at work from injury and our children from toxic chemicals. Do the individuals behind the dark money universe live in a separate ecosystem or a separate society altogether removed from the rest of us? No, they don’t. It’s in everyone’s interest to have public policies that protect our health and prevent the worst effects of climate change. Disclosure is a key first step in the long march towards that realization.

This blog is cross-posted from the American Constitution Society's Blog.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform