Politics, SuperPACs and the Planet

Scott Lewis, Brightworks CEOBy Scott Lewis,Brightworks CEO

As another political campaign season heats up, we reflect on the role of politics, elections and policy on the prospects for a sustainable, equitable future.

Those of us who would aspire to influence the future – to help foster the emergence of a world that provides for the well-being of all people and our fellow inhabitants of the earth – must constantly take a hard, honest look at the context in which we work.

And no single contextual element carries as much leverage as the political – the world of laws, administrative rules and regulations, and the people who enact and enforce them on a daily basis. Local, regional and national government — and the rules made or not made, enforced or not enforced, by the people who go to work daily in those public offices and agencies — determine how much arsenic comes out of power plant smokestacks, which species will survive or go extinct, or how much of our energy mix will come from climate-changing fossil fuel or renewable solar and wind power.

We must scrutinize and reform the political mechanisms that determine who holds office and what powers they have, if we intend to shape the trajectory of our future and that of our descendants.

Laws Matter

Whether you get involved or sit on the sidelines, our laws have a HUGE impact on outcomes: ecological, economic, and social justice. Make your voice heard.

Pay Attention to the Extreme

In a political system as large and complex as ours, there are good guys, bad guys, and like most of us, people who can be counted on most of the time but make occasional missteps. The problem for the planet, I would contend, lies mostly at the extreme end of the spectrum, where the corrupting influence of money on power reigns. The forces at work there are so large, the decisions so far reaching and the impacts of those decisions so profound, they overwhelm the expanse of otherwise honest, everyday policymaking.

For example, according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, mulitnational oil and gas companies are set to enjoy $53 billion in royalty-free drilling over the next 25 years and $36.5 billion in taxpayer subsidies over the next decade. Whether this fact correlates with the industry’s $282 million of political spending since 1990, including $17 million of political contributions to congressional campaigns in the 2010 election cycle alone, one can only speculate. In that one election cycle alone, over 20 congressional candidates received at least $100,000 from people and political action committees associated with the oil and gas industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

It seems safe to assume a causal linkage more probable than the possibility that those companies give away millions of dollars purely out of their charitable good will.

One Congressional friend of big oil and gas, for example, is Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. His claims that global warming is, after the separation of church and state, “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people,” would perhaps be more convincing if the senator had not received over $600,000 from the oil and gas industry and electric utilities in the past five years.

Follow the Money

So when it comes to having a sense of why our elected officials or political candidates choose to attack environmental protection, the “follow the money” axiom seems relevant. Many of the biggest recipients of oil and gas industry money are also staunch supporters of the industry that supports them. One example: North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, who has received over $220,000 from oil and gas interests since 1995, has also been one of the industry’s strongest advocates in Congress, arguing that excessive government regulation forces deepwater drilling that led to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. In one public statement, he declared that “Thirty percent of the oil we use in this country comes from the Gulf of Mexico….Why are they drilling in deepwater? Because we chased them off of the shore. We chased them off the land, we put them in shallow water, we chased them out of shallow water, now they’re in deep water. It comes with a greater risk.” But the U.S. Energy Information Administration states that in fact, less than 8.5 percent of oil consumed in the U.S. comes from offshore wells. Burr received a 0 percent rating from Environment America, a 12 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters, and only 29 percent from Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Consider the Environmental Protection Agency. On August 17, a New York Times headline read, “Bashing EPA is New Theme in GOP Race.” The EPA now symbolizes the front lines in the political debate on the extent to which the government should or should not regulate activities that can alter the natural environment and human health. It’s a debate that reflects the evolving landscape through which the sustainability economy is struggling to emerge. EPA bashing by GOP candidates may be for purely ideological reasons. More likely it is fueled as much by the influence of industry and other political donors whose interests are hurt by EPA regulations.

Lest we think Republicans are alone in thwarting the EPA, President Obama earlier this month rejected a proposed EPA rule that would have significantly reduced emissions of smog-causing chemicals. According to the New York Times, this decision was responsible for “buoying business interests that had lobbied heavily against it, angering environmentalists who called the move a betrayal and unnerving his own top environmental regulators.”

Environment as a Polarizing Issue

The appropriate role of government in environmental regulation, or any other form of regulation, has long polarized members of both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Democrats have generally been the more “environmental” of the two parties. Historically, however, protecting the environment has generally enjoyed solid bi-partisan support. Despite recent anti-environmental protection trends among Republican politicians, which accelerated during the Reagan administration in the early 1980s and gained more momentum through both Bush presidencies, Republican leaders once were at the vanguard of wilderness protection and pollution prevention.

For example, Republican president Theodore Roosevelt protected 240 million acres of wild lands, quadrupled the acreage in national forests, invented the National Wildlife Refuge System, and proclaimed 18 national monuments, including 868,120 acres of the Grand Canyon and 639,200 acres of Mt. Olympus. Calvin Coolidge set aside Glacier Bay in Alaska. Dwight Eisenhower protected the coastal plain of what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And Richard Nixon established the EPA and signed into law the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Enough Republicans have shown genuine commitment to sustainability that we must be very careful to not overgeneralize about the alignment of environmental views along political party lines. That said, it is also important to look at the current frenzy among Republican presidential candidates to outdo each other’s anti-environmental rhetoric. Given the historical bi-partisan support for environmental protection, this current trend points to corrupting influence at the far end of the political spectrum where moneyed interests opposed to environmental regulations are most certainly shaping the GOP debate.

Citizen’s United and the Rise of the SuperPAC

While changing campaign finance laws doesn’t seem to register on lists of “top ten” issues regardless of age, political party or gender, the linkage between politics and money does receive focused attention from special-interest organizations, such as the Center for Responsive Politics. The national media, however, all but ignore the matter; they seem to agree with the general sentiment that the issue is either of little interest to their audience or essentially beyond reform, because the people who would have to change the rules – Congress or the Supreme Court – are also beneficiaries of the status quo.

Money is there, in politics, and lots of it. And it’s only getting worse, as the rules governing political finance continue to erode. Political Action Committees, or “PACs” as they are commonly known, have populated the political landscape since the 1940s. They were formed as a means to raise money from unions, corporations or other groups prohibited from making direct contributions to candidates. Historically, PACs were restricted in the amount of money they could accept from corporations; they could only raise money from senior management or stockholders of the company, but not the company itself.

That changed in January 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that corporations themselves could give unlimited contributions to candidates or their campaigns. With that, the floodgates opened, and what have become known as SuperPACs began to inject hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time into political campaigns – both Democratic and Republican.

According to the New York Times, two former aides to President Obama started the leading Democratic Super PAC, called Priorities USA, in February of this year, just two months after leaving their jobs at the White House. And among the leading Republican presidential candidates, SuperPACs are already showing their importance. Three veterans of Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign team, joined by a fund-raiser who left Mr. Romney’s 2012 team, formed a SuperPAC called Restore Our Future. It raised more than $12 million for Romney’s 2012 election bid during the first half of this year alone.

The Need for Political Engagement

We’re only beginning to gauge the influence, corrupt or otherwise, of SuperPAC money. That corruption in politics is far reaching, however, has never been in dispute. American politics have always been mean and dirty. Former House Majority Leader Tom Delay – once among the most powerful men in Washington – was convicted in January 2011 of money laundering in connection with campaign contributions. Bad as they were, Delay’s transgressions didn’t surpass those of U.S. Congressman William “Boss” Tweed, who was convicted of stealing up to $200 million from New York taxpayers in the early 1800s. That’s the equivalent today of between $1.5 and $8 billion!

The fact that politics have always been corrupt does not mean we should accept or tolerate it today. One requirement of creating a more sustainable future is a political process less subject to the corrupting influences of money. That demands that we all make more effort to change campaign finance rules by supporting reform groups such as the Center for Responsive Politics and the candidates who support meaningful reform.

Beyond supporting reforms, we need to actively support the candidates and policies that will accelerate the change we seek through our work in the private sector. It may be considered “impolite” to bring political discussions into the business world. But we can’t ignore the profound influence of politics and policy on whether renewable energy gets an equal shot in the market with heavily subsidized fossil fuels, whether owners of chemical refineries and industrial processing plants will incur the costs of their releases to our air, water and food supply of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and whether ecologically disastrous practices such as mountaintop mining or hydraulic fracking may continue with lax or no regulation.

All Politics is Global

Former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” I would suggest all politics, now, in the 21st Century, is global. Who gets elected and whom they appoint to office and the courts will have a lasting and powerful impact on the planet’s climate, the rainforests in Brazil, the persistent organic pollutants and endocrine disruptors present in the tissues of polar bears in the arctic and in a child’s plastic toys. Who gets elected and their appointees determine more than highway funding or the defense budget; it has a profound and lasting impact on every sustainability-related issue we discuss, debate and tackle in our daily lives, both in and out of work.

Those of us committed to creating a world capable of sustaining humanity and other species for generations to come cannot pretend work is one thing and whom we vote for is another. As we choose and ultimately vote for our candidates, we must remember the sustainability values we work to uphold every day, and let those values guide our political decisions as well.

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