Earth Week Excerpts: From “Some Men Just Want To Watch the World Burn,” by Walter Hickey

April 24, 2012

. . . The First Amendment guarantees citizens the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” and lobbyists can count themselves among journalists and clergymen as one of the few constitutionally protected professions. Needless to say, there is more money in the business of government relations than there is in the businesses of baptisms and blogging.

The Center for Responsive Politics is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization which was founded in 1983 by two Senators – one Republican, the other a Democrat – who lost their reelection bids because their opponents had collected more money than they had. In that time, the amount of money in politics had reached nowhere near the magnitude it is today. The Center’s mission is to organize, maintain and publish the most comprehensive existing database of money in politics. While the presence of money in politics cannot be averted, the Center believes that making the money from interest groups public may reduce its impact in swaying democratic elections. As it stands, for the past twenty years their website, OpenSecrets.org, has allowed voters to evaluate candidates based on where the money which supports their election originates. The Center codes each contribution based upon the employer of the individual who made it, allowing researchers to identify the source and possible motive of campaign money.

Between 1990 and 2010 companies in the petroleum industry “donated $238.7 million to candidates and parties” (Kiersh & Levinthal). In 2011 alone, the Center reported that companies from these industries spent more than $148 million on 786 individual federal lobbyists. Kiersh and Levinthal noted that “oil and gas companies are always among the industries to spend the most on lobbying.” They noted that this diverse group is comprised of “multinational and independent oil and gas producers and refiners, natural gas pipeline companies, gasoline service stations and fuel oil dealers.” These industries have a vested interest in maintaining the legality and availability of petroleum availability, drilling rights, and low competition from alternative fuel sources.
In contrast, the environment sector, a designation which comprises environmental advocacy groups, spends a fraction of what the oil and gas industry does. Despite the fact that the environmental sector is also comprised of organizations which don’t directly oppose petroleum interests, the entire sector spent just less than $30.5 million between 1990 and 2010 on candidates and parties.

For perspective, the oil and gas industry spent $22.5 million on strictly congressional campaigns in the 2010 cycle alone. The environmental sector also spent just under $16.7 million on 106 lobbyists in 2011. Needless to say, the petroleum sector alone spends close to an order of magnitude more on government relations than the environmental advocacy groups can (Environment: Overview).

This disparity is a large part of the reason why there is the delay on the part of the government on enacting an effective climate change response. The interests of entrenched industries, articulated through their governmental advocacy efforts, remain staunchly opposed to altering the status quo. The ability of these groups to provide a considerable financial incentive to Congress to not act on scientific results underscores a central struggle for the environmental movement.

Money, as it stands today, is an inexorable part of the political ecosystem. Candidates with less money than their adversaries lose. They are unable to pay for the means to promote their own message. If an opponent has more money than you do, you have to work that much harder to sell yourself to the public. Exchanging money for influence is a necessary element of the current political process. As long as that remains the case, groups with more money will defeat groups with less money, regardless of the issue. Even though the science is rock solid on the side of the environmentalists, that movement will never succeed as long as there is a massive financial incentive for those in power to ignore facts for as long as possible. Unless this system changes – through mandatory public campaign financing, through mitigation of soft money, through increased, earnest transparency measures – this world will continue to get warmer. Formalized institutional bribery should be ethically unsettling enough for most. The fact that it is the integrity of the planetary ecosystem that is being sold should be slightly more unsettling.

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