Campaign Finance Reform & The Climate Crisis

by: Angela Vincent

How campaign finance reform can help solve the climate crisis…


Solving the climate crisis is no easy task. However, getting to the root of the problem might even be more challenging. Solutions can be put in place to mitigate the effects, but if the underlying problem is not addressed, no real progress can be made. We can fight for climate change legislation at the state and federal level, but until we get special interest money out of the pockets of our politicians, we are facing an uphill battle. Governments have failed to act, not because of a lack of will or understanding, but because of the strong grip oil and energy companies have on our political system. When independent, progressive voices are silenced because they don’t have the means (money) to be heard, our entire democracy suffers. Campaign finance reform is necessary for our democracy to be reborn, to ensure the health and well being of our species and our planet, and to solve the climate crisis.

“In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC (Federal Election Commission) that corporate funding of political positions in campaigns could not be limited, as doing so would infringe on the right to free speech…” (Wessels, 2013)1. Super PAC’s, political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, were born out of this decision. In Justice Stevens’ (2010) dissent he writes, “The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.” Equating money with speech has led to a system where the more money one has, the more rights one is granted and the more valued one’s needs are. When one has to “pay to play,” the nature of our way of governing is completely undermined (Mosher & Ennis, 2014)2. If politicians didn’t have to depend on millions of dollars from corporate interests, they would be free to govern on behalf of the people they represent. Instead, they are beholden to these special interests, which puts us in a vicious cycle of money in politics that leaves the majority to suffer on behalf of the few. “[This] radical inequality in the way citizens are represented and the way we fund campaigns….is the most grotesque example of why we don’t have a democracy that works” (Democracy Now, 2015).

In 2012, 2 billion dollars was spent on the presidential election. In addition, 70 million dollars was spent on U.S. candidates and political parties by individuals and political action committees associated with the oil and gas sector (Fossil Fuel MIT, 2014). In 2013, the oil and gas industry spent $400,000 a day lobbying Congress and government officials (Klein, 2014)3. The 2016 presidential election is expected to cost 5 billion dollars. The infamous Koch brothers, together the richest men in the world, plan to spend 900 million in the upcoming election, which is more money than either of our major political parties spent in the last election (McKibben, 2012). The Center for American Progress states, “The campaigns of those who reject the reality of climate science are fueled by the fossil fuel industry that advocate[s] for and drive[s] the emissions that cause global warming.” Randy Hayes, director of The Rainforest Action Network claims, “Since the [environmental] movement will never be able to match industry’s war chests, the only way to level the playing field is to take their money away….through campaign finance reform (Dowie, 1996)4.

Sixteen states including California have called for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United v. FEC. California ranks number 8 in terms of the world’s largest economies (Masunaga, 2015). If campaign finance reform cannot be achieved at the federal level, achieving it in California can set the necessary precedent for the rest of the country. Fortunately, there have been many champions who have been taking a stand on this issue. The California Clean Money Campaign is a non-profit organization that seeks to get politicians out of the fundraising game, open up the political process, [and] end pay-to-play politics.” AB700 is the California DISCLOSE Act that strives to reveal who is paying for political ads. Prop 49, the Overturn Citizens United Act, urges the California Supreme Court to restore the measure that it removed from the ballot in 2014.

Marianne Williamson, a spiritual leader based in Los Angeles, ran for Congress in 2014 on a platform of multiple progressive issues. “I believe that getting money out of politics is the greatest moral challenge of our generation because it is the cancer underlying all the cancers,” Williamson claims (Mosher & Ennis, 2014). Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader from California, introduced the “Government By the People Act” in 2014, which seeks to remove the influence of wealthy donors on elections and strives to “amplify the voices and power of ordinary citizens.” There will always be special interests, and we all want our own interests to be fought for. But, when the special interests are aiming for unlimited profit at the expense of the health of our people and planet something has to change.

The rupture in our political system leads to a rupture in our environment. Extracting and burning fossil fuels leads to an increase in greenhouse gases, which warm our planet and interfere with many of the biogeochemical cycles that are essential components to the health of our planet. The carbon cycle is a natural system that circulates carbon in various forms throughout our environment. Humans have altered this cycle by pumping carbon dioxide into the air mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. The nitrogen cycle is also affected by these actions. Burning fuels at high temperatures creates nitrogen dioxide gas and nitric acid vapor, resulting in acid rain. Burning coal and refining fossil fuels also alters the sulfur cycle. These actions result in sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere, which also leads to acid rain (Miller, 2015).5

It has become harder to drill for and extract these fossil fuels as the easily accessible oil and natural gas wells dry up. As a result, companies have deployed more elaborate techniques, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in order to extract harder to reach energy resources. The water cycle is severely threatened by this. Drills are sent down miles into the Earth’s crust and then sent horizontally into the shale rock. A mixture of fracking fluid (unregulated chemicals) and water are pumped at high pressures to break the rock in order to dissipate the natural gas that is trapped inside. This fracking fluid is highly toxic and can leach into our groundwater. The nature of this issue is a direct result of corporate power. Dick Cheney, former U.S. Vice President and CEO of Halliburton (the company that patented this technique), created a loophole that stripped the EPA from being able to regulate fracking fluid (EarthWorks, 2015). This is a gross example of money in politics and corporate power at the expense of the health and safety of our people and planet.

We also impact the phosphorous cycle through the mining of phosphate for fertilizers. The runoff from these mining practices produces large populations of algae, which leads to a lack of oxygen, which can choke certain areas of a body of water creating a dead zone. Our impact on the phosphorus cycle can be exacerbated by climate change. According to the WorldWatch Institute (2002), “Climate change could accelerate erosion and increase the rate at which phosphorus moves from the soil into aquatic ecosystems.” The fossil fuel industry negatively affects all five of the biogeochemical cycles and has its own destructive cycle. “The cycle of unlimited corporate money in politics” is outlined in the graphic below.


This destructive cycle undermines our capacity to mitigate climate change and goes against the laws of nature. The first law of thermodynamics is the law of conservation of energy. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, therefore the amount of energy we have is finite. The coal and oil deposits that are extracted and burned for energy have been forming over hundreds of millions of years from decaying organic matter. Coal, oil, and natural gas are nonrenewable energy sources because they are consumed faster than they are replenished (Miller, 2015).  No matter how far technology takes us, we cannot create more energy. We can frack as much as we want, but this will not get us past the reality of peaks (peak oil has already been realized [Wessels, 2015]), diminishing reserves (in the U.S. we have enough natural gas for one more generation), and the first law of thermodynamics (U.S. EIA, 2015).

Whenever energy is converted from one form to another we end up with a lesser quality energy. This is the second law of thermodynamics. Energy is lost as heat through conversion. The transformation of concentrated energy into low quality energy drives a system towards disorder and randomness – entropy. Climate change is a result of the diffusion of carbon, an entropic process, from the burning of fossil fuels. Wasted energy is inevitable, but one way to combat this is to improve the efficiency of our systems and reduce global energy consumption (Wessels, 2013). This can be achieved through less dependence on internal combustion vehicles and higher fuel standards. In a car-centric city like Los Angeles, it’s imperative to focus on our gas consumption to fight climate change. A measure in the California state legislature that would have cut petroleum use by 50 percent was recently shot down because of the oil industry lobby. The sponsor of the bill announced he was dropping the mandate citing opposition from the oil industry (Gutierrez, 2015). When the leaders of our government claim, outright, that they have failed to pass legislation for the health and well being of our people and planet because of special interests, our democracy has failed us.

However, the fact that major politicians are having this conversation in the mainstream media is a step in the right direction. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate for President, is a staunch supporter of campaign finance reform. His campaign cites, “Freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to buy the United States government.” (Sanders, 2015). Another progressive voice, Lawrence Lessig, takes it even further. He is running as a “referendum president” on the platform that if he wins he will only serve as President until campaign finance reform is achieved. “We won’t have climate change legislation until we fix this corrupted inequality….every important issue gets tied to the way we are funding these campaigns” (Democracy Now, 2015).

The law of conservation of matter is another important natural law to consider. Like energy, matter cannot be created or destroyed. Matter undergoes physical, chemical and nuclear changes. Coal is made up mainly of carbon, and when coal is burned it undergoes a chemical change to form carbon dioxide (Miller, 2015). Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas and the reason why fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) are so harmful to our planet. Since matter cannot be created or destroyed, getting our energy from fossil fuels will always result in CO2 emissions. Currently, the fossil fuel industry does not take responsibility for this harmful byproduct. The gases emitted by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas that change our climate go unchecked because of the money and power the industry has on regulatory agencies and our politicians. Moving away from fossil fuels altogether is imperative in order to slow down the effects of a changing climate.

As David Orr states in his book Down to the Wire, “climate stability [and] sustainability….are impossible in a world with….a political system that is bought and paid for behind closed doors….the looming climate catastrophe….is a symptom of a larger disease.” This larger disease is the result of a lack of understanding of the principles of sustainability. The first principle of sustainability is dependence on renewable solar energy. Unlike coal, oil, and natural gas, the amount of energy we receive from the sun is unlimited for untold generations to come. The fact that we are not harnessing the power of the sun on a large scale is astonishing since “the total amount of solar energy that continually falls on the United States is 10,000 greater than the fossil fuel energy we now use” (Lough, 1999). Despite the fact that over half the state of California lies in a hot spot for availability of direct solar energy, the state has yet to realize its full renewable energy potential.

The second principle of sustainability is biodiversity. Biodiversity, the interdependence of countless complex systems within nature, is exactly what we are moving away from. Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffet’s conglomerate) owns GEICO, Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, part of the Kraft Heinz Company, and has its fingers in American Express, Coca-cola, Wells Fargo and IBM, among others. Consolidation of wealth goes against the principle of diversity. We need variation in a system in order to be strong enough to be able to adapt to change. It’s the concept that ‘if it’s too big to fail, it’s too big.’ With the few governing the many, and with little diversity amongst the players, the funds, and the voices heard, we are destined for destruction. Tom Wessels states, “…[As] corporation continue to grow….political power has been concentrated….to such a degree that democracy itself is being undermined” (Wessels, 2013).

The third principle of sustainability is chemical or nutrient cycling. Recycling nutrients in order to survive is part of nature. However, we have based our whole globalized system on a finite resource. Oil companies pump and extract relentlessly without paying for the pollution that is coming from their industry. This open-loop system is the epitome of an unsustainable model. Externalities are disregarded when focusing solely on infinite growth with finite resources. The way we obtain our energy, the way we govern our people, and the way we allow corporate interests to go unchecked all go against the principles of sustainability. In fact, as Wessels states:

“The governing concept on which our current economic paradigm of continuous growth is based is the principle of unlimited substitutability. This economic principle states that resources are, figuratively speaking, unlimited because as we exhaust one resource we will replicate it with another, so growth will never cease….[however], no amount of mathematical models or statistical equations can label something as science if it intentionally ignores foundational scientific laws such as limits to growth or the second law of thermodynamics” (Wessels, 2015).

We as a species have been on this planet for such a short period of time; and it was only five years ago that corporations were granted these campaign “privileges.” Yet the destruction we have caused our planet in that time is unprecedented. “Adaptation to a changing climate over the next few decades is likely to be inevitable in the Los Angeles region” (Hall et al., 2012). We are suffering impacts that could be irreversible (Solomon et al., 2007). We must adapt the system that led us to this point in the first place. California can lead the way in addressing the problem at its core by reinstituting our democracy and calling for the limit of corporate power by reforming the way our political campaigns are financed. By changing the way we finance our so-called democratic election process, we can limit the power of the corporate lobby, get fossil fuel interests out of our government, and lead the world in mitigating climate change. But it will take “a shift in consciousness” (Macy, 2006). Leading climate activist Bill McKibben states, “We in the climate movement have long since concluded that the fountain of fossil fuel money – which buys politicians and spreads disinformation – can only be met if we coin our own currency: in this case, the currency of movements, passion, spirit, [and] creativity….” Reimagining our democracy is necessary to get back in harmony with the planet. In order to solve the climate crisis, we must begin by taking back our power as citizens and limiting corporate interests by reforming the way we finance our political campaigns (McKibben, 2012).

  1. The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future. []
  2. Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes. []
  3. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. []
  4. Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century. []
  5. Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections, and Solutions. []

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