Climate Change News

Senator Urges Ending Dark Money’s Stifling of Climate Action

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse says that dark money funding from the fossil fuel industry and others “has polluted our politics.” Dark money and climate denial “are two sides of the same coin,” he says.

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Anonymous dark money political funding that has poisoned the U.S. political process and throttled action on climate change needs to be unmasked and stopped, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said at a 19 June forum in Washington, D.C.

“The fossil fuel industry’s dark money has polluted our politics as badly as its carbon emissions have polluted our atmosphere and oceans,” Whitehouse said at the forum hosted by the Washington, D.C.–based League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and the End Citizens United Action Fund (ECU), a group advocating to counter the impacts of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that led to unprecedented political spending.

Whitehouse called for continued pressure in Congress and the courts, among other measures, on the fossil fuel industry to curtail and expose the influence of dark money, which is loosely defined as anonymous political spending by organizations such as political action committees (PACs). The For the People Act of 2019 (H.R. 1), which the House of Representatives passed in March, addresses campaign spending. Companion legislation, awaiting action in the Senate, includes the DISCLOSE Act that Whitehouse introduced to increase transparency surrounding special interest campaign contributions.

Since the Citizens United decision, entities within the energy and natural resources sector have provided more than $668 million in campaign contributions, including more than $185 million in corporate PAC contributions, according to data provided by LCV and ECU that cite information from the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks money in U.S. politics. Three quarters of those contributions have gone to Republican candidates, according to the information.

“Our failure in Congress to address climate change is directly connected to the secret empire of dark money that Citizens United launched,” Whitehouse said. “Climate denial and dark money are two sides of the same coin.”

EPA’s Replacement of the Clean Power Plan

Other speakers at the forum also called for an end to dark money. “If we want to protect our air and our water and reduce the impact of climate change, we have to sever the ties between special interest money and candidates for office,” said ECU president Tiffany Muller.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV’s senior vice president for government affairs, said that the 2020 elections and potential victories by environmental champions “cannot come soon enough.”

“I say that on the day when the Trump administration has just pulled back the Clean Power Plan, perhaps the single biggest thing our nation has ever done to combat the climate crisis,” she added. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on 19 June its final Affordable Clean Energy rule, which would replace the plan put in place by former president Barack Obama.

At the forum, Whitehouse said that the Trump administration’s favoring of the fossil fuel industry goes beyond dark money.

“With the Trump administration, there’s something that’s so kind of shameless about their operation that they really don’t need to do a whole lot in terms of dark money. They just pick a fossil fuel stooge right out of the fossil fuel industry and put them in as a decision-maker,” he said.

EPA director Andrew Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist with the Faegre Baker Daniels consulting firm.

Whitehouse said that although environmental groups may challenge Trump administration rulings and win in court, time is not on the side of the environment. He said that if all the administration is doing is stopping action that needs to be taken to move forward on climate change efforts, “then the advantage is theirs.”

“With all the delays and all the fuss on the Clean Power Plan, and the very shabby plan that was announced today, time is not our friend with climate change,” Whitehouse said. “So even if they do a complete hash of a job through the administrative procedures act process and then losing court, we’re still in the situation where we’ve lost another 3 or 4 years where EPA could have done something useful [about climate change] if they tried.”

Snuffing Out Bipartisan Climate Efforts

Whitehouse said that when he got to the Senate in 2007 and for a few years afterward, there was bipartisan progress on climate change. Sen. John McCain had a strong climate position when he ran for president in 2008, and there were hopes for bipartisan legislation.

However, that bipartisan effort on climate change “all fell apart” following the Supreme Court ruling that “opened the spigots to the fossil fuel industry to flood unlimited money into our politics,” he said. “With its Citizens United weaponry, ruthlessly, through dark money attacks and threats, the fossil fuel industry snuffed out Senate bipartisanship on climate change. Weaponization of that new unlimited dark money power by the fossil fuel industry cost us a decade of climate progress.”

Whitehouse told Eos that he tells congressional colleagues who publicly supported climate action prior to Citizens United that time is running out for meaningful action on climate change.

“You will be on the right side of history” if you support climate action, Whitehouse said he tells colleagues. “When these fossil fuel pirates blow up, which they will—the whole thing is a big charade; it’s phony as a $3 bill—you don’t want to go down with them.”

At the forum, Whitehouse said he is hopeful that the influence of dark money on climate change efforts can be turned around. He said that corporations are vulnerable to public opinion, and he pointed to polls showing that Americans are concerned about corruption in government and about the impacts of climate change.

“I think we can disable their dark money power structure, shame corporate America into stepping up in a way that they to this point have not, and keep enormous pressure on the fossil fuel industry,” he said.

He remains hopeful, too, about the upcoming 2020 elections.

“The dark money problem and the fraudulent climate denial, that whole mess, is something we can attack, and that is a real vulnerability for Republicans,” he told Eos. “I think that if we had a Democratic president and Democratic majority leader even without a filibuster-proof Senate, and a Democratic speaker, we absolutely could find a way to get a very meaningful bill passed.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Senator urges ending dark money’s stifling of climate action, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO126773. Published on 20 June 2019.
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