The Pundits Are Wrong: Corporate Money Can Still Destroy the World

In a flood of recent articles, political pundits are gleefully proclaiming that the GOP Super PACs got an embarrassingly small return on their investments this election season. Seems straightforward and self-evident, right? The GOP’s robber barons collectively shelled out more than $300 million, and most of them lost the vast majority of races they poured money into.

But the threat of outsider money in politics is indeed bigger than ever, and focusing just on the “results” of the election would be a terrible mistake—for at least one really good reason and two monumental, earth-shattering, world-ending reasons.

Reason One: Democrats spent stupid amounts of money, too.

First, to pretend that money in politics is no longer a huge problem is to ignore the heinous amounts of spending by Democrats. In fact, Obama purchased more than twice as many ads on local broadcast and national cable as Romney. It’s only when you factor in the GOP outsider groups that the numbers even out. In the words of one Democratic Super PAC manager, “The meta-lesson from this last election cycle is that showing up and participating in the [Super PAC] process is key, which is something that we didn’t do in 2010.” The $233 million in Democratic-aligned Super PAC spending proves his point: money in politics is bigger and more important than ever.

Reason Two: Politicians talk dumb when they’re doped up on dollars.

Second—and here’s where the reasons start to get earth-shattering—our politicians are so dependent upon their funders (or afraid of their competitors’ funders) that they can’t even mention the single most pressing issue facing the world today: climate change. And I’m not exaggerating. In the three presidential debates, the word “climate” was never mentioned once. Not. Once.

This happened the same year, 2012, that the USDA declared over 1,000 counties in 26 states disaster areas due to droughts, floods, wildfires, and other extreme events. The last debate took place the very night Sandy was first upgraded to a Tropical Storm. Sandy, eventually upgraded to hurricane status, became the largest storm ever measured in the Atlantic, and it took place during the hottest year in American history.

In a year with record-breaking temperatures and extreme weather events, our President had the audacity to brag about “increas[ing] oil production to the highest levels in 16 years.” He had the shortsighted selfishness to boast about “increases in coal production and coal employment.” And, in a quote that could haunt his presidential legacy, he said, “we’ve built enough pipeline to wrap around the entire Earth once. So I’m all for pipelines; I’m all for oil production.” The imagery is apt. The President mentions the globe only to say that he’s hanged it on a noose of oil pipelines.

In fifty years, we will look back on this charade with heartbreaking indignation. Unable to explain to our children and grandchildren why gas prices mattered more than chronic droughts and starving nations, we’ll feel ashamed at our fawning faith in party politics.

Reason Three: Bought politicians make bad policy.

Election results aren’t results—results mean legislation, and our corrupt congress is absolutely incapable of producing anything that defies the will of corporate America. We already saw how Obama bargained away the promised public option to satisfy the insurance lobby, turning health care into a government mandate to purchase private insurance.  Imagine what such staggering levels of corporate influence would do with the world’s most pressing (and profitable) issue on the line. Actually, we don’t have to imagine, because they’ve already shown us.

The BP oil spill in April 2010 should have been a wake-up call about the seriousness and scope of our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. Instead, in July 2010, just one week after the wellhead was capped, the senate called off even the embarrassingmisguided, and broken cap-and-trade system that was on the table. This was at a time when most Americans acknowledged the reality of climate change.

You don’t have to be a rocket (or climate) scientist to know what’s up. For starters, the energy industry sent in four anti-climate lobbyists for every member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

In addition to more boots on the ground, the robber barons had more green in their guns. The oil, gas, and coal industries spent $543 million to lobby congress about cap-and-trade. Just in 2009, the oil and gas industry easily broke its previous record by spending $175 million to outpace pro-environmental lobbying eight-fold. Heck, ExxonMobil alone spent more ($27.4 million) than the entire environmental lobby combined ($22.4 million).

And this was all before the Democrats lost the house.

Game Plan

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that we know exactly how to solve our climate crisisa carbon tax—and that some prominent think tanks have called for a carbon tax as a way to halve the federal deficit. According to a recent MIT report, a relatively modest carbon tax could raise $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.

The bad news is that even post-election Obama is not planning to propose a carbon tax.

The bad news, as powerfully articulated by environmentalist Bill McKibben, is that our atmosphere can handle about 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide before we plunge into climate chaos, and our present coal, oil, and gas reserves add up to 2,795 gigatons—five times higher than our breaking point. Our goal as a species is to make sure these coal, oil, and gas companies keep those resources in the ground. Period.

There’s more news. Neither good nor bad. This news is unwritten. It’s the story of how everyday people—mostly students—will come together to solve the greatest humanitarian crisis since slavery.

 We know that the only way to defeat the world’s richest companies is to keep their dirty, fossil-fueled hands off our Congress. And we know that the only way to rescue Congress from corporate corruption is to reform America’s campaign finance laws.

Like a carbon tax, we know what campaign finance reform will take and how to get there. Professor Lessig has written extensively about getting two-thirds of the states to agree to a constitutional convention to federally fund elections and enact meaningful campaign finance reform. Believe it or not, we’re already more than a quarter of the way there. And to bring the campaign home, Rootstrikers groups are popping up in universities all across the country—Harvard Rootstrikers is starting on campus this fall.

 So the question becomes, which fight will you pick: carbon tax or campaign finance reform? Can anyone make a case for pursuing any other cause, in light of the immense, immediate, murderous, and irreversible consequences of climate change?

To join Harvard Rootstrikers, e-mail The first Harvard Rootstrikers information session will be held on Wednesday, November 28.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record. 

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