PULLING THE STRINGS: THE INVISIBLE HAND OF THE AMERICAN CLIMATE LOBBY

By Magdalena Breyer, GLOBUS Contributor

Here at GLOBUS, we’re lucky to be in close collaboration with both academics and students from the Global Sustainable Development Department. It is therefore with much excitement that we are publishing a series of selected pieces from GSD’s 3rd Year module: ‘The Energy Trilemma’, convened by Dr Morakinyo Adetutu.

The last piece in this series discusses the intricacies of American politics that prevent any significant action to be taken on climate change.


IS CLIMATE CHANGE A HOAX CREATED BY THE CHINESE? Is it a ruse by the Democrats to take power out of the hands of everyday Americans? How can global warming be happening when we’re experiencing the coldest temperatures on record? These are questions that still plague the American public’s mind.

Similarly to the debate of whether pineapple should exist on pizza, opinions on the existence of manmade global warming are divided along two polarised lines—those who believe we are causing the planet’s warming and those who wholeheartedly disagree. While the world’s nations have largely grasped the impeding threat of a changing climate on human welfare and the environment, the United States moves further and further away from decarbonisation.

This article explores the hidden power of the climate lobby, presenting it as one of the largest challenges facing climate action due to its role in the perpetuation of climate change denial and the obstruction of climate legislation—all the while representing the needs of corporations over the wants of the American people.

Background

THE CALL FOR A GLOBAL TRANSITION

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of the consequences of the average global temperature increase exceeding 1.5°C above the levels prior to the industrial revolution—a threshold which was globally accepted at the 2015 United Nations (UN) Climate Conference. In a world that has already been met by a 1°C temperature increase, the report paints a dreary picture of a world in which the 1.5°C threshold is exceeded—a landscape defined by increased flooding, extreme heat, decreased crop yield, the loss of ecosystems, and the exacerbation of global poverty [1]. To meet the 1.5°C pathway, the report gives us until 2030 to reduce current emissions by 50 percent, once again reasserting the sentiments echoed at the UN Climate Conference; sentiments which reflect the need for the reduction of fossil fuels, increased renewable energy use, and strong governmental policy.

Figure 1: Global Average Temperature

AMERICA: DIDN’T YOU GET THE MESSAGE?

Despite these global calls for the transition to low carbon energy systems and the decreased reliance on fossil fuels, 2018 saw record-breaking greenhouse gas concentrations. The stable level of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions between the years of 2014 and 2016 saw a 1.4% increase in 2017 and 2.1% in 2018, with predictions for 2019 being set at an equivalent if not higher level, according to the Global Carbon Project [2].

This leaves us at the start of a new decade—nearly five years after the Paris Agreement was signed—experiencing record-breaking temperatures and atmospheric CO2 concentrations. And yet, the dire state that was agreed upon in 2015 has not been translated into adequate policy and governance. On the contrary, in the United States, 2019 has seen a record high in the oil and gas sector as crude oil production surpassed 12 million barrels per day in April, numbers which are expected to increase through the rise in oil prices and deregulation [3].

A report by Oil Change International, in collaboration with non-profit organisations such as GreenPeace, Food & Water Watch, and EarthWorks, has shown that the United States is expanding oil and gas extraction at a faster rate than any other nation [4]. This raises an important questions: without the United States actively fighting against climate change, will the rest of the world be able to mitigate their impacts? Research shows that the forward projection of the operations of the United States alone stands to be enough to make meeting the 1.5°C target impossible (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: “Global Oil and Coal use in a 1.5 °C Low-Demand Pathway, Compared to Projected U.S. Oil and Gas Production, 2010 to 2050″ [5]

The implication is clear, at the exact moment in time in which global nations must start rapid decarbonisation to avoid climate disaster, the United States moves in the opposite direction. The crossroad of Donald Trump’s climate change denial and the economic incentives for fossil fuel expansion is obvious, the far more interesting arena to explore is why climate legislation is not being passed on the legislative level—by those who make laws. The answer? It’s all in the money.

MONEY MAKES THE WORLD GO ROUND?

Lobbying is the unspoken of and often forgotten elephant in the room. The right to lobby is officially legal under the First Amendment of the Constitution, which protects the right of individuals to petition the government or elected officials [6]. While it is classically defined as “the stimulation and transmission of a communication by someone other than a citizen acting on his own behalf, directed to a governmental decision-maker with the hope of influencing his decision,” [7] it is most easily explained through a cartoon from 1889. [8] Titled “The Bosses of the Senate,” this cartoon shows the corruption of the legislative process by corporate money.

Figure 2: Cartoon “Bosses of the Senate” By Joseph Keppler [8]

Critical of the influence of money and corporate interests on the decisions made for the nation, within this cartoon Joseph Keppler states that, “This is a senate of the monopolists, by the monopolists and for the monopolists!” He points to coal and oil, amongst other interests, writing the laws of the nation rather than the needs and wants of the people.

LOBBYING IN THE CURRENT DAY AND AGE

In the 21st century, the main role of lobbyists is threefold: to provide background information to decision makers, to monitor activities within the legislative branch, and to influence the perception of the media and decision makers on specific policy issues by providing expertise [8]. To do so, the following practices are undertaken:

  • Contacting policymakers
  • Monitoring congressional activities
  • Monitoring congressional hearings
  • Establishing political alliances
  • Congressional testifying
  • Outreach in the media
  • Fundraising for politicians
  • Drafting of legislation

On an annual basis, approximately $4 billion is spent directly on lobbying Congress and approximately another $4 billion on indirect lobbying initiatives—this includes public relations, grassroots mobilisation, and media relations. [8] Of this, corporations and trade associations make up 84% [6]. What the true impact of lobbying is remains difficult to measure as statistical inferences, estimations, and interpretations are required [6].

The Climate Lobby

In the United States, lobbying is a central factor in the failure of climate change legislation. Even though several bills have been introduced to limit carbon emissions, none have been passed. The largest lobbying actors in this field are the likes of ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP, and Total [9]. The following sections explore the direct and indirect mechanisms through which these corporations have worked to hinder climate legislation.

THE FUNDING OF CLIMATE DENIAL

Corporations utilise sophisticated strategies to simultaneously undermine climate legislation while presenting themselves in support of climate policy. For example, many hold dual membership in both coalitions which support and oppose climate legislation, such as the U.S. Climate Action Partnership and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity [10]. At the same time, these very corporations have historically funded climate change denying research to delegitimise the existing science. As an example, the American Petroleum Institute (API), which is the chief trade association of natural gas and oil industry and includes prominent members such as ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron, created a Global Climate Science Communications Team (GCSCT). This came in the aftermath of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which called for the reduction in greenhouse gases [11].

In a leaked document of API, it was shown that the purpose of the GCSCT was to highlight issues in the prevalent science of climate change through scientific studies and media campaigns—funded by a multi-million dollar budget—in order to instil uncertainty within the public. According to the plan, victory would be achieved “when those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality,” [11].

It has recently been disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act that leading climate denial scientist, Willie Soon, has since 2001 largely been funded by the likes of Southern Company, ExxonMobil, and the Charles Koch Foundation—receiving approximately $1.3 million [12]. And, according to a study at Yale University, organisations and individuals receiving corporate funding were more likely to write texts which polarise climate change and corporate funding largely influences the thematic content of these efforts [13]. This countermovement to discredit the scientific evidence surrounding manmade climate change involves a combination of trade associations, advocacy groups, conservative think-tanks and foundations, all of which have strong links to conservative politicians and media outlets [14].

DIRECT CONGRESSIONAL LOBBYING

As shown in Joseph Keppler’s cartoon, direct Congressional lobbying is undertaken by corporate actors or representative trade organisations to influence the likelihood of a given bill or piece of legislation being passed. In the United States, in order for any piece of legislation to be passed, a proposed bill must first go through the Legislative branch (both houses of Congress)—The House of Representatives and the Senate. If the bill is passed in both houses it is sent to the president, who has the power to make it law or veto it.

Between the years of 2000 and 2016, more than $2 billion was spent lobbying climate change, making up 3.9% of all lobbying initiatives [8]. Within this, the electrical utility, fossil fuel, and transportation sectors were the most dominant actors [8]. During this timeframe, environmental organisations and the renewable energy sector was outspent by a ratio of 10 to 1—their contributions representing no more than 5% of total spending on climate lobbying [8].

To this day, no piece of climate change legislation has been successfully passed through Congress. The only piece of legislation to pass either houses of Congress was the Waxman-Markey Bill in 2009, also known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which passed through the House of Representatives but failed to pass through the Senate [15]. The influence of lobbying is evident in data which shows that over the 16-year period, when bills were introduced that posed a threat to a particular industry, lobbying increased. This is most easily evidenced through the different Congressional sessions [8].

THE 107TH AND 108TH CONGRESSIONAL SESSIONS

During both the 107th and 108th sessions, lobbying spending was low. As only 64 climate change bills were introduced and the Republicans controlled the Executive branch, as well as one house in Congress, meaning that any bill was unlikely to pass given the historic Republican opposition to climate change.

THE 109TH, 110TH, AND 111TH CONGRESSIONAL SESSIONS

Between the years of 2003 and 2010, there was an increase in lobbying spending from $92.5 million to $715.5 million [8]. The fourfold increase in expenditure from the 109th to the 110th can be related to the much larger number of climate bills—124—and the fact that both the Senate and the House of Representatives were in the hands of the Democrats, making a potential bill more likely to pass.

The 111th session marked the peak of attention to climate legislation, with 248 bills introduced, including the Waxman-Markey Bill. The Waxman-Markey Bill was the first national, economy-wide climate policy which looked to implement a cap-and-trade scheme with a fixed number of tradable emission permits [15]. Research found that lobbying decreased the enactment probability—or the likelihood of the bill passing—by 13 percentage points [15]. Within this Congressional session, $715.5 million was spent as the likelihood of potential climate legislation being passed was higher due to the fact that the Democrats controlled the Legislative and Executive branches.

THE 112TH CONGRESSIONAL SESSION AND ONWARDS

Since 2010, lobbying spending has decreased. For one, the emphasis on climate legislation decreased since its peak in 2009-2010 (see Figure 4). Secondly, until the mid-term elections in 2018, the Republican Party has had the majority in the House of Representatives, making the likelihood of proposed bills passing through Congress slim.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? 

The above research makes to two important points. The first being that the prevalence of lobbying is dependent on the division of power within the Legislative and Judicial branches and the theoretical potential of legislation being passed. When power was divided amongst Democrats and Republicans or both branches saw a Republican majority, less money was spent lobbying due to the decreased likelihood of legislation passing. Vice-versa, when Democrats had majority power and the likelihood of legislation passing was higher, lobbying spending increased. Secondly, when looking at the fact that the majority of this spending came from the transportation, utility, and fossil fuel sectors, this paints problems for the future fate of climate change legislation. The big question is, is the government representing the voices and interests of the people or of corporate money? 

THE LOST VOICES OF THE PEOPLE

When exploring the money behind legislative decisions and policy, the trouble surrounds whether Congress which is meant to represent the wants of the people, truly does represent. According to research published by Stanford in collaboration with Resources for the Future, Americans underestimate how many other Americans actually believe in global warming. In reality, 74 percent of Americans believe that global temperatures are rising rather than the predicted 57 percent [16]. Within this, 84 percent of Democrats and 32 percent of Republicans believe that there should be government action on climate change, with 78 percent believing that the government should limit industrial emissions by corporations [16]. This evidences the desire amongst the American people for climate legislation, to a certain degree.  

Yet, while the policies of the nation and Congress itself are meant to be by the people and for the people, a Princeton study shows that in the presence of economic elites and interests groups, the average American has a near-zero and statistically non-significant influence on public policy [17]. This means that even with the desire of the American population for legislation on climate change, their voices are lost and policy will continue to work to fulfil the interests of different organised groups rather than those of the people.  

CLIMATE PROTECTION THROUGH LOBBY ELIMINATION 

The world and its people require that we move away from fossil fuels and transition to more sustainable energy systems. These global cries go unheard as the United States works to expand its oil and gas industry; thereby threatening to squander international initiatives to limit fossil fuel emissions and stay within the 1.5°C threshold. A large, and often overlooked, challenge to decarbonisation is the influence of lobbying both on public perceptions of climate change and directly on policy. Throughout the history of proposed climate legislation in the United States, the investment of hundreds of millions by corporate lobbyists has continuously been a counteractive force hindering policies that would decarbonise, foster investment in renewable energies, and protect the environment. Through this, the voices of Americans go unheard and the body which is meant to represent the people represents the interests of a wealthy minority.  

The future of American climate legislation will in part fall at the hands of lobbying and while hindering it will not be the be all-end all in the fight for climate legislation, it will provide a more level playing field. In the year 2020, the cartoon by Joseph Keppler is more relevant than ever…

Header Image by Clark Van Der Beken at Unsplash

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