The Pump Handle

Paris and profits

Like Celeste, I’m appalled and ashamed that President Trump is withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. Failing to take meaningful action to address global climate disruption has severe consequences for public health.

In addition to supporting the US entities and many right-thinking countries that have emphasized their commitments to the Paris goals for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, it’s important to consider the forces that got us to this point. An excellent New York Times article from Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton reminds us that in the face of scientific consensus about humans’ role in climate disruption and the public-health consequences of letting it continue, an industry-funded campaign convinced Republicans to oppose actions that would have been in the world’s best interest.

Davenport and Lipton begin by reminding us the the 2008 Republican candidate for president, John McCain, pushed for action to address global warming. But then, they explain, things changed:

Republican lawmakers were moved along by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch, the Kansas-based billionaires who run a chain of refineries (which can process 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day) as well as a subsidiary that owns or operates 4,000 miles of pipelines that move crude oil.

Efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions coalesced around the market-based “cap-and-trade” approach. But, Davenport and Lipton report, it faced opposition from the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and “a small army of oil-industry-funded academics like Wei-Hock Soon of Harvard Smithsonian and think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute.” The cap-and-trade bill passed the House, but never got off the ground in the Senate. Defeating one bill wasn’t enough for the industry foes, though; Davenport and Lipton write:

Unshackled by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other related rulings, which ended corporate campaign finance restrictions, Koch Industries and Americans for Prosperity started an all-fronts campaign with television advertising, social media and cross-country events aimed at electing lawmakers who would ensure that the fossil fuel industry would not have to worry about new pollution regulations.

Their first target: unseating Democratic lawmakers such as Representatives Rick Boucher and Tom Perriello of Virginia, who had voted for the House cap-and-trade bill, and replacing them with Republicans who were seen as more in step with struggling Appalachia, and who pledged never to push climate change measures.

But Americans for Prosperity also wanted to send a message to Republicans.

Until 2010, some Republicans ran ads in House and Senate races showing their support for green energy.

“After that, it disappeared from Republican ads,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. “Part of that was the polling, and part of it was the visceral example of what happened to their colleagues who had done that.”

What happened was clear. Republicans who asserted support for climate change legislation or the seriousness of the climate threat saw their money dry up or, worse, a primary challenger arise.

None of this, or the rest of the chronicle that Davenport and Lipton present, will be surprising to anyone who’s been following this issue. But I think it’s important to emphasize this now, when the US government has taken such a disgraceful step away from addressing climate disruption: A small number of industry-funded groups have shaped the US political process in ways that ensure they can continue profiting — even though it will cost millions of lives worldwide. Scientific evidence has mounted, politicians from both parties have seen the need to take meaningful action, and a majority of voters have expressed support for climate legislation. But our system allows to profit to win out over people’s lives.