Why Politicians Will Not Save Us

by Paul Donahue

For anybody who was still operating under the delusion that there was hope our so-called leaders might actually step up and do something about global warming, the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen back in December should have cleared up their misunderstanding. Despite Obama’s pronouncements that the talks were an important step forward, they were, in fact, a dismal failure. (When was the last time you heard a politician admit failure?) After two weeks of high-level meetings, not a single molecule of carbon dioxide was banned from the atmosphere.

These climate talks were billed in advance as the most important summit in the history of the world. Instead, they were a disaster. After two weeks of negotiating, the agreement that was signed has no targets on carbon emissions, no timetables, and nothing binding. It does absolutely nothing to curtail global warming. Some have suggested that it would have been an improvement if the delegates had signed a blank sheaf of paper. With nothing positive accomplished and all the jetting around of the negotiators and other government officials, the climate crisis is actually worse now than before the conference. And just as in climate negotiations of the past, the biggest impediment to progress in Copenhagen was the United States.

The faces in Washington change, the rhetoric changes, the parties flip from Democratic to Republican and back again, but the policies rarely waver. After eight years of Bush and company, Obama has now been in office for a year. Very little has changed. Officials in the Obama administration are approving new oil exploration operations, handing out permits for more mountaintop removal coal mining operations, and signing deals for pipelines to import the very dirty tar sands oil from Canada. In November 2008, liberals thought they were voting for change, for a president who would finally do something about global warming, but in actuality they were just voting for the status quo.

The protestations of Exxon Mobil, Peabody Energy, other fossil fuel corporations, and their pet scientists to the contrary, the existence of global warming has been proven, and also proven is the fact that it is human-caused. All that is unknown is how bad things will get. What is clear is that actual conditions keep out-stripping even the worst predictions. The world is currently on course for worst case scenarios. Eminent climate scientists the world over are screaming at the top of their lungs that we need to immediately address what will likely be the greatest challenge our society has ever faced. One would think that level of alarm from such a prominent body of scientists might spur our so-called leaders to action, but no such luck. The reason for the inaction is simple - dealing with global warming is not their job. Their job is to supervise the economy for their corporate sponsors.

The politicians elected to high office in this country are not leaders, and they certainly are not environmentalists, they are managers. Their political campaigns are funded through a system that is nothing more than legalized bribery, with the biggest donors - energy corporations high on the list - having the greatest access to and influence over the politicians they finance. The aim is to put in place politicians who will spend their terms in office managing the economy in a way that guarantees an uninterrupted flow of profits to the financing corporations. If your personal philosophy is at variance with the dominant corporate mindset, the odds of you getting far in politics are very, very small.

Strong action on climate change requires steep cuts in our emissions of carbon dioxide, but these steep cuts would be very bad for oil companies, coal companies, automotive companies, agribusiness, and even the large banks that finance fossil fuel development. Therefore, under our present system of campaign financing, politicians simply are not going to push for the needed cuts in emissions. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. I would like to be wrong, but the road signs keep telling me that my pessimism is right on track. In the words of Paul Kingsnorth, “Our leaders are running this enormous machine, and this machine is about cannibalizing resources from the rest of the world, it’s about keeping the consumer economy going.”

Numerous studies have documented that political donations are an incredibly good investment with a terrific return rate. Many eminent scientists say we must stop burning coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, but George Bush’s presidential campaigns were heavily financed by the coal industry, and so was Obama’s. So it’s no big mystery why the Obama administration keeps approving coal-mining permits for mountaintop removal in the Appalachians. An exhaustive new study on the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal was published in the January 8, 2010 issue of the journal Science. The authors state, “Scientists are not usually that comfortable coming out with policy recommendations, but this time the results were overwhelming… [The] only conclusion that one can reach is that mountaintop mining needs to be stopped.” However, don’t expect that study to make any difference in the administration’s issuance of permits - at least not until the study’s authors can pony up a campaign contribution equivalent to that of the “clean coal” lobby.

While in Brazil this past summer I had the opportunity to talk at some length with a social scientist from the Stockholm Environment Institute. He worked as an official consultant on climate change policy to both the Brazilian government and the European Union. Over dinner we spoke in some depth about climate change policy. The conversation was both enlightening and disturbing, and he solidly reinforced what I already felt - that global warming is a problem the governments of the world are not going to solve.

The fellow was very knowledgeable about all the available technologies and schemes for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and how all the various EU and South American countries were doing on their emissions targets. The discouraging thing was that he took it as a given that all climate policy had to first take into account economic growth. To him, economic growth was both necessary and good, the more the better, and within that context, let's try to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the starting point for all politicians, government officials, and climate policy negotiators, including Barack Obama, and even including Al Gore, and it's a plan guaranteed to fail. The correlation between economic output and CO2 emissions is very strong - more growth equals more emissions - very simple and very discouraging. It’s discouraging because virtually every politician in the country either explicitly or implicitly denies the growth-emissions connection. To have a prayer of avoiding catastrophic climate change, we need to drastically scale back the U.S. economy and get away from the endless growth mentality of capitalism, but there is not an elected official out there who will tell that to the American people. 

In the words of environmentalist Edward Abbey, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.” You would think that it would be fairly easy to grasp the concept that you can’t have endless growth on a finite planet. After all, it’s a physical impossibility. However, politicians (and economists) don’t show any indication that they comprehend the inherent contradiction of endless growth. The closest they ever get is in their use of the oxymoronic term “sustainable growth”.

 Our so-called leaders measure the health of our country by how much our economy is growing - the more growth the better - steadfastly denying or ignoring the growth-emissions connection. We’re then supposed to take them seriously when five minutes later these same so-called leaders turn around and tell us they are serious about taking action to slow global warming and forestall catastrophic climate change.

Many people talk of the utter uselessness of our politicians, but it is actually much worse than that.  At this point, the inaction of our so-called leaders has probably locked us into irreversible and catastrophic climate change. If, as scientists say, global warming will be the biggest crisis our society has faced, and if, as scientists say, global warming will be responsible for the death and suffering of hundreds of millions of people, and if our politicians hold the key to solving or at least mitigating the crisis, then for them to thwart meaningful action amounts to nothing less than criminal negligence on a grand scale.

We need to realize that until there is radical change in our political system, most politicians will continue to impede serious action on global warming. We need to recognize most politicians for the corporate pawns and stooges and criminals they are. In the words of the great prevaricator Barack Obama, “Global warming is not just the greatest environmental challenge facing our planet - it is one of our greatest challenges of any kind.” As problems go, I would put global warming right up there with getting corporate money out of politics. Until we get rid of the corporate money, politicians simply are not going to face vitally important issues like global warming.

Pacifica, California

29 January 2010



Supreme Court Lifts Ban on Corporate Funding of Candidates

For the cynical among you who are already thoroughly disgusted with the present political system and think that things could not possibly get any worse, forget it, they just did. Much worse. Exponentially worse.

Last week’s Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited corporate money into political campaigns will open the floodgates to corporate campaign spending. Large corporations like Exxon Mobil and Chevron will now be free to drop literally billions into the campaigns of their favored candidates. The total cost of the 2008 presidential campaign was about $2.5 billion, with Obama raising a record $745 million, but by the time the 2012 presidential election rolls around, those numbers will look small.

The only problem for corporations like Exxon Mobil will be finding enough hours in the day for airing all the television ads they can now legally purchase. If you are one of those rare, principled candidates who actually wants to take meaningful action against a problem like global warming, you are out of luck - they will sink you. Of course, 501(c)(4) public interest groups like Greenpeace will also be free now to spend as much as they want on political campaigns, but then Greenpeace didn't pull in $45 billion in profits last year.

To spare ourselves from the excruciatingly long campaigns and endless television ads, for future elections we should consider bringing in accountants to check the coffers of the various contenders. Then we could just simply declare the candidate with the most money to be the winner.

With our democracy already in tatters, this Supreme Court decision marks a very, very sad day. The state of our environment will undoubtedly take a big hit as a result of it.