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Money, Politics, and the Environment

Money, Politics, and the Environment

I told my brother Tom in June 2009 that I was going to run for U.S. Congress. Tom’s response was that “politics is 70% about getting and keeping money,” and that I should be prepared for that reality. I wasn’t. I came from what I call an activist religious background, and out of those values I became a civil rights worker in the Deep South in the mid-60s, a lawyer for poor people in New York, and an environmental advocate, among other incarnations. Campaign political reality soon imposed itself on idealism; I went to Washington early on, and a prior Democratic Congressman from Dallas told me flat out, “Without a lot of money, nothing makes any difference.” He wasn’t all wrong.

My judgment is that Tom’s 70% figure is a reasonable guess of what now determines public environmental sensibilities and willingness to act. I spoke with the CEO of a major oil company a few years ago and asked him whether he intended to change his company’s business model based on evidence that carbon emissions from burning petroleum caused global warming. That CEO is highly intelligent and has done much civic and charitable good. He responded that he had talked to scientists who said that burning oil was not causing climate change, that it was all natural fluctuations of the sun and the Earth’s natural systems. I believe he knew that the experts he cited were in a small minority, and that the overwhelming scientific judgment was (1) that the planet was warming and (2) that mining and burning carbon the Earth had buried eons ago was causing significant climate change. But the science did not fit into his corporate business model, and so he rejected it.

Money as the trump card rears its head repeatedly in the current Presidential contest. One candidate is getting traction with his pledge to reduce gasoline to $2.50 a gallon if he’s elected President. Various other candidates, including the incumbent, have scrambled to show that they too are on the side of lower gasoline prices, with almost no mention of the costs to our air and climate of the higher consumption lower prices will bring. Having been through a more modest election, I’m sure that the scrambling is a function of polls which show that a majority of potential voters want lower gasoline prices, and they are not all that concerned about consequences. Raising petroleum prices, say doubling them to the prices Europeans pay, is not on any candidate’s wish list, because polls show it would be political suicide.  I believe the Presidential candidates are all informed enough and smart enough to know that consuming more gasoline is bad for national security, is bad for our air, and may have very negative long term effects. But using higher market prices to reduce consumption won’t sell politically, at least not in this election.

Public opinion rules, and that’s what our blog is pounding away at, out of our commitment to expand what is politically possible.


Image By Micov (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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