Constitutional Amendment Would Help Save Our Planet

Dirty money in politics has enabled the fossil fuel industries to dirty our air and endanger our planet. With clean elections, we will, finally, drive forward the clean energy revolution.
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You've changed the light bulbs, switched the car for a bike. Across the country, people are ready to take it to the next level.

In September, literally thousands of people will gather in New York to show the force that citizens are bringing to the climate fight. The science is clear and the power of the people is growing. But again and again, real progress has been stopped by dirty money in politics -‒ polluters who are using their political power to block progress. And we're still facing consequences to our climate that are almost too horrible to contemplate, with mounting scientific research telling us we need to act swiftly and decisively.

Now it turns out, saving our planet will also require us to save our democracy too. The systems that take power away from the people are the same systems that are destroying our planet.

Sound impossible to overcome? There's a chance it could happen, when the U.S. Senate votes later this week on the proposed Democracy For All constitutional amendment. This amendment would overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and other harmful U.S. Supreme Court decisions. It would ensure that We the People -- operating through the Congress and the state legislatures -- are empowered to restore our democracy by limiting campaign contributions and campaign spending, including spending by outside groups.

How does this relate to preventing climate catastrophe? It would put a significant time-out on Dirty Energy companies leveraging their political power to block progress.

"The polluters give and spend money to keep polluting," U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) eloquently stated more than a year ago. "Not truth, not science, not economics, not safety, not policy, and certainly not religion, nor morality ‒- nothing supports climate denial. Nothing except money. But in Congress, in this temple, money rules; so here I stand, in one of the last places on Earth that is still a haven to climate denial."

Limits on campaign contributions and spending are sorely needed since Congress has become a platform for climate change denialists and has endeavored to block any meaningful federal government action on climate. Right now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing an important, though incredibly modest, rule to limit carbon pollution from coal plants. The first major threat to completing the rule is a dirty energy-funded Congress. (The second major threat to the new rule will be dirty energy-funded governors and state legislatures that may resist implementing the new carbon pollution-reduction standards.)

As Sen. Whitehouse said, to understand this congressional hostility to measures to avert catastrophic climate change, you have to start with millions and millions in political spending by dirty energy companies. Energy and natural resource companies spent more than $142 million on the 2012 federal elections. Last year, they spent more than $350 million lobbying -- and that was their lowest total in the past half dozen years!

These totals include only the amounts that are disclosed and reported. The real totals are far higher, especially given the post-Citizens United rise of "dark money" -- funds spent by trade associations and social welfare organizations, with the identities of the original donors never revealed. In 2012, the biggest outside spending group in the election was an outfit called Freedom Partners. Virtually no one knew that Freedom Partners even existed until after the election. It turned out to be the primary spending vehicle for the Koch Brothers (whose sprawling Koch Industries is rooted in the petrochemical sector) and their allies. Freedom Partners poured more than $225 million into the 2012 elections.

With this campaign spending backdrop, many Republicans on Capitol Hill are afraid not only to support appropriate climate change policy, but even to acknowledge climate change exists. Only in off-the-record interviews will many acknowledge the science of climate change and the need for action. The problem is, we need on-the-record action, and we need it fast. It's awfully hard to see how we're going to get there with dirty energy money dominating politics.

We need to end secret campaign funding with robust disclosure rules, including a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring corporations to disclose their political spending. We must reduce politicians' reliance on the donor class of the super-rich by adopting public financing systems like that proposed by the Government By the People Act.

And, to reassert basic democratic principles, we must enact the Democracy For All constitutional amendment. It would enable We the People to distinguish between corporations and real, live, breathing people when it comes to campaign spending; impose appropriate limits on outside spending; impose limits on the total amount the superrich can give to candidates; and -- in very real terms ‒- take back control of our government.

Executives from Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy have the same right to participate in politics as the rest of us. But their big bucks shouldn't give them political superpowers.

Dirty money in politics has enabled the fossil fuel industries to dirty our air and endanger our planet. With clean elections, we will, finally, drive forward the clean energy revolution.

Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen and Annie Leonard is executive director of Greenpeace U.S.