A Climate Change Litmus Test For Democrats

To activate millennials, candidates must swear off fossil fuel money.
Jim Tanner / Reuters

In April 2016, at a campaign stop on the campus of SUNY Purchase, just north of New York City, I filmed a short video of Hillary Clinton. I captured the former secretary of state berating my friend for asking if she would commit to refusing money from the fossil fuel lobby. “I’m so sick,” Clinton answered, “I’m so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about this.”

The video quickly went viral, partly because of the outsized response from a famously tight-lipped politician, partly because it played so well into the Democratic primary narrative that pitted Clinton, buddy-buddy with Wall Street, against the people-powered challenge of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The furor that the video generated sprang from fissures in the Democratic Party that perfunctory resistance to President Donald Trump has only papered over. Americans care deeply about who finances our lawmakers, an issue often framed as a proxy for whether our politicians can be trusted. One wing of the Democratic Party, represented in 2016 by Clinton, sees corporate money like fossil fuel donations as the price of business in Washington. The other wing, awakened by Sanders’ muscular grassroots fundraising operation, views big-pocketed donors as anathema.

These factions will battle each other again in primaries this year. To mount the strongest challenge to the party of Trump in November, the Democrats will need to energize their young activist base. They must commit to what Clinton would not ― refusing fossil fuel money. The wellbeing of our climate and our communities is at stake.

In an era when schoolchildren are cut down by assault weapons with horrifying regularity, climate change can seem like a distant problem, a speck on the horizon. It’s not. It’s a present and deadly reality ― just ask the 900,000 Puerto Ricans without power five months after Hurricane Maria slammed into their homes.

“A pledge against fossil fuel money would help convince millennials that a candidate deserves a donation, a shift worked on the phone banks and a vote.”

Common sense dictates that the economy undergo a massive restructuring away from fossil fuels to save lives. And a growing body of research shows that the only way to avoid catastrophic levels of climate change is to cease production of vast amounts of “unburnable” carbon. Accomplishing this requires bold government action ― not faith in the current system that subsidizes both the production of fossil fuels and the salaries of oil and gas executives.

The bad news, of course, is that intervention from the federal government became vanishingly unlikely when a billionaire climate change denier was elected president in 2016.

The good news is that young people support transitioning to clean energy by a huge margin. And promisingly, millennials are poised to overtake boomers as the country’s largest voting bloc in 2018.

The pathway to a just, clean economy thus runs through mobilizing young voters. Millennial get-out-the-vote efforts need to be a chief concern of Democrats in the midterm elections if they are serious about tackling climate change. My generation’s disgust with the serial assaulter in the White House is responsible for the spate of Democratic victories in 2017, but as 2016 showed, disgust for one candidate doesn’t automatically translate into enthusiasm for the other.

Democrats need to earn the millennial vote. The party can do this and thus minimize its perennial off-year disadvantage ― the turnout gap ― with a simple promise: to refuse fossil fuel money. This commitment would signal to young voters that a candidate understood climate change as a threat worthy of action.

We needn’t rack our brains to find an example of a campaign that excited and mobilized young people. One of the key reasons that millennials overwhelmingly preferred Sanders to Clinton was his refusal to accept corporate cash. Spurning billionaire dollars meant the senator could credibly claim to represent young people whose family homes had been foreclosed upon, against the bankers who had cleared them out. And it meant that when he spoke about climate change, he could take on the culprits unflinchingly: “The wealthiest industry in the history of our planet has bribed politicians into ignoring science.”

Conversely, one of Clinton’s biggest weaknesses was her perceived untrustworthiness. While victim of a decades-long smear campaign, Clinton nevertheless exposed herself to criticism that she was inauthentic and out-of-touch by grabbing millions of dollars for speeches to Goldman Sachs and others. According to OpenSecrets, Clinton ended up taking only about $20,000 less from oil and gas interests than her Republican opponent who claimed climate change is a Chinese hoax. What good is believing in science if you pad your pockets with donations from those actively opposed to it?

Democrats need to reckon with the fact that even before Trump, many Americans didn’t feel represented by their own government. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that politicians being ”influenced by special interest money″ topped voters’ concerns with Washington. Trump’s presidency has only made the situation more dire. According to a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, “money in politics” and “wealthy political donors” are corroding voters’ faith in democracy.

This problem is most acute among young people. Millennials feel uniquely alienated from politics ― which is understandable given the obstinacy our government shows in doing nothing about massacred children, crippling debt and devastating hurricanes.

The pundit class too often mistakes this alienation for apathy, blithely wondering why the most progressive generation in history doesn’t vote. Meanwhile, the Democrats named a white scion of wealth to give its response to Trump’s State of the Union address. Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, failed to mention climate change at all. Kennedy has also received $5,400 this election cycle from individuals associated with Global Petroleum.

A pledge against fossil fuel money would help convince millennials that a candidate deserves a donation, a shift worked on the phone banks and a vote. Virginia Democrats have already reaped the rewards of such a pledge. Although Tom Perriello lost his bid for governor of Virginia last year, he lent his populist bona fides to the statewide races that were responsible for ”historic″ levels of millennial turnout. Perriello now leads Clean Virginia in lobbying candidates to refuse money from the state’s fossil fuel utility.

Some Democratic senators jockeying for the 2020 presidential nomination are emulating this model: New Jersey’s Cory Booker and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand both recently committed to refusing corporate PAC money. Last month, a candidate for the House of Delegates in West Virginia made headlines when she named the fossil fuel donors to lawmakers attempting to ease regulations on resource extraction.

Momentum against the polluters of our politics is growing. It’s time for Democrats to pledge to reject fossil fuel money entirely.

Matthew Miles Goodrich is a writer and organizer in Brooklyn, New York. He serves as digital editor for Guernica and works with the populist climate movement Sunrise. He tweets at @mmilesgoodrich.

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