The guest post below is by my CCAN co-worker, Keith Harrington.
This past week, on the heels of “Climate Week” and attendant Copenhagen preliminaries in New York, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a nice article in the New Yorker in which she mused over what it would actually take for the US to show real leadership on climate change. http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2009/10/05/091005taco_talk_kolbert.
None of the suggestions Kolbert offered at all resembled the Senate climate bill Senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry unveiled Wednesday. While an improvement over the Waxman Markey bill, overall the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act falls far short of the high bar of climate leadership the US needs to clear and reminds us that the question we should be asking right now is not what US leadership should really look like. I think we already know the answer to that. No, the question we really have to address is, what is holding US leadership back, and how do we overcome it?
In a word, I think the answer is capital. Oil and coal have deep pockets and they use them well to finance the crippling of federal climate efforts. They’ve been outspending us in the climate fight. And the truth is the only way we’re going to win is by beating them at their own game. Simply put, if we want a stronger climate bill, we’ve got to “buy” it.
And we can do it. We the American people have far deeper pockets than all of the big oil and coal companies combined. While most of us fail to realize it, each one of us, by right of being a democratic citizen, has access to inexhaustible stores of a currency far more potent than the dollar. This currency is one which our leaders ultimately depend upon to hold office, run the country, and pass laws that truly reflect the public interest – political capital.
Unfortunately, unlike the oil and coal companies, we’re pretty stingy with our riches. We don’t lavish nearly enough of it on Uncle Sam. Most of us in fact only open our checkbooks every four years when Presidential elections roll around and we step into the voting booth. We figure that the big lump sum donation we collectively make to our leaders is enough to keep them in the black for the next four years. But we’re wrong. It turns out that running a government of the people, by the people and for the people is a really politically expensive proposition. Without a constant influx of new donations in the form of lobby meetings, phone calls, emails, protest marches, rallies and town halls, the well of political capital from the election quickly dries up, and that’s when the real capital starts flowing in to make up the deficit. It’s a pay to play system. Legislation needs to be paid for. And if we don’t do it with democracy dollars, corporations will do it with the real stuff.
And that’s exactly what’s happening with the federal climate fight. We’re not spending enough.
So we shouldn’t be so shocked when, instead of the Cadillac of climate bills we were hoping for, Waxman, Markey, Boxer and Kerry have given us something that more closely resembles a Model-T. The sorry reality is the bill is the best thing that we the American people could buy for the limited amount of political capital we’ve fronted our political leaders on this issue. Sure, a lot of us have been doing some spending – a lobby meeting here, a phone call there, the occasional poorly attended rally. And to be honest a lot of people have been forking over every penny they have. But all totaled it simply hasn’t been enough. At the most its amounted to a small stream of political capital – a stream that’s grown from a trickle in the past few years to be fair, but still a stream.
Of course, what we really need now to get bold climate solutions is a flood: A constant, gushing, rushing, flow of political capital from the American people to our leaders in Washington, one strong enough to finally and unequivocally break down the dam of obstructionism that the forces of the status quo have erected between us and a clean energy future. What we need is an inexorable torrent of democracy dollars: a deluge of demonstrations in every city and town, a surge of non-violent civil disobedience actions at every coal plant, a flood of calls and emails to swamp our congressional representatives’ phones and inboxes. And it should all start with an absolute tsunami of a rally in Washington DC on October 24th, The International Day of Climate Action. http://www.350.org/dc
That could and should be the moment when the high tide starts rushing in. In political terms big rallies produce the same results as huge charitable donations of real dollars from tycoons like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet: not only do they go a long way toward financing a cause, but because they make headlines, they can inspire others to follow suit and start donating. Thus if enough of us show up at the White House on October 24th with political checkbooks in hand we can help unleash the deluge. It could be a turning point for our movement.
If on the other hand those of us who care about climate change fail to show up in sufficient numbers at the DC march on the 24th, and then the government passes a weak climate bill, or worse, no bill at all, we shouldn’t point the finger at the oil companies and their dirty money, or the politicians that take it. The blame will belong to us. We’ll have had the chance to make that big donation when it was really needed and have chosen not to do so.
So if you care about climate change, don’t be a cheapskate this fall. Your political capital is the answer to what’s holding the US back on climate change. Now is the time to go on a spending spree. Together we can “buy” back our government and “purchase” a better climate bill and a better tomorrow. Help us make the down payment this October 24th in Washington. RSVP for the DC October 24th rally today. http://www.chesapeakeclimate.org/campaigns/campaign_detail.cfm?id=135.