The Common Good
March 2011

The Planet Cries Out

by Bill McKibben | March 2011

We need to clear the polluted political air before we'll have a real chance to clear the actual atmosphere.

At times in 2010 it felt as if the planet were engaged in a large-scale PR campaign to spread the news about global warming. The fires and drought in Russia, the epic Arctic melt. In Pakistan, floodwaters covered an area the size of England; since that didn’t seem to ram the message home, the Queensland flood at year's end drowned a region larger than France and Germany combined. I mean, the lights were all flashing amber; the message was pretty clear.

But if this was nature's intent, I fear it misspent its media budget. We live in an age of targeted advertising -- you don't waste your money on reaching everyone. Events that happen in poor places like Pakistan or remote places like outback Australia don't make much of an impression on your key audiences. Which in this case would be American voters, charged with electing a Congress that holds, along with the Chinese Communist Party, the keys to the planet's future.

And in this contest, nature was outmatched. The fossil fuel industry, which has so thoroughly polluted the atmosphere, has also managed to pollute the political process; they've changed the political climate almost as powerfully as the physical climate. Jane Mayer, in her powerful New Yorker article on the Koch brothers and their endless funding of every climate skeptic and denier, laid bare the basic plan: two of the richest oil barons in the land setting up front groups ("Citizens for a Sound Economy," "Americans for Prosperity"), funding the birth of the tea party movement and investing tens of millions of dollars in electioneering.

It's not the Koch brothers by themselves, of course. Look at groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- mostly funded by a few huge corporations, but drawing its political might from the idea that it represents hundreds of thousands of small businesses across the land. When the EPA wants to regulate global warming gases, guess who's there to lobby against it?  The end effect of all this money is powerful -- not a single Republican Senate candidate in the last election cycle was willing to straightforwardly acknowledge the science of climate change, and figures such as Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, who just a few years earlier had called for controlling carbon emissions, were backpedaling as fast as they could. And the virus spread across party lines: The single most disgusting ad of the election cycle came from West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who won his seat with a TV commercial that showed him using his deer rifle to shoot ... a copy of climate legislation.

So at this point, defenders of climatic stability face a double fight. We need to clear the polluted political air before we'll have a real chance to clear the actual atmosphere. In the wake of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, that’s a hard challenge: Corporate interests, operating in the dark, can now spend as much as they want to influence our political life. So we've got to figure out ways to make that spending toxic. We've got to figure out how to convince people of good heart not to go along: There's no reason that the local shoe store should be backing the Chamber of Commerce; its interests are not the same as a giant coal company.

Money can accomplish so much. It can turn plutocrats into "populists," and make dumping carbon in the atmosphere seem like dumping tea in Boston Harbor. We don't have the money to match those efforts, so we're going to have to organize to tell the truth. As loudly as we possibly can.

Bill McKibben is founder of 350.org.

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