The world’s leading scientists issued a report warning of total planetary dystopia unless we take immediate steps to seriously reduce carbon emissions. Then, oil and gas corporations dumped millions of dollars into the 2018 elections to defeat the major initiatives that could have slightly reduced fossil fuel use.
Though you may not know it from the cable TV coverage, this was one of the most significant – and the most terrifying – stories of the midterms. For those who actually care about the survival of the human race, the key questions now should be obvious: is there any reason to hope that we will retreat from “drill baby drill” and enact a sane set of climate policies? Or is our country – and, by extension, our species – just going to give up?
Before answering, it is worth reviewing exactly what happened over these last few months, because the election illustrates how little the fossil fuel industry is willing to concede in the face of a genuine crisis. While the dominant media narrative has been about Democratic voters euphorically electing a House majority and yelling a primal scream at Donald Trump, the loudest shriek of defiance was the one bellowed by oil and gas CEOs. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have only 12 years to ward off an ecological disaster, those oil and gas executives’ message to Planet Earth was unequivocal: drop dead.
That message was most explicit in Colorado, where a drilling and fracking boom is happening in the middle of fast-growing suburbs. With oil and gas companies seeking to put noxious derricks and rigs near population centers, local activists backed a ballot measure called Proposition 112 that aimed to make sure new fossil fuel infrastructure is set a bit farther away from schools, hospitals, residential neighborhoods and water sources.
The initiative was an angry response to a state government so awash in fossil fuel campaign cash that it has blocked legislation to merely allow regulators to prioritize the health and safety of residents when those regulators issue permits for drilling and fracking.
According to an industry analysis, Proposition 112 would have left much of the oil and gas reserves near Denver accessible for extraction, but yes, it is true – at a time when climate scientists say we must keep fossil fuel deposits in the ground, there was a chance the initiative would have stopped some extraction.
The oil and gas industry could have looked across a Colorado ravaged by climate-intensified wildfires, droughts and floods and decided to accept the modest measure, knowing that the initiative is the absolute minimum that is required at this perilous moment. Instead, fossil fuel companies did the opposite: they poured $40m into opposing Proposition 112 and spreading insidious agitprop.
Despite scientists warning that fracked natural gas threatens to worsen climate change, oil and gas operatives in the state promoted cartoonishly dishonest claims that burning fossil fuel “is cleaning our air and improving health”. As Colorado’s local media effectively erased the term “climate change” from its election coverage, the industry managed to defeat the measure by outspending its proponents 40-to-1. In the process, fossil fuel companies’ scorched-earth campaign was a clear statement that in the face of an environmental cataclysm, oil and gas moguls will not accept even a tiny reduction in their revenues.
In the Pacific north-west and the south-west, it was a similar tale.
In Washington State, petroleum giants funneled $25m into defeating a proposal to require polluters to pay some of the costs of the climate change havoc they are wreaking. The measure, which would have assessed a $15 fee for every ton of greenhouse gases they emit, was beaten with 56% of the vote, after the industry’s ad campaign featured criticism from a former state attorney general – who viewers weren’t told now works at Chevron’s law firm. In all, $13m of the funding against the measure came from BP – a company that simultaneously claims to unsuspecting consumers that it supports a carbon tax.
In sun-baked Arizona, you may have thought solar energy would be a fairly easy pitch. However, after the owner of the state’s major energy provider poured nearly $30m into the election, Arizonans soundly rejected a ballot initiative to force the utility to get more of its power from renewable sources.
Meanwhile, in a single California county, the fossil fuel industry spent a whopping $8m to defeat a citizens’ initiative to ban new drilling and fracking.
Realizing that they may have overreached, some fossil fuel industry spokespeople are now telling lawmakers that oil and gas companies really do want to work collaboratively on environmental issues. However, their behavior in the election proved that the industry is not operating in good faith. Oil and gas CEOs showed that they will gladly accelerate the climate crisis if doing so allows them to rake in more money.
And make no mistake about it: the industry’s roughly $100m in campaign spending this year was not just about one individual election cycle. It was a shock-and-awe spectacle designed to intimidate any prospective campaigns, organizations and movements that want to challenge the political supremacy of oil and gas – and some prominent Democrats in Washington seem to be cowering in fear
Always nervous about the donor class and about electoral blowback from Republicans, some congressional Democrats now seem intent on avoiding any direct confrontation over climate change policy.
Indeed, days before the election, the Hill newspaper surveyed lawmakers and major environmental groups, and found that “Democrats are unlikely to pursue major climate change legislation if they win the House majority, despite a growing body of evidence suggesting time is running out to address the issue.”
As her own state was being incinerated by climate-intensified wildfires, the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, faced pressure for climate action from new lawmakers like New York Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – but Pelosi would only commit to reviving a moribund congressional committee to study the issue. The conflict-averse posture follows the party recently rescinding its policy of rejecting fossil fuel campaign cash, as well as Democratic Representative Vicente Gonzalez of climate-ravaged Texas setting up a new Oil & Gas Caucus to promote the “economic benefits of fully harnessing the country’s natural resources”.
Taken together, these developments – coupled with the Trump administration’s opposition to any serious climate policy – have left many voters and activists feeling despondent, even in the aftermath of a “blue wave” election. As former Bernie Sanders campaign aide Claire Sandberg tweeted: “Entire towns are burning to nothing in California. People are being incinerated alive in their cars attempting to flee. But a majority of Democrats still won’t reject fossil fuel money, and no one has put forward a climate plan that is remotely commensurate with the IPCC findings.”
And yet, amid the thick smoke of wildfires and industry propaganda, there is still reason to believe that our children are not guaranteed to live in a real-life version of Mad Max: Fury Road. Our fate is not – yet – sealed, as long as those who want humanity to survive pay attention to exactly what science, the fossil fuel industry and the political trends are telling us, and then act accordingly in the arenas where immediate progress is most likely.
First and foremost, there are now 14 states that have the trifecta of Democratic control of the governorship and both legislative chambers. Those include major fossil fuel producing states such as Colorado, New Mexico and California. Democratic leaders in these states cannot claim that climate inaction is a product of Republican intransigence – the Democrats in these locales have uninhibited power. And so if activists work to hold these local Democratic lawmakers accountable, there is a good chance they can force legislatures to enact emissions standards, renewable energy mandates and other environmental rules that will bolster the fight against climate change.
Officials like New York comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, incoming Connecticut treasurer Shawn Wooden and North Carolina treasurer Dale Folwell may be unknown compared with the average backbench senator on the Sunday chat shows, but they and their colleagues who control these massive war chests have an enormous amount of divestment power that can both support the climate change fight, and boost investment returns for retirees. There’s a good chance that at least some of them can be spurred to action if they are no longer permitted to toil in obscurity, and instead face consistent grassroots pressure.
The courts are another arena where the climate fight seems to be accelerating. There, teenagers are mounting a landmark case arguing that the government’s refusal to restrict carbon emissions is endangering the next generation’s constitutional right to life, liberty and property. A federal judge also just blocked the Keystone XL pipeline, saying that the Trump administration had improperly “discarded prior factual findings related to climate change”.
At the same time, state attorneys general are pursuing a lawsuit examining whether the oil industry deliberately buried science that showed the dangers of climate change. Those cases, which bring even more pressure on the industry, can be supported by concurrent hearings and subpoenas from the low-profile House science committee, which is expected to be chaired by Texas Democratic Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, who has called for more aggressive action on climate change.
So, considering both the election setbacks and opportunities, let’s go back to those original questions: is there reason to hope or are we just going to give up? The answer is contingent on our ability to focus in an age of distraction.
Will those who truly care about the survival of humanity muster the discipline to occasionally look away from the Washington DC garbage fire and focus more activism on the state and local level? Will a media that obsesses over Trump’s tweets find the will to more diligently cover a climate crisis that threatens the planet? Will our political class behold the fossil fuel industry’s sociopathy and realize that we face an existential choice between profits and ecological survival?
In short, will we as a society finally start treating this emergency as an actual emergency?
If the answer is yes, then there is still reason to believe we are not doomed – but we better get to work, because there’s no time to spare.
Teaser photo credit: Burned through trees in California’s Paradise area after a wildfire burned through the region. Photograph: Peter Dasilva/EPA