Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

RP Siegel headshot

Senators’ Positions on Climate Change Reflect Their Donors' Wishes

Words by RP Siegel

Earlier this week, President Obama followed up on the promise he made in his State of the Union Address, to take action on climate change even if Congress wouldn’t. Specifically, he said, “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will."

Why would Congress be so recalcitrant on an issue of such vital importance as taking action to minimize (it’s too late to avoid) the impact of a crisis that could threaten the existence of civilization as we know it?

A recent analysis performed by MapLight suggests the root of much of the underlying motivation for our elected officials is money. While this isn't terribly surprising, it is stunningly disappointing to see how lacking in character those men and women we have elected to lead us appear to be - trading the broad interests of future generations for their own very narrow, self-serving interest in raising money to enable them to remain in jobs that, it would appear, they are morally unqualified to serve in.

Looking specifically at campaign contributions given to senators, Maplight found the following campaign contribution levels from industries whose short-term financial interests would benefit from no action being taken on climate change during the period from January 1, 2009—December 31, 2012, as well as from those who would stand to benefit from action being taken. (Source: Open Secrets)

The two tables show the name of the industry or interest and the amount contributed to senators.

Gas & electric utilities $  3,185,646
Electric power utilities $  2,807,445
Chemicals $  2,162,603
Coal mining $  2,143,406
Independent oil & gas producers $  2,061,058
Major (multinational) oil & gas producers $  1,920,807
Oil & gas $  1,540,206
Oilfield service, equipment & exploration $  1,383,057
Natural gas transmission & distribution $  1,270,501
Petroleum refining & marketing $  1,242,672
Trucking companies & services $  1,225,107
Airlines $  1,196,573
Livestock $  1,162,062
Forestry & forest products $  1,048,825
Steel $     779,041
Total $25,129,009
A similar examination of interests who would tend to support action on climate change yielded the following results.
Environmental policy $2,877,671
Alternate energy production & services $1,092,770
Nuclear energy $   262,660
Total $4,233,101
So that is a total of $25 million, versus a total of $4 million. It is pretty clear that money talks.

A number of bills have been submitted since 2007, mostly by Democrats attempting to deal with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and these have either died in committee or been filibustered to death if they actually made it onto the floor.

So it should not be a surprise to learn that most of these financial contributions went to Republicans. That is certainly true if we look at oil & gas donors, which gave an average of $60,000 last year to Republican members of the House and Senate versus $10,000 given to Democrats. Total contributions last year, including individuals, PAC and soft money topped $65 million, more than doubling from 2010.

Coal mining interests gave out $17 million, almost all of it to Republicans, except for Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who received $222k, about the same as his Republican counterpart.

Electric utilities made contributions of $23 million to elected officials, alongside a whopping $140 million in overall lobbying (about the same as oil & gas). This was more evenly divided across party lines, with Republicans receiving roughly $14 million and Democrats $9 million.

The president has vowed to use executive authority, primarily through the EPA, to address carbon emissions, largely by limiting the allowable emissions from coal plants, which the Republicans will undoubtedly fight, either through the courts or through additional legislation. As President Obama preemptively pointed out in his speech, opponents always claim that this type of regulation will be bad for business and every time they have been wrong. The critics’ focus tends to be on the very short term changes that need to be made, rather than on the ultimate result of a cleaner, safer society being served by more efficient companies. Too often, as Ramez Naam points out in his excellent book, The Infinite Resource, the role that innovation plays is commonly underestimated.

Republicans, predictably, have come out firing against this strategy, calling it an “attack on jobs,” particularly in coal mining states. This makes for great rhetoric, but in fact, coal mining jobs are currently up six percent since 2009, despite stricter EPA rules. Natural gas prices have had a lot to do with the layoffs that have occurred. Production is actually up in some areas due to exports to China, though some layoffs are occurring due to coal mine automation. So, once again, we have a simple response to a complex issue.

It is clear that coal production will need to decline from here on, for the sake of just about everyone involved (even coal miners won’t like what global warming brings). We have the option of a reasonable, well-thought-out transition or we can have a street fight about it. Meanwhile, business leaders across broader sectors of the economy are welcoming the president’s decisive move.

It’s pretty clear with today’s corrupt and dysfunctional Congress which one we’re going to have. The government’s stated mission is to protect the broadest interests of the American people, which will always be the health and safety of people and environment over the profitability of specific interests, though some elected officials in office today have either forgotten that, or perhaps never knew it. And with money being handed out by those very interests, like candy on Halloween, there is little incentive for them to remember.

[Image credit: whitehouse.gov]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


Read more stories by RP Siegel

More stories from New Activism