“It is a very specific and successful attack on American democracy by an industry with truly massive financial motivation to corrupt democratic institutions.”
As wildfires rip across California and tropical storms threaten the southeastern United States, Senate Democrats are setting their sights on the fossil fuel industry, which they blame for the increase in extreme weather events caused by climate change.
The Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis on Tuesday released a 263-page report which makes the case climate action and lays out in detail how “giant fossil fuel corporations have spent billions—much of it anonymized through scores of front groups—during a decades-long campaign to attack climate science and obstruct climate action.”
“It’s important for the public to understand that this is not a failure of American democracy that’s causing this,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told The Guardian, which first reported on the plan. “It is a very specific and successful attack on American democracy by an industry with truly massive financial motivation to corrupt democratic institutions.”
In addition to describing the scope of the crisis, the proposal also offers policy solutions and outline the political path Democrats can take to achieve substantive reductions in pollution that warms the planet.
The Senate effort, which follows other climate plans from House Democrats and the Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, comes as the consequences of climate change are becoming increasingly visible in daily life.
In Northern California, a quarter of a million Americans are under evacuation orders, at least seven people have died, thousands of buildings have been destroyed, and a million acres of land have burned as two massive wildfires continue to rage.
“The scope [of the damage] is absolutely astonishing,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, told the Scientific American.
Fossil fuel companies that produce natural gas, coal, and oil and are the major driver of climate change, which has been linked to an increase in the risk of wildfires, as it leads to hotter temperatures, less consistent rain seasons, and drier soil and vegetation. Swain and a group of other scientists published a study earlier this year which concluded climate change has doubled the number of extreme-risk days for California wildfires.
Meanwhile, Tropical Storms Marco and Laura are descending on the Gulf Coast on Monday, potentially causing “a prolonged period of hazardous weather” in areas that stand to be hit by both storms, according to the National Hurricane Center. The emergence of two simultaneous tropical storms is incredibly rare and represents just the third time that’s ever happened in the Gulf of Mexico, and the first time since 1959, The Washington Post reported.
Scientists have warned that the world must drastically reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in order to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change. In order to do that, Senate Democrats believe it’s imperative to reduce the political influence of the energy industry, which has long obstructed attempts to address the pollution for which they are responsible.
In fact, companies like Shell and Exxon actually knew as far back as the 1980s that climate change posed a dire threat and that they were major contributors. A 1988 report titled “The Greenhouse Effect” calculated that Shell alone was contributing 4% of global carbon-dioxide emissions through its oil, natural gas, and coal products.
“By the time global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation,” the report warned.
Rather than publicize these findings, both companies buried them and instead raised doubts about climate change in the 1990s; they also opposed the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement reached in 1997 to fight climate change. Fossil fuel companies have also spent billions of dollars on “misleading climate-related branding and lobbying” and funding conservative think tanks that promoted climate science denial.
The Senate Democrats’ new plan says the U.S. is “almost alone among industrialized nations in having failed to implement comprehensive policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” According to The Guardian, the report points the finger at the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, which allowed corporations to spend virtually unlimited sums of money on elections.
“There’s a very clear before and after,” Sen. Whitehouse said. “I don’t think Americans understand enough the extent to which the fossil fuel industry has weaponized a whole variety of systems and laws that now competes with the government itself for dominance.”
In the decade since Citizens United, oil and gas companies have dramatically ramped up their spending, funnelling more than $400 million to preferred candidates and organizations, according to the Center for Responsible Politics. Nearly 90% of that money has gone to Republicans, who controlled both chambers of Congress for most the decade and have long questioned climate science and refused to take action against climate change.
President Donald Trump has taken even more extreme anti-climate stances, calling climate change a “hoax” and engaging in a sustained attack on environmental regulations.
To combat Republican inaction, the Democrats formed their special committee, which now recommends a three-part plan to:
- “Expose the role of the fossil fuel billionaires, executives and corporations in funding and organizing the groups trafficking in climate denial and obstruction”;
- “Reform federal laws and regulations to require greater transparency and reduce the influence of money, particularly dark money, in politics”
- “Alert industries that support climate action to the depth, nature and success of the covert fossil fuel political influence scheme.”
Although Senate Democrats are focused on combating dark money coming from fossil fuel interests, the party has not been entirely unified in its stance on oil and natural gas companies. Climate activists scrutinized the Democratic National Committee last week after it quietly removed language from the party’s platform opposing fossil fuel subsidies.
The Biden campaign, however, reiterated the former vice president’s support for ending fossil fuel subsidies.
“[Joe Biden] continues to be committed to ending U.S. fossil fuel subsidies & then rallying the rest of the world to do the same—as was outlined in his climate plan last year,” Biden’s policy director, Stef Feldman, wrote on Twitter last week.
Feldman also pointed out that Biden would use the money saved from subsidies to “invest in a clean energy future and create union jobs”—both key parts of his $2 trillion plan which focuses on eliminating climate pollution by 2050 and creating millions of jobs.
Biden’s plan has been widely praised by climate activists and environmental organizations, but has predictably been opposed by fossil fuel groups—a development Sen. Whitehouse appeared unsurprised by.
“The fossil fuel industry has a truly massive financial motivation to block all climate action in Congress,” he tweeted on Monday. “We shouldn’t let them succeed.”