In 1992, when Al Gore published Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, a good many scientists regarded him as alarmist, or at least premature. Turns out he was prescient or at least lucky. If you haven’t been paying attention, the recent United Nations report on climate change confirms most of what he was writing those 22 years ago, and laid out short deadlines for mitigating the problems.
Gore proposed a “Global Marshall Plan” to address a number of critical environmental problems, chiefly climate change. It was a grand idea and a great idea, and of course it went directly to the rubbish pile of great ideas.
While Gore was vice president, his boss was too busy deregulating the financial sector to bother with such trivial matters as the collapse of civilization because of rising seas. When he was elected president, the Supreme Court gave it to some other guy instead. When he won a Nobel and an Oscar for his work on climate change, Gore was politely thanked and enormously ignored. So we missed a gigantic Pascal’s wager on our own collective future. We decided by default to do nothing; the status quo got the benefit of every doubt.
Rather than aggressively research the biggest issue of our time, the American government, as documented in the last edition of Off Center:Left, is sending scientists to the unemployment rolls.
Why? Why would we bury our collective head in the sand and consign our children to a future of unremitting calamities? Perhaps we wouldn’t, if we were well informed and in charge of the government.
Most of us are neither. In fact, more Americans, by far, get their political information on Fox News than from any other cable news source. Fox is, of course, the only news network created to promote a political point of view, and its view on climate change defies science. So much for being informed. According to a new Associated Press poll, no more than a third of Americans believe in global warming, and even fewer believe in evolution.
Now let’s get to the part about who is in charge of the government. Big coal runs a lot of it, especially in coal-producing states. Much of the rest is divided among the financial sector, the rest of the energy sector, the Israeli lobby, Big Pharm and big farms, the NRA and insurance. In short, people with money. All those interests pressure Congress to do stupid things from time to time, but it’s the energy sector’s Kool-Aid that is most imminently lethal. They’ve spent something north of $36 million at the national level in the last year or so. Almost three-fourths of it went to Republicans. That is the money on the record, and it is in addition the money spent on on state legislatures, which also are for sale, and judges, who are elected in many states, and on Republican party building by people like the Koch brothers.
Those contributions are just the beginning, too. In their official lobbying—exclusive of “consultants” who lobby but don’t report it—these same interests spent billions. Organized business in the form of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported dropping upwards of $1 billion last year. The Chamber and many of the other groups, as well as the corporations they represent, spend mountains more in trying to influence regulation. They wouldn’t do that without a record of some considerable success. The Koch brothers alone, just with the spending that is on the record, dwarf the political contributions of all labor unions combined.
The Supreme Court’s decisions in the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases aggravate the problem considerably. Unlimited, secret funding of campaigns by big corporations has turned Congress into a kind of national whorehouse, with peculiarly unattractive whores. The average senator has to spend half his time raising money, and it’s not from mom-and-pop greengrocers. We’re closer to a plutocracy, now, than a democracy.
There’s something to do about it, but Sisyphus wouldn’t trade for the task. What is required starts with a constitutional amendment to overturn the insidious effects of Citizens United. This alone looks like a virtual impossibility. It would require a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress, by members who got elected with finances they way they are, and then ratification by 38 state legislatures, many of which are effective subsidiaries of the Koch interests.
Sens. Mark Udall and Bernie Sanders, among others, have commenced work on various versions of such an amendment. So far, the snowball they hope for is gathering little mass.
In the alternative, we can hope for a return to the kind of sanity on the Supreme Court that the nation enjoyed for most of its first 200 years. But the moderates on the Court are its older members, and besides, if President Obama gets to nominate anybody else, it’s not highly likely he could get a confirmation.
That makes the 2016 presidential election a matter of more than usually critical importance.