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Columns, Opinions

Steinman ’19: Dirty money has no place in the DNC

Opinions Editor
Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Democratic National Committee took a critical step here in Providence this past June, passing a resolution that banned political contributions from the fossil fuel industry, namely oil, gas and coal companies and their associations. The need for such a resolution was meant to address the industry’s history of using political donations and lobbying to spread discord concerning the validity of climate science. With deliberate misinformation campaigns dating back to the 1970s, they were engaging in fake news before the term existed.

It is therefore disheartening to see the DNC, led by Watson Senior Fellow Tom Perez ’83 P’18, walk that commitment back last month with a confusingly worded decision to allow contributions from fossil fuel industry workers and “employers’ political action committees.” While the resolution seemingly aims to allow the ordinary worker to contribute, its phrasing leaves the door wide open for top executives to pour money into the DNC through their own PACs, exactly the flood of dirty money that the June decision was passed to avoid.

Every year, fossil fuel companies and their trade groups spend around $115 million to shut down efforts to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. For comparison, the gun lobby, which is notorious for using political spending to doom common sense initiatives with broad popular support, spent just $10 million in 2014. When future generations look back at our inaction during the decades when catastrophe could have been avoided, this spending will stand out as damning evidence of our guilt. And to be sure, it has been money well spent for the industry. Since former President Obama’s election in 2008, Republican lawmakers have abandoned any attempt to cut emissions, following a concerted effort by fossil fuel titans like David and Charles Koch to compel them to block any regulations of the industry — or else face a primary challenge from someone who would. They elevated climate skeptics onto a level playing field with the 97 percent of scientists who agree that human-caused warming is occurring. In fact, they have been so successful in this effort that only 13 percent of conservative Republicans — and, distressingly, 27 percent of American adults — believe humans are the key cause of climate change.

The close links between the fossil fuel industry and politics haven’t just been used to throw wrenches into climate science. The industry is reliant upon political favor for its very survival. The Trump administration and other conservatives love to malign the subsidies that renewable energy sources like solar and wind received under Obama and his predecessors, such as the Investment Tax Credit, which is set to expire for residential taxpayers in 2021. All told, the renewable energy industry receives $5.6 billion in temporary subsidies annually, which, according to detractors like Energy Secretary Rick Perry, “hav(e) a large impact on the functioning of markets, and thereby challeng(e) our power generation mix.” These free-market conservatives feel much more at ease, however, when it comes to the $20.5 billion that oil, coal and gas industries receive each year at the federal and state level, $7.4 billion of which comes from permanent subsidies that have been around for decades — in some cases up to a century. While many of these subsidies originated before the link between fossil fuels and climate change was as robust as it is now, and while there are compelling reasons to ensure a stable national energy supply, it is clear that the fossil fuel industry is being propped up by much-needed government money, while a clean and safe alternative is within reach.

Proponents of the DNC decision are framing the issue fundamentally as one of labor rights, an attempt to ensure that ordinary energy workers and their unions can participate in the democratic process. This is an unfortunate continuation of a long-running scheme to pit the working class and climate activists against each other in a way that ultimately benefits fossil fuel executives at the expense of the planet. Given that the decision leaves a loophole for PACs, it is exceedingly likely that the bulk of donations stemming from the reversal of this ban will come not from ordinary workers, but from top leadership. Ultimately, the needs of labor are aligned with the goals of the climate movement. As Guy Ryder, director-general of the UN’s International Labour Organization, put it last month, “There are no jobs on a dead planet.”  At the same time, transitioning away from an economy that runs on fossil fuels will create tens of thousands of new jobs in energy, infrastructure, agriculture and other industries in what is becoming known as the “Green New Deal.”

Over a thousand Democrats currently running for federal, state and local office have made individual pledges not to accept any fossil fuel money. That’s an encouraging start and yet another indication that the party momentum heading into the November midterm elections is coming from the grassroots. It would be a mistake for a DNC that is already struggling to maintain currency to find itself siding with an outdated and destructive industry.

Quite frankly, a party committed to the well-being of future generations, to protecting vulnerable populations from the ravages of human-induced disasters, to the triumph of truth over oil-slicked fiction must turn away money that is derived from the processes that threaten those aims most. It is no secret — despite what a decades-long misinformation campaign would have you believe — that burning fossil fuels and increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is changing the climate. The effects of these changes can already be seen, and yet they have the potential, without timely action, to go beyond what we can conceive.

It is also no secret that the fossil fuel era has created great wealth along with technological advances for every citizen of industrialized nations. But though we have all shared the benefits, and therefore all bear the onus for averting the worst of the costs, no one has more to lose at this stage than the fossil fuel executives whose income streams are at risk. It would only be rational self-preservation for them to put their political donations to work to preserve their industries. In making it clear that these funds should have no place in our political process, the DNC must pursue its own rational self-preservation — for party and for planet.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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