In June, the Democratic National Committee ended its long-standing policy of accepting money from the fossil fuel industry. But in August, a resolution put forth by party Chairman Tom Perez ’83 P’18 reversed the June decision. As Clare Steinman ’19 wrote in a column back in September, Perez’s decision was a disappointing reversal that signaled the DNC’s willingness to turn a blind eye to fossil fuel executives’ use of political donations and lobbying to deliberately spread misinformation about climate science.
The DNC’s lack of leadership on this issue is particularly concerning in light of a report released earlier this month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that informed policymakers of the urgent need to pursue far-reaching systemic transformations and reduce emissions to net zero by 2050. The impacts of failing to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius range from worsening food shortages and hurricanes to drastic sea level rises, all of which will harm poor communities and historically marginalized groups first and worst. To avoid the catastrophic and profoundly unjust effects of climate change, the report suggests that governments transform the global economy by putting a price on carbon that accurately accounts for its social and environmental destruction.
This type of rapid socioeconomic transformation can seem unforeseeable in the current U.S. political climate, especially as the party purportedly committed to fighting climate change remains open to accepting contributions from oil, gas and coal executives who are enabling the problem. So why has the DNC lost its resolve to reject the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money? The answer lies in the longstanding myth about the division between two of the Democratic Party’s core constituencies: labor and environmentalists.
The second resolution passed in August states that the party “support(s) fossil fuel workers” and therefore will accept donations from “unions’ or employers’ political action committees.” However, this phrasing permits a loophole through which highly-paid executives of fossil fuel companies can fund the DNC through these PACs. In contrast, the original resolution, for which Perez and the rest of the DNC voted unanimously in June, barred donations from oil, gas and coal company PACs and instead allowed workers in these industries to make donations on an individual basis.
Perez has justified the DNC’s decision to accept fossil fuel money by arguing that the Democratic Party should be an advocate for labor. During a conference call following the passage of the second resolution, Perez said: “We have to draw the line that we are indeed a party of a big tent where all working people are welcome. We’re not a party that punishes workers simply based on how they make ends meet.” But, he said, the DNC would simultaneously remain committed to its “platform, which states unequivocally our support for combating climate change.” The subtext of Perez’s statements, though, is a supposed tension between the labor and environmentalist movements. Perez seems to give in to the fossil fuel industry’s narrative that policymakers cannot embrace the cause of workers and climate action at the same time.
But, in fact, labor advocates and environmentalists, two constituencies that fossil fuel executives have historically worked to pit against each other, have a common interest in creating good jobs that protect both people and the planet. Climate change presents a promising opportunity for labor and climate activists to come together and demand a just transition to renewable energy involving the large-scale creation of new green jobs. For instance, the IPCC report suggests that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require an average annual investment of $2.4 trillion, or 2.5 percent of the world’s GDP, between now and 2035. This has the potential to create an incredible number of high-quality jobs in what has been conceived as a “Green New Deal.” But this collaboration and progress will be impossible if the Democratic Party leadership continues to seek financial support from fossil fuel executives and block initiatives that would be detrimental to their profits, which clearly includes the transition to renewable energy.
While the DNC has received no money from the fossil fuel industry since the original resolution was passed back in June, the energy and natural resources sector — which includes fossil fuel producers and mining companies — donated $2.6 million to the DNC in 2016. The sector continues to make substantial contributions to Democratic candidates, who receive donations separately from the DNC, but nevertheless supposedly share many values.
Going into the 2020 elections, a “Green New Deal” should be a core priority of the Democratic Party. It is an outstanding opportunity to draw labor and climate activists together and set the United States on a path for the type of transformation necessary to fight climate change. But this type of visionary action will not be possible if the DNC remains open to the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money. The DNC must send a clear signal that it will not prioritize the profits of oil, gas and coal executives over the future of our planet any longer.
Sunrise RI, a chapter of the national Sunrise Movement, which is a youth-led movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process, has been organizing a campaign on campus and across the country to pressure the DNC to stop accepting donations from fossil fuel executives. After the second resolution was passed back in August, Sunrisers traveled to Chicago to disrupt the DNC summer meeting and deliver a petition with over 100,000 signatures calling on the DNC to refuse fossil fuel PAC money. Across the country, Sunrise and other progressive partner organizations have also gotten over 1,250 candidates and elected officials running at all levels of government to sign a No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. On campus, Sunrise RI has been speaking with Perez on a regular basis and circulating a petition for students to urge him to commit the DNC to being fossil fuel free.
As young voters, we must demand that our political leaders champion the visionary change necessary to ensure a more equitable and livable world. This must start with refusing to accept the toxic influence of fossil fuel executives and the false divide between labor and climate activists.
Emma Bouton ’20 is a member of Sunrise RI and can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.