What Would Happen If Candidates And Elected Officials Were Asked To Sign A Climate Action Pledge?

Could a pledge sponsored by the Koch brothers be the reason that climate legislation seems so unlikely in the current Congress?

Could a new pledge be the organizing tool that breaks inaction on climate by manufacturing a new political consensus?

The New Yorker spotlights a new report from American University that explores the political, policy, and educational influences of the Koch brothers. The report mentions, and the New Yorker article focuses on, the Koch-funded conservative entity called Americans for Prosperity. This group launched the “No Climate Tax Pledge” in July 2008, with Senator Pat Roberts as its first signer. As of the middle of 2013, over 400 current federal and state politicians have pledged to “oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.”

[Side note: opposing something like the extension of the wind production tax credit would be essentially a net increase in government revenue, so it is unclear where this pledge ends and orthodoxy begins.]

Americans for Prosperity uses their pledge in the Republican primary process in much the same way that Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge has caused problems for the Republican Party since the 1980s. Many candidates who sign do so because they believe it helps them win elections. Candidates that do not sign get called out. The Republican House leadership have all signed it.

Since 2011, nearly all the energy bills that have gotten through the House primarily promote the increase of carbon emissions rather than helping reduce them. This is not all because of a pledge, of course. But with the clock ticking on efforts to rein in carbon emissions, congressional intransigence becomes less and less explainable and defensible.

Congress does not lack for organizing bodies focused on climate change. Nearly two dozen House members started the Safe Climate Caucus earlier this year, which has committed to talk about climate change on the House floor every day. Clean energy has an advocate in the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC), co-founded by Rep. Steve Israel and former Rep Jay Inslee in 2009. It counts more than 50 House Democrats in its membership. Rep. Waxman and Senator Whitehouse formed the Bicameral Climate Change Task Force in January 2013 as a way to focus attention on, and develop policy responses to, climate change.

To grow numbers for groups like those, and build consensus around serious federal action, does the climate need a pledge of its own? There is no active “climate pledge,” now, but there was once a possibility of such an organizing tool to commit public servants to act on climate. And there could be again.

Years before Bill McKibben founded the team in 2008, he had been pushing his government and his community to take action on climate change. In 2006, he helped organize (with a Greenpeace campaign called Project Hot Seat) a 5-day march and rally in Vermont. In 2009, McKibben told Yale Environment 360:

It was the fall of 2006. Labor Day, 2006. We walked for five days, across much of Vermont. We got to Burlington, about a thousand of us marching by the time we got there. People sleeping in fields. And we got all the candidates for Congress and the Senate in Vermont, including the conservative Republicans, to sign onto this pledge that they would support cutting carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 if they were elected. It was extremely successful. Quite, quite powerful. And it made us wonder why there wasn’t more of this going on.

The pledge also pushed for tougher fuel economy standards and a commitment to 20 percent renewable energy by 2020.

There have been subsequent rallies with thousands more people. The main difference between the global rallies and the event in Burlington was that organizers walked away with signatures from both Democratic and Republican candidates pledging to do something about climate change.

As McKibben put it then, “They not only agreed to sign it, they agreed to become champions on this legislation. … It’s now a first-tier issue in Vermont.”


Yes, this was Vermont. Yes, this was 2006. And yes, the climate movement progressed to organizing local and national rallies, directly engaging elected representatives on climate and clean energy, and using the internet to activate activists.

The fossil fuel interests have manufactured activism and have done so for years. They do this because they have more resources at their disposal and because they think it works.

To some extent, it has — and a pledge, or the idea of a pledge, certainly does not hurt their cause. At least 155 elected members of the 113th Congress say they deny that climate change is happening or that human activity causes it.

Why is there no climate pledge for members of the Safe Climate Caucus and SEEC to get their colleagues to sign? Why is climate so often not a serious issue in Democratic (and Republican) primaries? Would a pledge that candidates could sign help to clarify their positions on something President Obama described as “the global threat of our time“?

It would not have to be complex. It could be as simple as:

“I, ________, pledge to the American people that I will oppose any legislation that results in a net increase in carbon pollution. I will actively support legislation and rules that move the U.S. and the world to a low-carbon economy fueled by renewable energy.”

If you could ask the people who represent you to sign something simple and straightforward to act responsibly on climate change, what would it be? Do you think it would make an impact?

28 Responses to What Would Happen If Candidates And Elected Officials Were Asked To Sign A Climate Action Pledge?

  1. Will says:

    Anything that gets the movement to focus more on Congress instead of expecting Obama to do everything for us would be a step in the right direction.

  2. Doug Bostrom says:

    Focus on Congress? How about Obama recalling Congress to deal with the climate problem, let alone all the other work being shirked while the GOP strikes a series of romantic postures. It’s about time somebody applied the Constitutional lash and Obama doesn’t even have to worry about being misconstrued.

    Impossible? Hardly.

    “On 27 occasions, presidents have called both houses into session to deal with a crisis. The most recent of these special sessions — and the first one since 1856 — met at the behest of President Harry S. Truman on this day in 1948.

    With less than four months remaining before Election Day, Truman’s approval rating stood at 36 percent. His GOP opponent, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, looked like a sure winner.

    So in search of a bold political gesture, the president turned to the provision in the Constitution that allows the president “on extraordinary occasions” to convene one or both houses of Congress. And Congress at that time was controlled by the GOP.

    In accepting the Democratic presidential nomination at 1:45 a.m. in a stifling Philadelphia convention hall, Truman stunned delegates by calling on the Republican majority to live up to its party platform by passing laws that bolstered civil rights, extended Social Security and created a national health care program. “They can do this job in 15 days if they want to do it,” he said.

    Republicans reacted with scorn. Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) said, “No good can come to the country from a special session of Congress which obviously stems solely from political motives.” Nevertheless, some key GOP figures — including Vandenberg — favored action to widen the party’s electoral appeal.

    The gesture went only so far when Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, accused Truman of abusing his presidential prerogatives and blocked all votes.

    That decision presented Truman with a campaign theme: He railed against the “do-nothing 80th Congress.” Against all odds, Truman went on to win in November in a four-way race against Dewey, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and former Vice President Henry Wallace.”

    No legislation passed during that latest invocation but attention landed in the right place.

  3. Ken Barrows says:

    Climate pledge? Forget that! Auto sales are up, especially big vehicles that will be on the road for more than a decade.

  4. Jacob says:

    Climate pledge? Hah, that’s cute. Not that I disagree with the sentiment, because humanity needs something like that, but I live in reality and this sounds like fantasy. Not fantasy in the manner that something couldn’t be drafted up, but that the fossil-fuel-baron-puppets that are our politicians would sign such a pledge. On the other hand, just because our society is destined to suffer the consequences of its past and current pollutionary transgressions is no reason to fail to attempt such an action, maybe it would lead to preventing our planet from becoming completely uninhabitable.

  5. Leif says:

    I would suggest a line or two about stopping profits from the pollution of the commons. The GOP do not fund abortion. Fine. A precedent. Why must progressives be forced to fund the ecocide of the planet via billion $$$ tax subsidies to the Fossil Barons and Wall Street Greed.

  6. mulp says:

    The President can only recall Congress if Congress adjourns.

    And they haven’t done so in any meaning way for a decade.

    Once in session, Congress alone sets its rules and schedules.

  7. mulp says:

    When will Bill McKibben lead a march for the planet in Kentucky?

    The best candidate to defeat in 2014 is Senator McConnell on the issue of environment and coal for electric power.

    The other State would be Texas, electing one-third of the House pledged to work to impose a carbon tax, doing all the work in the Republican primaries.

  8. mulp says:

    The new vehicles are replacing similar vehicles that have lower CAFE standards before their performance deteriorated from more than a decade of us. Even if those used ones are resold, they will replace really old and poorly maintained vehicles – after a decade, emission standards are relaxed for older vehicles, but safety standards are still enforced, and unreliability trumps the law – a truck that won’t move does not pollute, nor get you to work.

  9. Doug Bostrom says:

    Actually the Constitution is silent on the matter of recess versus adjournment with regard to a callback by the executive. In the example above, Truman called Congress back during a recess.

  10. Mulp,

    When will YOU lead a March for the Planet in Kentucky or Texas. Let’s not get into a “Let Bill do it” syndrome.

  11. Joan Savage says:

    As Joe pointed out (“Moral Majority..”), the President has at last presented the issue of climate change as a moral issue, with its high priority based on science.

    I believe that a pledge that grounds the issue in moral and factual terms is the place to start. Any specific outcomes mentioned in the pledge have to be tied to the basic agreement.

    My representatives are Schumer, Gillibrand and Maffei, so I can’t complain.

    Representative Maffei has committed to support legislation that reduces global warming pollution 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, and calls for a global climate deal.

    He’s up to speed with those Vermonters in 2006.

  12. Raul M. says:

    Umm, the uv index is saying spots of 11 (extreme) in Virginia (DC?) and another spot in New York City? For today July 3rd. I don’t think that I have ever seen 11 prediction so far north before.

  13. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    “Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are not as they ought to be.”
    –Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

  14. fj says:

    The climate action pledge will be a very important initiative.

  15. fj says:

    It would make a great poster.

  16. kca says:

    A pledge can’t hurt, I suppose. The problem is, of course, that the Koch brothers’ pledge has teeth to it — there’s a heavy price to be paid for not signing it and not honoring it. Until we can come up with a way of punishing politicians for NOT acting to reduce emissions, they’ll continue to pretend to believe that global warming ain’t happening.

  17. Michael Glass says:

    There is something very asymmetrical. “I promise to not support any legislation that would result in a net increase in greenhouse gasses” couldn’t reasonably be monitored. It would be hard to hold people to it.

    — Partly because it is not measurable: the CBO doesn’t score a bill on its GHG impact. The no-carbon-tax pledge doesn’t have this problem because the CBO does score bills on their revenue impact.

    — Partly because it would mean voting against pretty much the whole darn federal budget, because everything has an impact on GHG emissions. The no-carbon-tax pledge is pretty clear in its legislative scope.

    Crafting a pledge that where the signers could be held accountable is tricky.

    But this idea has worked well for the right-wing America haters. The man who famously wants to drown Uncle Sam in a bathtub managed to get virtually the entire Republican party plus a few Democrats to sign his anti-tax pledge. And half of Congress lives in terror of his wrath.

    So it might be worthwhile to think of a good pledge.

  18. This is a really great idea.

    Of course, it amounts to pledging to accept the consequences of physics and thermodynamics and chemistry and atmospherics and oceanography.

    Much easier to be a politician.

  19. “I pledge I will not whine or complain when the consequences of human blundering ….”

    oh, nevermind.

  20. Jacob says:

    “RATIONAL, adj. Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.”

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Had we but world enough and time, this coyness, Mulpy, were no crime…’, but unfortunately, both world and time are fast running out, too fast for such slow-motion efforts, efforts that might very well be sabotaged by the next generation of clod-hopping Reptilicans.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    If it weren’t so outrageously incorrect, I reckon good old ‘bla’guard’ would suit Obama just fine. He is, of course, merely one of many.

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘I promise to put the many before the few, to put our children’s fate before the greed and lust to dominate of those who consider themselves superior to others and I promise to support Life against all its enemies’.

  24. Ken Barrows says:

    They are not replacing vehicles, they are supplementing. Plenty of people driving around with 10-15 year old cars.

  25. fj says:

    This country was started by stuff in writing.

  26. Michael Glass says:

    It sounds lovely.

    Is the CBO going to score legislation on its “many vs. few” impact? Who can give a somewhat objective accounting of the “lust to dominate” factor?

  27. “legislation relating to climate change”… would that include subsidies to fossil fuel companies? They relate to climate change and certainly require government expenditure.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Anyone with a pulse can recognise the bully-boy in action, particularly when one becomes a victim. The CBO could certainly estimate just how greatly legislation will exacerbate environmental destruction and income and wealth inequality. I could do it, given the information, and a crew of willing helpers. Simplicity itself. That it is not permitted to be done is revealing, don’t you think?