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 350.org 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.”

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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?