Young Democratic star and incoming New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants a new and very aggressive approach in Congress to tackle climate change. But many of her future colleagues aren’t so sure their strategy needs to change.
Climate scientists have issued more and more urgent warnings of an impending global climate crisis, and young people are waking up to what could be a dystopian near future, with entire cities underwater, others wiped out by forest fires, and millions of climate refugees struggling to survive. On Nov. 13, Ocasio-Cortez, 29, joined the Sunrise Movement, “an army of young people to make climate change an urgent priority across America,” in a protest outside House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) congressional office in Washington, D.C.
Ocasio-Cortez and a handful of other incoming and incumbent House Democrats are calling for a new select committee on her “Green New Deal” plan, an ambitious proposal to halt all fossil fuel energy production in the United States by 2030. This timeline correlates with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent warning that the planet has 12 years to drastically stem climate change in order to avoid a climate catastrophe.
Standing in the way of this kind of rapid progress aren’t just Republican lawmakers, many of whom deny humans’ role in causing global warming or even the existence of climate change. Veteran members of the Democratic Party are also resistant to the idea of a special House committee to lead the work of fighting climate change enough to avoid a catastrophic environmental disaster in the coming decades.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) will likely become the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. While his statements and voting record show that he wants to reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuels, his campaign contributions muddle that message.
The proposed select committee would not allow its members to accept campaign donations from fossil fuel company PACs, a direct conflict of interest to the committee’s agenda. This means that Pallone would not be able to join unless he drastically changes his fundraising strategy.
Pallone has received $178,000 from energy and natural resources interests in just the 2017-18 election cycle alone, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. This total includes $21,000 from the PACs of oil and gas companies and trade associations—such as the American Gas Association ($3,000), the Petroleum Marketers Association ($5,500), and Phillips 66 ($5,000)—and from the PACs of electric utilities heavily reliant on fossil fuels such as Dominion Resources ($3,500), NRG Energy ($10,000), and Southern Company ($5,000).
On Oct. 3, Pallone accepted $2,500 from the PAC of Pinnacle West, an electric utility holding company, and $2,500 from the PAC of the Calpine Corporation, a major generator of electricity from natural gas. In the third quarter of this year, he received donations from the PACs of numerous fossil fuel and utility companies.
“The ideal of getting to a carbon-free America is certainly something I agree on,” Pallone told HuffPost’s Alexander Kaufman. “How long it takes to do that, how we would get there, and the details of the legislation—all that has to be worked out.”
Sunrise Movement activists protested at Pallone’s office on Nov. 16. “We pushed him over and over again to back Ocasio-Cortez’s Select Committee for a Green New Deal,” Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash told Sludge, “Over and over again, he flipped and tried to not give us an answer on it.”
The protesters also urged Pallone to pledge to reject fossil fuel donations. “We asked him, ‘OK, if you’re really with us, we need proof. Will you take the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge?’ And he said ‘no’ repeatedly to our face and that perhaps later he’d consider it.”
Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman told Sludge, “Corporations do not give money to politicians to improve the public dialogue. They want specific policies or contracts from the government, and they use their financial clout in pursuit of those interests…Once elected, officeholders know who got them into office and jeopardize their future election prospects by not voting in the interests of their donors.
“The wealthier industries, like the fossil fuel industry, carry a very large club over lawmakers who may otherwise be honorable,” Holman continued. “The sin is not so much the energy companies attempting to buy our lawmakers; the greater sin is that we have established a system of privately-financed campaigns that makes it possible for the energy companies to buy our lawmakers.”
Prakash said that politicians who refuse to accept money from fossil fuel interests are the ones people can count on to combat climate change most effectively. “We’ve seen this striking correlation between rejecting campaign contributions from oil and gas executives and pushing for the real solutions to the climate crisis.”
Writers such as Kate Aronoff don’t mince words about the major conflicts of interest around taking fossil fuel cash while claiming to work to combat climate change. “There’s an inherent contradiction in taking money from an industry that any reasonable climate legislation will need to greatly constrain, and that not doing so could condemn hundreds of millions of people to death,” Aronoff wrote in In These Times. “Real climate action means confronting the massive power of what may be the world’s most powerful and entrenched industry.”
Democratic leaders in other House committees are also attempting to hamper the Green New Deal. “The idea that in five years or 10 years we’re not going to consume any more fossil fuels is technologically impossible,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who will likely chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee next year, told Politico. “We can have grand goals but let’s be realistic about how we get there.”
DeFazio has also taken in donations from the oil and gas industry ($10,000) and electric utilities ($8,500) this cycle, although considerably less than Pallone. The Green New Deal includes plans to fund a massive infrastructure and transportation initiative and provide a jobs guarantee.
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Rep. Alan Lowenthal, co-chair of the Safe Climate Caucus and a member of the Energy and Transportation committees, has accepted almost $46,000 from the energy and natural resources sector this cycle, including $4,000 from oil refiner Andeaver and $1,000 from natural gas company PG&E.
The California Democrat told Politico that a new committee could conflict with the current committees, which already plan to propose climate legislation.
“As the co-chair of the Safe Climate Caucus and a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, I have worked on these issues for many years,” Lowenthal told Sludge. “I agree with the Green New Deal resolution that climate change is an urgent threat. The question for Leader Pelosi is whether working through the standard committee structure is more effective in reaching these goals. Republican House leadership over the last eight years has not allowed the existing committee structure to work in an open and fair way. My colleagues and I have worked hard to address climate change in Congress, and I believe our existing committees should be given a chance to address these important goals. If Leader Pelosi decides to create a Select Committee addressing climate change in the 116th Congress, I stand ready to work with her.”
Pelosi has already proposed reinstating a climate change committee she created in 2007, but Green New Deal supporters are concerned it will not be sufficiently effective. That committee, which lasted until Republicans took over the House in 2011, did not have “legislative jurisdiction” nor the “authority to take legislative action on any bill or resolution.” The Green New Deal committee would be required to produce Green New Deal legislation by 2020.
Democratic California Rep. Ro Khanna is one of three current House members as of Friday to endorse the Green New Deal committee, according to HuffPost. Khanna tweeted on Saturday that Ocasio-Cortez should chair the committee. “We need to shake up Congress and give the millennial generation a chance to lead. They have the most at stake re: climate change.”
Prakash said that young people, like Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise Movement members, are best suited to lead the fight against climate change. “We’re the best group because we’ve got so much at stake here. There is so much anxiety, so much fear, so much concern amongst young people. I’ve had 16-year-olds share with me that they’re afraid of raising children in the age of the climate crisis.”
“Many of us, when the IPCC report came out three weeks ago, read through it and really saw our futures flash before our eyes,” said Prakash. “We saw death, we saw violence, we saw chaos, we saw destruction, and we also saw the greatest opportunity for humanity ahead of us to avert crisis but also to create a better world in front of us.”
According to Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic Rep. John Lewis (Ga.), Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.), José Serrano (N.Y.), and Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) are all on board, as well as incoming progressives Joe Neguse (Co.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), and Deb Haaland (N.M.). Ocasio-Cortez lists numerous supportive advocacy groups including 350 Action, Demos, Greenpeace USA, MoveOn Civic Action, and Power Shift Network as well.
Dozens of incoming Democratic representatives ran on rejecting corporate PAC donations, a position that proved popular with voters and a way to outraise their Republican general election opponents with numerous individual donations, as Sludge recently reported.
Staff of DeFazio, Lowenthal, Ocasio-Cortez and Pallone were not immediately available for comment.
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This article has been updated to remove a quote misattributed to Rep. Alan Lowenthal and to include a quote from him provided to Sludge for this article.