What Will It Take for Americans to Elect a Climate Leader in 2016?
Kumi Naidoo is the Director of the African Civil Society Initiative.
I’ve said it many times before: “The United States has become the best democracy money can buy.”
Fortunately, this alarming issue has finally been getting the scrutiny it deserves thanks to an exchange caught on video between Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and Greenpeace activist Eva Resnick-Day.
While this moment in the Clinton campaign is what’s sparked such lively discussion around the role of money — and fossil fuel money in particular — in American politics, the issue goes well beyond the race for the Democratic nomination.
For one, neither of the Democratic hopefuls take nearly as much from fossil fuel lobbyists as their Republican counterparts. Ted Cruz is by far the largest recipient of fossil fuel money, taking in roughly three times as much as Clinton. And while Donald Trump hasn’t received much campaign funding from fossil fuel lobbyists, he’s invested millions of dollars of his own personal wealth in the industry.
Both, as a result, are staunch climate deniers.
But the problem with fossil fuel money in politics goes beyond even electoral politics itself. Climate change is already costly, deathly — as we see on the African continent — and at the roots of violent conflict all over the world. When the corporations buying influence with U.S. presidential candidates include Shell, BP, and ExxonMobil, it doesn’t just matter for American voters — it matters for those of us who want the Arctic off limits to oil drilling, who want an end to resource wars in Africa and the Middle East, and who want a future built on clean and renewable energy.
So the question isn’t just whether Hillary Clinton will reject money from fossil fuel interests, it’s whether the American people will reject the continued dominance of an industry that puts its own profit over the needs of every single one of us.
To solve the immense challenge of climate change, we need the foundations of democracy to stand on. We need leaders that lift our voices above moneyed corporate interests and hold themselves accountable to us, not those that bought them a place in office.
If the United States can’t hold its presidential hopefuls to that standard now, what chance does it have once the eventual winner takes office? Now is our time to show the candidates what that standard looks like.
Which brings me back to Hillary Clinton.
Clinton has made it clear throughout her campaign that she wants to be seen as a climate leader. This alone sets her head and shoulders above any nominee the Republican field can put forward at this point.
Unfortunately, the facts tell us that she is simply not there yet.
While serving as Greenpeace’s Executive Director, I watched Clinton come close to setting herself apart as a true climate leader during her tenure as Secretary of State. But in the end, she came up short.
She avoided taking a stance on the Keystone XL pipeline for months, only coming out in opposition once she was out of office and on the campaign trail. Through the Global Shale Gas Initiative, she “sold fracking to the world,” even sending delegations to Bulgaria and Romania to overturn fracking bans. And despite her recent opposition to Arctic and Atlantic drilling, she is yet to come out against drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
But this time around, something is changing with Secretary Clinton, and it’s because of people like you. Each time she’s come out with a new environmental stance, it’s generally been at the provocation of voters pushing her on the issues, showing up at her campaign events and refusing to let climate change fall off the agenda.
Her progress is encouraging, but it’s incomplete.
The fact is that Clinton is a leader on climate change, but not at the level world needs. Her vision and ambition do not yet meet the scale of the challenges we face. There is no room for measured responses to offshore drilling and projects like Keystone XL. There is no room for natural gas as a “bridge fuel.” There is no room for someone who takes “some” money from fossil fuel interests.
We need the next president to be extraordinary on climate from day one.
Clinton knows the influence and access lobbyist contributions can buy — that’s why her campaign announced back in October 2015 that it would not accept money from the private prison industry. Given that Clinton herself calls climate change “an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time,” distancing her campaign from fossil fuel money isn’t just plausible, it’s a necessary precursor to real climate action by her own logic.
That’s why I’m certain climate activists will continue to give Hillary Clinton opportunities to show true leadership by rejecting fossil fuel money.
With Bernie Sanders already pledged to do so and the Republican field so awash in industry dollars it’s bought levels of climate denial unparalleled anywhere else in the world, Clinton’s campaign has become a key battleground in the fight to move beyond fossil fuels.
As a climate activist, I’ve seen fossil fuel barons spend billions of dollars buying off politicians so they can win this fight. But as a South African who fought against apartheid, I’ve also seen the power of people to rise to the promise of democracy even when government has failed.
Right now, I see an American public ready to rise up and claim a democracy that puts people before corporate polluters. I see activists who are not willing to accept the ballot box as their only form of political power. I see the Democracy Awakening coalition bringing together allies from across the progressive spectrum to demand progress on the issues that affect all of us.
And I see a movement to usher in the end of fossil fuels that’s determined to count the next President of the United States as an ally.