Will $50 Million Move the Needle on Climate Change?
Policy + Politics

Will $50 Million Move the Needle on Climate Change?

For years, the nation’s environmental activists aggressively played the political game, with relatively little money to back up their grand ambitions. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV), a formidable environmental political advocacy group, spent just $5 million to try to influence the outcome of congressional races during the 2010 midterm campaign.

This year, the LCV and its political arm will spend $25 million trying to keep the Senate in Democratic hands and influence some state legislature races. “Most of that [cash] will be spent to protect the pro-environmental firewall in the Senate,” explained Jeff Gohringer, the organization’s spokesperson. Without a Democratic “firewall” in the Senate, he says, a GOP-controlled Congress would be free to pass legislation that would gut the environmentalists’ agenda.

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Even LCV’s impressive $25 million campaign war chest pales in comparison to the $50 million that billionaire San Francisco financier Tom Steyer pledged to spend to reelect Democratic senators and promote his views on climate change. 

With enough money to go toe-to-toe with conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch, Steyer almost singlehandedly has transformed the environmental movement from a lesser player to a political powerhouse on the national political stage.   

Environmentalists have many concerns these days. They fret about industrial pollution and global warming, the possible construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and now even the possible revival of the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository project in Nevada.

“Our biggest priority is action on the climate crisis, and protecting the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] ability to do its job is a key part of that,” said Gohringer of LCV. “We’re supporting candidates that have been with us every step of the way on protecting the EPA’s ability to do its job – which is really going to be the cornerstone of where we’re going to see action [on] climate change.”

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For years, environmental groups were forced to play defense against Republicans and conservative business forces on Capitol Hill and in lobbying government regulatory agencies. They’ve had mixed success in influencing the Obama White House, though they’ve applauded the president’s use of executive powers to advance rules to further clean up the atmosphere and reduce carbon emissions.

While they’d suffer a huge setback if Republicans win control of the Senate, for now environmental activists are enjoying the thrill of exerting political clout. And advertisements mentioning energy, climate change and the environment have surged to unprecedented levels this year, according to The New York Times. In Senate races alone, energy and the environment are the third most mentioned issue in political ads, according to an analysis by Kantor Media/CMAG.

“Tom Steyer’s entry into the campaign finance stratosphere has really made a difference, and has made him a target of attacks by candidates and some other conservative outside groups,” said Viveca Novak, a spokesperson for the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-spending watchdog. “That in itself says he is having an impact.” She added, “His spending is significant and is noticed, and he has quickly surpassed the other leading spender in the environment – the League of Conservation Voters – and nobody else comes close in that interest-group area.”

Other prominent environmental groups working to reelect Democrats are forced to try to do more with less. The Environmental Defense Action Fund has reported spending $2.3 million on the campaign so far, while the Sierra Club has spent $1.56 million, according to campaign reports. Last week, the Sierra Club announced plans to launch its fourth statewide get-out-the-vote campaign to “micro-target” nearly 500,000 Georgia voters during that state’s early voting period. Democrat Michelle Nunn is battling Republican businessperson David Perdue for a Senate seat and has a good chance of winning.

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With more than 650,000 voters targeted in North Carolina, more than 550,000 in Colorado, and 200,000 in New Hampshire, the Sierra Club’s Voter Education Fund efforts will contact close to 1.9 million voters, the organization says.

Steyer, 57, counts a personal fortune of about $1.5 billion and has assembled a savvy political team to pursue his main goal. He’s in favor of a “cap-and-trade system,” once advocated by President Obama that would allow companies and utilities to buy or sell emission credits while adhering to an overall emissions limit. Steyer’s political organization, NextGen Climate Action, has been tasked with helping to elect or reelect Democrats to the Senate in six states – Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Moreover, Steyer is working hard to topple Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a first-term Republican who questions the validity of manmade climate change.

Scott is being challenged by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a one-time Republican who is running now as a Democrat. Crist and Scott are virtually deadlocked in the latest polls.

With two weeks before the midterms, the NextGen Super PAC has spent $30 million of the $42.8 million that Steyer has pumped into his campaign coffers so far. Those expenditures include $16.2 million for campaign ads and other activities, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

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Besides adding to the flood of TV ads in the half dozen or so states that virtually every special interest group is targeting, NextGen has used a large wooden Noah’s Ark on wheels to draw attention to Florida’s vulnerability to the effects of global warming, such as flooding and coastline erosion, according to The New York Times.

The ark is also meant as a way to tweak the Koch brothers, who are skeptics of climate change science and who adamantly oppose Steyer’s call for “cap and trade.” The brothers own Koch Industries, an oil corporation that is the second largest privately held company in America. They contend that the imposition of a cap-and-trade program would only result in job losses and higher taxes.

For sure, the Koch brothers’ main political arm, Americans for Prosperity, is more than a match for Steyer’s organization. The conservative group has said it would spend at least $125 million on the campaign this year.

Chris Lehane, a senior NextGen strategist, recently told The Huffington Post that the Noah’s Ark and other gimmicks are part of the group’s “disruptive” approach to advocacy. “We want to be on the offensive as much as possible. Any day the other side is reacting, playing defense, we’re winning.”

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