We shouldn't be surprised. An entire industry is slowly dying, so, of course, the coal barons that see their power fading are not going to just sit idly by on their fortunes and watch their demise. No, they are going to go out fighting as they try to once again use their money and diminishing power to mold the reality to suit their needs. But unfortunately for them and everyone else, the climate has changed and they helped us change it. The planet is warmer from burning their wares. Yes, the coal industry is dying, as it must, but it isn't going to go quietly.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of the United States heard McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, which may become as much a chapter of the history of climate change as it is a case about campaign finance law. And unfortunately for the US public and humans around the world, this case has the potential to really change America in dangerous ways.
Elizabeth Wydra at the Constitutional Accountability Center explains the backstory and potential precedent setting nature of this case:
McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, a case brought by an Alabama Republican activist and the Republican National Committee, challenges limits placed on the total amount an individual donor can give to federal candidates and party committees and PACs. First enacted in the 1970s in the wake of the Watergate scandal, these aggregate contribution limits work to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption, and were upheld along with individual campaign contribution limits as constitutional in 1976. Nearly 40 years later, Mr. McCutcheon and the RNC are asking the Roberts Court to strike down the aggregate limit.
The Supreme Court has never--not even in what is perhaps the low-water mark of campaign finance jurisprudence, the Citizens United case--struck down a federal campaign contribution limit as unconstitutional. And it shouldn't do so here.
She goes on to detail the legal reasoning and practical benefits of having limits to campaign contributions.
Our country's founders were worried about officials or government institutions becoming dependent on special interests or big money--basically, dependence on anything or anyone other than the voters on which officials and public institutions are "properly" dependent. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist papers, our democracy should have representatives "dependent on the people alone."
And not just the people who can afford to write big checks to politicians. According to Madison, the people who were to elect the nation's leaders--the people on whom these representatives should be properly dependent--were "not the rich, more than the poor."
What makes this case a particularly important chapter in the transition from a dirty energy economy to a clean energy economy is that the plaintiff, Shaun McCutcheon is no ordinary Alabama activist. As Stephen Kretzmann of Oil Change International wrote at The Huffington Post, McCutcheon is a coal man and climate change denier.
Why does Shaun McCutcheon want to be able to spend more on elections? What does he want to do with the increased access and influence this will buy him in Washington? Likely much of the same thing he has been doing -- advocate for his coal industry and peddle climate denial.
McCutcheon's company, Coalmont Electrical Development, makes industrial electrical equipment that is used in coal mines. The coal industry is in trouble both in the United States and globally. Huge amounts of cheap natural gas from fracking has undercut coal, the price for coal has dropped, and the coal market is flooded with supply. All of this is against the backdrop of an increasing grassroots movement against coal, and scientific certainty and elite concerns about fossil fueled climate change.
Kretzmann goes on to highlight some of the public statements McCutcheon has made about his denial that climate change is a serious problem, but whether he genuinely denies the science or not, what's clear is that the evidence that burning coal is dangerous for our health and the health of the climate is undeniable.
The National Academy of Science has found that exposure to coal pollution in China lowers life expectancy by five years.
In Europe, a study found that coal pollution causes more than 22,000 premature deaths every year.
And these are just due to respiratory issues and other health problems.
The burning of coal also is a leading cause of carbon emissions that cause global warming and lead to climate change. Plus, in Appalachia, coal is now mined by using explosives to blow the entire tops off of mountains, which causes immense environmental destruction, filling and polluting streams and ravines with rubble and toxic minerals.
In July, I wrote about the #WarOnCoal and how it wasn't just being waged by President Obama, but that coal was being attacked by natural gas industry and every other energy source that wants to take away its market share.
And as Coral Davenport at National Journal wrote at the time, coal's dominant place in America is slipping:
Coal is under siege from forces beyond its control. Its dominant place in the American economy is slipping—and so, for the first time in a century, is its ability to get what it wants from Washington. There are two big reasons for this. The first is economic: Over the past two years, as a glut of cheap natural gas has flooded the U.S. energy market, coal has been pushed out. The second is more existential: The world is waking up to the fact that pollution from coal-burning plants is the chief cause of global warming. Although some coal companies still deny that, governments around the world don’t—and they are pushing policies to end coal’s use. In the U.S., President Obama is deploying the full force of his executive authority to crack down on climate change. Coal is now reckoning with its role in global warming, whether it likes it or not.
Once upon a time, such an announcement — a shot across the bow of King Coal — would have been political suicide. No more. The mine is collapsing.
So with all of this context, it's no surprise that a coal man like McCutcheon is now seeking the Supreme Court's help in increasing his political power. And if this case goes his way, it will unleash a flood of new funding for politicians and give even more power to the billionaire plutocrats like the Koch Brothers, as Kretzmann explains:
Climate science is getting even more robust and conclusive. The clean energy industry is taking off. The movement against fossil fuels is gaining strength in some unlikely quarters.
What does this mean to Shaun McCutcheon, smart businessman? It means the price of bribery is going up, and he needs to be able to meet that price. The total amount of money spent at the federal level in the 2012 election by the top fossil fuel industry donors who would benefit the most from the removal of aggregate campaign finance limits was $11,504,213. If Shaun McCutcheon gets his way, these oil, coal, and gas industry executives could collectively give $312,455,200 in the next election . That's a 2,600 percent increase. Piles of money like that, which the fossil fuel industry remains in a good position to provide, has a way of muddying the waters in Washington.
Take for example the Koch brothers and their wives, who between them spent $451,398 in the last election (much more if you consider super PACs and other shady avenues, but we'll ignore that for now). If McCutcheon succeeds, the Koch brothers would be further unleashed to contribute up to $14,532,800 in the next election.
With lifelong terms for the justices, the Supreme Court is rightly designed by our founders to not be as easily affected by political gamesmanship as Congress or the Executive Branch tend to be, however, as we saw with its handling of Citizens United, this current court with its 5-4 conservative majority is not afraid to take radical action.
Similarly, Chief Justice John Roberts is a smart man and sees himself as the custodian of the court, so he knows there are limits to the radical and controversial decisions he can make without damaging the reputation of the court. As the conservative writer Charles Krauthammer explained, this is the reason Roberts voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Health Care Act or Obamacare, because he didn't want the judgement to be seen as another Bush v Gore.
In this way, I think it's important for McCutcheon vs. FEC to be framed as a fight not just over campaign finance, but also over the future of climate change and whether we'll have a chance to see major action taken to address this crisis in this generation. If it remains framed as simply Citizens United 2, I suspect we'll see even more campaign finance laws eroded by the Roberts court. And there will be an even larger flood of fossil fuel money to dirty our politics even more, just as it has dirtied the Earth's climate, our environment and our health.
For more on this case, The Washington Post has a piece on "everything you should know" about this case.
And this short video for a quicker explanation: