Donald Trump’s impeachment and acquittal have highlighted how weak the norms and institutions of democracy can be. Trump’s corruption and blatant disregard for the law raise the question of what one does when these institutions simply don’t work to hold the powerful accountable.
The global climate crisis is now making this an even more urgent – and existential – question. Governments around the world are simply not taking adequate action quickly enough to address the crisis.
Why? The governmental institutions that are supposed to work in the interests of their citizens have been “captured” by the fossil fuel industry. Fossil fuel giants work to ensure that lawmakers operate in their narrow interests. Fighting back against this and restoring the proper function of government is in the interest of all the people and will be essential to saving the planet.
“Political capture” (referred to as “corporate capture” when perpetrated specifically by corporations) is an old concept that has recently gained increased attention. The apolitical “good governance” solutions put forth over the past 25 years, such as transparency and information disclosure, have proven to be less effective than people had hoped.
In essence, political capture is when certain special and elite interests, through access to power, ability to influence and control the terms of political debate, and sometimes through outright corruption, effectively control how governments make decisions.
Money grants these entities an outsize influence that those who are not flush with cash just don’t have.
With climate change, the effects of political capture in countries like the U.S. have been apparent for a long time.
The fossil fuel industry ferociously fights against common sense climate change legislation and spreads campaign contributions generously to its congressional allies. And for years it deliberately mislead the public about the cause and potential consequences of climate change – even when it knew full well what these were.
The revolving door between the fossil fuel industry and the current administration is another way in which the industry exerts its undue influence. This kind of capture exists to varying degrees in many other countries as well.
Countering the capture of our democratic institutions by the fossil fuel industry and forcing it to take action on climate change will require a multi-part strategy.
First, the degree of corruption and capture that the industry engages in needs to continue to be exposed. Organizations like Oil Change International, Global Witness and the Exxon Knew campaign have done important work in this area. It needs to be ramped up even more, with direct naming and shaming of government officials who represent and enable this trend.
Second, we need to intensify efforts to educate the public about how bad this situation is and create demand and build movements to change it. We must relentlessly drive this point home and combine it with effective political organizing to ensure that it becomes an issue that no political candidate can avoid addressing.
Third, we have to protect the people on the frontlines fighting against the fossil fuel industry. This is essential to break the industry stranglehold on our politics. These earth rights defenders are in the vanguard of taking away the fossil fuel industry’s license to operate. Their efforts should be amplified and replicated around the globe.
Finally, we have to build new accountability frameworks that can hold the fossil fuel industry responsible for the damage it has already inflicted on the climate and for the human rights violations it has contributed to.
At EarthRights, we support the Targeting Environmental and Climate Reckless Act and any efforts to adopt comprehensive human rights and corporate legislation modeled on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
None of these steps are easy–the power of the fossil fuel industry is vast and its resources are almost unlimited. But if the Trump era of modern politics has taught us anything, it’s that there are individuals and interests who will use our democratic institutions to drive their own self-interests at the expense of everyone else. If we are to save the planet and ourselves, we need to break the industry’s capture of these institutions and ensure that they work for all of us–not just the corporate elite.