Lobbying Cash Obscures US Climate Debate
When it comes to the debate in the United States over what to do about climate change, cash may very well have clouded the issue.
Lobbying groups for the energy companies and environmentalists have boosted their spending by double digits in a year because they knew that the US Senate would debate environmental legislation ahead of global climate change talks next month.
But science and specifics are hard to find in the barrage of ads and messages about green jobs, alternative energy and the dangers of pollution.
Energy sector groups spent a total of $300 million (£183 million) in the third quarter of 2009 and were heading for a record spending year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbyist spending.
From January to September, some of the biggest energy lobby spenders included oil and gas ($120.7 million), electric utilities ($108 million) and alternative energy which showed a 40 per cent rise over last year to $23 million.
That makes the energy sector the third largest in terms of spending on lawmaker lobbying, campaign contributions, labor unions, business and special interest groups after health and business.
On the other hand, environmental groups, which tend to press for reforms that the energy sector opposes, spent $16 million during the same period, a 14 per cent increase from last year.
And the difference is apparent in the size of the lobbyist armies that descend on Capitol Hill each day. Overall, energy-related companies hired 2,225 lobbyists so far this year, compared to environmentalists who hired just 465.
Washington is blanketed with energy advertisements in the bus stops and metro, from big oil companies touting individuals who conserve energy in small ways to dire warnings from green groups about the dangers of doing nothing.
One advertisement that ran on television in October proclaimed that "C02 is green," denying its effects on global warming and calling carbon dioxide "Earth's greatest airborne fertilizer".
Leighton Steward, a retired Texas oil man who is spokesman for the group that ran the ads and set up websites to support the claims, said his aim was to stop US lawmakers from implementing costly regulations.
"We are getting ready to spend a couple of trillion dollars to try and reduce atmospheric dioxide which I don't believe is having any significant effect on climate change," he told AFP.
"It is clear, it is odorless, it is tasteless, it is a total benefit," he said, adding that "thousands of research papers that have been written on the benefits of additional carbon dioxide."
A coalition of environmentalist groups led by the Alliance for Climate Protection, which was introduced in 2006 by former vice president Al Gore, is running its own ads this week along with an online "wall" where people can express their support for clean energy.
"We believe that this effort, with nearly 200 organisers in 23 states, as well as the wall, will obviously have an impact in showing the support for action now and in the near term," said the group's president Maggie Fox.
"This is intended to move us forward in the broadest sense," she said.
The group's appeal for support reads: "I support clean energy policies that will create millions of jobs and solve the climate crisis."
However, there is no mention of the stickier concepts that have bogged down lawmakers, such as a "cap and trade" system to punish polluters, or how to capture carbon emitted by the coal industries which produce cheap energy.
There's a reason for the vagueness of the lobby-fueled debate, according to Bob Perkowitz, president of consumer research group EcoAmerica which studies mainstream Americans' beliefs on environmental issues.
"When they hear 'cap and trade,' they think of baseball. If you ask them what alternative or renewable energy means they can't describe those," Perkowitz said.
"The way most Americans are with global warming, they end up getting superficial information from different sources and forming some sort of vague opinion about it."
Columbia University geochemistry professor Wally Broecker lamented the mislaying of cash when it comes to the environment and creating new, greener technologies.
"The total amount of money spent on C02 capture in the atmosphere is seven to 10 million dollars. That's the amount a professional ball player makes in a season. That's absurd," Broecker said.
"As far as preparing, we are doing almost nothing and that is really terrible," he added.
"Fifty per cent of people in the US don't believe in evolution. The same mentality goes for global warming," he said. "We are not a very deep thinking population."