I didn’t risk arrest lightly last Friday, as I joined partners and allies on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for the October 11 launch of Fire Drill Fridays — Vote. Speak. Act. — a series of climate change actions led by Jane Fonda. But I did not hesitate, because this is a fight that clearly illustrates how powerful corporate interests are using their wealth and political influence to destroy our planet for huge profits. Changing that will require reforming our political system to reduce the power of money in politics and expand voter participation.
Fossil fuel pollution will affect all of us, regardless of where we are on the political spectrum, or our race, class, gender, or zip code. We will all face increasingly erratic and extreme weather, destruction of ecosystems, or health effects like worsening allergies, heart and lung disease. If we are to have a planet that can sustain us, we need comprehensive, renewable energy with good jobs.
Change at the scale necessary will not come as a result of mere policy debate or the usual tactics with the usual suspects. The fossil fuel industry is too powerful an economic engine and dominant political force. Extreme profits coupled with an American political structure that embraces free-flowing campaign contributions, dark money, and lobbying have enabled the fossil fuel industry to shape regulations to their advantage, extract government subsidies, and dictate worker’s rights and income — all while obstructing the path to 21st century renewable energy, public transportation, and a fair economy.
According to a recent study, the fossil fuel industry spent nearly $2 billion on lobbying to kill climate laws between 2000 and 2016.
According to a recent study, the fossil fuel industry spent nearly $2 billion on lobbying to kill climate laws between 2000 and 2016. During that period, they also spent hundreds of millions more on congressional campaign donations and we will never know how much dark money they spent to influence elections. They win big with that investment. Researchers at the International Monetary Fund found that in 2015, U.S. government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry totaled $649 billion — exceeding the $599 billion spent by the Pentagon.
Our democracy has been deliberately broken. We will not succeed in moving to a renewable energy economy if we don’t win the fight for clean, fair elections, and a government that works for all of us. It will take all of us showing up for democracy to confront and prevail against this kind of power. It will require a bottom-up, grassroots demand from environmental, labor unions, civil rights, and social justice sectors, particularly those affected most: workers, marginalized communities of black and brown people, and those in urban and rural poverty.
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Restoring the promise of our democracy means protecting and expanding voting rights to achieve at least 75 percent voter turnout in 2020 and in every election going forward. It means stopping the flow of corporate money and dark money into our political system. It means stopping the abuse of power in the Senate that enables the wealthy to get their tax cuts while critical priorities like immigration, gun control, worker’s rights, and more don’t even get a vote.
This is why I decided to take action. When I arrived for the pre-action briefing last Friday, Jane Fonda was there, greeting every person who entered the room and asking pointed questions. She made it clear that during this climate change event, unions and environmentalists stood united. She said we can and must have renewable energy where workers make $50.00 per hour and have significant benefits.
After spending decades at the United Auto Workers union, fighting for dignity, respect and good wages for workers who are employed at powerful corporations that make profits from fossil fuels, those words moved me deeply. Jane Fonda was not just lending her celebrity status. She was taking a personal risk and challenging all of us to create the space for massive, diverse, cross-sector civic engagement to end our fossil fuel dependency now.
I was privileged to spend the day with Jane and 16 amazing leaders from the labor, peace, and environmental communities, 13 of whom are influential women. We were arrested. I sat next to Jane, handcuffed in the police van, and shared a cell with her and others. She focused on the task at hand and future events and never complained. We used the time in the cell to strategize, plan ways to grow the effort, and learn about the connections in our work.
I chose to take actions that I knew would result in my arrest, but that is not the only way to participate. You can participate in the teach-ins, rallies and other actions of #Fire Drill Fridays at a level that fits your purpose. Vote. Speak. Act. Let’s make change happen. It will take all of us.