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The communities most affected by environmental injustice are those that are most likely to express concern about the climate crisis. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty)

The Climate Crisis Demands Democracy Reform

Fixing America's broken political system and building a healthier democracy can contribute to a more just and sustainable world.

The recent record-breaking heat wave on the West Coast, among other extreme weather events, has underscored the urgency of addressing the global climate crisis. Such efforts will require significant action from the federal government, including policies to reduce carbon emissions and adaptation measures to prepare communities for rising sea levels and extreme weather. Too often, however, the U.S. political system interferes with the government's ability to carry out the significant action required to address the climate crisis.

The United States needs a healthy system of democracy—one that represents the will of the people—in order to combat climate change, which has emerged as a leading voting issue for Americans. This includes repairing the nation's campaign finance system, which has allowed corporations and special interest groups—including big spenders from fossil fuel industries—to wield outsize influence in Washington. And it requires ensuring that communities of color and low-income communities, who often bear the brunt of environmental hazards, aren't disenfranchised.

Suppressing the vote suppresses climate action

The right to vote is a crucial element of a functioning democracy. But in recent years, a surge in voter suppression has threatened America's progress toward a more inclusive democracy. In the wake of the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which weakened a number of the Voting Rights Act's key protections, states have accelerated their efforts to pass laws, such as reduced early voting and strict ID requirements, that make it harder for many citizens to vote. These restrictive laws, along with manipulative practices such as extreme gerrymandering, are often designed to target low-income communities of color, threatening their rights to fair political representation. 

These are often the same communities that are disproportionately exposed to pollutants and  other environmental hazards—along with the associated health consequences, such as a higher risk of certain respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and cancers. And these are the communities that are most vulnerable to the devastating effects of a changing climate, such as extreme heat, rising sea levels, and displacement. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the communities most affected by environmental injustice are those that are most likely to express concern about the climate crisis. Over the past decade, polls have consistently found that people of color—including BlackLatino, and Asian Americans—overwhelmingly support government action on climate change and environmental protection. And, according to a 2017 poll by ecoAmerica, 91 percent of African Americans and 90 percent of Latinos surveyed were "personally concerned" about climate change, compared with 76 percent of people nationwide and 69 percent of white Americans. Similarly, of those surveyed, 82 percent of African Americans and 81 percent of Latinos supported government action to protect against climate impacts, compared with 70 percent of people nationwide and 66 percent of white Americans.

The communities that are most vulnerable to environmental injustice are often the same ones targeted for voter suppression and gerrymandering. A democracy that is more responsive to the concerns of these communities—and, more broadly, to the will of the American people—will be better positioned to address the climate crisis.  Federal legislation that is currently under consideration would, if enacted, help bring about that more representative democracy. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore and strengthen the protections of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in elections. And the expansive For the People Act would reverse voter suppression through a variety of reforms—including automatic voter registration, nationwide early voting, and a ban on partisan gerrymandering—all of which would make it easier for eligible voters to participate in American democracy and have their voices heard in elections. 

Big money and climate change

But voter suppression is far from the only antidemocratic force that threatens to thwart substantive climate change legislation. Another major factor is the role that big money plays in American politics, including in electoral campaigns. This dynamic has allowed corporations and the wealthiest individuals to hold an astounding amount of influence over the lawmaking process in Washington, often spending aggressively to kill climate change legislation, such as the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2009, which passed the House of Representatives only to fail in the Senate. According to some estimates, groups spend up to $1 billion per year on lobbying against climate legislation.

If the political system gave an advantage to the fossil fuel lobby and other special interest groups prior to 2010, it tilted even more in their favor with the Supreme Court's consequential ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The decision, which permitted corporations and other groups to spend unlimited money on elections, sparked a massive increase in political spending from special interests. In particular, Citizens United gave rise to the creation of super PACs—organizations largely powered by the wealthiest donors—and a surge in secret spending from dark money groups, which don't disclose their donors.

These developments have further expanded the political influence of corporations, wealthy individuals, and special interest groups—including the fossil fuel lobby, which has significantly increased its election spending. In 2006, for example, the oil and gas industry spent an estimated $23.6 million in federal elections, a figure that skyrocketed after Citizens United to $85.7 million in 2012, $104.5 million in 2016, and $138.8 million in 2020. (These figures don't account for contributions from dark money groups, whose spending is secret.) Critics have pointed out how this spending, combined with lobbying efforts, has stalled climate change legislation in Washington.

A Supreme Court reversal or constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United is extremely unlikely in the short term. In the meantime, however, federal legislation could help counter the role of big money in American politics. The For the People Act includes a provision for a nationwide small donor public financing system for congressional and presidential elections. Under this system, small donors who give to participating candidates would see their contributions matched by public funds. The program would come at no cost to taxpayers, as it would be funded primarily by a surcharge on criminal and civil penalties on corporate defendants and their executive officers.

If enacted, the system would significantly expand the power of small donors, and political candidates would rely less on big checks from wealthy donors and special interest groups, including big fossil fuel spenders. And it would amplify the voices of ordinary citizens, a vast majority of whom support government action to address climate change.

The For the People Act also includes provisions that would increase transparency in election spending. It would, for example, require groups that spend significant amounts of money on campaigns to disclose their donors, closing the legal loophole that led to the rise of dark money.

Climate change threatens our democracy

It's not only that case that a dysfunctional democracy jeopardizes our ability to address the climate crisis. The inverse also holds true: climate change threatens American democracy, including the integrity of the U.S. voting system itself. For example, scholars have documented how during Election Day in November 2005, three months after Hurricane Katrina, 80 percent of New Orleans voters (two-thirds of whom were African American) remained displaced and nearly three-quarters of polling places had been damaged or destroyed. Such catastrophic events threaten to undermine voter participation even years after they take place.

The stakes of these intersecting crises are high, but there are solutions. Lawmakers can take note of what the vast majority of Americans support, including bold climate action and the democracy reforms needed to achieve it. And they can discern how a healthier democracy can contribute to a more just and sustainable world.

© 2021 Brennan Center for Justice

Tim Lau

Tim Lau joined the Brennan Center’s Communications and Strategy Team in October 2018. As a staff writer, he produces daily content on relevant news developments connected to Brennan Center’s core issues. He also provides editorial support on social media and publications projects. Previously, Tim worked on the editorial teams at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Asia Society. He received his B.A. in International Relations and English Literature from Wheaton College.

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