The conspiracy behind the climate change bill — revealed!

Among the odder aspects of Annie Leonard’s conspiracy theory about the influence of Wall Street over climate legislation is the fact that we already know perfectly well who is exerting influence over climate change legislation. There’s no mystery, no surprise. What’s the phrase that conveys the opposite of a conspiracy? Because that’s what we have here: the usual suspects, operating in the usual manner, in plain view of everybody.

The Center for Public Integrity has put some hard numbers around the story, assembling a public database of all the lobbyists working on climate change and the organizations that employ them. The search interface, unfortunately, doesn’t provide any aggregate statistics, but I pulled some approximate numbers from the chart up top. Here’s what they tell us:

Fully 65.6% of climate change lobbyists are working at the behest of **energy producers and consumers**, a group composed of manufacturers, utilities, power companies, oil and gas companies, the transportation industry, mining and coal companies, and alternative energy producers.

Another 13.5% of lobbyists represent **advocacy groups**, a catch-all for environmental organizations, unions, and the mysterious “other.”

The remaining 21% is a hodgepodge of groups — waste management firms, universities, building contractors, etc. — most or possibly all of whom have some indirect financial stake in the legislation. **Wall Street and the financial industry** represent 4.4% of the lobbying pie, just below the alternative energy crowd and just ahead of city, county and public agencies.

Mystery solved! In addition to the handful of organizations doing straight-up advocacy work, the interest groups vying to influence the legislation are the ones who stand to make or lose money in a carbon-constrained economy. Moreover, the intensity of their lobbying is roughly proportional to the dollars at risk. Unsurprisingly, energy producers and consumers are working the hardest to shape (or defeat) the bill, and Wall Street, alongside a number of other players, is also doing some little bit.

One thing to keep in mind is that the mere existence of lobbyists doesn’t tell us much about what they’re lobbying for. Within the broad categories I’ve outlined, conflicts abound. For example, GE, Duke Energy, and other members of the USCAP coalition are included in that big 65.6% chunk; these business are lobbying in favor of climate change legislation. The Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers are pushing in the opposite direction. Divisions exist even among fossil fuel producers: natural gas could do very well at the expense of coal under a carbon pricing scheme.

That’s another funny thing about the non-conspiracy: at least Wall Street is lobbying *in favor of climate change legislation*. In fact, the finance industry has no obvious complaint with most of the items on environmentalists’ wish list for a climate change bill (allowance auctions, aggressive near-term reductions, an upstream cap, etc.).

None of this is to suggest that all this lobbying, by Wall Street or otherwise, is a good thing. It’s not. But there’s no reason to go hunting around for villains. We don’t have a stronger climate change bill because climate change legislation is going to raise the price of energy, and a vast array of interests is aligned against such a rise. Although I think Waxman-Markey is certainly a good enough bill — historically unprecedented, actually — it does bear the mark of painful compromise. Wishing otherwise won’t make it so, and killing the current compromise certainly won’t help the environment.

**UPDATE:** Meet the Wall Steet climate change lobby.

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  1. Tom Harrison - December 15, 2009

    Oh, Adam –
    Don’t you see how you have been duped by the conspiracy that made those numbers available to you?
    Seriously, after reading the recent NY Times bit which seemed to lend credence to the conspiracy by utilities to install smart meters to over-bill consumers, I am shaking my head at the dearth of rational, critical thinking on (almost) all populists fronts. (No, TerraPass does not count as a populist front.)
    It’s beginning to seem like where you stand depends on something like a “belief” whose merits are based more on what you feel than on annoying facts and pesky data. I am fine with things that are “faith based” as long as they don’t include science.
    And to make a more substantial point here, my question would be: how does calling out the absurdities of those who are simply vocal raise the level of discourse? (Jon Stewart does a fine job of calling out absurdity in his Daily Show).
    At this particular point, any recognition or rebuttal to absurd or baseless blatherings serve only to reinforce their incorrect message. Infuriating: yes. Worthy of comment? No.
    I continue to simply have hope.

  2. Jo - December 15, 2009

    But here’s why this conspiracy is still surprising to me, even if it is not mysterious: every single person working in the industries that stand to lose financially in a carbon-constrained economy, are also human beings who live on Earth, and presumably are planning for their grandchildren to also live on Earth. That people would lobby according to their own financial interests, or those of their employers, is not surprising in general; but here, when the outcome may well determine if we doom all of us on Earth to the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, it’s surprising to me that such a large crowd of humans identify more powerfully with their day jobs than with their humanity. Shouldn’t we all be in on this one together?

  3. povdds - December 15, 2009

    These figures may demonstrate the greed and untrustability of corporations and industry … but they also demonstrate the greed and untrustability of the politicians these lobbyists target.
    Influence peddling and corruption work both ways.

  4. Adam Stein - December 16, 2009

    I tend to agree that it’s hard to envision really strong policy outcomes when so much of the population — and in particular, politicians — don’t really seem to care very much about solving problems. It’s a really depressing topic for a future post.

  5. Tom Harrison - December 16, 2009

    Jo —
    It’s pretty hard to understand for me, too. But I don’t think people think this way.
    One of my siblings is a great critical thinker — an Ivy League education, Phi Beta Kappa, she’s really smart — but her political views are pretty far to the right. As a result, she hears a somewhat different stream of information than you or I might. She has come to believe that climate change is real (which is rather progressive for her :-) but is not convinced that humans are completely responsible, and even it we are she thinks there is little or nothing we can do to affect the outcome. And so, we should continue to do what we’re best at, in her view, which is to allow individuals and the companies they form and work in to thrive unfettered by government constraint — it is here that she sees the greatest hope of finding a solution.
    I personally think hers is an irresponsible viewpoint. She puts all of her faith in a system (economic incentive) that tends to work in the long run. But it hasn’t worked in this case over the course of the last 25 years during which it has become increasingly clear that climate change is a major problem.
    Her son and daughter are my nephew and niece; I fear for their future and for the future of my children. But if I didn’t believe as strongly or clearly that we need to address climate change issues urgently, I would have a different view.
    The other view is that people are inherently greedy and selfish to the point that they will forgo their childrens’ futures for their immediate gratification. I don’t think most people are actually like that.

  6. povdds - December 16, 2009

    Tom (post #5): I also heartily agree with your last paragraph: most people are NOT inherently greedy enough to knowingly sacrifice their long-term well-being and happiness (or that of their children, or that of other people) for their own short-term benefit or control of power over others. Unfortunately, we have a political and economic system in place that generally seems to”select in” people who are willing to do that, and to “select out” those who do not.

  7. Jo - December 16, 2009

    I think this gets to the heart of what I find *most* depressing about the climate crisis and how it has played out so far: it reveals things about human nature that are heart-breaking, and I for one would prefer not to have had to find out. Sorry to add to the depress-fest.

  8. kib - December 16, 2009

    The part that boggles my mind every time I see it is so very simply this: Ecology trumps economy. Period. Non negotiable. The idea that a market driven strategy which prioritizes economy will still answer those pesky little problems of physical ecology is an anthropocentric fantasy bordering on psychosis.

  9. Geoff - December 16, 2009

    Self-interest makes the world go ’round; the trick is getting self-interest and common interest to align. Examine the companies like Duke and GE that support current climate legislation and you will find that they see considerable opportunity for their firms to gain from the structure of Waxman-Markey, which is skewed heavily against oil and gas and heavily towards electricity, even electricity from coal, the worst emitter. If the bill had been designed to give oil companies and their consumers the lion’s share of the free allowances–a choice that would have had some logic, since oil is going to be the hardest energy source/fuel in the mix to replace–we might instead see the oil companies aligned behind the bill and the utilities and their suppliers fighting it. From my perspective, it would have made much more sense to craft a bill that doled out the benefits with an even hand. We might still see that in the Senate.

  10. Jo Jo - December 17, 2009

    Even the Amazing James Randi has joined in the conspiracy of skeptics! Imagine if you will, a man, a career skeptic of all things religious, magical and supernatural. A skeptic’s skeptic. This man, while stricken with a deadly cancer and undergoing chemotherapy with only a 50% chance of saving his life — this man has the audacity to be skeptical about the anthropogenic part of anthropogenic global warming.
    It is enough to make a person weep, to see the monstrous conspiracy in action. Maybe it will all turn out okay anyway?

  11. Elizabeth Doty - December 22, 2009

    This conversation focuses on one of the great failures of information of our era, and a very sad one.
    I agree that people working in corporations that influence legislation will also have to live on the earth that reflects the consequences. Yet perception is such a malleable thing and when there is mistrust (like all the mistrust of anything from Al Gore), real data is tossed out with the bathwater. There’s also the question of what feels politically viable and professionally responsible in our jobs (regardless of what we believe as citizens), which is a significant challenge. Many of us think it’s inappropriate to bring in concerns as citizens into professional roles — but I think that would change if more people (like Ray Anderson of Interface) realized the rules of the game were skewed and you could cause harm doing stuff that’s completely legal.
    For what it’s worth, I wrote a book based on interviews with people in corporate settings trying to sort out their personal values and professional personas — and there were a many who struggled with feelings of compromise but didn’t feel strong enough to buck the system. ( Those are the people we need to lend support to, I think. (And that includes senior leadership.)
    Finally, I agree with Adam that it’s crucial to distinguish who’s lobbying for what. If a company turns a corner, we shouldn’t lump them together with their industry — yet so many activist calls to action do just that. I’d like to know exactly which companies stand where, so I can reinforce those that take the risk to differ.
    All the best,
    –Elizabeth Doty