By Cory Herro
Environmental groups prepared for the 2014 midterm elections by asking themselves: How much money would it take to get American voters to mandate legislative action on climate change?
Consider this question in light of the fact that 22 million people worldwide were displaced from their homes in 2013 due to natural disasters related to climate change. Consider that the Philippines is still struggling to recover from the most powerful typhoon ever recorded to hit land, that California’s agriculture industry is projected to lose billions of dollars in revenue from three straight years of record drought, and that the largest city in Brazil — home to over 11 million people — is projected to run out of water sometime next year due to drought.
Given the gravity of the global climate situation, you might think environmental groups shouldn’t have to spend very much money to get voters to care. You’d be wrong. If environmental groups should take away any lesson from the 2014 midterm elections, it’s that getting voters to mandate legislative action on climate change takes more money than it’s worth.
To offer context, the environmental community just invested more money in politics than it ever has before — just shy of $100 million, all told — and it didn’t work. Local billionaire and Stanford grad Tom Steyer dumped about $70 million of his own money trying to get environmentally conscientious candidates elected, but a mere one out of every three of the candidates he supported won. To put Steyer’s 32 percent return on investment in perspective, it’s about 10 percent lower than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s success rate, and it’s a far cry from the National Republican Congressional Committee’s 67 percent success rate. These organizations spent as much as Steyer did, but reaped higher returns.
In the days following their defeat, Steyer and the environmental groups published optimistic op-eds about how this is just the beginning, and they’ll convince voters one day. “Investing in democracy is, without question, a winning proposition,” Steyer writes.
Here’s why it’s not a winning proposition. For starters, if Steyer keeps trying to “invest in democracy” by convincing voters they should care about the environment, he’ll start to sound like a broken record. Climate science itself has a history of sounding a lot like a needle stuck in a groove. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published report after report since 1990 alleging the same thing with progressive levels of confidence: humans are causing climate change. After decades of science, newly-elected Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush claims the science isn’t in yet, and newly-re-elected Senator Jim Inhofe, who literally wrote the book on climate change denial, is about to become the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
People aren’t exactly freaking out about climate change, and not even $100 million in campaign funding changed that. Not even $100 million more will change that. Call me a skeptic, but no campaign ad ever turned anyone into an environmentalist. Luckily for Steyer, he doesn’t really have to convince people to care about the environment, because people already care about money. They care about saving money, which is why people love gas-saving hybrid cars, and they care about making money, which is why car companies pump millions of dollars into making better car batteries. People actually demand efficient vehicles so much, in fact, that car companies’ vehicle efficiency ratings even outpace governmental standards.
We are rapidly moving toward a world in which green companies can succeed in the private sector without government aid. Just consider how renewable solar energy companies like SolarCity, car companies like Toyota and Honda that produce hybrid and electric vehicles and electric bus companies like Proterra are all attracting big bucks from private investors and making bigger bucks from consumers. Critics point to media-hyped failures like Solyndra, but forget that Solyndra failed in part due to competition from other solar energy firms. In that way, Solyndra actually highlights the rapid growth of solar in the free market for green energy. If the utilities companies responsible for providing electricity to the nation team up with residential solar systems, rooftop solar would go completely mainstream. The point is, there are free market investments that environmentalists could make that would usher in a new age of green energy.
It is true that some funding for green energy endeavors does come from the federal government, which is why people like Steyer want to invest in government, but pumping money into Congress with the goal of that money being redirected to green energy is not sensible.
There’s a fear that if someone doesn’t step up to rival the Koch brothers with political funding, the Koch brothers will win. That may be the case for now, but it won’t be for long. One day, companies that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels will be competitive with the fossil fuel industry. When that day comes, the free market alone will guide the US toward a greener future, and no Koch ad will change that. If environmental groups want to usher that day along, don’t blow money on midterm elections.
Contact Cory Herro at cherro ‘at’ stanford.edu.