2016 will almost certainly surpass 2015 -- and 2014 before it -- as the warmest year ever recorded, and this warming is not without consequence. Climate change is causing more intense hurricanes, severe and prolonged drought, infectious disease proliferation, extreme heatwaves, and sea level rise. According to the United Nations, these and other effects of climate change are responsible for approximately 150,000 deaths worldwide every year, and these consequences disproportionately impact the poor and other marginalized people. In addition to the immense human impact, the economic consequences ought not to be ignored, as climate change is slated to wipe out two percent of America’s GDP annually by the year 2030.
With such staggeringly high economic and human costs, one question comes to mind: Why has our government failed so spectacularly to take meaningful action on climate change?
The answer to this question is not simple or straightforward, as there are a number of factors behind this historic government stagnation. One predominant force, though, is undoubtedly the Supreme Court’s devastating Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for society’s wealthiest corporations to limitlessly spend to manipulate elections and public policy.
Perhaps no industry has taken advantage of post-Citizens United campaign finance rules more than the fossil fuel industry. From spending on campaign advertising to elect their hand-picked candidates, to lobbying ad nauseam to prevent legislative action, the fossil fuel industry has come to epitomize the vices of big money in politics. To understand the degree to which fossil fuel campaign spending pervades our politics, one need look no further than the notorious Koch brothers.
Charles and David Koch, owners of the multinational fossil fuel conglomerate Koch Industries, had pledged that they were prepared to spend nearly $900 million on 2016 elections -- an amount that puts them on par with the national Republican Party. That a single corporation is able to spend as much in an election cycle as a major political party is egregious; what’s more, though, is that the groups that are financing the Koch’s political machine are exempt from disclosure laws and can be kept secret. In this way, the implications of the Citizens United decision are entirely antithetical to the principles of American democracy and are incompatible with sound public policy formation.
The election of Donald Trump brought the dark money influence of the Koch Brothers and other fossil fuel companies to the highest levels of government. In selecting Myron Ebell to head his EPA transition team, Trump elevated a climate denier who has made a career of spreading disinformation about climate change while working for fossil fuel-funded front groups -- most recently, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Indeed, given the current political climate and continued corruptive influence of money in politics, prospects for government action on climate change are bleak. Now more than ever, Americans need to stand up to the financial influence of fossil fuel companies. As a first step, Penn State and other institutions must go above and beyond in the fight against climate change if catastrophic consequences are to be avoided.
One of the most powerful tools for fighting climate change at Penn State’s disposal is the University’s endowment. Essentially a savings account for the school, the endowment fund represents roughly $4 billion and is used to partially fund any and all aspects of University operations -- research, infrastructure projects, scholarships, and more. In ill-conceived efforts to grow the endowment, its funds are invested broadly throughout all sectors of the economy, including fossil fuel companies.
Through its fossil fuel investments, Penn State is indirectly funding an industry that is both irreversibly damaging the planet and corrupting our political system. Rather than aid this perversion of American democracy, Penn State should follow in the footsteps of other major universities -- such as Stanford, Maryland, Syracuse, and others -- and divest its holdings of fossil fuel companies.
Now, in Trump’s America, it is imperative to fight back against the growing corporate influence of the fossil fuel industry. Society simply cannot afford for influential institutions like Penn State to remain on the sidelines for the issue of climate change any longer.