Despite ‘Blue Wave,’ Activists Struggle to Make Climate Litigation a Priority for Democrats
- November 14, 2018
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With Democrats poised to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Bill McKibben’s band of activists are quickly turning to their old media stunts aimed at the incoming chair of the House Science Committee and likely Speaker of the House. They want the new Congress and Democratic leaders to focus on political theater over substance, and persecuting energy companies for climate change is at the top of their list. But here’s a quick reality check.
Science Committee Already Rejected #ExxonKnew Investigation
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), the likely incoming Chair of the House Science Committee, said just two years ago, “If any companies in the oil industry defrauded the public or their shareholders….then that is a matter for the state attorneys general and the courts, not the Committee on Science.” (emphasis added)
That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for her to completely reverse her position, as 350.org is demanding.
Dems Focused on Trump, Not Climate
Since last week’s midterm election, pundits have theorized on the course of action the House Democrats will take once the new session starts next year. While investigating the Trump administration is the clear emphasis for Democrats, those tied into McKibben’s anti-fossil fuel campaign are pushing the idea that the House turning blue has suddenly enabled Democrats to pass major climate legislation, despite a Republican-controlled Senate and White House.
Many of the incoming House members have likely never heard of the #ExxonKnew campaign that fizzled out two years ago, and it’s difficult to overstate just how focused they are on the Trump administration – not climate liability theories.
On Monday, Axios published the “at least 85 topics” that Democrats have said they’d target, or are expected to target, as part of the planned investigations and subpoenas aimed at the Trump administration. Climate is mentioned in just one, under “potential topics,” and even that one isn’t really about climate change per se: it’s about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s handling of climate change in agency reports.
In addition to those in Congress, the newly-elected Democratic attorneys general are even less than enthusiastic about breathing new life into flailing climate lawsuits. In a recent HuffPost article about what the midterm wins by Democratic AGs could mean for climate lawsuits, the author highlights four incoming Democratic attorneys general as potential allies to these climate litigation efforts.
But the article lacks any evidence to suggest these new AGs are actually interested in launching climate lawsuits. One of the AGs declined an interview request while two others “did not respond to repeated requests for comment.” The fourth, Colorado Democrat Phil Weiser, flatly denied that he would pursue such lawsuits, stating that he was “uncomfortable” with suing ExxonMobil with regard to climate change.
Climate Litigation is Sputtering and Failing Across the Country
Compounding this, the Democratic AGs who are currently pursuing climate lawsuits are failing. The HuffPost article notes that New York could potentially serve as a model for future climate lawsuits, mentioning it has some of the toughest laws on the books. And yet, it’s already suing and doing so unsuccessfully.
So, if New York is their best bet, it doesn’t bode well for other efforts, which could explain why so many who made up former New York AG Eric Schneiderman’s one-time coalition of AGs have run for the hills. Instead, Democratic AGs are focusing their efforts on fighting President Trump’s environmental agenda.
Proponents of these lawsuits are also on a losing streak nationally, where federal judges have already dismissed three of the lawsuits. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which was investigating charges against ExxonMobil similar to those alleged by the New York AG, recently closed its investigation of the company without recommending any enforcement action.
Activist Tactics Criticized by Their Supporters
The #ExxonKnew movement is so desperate to keep this issue alive (because that’s what the Rockefellers are paying them to do) they’re resorting to protesting outside Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office and ranting on Twitter.
Vox.com’s climate writer, David Roberts, is sympathetic to the goals of the activists but criticized their tactics:
“I can’t say I really understand the @sunrisemvmt climate protest outside of Pelosi’s office. Admittedly, I’m not a Youth, so perhaps I just don’t Get It, but I cannot reconstruct the strategic logic…
“My meta-worry here is that the climate movement has a loooong history of being unduly obsessed with, and impressed with, symbolic gestures: grand proclamations, ultimata, targets, trumpet blowing. Those things are fine, but they don’t actually reduce any [e]missions…
“Pushing for grand symbolism is fine, but NOT if it impedes that small-ball. NOT if it pulls the entire climate left into another dreary, pointless battle over who is True & Good and who is an Evil Neoliberal Sellout. NOT if symbolism is mistaken for actual progress.” (emphasis added)
For these reasons, it’s easy to see why Democrats on Capitol Hill haven’t embraced the #ExxonKnew campaign – and are unlikely to do so any time soon.
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