Why Won’t These Democrats Reject Fossil Fuel Money?

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"The No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge is a major litmus test for 2020 candidates."

The New Republic, March 19, 2019

Two days before she officially launched her campaign for president, Kirsten Gillibrand made one of the smartest moves of her political career. “I signed the pledge today,” she told a group of climate change activists in New Hampshire on Friday. The senator from New York didn’t immediately specify which pledge she had taken, but it was obvious to those in attendance: Gillibrand had signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, promising not to accept any money from the oil, gas, or coal industries for her presidential campaign.

She’s not the first Democratic candidate to take the pledge. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee have all signed the document administered by the No Fossil Fuel Money coalition.* “The bar for climate leadership is being set,” David Turnbull, the strategic communications director of Oil Change United States, a member of the coalition, said in a Friday statement. “We look forward to more candidates joining this trend as the Presidential primary continues to ramp up.”

Senators Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg have not signed the pledge, according to its website. None of these campaigns’ press teams responded to requests for comment, except for a spokesperson for Harris who said the senator technically complies with the pledge but hasn’t actually signed it. That spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up asking why she doesn’t just sign it then.

The No Fossil Fuel Money pledge has long been the climate activist community’s litmus test for political candidates. But as the dire nature of global warming becomes clearer by the day—and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal grows more popular—the climate activist community and the Democratic voter base are increasingly aligned on the issue. Signing the pledge should be one of the easiest commitments the Democratic candidates have to make, and those who don’t may well be dooming their chances.

Refusing money from the oil, gas and coal industries may seem, at first glance, like a politically risky move. If the eventual Democratic nominee is to beat Donald Trump—the most likely eventual Republican nominee—they’ll need all the resources they can get. So why give up such a potentially huge source of revenue?

“The fossil fuel industry doesn’t generally have a major role in presidential elections on the Democratic side, and hasn’t for awhile,” said Sarah Bryner, the research director at the Center for Responsive Politics. Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, only got about $1 million from oil and gas interests over the course of her campaign; Barack Obama received about the same amount in 2008 and 2012, respectively. That’s a fairly minuscule amount, given that Clinton’s campaign raised about a $1 billion and Obama’s 2012 campaign raised even more. Even a Democratic candidate like O’Rourke, who’s historically benefitted from oil and gas industry money, wouldn’t be giving up that much if he gave it up in 2020. As a congressman in 2018, he received $476,000 from the industry, second only to Senator Ted Cruz in all of Congress. But O’Rourke raised $6 million online in the first 24 hours of his campaign alone.

So the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge isn’t very costly for Democrats. (The No Hollywood Celebrity Money Pledge would be another story.) And any money a Democratic candidate gives up by signing is more than offset by the credibility they’d earn on the issue of climate change—not to mention that it might attract big-money environmental donors. The eventual Democratic nominee surely will be expected to champion the Green New Deal, or a similar plan to transition the country’s fossil fuel economy into a renewable one. Democratic voters ought to be able trust that their nominee isn’t corrupted by the very industries that are making the planet unlivable.

The Democratic field is large, and nearly every candidate has made a grand statement or two about the dire threat of global warming. But right now, voters can truly trust only five of them to decarbonize the economy. Bryner expects that to change, eventually. “This is a signaling game, and it ends up punishing candidates who won’t make the same pledges,” she said. Hopefully it does—because if the next president doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the fossil fuel industry, then they certainly don’t have what it takes to prevent a world of hurt.

* A previous version of this article misstated the organization that is administering the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge.

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