That so many states in the US have been passing legislation to curb climate change is anything but a fluke. Like other retrograde measures enacted in Republican-controlled states, those bills are based on “model legislation” drafted for legislators by an outfit called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
One of that group’s model bills, the Eliminate Economic Boycotts Act, is sweeping, if convoluted, in its language. It prohibits state governments from investing in or dealing with any private company that “penalises” or “inflicts economic harm on” another company because it’s involved in fossil-fuel extraction, logging, mining or agriculture.
When the ability of businesses (as well as governmental agencies) to pursue climate-mitigation policies is restricted, our individual and collective right to non-violently protest against climate-busting fuels becomes that much more important.
Alas, that avenue to climate protection is also being barricaded. Since 2020, such street demonstrations have increasingly been met with right-wing and police violence, while protest directed specifically at fossil fuels is being outlawed outright.
Last year, at Mother Jones magazine, Nina Lakhani reported, for instance, that ALEC was behind legislation in 24 states that criminalised grassroots protests against fossil-fuel infrastructure. By now, anti-protest legislation, most often zeroing in on climate activists and Indigenous Peoples’ communities, has been introduced in a staggering 45 states.
Support for oil, gas and coal is also being orchestrated by an association of state treasurers located, of course, in this country’s most carbon-heavy regions. The State Financial Officers Foundation, with headquarters in Shawnee, Kansas, is, you won’t be surprised to learn, marshalling red-state financial officers and attorneys general to do regulatory battle against climate “wokeism.”
Since 2021, it’s been urging state officials, according to New York Times climate desk reporter David Gelles, “to use their power to promote oil and gas interests and to stymie Mr Biden’s climate agenda.”
That foundation, in turn, received financial support in 2021 not only from rabidly anti-climate groups like the Heartland Institute and the American Petroleum Institute, but also from some top financial services corporations, including Mastercard, Visa, Fidelity and JPMorgan Chase.
This raised CNBC’s eyebrows since those companies also “promote their own sustainability investment models” like ESG. Indeed, it’s widely expected that JPMorgan and some of the other big lenders that have been writing checks to those oily state financial officers will also be filling the solar-financing gap left by the demise of Silicon Valley Bank — diversifying their portfolios, so to speak.
What about those states that find themselves on the other side of the national climate divorce, the ones rewarding ESG policies? Clearly, steering public funds away from the fossil-fuel industry is a much-needed approach in our world (and, by the way, the federal government could take another step in that direction right now by eliminating the $10 billion to $50 billion in tax subsidies it still grants the industry annually). Of course, to achieve a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, far more would be needed.
Market-based measures alone won’t bring about the precipitous decline in greenhouse-gas emissions that, in terms of extreme weather, the planet is screaming for ever more desperately. For that, urgent, direct action would be needed to suppress the extraction and use of coal, oil, and natural gas.
It goes without saying that coordinated nationwide action of that sort would be unimaginable in the American political universe of 2023. Even governors and legislatures determined to reduce carbon emissions can only achieve so much, given that their states exist in a national climate-policy vacuum and often share borders with ones in which increasingly authoritarian state legislatures are violating the local autonomy of communities and municipalities by force-feeding them fossil fuels.
For instance, Tennessee passed a law last year forbidding local governments from taxing or regulating any of the state’s energy infrastructure – with one qualification. The measure does not prohibit “a local action that affects facilities for the transmission, distribution, collection, conversion and use of solar energy.”
In the Volunteer State, you see, solar power is fair game for regulation and taxation, while fossil-fuel power is not.
As of last year, almost 20 states, all of them with legislatures under full Republican control, had laws on the books that forbid local governments from banning fossil-fuel gas connections in newly built homes. Even more intrusive is a Florida law that blocks local governments “from restricting fuel sources distributed and used by electric and gas utilities, power generators, pipeline operators, and propane dealers.”
As they snatch away the right of local communities to prevent not just pollution but the destruction of our world, such states are following a path that Texas blazed eight years ago. In 2015, local officials across the Lone Star State moved to ban the hazardous toxic-drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
In response, state legislators passed and Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill that forbids municipalities from regulating oil and gas operations.
Tom Giovanetti, president of a right-wing Dallas think tank, penned a commentary supporting such suppression of local governance. Apparently unaware that he was coming up with some pretty good satire, he wrote,
“It’s absolutely true that the closer political power is to the people, the more responsive political power tends to be. But that can be a two-edged sword. Local governments are at least as capable as the Feds of passing laws and ordinances that violate the presumption of liberty in the Constitution… Tyranny isn’t OK just because it is approved by a majority of your fellow townsfolk.”
Tyranny indeed! And don’t forget the “tyranny” of a world growing ever hotter and more extreme by the year.
When MAGA legislators force their taxpayers to support the coal, oil and natural gas industries, while undercutting the efforts of local governments to free their communities from fossil fuels, they’re not just empowering their fossil-fuelised campaign donors. Their anti-climate laws and regulations are also part of a broader effort to impose ever tighter right-wing political discipline on society. To that end, the authors of such laws — directly out of the authoritarian playbook — are intentionally vague about what constitutes “boycotting” or “discrimination.”
They don’t spell out, for example, what a fund manager can or cannot consider in deciding which companies to invest in. That kind of vagueness is woven into all sorts of anti-democratic bills and laws that have been bubbling up in state governments lately.
It’s intended to keep those of us who care about this planet’s future and that of our children and grandchildren off balance, fearful and less likely to do what’s needed to keep our world safe, sane, and functioning reasonably well.
Like a doctor who might delay aborting an ectopic pregnancy until it’s too late because his state’s anti-abortion law doesn’t specify how “near death” the mother must be before he can do so without going to prison, like the teacher who might censor her own lessons because she can’t be sure certain historical information won’t lead a student to feel ashamed of being white and falsely report her for teaching “critical race theory,” like the journalist who might shrink from covering a story about a MAGA politician for fear of being wrongly sued for defamation, it’s easy to imagine investment advisors who handle state pension funds or contractors who sell to state governments fearing not also doing business with oil and gas companies so they won’t be accused of “discrimination” or “boycotting” and lose their contracts.
It turns out that we don’t even have to imagine that last scenario; it’s already happening. As Gelles of the Times recently reported:
“There are some indications that the conservative pushback [against climate-friendly investing] is gaining traction. Vanguard, one of the world’s largest investment firms, recently withdrew from the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative, an effort intended to get institutional money managers engaged in the fight against climate change.”
This is bad news. At the very moment when the world’s most knowledgeable scientists are warning that an all-too-literal hell lies in store for us, tinpot legislators in MAGA states are preparing to enforce the dominance of a deeply fossil-fuelised version of capitalism. If so, the repercussions won’t stay confined within any state’s borders.
All 50 states will be affected. That means, in turn, that communities are going to have to fight ever harder for the right of all of us to a liveable future.
Meanwhile, purple- and blue-state legislatures need to pass tougher laws that can help undermine the fossil-fuel industry. And the rest of us will have to focus big time on how best to flush coal, oil and natural gas out of the economy for good before it’s too late.
- A TomDispatch report / By Stan Cox