The Global Power Elite and the Climate Crisis: A Threat to Us All
Contrary to the popular conception of “majority rule,” democracies today are increasingly captured by a global power elite seeking to preserve and expand their political-economic control over the earth’s resources and people. David Rothkopf finds such a conclusion in his important 2008 book, Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making. According to Rothkopf, the global “superclass” has achieved unparalleled wealth and power in the era of corporate-led globalization. Rothkopf’s conclusions are supported by Dr. Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Dr. Benjamin Page (Northwestern University), who looked at more than twenty years worth of data to answer a very simple but critically important question: Does the U.S. government represent the American people? Their study took data from nearly 2000 public opinion surveys and compared it to policies actually passed by Congress. Their findings were startling: the opinions of 90 percent of the population have essentially no impact on public policy. However, the power elite proved highly successful in securing significant self-serving legislative achievements during that same time period. In fact, during a recent five-year period, the 200 most politically active major U.S. corporations spent $5.8 billion on lobbying and campaign contributions, and received some $4.4 trillion in government support in return—750 times their investment.
In both cases, the research demonstrates that the American policy-making system is not democratic but rather controlled by corporate elites. And as demonstrated by Chuck Collins at the Institute for Policy Studies, their wealth and power have increased enormously during the pandemic. U.S. billionaires got 62 percent richer during the pandemic, increasing to $1.8 trillion.
Among the more powerful of these corporate elites are the owners and CEOs and the most environmentally destructive corporations in America. Termed the polluter-industrial complex (PIC), these are the sectors of Big Business that would stand to profit the most from a weakening of environmental regulations, public health and safety measures, and climate change legislation. The oil and gas industry stands at the top of the list, along with petrochemical corporations, agribusiness, automobile manufacturers, and other heavily-regulated corporate polluters. They are among the leading industries pouring money into anti-environmental and climate change organizations—all in an effort to thwart meaningful action on climate change and the ecological crisis. As detailed in this week’s spotlight piece, many of these same corporate polluters are bankrolling the politicians and organizations that are at the forefront of the anti-democracy and voter suppression efforts targeting people of color, or implicated in the restriction of reproductive rights foreshadowed by the leaked Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.
Minority rule by the power elite in general, and the polluter-industrial complex in particular, therefore hinders a transition toward climate justice. Dirty money and misinformation campaigns fuel the Oil-igarchy’s disproportionate hold on representative and regulatory governmental systems. Continuously outsized spending on lobbyists and political campaigns promotes the economic interests of these giant greenhouse gangsters, from overturning fracking bans to governments spending over $500 billion on fossil fuel subsidies globally. Through these enormous campaign donations, the oil and gas industry’s perspective “infiltrates” climate policy: the industry contributed over $1.6 million to President Joe Biden in the 2020 election cycle. Climate skeptic Senator (D-WV) Joe Manchin was the top recipient of their funding in the 2021-2022 election cycle. Internationally, the Oil-igarchy reared its ugly head at COP26, with the largest delegation present—outstripping representation from every nation on earth. On the other hand, delegates from low-income countries in the global South most affected by climate change were unable to attend.
The polluter-industrial complex constrains our capacity to transition from the current polluting energy system. Rather than making the transition to a new economy powered by energy from the heavens (solar and wind), the power of the PIC is further entrenching our dependency on fuels from hell (oil, natural gas, and coal). In 2021, global carbon dioxide emissions from energy combustion and industrial production increased six percent to their highest annual level in history.
We are clearly moving in the wrong direction in terms of the climate. Cultural and physical dependence on fossil fuels manifests in countless aspects of daily life, from a reliance on cars due to inadequate public transportation to natural gas hookups for heating and cooking systems. On the international scale, economic and political dependence on fossil fuels was a primary motivator in Putin’s invasion of oil-rich Ukraine. Exploiting and entrenching our addiction to oil, the fossil fuel industry continues to lock us into an unsustainable future through new pipeline construction—which raises utility prices, desecrates Indigenous land, causes oil-motivated wars, and facilitates mass consumption.
A just green transition directly challenges the hegemony of the polluter-industrial complex. We are now seeing a powerful social mobilization by people from all over the world to confront the hegemony of the fossil-fuel industry and achieve this vision. Led by Indigenous people, communities of color, and other people on the front lines of the climate crisis, the tide is beginning to turn. And while we still have a long way to go, by exposing the varied injustices of petro-chemical capital and protesting and disrupting their plans to expand the industry further, we can begin to build a truly international, multi-class, multi-racial movement for climate justice. In the meantime, we must also work tirelessly to end voter suppression, governmental corruption, and climate change disinformation. At the Global Center for Climate Justice, we recognize the enormous power held by the world’s superclass and the polluter-industrial complex is a barrier to solving the climate crisis. A representative democratic system is foundational for achieving climate justice. It is time to take back our democracy, ensure it truly represents the people’s will, and protect it from domination by corporate and elite interests.