Corporations Are Not People: Citizens United and the Global Climate Crisis
Written by Caroline Selle
Last Thursday, Common Cause invited author and activist Jeff Clements to speak at Busboys and Poets about his new book, “Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It.”
His message was hopeful: American democracy, he said, has made a series of narrow escapes from the many things that might have killed it, and we are on the cusp of another. Though right now, billionaire financiers like the Koch Brothers and corporate front groups like the Chamber of Commerce control American politics, there is a rising movement to return American democracy to the hands of the people.
I entered the movement through concern about the looming climate catastrophe. Despite the prominence of climate change in political discussions over the last twenty years, we’ve made little progress as a nation in addressing the issue directly. Why?
Clements has the answer-he says that corporations think about putting money into political campaigns the same way they think about any other investment: “They spend,” he said, “because they expect a return.”
If corporations have the same rights as people, they have the right to flood the airwaves with “speech” on behalf of politicians promising to look the other way on climate change. They have power in the first place because of their money, and the more money Congressmen receive from dirty energy companies, the more likely they are to vote in favor of dirty energy legislation or legislation that loosens environmental regulations.
More Americans doubt that our earth is warming due to human activity than do citizens in any other Western country. And, as of 2012, the United States is the only industrialized country with a major political party whose platform denies the existence of anthropogenic (man-made) climate change.
There’s an easy explanation for this- denying and disputing consensus climate science is a multimillion dollar industry in the United States. Front groups like the American Petroluem Institute and others employ legions of “experts” to go on TV and stir up doubt, not to mention plenty of lobbyists to grease Congressional palms. The doctrine of corporate personhood only makes it easier for groups like the API and billionaires like the Koch brothers to have their business interests masquerade as scientific truth.
The people who will be most affected by climate change aren’t distributed randomly across the planet, nor equally within the most impacted countries. Those with fewer resources are going to have a harder time responding to changing food and water conditions, and they’re also the people least likely to have a voice in politics – even without corporate control.
The United States enjoys wealth and resources that will insulate us from the worst impacts of climate change, but we’re still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and we’re already seeing the negative effects of that addiction. Populations living in communities with refineries, near extraction sites, or near pipelines that threaten to burst face unique health risks, and our reliance on imported oil is a serious economic burden.
By allowing corporations the same “free speech” as people, ordinary American voices are suppressed and lawmakers are convinced that corporate interests are the real American issues. And by casting doubt on the science, corporations silence the voices of Americans who are impacted by climate change, postponing or preventing mitigation opportunities and investments in potential solutions like green technology.
In his presentation and in his book, Clements argues that a constitutional amendment negating Citizens United is the way to address these issues. Eighty percent of Americans support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, with support coming from across the political spectrum.
I would argue that a constitutional amendment is necessary, as well as a fundamental restructuring in the way we consider our fellow citizens. Corporations might speak the loudest, but there are many more voices out there, calling attention to the destruction of Appalachia through mountaintop removal, the effects of oil spills, and the impacts of refineries on Gulf Coast communities. It shouldn’t take an amendment for us to listen.
Click here to check out Jeff Clements’ new book, Corporations Are Not People!
Caroline Selle is a freelance writer and activist who focuses on issues of social and environmental justice. You can find more of her work on her website, www.carolineselle.com.