Two leading progressive thinkers brought their latest big ideas for political campaign reform and climate change activism to motivated audiences at the University of Vermont last weekend.
At 7 p.m. on Saturday author and 350.org organizer Bill McKibben staged a dress rehearsal of his multi-media Climate Change Musical Road Show before a packed house at Ira Allen Chapel. Also known as the “Do the Math Tour,” it is a frontal attack on fossil fuel industry plans to exploit reserves that threaten hopes of limiting climate change, and calls for a nationwide divestment campaign in response.
Across the campus earlier in the evening, scholar and author Lawrence Lessig offered his arguments for “citizen funded campaigns” and a cross-partisan movement to address the corrupting role of money in politics by calling for an Article V constitutional amendment process.
Article V states that the constitution can be amended in one of two ways: a vote of two-thirds of the House and Senate followed by ratification in three-fourths of (or 38) state legislatures; or else by two-thirds of state legislatures, if the proposed amendments are ratified by three-fourths of the states.
Only the first method has been used with success. Lessig likes the second and thinks state governments should call for a national constitutional convention populated by a “random proportional selection of citizens.” Why random? Because “politics is a rare sport where the amateur is better than the professional,” Lessig argues.
Several state senators, including Philip Baruth, Sally Fox and Virginia Lyons, attended Lessig’s PowerPoint-assisted lecture in Lafayette Hall. Asked in a Q and A session about the feasibility of pressing the issue in Vermont as a follow up to the advisory resolution opposing corporate personhood passed in the last session, Lyons said there is “a lot of interest in doing it.”
Two degrees is too much
McKibben’s presentation included film clips and photos from activists around the world, a musical interlude, and an updated version of arguments he has been making as instigator of 350.org, a global grassroots movement focusing on the climate crisis. His speaking tour will begin in earnest after the November elections.
“We’re running out of time,” he said. “We’re going to try to take away their money.”
McKibben wrote “The End of Nature,” the groundbreaking 1989 book that brought climate change to a mass audience. He has recently boiled his case down to three numbers – 2 degrees Celsius, 565 Gigatons, and 2,795 Gigatons.
The first, as he put it in a widely read Rolling Stone feature published in August, is “the bottomest of bottom lines,” the most global temperature can rise before entire countries begin to suffer seriously or even disappear. On Saturday McKibben defined it this way: “Two degrees is too much.”
The second figure refers to the most carbon dioxide that can go into the atmosphere and have the increase in global temperature stay below two degrees. Studies currently predict that, assuming emissions continue to grow at around 3 percent a year, we’ll pass 565 in 16 years or less.
The biggest number is also the scariest – the amount of carbon contained in the proven coal, oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies and countries such as Venezuela and Kuwait. Bottom line: What they plan to extract and burn is five times higher than the danger level.
At times McKibben acknowledged that he is not so sure industry’s power can be broken. But he proceeds on the assumption that moral outrage, combined with indisputable math, can still make a difference.
His strategic model is the 1980s campaign to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. Spreading from campuses to municipal and state governments, it ultimately led to divestment on 155 campuses, and in more than 80 cities, 25 states and 19 countries, according to McKibben.
On the big screen, Archbishop Desmond Tutu helped to make the argument for using the strategy again to “put the pressure where it counts,” calling on schools and other institutions to dump stock from companies whose business model threatens the planet.
Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson also showed up on the screen several times, repeating the corporation’s message that climate change, while real, is basically “an engineering problem.” McKibben disagreed. “It’s a greed problem,” he said. His goal is to “tarnish” the brand of such companies, to “make the case they should lose their social license. They should be stigmatized.”
As McKibben tours and volunteers from hundreds of 350.org groups fan out, the two basic demands he suggests to call on college and university boards to place a freeze on fossil fuel investments, and to “wind down” existing investments within five years.
Common means to stop corruption
Lessig, a Harvard professor best known for developing the Creative Commons alternative to traditional copyright, admitted some doubts when questioned about his proposal. “Is it possible?” he asked rhetorically, especially when Congress is “the farm league for K Street,” the geographical epicenter of federal lobbying.
It’s a “business model based on life after government,” he said.
The key is to move beyond the current “polarized frame on all issues,” Lessig argued, to build alliances that cross partisan lines, focus on common ground, and adopt a strategy that rallies people. The “common enemy,” he said, is corruption of the political process.
Lessig’s approach is a combination of step-by-step legislative reform and longer-term systemic change through the call for constitutional amendments. In states like Arizona, Maine and Connecticut matching grants can help level the playing field, Lessig noted. Tax credits, vouchers and the Grassroots Democracy Act, proposed by Rep. John Sarbanes, can also “amplify” small contributions and help to make candidates more responsive.
Sarbanes’ bill establishes a refundable tax credit and matching system to encourage small contributions, a People’s Fund to provide support in races where outside spending outpaces national norms, a Grassroots Democracy Commission, and increased access to affordable advertising. The bill would also institute an online donation platform and taxpayer check-boxes so that people could voluntarily fund the system.
On the other hand, Lessig believes that a state-by-state strategy focusing on the Article V approach to constitutional amendments can provide the “common means” that allows for different proposals to surface in various places. As a precedent, he pointed to the direct election of U.S. senators. For years proposals passed in the House but died in the Senate. But the adoption of state resolutions demanding a convention eventually pressured the U.S. Senate to approve the 17th Amendment.
When this was happening a century ago, the main fear was that if a constitutional convention actually assembled, it might move beyond the original reason it was called. The same concern persists. But Lessig, as well as Move to Amend organizer David Cobb, view the mounting chorus of calls for amendments and a constitutional convention as an effective prod to federal legislative action.
Lessig also thinks it could serve as a way to reach out to some Tea Party members who are disappointed with the hijacking of their movement by groups like Americans for Prosperity, which gets much of its financial backing from the Koch brothers.
If an actual constitutional convention sounds too risky at this point, Lessig suggests staging extra-parliamentary “citizen conventions,” or pressuring candidates and officials to take a pledge not to become lobbyists after their time in office. Whatever strategy various communities and states choose, his point is that calling for a constitutional amendment in response to Citizens United has turned out to be “just the first move.”