Reining in Influence over Policy and Lawmaking
In the biggest climate change survey ever conducted, the United Nations Development Programme surveyed people around the world on their opinions of climate change. Among twelve high income nations, seven showed majority support for requiring corporations to pay for the pollution. These included countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States. This begs the question, if many people in high-income nations support corporations paying for pollution, why are the governments so slow to act? While the answer remains complex, one culprit stands out: corporate influence.
Corporations can infiltrate sustainability decision-making in a variety of ways including influencing election outcomes and swaying politicians in positions of power (see Money and Politics Part 1 and Part 2). This blog unveils some prominent pathways of influence outside of campaigns and elections: lobbying, the revolving door, and astroturfing.
Of course, not all corporations utilize these pathways of influence or oppose environmental protection. In fact, many partake in and support meaningful efforts to further sustainability. The corporations referenced in this blog only refers to those that use their power and money to influence policymaking to intentionally remove environmental protections and regulations.
Referred to as “the single biggest barrier to climate action in Canada” by Environmental Defence (as one example nation), lobbying by industries such as oil, gas and chemical manufacturing poses a significant threat to meaningful systems change for sustainability. The reason for the overwhelming lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry boils down to money. With billions of dollars in annual profits, fossil fuel corporations have the wealth to hire multiple top-grade lobbyists, whereas small organizations or citizen groups often lack the necessary funds. These fossil fuel industries then lobby government officials to promote pro-industry policies, such as setting higher emissions caps in a cap and trade system (see Leverage Point 6 Externalities and Telecoupling).
A prime example of the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry through lobbying lies with the controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline in British Columbia, Canada. Between 2011 and 2016 there were 458 British Columbia lobbyists in contact with the government and 368 federal lobbyist contacts by Kinder Morgan. At this time, no limits to political donations existed in British Columbia (limits were imposed in 2017). Between 2011 and 2015, Kinder Morgan contributed $38,000 to the BC Liberal Party. Although donations such as these are now banned under new campaign finance laws, the non-monetary lobbying tactics employed by Kinder Morgan still pose a threat to sustainable action.
The Revolving Door
Picture a revolving door: you enter one side, go around, and end up in the same spot. The “revolving door” of politics works in the same manner. On one side are government officials and the other private lobbyists. In other words, the ‘revolving door’ describes the movement of individuals back and forth between legislator and lobbyist jobs.
With close ties to current officials and pre-established relationships with corporations, former officials are ideal assets. Their networks allow corporations to gain insider knowledge and for their interests to take deep root within the government. On the other side of the revolving door, governments commonly hire staff who have had lobbying or consulting roles with powerful corporations.
Not all instances of the revolving door are done in bad faith, but its prevalence normalizes conflict of interest within governments. Ties to corporations and to former colleagues don’t generally evaporate upon termination of employment, so government officials are often prone to make decisions favouring former employers (or prospective future ones). In conjunction with campaign finance, corporations use the revolving door to assert influence, gaining an edge over environmental organizations and citizen groups (see Money and Politics Part 1 and Part 2).
When you think of the word “astroturf,” you likely imagine the fake grass found on sports fields. In politics, “astroturf” reflects something similar: fake grassroots campaigns. A true grassroots campaign is an effort by local, citizen-run organizations to enact change for the betterment of their community. When corporations engage in “astroturfing” they make it appear as if their idea actually originated from a grassroots campaign and not from the corporation. This is done as a way of turning the conversation in their favour by constructing an altruistic façade concealing their ulterior motives.
Astroturfing easily spreads misinformation and distrust amongst the public. A study found that people who engage with astroturf organizations are, on average, more skeptical about humanity’s role in causing climate change. Over the past few years, the rise of online platforms and social media has created a breeding ground for astroturfing, expanding its reach and further presenting a challenge to climate action.
A pathway for astroturfing to manipulate the conversation is through exploiting educational institutions. This can include implanting think tanks near campuses, handing out fellowships to students, or funding professors who share their views.1 Due to their proximity to universities, these think tanks enhance the corporation’s ability to influence students and staff, integrating their views into the educational system. They often aimed to promote ‘free market’ ideals as a way to ‘train’ a new generation of far-right conservatives.* Prominent examples of the think tanks include the Hoover Institute at Stanford or the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC. The John M. Olin Foundation (though now disbanded) also exploited this pathway when they funded 11 programs at Harvard, and provided over $8 million to faculty fellows.*
Strengthening the Rule of Law
Ultimately, limiting the disproportionate political influence of the wealthy is crucial to strengthening rule of law (see Lever 3, Strengthening Environmental Law). This may be achieved through reforms to policymaking and lawmaking processes as well as stricter enforcement and monitoring of regulations. The current regulations and transparency requirements are a start; however, they need to be taken further to truly level the playing field.
One path forward is to increase transparency. Increasing transparency in lobbying—exposing who is influencing whom—through new laws and policies opens the door for greater public awareness, which could create public pressure to limit deceptive tactics. This includes expanding transparency to all branches of government, not just at the federal level. However, increasing transparency cannot reduce harmful influence on its own.
Second, government, companies, and lobbyists could establish more robust integrity standards for public officials and lobbyists. Integrity standards are rules, principles, and processes that dictate how officials and lobbyists can interact, e.g. the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Principles for Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying. Establishing standards for government officials may include placing stricter limits on what gifts or favours can be accepted by officials from lobbyists and prohibiting the use of insider knowledge gained by former officials (of the revolving door). Standards for lobbyists may include behavioral standards like a company requiring lobbyists to take a pledge that they will provide factual and accurate information and not abuse their power of influence.
A third path forward would be passing stricter regulations that limit the funds that corporations can allocate towards lobbying and to the time spent lobbying. This could help reduce the monetary advantage that large companies hold over smaller companies and citizen groups, thus leveling the playing field. However, these limits need to be careful as to not reduce the ability of those smaller groups to access elected officials, which could counter any efforts to lessen corporate influence. Moreover, a ban on astroturfing would help interrupt some pathways that fuel the spread of misinformation.
None of the three aforementioned paths can tackle this issue on their own, thus reinforcing the need for a combination. Furthermore, in the absence of robust changes to the rule of law, the influence of the powerful and wealthy will continue to percolate through decision making. Boxing out opposition, corporate influence halts the movement towards building a more sustainable and equitable world for all. As hinted above, true fairness in law and policymaking will require strengthening rule of law (see Lever 3, Strengthening Environmental Law) and more broadly shifting the power dynamics that enable the massive accumulation of wealth by maintaining low wages as normal (see Leverage Point 4, Inequalities).
* Mayer, J. (2016). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Doubleday.
Written by Meg Sheline of the CoSphere team.