“Where’s Your Plan?” Legalized Bribery and Climate Change

Richard J. Daley, the late mayor of Chicago and one of the country’s last powerful political bosses, never took a bribe.

That is a fact that even his critics recognized.

Yet, his corruption was more insidious than simply pocketing a wad of bills for an occasional favor.

Daley looked the other way when his health and building inspectors, in exchange for a fee, let landlords in poor neighborhoods run their properties into the ground while demanding high rents.

If the owners never called exterminators to get rid of the rats that scurried around peoples’ flats, then that was fine. If they never hired plumbers to fix broken pipes and radiators in the winter, that was fine, too. If flaking lead paint was left right where it always was, that was no problem, either.

These were, however, problems for children who lived in such places. They often became very ill and sometimes even died because of rodent bites, accidental poisonings, and generally unhygienic conditions.

Meanwhile, officials whose job it was to make sure those things never happened skipped all the way to the bank.

Residents sometimes organized neighborhood committees to raise awareness of the grave health and safety problems in their communities.

In his biography of Daley, Boss, the late Chicago journalist Mike Royko describes what would occasionally happen if neighborhood groups made it past the bureaucratic hurdles and straight to Daley’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall.

He noted that if they were not sufficiently humble, if their remarks had too sharp an edge, the mayor would let them have it. Daley was not a man to take criticism lightly.

“We’re doing our best! Where’s you plan?” he would bellow at the assembled petitioners.

The question took many aback. They assumed that it was city government’s job to come up with and enforce public health regulations.

Today, although favor-seekers do not often toss envelopes of cash onto the desks of congresspersons, we are living with a form of large-scale corruption that has killed and will continue to kill greater numbers of people in the near future. Our country’s particular form of lobbying, if left unchecked, will make public health and safety problems associated with climate change much worse.

Honest graft, the kind that might land a person in jail, is not the general practice in Washington, D.C. There is no need for that variety of income enhancement. Unlike Daley’s health and building inspectors, many in the US Congress have been legally bought through large-scale campaign contributions; it is a form of bribery that enjoys the sanction of the US Supreme Court.

Like Daley’s functionaries, most Republicans and many Democrats are paid to not do their jobs. If we understand the terms of their employment as protecting the health, safety, and welfare of human beings, then what they do not do is a national disgrace, a bipartisan crime.

Floods and fires, among many other climate-related phenomena, have been greatly exacerbated because of global warming. According to the US government’s 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment, between 1959 and 2005, 4,586 people lost their lives due to flooding. Overflowing rivers and excess precipitation have caused $8 billion in property and crop damage each year from 1981 to 2005.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) reports that wildfires claimed the lives of 3,400 Americans between 2008 and 2017 with an estimated $23 billion in property damage.

George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health found that Puerto Rico witnessed 2,975 deaths due to Hurricane Maria in 2017. It also reports that there was a sixty percent higher risk of death for those living in the island’s poorest areas during and after the hurricane.

This will all become far worse if lobbyists continue to pay Congress to not do its job.

Forbes reports that the five largest oil and gas companies spent $200 million on lobbying to prevent significant climate legislation that could help offset the effects of anthropogenic warming. Much of that money was spent on the dissemination of false or misleading information.

This is consistent with the results of a 2018 study cited by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science. It finds that fossil fuel companies in general, not just the top five, spent $370 million on forestalling global warming legislation and influencing public perceptions of the issue.

Both major US political parties are susceptible to influence peddling, yet the GOP generally receives more money from oil and gas companies than Democrats. During the 2017-2018 election cycle, Democratic candidates accepted over $4.5 million and Republicans received more than $22 million from a variety of fossil fuel companies.

With industry campaign contributors as a fundamental component of their political base, the GOP’s climate talking points are mostly market-based and do not address the many looming threats we face. Proposing tax credits for alternative energy use, investing in carbon capture technology, and providing incentives for states to generate a certain percentage of electricity from non-fossil fuel resources are a start; however, they are woefully insufficient. We are simply past the point where prioritizing fossil fuels over renewable sources of energy makes logical sense. Besides, President Trump and extreme right-wing Republicans are potential roadblocks to the implementation of what are now mere discussions.

The Democrats largely supported Obama-era clean air and water legislation, as well as US participation in the Paris Climate Agreement, which is voluntary and falls short of goals to keep warming to acceptable levels. These measures came relatively late in Mr. Obama’s presidency.

Since 2016, the Trump administration has rolled many of them back and announced that the US will end its participation in the Agreement. Most members of the GOP either raise few objections to these decisions, or they enthusiastically support them.

After years of inaction, so-called centrist Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer came up with an insufficient plan in response to the Green New Deal, sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jeff Merkley. Mainstream Democrats have recognized that they must at least tip their hats to their constituents’ concerns about climate change. Yet, they must also avoid jeopardizing financial support from energy corporations. Bowing to popular pressure, they recently proposed the Climate Action Now Act.

It would keep the US in the Paris Climate Accord, whose carbon reduction benchmarks, as mentioned above, are voluntary, not legally binding. It calls for a 17 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2020 and a 26 to 28 percent cut in CO2 by 2025 from 2005 levels. It would also ask the Trump administration to come up with a plan of its own, which is as laughable as it is unlikely.

These measures would likely not be enough to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that to do that, carbon emissions must be reduced by 40-60 percent by 2030, and there should be net-zero emissions by 2050.The European Union’s plan, which calls for a 40 percent cut by 2030 and an 80-95 percent reduction by 2050 (from 1990 levels), is similar to that of the IPCC’s.

Republican and Center-Democrat measures will simply not keep temperatures at or below a 2 degrees Celsius threshold. The World Bank predicts that anthropogenic warming will create conditions that could throw 100 million people worldwide into extreme poverty by 2030. The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050 there could be 529,000 deaths per year around the globe due to climate-induced food insecurity. This is a figure that the New England Journal of Medicine, in a recent study, finds conservative.

The Green New Deal, which explicitly acknowledges the IPCC’s report, envisions a ten-year timeline for “Meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” Although ambitious, it moves us in the right direction. It is, in short, an actual plan that addresses real problems.

Predictably, President Trump, whose campaign received millions in contributions from the fossil fuel industry, opined that the Green New Deal is “…the most preposterous thing.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that it is simply “Garden-variety 20th-century socialism,” and represents the “radical philosophy” of “hard-left Democrats.” Based on campaign disclosure information from Opensecrets.org, during his last Senate bid, McConnell took an estimated $400,000 from energy corporations.

Joe Manchin, a Democratic Senator from West Virginia, received in excess of $500,000 from various utility, natural resources, and energy companies in 2018, according to votesmart.org. He said that the Green New Deal “… is a dream. I have to deal with the facts …” Manchin also stated that “… we need to focus on real solutions.”

The problem, of course, is that given what we face, many members of the US Congress, both Republican and Democrat, have no real solutions and that is precisely what they are paid not to have.

They do not operate much differently from the seedy ward-level grifters who lined their pockets during the heyday of the Chicago Machine.

It is well past time that we ask them Mayor Daley’s question: “Where’s your plan?”

So much depends on the answer. If we find it wanting, greater efforts are required of us.

Michael Slager is an English teacher at Loyola University Chicago.