Concern about the fossil fuel connections of a climate advisor to South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is pointing toward a public spat within the U.S. climate and energy community.
At issue is whether a consultant who takes funding from a major fossil company can play a legitimate advisory role in helping a candidate for high office develop their climate platform—and whether that platform shaped some of the language and perceived gaps in Buttigieg’s policy.
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On HEATED, veteran climate journalist Emily Atkin casts the argument as “symbolic of a larger conflict emerging in the climate world, between those pushing for radical societal change via a Green New Deal and those who worry that such a push will ultimately be unsuccessful because of the powerful forces that would rather see the planet burn than accept such a shift.”
Atkin traces the story back to a New York Times article on Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ US$16-trillion climate plan that included a criticism from international relations professor David Victor, who described himself as “a climate advisor to Pete Buttigieg”. Days later, Sanders supporter Brad Johnson took to the Hill Heat blog to reply that Victor had accepted $7.5 million from colossal fossil BP to help fund his previous sustainability program at Stanford University, testified against youth plaintiffs in the landmark Juliana v. United States case, and criticized peer-reviewed research linking carbon emissions to specific polluters.
“It’s part of a larger narrative of trying to create villains; to draw lines between producers as responsible for the problem and everyone else as victims,” Victor said. “Frankly, we’re all the users and therefore we’re all guilty. To create a narrative that involves corporate guilt as opposed to problem-solving is not going to solve anything.”
(As Atkin points out, “we’re not all guilty of perpetuating a 30-year disinformation campaign around climate science with the explicit goal of delaying the renewable energy transition for the sake of short-term profit at the expense of a liveable planet.”)
The critique on Hill Heat led some climate organizations to “question Buttigieg’s commitment to holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their contributions to climate change and campaigns to mislead the public,” Atkin writes. “Having this guy as Buttigieg’s climate advisor is like having the fox in the hen house,” said End Climate Silence founder Genevieve Guenther. “No candidate that truly takes the climate crisis seriously should be taking money or advice from the fossil fuel industry and its apologists,” agreed Corporate Accountability spokesperson Jesse Bragg.
Buttigieg spokesperson Sean Savett said Victor was a campaign volunteer, not a paid consultant or staffer, adding that the campaign’s policy team “consulted with dozens of experts” to develop the climate platform. Victor told Atkin his work had to do with strategies for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Agreement and engage with other countries on climate, and accused Johnson of deceptive language regarding his role in Juliana, explaining that he’d been brought on as a witness when the case was originally filed against the Obama administration.
“Because of continuity of government, when the president changes, the government keeps on going,” he said. “So right, now it’s Trump. Soon, it will hopefully be Buttigieg.”
As for his funding from BP, “look, I care about carbon,” he said. “If a company wants to make big reductions in carbon and make them sustainable, I’m keen to help.” When Atkin pointed to fossils using their internal efforts on carbon as a smokescreen for pitching climate disinformation and lobbying against climate action, asking whether he could understand climate activists’ mistrust, he replied that activists “need to deal with the world as it is. This is the world we’re in. The real world is complex. What we care about is carbon. We should be focusing on the firms and places that are trying to make the biggest reductions and amplify that. If that’s what activists care about, let’s deal with that, as opposed to an imaginary world that is fun to think about but doesn’t exist.”
In her assessment of the story, Atkin does a great job of describing a debate that has been percolating across the U.S. and beyond.
“Many from the activist community see calls for ‘moderation’ and ‘realism’ as the next form of denial and delay from the fossil fuel industry,” she writes. “And in a way, those activists are correct. The fossil fuel industry’s goal has always been to delay meaningful climate action as long as possible, because meaningful climate action means halting the extraction of fossil fuels, which means halting massive profits.”
But “that does not mean, however, that everyone calling for ‘realism’ and focusing on what’s ‘achievable’ is a fossil fuel industry shill. I’ve spoken with many people who share Victor’s worries about a Green New Deal being politically unachievable, and I believe that the majority of the time, they come from a good faith place of wanting to achieve meaningful change.”
At the same time, she agrees that “fossil fuel industry shills will use these concerns to their advantage. I think that bad-faith actors will disguise themselves as good-faith. And identifying who is who will be one of the biggest challenges not only of the coming [U.S.] election, but of the entire 11 years we have left to get our asses in gear.”
Buttigieg also supports the use of nuclear power. But Green New Deal advocates and enviros in general are opposed to nuclear power because of its high cost, high risk, lengthy timeframe to roll out, and problem with waste.