THE LIGHTBULB

It is not just about the Earth's rising temperatures. Many Democrats running for president see climate change as symptomatic of another problem: too much money in politics. 

One White House hopeful, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), on Thursday unveiled an anticorruption plan that is explicitly meant to make it easier for Congress to address global warming — and other Democratic priorities. 

“So much of what we've got to get done, from climate change to health care to changing tax code, is going to require us to change the way our politics work. Because for the decade that I've been in the Senate, it largely hasn't worked,” Bennet told reporters Thursday.

He's just one of many 2020 candidates tying legislative action they want to take on climate change with the need to overhaul how money is spent on electoral campaigns and lobbying. Their thinking goes: As the oil, gas and coal industries pump money into political campaigns, these fossil-fuel interests have been able to forestall meaningful legislation to slow climate change.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is, similarly, putting campaign finance reform at the center of his presidential bid in part to address the rising temperatures that are contributing to wildfires in his home state. “Tackling money in politics is the first step toward addressing climate change, skyrocketing health care costs, income inequality — and all of the biggest crises of our time,” Bullock wrote on Twitter shortly after announcing his candidacy.

And in interviews, speeches and social media posts, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as well as former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., have also lamented the increased role rich donors are playing in politics and how it is forestalling action on climate change.

“You want a government that’s going to be responsive on climate change, fast, now, see it as urgent?” yet another Democratic candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, said at the “We the People Summit” summit in April. “Not so long as the oil industry is calling the shots in this town.”

The attention Democratic candidates are paying to the issue of money in politics is due in part to the swarms of progressive activists who have shown up at campaign events and pressed hopefuls, such as O'Rourke and former vice president Joe Biden, to commit to refuse campaign donations from lobbyists or executives in the oil, gas or coal business.

So far, the pressure has worked. The vast majority of the 2020 Democratic field — 18 in total including O'Rourke, according to the anti-fossil fuel nonprofit advocacy group Oil Change US — have signed the “No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.” Biden is expected to sign the pledge in the coming days.

Bennet's plan in particular calls for a lifetime ban on lobbying for former members of Congress, a crackdown on coordination between candidates and ostensibly independent “super PACs” and a constitutional amendment to overturn what many Democrats see as the biggest step back in campaign finance reform in a generation — the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

Citing the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech, the high court in 2010 ruled to stop the federal government from limiting the political spending of corporations and labor unions through groups independent of electoral campaigns. Ever since, many Democrats say, “dark money” groups have uncorked a spigot of political spending into electoral politics.

“John McCain ran on climate change,” Bennet said of the 2008 GOP presidential nominee. “He raised it over and over again himself during the debates.” 

“What happened? What changed? It was the decision in 2010 in Citizens United which opened the floodgates of the Koch Brothers money and corrupted our politics,” he continued, referring to political spending from billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.

Energy firms in particular have made good use of the new avenues for political spending. According to End Citizens United, a political action committee that opposes the Supreme Court decision, oil and gas companies accounted for 10 of the 17 largest corporate contributions to outside groups during the 2018 election.

The Citizens United decision, according to its opponents, has had a measurable effect on how willing Republicans are to support climate legislation now that fossil fuel companies, many of which oppose strict carbon-pollution rules, have more leverage over members of Congress.

“The fossil fuel industry snuffed out Senate bipartisanship on climate change,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Wednesday at an event at the National Press Club held by End Citizen United and the League of Conservation Voters. “Weaponization of that new unlimited dark money powered by the fossil fuel industry cost us a decade of climate progress.”

Few members of Congress have harped on this message — connecting the lack of climate legislation to the freer flow of money in politics — longer than Whitehouse. He is not running for president, but he urged 2020 candidates to pick up his argument.

“Any Democrat is going to be buoyed by the public pressure on this,” he said.

POWER PLAYS

— Trump’s EPA finalizes its repeal of a key Obama climate rule: The administration unveiled its final Affordable Clean Energy rule – its biggest climate policy rollback to date – which will require the U.S. power sector to cut its 2030 carbon emissions 35 percent over 2005 levels. The projected cuts are less than half of what experts say is necessary to avoid severe consequences of climate change, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report, and in fact, the utility industry is already set to exceed the targets set by the current administration. The final rule reverses the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have “forced the power sector to switch from coal-fired generation to lower-carbon fuels such as natural gas, solar and wind.”

What the Trump administration says: Both current and former Trump administration officials say the Affordable Clean Energy rule is a more restrained approach that gives state regulators the power to make energy decisions for their region. “It requires utilities to make efficiency improvements and curb the amount of carbon dioxide released from power plants, but does not dictate specific emissions targets the way the Obama administration did in the Clean Power Plan,” Eilperin and Dennis report.

Will it be sued over its plan? You betcha. The final rule is almost certain to provoke a prolonged legal battle, with Jill Tauber, Earthjustice’s vice president of litigation for climate and energy, already telling The Post the new rule is legally vulnerable because it insufficiently cuts carbon emissions. But Harvard environmental law professor Jody Freeman, a former legal counsel in the Obama administration, told the New York Times a major question lies in whether fight over the rule reaches the Supreme Court. If it does so, and if the high court upholds the Trump administration’s approach, it could severely impact how future administrations tackle climate change. “It could foreclose a new administration from doing something more ambitious,” she said.

— The latest on the tanker attacks near the Strait of Hormuz: In the latest remarks pointing fingers at Iran, a U.S. Navy commander now says mines used to attack one of the tankers hit last week near the Strait of Hormuz bear “a striking resemblance” to mines that have been displayed by the Iranian military, The Post’s Erin Cunningham reports. Iran has so far denied involvement in the attacks. According to the Associated Press, Cmdr. Sean Kido said authorities had also recovered fingerprints and a handprint on the ship, which could “be used to build a criminal case to hold the individuals responsible accountable.”

— A slowdown for steel: U.S. Steel announced it will suspend production at two plants in the United States — one in Detroit and another in Gary, Ind. — as well as a third in Europe. The news comes even as the president claimed “steel mills are roaring back to life” during his Orlando campaign speech this week. “The moves come amid broader concerns about a slowdown in the steel industry, which threatens to derail a key economic priority of the Trump administration,” The Post’s Jeff Stein reports. Trump has reveled in improvements in the steel industry has seen since he has taken office — after Trump imposed tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports, the steel industry experienced a boost in 2017 and 2018, but prices have fallen over the past year.

— Trump administration backtracks on closing Job Corps program: The administration has reversed a plan to end a U.S. Forest Service job training program for disadvantaged young people after bipartisan opposition in Congress, including from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The agency planned to begin laying off 1,110 employees by September, The Post’s Lisa Rein reports, in what would be the largest cuts to a federal workforce in a decade. “Nine Job Corps centers in Montana, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Virginia, Washington state, North Carolina, Oregon and Kentucky were scheduled to close, and an additional 16 were to be taken over by private companies or states,” Rein reports.

THERMOMETER

— PG&E’s wildfire woes: California’s largest utility has agreed to pay $1 billion in city and county damages to 14 local governments following a spate of deadly fires in the past few years. The settlement is specifically linked to the Camp Fire in 2018, the North Bay fires in 2017 and the Butte Fire in 2015, E&E News reports. The settlement will be part of the bankruptcy reorganization PG&E is facing as it grapples with as much as $30 billion in owed damages following numerous fires. PG&E also announced it would permanently retire the power line that sparked last year’s Camp Fire, the deadliest in California’s history, according to the Wall Street Journal.

— The cost of protecting cities from rising seas: New research from environmental advocacy group Center for Climate Integrity suggests building sea walls for all coastal cities that have more than 25,000 residents by 2040 will take at least $42 billion, the New York Times reports. If you want to include all coastal communities, including those with fewer than 25,000 residents, that shoots up to more than $400 billion. The research brings up a question of how to determine which communities to save first if both time and money are limited, the Times adds: “There is also a growing realization that some communities, even sizable ones, will be left behind.”

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on geothermal energy development.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittees on Consumer Protection and Commerce and Environment and Climate Change hold a hearing on the “Administration’s Rollback of Fuel Economy and Clean Car Standards."
  • The Brookings Institution holds an event on carbon price proposals with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.)."

Coming Up

  • The House Science Committee holds a hearing on oversight of the Energy Department's research and development with Energy Secretary Rick Perry on June 25. 
EXTRA MILEAGE

— From The Post's Tom Toles: "We may discover Trump’s Iran strategy the hard way:"