|While politicans try and look green, climate change deniers have been funding favoured candidates [GALLO/GETTY]
In the run-up to US elections set to take place November 2, the amount of money being spent and eccentricities on display have reached record levels. This has been particularly obvious in debates over energy and climate change.
The US will vote on candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as on numerous state governorships and other issues next week. With a new court decision allowing unrestricted – and unprecedented – spending by corporations and unions in this year's election, one emerging trend has been the huge amounts of money flowing from corporate interests – both domestic and foreign – to candidates who deny climate change or oppose legislation to combat it.
The stakes are high. The US failed to pass to pass legislation to limit its industrial greenhouse gas emissions prior to the climate conference in Copenhagen last December, and most expect strong legislative action to be months or years away.
Meanwhile, the issue of climate change is being used by conservative candidates to rally support from right-wing voters, such as those affiliated with the Tea Party movement.
No Republican running for a Senate seat openly supports limiting greenhouse gas emissions, as the proposal for a cap-and-trade system approved by the House but rejected by the Senate in 2009 would have done. Many candidates even actively deny the validity of climate change and the science behind it.
In Virginia, for example, incumbent Congressman Tom Perriello, a Democrat, has faced a tough battle from his challenger, Republican Robert Hurt, who has used Perriello's "yes" vote for the cap and trade bill in the House to woo voters who buy the argument that the bill would have cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The issue of climate change action has been used in a similar way in races around the country.
In California, which has the country's toughest emissions restrictions, the picture is slightly different, since those very restrictions are themselves on the ballot. Next Tuesday, voters in California will decide whether or not to overturn the emissions limits that, if left in place, are expected to be used as a model for emissions legislation in other states and even at the national level.
The implications of that vote have not been lost on US corporate interests, which have poured in money from other states. Texas-based oil and gas companies Valero and Tesoro have combined to contribute about $7.5m dollars to getting California's climate change law suspended.
With the stakes even higher for the many nascent but fast-growing clean energy companies in the state, though, this pro-suspension spending has been dwarfed by campaign money spent in support of it by about a three to one margin.
Overall, this year's election season – called a midterm election since there is no presidential campaign – have far outstripped previous midterm elections in the amount of money raised and spent. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which tracks these figures on its website OpenSecrets.org, predicts the current election's campaigns will end up costing $3.7bn dollars or more, surpassing the record 2006 spending by about $1bn.
The fundraising and spending figures are fairly close between Democrats and Republicans, CRP notes, but "identifiably conservative" organisations are spending twice as much on advertisements and communications than liberal ones. These funds largely come from corporations which are able to avoid public scrutiny for their endorsements through setting up and funding these organisations' work.
"Tens of millions of dollars of is now coming from organisations who, by law, need not disclose their donors," says CRP's executive director, Sheila Krumholz. "It's now more difficult than ever for voters to determine whether the outside groups flooding their television and radio airwaves with political messages are doing so for any reason other than promoting their own, narrow set of special interests."
Climate change regulation is one area where those groups are certainly interested in promoting their special interests, and a recent report by Climate Action Network Europe (CANE) shows that even foreign companies are interested in the implications of these domestic elections.
The report says some of Europe's top greenhouse gas-emitting companies – the same ones, it says, that argue additional emission reductions in Europe must wait for the US to limit its emissions – have been funding some of the most notorious climate deniers in the US Senate races.
Nearly 80 per cent of the $306,100 contributed by European corporations Bayer, BASF, Solvay, Lafarge, BP, GDF-SUEZ, Arcelor-Mittal and EON has gone to those who oppose US action on climate change, CANE says, amounting to what it calls a hijacking of US elections by foreign corporate interests and a hypocrisy in that these companies often tout their green credentials.
"It's disturbing that these European polluters fund anti-climate crusaders in the US while simultaneously fighting against strong climate legislation in Europe," Tomas Wyns, senior policy officer at CANE, said.
The effect of all this spending is still unclear. While California's climate regulations are expected to survive, Republicans are widely expected to earn a majority of seats in the US House – and maybe even in the Senate.
If that happens, US climate legislation – already a distant hope – becomes more distant still.
Citing the still poor economy and hostile political environment, Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, sees the outcome of the elections as "likely to make advancing climate policy an even tougher fight than we experienced over the last two years".
"I think I speak for most of those working on this issue in Washington when I say the chances of passing a major climate bill in the next two years are nearly zero," Claussen told an energy and business convention in Tel Aviv last week.
A version of this article appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.
US Midterm Elections 2010