In hindsight, it is one of the more cringe-inducing campaign promises Barack Obama ever made.
Standing on the stage in St. Paul, Minnesota, having just sewn up the final primary victory in his long slog against Hillary Clinton and preparing to face John McCain, the candidate told Americans that if they work together, they will look back on that night as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
More than six years later, the oceans have continued their rise and the planet is ever warmer. Environmentalists say the Obama administration has not pushed as hard as the candidate pledged to, abetted in part by a number of red-state Democrats who see no electoral advantage in placating Greenies.
And now some Democratic fundraisers who have combined to send tens of millions of dollars the party’s way say that unless Democratic candidates for office get serious about climate change, they can expect no more money.
“I just can’t give people a bye,” said Marc Weiss, a New York-based Media entrepreneur who has given tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates in recent years and who has been organizing his fellow fundraisers not to give to any candidates who don’t make addressing climate change a central campaign talking point. That has meant telling candidates he has donated to in the past that from now on, unless they change their rhetoric, they had better dial for dollars elsewhere.
“This has to be one of the issues that gets debated,” he said. “People that are on the wrong side of history need to be held accountable.”
Other Democratic donors aren’t drawing red lines but say that since they cannot give to every candidate who asks, only those who are pushing for new ways of addressing the climate crisis can count on their support
“I haven’t been a political donor for very long, so it is not as if I have some history that I am now denouncing,” said David desJardins, who was one of Google’s earliest employees and who in the 2012 cycle alone gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic causes. His priority now, he said, is “electing people in those purple states who can go and talk to their constituents about what a clean energy future might look like, about how it is not actually so scary, and how we can do in a way that is respectful of people and regions that have contributed a lot to the country in the past.”
desJardins singled out Alaska Sen. Mark Begich as a lawmaker who “is not against fossil fuels but can also talk to Alaskans about how climate change is affecting their way of life.”
Others whom various donors named as elected officials leading the way on climate change include Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, and Ami Bera, a California congressman who featured environmental issues in his campaign despite representing a Central Valley swing district held by a Republican until 2012.
Caroline Niemczyk, a “conservation philanthropist” who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and party committees over the past couple of election cycles, pointed to Sheldon Whitehouse, a senator from Rhode Island, for convening green donors.
“Individual donations tend to get a bit lost, so we are grouping together to make clear that environmental issues and climate change matter,” she said. “If we pull together, we can have an impact on the Senate leadership.”
And several donors interviewed for this article said they were not giving to Democrats in tight races due to their stance on environmental issues, even though they said it was crucial that Democrats retain control of the Senate next year.
“I am not supporting Mary Landrieu because she has become a handmaiden for the oil and gas industry, and I just can't in good conscience back her campaign,” said Susie Tompkins Buell, the founder of the Esprit clothing company and one of the more prominent Democratic donors in the country. She added that she would support Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is seeking to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in coal-rich Kentucky, “because she would be such a huge improvement over climate denier Mitch McConnell, even though climate is not her top priority.”
“When it comes to the climate, the difference between a climate-denying Republican and a Democrat who believes in the science but wants to protect the coal industry is actually quite small,” added Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft executive who does not give to Democrats unwilling to talk the climate talk.
But environmentally minded donors draw the line in different places.
“I would never give to Grimes. I would never give to Landrieu. I would never give to [West Virginia Sen. Joe] Manchin,” said Wendy Abrams, a Chicago philanthropist who has given more than $120,000 to Democrats since 2012.
She singled out Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, who despite being married to Maggie Fox, president and CEO of the Climate Reality Project and a former aide to Al Gore, “is afraid to take a vote on Keystone. That is insane. He knows climate change, but he is worried about his election. He should be attacking this issue.”
Abrams told the story of a Democratic senator who came to her and asked for a donation, saying: “‘People don’t care about global warming.’ And I tell him, with all due respect, ‘Senator, that’s because you don’t talk about it.’ The only time I hear the words ‘global warming’ are on Fox News saying that it is not real.”
The donors’ banding together comes as a number of some of the nation’s richest people also have made climate a priority, among them hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer—who started a super PAC, NextGenClimate, which is blitzing the airwaves in key states with ads about climate change—former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, and former treasury secretary Hank Paulson, who have been warning business leaders of the disruptions that climate change can cause.
But the donors say their efforts are different, as they involve not so much pouring money into issue ads but in holding candidates to account. And, they add, no matter what they do, they will never be able to match the money that the Koch brothers and other energy industry donors are able to give.
Efforts at pooling resources began in the run-up to the 2012 presidential campaign. Back in 2009, the Obama administration had warned allies against talking too much about climate change as the economy was imploding. In 2011, a group of about 60 Democratic donors dissented, signing a letter to Obama calling on him to lead on climate change. That group swelled to 140 donors, and they took some measure of pride when the president called for action on climate change in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Other groups, like Climate Heroes and Climate Hawks, helped raise money for downballot candidates who were strong on the issue.
Now, though, these efforts are becoming more formalized, says Betsy Taylor, a political consultant who is leading some of the efforts to get green donors to work together. Her group has commissioned a poll showing how climate change matters to voters and is putting together a series of talking points to guide candidates on how to talk about the issue.
“There is a big swath of Democratic donors that is making this a top priority,” she said.
As hundreds of thousands of environmentalists prepare to descend on New York this weekend for what organizers say is a major march on climate, donors say the moment is now.
“I keep writing checks and I feel like the biggest idiot,” said Wendy Abrams. “I am doing this because I have four kids and I don’t want to look back and say I gave up. This is their inheritance. I want to see a Democratic majority in the Senate, but I just need an acknowledgement that this is a serious problem.”