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Special Interest Groups, Climate Change, and Moral Leadership (classroom activity)

Solar array at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. CREDIT: Larry E. Reid Jr., U.S. Air Force (CC)

The controversial 2010 court case Citizens United v. FEC opened space for the creation of Super PACs, which are outside, disclosed groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money to endorse a campaign but cannot coordinate directly with candidates. Industries, groups, and individuals with more money therefore have an arguably outsized influence on elections.

The attached activity has students analyze the effects of Citizens United on federal climate change policy. Students will read a passage from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) about how oil and gas special interest groups intimidate politicians into voting a certain way. Students will then use campaign contribution data on opensecrets.org to evaluate whether or not outside political spending is indeed dictating the direction of our country's energy policies. Is it just the oil and energy lobbies who use this tactic, or also environmental special interest groups? How have campaign contributions changed since Citizens United and the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002? 

This activity was inspired by the June 2016 talk by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs entitled "Time to Wake Up."