Is Pete Buttigieg's climate adviser a fossil fuel shill?

Some climate activists say David Victor can't be trusted. Victor says the claim is "truly unbelievable."

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Mayor Pete under fire

For months, it’s looked like the race for the Democratic presidential nomination would come down to a three-way battle between former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

But this week, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has turned that assumption on its head.

Buttigieg has been all over the news since Saturday, when a CNN poll of Iowa voters showed him with a surprisingly strong lead over Sanders, Warren and Biden in the key battleground state. That poll means the young mayor is “a serious threat to the top Democratic presidential candidates for the first time,” according to Politico.

It also means that Buttigieg is facing tougher scrutiny than ever before—particularly from progressive climate activists, who are accusing the mayor of employing a fossil fuel industry shill as one of his key advisors on the issue.

But the Buttigieg campaign is hitting back against those claims—and so is the embattled advisor.

The case of David Victor

The accusations against Buttigieg stem from a New York Times article published last week about Bernie Sanders’ $16 trillion plan to fight climate change. “Sanders’ Climate Ambitions Thrill Supporters,” the headline read. “Experts Aren’t Impressed.”

The piece cites David Victor, an international relations professor at the University of California San Diego, as one of the unimpressed experts. It describes him as “a climate adviser to Pete Buttigieg.”

A few days later, an article in the blog Hill Heat—written by Brad Johnson, a Sanders supporter—revealed that Victor had taken money from the fossil fuel industry and has expressed sympathy toward corporate polluters. The article noted, among other things, that Victor:

  • Provided expert testimony against the plaintiffs in the landmark youth-led climate lawsuit against the federal government.

  • Took $7.5 million from fossil fuel company BP to support the sustainability program he directed at Stanford University.

  • Criticized peer-reviewed research tying carbon emissions to specific corporate polluters as being politically motivated. “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,” he complained. “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.”

(Of course, 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 livable planet, but I digress.)

“Like having the fox in the hen house”

The Hill Heat piece has since sparked outrage from some in the climate community, who now question Buttigieg’s commitment to holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their contributions to climate change and campaigns to mislead the public.

“Having this guy as Buttigieg’s climate advisor is like having the fox in the hen house,” Genevieve Guenther, founder of the group End Climate Silence, told HEATED. “It makes me not trust Mayor Pete at all as far as climate change is concerned.”

Unlike some of his opponents, Buttigieg has not called for criminal liability for fossil fuel companies or executives. He has, however, called for “robust enforcement and serious accountability for wrongdoing.”

Jesse Bragg, a spokesperson for the group Corporate Accountability, echoed Guenther’s concerns that Buttigieg’s accountability measures might not go far enough because of his association with Victor.

“This goes precisely against the spirit of the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge that Mayor Buttigieg signed,” he said in an email. “No candidate that truly takes the climate crisis seriously should be taking money or advice from the fossil fuel industry and its apologists. The next president needs to embrace ambitious and just climate policy and hold the fossil fuel industry and other Big Polluters liable for their role driving this crisis. No candidate will get close to that mark by surrounding themselves with those who side with industry over people.”

Victor hits back

In a statement to HEATED, Buttigieg campaign spokesperson Sean Savett denied that Victor was being paid by the campaign for advice. “He is not a paid staffer, but a volunteer,” Savett said.

Savett also said David is only one of many people advising Buttigieg on climate. “Pete’s policy team consulted with dozens of experts to develop the Mayor’s climate plan,” he said. “The Mayor’s climate policy committee includes nearly 100 members from across the country.” (You can read Buttigieg’s climate plan HERE).

Victor also denied he was taking money from the Buttigieg campaign in a phone call with HEATED early Wednesday morning. (That’s why this newsletter is a little late in your inbox today. I’m sorry, OK? Don’t @ me.) He also denied that he was advising Buttigieg on issues related to fossil fuel company accountability for climate change.

“I’m a volunteer advisor. I work on international cooperation on climate,” he said. “I focus on the strategy for rejoining the Paris agreement and engagement with other countries.”

Victor also sharply criticized the Hill Heat article, accusing it of using deceptive language regarding his testimony in the youth climate lawsuit. “It is truly unbelievable,” he said. “This is the kind of factless innuendo that is why we have not made more progress on the climate problem, and it’s very disappointing to see.”

Because the lawsuit is against the Trump administration—and because Victor was paid to testify on the government’s side—the Hill Heat article described Victor as being “allied with the Trump administration against climate activists.” But Victor said he was brought on as a witness for the government when the case was originally brought against the Obama administration.

“Because of continuity of government, when the president changes, the government keeps on going. So Right now it’s Trump. Soon, it will hopefully be Buttigieg.”

Victor also defended his acceptance of funding from BP while working at Stanford. “Look, I care about carbon,” he said. “If a company wants to make big reductions in carbons and make them sustainable, I’m keen to help.”

I pressed Victor on this point a bit, noting that fossil fuel companies have routinely used their internal efforts at reducing carbon as smokescreens to distract from their efforts to spread disinformation about climate change and lobby against meaningful climate policy. Could he understand, then, why some climate activists might be distrustful of him?

“I understand where the activists are coming from,” he replied. “But the 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.”

I’m sure the activists are going to take that really well.

A larger theme emerges

The drama between Victor and climate activists is 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.

The drama is getting… sorry… pretty heated lately. The reasons are understandable. Many from the activist community see calls for “moderation” and “realism” as the next form of denial and delay from the fossil fuel industry. 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.

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 a majority of the time, they come from a good faith place of wanting to achieve meaningful change.

I do think, however, 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 election, but of the entire 11 years we have left to get our asses in gear.

Update, 12pm: This piece has been updated to add an additional statement from the Buttigieg campaign, and to reflect that the author of the Hill Heat piece is a Sanders supporter.

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