"Imagine you're a basketball coach who doesn't like the three-point field goal for some reason. You might have solid reasons for saying the game would be better without it. But you're sure as hell not going to tell your team to stop scoring three-pointers if the other team is allowed to."

That's how Karyn Strickler, founder and president of Vote Climate U.S. PAC, describes the dilemma facing environmentalists — many of whom have railed against big money and corporate influence in politics. Strickler recognizes there are legitimate concerns around the so-called Citizens United ruling, a 2002 Supreme Court case that rolled back restrictions on independent political expenditures by corporations, unions and other entities, but she argues that if pro-fossil fuel lobbies are spending big on electing their preferred candidates, then environmentalists must learn to play the same game.

Climate-focused PACs flex their muscles

Strickler's organization is in the early stages of building what's known as a super PAC, meaning a political action committee that funds election advertising either in favor of, or against, a certain candidate. While super PACs are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates' campaigns, they are often used to provide "air cover" by bringing focus to a particular issue — like a candidate's stance on climate change, for example.

"Our goal is relatively simple," says Strickler. "It's increasingly clear that we need a robust, revenue-neutral tax on carbon if we're going to move away from fossil fuels. A majority of the public support making the polluter pay. And yet a majority of our legislators are standing in the way of any form of meaningful action. So we need to elect leaders who will support a carbon tax, and we need to defeat leaders who won't. That's what the Vote Climate U.S. PAC exists to do."

So far, Vote Climate has started out small, running online ads in key House and Senate races in 2014, but Strickler says that Vote Climate is working up to play a much larger role in the 2016 elections — including key TV ads, as well as radio spots featuring tennis superstar Martina Navratilova. And Vote Climate is by no means alone.

Shaping the debate

Much has been written about former hedge fund manager, philanthropist and climate activist Tom Steyer. Steyer's NextGen Climate PAC has been spending big to undermine candidates who deny climate change or oppose renewables, and to support candidates who back clean energy. Specifically, NextGen Climate is calling on politicians to present plans that achieve 50 percent clean energy by 2030, and a fully clean energy system by 2050. Most recently, Steyer came out in vocal support of Hillary Clinton, hosting a fundraiser for her and heaping praise on her recently announced clean energy plan:

“Clinton laid out an ambitious framework to put our nation on a path to a clean energy economy that will create millions of jobs — and in the coming months we look forward to hearing more details about her proposals to tackle climate change.”

Same candidate, different conclusions

However, just because climate-focused PACs may agree on the importance of attacking climate change through the political process, that doesn't mean they have a unified vision on how to do so, or even who to support. Many environmentalists have questioned Clinton's previous support of, and silence on, fossil fuel interests like the Keystone XL pipeline or drilling in the Arctic, for example. As reported over at Politico, here's how activist R.L. Miller, founder of the Climate Hawks Vote Super PAC, responded to Clinton's initial clean energy plan, the same plan that Steyer enthusiastically endorsed:

“Clinton’s climate plan is remarkable for what it doesn’t say, yet,” California-based environmental activist R.L. Miller, who founded the Climate Hawks Vote PAC, said in a statement. Specifically, she added, Clinton offered “no effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground, no price on carbon; no word on Keystone XL, Arctic oil or other carbon bombs; no word on fracking.”

Meanwhile Strickler explained that Vote Climate saw Clinton's plan as a promising first sign, but not enough to win endorsement. Yet.

"Vote Climate U.S. PAC is pleased that Hillary Clinton wants to power every home in America with solar power within 10 years. That will go a long way toward getting off fossil fuels, which is part of our mission. The other part of our mission is putting a price on carbon in the form of a federal carbon tax. The American people are behind a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Even Exxon has thrown its weight behind a tax on carbon emissions. Vote Climate U.S. PAC would like to see Hillary Clinton to take a strong stand for a carbon tax. The people have taken the lead. The least the leaders could do is follow it."

In a sign that all this focus may indeed be driving candidates' positions, it only took a couple of days after the launch of her initial plan for Clinton to voice doubts about the viability of Arctic oil drilling. No word yet on a carbon tax.

Keeping the focus on climate

Regardless of disagreements on specific candidates or specific issues, one of the broader impacts of climate-focused Super PACs may simply be to raise the profile of climate change as an election issue — especially when compared to the 2008 and 2012 races, where climate was not seen as a particularly hot topic. In doing so, climate PACs may be aided by the fact that other mainstream voices — from Pope Frances' encyclical to giant U.S. corporations calling for an international climate agreement — are beginning to get more vocal on the need for climate action.

Sometimes these interventions are overtly party political in tone. For example, Apple, Google and Facebook recently chastised GOP lawmakers in North Carolina for threatening to roll back renewable energy incentives. In fact, climate-focused super PACs may be looking to such politically aligned corporate interests to boost their coffers:

"I'd love to speak with CEOs of climate conscious organizations. I'd love to have lunch with Tom Steyer. And I'd love for ordinary citizens to open up their pocket books and start countering the Big Money spending of the fossil fuel lobbies," says Strickler. "Climate change will be harmful for our communities, for our economy, for pretty much everything we hold dear. It's time we put our money where our mouths are and elect leaders who truly represent our best interests."

Related on MNN:

Will environmentalists embrace super PACs?
Many green activists have railed against money in politics. But in order to win, they may need to play the game.