Climate disasters are more deadly than ever. So is Big Oil.
Oil giants are back to making billions, but Congress has a plan to make them pay.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Unless you’ve been on Jeff Bezos’s rocket ship lately, you have probably noticed climate disasters getting significantly more frequent and more severe. After all, the fallout of global warming is wreaking havoc on communities just about everywhere.
From California to Colorado, wildfires continue to devastate drought-ridden communities out West. The still-active Dixie Fire wiped out most of an entire community in Northern California. In Miami, Arizona, flash floods poured over wildfire-scorched land, sending debris-laden tides barrelling through town as residents escaped to higher ground.
Last week, over 150 wildfires in Northwest Ontario sent smoke and haze all the way to Minnesota, which recorded its worst air quality in state history. And according to new research, wildfire smoke may increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.
In Colorado, heavy rains gave way to mudslides that debilitated part of a major highway in Glenwood Canyon, leading Governor Jared Polis to declare a state of emergency. (Two Colorado counties and one city have already taken major fossil fuel companies to court over the skyrocketing costs of remedying climate damages like these.)
In Oregon, at least 83 deaths have been declared casualties of the state’s brutal heatwave earlier this summer. It’s not just money and property being lost — climate disasters are costing lives.
But don’t worry, Big Oil is back to making billions off the products that cause this crisis.
Corporate quarterly earnings reports last week rang in the return of happy times for oil giants, which are very much back in the green after “difficulties” during the pandemic. The second quarter of 2021 saw $5.5 billion in earnings for Shell, $3.3 billion for Chevron, and $4.7 billion for Exxon, half of which was owed to growing petrochemical operations as its role in plastic production balloons.
Meanwhile, the new bipartisan infrastructure bill, as summarized by Kate Aronoff for the New Republic, is “simultaneously ‘the largest investment in climate resilience in American history,’ per the Times, and a complete abdication of responsibility.” The legislation would provide an unprecedented tens of billions of dollars to prepare communities for climate disasters like wildfires, floods and drought. But it also makes fossil fuel companies eligible for at least $25 billion in new subsidies for ineffective technologies disguised as climate solutions — in other words, government aid for the industry to fund greenwashing campaigns so it can continue burning fossil fuels.
These industry boons would come as oil executives double down on their company’s climate-wrecking operations, all while still claiming to be part of the solution.
During Exxon’s quarterly earnings call, Exxon CEO Darren Woods failed to address the company’s active role in obstructing climate action, as laid out by its own top lobbyist. But days later he attempted to recover some PR points by floating the idea that the company might commit to net-zero emissions by 2050.
Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden said his company would not change its plans to drill and burn more fossil fuels despite a recent order from a Netherlands court for the company to cut its carbon emissions by 45% by the end of the decade. Instead, he said consumers were ultimately responsible.
“I don’t think we’ll come up with a new strategy,” Van Beurden said. “Our strategy is very much aligned with what the plaintiffs would want us to do, which is working on our own emissions reduction, and also helping customers reduce emissions.” 🙃
The good news: members of Congress have come up with a new plan to make polluters pay.
A plan released this week by Democratic members of Congress would make major polluting corporations help pay for these climate disasters and speed the transition to cleaner energy.
Drafted by Senator Chris Van Hollen and backed by senators including Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, Jeff Merkely, Elizabeth Warren and Sheldon Whitehouse, the draft bill would instruct the Treasury Department and Environmental Protection Agency to pinpoint the top greenhouse gas emitters between 2000 and 2019 and determine a tax in accordance with their levels of pollution.
The fee, which could amount to an estimated $500 billion over the next ten years, would help communities pay for a host of climate-related infrastructure — from EV charging stations to grid upgrades, deployment of renewables and much needed resilience projects, with 40 percent of the funds prioritized for vulnerable communities. The senators hope to attach the bill to a budget reconciliation package that already includes carbon emissions cuts.
“It’s based on a simple but powerful idea that polluters should pay to help clean up the mess they caused, and that those who polluted the most should pay the most,” Van Hollen told the New York Times. “Those who have profited the most should help now pay the damages that they’ve already caused.”
The unfortunate truth is that $500 billion is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the range of climate adaptation and recovery measures needed to protect communities across the country, not accounting for the hundreds of billions necessary to speed the adoption of energy solutions. But like the more than two dozen state and municipal lawsuits seeking to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its role in the climate crisis, legislation like this demonstrates that a growing number of officials agree on one thing: Big Oil created this mess, and they should pay their fair share to clean it up.
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