This piece was first published in The Hill.
Consider how our world powers its economies: We dig up fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and burn them. The air pollution alone causes millions of deaths, and the heat-trapping emissions overheat the planet, resulting in sea-level rise, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, and other extreme weather events. The companies that produce these fuels take advantage of a pernicious business model that allows them to pollute for free, pass the costs of all the damages onto the public, as well as use their financial and political power to perpetuate their lucrative enterprise.
To be fair, there’s no question that cheap abundant fossil fuels powered the industrial revolution and improved the livelihoods of people around the world. Initially, the environmental impact appeared insignificant. Then scientists noticed that greenhouse gases from fossil fuels were not dissipating but were accumulating in the atmosphere.
In recent decades, as more data were gathered, the impacts have become more ominous. Although scientists working at fossil-fuel companies were among the first to understand the dangers, the industry has done all it can to protect their business model through denying climate science, obfuscating the problem, and delaying the transition to clean energy alternatives. This industry and their political allies have deceived us. In response societies have unwittingly allowed these life-destroying fuels to imperil the future of humanity. They are playing us for fools.
It would be a different story if fossil fuels were our only energy options, but they’re not. Clean, renewable energy sources are readily available to replace fossil fuels. Indeed, solar and wind energy are already cheaper than fossil fuels in many places. Further, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that the technologies and policies needed to mitigate climate change already exist — and the only real obstacles are politics and fossil fuel interests.
Think about the ways fossil fuel lobbyists manage to influence and manipulate United Nations conferences on climate change. Last year, at COP26 in Glasgow their out-sized influence was widely reported and resulted in undermining and delaying significant climate actions. According to a report by climate advocacy groups, the industry’s presence at this year’s UN climate summit COP27 in Egypt is even bigger, far out-numbering the representatives of any single national delegation except the United Arab Emirates, a major fossil fuel-producing nation. Even more concerning, a seemingly fossil fuel-friendly PR firm was hired to manage COP27’s communications and it appears to be using that role to divert attention from the polluting industry, according to scientists and climate activists.
Included in the COP27 agenda were conversations regarding who should pay for the loss and damage incurred by poor countries. Conveniently for fossil fuel interests, the framing for this conversation identifies rich countries and governments as the “polluters who should pay,” drawing attention away from the actual polluters — coal, oil, and gas companies.
Speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, Antigua’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne said, “The oil and gas industry continues to earn $3 billion [USD] daily in profits.
“It is about time that these companies are made to pay a global carbon tax on their profits as a source of funding for loss and damage,” he added. “While they are profiting, the planet is burning.”
Since reducing emissions is the goal of the UN climate conferences, shouldn’t it call for the actual polluters to pay? If the nations of the world imposed a steadily increasing carbon pollution tax on fossil fuel companies, huge amounts of money would be generated. A carbon tax, long advocated by economists, would be far more effective than government or private company-funded efforts to assist poor countries. Most importantly, it would spur the transition to clean energy by depressing demand for fossil fuels, providing a competitive advantage to renewables and incentivizing all nations, including China, to adopt similar policies (when employed as a border carbon tariff).
Fossil fuel interests are powerful, but citizens have political power, too. In the United States and in every nation around the world, citizens should support leaders who will expose the fossil-fuel industry’s business model that imperils our lives and jeopardizes the future of our children and grandchildren. The first steps for government actions should include ending subsidies for fossil fuels, enacting carbon pricing legislation to make the polluters pay for the devastation they are causing, and providing the financial incentives our societies need to quit using polluting fuels.
Robert Taylor is a freelance journalist whose research and published work centers on environmental issues. Craig B. Smith, PhD, is an engineer, former faculty member at UCLA, former president and chairman of a large international architect/engineering company, and author of several books dealing with energy efficiency and global warming. Taylor was a contributor and Smith was co-author (with W.D. Fletcher) of “Reaching Net Zero: What it takes to solve the global climate crisis.”