Climate change threatens to transform the world as we know it. At the current rate of global greenhouse gas emissions, climate change could displace two billion people due to rising ocean levels, cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars, and cause upwards of 250,000 additional deaths per year — all before 2100. Yet popular rhetoric suggests a simple solution: no more plastic straws. While plastic straws make up far less than 1 percent of the plastic waste that enters the ocean each year, efforts around the country and the world to ban them have garnered massive media attention. Yet banning straws, though environmentally friendly, is too small-scale to make a serious difference given the magnitude of the climate crisis. The idea that banning plastic straws has a significant ecological impact suggests that consumer choice can make all the difference — eliminate plastic straws from people’s shopping carts and one eliminates the problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. However, the focus on changing consumer behavior that this argument reflects misplaces responsibility for the GHG emissions driving the climate crisis on the individual consumer, conveniently ignoring the disproportionate climate impact of corporate interests.
In fact, only 100 investor and state-owned fossil fuel companies are responsible for around 70 percent of the world’s historical GHG emissions. This contradicts the narrative pushed by fossil fuel interests that individuals’ actions alone can combat climate change, as individual actions have minute effects relative to these emissions — average American households produce only 8.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of a total of over 33 billion tons globally. Fossil fuel interests spend billions on climate science denial to mislead the public about the truth behind the crisis and push the misperception that through individual actions alone climate change can be stopped. They simultaneously lobby for trillions of dollars in subsidies that cheapen fossil fuels and make it more difficult for alternative renewable energy sources to compete fairly in the marketplace. Given this reality, combating climate change requires holding fossil fuel producers accountable for their outsized contribution to the climate crisis and active efforts to thwart meaningful climate action by implementing carbon pricing that will reflect the true cost of fossil fuels, reducing emissions, and advancing a clean energy economy.
The Manipulation of the Climate Narrative
Keeping global warming to no more than a two-degrees-Celsius increase above pre-industrial levels by mid-century, as called for in the Paris Climate Accords, will require a massive shift of the global economy toward renewable energy sources like natural gas, wind, and solar power. Yet for decades, fossil fuel companies have stymied efforts to make this necessary energy transition by sowing public doubt about climate science and pushing a misleading narrative of consumer responsibility for the climate crisis.
As they have led the charge on climate change denial, fossil fuel companies have driven widespread false perceptions amongst the American public. This is why “a good chunk of American society are convinced that the science is debatable and uncertain and we shouldn’t do anything,” climate researcher Richard Heede of the Climate Accountability Institute told the HPR. This sustained climate denialism by the fossil fuel industry in the United States might explain why nearly 10 percent fewer Americans see climate change as a major threat to their country relative to the international median. According to Heede, the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to conceal the adverse effects of its products is reminiscent of techniques used by the tobacco industry. Starting in the 1950s, tobacco companies sought to sow doubt about studies causally linking cigarettes to a host of health problems. In order to mislead Congress and the public, Heede stated, fossil fuel companies followed a similar strategy, pushing a narrative “that the climate science was under heavy debate” to suggest that “we shouldn’t develop any climate legislation under the cloud of uncertainty in the science.” Just as the tobacco industry slowed down regulations of their products by intentionally sowing doubt about their dangers to consumers, the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to sow doubt about climate science and deflect responsibility from fossil fuels have stymied critical efforts to fight the climate crisis.
Not all experts agree with this characterization of the fossil fuel industry, though. Robert Stavins, a professor of energy and economic development at the Harvard Kennedy School, told the HPR that he disagreed with this popular analogy because the fossil fuel industry, unlike big tobacco, provides a product used by billions of people for useful purposes like powering homes and cars. Rather than focusing on the corporations themselves, Stavins said “useful and significant climate policies typically focus on the demand side” of the market, meaning they center around consumers rather than the companies themselves. He added that oil companies are working on diversifying their businesses by expanding into the production of natural gas, which Stavins views as a key transition fuel as the economy moves toward renewable energies.
Yet even as oil and fossil fuel companies advertise themselves as leaders in the renewable energy movement, they still spend more on climate change denial than on renewable energy projects. The false advertising these companies use to make themselves seem like pioneers of a clean energy economy only adds to the confusion over accountability for climate change.
The Debate over Holding Industry Accountable
The fossil fuel industry’s disproportionate responsibility for historic GHG emissions, with the top 20 firms contributing 33 percent of historic emissions, coupled with efforts to cast doubt upon meaningful climate action, show how the industry has played a massive role in the climate crisis. Lobbying by fossil fuel companies for regulatory preferences and subsidies has also given the leading emitters a hegemony over the industry “to the exclusion of the rational development of renewable energies that the oil and gas companies should have invested in themselves decades ago,” according to Heede. In order to progress towards a renewable energy future, Heede believes, the fossil fuel industry must be held accountable for its damaging behavior.
A series of lawsuits filed against ExxonMobil intends to do just that. These lawsuits are seeking financial penalties because of the deception perpetuated by ExxonMobil to its shareholders and the public about company prospects in the face of potential climate regulation. ExxonMobil “should have told its shareholders that there was a risk with continued production,” stated Heede. Their failure to do so when they learned of the future damage their products would cause effectively “foisted the cost of climate adaptation and mitigation onto communities in their respective states.” Heede argued that by allowing the crisis to worsen by obfuscating climate research and deceiving the public, ExxonMobil forced communities affected by climate change to pay for future damage caused by the crisis — an injustice they are seeking to remedy through these lawsuits.
There is debate, however, over the validity of these lawsuits. According to Stavins, “if the lawsuits were only about the emissions from refineries that would be one thing, but they are focused on the emissions from the use of the fuels that comes ultimately from consumer demand.” This argument centers on the fact that the majority of emissions listed in projects like the CDP’s Carbon Majors project — which is intended to drive “increased transparency and disclosure from companies,” CDP senior manager Jillian Gladstone told the HPR, by accounting for historical emissions from major GHG emitting companies — comes from the use of products provided by fossil fuel companies but used by consumers for processes such as heating homes and driving cars. Yet most of the major fossil fuel lawsuits focus not on emissions responsibility but on corporate attempts to spread misinformation about climate change.
Holding the fossil fuel industry accountable becomes more complex when one considers that most of the companies are diversified into various products, which are not all equally harmful to the environment. Jason Furman, former Obama administration economic adviser and professor of economic policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, told the HPR that the expansion of natural gas use, spearheaded by the same corporations being sued, has been the “single biggest reason why U.S. emissions peaked in 2005 and why U.S. emissions are down substantially since 2005.” However, while natural gas might be a helpful addition to the energy sector, other products like coal could be phased out quickly, according to Furman. This disparity in the sustainability of fossil fuel companies’ present efforts at energy transition leaves in question the extent to which they should be penalized, even given their historic contributions to the climate crisis.
The Search for Climate Solutions
With current prices of fossil fuels, there is not enough incentive for consumers to limit their purchases of fossil fuels or for the companies to produce less of their harmful products. “We have a lousy price marker on carbon,” Heede said. “We overproduce and overconsume.” The prices currently placed on carbon-dioxide-emitting products are flawed in two significant ways. First, fossil fuels are artificially cheapened by enormous subsidies that make the energy sector an uneven playing field for alternative energy sources. Second, fossil fuel use has a negative externality — namely, GHG emissions — that cause climate change. In order to reduce these emissions, climate solutions must therefore eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. This can help make the energy sector a truly even playing field, allowing renewable energy sources to compete fairly with fossil fuels and proving cheaper in the long run.
Carbon taxes, government taxes on products that produce GHG emissions, can also help eliminate the negative externalities of fossil fuel use and increase fair competition in the energy market. They are effective because they split accountability across the economy between consumers, who pay more for products that result in GHG emissions, and producers, who face reduced demand for their product due to higher prices and a loss of cash flow through payment of the tax. Gladstone said that “carbon pricing is increasingly being used by companies to understand how they have to adapt and start to usher in some of the changes that they need to be making — it is inarguably part of the solution.” Companies themselves have already begun to consider carbon taxes as necessary to factor in when considering risks facing them, with the number of companies using internal carbon pricing models to mitigate risk rising from 150 to 600 over three years, according to CDP research. Furman agreed that a carbon tax puts the fossil fuel industry “to work figuring out the best, cheapest, most efficient, least intrusive way to reduce carbon use.” While pushing private industry to search for a solution is one of the advantages of the carbon tax, one might argue that introducing a high tax on carbon could be too much of a shock on the energy sector too fast. To avoid this dilemma, Heede argued for a carbon tax that would rise incrementally in price over time. Utilizing a carbon tax in this way would be an effective first step towards pushing the economy away from GHG emitting fuels that cause climate chaos.
Yet one issue with a carbon tax relates to the reason why it works to begin with — it affects both producers and consumers of fossil fuels. Given the fossil fuel industry’s historical role in blocking legislative efforts to combat climate change and sowing public doubt about the crisis, it might seem unfair to tax individuals as well as industry. However, Furman pointed out that a carbon tax would result in a huge amount of money for the federal government. He proposed that this money could be given back to individual consumers in the form of a rebate to compensate for increased fuel and electricity prices. This would enable the carbon tax to effectively shift the economy away from fossil fuel reliance, while alleviating a perhaps undue burden on consumers.
Ultimately, removing subsidies for fossil fuels and implementing a carbon tax with a consumer rebate are strong first steps towards fighting climate change. This move would effectively hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its emissions track record and efforts to divert climate action. While it remains important for individuals to make more sustainable consumer choices, they must also be aware of such changes’ limited efficacy. To effectively act on climate change, it seems that people must focus more on organizing for large-scale solutions like a carbon tax.
Image Credit: Flickr/Svetoslav Nikolov