Rising sea levels will now take small but distinct bite out of the pocketbooks belonging to land owners around the San Francisco Bay. In an historic first, Measure AA was approved by San Francisco Bay Area voters on June 7, establishing the first tax to pay for the impacts of climate change. Local property will be dinged with a parcel tax of $12 per year to help finance shoreline projects to defend against rising sea levels in the San Francisco Bay. The parcel tax is expected to bring in over $500 million in the coming years, and an even greater number of dollars in matching grants. That's all to the good. Agreeing to a tiny tax now in order to avoid ruinous costs later is just common sense. However, that tiny ding might turn into a tiny sting whenever one looks up the road at the big oil refinery run by Chevron over in Richmond and wonders: why aren't Chevron and the other big carbon polluters paying this bill?
On it's own, Measure AA is a no-brainer. Denying the existence of rising sea levels is a bit like sticking your head in the sand. It just guarantees flooded basements and submerged roads during high tides and storms over the years to come.
But denying the existence of climate change is exactly what Chevron and the other big carbon polluters have been doing for decades. Even as recently as last year Chevron and other big oil companies were outed for funding a stealth campaign to delay climate action in California.
It's hard to know how exactly much of the coming damage could have been avoided had the U.S. and other governments moved to act as soon as the science was clear. But now the bills are rolling in and it's only going to get worse. Temperatures will continue to rise until fossil fuel pollution is reduced all the way down to zero. Only then will warming stop completely. And even the most optimistic believe that will take several decades.
Making the transition to zero emissions by 2050 or so will probably be enough to avoid truly catastrophic climate change. But it won't be enough to stop the damages in the meantime, and the bills will continue to mount until the warming is the stopped, completely.
Looking backwards, it was two decades ago that the U.S. made a fateful choice. Urged on by the fossil fuel companies, the U.S. spurned the newly signed Kyoto Protocol and kept on moving straight down the fossil-fueled road. In contrast, Europe headed down the clean energy road. As a result, emissions plunged in Europe, but continued to increase in the U.S. Not surprisingly, China and India followed the U.S. down the dirty road.
As a result global warming has past the 1˚ C mark and is marching upward. To put that into context, it only took a shift of 6-8˚ C in past geologic eras to swing the planets' climate between ice ages and global tropical conditions that witnessed crocodiles in the arctic.
Not surprisingly then, the big insurance company Munich Re reports that damages from climate-related natural disasters globally, such as storms and heat waves, have soared by hundreds of billions of dollars over the last several decades while damages from geophysical disasters such as earthquakes have remained flat.
Taxpayers are often left holding the bill for these climate related disasters. The U.S. flood insurance program has been running up billions in arrears in recent years. And just a few weeks ago the federal government announced that relocating the first official climate refugees from disappearing shores of Louisiana will cost $48 million.
We have a long history in the United States of making polluters pay for cleaning up the damages they incurred, and all the more so when they knew what they were doing. And the big carbon polluters knew exactly what they were doing in promoting climate denial, as has been revealed by numerous investigations including a recent Pulitzer Prize winning run of news stories.
Several state attorneys general are now investigating Exxon and other big carbon polluters for hiding the impact of fossil-fuel pollution. Much like the tobacco companies were held to account for their actions, the clamor is growing to hold the big fossil-fuel companies accountable.
In the meantime, paying the Measure AA tax is the only sensible thing to do. But if you are one of those homeowners dinged with the $12 parcel tax, hang on to that tax bill. One day a lawyer looking for plaintiffs to carry a class action lawsuit against the big oil companies may come knocking. You probably won't get your $12 back, but you might get a sense of satisfaction that could make up for that sting now.