This week a United Nations panel dropped a bombshell report: Within two decades, we are likely to experience a number of utter catastrophes — increasing floods, wildfires, droughts and food shortages among them — caused by climate change if aggressive action isn’t taken to reroute the path we’ve been on for decades. The planet will become all but uninhabitable for millions of people.
It’s easy to pivot from that news to wanting to do something. Some have offered a salve by suggesting that individuals make small changes in their behavior to try to avert the apocalypse. CNN came up with a number of ideas, from eating less meat to buying electric cars.
It’s not that making personal changes mean nothing or will have no impact. If we drove 5,000 fewer miles a year, for example, we’d each save the planet more than a ton of carbon dioxide annually. But the U.N. report makes it clear that we’ll be saved only by dramatic, wide-scale change. And by focusing just on what we can do as individuals, we risk deflecting blame from those who most deserve it. Don’t let an urge to do something personally distract you from who caused this disaster in the first place — and who’s most responsible for changing to prevent the worst predicted effects of climate change from becoming reality.
“Don’t let an urge to do something personally distract you from who caused this disaster in the first place.”
More greenhouse gases were emitted in the 28 years from 1988 to 2015 than in the 237 years from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the late 1980s. Emissions have been growing at a horrifyingly fast pace over the past few decades and have contributed significantly to climate change. Who’s to blame for all that muck being spewed into the atmosphere? It turns out you can pinpoint it pretty easily. Seventy-one percent of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions over the last 20 years can be traced back to just 100 companies, nearly all of them large oil and gas corporations. The fossil fuel industry, in fact, accounted for 91 percent of the world’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.
While state-owned firms dominate the list, some familiar names are also at the top: No. 5 is ExxonMobil; Shell clocks in at No. 9, BP at No. 11, Chevron at No. 12, Peabody at No. 16 and ConocoPhillips at No. 21. Thirty percent of the companies responsible for these greenhouse gas emissions are publicly traded, and 11 percent are privately held.
It’s all well and good for individuals to recycle more and cut out meat, and we should. None of that would compare with the impact of these firms if they change their behavior.
“Seventy-one percent of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions over the last 20 years can be traced back to just 100 companies.”
But just hoping they’ll find religion and decide to reform their ways isn’t going to cut it. “By 1988, fossil fuel companies knew, or should have known, of the destabilizing effects of their products on the environment,” states the report naming the top 100 companies. “Nonetheless, most companies have expanded extraction activities significantly in the time since.”
Even bad PR may not be enough to move them to action. Public concern over climate change has certainly grown over recent years, leading fossil fuel companies to claim they’re doing something about it. Even ExxonMobil has gotten in on the game. And yet its promises so far have been pathetic. It has pledged to cut its methane emissions by just 15 percent from 2016 levels by 2020. It has devoted a relatively measly $100 million to an organization that develops technology that can lower carbon emissions and $500,000 a year to a carbon tax effort. (It made $19.7 billion last year.)
Extracting fossil fuels is simply too profitable for these companies to change of their own accord. The 20 largest oil, gas and coal producing companies made a collective $275 billion in after-tax profit in 2012. They don’t have to shoulder the costs they are piling on the rest of us for the dirty business they do. One 2015 paper estimated that in 2012 these 20 companies imposed $822 billion in costs on everyone that they didn’t have to account for.
We need to make it too costly to destroy the planet, to impose the costs we will all shoulder on those who are actually incurring them. A clear way to do it is a carbon tax. Taxes don’t only raise money; they can also be used to discourage behavior that burdens the rest of us, like smoking. Carbon emissions should be taxed at a rate heavy enough that it’s no longer cheap and profitable to produce them.
More than 40 governments around the globe have either a carbon tax or cap and trade program that puts a price on CO2 emissions. Exxon’s money is behind a new group led by Republican operatives pushing for a carbon tax in the U.S. In November, Washington state voters will weigh in on a carbon tax that would impose a fee of $15 for every metric ton of CO2 emitted by companies in the state. The estimated $1 billion it would reap annually would then be plowed into clean energy projects and low-income communities affected by climate change.
“We need to make it too costly to destroy the planet, to impose the costs we will all shoulder on those who are actually incurring them.”
But none of this is aggressive enough. The average price of carbon across 42 major economies is just $8 per ton. The U.N. report, by contrast, says that carbon would have to cost somewhere from $135 to $5,500 a ton by 2030 to keep the average global temperature from increasing 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels — the point at which we are likely to experience extreme repercussions.
Such a carbon tax would have to be enacted by governments worldwide, and certainly the U.S. government is unlikely to do anything like that anytime soon. But these companies are responsive to not just taxes. They also have investors. They have customers. They can respond to market pressure. But they will respond only if their incentives change drastically, if we decide that they are finally going to be held accountable. We have to get mad at them and stay mad at them, without looking away.
While we can no longer stave off all the effects of climate change, acting now is better than not acting at all. We can still avert the worst of what may come. But it’s vital that as we act, we keep in mind who created this problem ― and who ultimately bears the greatest responsibility for fixing it.
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at The New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation.