How Congress forces us to cause climate change
As we prepare our income tax filings for 2022, we know Congress will spend some of our money on things we don’t like. We can shrug off most of it. But we should draw the line when Congress uses our taxes to jeopardize national security, our personal safety and our children’s futures.
That’s what it does by giving tens of billions of dollars every year to the industry causing global climate change. Fossil fuels have improved our lives for generations, but they required a Faustian bargain: economic progress at the expense of oil shocks, wars and pollution that causes illnesses, including lung cancer.
Now we know the price includes climate change. It is already underway, and experts are not mincing words. As reported by The Guardian, the world’s leading energy organization International Energy Agency says, “exploitation and development of new oil and gas fields must stop this year, and no new coal-fired power stations can be built if the world is to stay within safe limits of global heating.”
The first step is to end government subsidies for fossil fuels. Until we do, governments force taxpayers to be complicit in creating a dystopian future. And as we shall see, the harm is much more than physical. Nevertheless, international support for fossil fuels nearly doubled in 2021, and we in the U.S. are part of the problem. For example:
- Congress routinely authorizes tax breaks of about $20.5 billion annually to encourage fossil energy production. However, the actual cost to society is about $662 billion when we count fossil fuel’s social, public health and environmental impacts.
- Congress has spent tens of billions more to provide the industry with research, access to federal lands, infrastructure improvements and COVID-19 relief. For example, it has allocated billions of dollars since 1997 to help the fossil energy industry develop the ability to trap and bury carbon pollution from power plants. But the track record of this technology is littered with failures. Nevertheless, Congress keeps dumping money into this technology even though it will never be able to compete with solar and wind energy.
- Meantime, the five “super-major” oil companies — ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, TotalEnergies and BP — were expected to earn profits averaging more than $45 billion each last year. They reportedly spent much of it to buy back stock, increase shareholder dividends and raise already astronomical executive salaries.
It’s clear why Congress keeps giving these mature companies our tax dollars. Last year, the industry spent more than $200 million on lobbyists. During the 2021-22 election cycle, the industry gave more than $120 million to candidates. One result is that fossil fuels still provide 80 percent of America’s energy.
Members of Congress undoubtedly worry about voter reaction if oil and gas producers respond to subsidy loss by raising their prices. But by doing so, they would make themselves even less competitive with carbon-free electricity and vehicles. In any case, Americans can insulate themselves from higher oil and gas prices by taking advantage of the energy efficiency and renewable energy incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Congress wasted many opportune moments in the past when it became clear that fossil-energy subsidies were not in the national interest. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisers cautioned, “man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment” by burning fossil fuels. In 1988, the government’s top climate scientist warned Congress that climate change was already underway. In 1992, the United States agreed to the first international climate treaty; in 2009, we joined other industrialized nations in pledging to phase out fossil-fuel subsidies; in 2015, scientists warned that most of the world’s underground reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas should stay there; and last year, it was the head of the International Energy Agency who declared “there can be no more new investments in oil, gas, and coal.”
However, the oil and gas industries aren’t preparing for retirement. Nearly 22,000 miles of new oil, gas and carbon pipelines were planned or under construction in the United States last year. This is not what most Americans want. In a poll last year, nearly 70 percent of respondents said renewable energy should be our highest priority. Meanwhile, 70 percent agreed America should take steps to be carbon neutral by 2050.
There is another argument for ending public subsidies for fossil fuels. While the physical costs of climate change are apparent, the social and psychological costs are much harder to fix. Morgan Stanley’s analysts have documented a growing trend of couples deciding not to have children because of climate change. Half of the teenagers and young adults in the company’s survey said climate anxiety was interfering with their concentration, eating, sleeping, studying and relationships. International scientists warn that global warming “poses a rising threat to mental health and psychosocial wellbeing, from emotional distress to anxiety, depression, grief, and suicidal behavior.” And research published by the journal Lancet found that children worldwide feel sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty because of climate change. “The failure of governments to adequately address climate change and the impact on younger generations potentially constitutes moral injury,” researchers reported.
Moral injury occurs when we are forced to condone something that violates our convictions, values and consciences, like seeing our money used to bring about climate disaster. Some Americans avoided moral injury in the past by refusing to pay their taxes. One was Henry David Thoreau, jailed in 1846 for withholding tax payments to protest a war. “Must the citizen even for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?” he asked. “Why has every man a conscience, then?”
It’s an excellent question.
William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.