How are we still subsidizing climate change?

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

Sorting trash and recyclables is a tough, dirty job. If that’s what you do to make ends meet, you deserve some basic dignity: decent wages, health care, job security and a lunch break would be a bare minimum. That’s what I helped fight for when we unionized the workforce in Orange County, Calif. 

These folks were largely immigrants, and their employer took full advantage of them — they even had to schedule in advance when they could take a bathroom break.  

Although we won them some well-deserved protections, climate change threatens to sweep the rug out from under them. Increased temperatures will make the worksite even worse. Drought and water restrictions will make it harder to shower off at the end of the day. Rising sea levels threaten to flood coastal areas and disrupt the waste handling process. A glass full of clean, drinkable water is fast becoming a luxury item.   

I think often about my family and friends back in Orange County. What they face is a stark reminder that there won’t be any jobs on a dead planet.   

At the forefront of the climate crisis — right now, not down the road — are workers, poor people, mostly people of color. They have been paying a disproportionate price for what is happening now and yet they’ve had the least to do with heating up the climate and screwing up the planet.  

I’m based in Washington D.C. now, where Congress has an annual dance around federal budget negotiations. Politicians, including President Biden, have talked about eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. These payments act as “atta-boys” for large corporations who take pride in minuscule steps to stop destroying our planet. And yet, on a separate track that is unfortunately stalled out in the Senate, the climate agenda in the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan still presents one of the best opportunities to save our planet.  

Rather than kicking the can down the road, lawmakers have a chance to tackle climate change in this lifetime. We see three reasons why eliminating subsidies for the fossil fuel industry is the right place to start: 

One reason is fossil fuel companies are responsible for the climate crisis. Burning fossil fuels for heat, electricity and transportation is the single-largest contributor to the climate crisis. Just 50 fossil fuel companies account for half of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions. 

Our government has subsidized this industry for decades, despite the fact that a majority of voters want to end fossil fuel subsidies. Of the roughly $20 billion in direct payments given to the fossil fuel industry every year, a whopping $15 billion comes from the federal government.   

Fossil fuel extraction projects that are already underway would produce enough climate pollution to push us well beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming. Continuing to explore for and develop new reserves of coal, oil and gas would spell climate catastrophe — that’s not where Americans’ tax dollars should be going.  

The second reason is that fossil fuel pollution is racism in action. Extracting, refining and burning fossil fuels releases all kinds of toxic pollution, intensifying the dangerous impacts of climate change. And, too often, Black, Brown, Indigenous and working-class communities are harmed the most.  

In Port Arthur, Texas, Black working-class communities have been hammered by both air pollution billowing from the chemical plants built next door as well as the storms made worse by climate change.  

In Apopka, Fla., rising temperatures have made outdoor work nearly unsustainable for Latinx construction workers and farm workers. Without regulations in place, these communities are too vulnerable.   

In Many Farms, Ariz., an area of the Navajo Nation,severe drought  has forced Native farmers to stop growing traditional crops and sell off their cattle because of the lack of water and fresh vegetation to eat.   

The last reason to end the subsidies? Fossil fuel companies are blocking climate solutions.   

Subsidies, like those provided by the U.S., indirectly help fund lobbying efforts. Between 2000 and 2016, fossil fuel interest spent nearly $2 billion to derail climate legislation.   

It is ludicrous, then, for the U.S. to devote funds to climate resilience and climate solutions — as the Build Back Better plan proposes to do — and also continue providing the biggest polluters with dollars that could be used to derail those same solutions. Democracy works best when it acts in the interests of its citizens, not corporate profits.   

To be sure, both preserving jobs and fending off rising energy costs for Americans are critically important. Millions of honest, hard-working Americans make a living through the fossil fuel industry. Like workers in Orange County, work is essential to their livelihood and wellbeing. But if climate change destroys our planet, it won’t matter what profession any of us work in. Money not given to fossil-fuel firms can be redistributed to offset the effects of rising energy prices or divided up into education funds and other social supports.   

We need to rethink our economy so all of our children have an opportunity to earn a decent living. This starts by valuing our planet above fossil fuel industries. 

Tefere Gebre is the chief program officer of Greenpeace USA and former executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.

Tags Biden Carbon bubble Climate change Energy Energy economics Energy subsidy fossil fuel divestment fossil fuel subsidies Fossil fuels Joe Biden Natural environment Subsidies

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