About $11 million a minute. That’s the amount of direct and indirect subsidies the International Monetary Fund calculates the global fossil fuel industry receives to ensure that cooking the planet remains profitable for them. If you do the math, it comes to about $5.9 trillion a year.
As The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer has pointed out, only $826 billion of that comes from actual price cuts or tax breaks. The rest is calculated from damages caused from the environmental and health costs of carbon pollution. But that’s sorta the point. This is an antiquated industry that is knowingly and willfully poisoning the planet and killing millions of people every year. And governments of the world — which ultimately means you and me and everyone else who pays taxes — are essentially paying them to do it.
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It’s no wonder the rallying cry for upcoming demonstrations in Washington D.C. is “People vs. Fossil Fuels.” For decades, the fossil fuel mafia has been pretending to be a good citizen, pretending that it didn’t really understand the risks of climate change, and pretending that fossil fuel consumption is really your problem, not theirs. If the world is burning, it’s because you’re too lazy to switch your lightbulbs, not because the industry has shoveled millions of dollars into lobbying efforts to make sure that the energy that powers our world is generated by coal or gas, even if there are better, cheaper, cleaner alternatives.
The fossil fuel mafia has used money and political muscle to stall and derail action on the climate crisis, and they will do everything they can to draw out the inevitable transition to clean energy as long as possible. Given the stunning decline in the cost of solar and wind power in most of the world, they know their days are numbered. It’s not a question of if they go. It’s a question of how fast. But every day they wait, every delay tactic they come up with, imperils the rest of us.
To put it another way, this is no longer an economic issue. It is a climate justice issue.
“Climate justice is the simple idea that those who have done the most to cause the climate crisis – and who have the most resources – must also do the most to fix it,” Brandon Wu, the director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid USA, has said. “In global terms, this means that wealthy countries like the U.S. must lead by example when it comes to climate action by undertaking urgent emissions reductions at home and providing hugely ramped-up financial support for action in poorer countries.”
An essential opportunity to move the ball on climate justice is coming up fast, in the next round of international climate talks, known as COP26, which will begin in Glasgow on October 31st. Maybe it’s too much to say that life on Earth depends on the outcome of these talks. So let’s just say that climate negotiators have a lot of work to do. A recent U.N. analysis found that even if nations meet their current promises for CO2 emissions reductions, the climate would still warm by 2.7 C by the end of the century — a path U.N. Secretary António Guterres has described as “catastrophic,” dramatically boosting the frequency and intensity of heat waves, wildfires, storms, and drought, as well as increasing the risk of ice sheet collapse in West Antarctica and disrupting planetary-scale systems like the circulation pattern of current in the Atlantic.
Since a central tenant of a just climate transition is that the countries and people most responsible for climate change should take the most responsibility in stopping it, the question then becomes, who is most responsible? A lot of people like to point the finger at China. Just google “CO2 emissions by nation” and you will see why: In 2019, China emitted about 10 billion tons of CO2, which is about 28 percent of the global total. The U.S., in contrast, emitted 5.3 billion tons, or about 15 percent of the global total. The EU is third, with about 10 percent of global total, and India below that with 7 percent.
In addition, Chinese emissions are continuing to rise fast, while U.S. emissions have plateaued and started to decline in recent years. And a lot of China’s emissions growth has come from continued reliance on coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Last year, China built more than three times more new coal power capacity than all other countries in the world combined, equal to “more than one large coal plant per week,” according to estimates from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Finland.
What all this means is that without a big commitment from China, there will be no meaningful progress toward the goal of keeping warming below 1.5 C, which is the threshold scientists have identified to maintain some semblance of a stable climate.
Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to understand this. He has promised his country will start reducing CO2 emissions from coal, gas, and oil by 2030 and then stop altogether by 2060. But will they?
Xi has made some moves to show they are serious about addressing the climate crisis. He recently pledged to finance no new coal plants outside of China, which is a big deal. But as John Kerry, President Biden’s international climate envoy, recently pointed out, the Chinese still plan to build 247 gigawatts of new coal power within China. That is nearly six times Germany’s entire coal power capacity. China’s plan “would actually undo the ability of the rest of the world” to avert climate catastrophe, Kerry said.
So if you’re looking for a fall guy in the climate crisis, China fits the bill.
But that’s not the whole picture. China’s current status as the biggest emitter has been very convenient for U.S. politicians who have been protecting the interests of the fossil fuel industry. China has been their perfect “whataboutism” foil. A classic example: During a congressional hearing in 2019, Rep. Garret Graves (R-Louisiana), then the ranking Republican on the Climate Crisis Committee, tried to use the example of China as a reason the U.S should hang back on climate action. “So while in the United States we need to continue investing in innovative solutions and exporting clean energy technologies, it makes no sense for us to be doing it if we’re simply watching for increases in China,” he said.
Jamie Margolin, a teenage climate change activist from Seattle who was testifying before the committee, dismantled Graves’ argument: “When your children ask you: Did you do absolutely everything in your power to stop the climate crisis, when the storms were getting worse and we’re seeing all the effects … Can you really look them in the eye and say, ‘No, sorry, I couldn’t do anything because that country over there didn’t do anything, and if they’re not going to do anything then I’m not.’ That is shameful and that is cowardly, and there is no excuse to not take action. …”
How you judge a nation’s responsibility for the climate crisis also depends on how you count emissions. For one thing, CO2 – the main greenhouse gas – is not like other forms of air pollution, such as sulfur dioxide, which rain out of the sky quickly once you stop emitting them.
Most fossil fuel CO2 stays in the atmosphere for centuries before it is removed by geologic processes. But about 25 percent of it remains in the atmosphere essentially forever. “The climatic impacts of releasing fossil fuel CO2 to the atmosphere will last longer than Stonehenge,” University of Chicago oceanographer David Archer writes in his book The Long Thaw. “Longer than time capsules, longer than nuclear waste, far longer than the age of human civilization so far.”
So when you ask, “Who is responsible for the climate crisis?” what matters is not just current emissions, but also historic emissions. From a strictly scientific perspective, a ton of CO2 emitted in 1921 is just as potent as a ton emitted in 2021.
A new report by Carbon Brief lays all this out. If you do the math this way, the U.S. has done twice as much to cause the problem as China.
(The Carbon Brief calculation also takes into account land use and deforestation, as well as the burning of fossil fuels, which is the main reason why Brazil and Indonesia are high on the list.)
You can see why this gets complicated. U.S. climate negotiators use China’s booming emissions to argue – justifiably – that the climate problem won’t be solved unless China takes dramatic action now to reduce emissions. Furthermore, they argue that weighing historic emissions is unfair, because in, say, 1920, nobody knew anything about climate change. Meanwhile, the Chinese argue – justifiably, also — that because of the U.S.’s large historical emissions, the U.S. has the moral duty to take the lead and make a much bigger contribution to emission cuts.
But in the midst of a climate emergency, when island nations are disappearing beneath the waves, and drought is leaving millions without food and heat waves are killing a billion marine creatures in the Pacific Northwest, it feels almost comically self-destructive to be wasting time doing math and finger-pointing while the world burns. “For us, it is inexplicable the world isn’t taking action and it suggests we in small islands are to remain dispensable and remain invisible,” Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, recently said.
The point is, we need both China and the U.S., and every other big, rich polluter, to go full speed on transitioning off fossil fuels now. But the foot-dragging and the squabbling and the bowing to Big Oil and Big Coal over and over and over again reveals the heartbreaking dynamic at the foundations of the climate crisis: The rich pollute. The poor suffer. And the rich don’t really care.
At the moment, the primary mechanism for dealing with the inequities of the climate crisis is the Green Climate Fund, by which wealthy nations of the world promised $100 billion a year in funding to developing nations to help them transition to clean energy and adapt to climate impacts.
But that isn’t going so well. The latest figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development show that in 2019, rich nations channeled $79.6 billion to vulnerable countries, up just 2 percent from $78.3 billion in 2018. An analysis by aid charity Oxfam put the real figure for 2018 much lower, between $19 billion and $22.5 billion, when counting only grants and not loans that have to be paid back. Meanwhile, according to Reuters, the 46 least-developed countries between 2014 and 2018 received just $5.9 billion in total for adaptation.
This is likely to be a key issue in Glasgow. President Biden recently vowed to double the aid the U.S. gives to developing nations to $11 billion, but that is only a fraction of what is needed. African negotiators have already signaled they want to up contributions to $1.3 trillion by 2030. As climate impacts accelerate, the gap between rich and poor, between the saved and the suffering, will only grow.
It may be that Glasgow marks a new turning point in the climate fight, one where the justice and equity finally take center stage and access to power and money shifts from the old to the new. After all, we know now that the climate crisis is not some kind of inadvertent and unfortunate consequence of two centuries of fossil fuel consumption, or because we humans don’t give a shit about the planet we live on. It is the deliberate and willful consequence of a handful of powerful corporations and their political enablers who have knowingly stolen our future and cashed it in for a quick buck. And we have let them get away with it.
Until now, anyway. Just as there are climate tipping points, there are also human tipping points, where the path to a better world suddenly becomes clear and the journey to it becomes unstoppable.
Let’s hope Glasgow is one of them.
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