Respected UC Berkeley economist Dr. Severin Borenstein released a blog yesterday that included at least one point we can agree on: fossil fuels are cheap. But Borenstein missed the boat in dismissing significant new research that traces 63 percent of heat-trapping emissions to just 90 institutions, including oil giants Exxon-Mobil, BP, and California-based Chevron, suggesting that holding fossil fuel producers accountable is a “copout.”
The real culprit, according to Borenstein, is all of us who buy these fuels, because they are cheap and available. He argues that holding producers accountable is a distraction from what we really need to do, which is to better account for the damage these fuels cause to the environment, preferably by enacting a carbon tax.
We don’t think it’s a distraction at all. Many of us, including UCS, agree that we need a price on carbon as a key policy to help reduce global warming emissions. We also support individuals who want to reduce their own carbon footprint, as well as policies that reduce emissions from the automobile and utility industries. All these actions, working in concert, can reduce the future risks of climate change. And our Half the Oil campaign, in particular, is focused on policies that could dramatically reduce oil use and help us invest in more productive areas of the economy.
But to a very significant extent, it is the fossil fuel producers themselves that are standing in the way of progress on both enacting comprehensive policies to address climate change and policies that would help consumers reduce fossil fuel consumption. Nevertheless, Borenstein argues, “Those fossil fuel companies aren’t responsible, they just sell the stuff.” Yet in Borenstein’s home state of California, these companies are actively standing in the way of state laws that would reduce carbon emissions and set a price on carbon.
This past year, Chevron, a company that the new research identified as the biggest single private-sector contributor to emissions, along with allies in the Western States Petroleum Association, spent significant time and resources trying to push back on California’s low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) and are continuing to resist efforts to include transportation fuels under the AB 32 cap on statewide heat-trapping emissions, as is now scheduled for 2015.
And what are fossil fuel companies doing to help consumers find solutions? Not much, despite glossy advertising campaigns touting their “clean” energy solutions. Rolling Stone published an article this past summer detailing a trend toward dis-investment in clean alternatives among oil companies, and Bloomberg News published a story in April that detailed how Chevron significantly scaled back its investments in low-carbon alternative fuels because, while they would be profitable, they would not be as profitable as oil production. Historically, we know that many of these companies also funded misinformation campaigns to deny the reality of human-induced climate change, even as scientists continued to publish authoritative reports outlining the realities of climate change.
Holding these companies accountable isn’t a “copout.” It’s a sensible, additional way, among many, to address climate change.
And what about the public? Statewide polls show support for policies that reduce emissions from transportation like the LCFS, including a poll released in August that found 81 percent (77 percent likely voters) support requiring oil companies to reduce transportation fuel emissions.
So if consumers want lower carbon products and producers are unwilling to provide them, who is at fault?
The bill for climate change is starting to come due, and it is enormous. We agree with Dr. Borenstein that internalizing some of those costs into the price of fossil fuels is a good idea, as are policies that encourage the adoption of low-carbon technologies. There is no silver bullet that will solve this problem.
UCS certainly understands that this effort has got to be more than assigning blame, and we support solutions that will not only help us reduce fossil fuel consumption and related emissions but also create jobs, protect health, and establish American technology leadership, as we have outlined with our Half the Oil proposal.
Over the last century, we’ve spent an enormous amount to subsidize the fossil fuel economy, and consumers’ options will continue to be limited as long as fossil fuel companies continue to invest in disinformation campaigns and fight policies that would make them accountable for the damage their products cause.
Everyone is responsible for climate change, it’s true. But some of us – and our institutions – are more responsible than others. It’s entirely reasonable to highlight the critical role fossil fuel producers play; they are the first point of contact for coal and oil extraction at the root of climate change. What this new research shows is just how few institutions are doing the major extraction. Holding them accountable is one step among many that could actually prevent the worst consequences of a changing climate.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.