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How to make polluters pay

Around the world, governments, nonprofits and even some everyday people are coming up with strategies to force fossil fuel companies to pay for their contributions to climate change.

The European Union is pushing countries to come up with a global approach, dozens of countries and states have passed taxes on carbon emissions, and a growing number of citizens are filing lawsuits against the oil and gas industry.

But what if governments could simply charge companies for the costs of climate change? These efforts are often described as “climate superfunds,” a reference to the 1980 U.S. law that forced companies to pay for toxic waste cleanup.

At least four states are considering versions of these bills, and tiny Vermont may soon be the first state to pass one. The idea behind the Vermont bill is simple: the state would calculate the damage caused by climate change and charge companies according to the share of emissions they produced.

Vermont’s Senate passed a measure on Tuesday and it will now head toward a vote in the House, where it has support from at least two thirds of members. You may remember that it was one of several states in the Northeast that suffered from devastating floods last summer, killing at least 10 people and causing $2.2 billion in damages.

“Taxpayers alone can’t bear these costs,” said Anthony Iarrapino, a lobbyist who garnered support for the bill for the Conservation Law Foundation. “It’s only fair to look to these immensely profitable corporations whose products and activities are the root causes of the crisis we are in and say, ‘You should pay your fair share and help clean up the mess.’”

We don’t know exactly which companies would be charged under Vermont’s bill, but it would cover companies that produced more than one gigaton of carbon emissions between 1995 and 2024 and have some sort of commercial relationship with the state.

State officials haven’t yet calculated how much money they would raise with the bill, but it’s fair to assume it would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. A group of U.S. senators calculated a federal climate superfund would raise $500 billion, and New York officials said a statewide measure would collect $30 billion.

“The underlying goal of this bill is not about reducing carbon emissions,” Senator Nader Hashim said on the Vermont Senate floor last week. “This is about reducing the costs for Vermont taxpayers.”

The original Superfund law was signed in 1980, two years after a toxic landfill in Love Canal, a neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y., was recognized as a public threat.

The Vermont bill was inspired by a proposal by a group of U.S. senators, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, in 2021. The national bill did not advance, but it spawned several state-level climate superfund measures. The New York Senate passed a similar bill last year, but because Gov. Kathy Hochul didn’t include it in the budget, it will need to be passed again. Massachusetts and Maryland have also introduced climate superfund bills, and California and Minnesota are expected to do so soon, according to E&E News.

It’s unclear whether Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, will sign the measure, though it has had some bipartisan support. Four Republican senators voted to pass the bill on to the House, including one lawmaker who had previously voted against it because he simply didn’t want Vermont to be the first to face off against multibillion dollar corporations in court, a prospect many deem likely.

The oil and gas industry oppose the bill. According to Heatmap, the American Petroleum Institute, a lobbying group, submitted testimony to the Vermont senate warning about the challenge of accurately attributing climate change to specific damages in the state and that emissions by each company can’t be determined accurately enough.

There’s an intrinsic challenge in assessing who should pay for fossil fuel pollution: How do you prove who’s responsible?

Climate change is both global and gradual. Burning fossil fuels in the United States now will impact communities in, say, Africa for years to come. And it’s highly complex — and not always definitive — to link a specific event to climate change.

But attribution science, as the field is known, has made big strides in the last few years.

Scientists have created computer models that contrast our planet to a hypothetical one in which humans didn’t burn fossil fuels. That allows them to know, in a matter of weeks, which disasters can be linked climate change. For example, attribution science told us that the drought in the Amazon rainforest last year was fueled by climate change, but the wildfires in Chile weren’t.

If the climate superfund bill becomes law in Vermont, the state plans to work with scientists to figure out just how much of the damage was caused by climate change. Then, they will calculate what each oil and gas company contributed to it.

For that, they will very likely use a database called “Carbon Majors.” Richard Heede, the climate researcher who created it, told me he has collected thousands of corporate reports from 122 companies across the world detailing how much fossil fuels they have produced in the last decades. Using that, he can calculate a company’s share of global heat-trapping gas emissions.

Another key puzzle piece: The work by researchers and journalists to uncover documents suggesting that fossil fuel companies have known for decades that their activities were harmful to the climate.

Taken together, some Vermont lawmakers believe they have all of the necessary ingredients to make fossil fuel polluters responsible for the damage they’ve caused.

“We can measure just how much worse storms are now because of climate change,” state senator Anne Watson told her colleagues in Vermont. “It’s time for us to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the damage they have caused.”


On a windswept Icelandic plateau, an international team of engineers and executives is powering up an innovative machine designed to alter the very composition of Earth’s atmosphere.

If all goes as planned, the enormous vacuum will soon be sucking up vast quantities of air, stripping out carbon dioxide and then locking away those greenhouse gases deep underground in ancient stone — greenhouse gases that would otherwise continue heating up the globe.

Just a few years ago, technologies like these, which attempt to re-engineer the natural environment, were on the scientific fringe. They were too expensive, too impractical, too sci-fi. But with the dangers from climate change worsening, and the world failing to meet its goals of slashing greenhouse gas emissions, they are quickly moving to the mainstream among both scientists and investors, despite questions about their effectiveness and safety.

Researchers are studying ways to block some of the sun’s radiation. They are testing whether adding iron to the ocean could carry carbon dioxide to the sea floor. They are hatching plans to build giant parasols in space. And with massive facilities like the one in Iceland, they are seeking to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air.

As the scale and urgency of the climate crisis has crystallized, “people have woken up and are looking to see if there’s any miraculous deus ex machina that can help,” said Al Gore, the former vice president. — David Gelles

Read the full story here, part of a series on the potentially risky ways humans are starting to manipulate nature to fight climate change. More coverage is coming soon.


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