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Commentary & Opinion

Earth Week 2022

April 22nd was Earth Day. Since 1970 the world has marked Earth Day as a time to reflect on the state of the environment and debate how best to improve the only habitat we have. As we know, the world faces an existential threat posed by climate changes driven by global warming.

There is no longer a credible debate over whether human activity, primarily the use of fossil fuels to create energy, is warming the planet. According to the world’s climate experts: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic [human-caused] emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) experts tell us that human society has to curb its carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and then achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts from global warming.

Given Congressional gridlock, states like New York, California, Massachusetts, and others have stepped up with aggressive goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Using a science-based approach, in 2019 New York State set aggressive goals to attack climate change. The state’s Climate Law says the state must achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The law also sets goals of 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040.

Those goals are laudable and scientifically-based, but there will be significant costs to address the climate crisis for the world, the nation, and New York.

Climate change resulting from burning of fossil fuels has already had adverse effects on New York in the form of extreme weather events that caused billions of dollars in damages. For example, “Super Storm Sandy” caused $19 billion in damages in New York City. Hurricane Irene devastated the state and resulted in ten deaths and in excess of $1.3 billion in damages. Tropical Storm Lee brought drenching rains that caused more than $1 billion more.

Researchers have estimated the potential economic costs of climate change in New York State for key sectors may approach $10 billion annually by mid-century.

Those costs are staggering, but the question facing policymakers is how to fairly distribute responsibility. One thing we all know, is that the oil, gas, and coal industries are significantly responsible for the dangers we are experiencing and will face.

The record is clear that for the better half of the late 20th Century, oil companies funded industry and university research collaborations broadly in line with the current scientific consensus. According to corporate documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times, for example, a leading Exxon researcher told an audience of engineers at a conference in 1991 that greenhouse gases are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels. Nobody disputes this fact.”

Nevertheless, starting in the 1980s, the industry championed climate change denial on multiple fronts and opposed regulations to curtail global warming. The industry funded organizations critical of climate change treaties, undermining public opinion about the science that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Their successes in bamboozling the public have pushed the planet to the brink.

Now governments are facing the costs of responding to this deadly threat. So how do we ensure that those responsible are on the financial hook for the costs and in a way that minimizes – or eliminates – the industries’ ability to pass those costs along to the public?

New York’s state Superfund program offers precedent for a “polluter must pay” model for making the fossil fuels companies bear the costs tied to a looming climate catastrophe. Under the Superfund program, polluters are obligated to pay for remediation without any requirement of a finding that the polluter was negligent or acted intentionally with knowledge of the damage to the environment its activities would cause.

Working off the state Superfund model, lawmakers should embrace a proposal that extends the principle of the “polluter pays” to pollution from carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels, the primary cause of climate change from global warming.

The world knows that it faces a dire threat and staggering costs. It’s also true that the record shows that the oil, gas, and coal industries did all they could to block adequate responses to this growing threat. As a result, the threats are greater and the costs of responding are higher.

It’s time to make polluters pay for the damage they’ve done. Right now, big polluters get to pollute for free. New York lawmakers must support a plan that ensures that fossil fuel companies pay their fair share of the costs of cleaning up the mess they’ve created. Someone is going to pay for the costs of climate change: if it isn’t the polluters, it’s going to be the public. They’ve known for some 50 years that their pollution was causing the climate crisis, but they put their profits ahead of public welfare. Now it’s time for New York to make them help pay for the mess they’ve made.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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