Who should pay for climate change?

Growing up, we all learned an important, simple principle: Clean up your own mess.

Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/industry-environmental-pollution-1761801/

Growing up, we all learned an important, simple principle: Clean up your own mess. As transitioning to renewable energy becomes more urgent to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, the government needs to raise funds to help build a more sustainable country and world. So, doesn’t it make sense that the companies that have helped fuel the climate crisis should be cleaning up their share of the mess?

Currently, that’s not the case. Since 1965, 20 fossil fuel companies have been behind 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even as the climate crisis continues to grow, these companies are expanding infrastructure to extract even more fossil fuels at the expense of the environment and public health.

However, the fossil fuel industry still gets billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies courtesy of the U.S. government. This essentially means that taxpayers are paying these companies to pollute. Companies are also finding loopholes to evade pollution cleanup by declaring bankruptcy to offload old and disintegrating oil wells, platforms and other extraction assets, onto unsuspecting companies and taxpayers to clean up. The public shouldn’t be paying to clean up the pollution that the fossil fuel industry created.

This simple idea we learned growing up is the basis of the Make Polluters Pay Plan, which would generate funds to help alleviate the rising costs of climate change. Introduced by Maryland’s Sen. Van Hollen, the idea is that the biggest polluters of carbon dioxide and methane in the past 20 years, namely fossil fuel giants, will have to pay a fee based on how much they emitted in that time period.

The proposal comes not a moment too soon as Congress is debating a suite of clean energy proposals that could put us on track towards cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. Among others, the bill may include: tax credits for solar and wind power; incentives to help people buy clean, electric vehicles; establishing a Civilian Climate Corps, to build a climate disaster-ready workforce; and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies.

The Make Polluters Pay Plan could be the perfect complement to these other critical climate investments — and, importantly, could help fund them. It could help raise $500 billion, enough to cover most of the climate investments in the recently announced Build Back Better Framework. It’s a straightforward, common-sense plan that will help protect taxpayers from bearing most climate costs. Only fossil fuel giants whose emissions over the past 20 years exceed a set threshold of billions of tons, like Exxon, Chevron, and Shell, would have to contribute to the fund. These corporations would still need to compete with others not impacted by the fund, making it harder for them to pass costs on to consumers. The money raised could then be used to fund the various climate initiatives outlined in the reconciliation package.

Passing a Make Polluters Pay policy today would be a major step towards providing our country the funds needed to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis that we are already facing. The fossil fuel industry should be held accountable for the immense amount of pollution they’ve made. Including the Make Polluters Pay Plan in the Build Back Better bill is a win-win-win, and could help us make the transition away from dirty fossil fuels towards a clean, renewable power system that we so desperately need to do.


Lisa Frank

Executive Director, Environment America; Vice President and D.C. Director, The Public Interest Network

Lisa leads Environment America’s work for a greener, healthier world. She also directs The Public Interest Network’s Washington, D.C., office and operations. A pragmatic idealist, Lisa has helped win billions of dollars in investments in clean energy and transportation and developed strategic campaigns to protect America’s oceans, forests and public lands. Lisa is an Oregonian transplant to the Capital region, where she loves hiking, running, biking, and cooking for friends and family.