It’s good to see Microsoft acting on climate change. Company managers recently raised the carbon price they use to incentivize reductions in their facilities. And they supported I-1631, the citizen climate initiative. But by joining the “Climate Leadership Council” (CLC), Microsoft may have signed on to an oil-industry campaign to shirk responsibility for the skyrocketing cost of climate damages. The CLC’s founding members include Exxon-Mobil, BP, Shell, and Conoco-Phillips.
Why would oil companies support the CLC carbon tax after spending more than $30 million to defeat I-1631, a carbon fee less than half as high as the CLC proposal? It might have something to do with a “sweetener,” as Bloomberg reported, tucked in the back of the CLC plan: “Robust carbon fees would also make possible protecting companies from federal and state tort liability for historic emissions.”
That’s sweet for oil companies, all right. But it’s a bitter pill for victims of climate disruption and taxpayers who pick up the tab.
Damages related to climate disruption in the U.S. topped $300 billion in 2017 alone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Washington’s new state budget includes ballooning costs for wildfire suppression, orca and salmon recovery, water storage and infrastructure — critical needs that cost more as the climate crisis worsens. King County is one of many local jurisdictions suing the oil giants to recover costs for climate damages and adaptation. The CLC plan would block this path to financial relief for taxpayers.
These local costs are rising fast, but they pale in comparison to the economic and humanitarian crises unfolding in the wake of violent storms around the world. And climate disruption is one of the major drivers forcing millions of refugees from North Africa and Central America. Political reaction to these refugee crises is destabilizing Western democracies, including our own.
As public demand for climate policy swells, one immediate question looms large: “Who pays for this mess?” Right now, taxpayers bear the costs for crisis response and climate “adaptation,” while victims pay with their homes, their health and their lives. Should fossil-fuel companies receive immunity from these costs?
An exhaustive body of evidence shows that oil companies knowingly caused these climate conditions and blocked preventive action with a decades-long campaign of climate science deception. The documentary “Merchants of Doubt” traces the roots of this campaign to the same people who manufactured uncertainty about the link between smoking and cancer. Ultimately, the truth caught up with Big Tobacco, to the tune of more than $200 billion. Oil companies don’t want to see the sequel to that movie.
Microsoft wouldn’t comment for a recent story in The Guardian on whether they support legal immunity for fossil fuel producers, saying only “ … [A carbon tax] isn’t going to happen without the inclusion of the fossil fuel sector.” Fair enough. But the goal of climate policy isn’t coming up with a plan that suits fossil fuel companies. An effective climate plan must leave the overwhelming majority of fossil fuel reserves in the ground. These “unburnable” reserves are among the fossil fuel companies’ biggest assets. It’s fair to say Big Oil won’t like a policy that makes these assets worthless. But that’s what we need.
When fossil fuel companies stipulate to science-based carbon budgets and take some responsibility for the damage they’ve caused, then we can talk. Until then, their interests are pitted squarely against humanity’s prospects for a decent future. They are not negotiating in good faith.
Microsoft has a lot to show for its climate and clean energy efforts. But by joining the CLC, it has confused the issue. We can have a fair, effective climate policy. Or we can protect fossil fuel companies from the consequences of the climate havoc they continue to wreak. But we can’t do both.