People are constantly grandstanding about what we should do to reduce our personal carbon footprints. Sometimes there is a tone of moral superiority involved, even among people who seem to be more or less on the same political side. “What—you mean you aren’t vegan? You don’t bike 10 miles to work? You don’t compost? You don’t drive a Prius? Then you don’t really care about the climate!”
That’s unfortunate, for two reasons. First, some people live in privileged communities, or belong to privileged groups, so they can do these things with relative ease. It’s not so easy to buy a hybrid car, though, if you struggle to afford rent. And second, while individual action is not irrelevant, we won’t really solve this planetary-scale climate problem without a significant change in policies and regulations at the level of government.
That’s what a ballot initiative in my home state of Washington is trying to achieve. Voters will have the opportunity to vote on a carbon fee (Initiative 1631) this fall, which is decidedly focused on systemic change and reorganization rather than individual actions. This legislation would rein in and reduce the emissions of some of the largest polluters in the state; the revenue generated would be spent on clean energy infrastructure, the stewardship of ecosystems and the needs of frontline communities.
Washington State voters might reasonably debate the structure of I-1631. Is it the best possible piece of legislation? Does it work as well as or better than other regulatory devices? Those questions deserve attention and debate. And yet, we as voters often face imperfect choices to change public policy. This is part of the granular process of how public policy is made.
The more important, more interesting, more effective place to focus our moral attention is on where the support or opposition for such legislation is coming from. And this gets us to the economic powers of individual corporations that continue to hijack democratic and regulatory processes that would move toward emission reduction. Thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions, wealthy people and corporations now have more free speech than the rest of us; as a result, millions of out-of-state dollars are flooding into Washington to fund the “No on 1631” campaign.
The opposition campaign has raised $11.1 million in contributions, 99.7 percent of which have come from businesses, and the top donors are fossil fuel companies, including Phillips 66, Chevron, BP, and Andeavor. In contrast, the pro-1631 “Clean Air Clean Energy, WA” campaign has raised $4.3 million in contributions, 56 percent of which have come from individuals. The leading donors here include The Nature Conservancy, The Washington Environmental Council and the Washington State Labor Council.
As a Washington State voter, I am outraged. As an activist, I am not surprised.
Why do fossil fuel companies fund the opposition to a carbon fee initiative? The answer, simply, is greed. If I-1631 passes, it would eat into their profits. Not only would I-1631 reduce profits in the limited marketplace of Washington state; it would likely lead to a loss of profits in other markets that followed suit. The fossil fuel companies lining up to oppose I-1631 represent a cabal of economic power that stands in the way of our collective progress. They aren't neutral actors. They are narcissistic, amoral entities actively harming all of our futures.
We should call it like it is: these companies are forces of profound greed, evil and violence to people and the environment.
Imagine if we lived in a country where our moral outrage was focused not on individuals who are insufficiently rigorous about their personal choices, but instead on how the wealthiest businesses in the world poison the democratic process so they can continue poisoning the atmosphere with heat-trapping pollution. That would be an appropriate place for the indignation currently directed at, say, climate scientists who still fly to conferences and remote research sites; or on the arguments over whether we do or don’t use plastic bags and straws.
We focus far too much attention on the minutiae of how our identities are brokered in a world of climate despair and environmental unraveling. If we want to look for bad actors, we should look at corporations rather than individuals—because these are the most powerful economic agents on the planet.
We finger-point and bicker over gradations of virtue in individual actions as hallmarks of our personal value in a progressive society. Think of the collective outrage we could muster at the wholesale hijacking of public decision-making by greedy corporations. Think of what would happen if we explicitly connected our outrage over the suffering and deaths of Americans from climate-amplified extreme events ranging from hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Hawaii, to wildfires California in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, to the dark money of fossil fuel companies.
If we did that, we could rightly call their profits blood money—but not in the classic sense of restitution. This money buys them continued access and license to harm America’s people and places. Oursis the blood spilt on the ground by their shortsighted greed and unchecked power.