What Climate Levers are Left to Pull?

Published Categorized as Articles, Published Online

An Idea From Out of Center Field

Republished with the permission of Bill McKibben,
from his Substack newsletter, The Crucial years, on November 4, 2021.

This Glasgow climate summit is at full pitch now—the world leaders have mercifully packed up their boilerplate and left, and now more serious business is underway. Well, somewhat more serious business: there’s a big fight going about whether it’s appropriate for the COP dining hall to be serving haggis (which is to say, diced sheep lung cooked in the sheep’s stomach), since the carbon embedded in the whole process amounts to 3.4 kilograms, or seven times what some campaigners have calculated is the correct amount of co2 per meal. (It should be noted that the dining hall also carries “vegetarian haggis,” and personally I’ll have a slice of pizza, thank you).

But mostly everyone is working, or at least spinning, hard. It’s difficult to parse all the announcements that emerge each hour. Some seem really important: The U.S. and a number of other nations pledged an end to all public finance for fossil fuels, which would take, campaigners estimated, about $15 billion annually off the table for oil and gas projects funded by institutions like the World Bank. Others are harder to reckion: an agreement to phase out coal was originally supposed to include 190 countries, but only 46 of them signed on, not including China, the U.S., Russia or India, but counting Belgium (which hasn’t used coal for years) and Liechtenstein, which can’t be using much of anything since it has a population of 38,749. (It did include fast-growing Vietnam, however, which counts). A hundred and thirty trillion dollars worth of banks were joining in a “net zero alliance”, but one which mystically allows them to continue loaning to fossil fuel companies; it’s not very hard to see why Greta Thunberg (who hasn’t been invited to talk) described the proceedings today as a “global north greenwash.”

Even in the best of interpretations—that would be John Kerry’s announcement that the summit has already achieved “success”—we will still need to do a helluva lot more. The American climate envoy’s recommendations for what more amounts to, however, seemed a little underwhelming. “Shop climate consciously. Ensure your employer invests in sustainability. Talk to your friends and neighbors about this issue.” But maybe there’s some other big levers we might still pull.

I spent lunch today listening to one interesting plan. Dan Galpern (he had a spicy vegan bean casserole, carbon unknown) is a lawyer who’s worked closely for many years with Jim Hansen, the most important, and most courageous, climatologist on the planet. Hansen has long advocated for putting a fee on carbon and returning the proceeds to taxpayers, a plan that so far has not gotten anywhere in Congress. Hope springs eternal among advocates like the indefatigable Citizens Climate Lobby that the Senate will turn to such a plan to work out the dispute over their reconciliation bill, but it’s hard to see Joe Manchin taking the plunge. After all, in the same secret video where Exxon described him as their “kingmaker,” they also made clear that they publicly supported a carbon tax only because of their confidence it would never pass, thus providing them a risk-free “talking point.”

But Galpern thinks there may be a way forward. He’s unearthed a possible loophole: in the early 1950s, Congress passed a statute—31 U.S. Code § 9701 for those of you keeping score at home—that allows federal agencies to charge a fair fee for occasions when the government provides “government services and things of value.” Galpern’s aha moment actually came when he read an article by former EPA administrator E. Donald Elliott. Back in his EPA days under George H.W. Bush, Elliott had written the key opinion that the agency couldn’t charge such a fee. But as he now says, he simply didn’t know about the 1952 statute. Under its provisions, he insists, the EPA “does have existing authority to impose a reasonable user fee on releases” of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases. Indeed, he’s signed on to a petition asking Biden to do precisely that.

There’s a long distance between the authority to do something and the willingness to do it, of course. So far Biden has shown fairly small appetite for using his executive authority in big ways (see the scandal of permitting Line 3 to proceed, for instance), though he did move earlier this week to impose strict new methane regulations. But if the reconciliation bill finally gets passed—which everyone seems to think will be the last large legislative victory of Biden’s first term, especially given the drubbing Democrats took in Tuesday’s elections—then he may be freed up to be more aggressive, no longer having to worry about offending the prima donna from West Virginia. I don’t know if it’s likely Biden will want to take this step—it would be easy enough for Congress to couple it with a dividend system that would return funds to taxpayers, but it would be even easier for the GOP to declare it a tax hike, and hence a violation of his pledge to hold sacred incomes under $400,000. But I think it’s an example of the kind of aggressive thinking we may need.

As Galpern acknowledges, the Congress clearly did not have co2 in mind back in 1952—it would be seven years more before anyone even bothered to measure it. But the same reasoning that allows governments to charge for the use of, say, the broadcast spectrum should also, he says, allow them to “charge Exxon for using the atmosphere as an open sewer.” Indeed—the fact that Big Oil gets the ultimate gift of wrecking the climate for free is the single biggest subsidy imaginable. There’s nothing radical about it—what’s radical is altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Charging for that privilege would probably be effective, and certainly be just.

We’ve waited so long to move at all that now we must move big. “Climate conscious shopping,” which I guess means avoid the haggis, only gets you so far.


Bill McKibben produces the content for the Substack newsletter called, The Crucial Years, and this post was from his daily coverage of COP26 in Glasgow. If you subscribe, his share of the subscription revenues will help launch Third Act, a new organizing effort for people over the age of 60.