Fossil fuel executives have funded a massive, 50-year-long campaign to lie to the American people, cloud the science, and buy off Republican politicians. Untold millions will die and suffer as a result, but will their ever be one iota of accountability?
If somebody had set your house on fire, killing your child and pets, and then your city demanded that you give that somebody hundreds of dollars a year for the next decade, how would you feel?
That’s pretty much the situation of families across America who’ve lost their homes, family members, and livelihoods to wildfires, floods, extreme heat and cold, mile-wide tornadoes, bomb cyclones, heat domes, hurricanes, and drought caused by today’s climate emergency, but nonetheless have to pay taxes that subsidize the fossil fuel industry executives who helped caused it all.
For over 50 years, the top executives of that industry have known their products would produce this exact result: a crisis that is killing an average of around 7,500 Americans a year (and over a million worldwide) and promises to kill hundreds of millions within a decade or two.
But instead of doing anything of consequence to mitigate the damage of their operations, they instead funded a massive, 50-year-long campaign to lie to the American people, cloud the science, and buy off Republican politicians.
President Biden, as part of his negotiations with Kevin McCarthy, has proposed reducing the budget deficit by $31 billion through cutting about five percent of the subsidies you and I give to the fossil fuel industry every year through our tax dollars. McCarthy, in the pocket of Big Oil, has said he won’t even consider the proposal.
Famed climate scientist James Hansen is working on a paper outlining the dimensions of the disaster facing humanity at the hands of the fossil fuel industry, and it’s shocking. My friend and colleague Thomas Neuburger did a deep dive into it this week in his excellent God’s Spies Substack newsletter that’s well worth the read.
In essence, Hansen is proposing that the world will soon see both a collapse of the Gulf Stream that keeps Europe’s climate capable of growing crops and a worldwide 60-meter rise in sea levels. Possibly in our children’s or grandchildren’s lifetimes. As Thomas dryly notes in God’s Spies: “For Americans, 60 meters is about 200 feet.”
Deaths worldwide both directly from such an outcome — and from the wars that will result in the destruction of entire civilizations — will be measured in billions; here in America it’ll certainly be in the millions, and probably the tens of millions. Not to mention it speeding up the ongoing species collapse often referred as the Sixth Mass Extinction.
This is what the fossil fuel industry has brought to us, and to this day is aggressively trying to continue to sell to us. Fully aware of what they are doing.
Last week, the World Meteorological Organization published an in-depth report with the top-line conclusion summarizing the damage these fossil fuel executives have already inflicted on our planet and our lives, all while funding climate denial and paying off politicians worldwide:
“Between 1970 and 2021, there were 11,778 reported disasters [worldwide] attributed to weather, climate, and water extremes. They caused 2,087,229 deaths and US$ 4.3 trillion in economic losses.”
The week before that, One Earthpublished a peer-reviewed analysis of the cost of all this damage, quantifying it by the 21 largest fossil fuel companies around the world. They concluded that those decision-making executives of the fossil fuel industry have inflicted over $5.4 trillion in identifiable economic damages on the rest of us which, instead of paying for, they have greedily converted to their own profit.
The report notes:
The “costs of anthropogenic climate change are chiefly borne by states that compensate their own citizens harmed by climate impacts or contribute to international adaptation finance, by insurance companies with regard to their insureds, and by uncompensated victims of climate change.”
In other words, the fossil fuel companies produced the global warming and cancer-causing emissions, but when people are damaged by them or the weather they are changing, government and insurance companies pay the cost.
The fossil fuel companies and their executives pay nothing, and never have. If they can keep the GOP in their pocket, they hope they never will.
Therefore, Earth One is calling for specific reparations, paid for by those companies:
“We argue that other agents bear substantial responsibility for the cost of redressing climate harm: the companies that engage in the exploration, production, refining, and distribution of oil, gas, and coal.
“The recent progress in climate attribution science makes it evident that these companies have played a major role in the accumulation and escalation of such costs by providing gigatonnes of carbon fuels to the global economy while willfully ignoring foreseeable climate harm.
“All the while they successfully shaped the public narrative on climate change through disinformation, misleading ‘advertorials,’ lobbying, and political donations to delay action directly or through trade associations and other surrogates.” (emphasis mine)
So, what can we do?
I see two possibilities, the first involving the law, and the second using the marketplace and, if that doesn’t work fast enough, the Fifth Amendment’s eminent domain provision.
First, the law:
Article 16 of the 1992 Rio Declaration explicitly calls for fossil fuel producers to pay for the damage their products and extraction processes produce. Thus, Earth One argues, Saudi Aramco (as the largest example) has cost the world so much that they should pay $43 billion a year in reparations for the next 25 years. While that seems like a lot of money, Saudi Aramco’s revenue in 2022 was $604 billion, spinning off $161 billion in pure profit.
Most of it’s executives and stockholders are already morbidly rich; this will put nobody in the poorhouse.
But isn’t the impact of this industry on our planet so consequential that — instead of just reducing their most senior executives’ income/revenue from billions to hundreds of millions — we should actually be holding the decision makers to account?
The legislature of New York State is considering a superfund bill that would move financially in this direction against domestic fossil fuel producers; other states will probably soon follow, although none are yet law.
None, though, yet target decision making senior executives as was done after World War II with the senior executives of the manufacturer of Zyklon B and the bosses and owners of the companies that ran medical experiments in concentration camps.
The discussion isn’t limited to the United States. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported this week:
“As fires blaze in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C., new research has drawn a direct and measurable link between carbon emissions traced back to the world’s major fossil fuel producers and the increase in extreme wildfires across western Canada and the United States.”
They based that reporting on a new peer-reviewed study published the week before in Environmental Research Letters that, the CBC noted:
“[F]ound that 37 per cent of the total burned forest area in Western Canada and the United States between 1986-2021 can be traced back to 88 major fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers.”
But these companies have not stopped buying off politicians, making it clear that extracting money from the ones causing all this damage and death worldwide may not be enough to provoke real change from the billionaire and multi-millionaire investors and executives making the decisions. Instead, we must motivate those executives themselves.
Another remedy, therefore, comes from the Nuremberg principles that were created in 1950 by the United Nations after World War II. While their original goal was to prosecute Nazis and deter future genocidal actions by dictatorial regimes, they could arguably apply to today’s intentional mass murder at the hands of the world’s fossil fuel executives.
More specifically, the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague was created by the Rome Statute on July 17, 1998. It goes beyond the “war crimes” and “crimes of aggression” defined by the Nuremberg principles and specifies both those two along with “the crime of genocide” and “crimes against humanity.”
That last category is clarified as including:
“[I]nhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”
The United States has never signed onto the ICC, but actions against fossil fuel executives based in the US can be brought by other signatory nations. If the effort were started outside the United States, for example, Royal Dutch Shell is based in the Netherlands, a full signatory to the Rome Statute.
As of three years ago, two US states had launched fraud investigations into ExxonMobil, although the one lawsuit by New York failed to bring a conviction (it was based on a charge that they had committed fraud against their investors).
Multiple US cities have sued fossil fuel companies for climate change damages, although there has not yet been a “breakthrough” case that could establish a precedent for others. But as damages continue to pile up and our weather becomes increasingly violent, expect more to come.
Fossil fuel companies have been following a business model since their early years in the 19th century of internalizing profits while externalizing (dumping on the public) their costs and damages.
Which brings us to a second possible solution to this crisis: nationalize the companies themselves, so their profits can be used to remedy their harms.
If ever there was an industry that merited nationalization, the fossil fuel industry is it. They manipulate prices to both enhance profits and swing elections, bribe their way through the halls of Congress, and pump out a steady stream of lies about climate change. All while pouring hundreds of billions into the money bins of their morbidly rich CEOs, shareholders, and senior executives.
America has a long and proud history of taking on companies that put profits over the public good during a time of crisis. And we could acquire controlling interest of the nation’s three largest fossil fuel players — ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips — for, according to Robert Pollin writing at The American Prospect, fewer than a half-trillion dollars.
For less than a quarter of the cost of Trump’s billionaire tax cuts we could rapidly move a long way toward saving our nation and the world from climate destruction.
All the American government would have to do is to go into the public marketplace and start purchasing the stock of each of these companies at a premium to buy majority shares in each of them. Again, the cost would be less than 1/4th of Donald Trump‘s tax cut. It could probably be done in a matter of months, possibly even weeks.
But is it even possible? Turns out that history says an emphatic, “Yes!”
During the crisis of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson nationalized the country’s railroads, phone companies, and telegraph operators. He did the same with the nation’s radio networks and radio stations. All were returned to private ownership after the war, but that temporary nationalization helped get America through the crisis.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt did the same during World War II, nationalizing airplane manufacturers, gun manufacturers, over 3,300 mines, the nation’s railroads, dozens of oil companies, Western Electric Co., Hughes Tool Co., Goodyear Tire and Rubber, and even one of the nation’s largest retail outlets, Montgomery Ward. He also nationalized 17 foreign companies doing business in the US.
After FDR died, President Harry Truman continued seizing companies that were using the war as an excuse to jack up profits to the detriment of the nation. He nationalized meatpacking facilities across the country, the Monongahela Railroad Company, the nation’s steel mills, and hundreds of railroad companies.
Like with Wilson’s nationalizations, nearly all were returned to the private sector after the war was over, although it took until 1965 before all were privatized. Many had had their boards of directors and senior management replaced with people who’d put the interests of the nation ahead of their greed for profits.
In the 1970s, in the wake of the collapse of the Penn Central Railroad, President Richard Nixon oversaw the nationalization and transfer of 20 railroads into the newly created National Rail Passenger Corporation, now known as Amtrak.
In 1974 Congress created another nationalized entity to deal with freight rail, the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), which absorbed dozens of failing rail companies. Conrail was government held until 1987, when it was privatized in the then-largest IPO in American history.
In 1984, when the Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company was in a crisis, President Ronald Reagan’s administration oversaw the FDIC, nationalizing it by acquiring an 80 percent ownership share in the company; it wasn’t re-privatized until 1991, and was bought by Bank of America in 1994.
Also in the 1980s, after Reagan recklessly deregulated the Savings & Loan industry, banksters made off with billions leaving the wreckage of crushed S&Ls all across the nation.
When the government agency that insured them, FSLIC, went bankrupt itself in 1987, Reagan and Congress created an umbrella agency — the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) — to nationalize 747 of America’s S&Ls with assets of over $400 billion. Their assets were sold back into the private market in 1995 as the RTC shut itself down, having averted a 1929-style banking crisis through temporary nationalization.
When George W. Bush was handed the White House by 5 Republican appointees on the Supreme Court, the nation’s airline security system was entirely in private hands.
They failed miserably on 9/11, so Bush didn’t even bother with the normal acquisition process that would protect the hundreds of small contractors running security at airports across the nation: he simply nationalized the entire system and created a government agency, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to take over airport and airline security.
President Bush also partially nationalized the nation’s airlines, creating the Air Transportation Stabilization Board that traded around $10 billion in loans to airlines in crisis (air traffic collapsed after 9/11) in exchange for company stock. We (through our government) ended up holding 7.64 million shares in US Airways, 18.7 million shares of America West Airlines, 3.45 million shares in Frontier Airlines, 1.47 million shares in American TransAir, and 2.38 million shares in World Airways.
Congress had deregulated the nation’s banks in 1999 when Republicans pushed through an end to the Glass-Steagall Act and Bill Clinton signed it into law. The resulting banking system crash in 2008 forced the Bush administration to nationalize the country’s two largest mortgage lenders (they held about 40% of all US mortgages), Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
The Bush administration then additionally nationalized a 77.9% share in AIG, a 36% share of Citigroup, and a 73.5% share of GMAC, forcing out GM’s CEO Rick Wagoner, who’d been a particularly terrible manager of that company and was actively lobbying against what Bush thought were America’s interests.
As President Barack Obama came into office in 2009, GM and Chrysler were on the brink of collapse. His administration created a new company, NGMCO, Inc., that nationalized the assets of GM and was 60.8% owned by the federal government.
GM was finally fully re-privatized by the Obama administration in 2013. Chrysler went through a similar process, although both the UAW and the Canadian government were part owners when it was temporarily nationalized.
Thomas M. Hanna, Director of Research at The Democracy Collaborative and author of Our Common Wealth: The Return of Public Ownership in the United States, compiled most of the data above in a brilliant paper titled “A History of Nationalization in the United States 1917-2009.”
Toward its end, he summarizes brilliantly the case for nationalizing — perhaps only temporarily — America’s largest oil and gas companies:
“In such times of political and economic crisis, policymakers of all ideological persuasions in the United States have never been hesitant to use one of the most powerful tools at their disposal: nationalization of private enterprises and assets.
“This included the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who nationalized railroads, and the telephone, telegraph, and radio industries (among others), and the Republican Ronald Reagan, who nationalized a major national bank; the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who nationalized dozens of mining and manufacturing facilities, and the Republican George W. Bush, who nationalized airport security and various major financial institutions; the Democrat Barack Obama, who nationalized auto manufacturers, and the Republican Richard Nixon, who nationalized all passenger rail service.”
Today’s climate crisis dwarfs the threat of Nazism in the 1940s, Bin Laden’s 9/11 attack, or the massive bank robberies that took place during the Reagan and Bush administrations.
It literally threatens all life on Earth.
Yet the fossil fuel industry continues to fund climate denial and lobby against any meaningful solutions, as we saw when every Republican in the Senate along with coal baron Joe Manchin killed the $500 billion investment in clean energy the Biden administration proposed in their 2021 Build Back Better legislation.
Squeals of “socialism!” and “Venezuela!” aside, we know how to nationalize industries that are working against our nation’s interests and have done it before, repeatedly.
And this time it’s not just about saving our banks or fighting a war. This time, it’s literally about saving the world.
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