Monday, May 27, 2024

Making all the polluters pay

The Midtown Manhattan skyline through the haze of wildfire smoke

Some climate advocates have adopted a strategy that they call "Making Polluters Pay." They argue that most carbon pollution is caused by a handful of large corporations, which means individual actions are a waste of time, and we should focus our efforts on various laws that would charge those corporations for pollution. Broadly speaking, I think this is a misguided, dishonest and ineffective strategy. There are many actions that individuals can and should change, and those changes should be a major focus of our climate activism.

I've written a bunch about "Making Polluters Pay" on Twitter and Mastodon, and I've wanted to write a blog post about it for years, but it's a difficult topic. Different advocates have slightly different versions of this argument, blaming different corporate polluters, criticizing different individual actions and advocating different legal measures. Some of the arguments are based on plain misrepresentation of the facts. Some are based on facts, but the facts don't support the conclusions. Some are valid arguments, but the measures they advocate would not be enough to keep us safe from climate change. And I want to be careful about how I criticize the advocates, who generally seem to have their hearts in the right places.

I'm going to start by simply saying that some of the observations are completely true. There are people who are selfish, dishonest and corrupt, and happy to lie, to abuse others and to destroy public resources to increase their own wealth and power. We have structures that grant phenomenal power to people in certain positions, limit their accountability and pass the costs on to less powerful people and to the taxpayers. We also have structures that make less powerful individuals complicit in the abuse, by limiting their awareness of it, helping them to deny it, and making them dependent on it.

A prime example of this is the way that wealthy capitalists have ordered their employees to burn fossil fuels, sold carbon-intensive products to the public, lied to them about the environmental impact of carbon pollution, and misled them about our ability to mitigate the damage through recycling and cleanup measures. If the handful of corporate owners and managers were the only ones at fault, the remedy would be simple: hold them responsible - with fines, restrictions, prison time, whatever it takes. Take them out, and let all the good people of the world rebuild a safe, loving society.

Of course, it's not just the petroleum, plastics and fertilizer industries: wealthy capitalists have similarly created industries in cement, beef, cars, shipping and air travel that pollute massively, while divesting from more sustainable industries like rail freight and transit. And all these industries are connected. Now how many fines and restrictions are we talking about? How many investors and managers are going to prison?

Even where there are a few corporate owners and managers, they are not the only people responsible. There are other owners - millions, in fact, because these corporations are considered safe and uh, responsible investments. They employ millions of people worldwide. They sponsor popular sporting events and television shows Thousands of corrupt politicians and captive regulators benefit from them. Everyone on earth is a customer, in some sense. Get rid of the top managers, and others will rise to take their place.

And yes, there are divestment campaigns and anti-advertising campaigns that target these corporations. There are anti-corruption campaigns. There are individual responsibility campaigns encouraging people not to buy their products. You could have campaigns urging people not to work for them, although I haven't heard of any. But these take time and energy, and they're not what the "Make Polluters Pay" campaigns focus on. In fact, the main thrust of the "Make Polluters Pay" campaign is that the employees and customers bear no responsibility for buying cars, gas, plastics or beef. They're just innocent and/or captive tools of the capitalists.

Okay, so how about this example: the way that wealthy landowners have used their control of city, state and federal governments to pass laws that restrict the amount of housing and workspace that can be built in any given area, and mandate large parking lots and garages. They divest from sidewalks and transit. This leaves most of the buildable land in areas far from existing housing and job centers, and with a growing population, pressures people to buy cars and drive them long distances. Even if we convert all internal combustion engines into electric engines, we could not build enough renewable power for all these cars.

Unlike with the petroleum or car industries, in the residential property system, power is not concentrated in the hands of a small group of owners and executives. It's spread across millions of property owners, thousands of homeowner and condo associations and cooperatives, and thousands of zoning boards and city councils, not to mention the state legislatures and Congress, almost all of whom are landowners. You've probably met many of them. You may even be one - I'm a co-op owner.

This group holds a lot of privilege and power that the non-property-owners don't have, and most of the laws are set up to favor the property owners, but it's not a tiny group. Property owners are polluters, though. They support the system that forces people to drive. Not passively as customers, or under duress as employees, but as owners, managers and lobbyists. And as polluters, they should pay, right?

What about the voters who elected politicians that campaigned on expanding roads and parking, and defunding transit? The residents who take the time to attend meetings and speak for roads and against trains, buses and anything that slows down cars? Are the governments they elect not polluters? Do these voters and advocates not have a responsibility to pay?