Shana Gallagher believes that climate change is the most urgent and pressing problem that faces every single one of us, no matter our backgrounds or personalities or location on the globe, and that environmental organizing needs to become more mainstream. To address this crisis, we're all going to need to get behind bold and effective policies, like a price on carbon. More importantly, she understands that the biggest obstacle to a clean energy future is the power of the fossil fuel industry, and that a price on carbon is one of the few remedies to this reality. Shana's drive to protect the planet comes from a lifelong awe and admiration for the oceans, but she now focuses on making general environmental organizing accessible for everyone. She is a rising senior at Tufts University, studying Biology and Environmental Studies.
This is one of the primary chants of the current climate justice movement. It’s shouted at rallies, in the streets, on campuses, and at actions to resist pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. With the Paris Climate Agreement freshly ratified, and catastrophes like the recent devastating flooding in Louisiana becoming ever more common, it’s widely understood that we need urgent and bold action to try and turn things around. Activists and organizers have pledged to hold our governments accountable, and pursue the swift change that will be necessary to save our planet, and especially protect the lives of the poor, indigenous communities, and others most vulnerable to the violent impacts of climate change.
But how united are The People, really? There is a lot of rhetoric within the movement about decolonization and decarbonization, resisting corporate influence, and dramatic systems-change. Most of us in the climate space agree that the unfettered capitalist model that has led us to the brink of catastrophic climate disruption must be modified if we are to achieve a just and sustainable world. Unfortunately, there is not yet a single actionable rallying cry of the movement. Different organizations have different priorities; 350.org encourages divestment, Greenpeace is a champion of civil disobedience and peaceful obstruction of fossil fuel infrastructure, the The Climate Reality Project rules the social media realm in order to raise awareness and funds. However, if “The People” want to triumph over corporate greed and climate change, we need to be more truly united behind a single call to action.
I was 10 years old when I realized humans were harming the planet. I was at a birthday party on a beach, looking out across the water and admiring how the sun glinted playfully off the waves. It took me a few minutes to notice, with shock and horror, that what I thought were sun specks were actually hundreds of dead fish floating to the surface in the polluted shallows. This understanding, and my firm belief in our responsibility to protect the only planet we have, has led me to a lifetime of environmental efforts. At the university I currently attend, and many more across the country, the main manifestation of climate justice efforts is fossil fuel divestment. And as important as every tool in our toolbox is in confronting the climate crisis, divestment isn’t going to bring down emissions, and hinder fossil fuel companies from influencing our government, now. That’s why I, and hundreds of other student organizers around the country, have started talking about a new tactic: a price on carbon.
Climate change is the gravest and most substantial negative externality of all time. It is unconscionable that an industry should derive its profit directly from causing known environmental destruction and damage to the environment and human lives. Furthermore, despite every other sector having to pay for its waste, from the individual level to huge multinational companies, the fossil fuel industry has been allowed the social license to pollute without paying for it. This seems baffling and ridiculous, especially when considering that the only logical justification for this is that the pollution from the fossil fuel industry (i.e. carbon dioxide pollution and other greenhouse gases) is invisible. However, its consequence has very visible impacts; impacts that fossil fuel companies such as Exxon have known about since 1981. Exxon has spent millions of its uninhibited capital on spreading misinformation and funding climate denial in order to maintain its profitability. The social license that has been allowed to Exxon and companies like it from wreaking havoc on the only planet we have must be removed.
At the same time, it is impossible not to avoid acknowledging that the majority of our world is still very much fossil fuel-dependent. The technology for a clean-energy economy is available, but the political will to implement it is not. Throughout history (such as was done with CFCs to protect our ozone layer), a free-market mechanism that has been used to correct this sort of discrepancy is a tax. Considering the taboo surrounding the word “tax,” however, most advocates of such a mechanism in the US often refer to a “price on carbon” being a necessary next step to spur emissions reductions and renewable technology innovation. Economists and scientists consistently agree that a price on carbon would be the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and begin the transition towards a more just international community and economy in which all the polluters pay, including the fossil fuel industry.
In the US, the most well-known and influential organization pushing for a price on carbon is Citizen’s Climate Lobby. Since 2010, CCL and its thousands of members have been lobbying Congress for a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend proposal. The REMI report that has been completed to assess impacts of this proposal on homes and businesses, if implemented, shows that it would be profitable for over 2/3 of American households. CCL is singularly focused on its proposal, and has generated significant democratic support for putting forth a bill. No Republican co-sponsors have yet agreed to sign on to the legislation, but CCL is optimistic that it’s only a matter of time before conservatives embrace this traditionally free-market mechanism to confront the climate crisis.
Carbon pricing policies already exist in many places around the world, including China. Canada will have a national price on carbon any day now. This is a necessary next step if the entire international community – especially the United States - is really serious about reducing emissions, and transitioning towards a clean energy economy.This is something we can all get behind. A price on carbon will remove the financial and political capital of the fossil fuel industry, and benefit citizens, both economically and ecologically. Activists, organizations, and businesses alike must now amplify this message in order to propel our leaders into action. It’s time for The People, United, to call for a price on carbon. Only once the polluters pay, just as you and I do every week when we put out our garbage, can we begin to address corporate greed and truly confront the climate crisis.