Daily Comment
If We’re Bailing Out Corporations, They Should Bail Out the Planet
By Bill McKibben
March 20, 2020
Congress has an opportunity to make any coronavirus-related industry bailout depend on promises to meet the targets set in the Paris climate accord.Photograph by Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty
One of the best chances to make some positive use of the coronavirus pandemic may be passing swiftly. As the economy craters, big corporations are in need of government assistance, and, on Capitol Hill, the sound of half a trillion dollars in relief money is bringing out the lobbyists. On Thursday afternoon, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, described the scene as a “trough” and mentioned a quote from a lobbyist in The Hill: “Everybody’s asking for something and those that aren’t asking for something only aren’t because they don’t know how.” Whitehouse added, “I fear that enviros don’t know how to ask, because, so far in this scrum, we haven’t heard much from them.”
The corporations will get assistance, but the Democrats have enough legislative power to insure that it comes with at least a few strings attached. If they attach those strings with even a modicum of care, they will have used this emergency to help solve the looming climate crisis in ways that were unimaginable just a few days ago. For busy legislators looking for a principle to enforce in handing out relief to corporations, here’s a shorthand: any bailout depends on your industry promising to meet the targets set in the Paris climate accords, and demonstrating in the next few months what that plan looks like.
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Consider, say, the airline industry. It obviously is in need of relief, even if the biggest airlines spent ninety-six per cent of their proceeds over the past decade buying back stock, instead of, say, preparing for the future. On behalf of the flight attendants and pilots and mechanics the airlines employ, they should get it. But everyone who has to live on a rapidly heating planet should get something back in return. And since, at current rates of growth, by 2050, air travel threatens to eat up a quarter of the entire carbon the world can still emit and meet the climate targets set in Paris, that something should be a wholesale change in direction. On Friday, some environmental groups proposed that “Congress must cap total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. airline fleets at 2020 levels, and overall emissions must fall at least 20% per decade thereafter.” (The Trump Administration has so far sidestepped Clean Air Act calls to regulate aircraft emissions.) And the airlines should act not by pledging to plant trees but by burning less jet fuel—by making flight routes more logical, and designing more efficient planes.
Or take the banks: if they want a bailout, they should pledge an end to funding for expansionary fossil-fuel projects. They don’t seem willing to rein themselves in—on Wednesday the Rainforest Action Network released an updated version of its “Banking on Climate Change” report, which shows that the four biggest U.S. banks continue to lead the way in funding global warming, with JPMorgan Chase reportedly having handed over more than a quarter of a trillion dollars to the fossil-fuel industry since the end of the Paris talks.
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Or take the fossil-fuel industry itself. It’s been dropping in value for a decade, as renewable energy takes most of the growth in demand, but the coronavirus crisis has hammered the price of oil. Trump promised to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve “right up to the top,” but the drillers will doubtless want more. Yet, as Michael Brune, the head of the Sierra Club, told me, on Thursday, “the fossil-fuel industry is already heavily subsidized by the federal government, and they should not get yet another giveaway in any form, whether it’s low-interest loans, royalty relief, new tax subsidies, or filling the reserve.” More assistance should come only if these companies pledge to stop exploring for new oil, since climate scientists have made it clear that we can’t burn what we already have in our reserves.
None of this is ideal. In an ideal world, we’d use this moment to quickly enact a Green New Deal, employing all the suddenly unemployed Americans in building out our renewable-energy system and laying the high-speed rail tracks that would help curtail the need for short-haul aviation. But, for now, here’s a list of “5 Principles for Just COVID-19 Relief and Stimulus” that dozens of environmental groups have signed on to (350.org, which I helped found, is a signatory), which offers a guide for thinking about the “choices being made right now will shape our society for years, if not decades to come.”
These sorts of conditions are not without precedent: after the 2008 financial crisis, President Barack Obama used the government bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler to force them, and by extension the rest of the automobile industry, to accept stringent new fuel-economy standards, which may have been the single biggest blow he struck against climate change during his tenure in office. (Needless to say, the Trump Administration has been hard at work wrecking this achievement.) The principle is clear: taking money from society means that you owe society something. Trump and the Senate Republicans aren’t likely to enforce that principle, but, since the Democrats control the House, they will have a big say in the outcome. The question that climate-minded voters will ask for years to come is: Did you strike a useful bargain when you had the leverage?
Our goal can’t be simply a return to the status-quo ante, because that old normal was driving a climate crisis that will eventually prove every bit as destructive as a pandemic. With just a little courage from Democratic legislators, we could actually be building a world that is safer on every front.
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Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.
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