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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Steve Ellis: Taxpayers stuck with the bill

By Steve Ellis Taxpayers for Common Sense

A recent opinion article (“Climate lawsuits detract from the real solutions,” George Nethercutt, Feb. 19) says that lawsuits brought by more than 20 states and municipalities, including King County, against the largest oil and gas companies are about “making money and not about protecting the environment.”

No one believes this litigation alone will solve climate change. This is a familiar straw man. Whether or not one believes litigation is the correct course of action, there is no question climate change is costing taxpayers in Washington and across the country billions in damages every year. Extreme temperatures, drought, flooding, hurricanes, wildfires are all intensifying because of climate change.

The oil and gas industry has been aware of the climate risks of its carbon emissions for more than a half-century, since the mid-1960s. Incredibly, just 100 investor- and state-owned multinational fossil-fuel companies are responsible for around 70 percent of the world’s historical greenhouse gas emissions. These companies have long known about the likelihood of catastrophic harm that would result from continued widespread reliance on their products, but they hid this from shareholders, regulators and taxpayers alike as the industry broadened its marketing to all corners of the globe.

And now, the devastating impacts of climate change from these fossil fuels are becoming reality and costing taxpayers dearly. In Washington state alone, residents have become accustomed to devastating, record-setting wildfire seasons and droughts. After each disaster, federal taxpayers foot the bill to cover infrastructure damage, loss of lives and other impacts. Since by law, the feds don’t step in until a disaster is beyond a state’s ability to respond, state and local governments are also reeling from these costs.

We must ask ourselves tough questions: How do we as a nation tackle these increasing costs and stop them from getting worse? Why are these burdens falling almost entirely on taxpayers?

The national growth in the cost of these disasters attributable to climate change in recent decades is staggering: Presidential disaster declarations (which trigger the flow of federal funds) have tripled since the 1960s, while the federal flood insurance program has borrowed roughly $40 billion in just the past 15 years.

But instead of stepping up to the plate, the industry and its boosters are attempting to shift the blame – and all the costs – away from itself and onto taxpayers – that’s you and me. The industry is telling consumers to believe that their own individual “carbon footprint” and personal lifestyle choices are responsible for climate change, diverting focus from the industry’s massive contribution of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. Or its long-running campaign to undercut the idea of climate change and impugn the motives of anyone who would hold these companies accountable.

As an example of this effort to shift responsibility, Rep. Nethercutt calls upon King County to implement a modernized building code and pursue efforts to plant 3 million trees. We certainly support modernization of building codes and planting of trees – especially in the Evergreen State! Rep. Nethercutt, however, dodges the fossil-fuel industry’s shared financial responsibility for the dire situation we all face. Modern local building codes and planting trees are important, but these worthy local efforts will not begin to address the trillions of dollars that taxpayers could be forced to incur to clean up the climate-induced damages.

For decades, the largest oil and gas companies knew their product would accelerate the process of climate change and the damage it would cause. In response, they chose to deny it and publicly attack the science. These companies should be held accountable for their actions and how they have contributed to this costly problem we face. After subsidizing the industry for more than 100 years, taxpayers should not pick up the whole tab for the oil and gas industry’s biggest mess.

Steve Ellis is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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