Recently, millions of people around the world (including in Santa Fe) took to the streets to express their fear and frustration about the growing climate emergency. More recently, young people here held a sit-in at the state Capitol.
Spurred by 16 year-old Greta Thunberg, the international public knows that governments are doing too little about coal and oil air pollution, and they fear for their lives. In fact, the U.S. government is hard-wired to ignore climate change, and our federal government is working to make the problem much worse.
It is hard to watch the sincere and deeply aware pleadings of young people such as Thunberg who rightly know their futures will be dangerous and unpleasant as the environment unravels and society faces chaos. Unfortunately, the forces that created the pollution that is ruining the atmosphere are deeply entrenched and will be extremely difficult to defeat.
The protesters in the streets worldwide are being comfortably ignored by the oil industry, which heavily influences the U.S. government and is quietly supported by many American politicians. The oil industry has vast wealth that they share with politicians in the form of large secret campaign contributions, and they build sophisticated organizations to propagandize the public and to block and frustrate climate solutions such as mass transit, efficient vehicles and renewable energy. According to Oil Change International, oil, gas and coal companies spent $354 million in campaign contributions and lobbying in the 2015-16 election cycle.
The oil industry has been spreading the lie that some credible scientists doubt the climate crisis is real since the 1970s. In fact, no doubt about climate chaos exists among non-industry scientists.
President Donald Trump is 100 percent on board with these efforts to worsen the climate crisis, and by extension, so is the Republican Party. Trump is working to increase greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S. by repealing air pollution regulations on vehicles and coal plants and telling automakers to build cars that burn more gas and pollute more.
If this weren’t bad enough, given that scientists say we have less than two decades to greatly reduce greenhouse gas pollution to stave off disastrous crop failures, fishery die-offs and mass extinctions — we have a federal government that subsidizes the oil industry to the tune of billions of dollars per year. The oil industry gets payments and tax breaks from the federal and state governments in so many different forms it is almost impossible to calculate the full extent of the subsidies.
A public interest group called Oil Change International conservatively estimates that the oil industry receives $14.7 billion per year in direct federal subsidies and almost $6 billion per year in subsidies from various states. These are tax breaks, services, direct payments and a wide variety of other payments from taxpayers to the industry. The oil industry is vastly wealthy. It doesn’t need any public money or subsidies.
Meanwhile, the wind and solar industries get $1 billion per year from the federal government, and those subsides are temporary.
Our society is heavily addicted to oil. We all use it for transportation and to make ubiquitous plastics that clog our landfills and our oceans. In New Mexico, our state budget depends on oil and gas money, and many other states are no different. Yet the reality of the climate crisis is that we need to rapidly wean ourselves from oil, electrify our transportation with wind, solar and probably nuclear, or we will continue to face major environmental disasters that will kill millions of people.
So when young people are angry and in the streets, rather than dismissing them, we need to get real — and fast. Our kids are telling us the urgent truth.
Tom Ribe writes about environmental matters from Santa Fe.