Burning fossil fuels kills. Coal and oil are already making the planet sick and it’s only going to get worse until a choice is made to stop denying the truth, start cleaning up, and get on track to putting an end to it. It comes down to this: those who stand in the way of ending fossil fuel dependence are making a choice to let people suffer—from the thousands who die annually from coal pollution, to the 74 Americans killed by extreme heat this summer, to the children who will spend their afternoons hooked up to ventilators because of increased asthma events, to the globe’s hungry and poor sweltering amidst recurring droughts.
These are real mothers, fathers, and children whose illness and death are avoidable. Each one matters. Humankind has faced this type of ethical challenge in the past—whether to confront injustice and overcome it, or to turn a blind eye—and it’s time to stop pretending that the nation’s addiction to fossil fuels is any different.
I can hear the argument already, that the problem is too vast, too systemic to claim it’s a matter of choice. Folks look out their window and encounter an economic system and infrastructure dependent on fossil energy and become paralyzed. Some will argue that if burning fossil fuels is ethically wrong, then we’re all collectively guilty. It’s either no one’s fault or everyone’s. At a certain transcendent level, there is some truth to that. Each of us should take what responsibility we can to alleviate suffering—even if those choices seem small. We can drive less, we can change light bulbs, consume less. We can vote, and protest, and engage in activism. And we should.
There are those, however, whose actions have far more sweeping impact and it is on these actors that the true focus must fall. It’s a matter of scale. Their choices carry greater weight, so their level of culpability is that much starker. The consumer who bought clothes made from cotton during the slave-era bore less responsibility than the plantation owner or the politician who led the charge against abolition. Factory owners who fought child-labor laws were more culpable than consumers who bought a product from the factory—especially if they had no other option. It is no different with fossil fuels. The driver with no access to mass transit who fills his tank to get to work in the morning can shoulder only so much responsibility. The oil company executive who signs off on a campaign denying climate science is committing a grave choice and is fully responsible.
Two recent NRDC reports illustrate the point in concrete terms. Some utilities chose to respect the Clean Air Act and modernize, resulting in significant cuts in dangerous pollution, while others chose to spend millions and file lawsuits in an effort to keep pumping pollution into our communities.
In a similar vein, it’s often those same voices of power that spend millions to shift responsibility to the public. Take, for example, Chevron’s infamous ”Will You Join Us” ad campaign. Certainly, individuals can drive less, and outwardly that seems to be what the company was encouraging. But Chevron’s executive leadership can achieve far more to reduce pollution by choosing to back climate change emission limits instead of working to undermine them. At the farthest extreme, the Koch brothers are spending tens of millions of dollars to try to convince the public that there isn’t even a problem to address.
The same choice played out in Congress repeatedly last year. Voting on whether to uphold or tear down children’s right to breathe clean air, Senators from the same state, representing the same people, with access to the same facts chose different paths. For example, in Ohio, Senator Brown voted against Senator Inhofe’s attempt to abolish the mercury and air toxics standards. He made a choice to protect the children of Ohio. Senator Portman did the opposite. Senator Rockefeller, representing coal-dominated West Virginia not only voted against the same measure, he articulated a vision of true leadership, calling on the coal industry to “[d]iscard the scare tactics. Stop denying science. Listen to what markets are saying about greenhouse gases and other environmental concerns. Listen to what West Virginians are saying about their water, air and health and the cost of caring for seniors and children who are most susceptible to pollution.” Importantly and appropriately, Rockefeller made a clear distinction between the miners, coal workers, and citizens of West Virginia and corporate leaders, admonishing the latter for their lack of leadership and calling on them to make tough choices “similar to men of a different era.”
The point here is that powerful individuals-- CEOs, legislators, politicians—all have a clear choice to make. There is no insurmountable, magical hand forcing corporate CEOs, politicians, and business owners to keep polluting. There are those who are choosing to secure a cleaner, healthier, safer future for our children, and those who are choosing to defend the status quo.
It’s a matter of ethics, the stakes are incredibly high, and no one should shy away from holding those accountable who continue to inflict suffering instead of combating it. And the question for our nation’s leaders is: which side are you on?