President Obama's call for a reduction in fossil fuel subsidies elicited predictable cries of outrage from the American Petroleum Institute and others who have a vested financial interest in feeding our addiction to fossil fuels. Let's be clear, this addiction is killing us just as surely as tobacco causes cancer. And like the tobacco industry in decades past, the fossil fuel industry hopes you won't notice until it's too late.
The current debate about energy subsidies brings to mind Catch-22, Joseph Heller's 1961 novel about World War II, and the challenge of living in an inescapable conundrum:
...Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
Being concerned about the real and immediate dangers of climate change should most certainly qualify you as "sane." CO2 and other greenhouse gases are warming the atmosphere, and the burning of fossil fuels is the primary source of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. It stands to reason we should be phasing out the use of fossil fuels. Not to mention the fact that our tax dollars are actually going to companies like ExxonMobil and BP to help keep the prices of oil, gas and coal artificially low. Sounds like "big government" to me. I wonder why the Tea Party isn't shouting from the rooftops about that one.
Here's the energy Catch-22, and it's just as warped and confusing as Joseph Heller's version:
Fossil fuels cause massive impacts on the environment and human health which leads to higher taxes and health care costs. Fossil fuels (and nuclear power for that matter) are artificially cheap because they enjoy billions of dollars of government subsidies, which also leads to higher taxes. Renewable energy receives a fraction of that amount in subsidies, and is creating new jobs which generate government income without having to raise taxes.
The fossil fuel industry is employing fewer people as a result of technological advances (PDF), which means less government income and therefore higher taxes. Cheap fossil fuels reduce incentives to use energy more efficiently, which makes businesses less competitive, which in turn costs jobs, which costs taxpayers money. Fossil fuel lobbyists argue that renewables are too costly to compete with other energy sources.
It is highly doubtful that Yossarian would have whistled respectfully about the Catch-22 of energy subsidies. It doesn't take a genius to see that phasing out the subsidized use of fossil fuels is a no-brainer for economic reasons, let alone all of the other benefits it would have. And if some of the money going to the energy giants is used to alleviate the burden on the poorest people, it would create a win/win situation for everyone (well, almost everyone).
President Obama is not the only leader calling for change. G20 leaders meeting in Pittsburgh in 2009 agreed:
To phase out and rationalize over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies while providing targeted support for the poorest. Inefficient fossil fuel subsidies encourage wasteful consumption, reduce our energy security, impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to deal with the threat of climate change.
Unfortunately, the G20 leaders still have a way to go before they fulfil this promise. Oil Change International recently conducted a review of G20 action to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. "The bottom line" according to the organization's Director Steve Kretzmann, "is that no subsidies have been removed as a result of the G20 commitment."
The US has the opportunity to be the hero of this story, by leading the world in breaking the Catch-22 of fossil fuel subsidies. And if there's one thing the climate needs right now it's heroes. If nothing else, won't you feel better knowing that your hard-earned money is not helping fuel the obscene profits of these corporate giants?
How do we send a message that it's time to end Big Oil and other fossil fuel subsidies so Clean Energy solutions can have a fighting chance?