The recent devastating blizzard in upstate New York is just the latest in an escalating series of weather disasters that are becoming the new “normal.” For Long Islanders, intense hurricanes and more extensive flooding are the result of a more hostile climate and rising sea levels resulting from a rapidly heating planet.
Scientists around the globe accurately predicted that the world’s climate would be destabilized by increasing temperatures caused by human activities — most notably the burning of oil, coal, and gas.
The new “normal” means we must adapt — by strengthening defenses to higher sea levels, boosting the weatherproofing of transportation systems, and better protecting mass transit systems, particularly the subways and railroads that are the economic lifeblood of downstate New York.
Necessary, yes, but the costs are staggering: One estimate by the think tank Rebuild By Design says New Yorkers could be on the hook for $55 billion in climate costs this decade alone. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said recently it will cost $52 billion just to protect New York Harbor.
Who’s paying those costs? You are, unless Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers step in.
While Hochul announced major climate initiatives in Tuesday's State of the State address, she did not mention legislation introduced that would place an assessment on the world’s largest oil companies to help cover the costs of the state’s efforts to adapt to climate change. The “Climate Change Superfund Act” was inspired by existing state and federal Superfund programs that force polluters to pay for the cleanup of toxic wastes they’ve disposed that threaten the environment. Long Islanders are well aware of the consequences of toxic waste dumping; the region’s drinking water supplies have been increasingly contaminated by poisons recklessly dumped. The current Superfund program makes those companies legally responsible for the costs of cleaning up those messes.
The Climate Change Superfund bill applies the "polluters pay" logic to the costs from global warming. The legislation would assess the biggest oil companies $30 billion over the next decade — and every penny of it would be used to make the state’s infrastructure safer and more resilient to respond to more dangerous storms.
The legislation is crafted so that the costs cannot be passed on to consumers, the worry we all have when big companies are charged for their environmental damages.
Why should the oil companies pay? They knew for decades that the burning of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could cause catastrophic environmental and public health harm. Instead of alerting the public to those dangers, they spent a lot to undermine climate science, bamboozle the public, and block policies that could have averted the climate crisis we are now in. Big Oil’s efforts were hugely successful in protecting the industry and its profits. But for the planet, it’s been terrible — and will only get worse.
Oil companies have the money to pay for these costs. The industry has been hugely profitable, particularly over the past two years. ExxonMobil made nearly $20 billion in profits in the last quarter alone. Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco made over $40 billion in profits in the last quarter.
New Yorkers will see how Hochul handles this problem when she unveils her proposed state budget later this month. Hopefully, the governor will heed the lesson we all learned as children — if you make a mess, you clean it up. Let’s make sure the oil companies clean up theirs.
This guest essay reflects the views of Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.