Lawmakers should back Make Polluters Pay bill

Measure would raise $75b over 25 years

IN MAY, the Massachusetts House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources heard testimony from a large number of  voters who had descended on the State House to urge the committee to move forward what is being called the Make Polluters Pay bill.

The legislation would generate $75 billion over 25 years from the biggest greenhouse gas polluters and fund climate adaptation projects statewide. This bill is vital to help our communities thrive in the face of the climate crisis, and it allocates 40 percent of the revenue generated to directly benefit environmental justice communities.

Make Polluters Pay doesn’t put a price on future emissions, but instead requires the biggest polluters to pay a fee based on their share of historic emissions. It is therefore distinct from a carbon tax since it will not be applied across the entire market but only impact the top polluters.

The fact is, somebody is going to have to pay. Jon Grossman, who testified on behalf of SEIU Local 509, which represents 20,000 social service and education workers throughout Massachusetts in both the private and public sectors, drove home this point most poignantly: “Will the mother that can’t get affordable child care or the high school graduate who can’t afford college be the ones to pay for this since the money that would have helped them now has to be spent on seawalls? Will the family with a sibling with intellectual disabilities have to quit their job to stay home with their loved one because services have to be reduced so the state can pay for cooling centers or storm damage?”

Indeed, somebody is already paying. According to the World Health Organization, the polluting industries most responsible for the climate crisis are already causing over 4 million additional deaths each year. Millions of climate victims will follow, whether from heatwaves or displacement. Those paying the highest price tend to be the poorest, the most vulnerable, and above all, the young. Our children and grandchildren will have to bear the brunt of the consequences of the climate crisis. They will either pay out of their nose for the damages we’ve caused – or worse, pay with their lives.

As Paul Shorb of Lincoln, a retired environmental lawyer, laid out at the hearing, the polluters pay principle follows clear precedent in environmental regulation. Shorb said the principle is employed in all of the major US pollution control laws — the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and in the strangely named Superfund (cleanup of abandoned waste sites). Shorb also reminded the committee that some eco-taxes underpinned by the polluter pays principle include the gas guzzler tax for motor vehicles; or the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), a “polluter pays” fine. Make Polluters Pay would set up a similar climate superfund to support adaptation efforts statewide.

As Claire Karl Mueller of Unitarian Universalists Mass Action reminded everyone: It’s really part of all our religious traditions. It’s the golden rule – do not do unto others what you do not want done unto yourself. In other words: If you mess things up, you must either clean up or pay someone to do so. If you litter, you pay. But up to now, the biggest polluters are not only not paying – they are profiting handsomely. Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and BP, in particular, have profited immensely from emitting greenhouse gas emissions over the decades, and are even now bringing in record profits in the billions. No question: They can afford to pay.

If anyone is still in doubt about how serious this issue is, that, too, is thanks to the same polluters. Just read Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt (2010) – or watch the film of the same title. The fossil fuel industry has been funding climate denial to the tune of hundreds of millions for many years. They knew decades ago how dangerous their products would be, and they lied about it for decades.

That’s why Make Polluters Pay is not just a movement in Massachusetts, but also nationwide and even around the globe.

Alicia Wu, a high school junior from Sharon, speaking on behalf of Our Climate and the Massachusetts Youth Climate Coalition, highlighted the enormous benefits the climate adaptation projects to be funded by the bill would bring to Massachusetts infrastructure and coastlines, “saving our government billions of dollars in the long-term” and moving the state “towards a brighter, cleaner, and healthier future.”

Meet the Author

Sabine von Mering

Pubic voices fellow / Director of the Center for German and European Studies, The OpEd Project / Brandeis University
Lana Taffel of Watertown, who joined Wu as a representative of the over 30 youth organizations in the coalition, urged the committee to be a role model: “If we finally hold these corporations accountable on a state level – we are that much closer to nationwide and global accountability. This is our first step. Our government needs to set down a boundary and send a message that these corporations cannot proceed as they have been. Change will not happen unless our government stops fossil fuel corporations from pushing us towards climate disaster.”

Sabine von Mering is the 2023 public voices fellow on the climate crisis with The OpEd Project, in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. She is also climate activist with 350MAss and director of the Center for German and European Studies at Brandeis University.