One of the best chances to make some positive use of the coronavirus pandemic may be passing swiftly. As the economy craters, big corporations are in need of government assistance, and, on Capitol Hill, the sound of half a trillion dollars in relief money is bringing out the lobbyists. On Thursday afternoon, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, described the scene as a “trough” and mentioned a quote from a lobbyist in The Hill: “Everybody’s asking for something and those that aren’t asking for something only aren’t because they don’t know how.” Whitehouse added, “I fear that enviros don’t know how to ask, because, so far in this scrum, we haven’t heard much from them.”
The corporations will get assistance, but the Democrats have enough legislative power to insure that it comes with at least a few strings attached. If they attach those strings with even a modicum of care, they will have used this emergency to help solve the looming climate crisis in ways that were unimaginable just a few days ago. For busy legislators looking for a principle to enforce in handing out relief to corporations, here’s a shorthand: any bailout depends on your industry promising to meet the targets set in the Paris climate accords, and demonstrating in the next few months what that plan looks like.
Consider, say, the airline industry. It obviously is in need of relief, even if the biggest airlines spent ninety-six per cent of their proceeds over the past decade buying back stock, instead of, say, preparing for the future. On behalf of the flight attendants and pilots and mechanics the airlines employ, they should get it. But everyone who has to live on a rapidly heating planet should get something back in return. And since, at current rates of growth, by 2050, air travel threatens to eat up a quarter of the entire carbon the world can still emit and meet the climate targets set in Paris, that something should be a wholesale change in direction. On Friday, some environmental groups proposed that “Congress must cap total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. airline fleets at 2020 levels, and overall emissions must fall at least 20% per decade thereafter.” (The Trump Administration has so far sidestepped Clean Air Act calls to regulate aircraft emissions.) And the airlines should act not by pledging to plant trees but by burning less jet fuel—by making flight routes more logical, and designing more efficient planes. [Continue reading…]