Politics of Poverty

Heat wave—and injustice—in the West, supported by American taxpayers

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A man cools off in Portland's Tom McCall Waterfront Park during a record-breaking heat wave across the Pacific Northwest. Andrew Bogrand/Oxfam

A heat wave across Oregon, Washington, and Idaho is revealing the inequities of climate change. Americans are tired of bankrolling the chaos. Will Congress listen and end fossil fuel subsidies?

The Western United States is struggling through a severe heat wave. The soaring temperatures are breaking records and even hampering record-breakers at the Olympic track trials. Those of us in the usually temperate Pacific Northwest are completely out of our element: my hometown of Portland, Oregon, one of the least air-conditioned cities in the United States, registered an all-time high of 116 degrees on Monday, shattering the 112 degree record set the day before.

The temperatures are not just unprecedented but extremely dangerous, especially for vulnerable groups. The “Left Coast” might be home to progressive politics, but here power and money still determine who suffers in an emergency and who doesn’t. In the Pacific Northwest, rising homelessness and a troubling legacy of white supremacy means poor communities and communities of color are on the front lines of the climate crisis. This is true in my neighborhood and around the world: those least responsible for climate change are bearing the brunt of its impacts and have the fewest resources to cope with the new realities. This is the injustice of climate change.

Climate justice demands we get our house in order

Changing course starts with following the money—our money. New research from the Stockholm Environment Institute, commissioned by Oxfam, reveals the extent to which taxpayer dollars funneled to climate-wrecking fossil fuel companies over the past two decades have boosted the expected profitability of fossil fuel projects—at times reaching $45 billion in a single year. (Bigger “expected” profits both spur investment and permit greater access to financing.) Instead of encouraging the transition to renewable energy, the US government has supported oil, gas, and coal projects through dozens of tax policies favoring the industry. This practice has padded corporate profits while contributing to global emissions—emissions that can fuel devastating climate impacts across the world, including the dangerous heat wave we are experiencing this week.

Divest, and repurpose public money

The Biden administration has already done the homework for legislators, identifying some $121 billion in fossil fuel subsidies that should be repealed by Congress. Instead of propping up polluters, our money should support an energy transition at home and abroad that reinvests in our communities—especially poor, rural, Black, Brown, and Indigenous ones—that are experiencing the shocks of what is fast becoming a global climate apartheid.

Ending these handouts would be a step toward justice for my neighbors in Oregon, but it makes national economic sense, too. Despite taxpayer handouts, fossil fuel companies are increasingly risky investments: many drillers were hanging on by a thread before the pandemic. Deep in debt, engaged in economically questionable projects, and faced with widespread concern about climate change, their future is uncertain. According to major asset managers and advisers, divestment strengthens rather than weakens investment returns.

Instead of throwing good money after bad oil, gas, and coal, Congress should make smart spending decisions in programs that reduce costly megafires in the West or help workers in the fossil fuel industry retrain for new jobs as part of the energy transition. Climate change is a truly global issue: Congress must also work with the White House to bolster international climate financing, especially for poor and frontline communities navigating climate emergencies.

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A thermometer reads 111 degrees at Portland's Pioneer Square on June 28 during a record-breaking heat wave. Alex Bogrand

Voters support climate-smart investments

Congress might want to look at what’s worked in places like Oregon. In the middle of the heat wave this week, the state legislature passed three bipartisan clean energy bills, focused on energy affordability and climate-smart housing. In 2018, Portland also passed the municipal clean energy fund, the first of its kind in the United States. The fund distributes tens of millions of dollars each year to support clean energy projects that offer living-wage employment opportunities, particularly for communities of color.

Voters in Portland overwhelming support this climate justice measure; nationwide, voters in both parties support ending fossil fuel handouts. When it comes to ending subsidies and building back from the pandemic better than before, Congress should be pushing on an open door. Fulfilling a campaign climate commitment, Biden has cleared the way for Congress to act. If not now, when? The political winds are blowing in the right direction and it is certainly not getting any cooler out West.

Oregon’s political leadership seems to recognize this. Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer helped introduce the End Oil and Tax Gas Subsidies Act, while Oregon Senator Ron Wyden introduced the fossil fuel subsidy repeal provisions of the Clean Energy for America Act. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley also co-sponsored the End Polluter Welfare Act. Oxfam calls on Congress to enact these bills as soon as possible and end the practice of fossil fuel handouts, while also prioritizing legislation that supports communities experiencing climate emergencies at home and abroad.

Take action for justice

Of course, heat waves and megafires won’t disappear even if these subsidies are abolished. Our planet is slow to respond to greenhouse gas levels, meaning we are locked into future climate impacts even if we stop emissions and the handouts that enable them tomorrow. But Congress must stop using public funds to deepen the crisis. The only future the world can live with is fossil-free. We need to stand up to big oil in Oregon and stand by communities across the globe whose rights have been violated by the fossil fuel industry. Local-to-global activism—from Portland to Kampala—can ensure that climate justice shapes that future.

You can help. A wide coalition of Americans is taking part in a Week of Action from June 25 to July1 aimed at ending federal fossil fuel subsidies. Make sure Congress hears us loud and clear:

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