By Karina Mazhukhina | Sep 6, 2016

Whether we like to admit it or not, the burning of fossils has negatively impacted our environment for quite some time now. And although we can do our part in reducing our carbon footprint, alleviating the large-scale effects of global warming lies within the grasps of the U.S. government and fossil fuel companies who follow the guidelines our administration sets.

Currently, there is no incentive for companies to use cleaner energy, let alone stricter regulations or laws calling for cleaner practices, allowing corporations to keep reaping the benefits of fossil fuel production.

But before we get into why companies hold the key to our planet’s long-term survival, lets examine how global warming actually works.  

Imagine a bathtub gradually being filled with water. At a certain point the amount of water flowing into the tub is greater than the amount of water leaving through the drain. Similarly, the continuous buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the biggest contributor to climate change, is like a tub that’s overflowing with water and can’t be properly drained in time. 

Lets put it this way, when sunlight reaches the Earth it can either be absorbed or reflected back into space. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide absorb energy, slowing or completely preventing the transfer of heat into space. In this way, carbon dioxide acts like a blanket, trapping heat and making Earth warmer than it otherwise would be.

We’re already seeing effects of climate change. Whether it’s the increase of ocean acidity killing aquatic species, rising sea levels putting thousands of coastal cities and even whole islands at risk of being claimed by the ocean, or intensifying deadly storms, floods and droughts – global warming is real and should be at the forefront of everyone’s agenda.

Just look at the last 150 years. Human activities like the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation releases 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

Coal combustion is by far the nation’s primarily culprit of global warming, representing about 39 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. and accounting for about 77 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from that particular sector.

Despite coal being the cheapest fossil fuel in generating electricity, it’s the dirtiest, releasing the highest levels of pollutants into the air. Coal is also the country's largest source of sulfur dioxide, a pollutant gas that causes respiratory problems, damages crops, forests and lakes.

Natural gas generates 27 percent of America’s electricity and contributes half of the greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal. Only about 13 percent of electricity is generated by renewable energies like hydroelectricity, biomass, wind, and solar. These sources release fewer pollutants, if any at all.

Petroleum is the second largest contributor of greenhouse gasses. The transportation sector of our economy alone releases about 26 percent of total pollutants in the air.

So, when we drive our gasoline-powered cars or enjoy our coal-powered electricity, we reap the benefits of that energy use. But there are others – whether it’s farmers facing drought, coastal populations face-to-face with rising sea levels, or the poor battling food scarcity – who deal with rising carbon pollution on a daily basis.

And it’s become a lot easier for companies to profit and keep generating at a faster rate the energy we’re accustomed to using today. Annually, the U.S. government gives out $20.5 billion to support the production of oil, coal and gas. Fossil fuel companies receive a huge percentage of government subsidies in the form of tax breaks.

For example, oil companies claim costs associated with cleaning up an oil spill as standard business expenses. Take for instance the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. The U.S. attorney general fined BP with a $20.8 billion dollar settlement in October 2015 for its role in the disaster. But since BP can legally claim a large portion of that settlement as a tax-deductible business expense, it only has to pay $5.5 billion of the fine.

Coal subsidies also help incentivize the production of fossil fuels. However, through financial and legal loopholes, coal companies distort numbers on the market value of their product and exploit other deductions allowed by government subsidies, keeping them from having to pay full royalty rates. This form of tax evasion saves coal companies the equivalent of at least $1 billion annually, straight out of the pockets of taxpayers.

In a nutshell, the lack of initiating a carbon tax is what lets big businesses enjoy the benefits of fossil fuel production while putting our planet at the risk of continued global warming.   

Universities like the UW are noticing the effects of coal production and are specifically divesting from coal companies. Washington state is even placing a carbon-tax initiative on the November 2016 ballot. The proposal aims to regulate corporations that are polluting the air in an effort to get them to use better equipment to reduce carbon monoxide output. Six other states have either already implemented a version of the carbon tax or are strongly considering the option. 

If we continue to neglect the reality of climate change, we’ll watch our planet slowly deteriorate, until eventually the effects become too huge to ignore and we’ll have to start making some big changes. Let’s not let it get to that point.

Karina Mazhukhina is a recent UW graduate who worked as a communications intern with UW Sustainability.