This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

4 min readDec 31, 2018

This past semester I taught a class in which I gave a lecture called This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things. I sought to lay out why climate action is not happening by teaching about lobbying, fossil fuel subsidies, the revolving door between government and industry, and industry funded denialism put out by conservative think tanks. This December has been a whirlwind of climate related news and a lot of it has been particularly excellent, and appalling, examples of these topics. This is what we are up against if we want a stable climate in the future.


The US government spends over $20 billion/year (conservative estimate) on fossil fuel subsidies. Subsidies can take many forms, such as the leasing of publicly owned lands to oil and gas companies to cheaply extract fossil fuels from them and reap massive profits. These public land leases contribute 24% of total US CO2 emissions according to a November report from the United States Geological Survey. Recently, the Bureau of Land Management auctioned off mineral rights for 154,000 acres of public land in Canyonlands National Park, Bears Ears, Hovenweep, and Dinosaur national monuments to oil and gas companies. Though outgoing Interior Department secretary Zinke wanted to auction off twice as much before he was rebuked by the courts. Given that the current reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas held by the fossil fuel industry would blow us right past the Paris Agreement goals if extracted; auctioning off the rights to extract further fossil fuel resources from public lands is one the worst thing we could be doing.

Revolving Door

David Bernhardt is poised to take over at the Department of the Interior after Zinke’s scandal plagued resignation. Bernhardt worked in the Interior Dept. during the George W. Bush administration where he advocated for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He then became a lobbyist for various fossil fuel and agriculture interests (ps. for some excellent reporting on the ties between the fossil fuel industry and agricultural interests see this piece from Inside Climate News). Now he’s back at the Interior Department where he will likely get to work pushing forward the Trump administration’s plan to drill in the Arctic. Just in case anyone needs a reminder the Arctic is undergoing “the most unprecedented transition in human history”.

Industry Funded Denialism

If that isn’t enough, (and really, why would it be?) thanks to brilliant reporting by Hiroko Tabuchi we also got word of some truly egregious tactics that the oil industry used to roll back vehicle emissions standards. For anyone not familiar with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), they are an industry funded group that provides a forum for corporate interests to draft legislation with policy makers. ALEC worked with Marathon Petroleum, the US’s leading oil producer, to draft the emissions rollback. If implemented these rules could increase oil use by 400,000 barrels/day, which would lead to a massive increase in emissions.

Where We Are at the End of 2018

Amidst all of this, there have been several reports that have come out recently quantifying how desperately we need change. In November, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the Special Report on 1.5C. It stated that to have any hope of limiting warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures we need to cut our emissions by almost 50% by 2030. The UN Emissions Gap report showed us how badly off track we are from this goal. It also notes that emissions rose again this year. In the US two major reports came out at the end of the year- the State of the Carbon Cycle Report which showed that greenhouse gas emissions are far outpacing the planet’s ability to absorb the emissions while the Fourth National Climate Assessment showed the devastating effects that are already being experienced here as a result of the climate crisis.

What We Need

To have a shot at a stable climate system governments around the world need to immediately cease all subsidies to fossil fuel corporations, including leasing on public lands or allowing drilling in the Arctic. It means breaking the sway of lobbyists, PACs, and think tanks, and ensuring that people with a personal stake in fossil fuels are not crafting legislation blocking climate action. It means not allowing politicians of any party to take a single dime from fossil fuel companies who profit immensely from the continued destabilization of the climate system. Any politician who refuses this ask needs to face a primary challenger. Of course these are not the only necessary steps to solving the climate crisis and building our future, but they would be a great start.

We are running out of time and need to get to work.




I’m a PhD Candidate at UMass Amherst studying climate change. Interests: climate justice, intersectional veganism, biodiversity, gardening.