The companies have revealed their support for the Climate Leadership Council, a group of senior Republican figures that in February proposed a $40 fee on each ton of CO2 emitted as part of a “free-market, limited government” response to climate change.

The fossil fuel companies announced their backing for the plan alongside other major firms including Unilever, PepsiCo, General Motors and Johnson & Johnson.

In a full-page newspaper ad on Tuesday, the companies called for a “consensus climate solution that bridges partisan divides, strengthens our economy and protects our shared environment”. Exxon and the others were listed as founding members of the plan, alongside the green groups Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy.

“Climate change is already impacting our communities, our economy and our environment and those impacts will continue to grow and become worse if we don’t act now,” said Mark Tercek, chief executive of the Nature Conservancy. “We can’t afford to wait to have these conversations.”

However, other green groups dismissed the plan as a stunt designed to insulate fossil fuel companies that have sought to undermine or dismiss the science of global warming.

“ExxonMobil will try to dress this up as climate activism, but its key agenda is protecting executives from legal accountability for climate pollution and fraud,” said Naomi Ages, senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace USA. “A nicely worded public relations exercise is no cure for decades of deception.”

Darren Woods, chief executive of Exxon, said his had been “encouraged by the proposal put forth by the Climate Leadership Council as it aligns closely with our longstanding principles”, and would work to develop the policy.

The plan was crafted by a group of conservative elder statesmen that includes former Republican secretaries of state James Baker and George Shultz and Hank Paulson, a former secretary of the treasury. Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, and the physicist Stephen Hawking are also members of the group.

Under the proposal, a $40 carbon tax, rising over time, would be levied on emissions in order to encourage a shift towards renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. All of the proceeds from the tax would be returned to the American public via “carbon dividends” – the group estimates a family of four would receive a payment of $2,000 in the first year.

As further tradeoff for the new tax, the plan would dismantle all major climate regulations, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority over CO2 emissions and an “outright repeal” of the clean power plan.

Exxon, BP and Shell recently voiced support for the Paris climate agreement before Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the pact. All three companies have acknowledged that climate change is real and poses an economic and societal threat.

However, this is the first time they have all publicly backed a price on carbon. Exxon has come closest to doing so in the past, with Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive who is now secretary of state, remarking in 2009 that a “carbon tax strikes me as a more direct, a more transparent and a more effective approach” than other systems.

About 40 countries, including most of Europe, China and South Africa, have a price on carbon or a plan to do so. In the US, California has an emissions trading scheme, which is linked to a similar initiative in the Canadian province of Quebec.

Barack Obama failed to implement a national market-based response to climate change early in his presidency and the chances of the US doing so are now even slimmer under a Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress that is reflexively suspicious of any new tax.

However, backers of the Climate Leadership Council hope that strengthening public support for carbon taxes, along with growing concern over sea level rise, droughts and heatwaves, will start to erode the decade-long impasse in US climate policy.

Oliver Milman, the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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