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The Fight against Climate Change Must Become the New Abolitionism

Activist Greta Thunberg made headlines last week after she traveled to a UN climate summit in a zero-emissions sailboat

The planet continues to fry. Yet, America is pumping more fossil fuel than it has in decades. And the U.S. government does nothing to slow the damage. Just the opposite — Washington is now promoting oil, gas and coal while attacking clean energy.

We’ve fought against climate change for at least thirty years. Yet, it seems that activists have failed to reverse or even slow the flow of the greenhouse pollution that’s destroying the world’s climate.

Why has it taken so long for the climate movement to accomplish so little? And, since the clock is ticking to curb runaway global heating, how can we do better in the future?

To answer these questions, leaders in the fight against climate change from Al Gore to Bill McKibben to Naomi Klein have gone back to history.

They’ve compared today’s campaign to cut greenhouse gas pollution to the trans-Atlantic movement in the nineteenth century to abolish slavery.

It’s about politics, not science.

The idea is that fighting climate change today is going to be as hard politically as it was to free millions of enslaved people in the nineteenth century. So, we should accept just how big a political and social movement we’ll need to save our climate. And then we should learn how the abolition movement attacked the equally big problem of slavery in the past–and how they won against great odds.

For example, in This Changes Everything, Klein writes that abolition was a social movement that “succeeded in challenging entrenched wealth in ways that are comparable to what today’s movements must provoke if we are to avert climate catastrophe”:

The movement for the abolition of slavery in particular shows us that a transition as large as the one confronting us today has happened before — and indeed it is remembered as one of the greatest moments in human history. The economic impacts of slavery abolition in the mid-nineteenth century have some striking parallels with the impacts of radical emission reduction.

Klein recommends a 2014 essay by MSNBC on-air personality Chris Hayes, “The New Abolitionism: Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth,

I agree that Hayes’ essay is brilliant and that it should be required reading for anyone who cares about the climate crisis. So let me summarize his argument in some detail below on the assumption that it’s well worth hearing what Hayes has to say.

So Much Goddamn Money

Unlike famous social movements in American history such as women’s suffrage or LGBTQ rights, abolition was about much more than religious values or personal prejudices about people who seemed different from the dominant norm.

For Hayes, what makes climate change much harder to deal with than other social issues is the amount of money that powerful people would stand to lose by abolishing fossil fuels. This makes them fight harder against outlawing their product, just as southern slaveholders fought hard against abolition in the nineteenth century.

Before I go into Hayes’ comparison of slavery and climate change, it’s important to share a disclaimer. He’s not making a moral equation between humans who suffered under slavery and anything to do with climate change: 

“There is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices. Humans are humans; molecules are molecules. The comparison I’m making is a comparison between the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel.”

When it comes to political economy, abolition was about very big money. That’s the problem.

“So much goddamn money,” as Hayes puts it. Since abolishing fossil fuels is also about very big money, Hayes contends that it’s “impossible to point to any precedent other than abolition”:

The leaders of slave power were fighting a movement of dispossession. The abolitionists told them that the property they owned must be forfeited, that all the wealth stored in the limbs and wombs of their property would be taken from them. Zeroed out. Imagine a modern-day political movement that contended that mutual funds and 401(k)s, stocks and college savings accounts were evil institutions that must be eliminated completely, more or less overnight. This was the fear that approximately 400,000 Southern slaveholders faced on the eve of the Civil War.

Hayes estimates the value of slave “property” (it’s obscene to refer to human beings as property today, but that was indeed the issue to slaveowners in the nineteenth century) at $10 trillion in today’s money. Just before the Civil War, that represented 16% of the total value of the U.S. economy and fully 50% of the economy in the southern states.

“In 1860, slaves as property were worth more than all the banks, factories and railroads in the country put together,” Civil War historian Eric Foner told Hayes. “Think what would happen if you liquidated the banks, factories and railroads with no compensation.”

Keep It in the Ground

To have any hope of a livable world in the future, according to Bill McKibben’s calculations in “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” the world’s governments must limit average worldwide temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). McKibben published those numbers in 2012, and things have gotten worse since then.

Even more so today, to hope to keep the climate under any safe limit of temperature rise, most of the remaining known fossil fuel reserves around the world will have to remain in the ground, unburned. In 2012, McKibben estimated 80%. Today, the number will surely be higher. Whatever your figure, asking oil, gas and coal companies to take most of their product off the market is going to be a very hard sell, as Hayes explains:

Proceeding from this fact, McKibben leads us inexorably to the staggering conclusion that the work of the climate movement is to find a way to force the powers that be, from the government of Saudi Arabia to the board and shareholders of ExxonMobil, to leave 80 percent of the carbon they have claims on in the ground. That stuff you own, that property you’re counting on and pricing into your stocks? You can’t have it.

By coincidence, Hayes conservatively values those fossil fuel reserves at $10 trillion, the same amount as all the slaves in the south were worth just before the Civil War. The implications are scary:

The last time in American history that some powerful set of interests relinquished its claim on $10 trillion of wealth was in 1865—and then only after four years and more than 600,000 lives lost in the bloodiest, most horrific war we’ve ever fought.

Interestingly, just as slavery faced its biggest threat is the same time when southern politicians became most aggressive about defending the Peculiar Institution.

In earlier days, slave-owning Founding Fathers including Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry had been ambivalent and even apologetic about keeping people enslaved in a republic dedicated to personal freedom. George Washington referred to slaveholding as “the only unavoidable subject of regret” in his life and freed all his slaves in his will.

“Very few people at the time of the Revolution and the Constitution publicly affirmed the desirability of slavery,” according to historian Foner. “They generally said, ‘We’re stuck with it; there’s nothing we can do.’”

A few decades later, things changed as slavery became more lucrative, due both to the end of the international slave trade in 1808 and the invention of the cotton gin, which made growing cotton using slave labor many times more profitable. As a result of a declining supply and increased demand, slaves became more valuable.

“Between 1805 and 1860, the price per slave grew from about $300 to $750, and the total number of slaves increased from 1 million to 4 million—which meant that the total value of slaves grew a whopping 900 percent in the half-century before the war,” Hayes explains.

Predictably, slaveowners’ ethics followed the dollar. South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, the most famous defender of southern planters, argued that the United States should abandon its former policy of restricting slavery to areas where it was already established and keeping it out of new territories in the west.

Instead, slavery should be expanded to new territories because the system was nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, for Calhoun, slavery was a benevolent institution in which Americans should take pride, “a positive good”:

I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.

Ironically, just as slavery became more profitable, the growth of the abolition movement made slavery more endangered. “On the eve of the war, slavery had never been more lucrative or more threatened,” writes Hayes. “That also happens to be true of fossil fuel extraction today.”

Ever since the advent of new technologies including deepwater drilling and fracking, America has started to produce more oil and gas than it has in decades. In 2018, the U.S. overtook its peak of oil production in 1970 and surpassed both Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the world’s leading oil producer. The state of Texas alone will pump more oil than either Iraq or Iran in 2019.

At the same time, the politics of climate change have gotten ever more polarized. After about 2008, Republican politicians who had once joined their Democratic counterparts in vowing to fight climate change suddenly flipped and became climate science deniers.

As Republicans flipped from offering their own climate solutions to denying climate science, Newt Gingrich disavowed his Alliance for Climate Protection TV spot with Nancy Pelosi.

For example, in 2008 Newt Gingrich appeared with Nancy Pelosi in a TV ad urging action on climate change. Then, just a year later, Gingrich referred to that ad as the “dumbest single thing I’ve done in years,” rejected the science and embraced denialism. Hundreds of Republicans followed suit.

A few years later, Republicans had gone even further and were now celebrating fossil fuels as a positive good. Texas Representative Steve Stockman tweeted in March 2013 that “the best thing about the Earth is if you poke holes in it oil and gas come out.”

Yet, just when oil and gas (sorry, coal!) started to become more lucrative than ever, the carbon lobby was more threatened than ever by climate change activists, as Hayes explains:

In the same way that the abolition movement cast a shadow over the cotton boom, so does the movement to put a price on carbon spook the fossil fuel companies, which even at their moment of peak triumph wonder if a radical change is looming around the corner.

After showing that it might be as hard to deprive fossil fuel companies of $10 trillion in reserves in the future as it was to deprive southern slaveholders of $10 trillion in free human labor in 1860, Hayes counsels his reader not to despair. It won’t take another Civil War to abolish fossil fuels.

Hayes reassures us that several factors will cut into profits of fossil fuel companies and thus, reduce their political clout:

  • Costs to extract unconventional oil and gas will rise
  • Opposition to infrastructure projects like pipelines will increase
  • Challenges on Wall Street including divestment, demands for higher dividends and shareholder revolts will put pressure on management to reform

Taken together, Hayes argues that these challenges to the fossil fuel business model will make oil, gas and coal producers much less profitable in their waning days than southern plantations were before the Civil War. And that will reduce the political power of dirty energy companies and make it easier for activists to get government to make the companies leave their remaining reserves in the ground.

A Kinder, Gentler and Quicker Abolition

Death by a thousand cuts? Unfortunately, arguing that market forces and activism alone will be enough to pressure fossil fuel companies into agreeing to write off $10 trillion in stranded assets sounds like wishful thinking.

Given the massive and lasting political power of fossil fuel companies, as shown by their ability even now to retain the largest share of government subsidies given to any industry in the U.S., it seems unlikely that such puny efforts as Hayes lists will be sufficient to abolish fossil fuels anytime soon.

At this rosy conclusion I have to part company with Hayes’ brilliant argument. Instead, I have to agree with New York Times writer Josh Barro that “Slavery Is Not Like Carbon Emissions.

Whatever moral argument abolitionists made about the evil of slavery, economically there was no carrot for slaveowners, only a stick. Since slaveholders saw abolition as a program offering all pain and no gain to themselves, people who owned slaves determined to fight abolition to the death.

If you recognize that the problem of fossil fuels is like the problem of slavery, in that the problem-causers have a lot of money to lose if the problem is solved through straight abolition, then to make the solution easier for powerful opponents to accept, you should consider a way to neutralize the opposition of the property owners in each case.

Ron Paul once suggested that the United States government should have bought out slaveholders to prevent the Civil War.

This is exactly how slavery was abolished in the British Empire starting in 1833 — and it was done peacefully. The Americans tried compensated emancipation on a very small scale. In 1862, Lincoln signed an act to free 900 enslaved people in the District of Columbia by paying $300 for each of them to their owners. Unfortunately, Lincoln’s efforts to do the same in border slave states within the Union and even in southern states that had joined the Confederacy failed. As a result, most enslaved people in the south were freed at the end of a Union army bayonet.

Barro suggests that we can avoid the climate change equivalent of civil war with a compensated and gradual approach to abolish fossil fuels:

An effective carbon limitation policy should bring large economic gains to people who are not in the business of fossil fuel extraction, in the form of reduced economic disruption due to climate change. While owners of fossil fuels have a strong economic impulse to extract, the rest of us should have a strong economic impulse to limit extraction — and we should be willing to buy off the resource owners, if necessary, to enforce those limits.

To reduce opposition to gradually abolishing fossil fuels, Barro suggests policies such as a cap-and-trade system that would let fossil fuel producers reap the rewards of higher energy prices.

Cap-and-trade has declined in popularity over the last few years, and a simpler way to price carbon such as a carbon tax appears to be the best solution to reduce emissions effectively. A carbon price will also be more popular politically if revenues are refunded to citizens, as in recent proposals for a carbon dividend.

But Barro’s point remains sound: paying polluters to stop polluting may be morally distasteful but it may also be the shortest distance to cut fossil fuel emissions fast.

“These approaches look like a giveaway, but it’s worth making the giveaway if that’s what brings the benefits of stable temperatures.”

While galling to many people, compensating fossil fuel companies to leave most of their remaining oil, gas and coal in the ground might be the best way to avoid the climate change equivalent of a civil war.

Today, such a war would not just pit brother against brother in the United States or any other single nation. Runaway global heating could set the world aflame both environmentally and politically, sparking decades of conflicts across the globe and killing millions or even billions of people.

It was horrific for Americans to lose more than 600,000 of our countrymen by the time Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April of 1865. The number of potential deaths from climate wars in the future will be unthinkable. If it’s possible to avert that level of suffering by holding our noses and paying off the bad guys, then it might be a tradeoff for which future generations will thank us.