Nixing fossil fuel hits poor, not just companies

Monday , April 28, 2014 - 11:04 AM

Megan McArdle

Chris Hayes of MSNBC has penned a very provocative piece on global warming in the Nation:

The scientific consensus is that human civilization cannot survive in any recognizable form a temperature increase this century more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Given that we’ve already warmed the Earth about 0.8 degrees Celsius, that means we have 1.2 degrees left -- and some of that warming is already in motion. Given the relationship between carbon emissions and global average temperatures, that means we can release about 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere by mid-century. Total. That’s all we get to emit if we hope to keep inhabiting the planet in a manner that resembles current conditions.

Now here’s the terrifying part. The Carbon Tracker Initiative, a consortium of financial analysts and environmentalists, set out to tally the amount of carbon contained in the proven fossil fuel reserves of the world’s energy companies and major fossil fuel-producing countries. That is, the total amount of carbon we know is in the ground that we can, with present technology, extract, burn and put into the atmosphere. The number that the Carbon Tracker Initiative came up with is … 2,795 gigatons. Which means the total amount of known, proven extractable fossil fuel in the ground at this very moment is almost five times the amount we can safely burn.

My understanding of the scientific consensus is that “civilization cannot survive in any recognizable form” is a bit of an exaggeration. There is a small and hard-to-calculate risk of extremely bad outcomes, and a much stronger risk of dramatic and expensive change that may well prove catastrophic for some poor, low-lying or drought-prone areas. Nonetheless, this seems quite bad enough, which is why I support a carbon tax and other policies aimed at mitigating these risks.

The really provocative part, however, is where Hayes compares global warming to slavery -- not morally, but economically:

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.

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.

For the next few pages, Hayes goes on to detail how slaves became so economically valuable, and, in a similar vein, just how much oil companies have invested in fossil fuel rights. To quiet global warming, he argues, we would have to essentially expropriate them to the tune of trillions.

As it happens, I quite agree with his conclusion: If we want to halt global warming, we are going to need to leave the stuff in the ground. But in another way, Hayes is far too optimistic -- indeed, almost criminally naive. The problem is not, fundamentally, whether we are willing to expropriate oil companies. The problem is whether we’re willing to bear the suffering ourselves.

Oil companies make a convenient target for those of us who are not major shareholders in Exxon Mobil. It may be uncomfortable to contemplate expropriating a major industry, to be sure, but it’s the same sort of discomfort we experience when we contemplate earthquakes in far-off places: mild, and it passes quickly. Environmentalists might conceivably persuade governments to take fossil fuel leases away from big, remote corporations. It will be far harder to persuade them to take the fossil fuels away from us.

Curiously absent from Hayes’s article is any extended discussion of what fossil fuels actually do for people, other than make money. For example, in Washington, where I live, it gets pretty cold in wintertime. We have a machine in the basement that uses an exothermic natural gas reaction to heat steam and circulate it through pipes all over the house, keeping the temperature inside at 65 to 70 degrees, rather than a more natural 30 degrees. This brings benefits that include the prevention of lung infections and hypothermia.

Like many Americans, we also like to eat. We don’t have room for a cornfield in our backyard, so we buy food that is grown elsewhere, then shipped to Washington using more fossil fuels. In the traditional manner, we heat most of our food, using another natural gas machine, until heat-induced chemical changes have made it more palatable and digestible, and also killed off bacteria that might otherwise make us ill. Less traditionally, for a region that suffers freezing temperatures in the winter, we eat fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, rather than only in the four months out of every year that they are available in our local supermarkets. We could rely on salted and smoked staples, dried and milled grains, along with vegetables packed in brine and fruits richly preserved in sugar, but instead we go to the supermarket every week and fetch fresh and frozen things that taste better and are more nutritious but require a lot of energy expended on refrigeration.

I live in a city, so I don’t drive much. But I have to travel a lot by air for work — much like Hayes, I imagine — and so every year, I emit far more carbon than a family in flyover country putting 10,000 miles on each of their boat-sized sport utility vehicles.

Other people in other countries emit much less. But most of those people are poor — not picturesquely poor, but inconveniently, coldly and tiredly and hungrily and boredly poor. They too would like fresh fruit and vegetables and animal protein every day, heat and air conditioning in their homes, a room to themselves, and the sort of jobs that require air travel rather than, say, sitting by a roadside all day with a small pile of vegetables or prodding an ox through a field.

All of this will, as far as we know now, require massive amounts of fossil fuel. Fuel for heat and cooking has always and everywhere been some sort of carbon combustion, and there is not enough biomass to replace coal and oil and natural gas for the needs of the current population of the world, especially because we no longer crowd five or 10 into a room. Nor is there enough food to feed them without artificial fertilizer and fossil-fuel-driven machines to plant and harvest. Perhaps someday, we will have renewables that can do many of these jobs, but we don’t yet, and there’s no guarantee that we will.

So when we say that we want to leave all that fossil fuel in the ground, what we are saying is that we want everyone on the planet to be much, much poorer. Perhaps there is some metaphysical ledger where you could prove that this is the right thing to do. But here on Earth, who will volunteer to move the spouse and kids into a studio apartment and subsist on gruel?

For this is where the slavery metaphor breaks down, which Hayes obscures by his focus on oil companies: The end of the slave economy was not voluntary. It was imposed from outside, by outsiders who did not themselves rely on slaves. The Civil War was fought at ghastly cost to the Union in lives and treasures. But when the guns fell silent, the northerners returned to factories and farmsteads that ran much as they had before the war — powered, increasingly, by fossil fuel instead of human muscle.

Even if the rich West somehow girded itself for the truly unprecedented — a mass decision to impoverish its citizens — this wouldn’t really matter, because billions out there want to be rich and warm and fat like us. If we leave hydrocarbons in the ground, we are just leaving it there for someone else to burn. This may be an act of charity toward the world’s poor. But it is not an act of environmental responsibility.

China has dramatically surpassed the U.S. in carbon emissions. There was an argument 10 years ago that we could somehow cut back and absorb that increase, but that’s not plausible now; we are cutting back quite a bit, and China is making those cuts irrelevant. China has four times our population, almost all of it still very poor, and all of it wanting to live as well as we do. India has almost as many, even poorer. And many other smaller nations would collectively like to add their billions to the energy-rich elite.

So here are the questions that Hayes should have asked and didn’t: Should we invade China to prevent it from heating the planet? Should we send troops into Saudi Arabia to seize the oil fields? Should we recolonialize Africa to keep its nations from exploiting their energy assets? It may not be conceivable that any nation will deliberately impoverish itself for the sake of the world — but it might invade another country and shatter its economy for the same purpose. That’s what the North did to the South, and I am glad they did. Should we do it again?

I’d say the answer is obviously not. But if we are not willing to do that, then we will need to find some way to persuade people to leave it in the ground — I hope by making it cheaper to get energy some other way. Or we will need to figure out some geoengineering solution that will let us take the carbon back out of the atmosphere faster than we put it in. What is not helpful is to focus on the enemies we’d like to have, rather than the complexities we actually face. If you want to talk about expropriation, that is whom you need to target — and understand that the cost must be counted, not on corporate balance sheets, but in human lives.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.

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