First, read this article by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone.
OK, now that you’ve done that and we’re both terrified, let’s move forward. McKibben sees a real need as making the fossil fuel industry out to be a villain, a global villain. Here’s why:
If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today’s market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you’d be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.
Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. “Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”
McKibben sees a need to weaken the fossil fuel industry’s political power to enable major reforms and change the business incentive to functionally kill the world. He sees a large carbon tax as a primary vehicle to do this. While I can see that mechanically working, I just don’t know how we get from here to there. Politicians are just as captured by the fossil fuel industry as they are by the financial sector.
We just lived through a financial crisis of the largest scale since the Great Depression. And Wall Street was barely touched in response. Frankly it’s hard to imagine a scenario short of some sort of climate-caused doomsday event compelling politicians to consider action on a scale that is needed. Again, this looks a bit like the reality for financial regulation. Only the consequences aren’t economic hardship but the end of the world as we know it. Naturally it’s hard to put our eggs in this basket.
I really don’t know what the answer is and I don’t think McKibben has one either, at least not one that is realistic. All I can recommend at this point is to read this article and get scared. Really fucking scared. Then share it with as many people as you can and make sure they are sufficiently scared too. Maybe if we get enough people scared about what is happening and how perilous a situation we are in, then change can happen. But again, this isn’t much to pin our hopes on.