“Climate is not a high enough priority for the public,” must be one of the most common complaints of climate activists. Surveys consistently show that except for people on the far left, Americans care more about such issues as jobs, healthcare, crime and immigration than about stopping climate chaos.
The bad news: Without wide and deep public support, you can’t expect the government to take serious action on any political issue. It’s especially true of climate, when one very powerful industry opposes anything that would hurt their business of selling coal, oil and gas.
The good news: This problem has been solved before.
The abolition movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries succeeded against the richest and most powerful industry of its day largely because it got Americans worked up about the moral wrong of slavery.
Today, the climate movement can also make a moral appeal to mobilize more Americans to demand serious action to get off fossil fuels while there’s still time.
When talking about morality, of course there’s a difference between an enslaved human being and a molecule of oil, gas or coal. The two are in no way equivalent. And the struggle of African Americans first for freedom and later for full civil rights, a struggle that continues today, stands alone in many ways.
While slavery was an unalloyed evil, even environmentalists have to recognize that fossil fuels have brought many benefits to America and the world over the last two centuries.
Coal made the industrial revolution possible. And oil helped the Allies defeat Hitler while providing post-war Americans of all backgrounds to enjoy unparalleled prosperity.
The Spirit of Energy Innovation
Also, the people who work in fossil fuels today should not be equated with slaveowners or plantation overseers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Too often, climate activists fail to acknowledge the contributions of traditional energy to the progress of civilization. And environmentalists have been demonizing people in fossil fuel jobs for too long. That’s not only politically unhelpful but it’s morally wrong.
So, if we compare abolishing fossil fuels today to abolishing slavery in the past, we must be careful to see the difference in the people involved in each enterprise. That difference is vast.
To enslave others, a person had to exercise a certain amount of cruelty, no matter how kind they may have been otherwise. By contrast, most people who’ve work in mines, on oil platforms and even in fracking operations were ordinary industrial employees just doing a job much like many other jobs.
Indeed, many people who work in fossil fuels are admirable in many ways.
Miners and oilfield workers showed grit and resourcefulness to provide the rest of us with the energy we need to enjoy modern civilization. Sometimes, these workers put themselves in harm’s way on oil platforms or coal mines, suffering injury, disease and death, from burns in explosions to black lung disease.
And talented engineers solved difficult problems with technology and gutsy entrepreneurs kept business going over stomach-churning cycles of boom and bust.
Many of the people of the oil and coal industries deserve our thanks and admiration. In key ways, they embody the best of the American spirit.
It was that spirit that helped coal replace wood when forests became scarce. The same spirit helped petroleum replace whale oil when fisheries collapsed in the mid-nineteenth century. And today, now that we know more about the climate than we did in the past, this very same spirit will help replace both coal and oil with the next energy sources, solar and wind.
Thank the Workers but Call Out the Lobbyists
It’s only right that people who care about energy and climate recognize the accomplishments of fossil fuels and the people who brought them to us.
At the same time, sympathy for coal, oil and gas people should not blind us to the dangers of their product nor to the unhelpful attitude of their employers.
Coal, oil and gas companies continue to fight back to protect their profits. Fossil fuel company owners, lawyers, lobbyists and PR flacks have caused much damage. As their product has damaged our climate, their lies and money have damaged our politics.
In the moral fight to save the climate and stop the damage of fossil fuels, we must assign blame where it’s due. Then, we must take action to save the world’s climate and America’s future. We must phase out the coal and oil industries on a rapid timeline but with an orderly plan.
How to Abolish Oil Peacefully, without the Equivalent of Civil War
A good model for phasing out an industry while it was still profitable might be the gradual abolition of slavery in northern states of the US prior to the Civil War. Through action by their state legislatures, starting at the end of the American Revolution, states from Pennsylvania to New York to Massachusetts gradually emancipated all their enslaved people without needing to fire a single shot.
Legislated abolition in the British Empire in the 1830s offers another model of peacefully phasing out a financially successful industry that was nonetheless in conflict with society’s most basic values.
If we learn from the history of abolishing slavery to plan the phase-out of fossil fuels, we can minimize disruption to the whole economy; to coal, oil and gas workers; and to communities dependent on mines, wells, refineries and other fossil fuel installations.
If we don’t learn from history that planning oil’s phase-out is better than just waiting for the industry to somehow go away on its own once it’s no longer profitable, then we may be faced in the future with the moral equivalent of the Civil War.
After all, slavery was still profitable in 1860, and it took the deaths of more than 700,000 soldiers to free enslaved people in the southern states.
In the future, it’s unlikely that a haphazard and disorderly end to coal, oil and gas will much resemble a shooting war between one region of the country and another.
Instead, it may look like more and more weird weather that cripples local economies and makes thousands of Americans homeless, leading to a devastating recession or depression on the scale of the 1930s. And an unplanned end to oil that we must wait four or five more decades to see will certainly bring violence and intense suffering.
We can avoid that suffering by starting now to gradually abolish the fossil fuel industry.
First, stop any expansion. That means a halt to all exploration and a total moratorium on building any new fossil fuel infrastructure such as gas pipelines. After that, coal, oil and gas companies must start to contract, liquidating investments over a decade or two and returning all asset values to shareholders.
A planned phase-out of fossil fuels will be the equivalent of abolishing slavery peacefully in places where it was done gradually. For our country, for the world, and even for many in the coal, oil and gas industries themselves, such a planned phase-out will be far preferable to 50 more years of fossil fuels fighting to continue squeezing out a few last profits while the earth descends into climate hell.
— Erik Curren, author of Abolish Oil, forthcoming