A Decent Proposal

Imagine two possible futures. In one, we live in a sustainable energy system, which allows for environmental preservation and provides decent jobs. In the other, we live in a volatile, vulnerable, noxious energy grid, unleashing global destruction and a producing job market of mostly low-wage work. Both options are close at hand. Unfortunately, for many of us it’s easier to imagine calamitous destruction than a thriving, green world.

We are all familiar with the latter scenario. Every day more evidence appears that we are, in fact, headed rapidly in that direction. This week, a crack in the Antarctic shelf was identified and a mass of ice the size of Delaware is about to break off and melt into the ocean. Severe weather around the globe is increasing: massive flooding, drought, and extreme temperatures are driving the displacement of millions of people and wreaking havoc on an appalling scale. Our air, water, and land are becoming toxic. Species are going extinct at rates unheard of since a large comet struck earth, spawning climate change that drove the dinosaurs out of existence. Epidemiologists warn how climate change increases the likelihood of disease vectors that could wipe out millions, possibly billions, of people. And already, the WHO reports that millions die each year due to climate-change-related deaths. For anyone paying attention, these grim realities are all too familiar.

But an alternative (and far more appealing) picture is also taking shape, and beneath the terrifying news of the day, is quietly developing. Solar and wind technologies are developing faster than anyone predicted a decade ago, even in optimistic forecasts. Countries around the word are quickly adapting their energy systems and adopting these and other sustainable ways to produce electricity. As prices continue to fall and storage capacity improves, environmentally-friendly options become increasingly attractive. It makes fiscal sense, too. Economists like Robert Pollin at the University of Massachusetts’ Political Economy Research Institute have demonstrated that investment in a green economy produces far more jobs per dollar than the current fossil fuel policies. Even now, at its modest scale, solar energy provides over 250,000 jobs in the U.S., as opposed to 60,000 in the coal industry. The evidence is mounting for solar and wind as the best options, and the examples of success continue to multiply. On May 13, 2017, California broke another renewable energy record when its largest grid (which is publicly controlled) generated 67% of its energy from renewables — not including hydropower or rooftop solar arrays (with hydropower, the total jumps to 80%). Hawaii is currently working toward running on 100% green energy (primarily geothermal, solar, and wind) by 2045. Many countries are ahead of these U.S. states, and range across geography, ideology, and per capita income. They include small countries like Costa Rica and Uruguay, to giants like India and China, and rich, developed nations such as Germany and Denmark. An important study at Stanford University laid out in detail, state by state, how the U.S. could run entirely on energy from renewable sources, transitioning to 80% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. In the two years since this study came out, technology and prices have only made such plans more achievable. This future is now even more feasible.

But feasible is not the same thing as likely. The fossil fuel industry presents the primary roadblock. In order for progress toward a society which provides for decent human survival, fossil fuel companies must be taken out of the way. Gar Alperovitz and the Next Systems Project lay out a compelling case for how it could actually happen. The proposal makes a lot of sense and should be considered and debated. The first thing to realize is that it is possible. But how?

The U.S. government would buy the fossil fuel companies, and decommission them. Currently valued together at several trillions of dollars, these companies are among the wealthiest and most powerful in the world — which is why the U.S. government is in a position to take such action. Despite common squawking about budgetary shortfalls, the money is there. To put things into perspective, consider some other figures. According to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, soon the U.S. will have spent nearly 7 trillion dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the cost of the disabilities alone reaches over 1 trillion). Purchasing fossil fuel companies would be relatively cheap by comparison. It is a question of priorities, of how our government chooses to allocate public funds. The specific mechanism for the purchase would be through the Federal Reserve, the quasi-public national bank. Many people don’t realize that currently, and for the past several years, the Fed has been injecting billions of dollars per month into U.S. banks. It’s called ‘quantitative easing’. The Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank also do this. It sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but spread out over years, it would still only be a small percentage of the U.S.’s annual budget and 17 trillion dollar economy. If the plan seems quixotic, Alperovitz points out that it is, in fact, an extremely pragmatic, American idea with a proven historical track record. Lincoln used something similar in the nineteenth century to build the intercontinental railroad; FDR used financial techniques like this to fund many aspects of the New Deal. The methods are familiar to bankers, informed policy makers, and those well versed in finance. Again, the issue is about how we choose to spend public funds, and not the logic, appeal, or practicality of the proposal.

But as you’ve probably already said to yourself, fossil fuel companies would certainly not sell themselves out of business. True, but not inevitable. Alperovitz makes a persuasive case for why they could be convinced to sell (since, as we know, averting global catastrophe is insufficiently compelling!). First, although publicly they deny it, as private citizens many CEOs recognize the climate crisis we face. But current institutional imperatives (profit for shareholders, market dominance, personal bonuses, etc) preclude them from acting. If a CEO steers away from these institutional imperatives, they are out of a job. But in may places, renewables are currently cheaper than fossil fuel; the already considerable global investment in renewables is projected to grow; and as the prices of solar and wind energy continue to come down, they become irresistible alternatives to fossil fuel. Much of the coal, oil, and gas currently projected to be extracted will remain in the ground—they will become stranded assets. This means that these companies are heavily overvalued. The writing is on the wall for those who know how to read. Fossil fuel company CEOs and Boards of Directors may well come to prefer to sell at a good price than continue fighting a battle they can only win in the short term, and by preventing the possibility of decent human survival in the long run.

The second objection to this proposal is that it is not realistic under current political circumstances. On the national scale, politicians remain deliriously and deleteriously intransigent. Trump decried climate change a ‘Chinese hoax’, and is doing all he can to dismantle public agencies like the EPA and NASA that regulate industry and perform research on the climate. Examples abound of reckless lies from CEOs and politicians on the climate, and no one needs reminding about the plundering of the environment. And today’s politics exhibit a strong element of sheer Orwellian lunacy. North Carolina has passed legislation forbidding public officials from mentioning climate-change driven rising sea levels; the president of the United States has banned the EPA from publishing or even uttering the phrase ‘climate change’. In today’s context, clearly, national action to lessen the effects of climate change will not happen. But things can change quickly (for better and for worse).

Eighteen months ago, few imagined Donald Trump as U.S. president (and many still can’t believe it). Electing a black president seemed even less possible before Barack Obama. Actually, dramatic transformation is far more common than often assumed. Until recent years, the acceptance of gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana seemed like pipe dreams. Likewise the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Apartheid. The collapse and dismantling of the Soviet Union seemed virtually unthinkable. As recently as the 1990s, it seemed preposterous that China would soon be the world’s largest economy. Current circumstances won’t endure forever, and the seemingly impossible can quickly become reality.

As Alperovits argues, it is important to articulate clear and practical solutions today, so that when opportunities to enact them appear, we will be ready. We can’t advocate for them unless we know about them. Or to put it another way, you can only choose an option if it’s on the menu. Let’s opt for a viable future.