Climate change, a problem of private property

Keeping the Earth’s climate from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius (at which point, the impacts start becoming catastrophic for human civilization) requires that most of the global carbon fuel stock remains in the ground.  According to Bill McKibben’s famous 2012 essay in Rolling Stone, this amounts to demanding that fossil fuel companies write off roughly 80% of their assets–inconceivable, without extra-market political and social pressure.

As pointed out in this essay in The Nation from May 2014, this radical demand is similar to the one made by abolitionists before the American Civil War; the abolition of slavery evaporated massive amounts of wealth held by the Southern planter elites, and only took place after a bloody civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Because the abolitionists were ultimately successful, it’s all too easy to lose sight of just how radical their demand was at the time: that some of the wealthiest people in the country would have to give up their wealth. That liquidation of private wealth is the only precedent for what today’s climate justice movement is rightly demanding: that trillions of dollars of fossil fuel stay in the ground. It is an audacious demand, and those making it should be clear-eyed about just what they’re asking. They should also recognize that, like the abolitionists of yore, their task may be as much instigation and disruption as it is persuasion. There is no way around conflict with this much money on the line, no available solution that makes everyone happy.

Confronting climate change thus requires, first and foremost, to recognize it as a social problem (that is, rooted in human institutions) rather than as a technological or engineering problem.  Specifically, it is a problem rooted in the social construct of capitalist property, and the fact that a corporation’s “right” to exploit its carbon assets continues to be privileged over all other rights and interests–including, apparently, the need to maintain a sound ecological basis for human civilization.


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