The New Abolitionism
America is in the grip of a fossil fuel frenzy almost without precedent. By 2015, the United States is projected to surpass Saudi Arabia as the largest producer of oil in the world. After sixty years of being a net importer of fuel, we are now a net exporter, and it’s possible that we will break our 1970 record for peak oil production. This comes thanks to both deepwater drilling and shale fields like the Bakken formation in North Dakota, whose previously inaccessible reserves have been unlocked by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, also known as “fracking.”
These same technologies have also produced an unprecedented natural gas surge, as fracking wells are sunk into the soil of ranches and parks and hillsides across the country. Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale alone produces about 14 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day—the equivalent of more than 2.4 million barrels of oil. Shale extraction has quadrupled in the past four years and now accounts for about 40 percent of the annual natural gas yields in the United States, which recently surpassed Russia as the world’s largest natural gas producer.
At the very same time that extraction has come to play an increasingly dominant role in the US economy, we have seen a dramatic reversal in the politics of fossil fuel and climate change. Whereas high-profile Republicans once expressed ambivalence about our reliance on fossil fuels, viewing it as a kind of necessary evil that would ultimately be phased out, in the last five years the extraction of fossil fuels has become—to steal a phrase—“a positive good.”
During the 1988 vice-presidential debate, Dan Quayle argued that “the greenhouse effect is an important environmental issue. It’s important for us to get the data in, to see what alternatives we have to the fossil fuels…. We need to get on with it, and in a George Bush administration, you can bet that we will.”
That wasn’t quite the case, but in 1989, Newt Gingrich was one of twenty-five Republican co-sponsors of the Global Warming Prevention Act, which held that “the Earth’s atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate by pollutants resulting from human activities, inefficient and wasteful fossil fuel use, and the effects of rapid population growth in many regions” and that “increasing the nation’s and world’s reliance on ecologically sustainable solar and renewable resources…is a significant long-term solution to reducing fossil-generated carbon dioxide and other pollutants.” In 1990, President George H.W. Bush said at an IPCC event, “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways.”
While his son did little to curb carbon emissions when he took his turn at the presidency, he did at least give it lip service. Speaking ahead of the 2005 G8 Summit, George W. Bush said, “It’s now recognized that the surface of the earth is warmer, and that an increase in greenhouse gases caused by humans is contributing to the problem.” As part of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, he signed into law minimum efficiency requirements to begin to phase out the use of incandescent bulbs in 2012. (A law that would, in the Obama era, become a top conservative target, as the Tea Party rallied to support the incandescent bulb as if it were a constitutionally enshrined right.)
And in 2008, somewhat miraculously, John McCain’s platform featured support for a cap-and-trade bill that would have effectively put a price on carbon. But even by that year, you could already feel a seismic shift in the rhetoric. I sat in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul in 2008 and watched Sarah Palin lead thousands of people in a thunderous chant of “Drill, baby, drill!”
After Obama’s election, things moved quickly: McCain dropped support for his own legislation to regulate carbon pollution. In 2010, Bob Inglis, a conservative congressman from South Carolina, was soundly defeated by a Tea Party challenger in the Republican primary, due chiefly to Inglis’s refusal to deny the science on climate change. A year later, Gingrich called his appearance alongside Nancy Pelosi in a 2008 ad urging action on climate change the “dumbest single thing I’ve done in years,” recanting his acceptance of the science and embracing denialism. He was not alone—in fact, outright denialism is now more or less the official Republican line. In 2011, and again in January of this year, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to block the EPA from regulating carbon emissions and against amendments that would acknowledge that climate change is, in fact, happening.
And it’s not just denialism: extracting and burning carbon is now roundly celebrated by conservative politicians, as if plunging holes into the earth to pull out fossilized peat is a sign of the nation’s potency. In 2012, Mitt Romney said he would build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline himself. Texas Representative Steve Stockman tweeted in March 2013 that “the best thing about the Earth is if you poke holes in it oil and gas come out.”
Remember, all of this is happening at the same time that (a) fossil fuel companies are pulling more carbon out of the ground than ever before, and (b) it’s becoming increasingly clear that those companies will have to leave 80 percent of their reserves in the ground if we are to avert a global cataclysm. In the same way that the abolition movement cast a shadow over the cotton boom, so does the movement to put a price on carbon spook the fossil fuel companies, which even at their moment of peak triumph wonder if a radical change is looming around the corner.
Let me pause here once again to be clear about what the point of this extended historical comparison is and is not. Comparisons to slavery are generally considered rhetorically out of bounds, and for good reason. We are walking on treacherous terrain. The point here is not to associate modern fossil fuel companies with the moral bankruptcy of the slaveholders of yore, or the politicians who defended slavery with those who defend fossil fuels today.
In fact, the parallel I want to highlight is between the opponents of slavery and the opponents of fossil fuels. 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. No use trying to persuade people otherwise.
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