We’re running out of time on climate change. As Donald Trump and Big Oil’s other friends in Washington do their utmost to keep global temperatures climbing, our window for preserving civilization is closing fast. Yes, solar, wind, batteries, and energy efficiency are plummeting in cost and grabbing market share the world over, but this clean-energy transformation is not proceeding anywhere near fast enough to prevent catastrophic climate disruption. The science is clear on what’s most needed: We must leave the vast majority of Earth’s remaining reserves of oil, coal, and gas unburned and underground. But those reserves are the basis of the stock prices of some of the richest, most powerful companies in history. And those companies give every indication that they plan to keep burning them, science and humanity be damned.
We believe there is a way around the fossil-fuel barons’ intransigence, and the time to prepare is now—so the solution can be implemented as soon as Trump is out of the way. Our proposal is essentially the same policy that was used to rescue the US economy from outright collapse during the financial crisis of 2008, but with one crucial difference. Back then, the US government pumped vast sums of money into financial institutions deemed “too big to fail,” thus propping them up and preventing bankruptcies whose knock-on effects could have triggered a full-scale economic depression. Today, the government should use the same techniques and undertake a massive buyout of the US fossil-fuel industry, acquiring a controlling ownership stake in ExxonMobil, Chevron, Arch Coal, and the other major American oil, gas, and coal companies that hold the planet’s future in their untrustworthy hands.
Critically, this would neuter their political opposition to what must be done to save the planet. And the public money channeled into these corporate enterprises would be used for public purpose, not private aggrandizement. One of the errors of the Wall Street bailout was that Washington did not require the financial institutions it rescued to share the billions of public dollars with stressed borrowers so that ordinary Americans could pay their mortgages and keep their homes. Under the fossil-fuel industry buyout we are urging, the government would use its majority ownership stake to order the companies’ oil, gas, and coal reserves kept in the ground while investing in the most rapid, job-creating transition feasible to a low-carbon economy.
A buyout of the fossil-fuel industry might appear anything but possible under present conditions, as the industry rides high under Trump. However, we are in a time of great political volatility, and circumstances could change far more rapidly than many expect. The pendulum may swing radically in the wake of Trump’s departure from the Oval Office. The point is to be ready with a genuine solution when that moment arrives.
Mass protests like the April 29 Peoples Climate March and the grassroots organizing that has blocked the Keystone XL pipeline (so far) are invaluable, but they must be supplemented by policy measures that deliver the outcomes necessary. What’s required is a knockout blow to get the fossil-fuel industry out of the way, both economically and politically, and enable a shift to government actions that will not only keep carbon in the ground but employ millions of Americans in an all-out transition to clean energy.