The Limits of Abolition

Let’s take Chris Hayes’ views at face value and ask the big question he fails to ask in his Nation piece calling for the abolition of the fossil fuel industry: since the whole foundation for his argument is the existential threat posed by fossil fuels, when China, its allies, and its client states say no to his scheme, are we going to go to war to enforce it? And if we’re not going to go to war, then do we double-down on our production restrictions in order to compensate for Chinese emissions?

To begin with, when Hayes draws the parallels to ending slavery he should acknowledge that one of the drivers for the political war on slavery in the Americas was the literal war on the trans-Atlantic slave trade fought by the British. If the British had not made the global commerce of slavery prohibitively expensive, then it would’ve been much more difficult to achieve the goal of abolition. What the British and the abolitionists achieved was the banishment of slavery from Western world. However, low-level forms of slavery persisted in much of Asia and Africa well into the twentieth century.

Thus, abolition wasn’t actually total; it only seemed that way. However, the use of carbon in countries not agreeing to Hayes’ scheme would be much more significant. One possible retort to this is that the oil market would price China and others out of fossil fuel dependency by raising the price of imported fuel, but that assumes that China will be subject to the same market forces as the West. Based on the current policies of the Chinese government, this rosy scenario cannot come to pass.

Hayes notes that, in the West, sovereign wealth funds may consider divesting from oil companies so as to no longer fund exploration and production. That is within their right. In China, on the other hand, it’s not private industry doing the investing, it’s government entities and state owned enterprise who are steering the captured assets of Chinese depositors–people who have no control over where their money is going. China will not rely on foreign oil companies to do at cost what CNOOC and SINOPEC can do cheaper thanks to almost unlimited money from Chinese banks.

The bottom line is that while we could lock down the carbon wealth of the Canadian tar sands and North Sea, among other places, China would happily assume the mantle of monopsony buyer of oil from Russia and the developing world. Moreover, with Russia and China already willing to make threats of war to obtain energy resources in Crimea and the South China Sea, respectively, are we to believe that they would voluntarily agree to a scheme which would deny the use of their energy resources for the foreseeable future?

The above should not be taken to mean that a do-nothing approach to renewable resources and greener vehicles makes sense. Vehicles like the Tesla Model S are too expensive at the moment, but herald the possibilities of technology. Hopefully, BYD’s new electric bus factories in the US will spur Americans to innovate and compete against Chinese industry. Moreover, a shift away from fossil fuels has obvious benefits in terms of environmental protection and national security. For instance, Western Europe’s dependence on fuels imported from Russia has given Putin a free hand in Ukraine, while the shariazation of Brunei has proceeded with little criticism from Western governments thanks to the Sultanate’s oil wealth. Oil is a shield, and behind every shield is a weapon.

But why haven’t we made more progress internationally? Hayes focuses on the domestic level, telling us a story of the capture of the Republican Party by corporate interests, of Newt Gingrich et al retreating from science towards denialism, yet that doesn’t explain why, at the global level, China, and to a lesser extent India and Brazil, have been able to successfully monkeywrench the work of European leaders and both Democratic and Republican presidents. That doesn’t explain why even Democrats refuse to vote for legislation that would hobble the American economy and give the BRICs free reign.

For their part, the BRICs have long maintained that limits on their energy consumption are unfair so long as they remain developing countries. Consider that China, despite the PPP-based hype, is approximately half the size of the US economy but already uses more energy during production because Chinese industry is more corrupt and less efficient. It’s safe to assume that China will become more energy efficient in the future, but even then, the energy demands of China’s economy will be massive. By 2030, China alone is projected to produce 15 gigatons of carbon emissions per year, which is roughly half of the safe level forecast by climate scientists. And these emissions will come despite the fact that China is the world’s largest investor in renewables. What will happen to the world’s environment by the time China is actually a developed county?

Chris Hayes’ ideas are is well-intentioned, yet ultimately dependent on liberal democratic values to promote public goods. After all, if the people of the world are going to vote to protect the planet, don’t they need to be able to vote first? Unfortunately, according to Hayes’ apocalyptic scenario, an authoritarian China dooms us all. This doesn’t mean we do nothing, just that we acknowledge that Hayes’ argument works best at the partisan level (I’m sure my Democrat-voting friends have read it approvingly) because it is free from the complications of reality. Once we talk about how Hayes’ plan would actually be implemented globally, the abolition of fossil fuels, like Piketty’s global wealth tax–that other hot progressive idea of the moment–sinks under its own utopian weight.