Giving Up Fossil Fuels to Save the Climate: The $28 Trillion Writedown

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by Mark Hertsgaard,

from Bloomberg Businessweek,

“We’re not going to be able to burn it all.” With those 10 words, Barack Obama uttered one of the most stunning, far-reaching statements ever made by a U.S. president. He also completely contradicted his own energy policy. Yet no one seemed to notice.

In an interview that Showtime television’s climate documentary series Years of Living Dangerously aired on June 9—which also ran in the New York Times—Obama was asked about the international goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6F) since the start of the industrial era. Going past 2 degrees, noted the interviewer, columnist Thomas Friedman, would “cross into some really dangerous, unstable territory: Arctic melting, massive sea-level rise, disruptive storms.” The International Energy Agency has concluded that meeting the 2C target will require leaving two-thirds of the earth’s known reserves of oil, gas, and coal underground, unburned, Friedman said. Did Obama agree with that conclusion?

“Well, science is science,” the president replied. “And there is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now, that the planet’s going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire.”

“So we can’t burn it all?” Friedman asked.

Obama agreed, effectively affirming the two-thirds estimate, before adding, “I very much believe in keeping that 2 degrees Celsius target as a goal.”

This new scientific imperative—to leave the bulk of earth’s fossil fuels in the ground—has not yet penetrated most government or private-sector policy discussions, much less mainstream media coverage or public awareness. Its political and economic implications, however, are huge.

First, it’s worth clarifying that the International Energy Agency is no den of Greenpeace radicals; the U.S. and other advanced capitalist countries established the organization in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo in 1973.

Enforcing the two-thirds cutoff would also invalidate the business plans of some of the richest and most powerful enterprises in history: the international oil companies.

ExxonMobil declared in April that it plans to find and market as much petroleum as it can, regardless of the 2C limit. The two-thirds imperative would therefore trigger titanic political battles as well.

Which may begin to explain why Obama’s words provoked so little comment. Is the notion of walking away from fossil fuels, which have been the lifeblood of the global economy for 200 years, simply inconceivable to most people?

Certainly the president’s own policies clash with leaving fossil fuels underground. His “all of the above” energy strategy has dramatically increased federal support for improving energy efficiency and developing solar, wind, and other low-carbon technologies. But Obama’s “all of the above” policy has at the same time showered much more lavish support on oil, gas, and coal.

Still, for the president of the U.S. to acknowledge the need to abandon fossil fuels creates political space for others to press further. Advocates can now invoke Obama’s words to pressure him and other public and private officials to bring their policies in line with the new scientific requirement.

Meanwhile, Obama’s call in the Showtime interview to put a price on carbon—which could be done directly through a carbon tax, or indirectly through a cap-and-trade system of emissions permits—was echoed on June 24 by Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor (and the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek); and Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush. “Putting a price on emissions will create incentives to develop new, cleaner energy technologies”.

Alarmist. Radical. Unrealistic. For decades, defenders of the status quo have thrown those accusations at anyone who suggested a transition away from fossil fuels. Now, because the status quo prevailed for so long, humanity must make this transition with unprecedented speed or face unprecedented catastrophe. President Obama and leaders everywhere dare not forget: Science is indifferent to half measures and rationalizations. It cares only about results.

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