Inserting Slavery Into The Climate Debate

Chris Hayes compares the fight against fossil fuels to the abolitionist movement. He states plainly that “there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices.” But he sees economic parallels:

[I]n the decades before the Civil War, the economic value of slavery explodes. It becomes the central economic institution and source of wealth for a region experiencing a boom that succeeded in raising per capita income and concentrating wealth ever more tightly in the hands of the Southern planter class. During this same period, the rhetoric of the planter class evolves from an ambivalence about slavery to a full-throated, aggressive celebration of it. As slavery becomes more valuable, the slave states find ever more fulsome ways of praising, justifying and celebrating it. Slavery increasingly moves from an economic institution to a cultural one; it becomes a matter of identity, of symbolism—indeed, in the hands of the most monstrously adept apologists, a thing of beauty.

And yet, at the very same time, casting a shadow over it all is the growing power of the abolition movement in the North and the dawning awareness that any day might be slavery’s last. So that, on the eve of the war, slavery had never been more lucrative or more threatened. That also happens to be true of fossil fuel extraction today. …

[T]he 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.

He goes on to argue that avoiding “planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth.” Barro sees “reason for somewhat less despair than Mr. Hayes shows, because there are crucial political and economic differences between abolition and carbon limitations”:

In the case of slavery, slaveholders had an enormous economic interest in maintaining their property, while white abolitionists were mostly seeking moral improvement. Those who stood to gain most economically from abolition were slaves, who were excluded from the political process.

An effective carbon limitation policy should bring large economic gains to people who are not in the business of fossil fuel extraction, in the form of reduced economic disruption due to climate change. While owners of fossil fuels have a strong economic impulse to extract, the rest of us should have a strong economic impulse to limit extraction — and we should be willing to buy off the resource owners, if necessary, to enforce those limits.

Warner Todd Huston raises other objections:

[T]oday’s issue is a worldwide problem, not one centralized and isolated in the U.S. Even if we Americans stopped using fossil fuels this very minute, it wouldn’t matter even a tiny bit to the actual global warming problem as the warmists perceive it. That is because India, China, and every other nation would continue using their fossil fuels, making our purportedly heroic efforts not just pointless, but self-destructive.

Imagine if we fought the Civil War, losing 650,000 Americans in the process, thought we eliminated slavery, and then millions of slaves from other nations just flooded back into our country. It would have made the great loss a pointless exercise, for sure. This is what would happen if we destroyed ourselves over global warming while the rest of the world dallied.

In other climate change commentary, Brad Plumer chronicles the failure to meet our climate goals:

The idea that the world can stay below 2°C looks increasingly delusional. Consider: the Earth’s average temperature has already risen 0.8°C since the 19th century. And if you look at the current rapid rise in global greenhouse-gas emissions, we’re on pace to blow past the 2°C limit by mid-century — and hit 4°C or more by the end. That’s well above anything once deemed “dangerous.” Getting back on track for 2°C would, at this point, entail the sort of drastic emissions cuts usually associated with economic calamities, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis. And we’d have to repeat those cuts for decades.

What more warming might do:

Four degrees (or 7.2° Fahrenheit) may not sound like much. But the world was only about 4°C to 7°C cooler, on average, during the last ice age, when large parts of Europe and the United States were covered by glaciers. The IPCC concluded that changing the world’s temperature in the opposite direction could bring similarly drastic changes, such as “substantial species extinctions,” or irreversibly destabilizing Greenland’s massive ice sheet. … Here’s an analogy that Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, who helped compile some of the research for the World Bank, likes to use. “Take the human body. If your temperature rises 2°C, you have a significant fever. If it rises 4°C or 6°C you can die. It’s not a linear change. You’re pushing a complex system outside the range it’s adapted to. And all our assessments indicate that once you do that, the system’s resilience gets stretched thin.”