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The Policy Weapon Climate Activists Need


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.

The most straightforward way to accomplish this is for the government to take direct ownership of fossil-fuel companies. The price tag to purchase outright the top 25 largest US-based publicly traded oil and gas companies, along with most of the remaining publicly traded coal companies, is in the region of $1.15 trillion.

That sounds like a lot of money, but spread out over seven years, the cost would be less than $200 billion a year, a far from impossible amount—and less than the annual cost of our string of recent wars. By way of comparison, paying for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have cost somewhere in the range of $4-7 trillion when future costs for veterans are factored in. Surely, radically reducing the threat of climate catastrophe is a better use of the US government’s financial power than was the disastrous invasion of Iraq. And strong leadership would open the way to similarly bold moves around the world, especially if activists develop support for a converging effort in other countries.

Monetary experts understand that a fossil-fuel industry buyout could be done without loading the costs onto taxpayers, and need not unleash ruinous inflation. The Federal Reserve and US Treasury could enact the buyout with a few computer keystrokes, using monetary measures that in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis have become routine for central banks the world over. The term that specialists use for such measures is “quantitative easing,” or QE. What’s needed now is QE for the planet.

Needless to say, ExxonMobil and its fellow fossil-fuel-industry titans will likely reject any federal buyout, and The Wall Street Journal editorial page will blast it as despicable socialism. But Big Oil, though immensely powerful, is not the only powerful player here. The Securities and Exchange Commission has already challenged ExxonMobil on the valuation of its reserves. Some of the biggest financial institutions in the world (and their stockholders) are growing increasingly worried about not only climate change itself but the ominous threat that a “carbon bubble” poses to the global economy. Large institutional investors like pension funds are under activist pressure to reduce exposure to such risky investments.

A financial bubble can occur when the price of a given asset rises above the asset’s actual value. In the case of the housing bubble that preceded the 2008 financial crisis, speculation and fraud drove housing prices higher than what buyers eventually were willing to pay. Likewise, the carbon bubble stems from the fact that most of the world’s remaining reserves of carbon-based fuels cannot be burned without pushing global temperatures beyond a level compatible with organized society. Specifically, the International Energy Agency concluded in 2012 that “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 degrees C goal” (alas, even 2 degrees C will wreak horrific human suffering).

If the majority of oil, gas, and coal reserves must be left underground, the economic implications are staggering, and not just for ExxonMobil and its fossil-fuel brethren. For them, the threat is quite direct: In accounting terms, those fuel reserves are calculated as wealth. The more reserves a company claims to be able to bring to market, the more wealth it has and the higher its stock-market valuation. If those reserves cannot be sold, that paper wealth evaporates. Hence the industry’s insistence that humanity has no choice but to keep burning fossil fuels for decades to come.

But many powerful interests are balking at this suicidal course, and it is their opposition—along with growing pressure from activists and citizens around the world—that could foil the fossil-fuel industry’s plans.

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has been the most prominent voice warning about the risks of the “carbon bubble.” Carney has been joined by many other global financial leaders, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and private banks HSBC and Citigroup. They worry that fossil-fuel reserves that cannot be burned will become “stranded assets”—assets that have little or no economic value. Citigroup estimated in 2015 that the “total value of stranded assets could be over $100 trillion.” That mammoth figure dwarfs the stranded assets of the housing bubble that begot the 2008 financial crisis.

Which indicates why the climate crisis is now also an economic crisis. Carney has calculated that fully one-third of global wealth is invested in fossil-fuel and other “carbon-heavy” companies. If the carbon bubble bursts, it won’t punish only the companies themselves. “Countless pension funds, mutual funds, and mom-and-pop investors are counting on solid future returns from carbon-based assets that may in fact end up stranded and all but worthless,” Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, has written. “If Carney is correct that one-third of the world’s wealth is invested in such assets, a devaluation of those assets could crater the entire global economy.”

Deflating the carbon bubble without driving the economy to ruin ranks among the most urgent tasks of our time, and a government buyout of the companies currently inflating that bubble is the safest, least costly method of doing so. As the 2008 financial crisis demonstrated, only governments have the financial means and legal authority to undertake such rescue efforts. But make no mistake: The resistance from the fossil-fuel industry and from other quarters will be immense. To overcome it, we must begin now to build public understanding of and support for such efforts, not only among activists and citizens but, crucially, among the public officials who will have to champion and implement such a program.

If a government buyout of fossil-fuel companies sounds radical, that is partly because most Americans are unaware of the long history of the federal government taking similar actions in moments of crisis. As noted, the most recent example was the 2008 financial crisis. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama de facto nationalized the financial institutions Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, GMAC, and Citigroup, the insurance giant A.I.G., and the automaker General Motors. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan seized 80 percent of the shares in the failing Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company, back then deemed too big to fail. During World War II, dozens of companies were nationalized to insure that goods needed for the war effort were produced in sufficient quantity and at affordable cost. During World War I, private railroads—crucial to the transportation of war materials—were taken over by the Woodrow Wilson administration and operated by the government until 1920.

There are also a number of partial precedents, including the nearly $10 billion tobacco buyout of 2004-14. When lawmakers rightly decided that the dangers of smoking, as well as market conditions, undercut the rationale for subsidizing production of tobacco, the government provided tobacco farmers with annual payments to help them replace lost income, retire, or transition to growing different crops. A related proposal has been floated regarding Obama’s imperiled Clean Power Plan and the prospect of protracted legal battles over the aging coal plants it targeted. A simpler solution, suggests New York University professor Stephen Kass, would be for “the federal government [to] buy the plants and close them.” Kass’s proposal would benefit all stakeholders: company owners and their lenders would get paid, workers would be compensated and given training and placement in new jobs, and the affected communities would get assistance in attracting new businesses and maintaining their tax bases.

Where would the money come from to buy out the fossil-fuel industry? The government would create it—just as it did, year in and year out, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

It may be hard for some people to believe, but central banks all over the world create money out of thin air all the time. Following the 2008 crisis, the equivalent of roughly $12.3 trillion was pumped into the global financial system to repair the balance sheets of commercial banks. The US government, through the Federal Reserve, created around $3.5 trillion of new money between late 2008 and 2014, an average of nearly $600 billion a year. Not a penny of this new money had to be “paid for” through taxes or borrowing. And despite the massive scale, the runaway inflation that every economics student is told “must” result from such money creation has not materialized.

How would a government buyout of fossil-fuel companies work in practice? There are a number of possibilities.

The Federal Reserve, either using new authority or an expanded interpretation of current authority, might simply acquire energy-company stock directly over a period of several years. In this case, it would be vital to prevent egregious profiteering by investors, since government purchasing would risk driving up the stock price. One obvious remedy: The Fed could announce its intention to buy up only 51 percent of company shares, which should drive down the price—and ensure a bargain for the government—by encouraging a stampede for the exits among investors.

Another route might see the US Treasury establish a Green Investment Bank. The Federal Reserve could then be ordered to buy and hold bonds from such a bank—just as the Fed has done for other bonds, treasuries, and mortgage-backed securities under recent rounds of QE, and as the Europeans are able to do with their own Investment Bank. The Green Investment Bank would be capitalized by the Fed to the extent necessary to finance both the buyout of fossil-fuel companies and the massive new investments in renewable energy that would be required to transition the United States to a zero-carbon economy. An additional requirement would be a robust jobs program for those currently working in the fossil-fuel industry, to re-employ them in other, more socially productive activity—especially in the green-energy sector, where some of their skills may be transferrable.

Again, we should not be deterred by worries of inflation. There is plenty of room in the US economy for the new money, particularly for new green infrastructure investment (which could actually lower prices, given that many studies suggest such investments produce greater efficiency). Most estimates indicate that the United States still has a significant output gap—the difference between actual output and potential output. Millions of workers have left the labor market, unable to find jobs. As Keynes pointed out almost a century ago, as long as workers and materials are available, increasing the money supply in general will increase the production of goods and services, keeping prices stable. Fossil-fuel investors could also be permitted tax-free rollovers into renewable energy stocks or Green Investment Bank bonds to help spur the energy transition and further reduce the risk of inflation.

The real challenges here are political, not technical. To be sure, a government buyout of the fossil-fuel industry represents a sharp departure from free-market ideology. But more and more people seem ready for such a departure. In 2008—years before Superstorm Sandy ravaged New York City, California endured a drought unprecedented in modern times, and the polar ice caps were melting at record pace—29 percent of Americans told pollsters that they favored nationalizing oil companies, and an additional 24 percent said they were unsure (and thus potentially open to the idea). The success of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign further illustrates that many Americans are ready for solutions as big and bold as the problems we face. At some point, Big Oil may even be forced to see a buyout as the least bad of the political options it faces. The task now is to educate and mobilize citizens on behalf of a policy agenda that truly serves the public interest. If QE on a massive scale was acceptable to save the bankers, why not QE to save the planet?

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