Leave it in the ground: A new abolitionism needed for climate change

The world’s last best hope to address the climate-change crisis may be this November when millions of Americans vote in the upcoming elections. Often overshadowed by the debate on inequality, the power of Wall Street, and of course the spectacle of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the November elections will be a turning point for the future of our planet and society.

If climate scientists are correct, then as Alan Neuhauser wrote just prior to the Paris Climate Summit last year, “the next candidate Americans send to the Oval Office…may also be the very last who can avert catastrophe from climate change.”

Just last week, Paul Krugman sounded a similar alarm in the Times:

“We’re at a peculiar moment when it comes to the environment – a moment of both fear and hope. The outlook for climate change if current policies continue has never looked worse, but the prospects for turning away from the path of destruction have never looked better. Everything depends on who ends up sitting in the White House for the next few years.”

Peculiar indeed. So if you weren’t stressed out enough about the next Supreme Court nominee or three, about the comb-over king having at his disposal the most powerful military force in the world, or about his refusal to accept basic democratic concepts like rule of law, it’s now time to start getting stressed out. The fate of the planet – not just the country – may actually depend on whose name you put your X next to on November 8.

It will be tough even if he doesn’t win

Even if “he who must not be named” is defeated in November, averting the many-layered crisis of climate change will still be a very heavy lift. For years, perhaps decades, we have heard that the “green economy” was right around the corner. Because scarce fossil fuels would become more and more expensive, market mechanisms like cap and trade, carbon pricing, and incentives for implementing energy efficiencies would transition us to a “carbonless” economy.

But “extreme energy” like fracking and other methods have made cheap carbon-based energy available for the foreseeable future. Even with energy efficiencies in vehicles, housing, and production, global demand for energy has increased, not decreased. Even though the know-how of renewable energy technology is available and increasingly more affordable, the growth of renewables as a source of total world consumption is still projected to reach only 12 percent by 2040 – nowhere near enough to be on track to solve a climate crisis that demands radical reductions in CO2 emissions now.

Add to this studies like one that appeared in Nature last year which said to remain within the 2C temperature limit (the level beyond which human action will be ineffective against the consequences of climate change), 82 percent of coal, 50 percent of gas, and a third of known oil reserves will have to stay unused in the ground. With the fossil fuel industry’s long-term profitability and appeal to investors premised on those same as-yet unused reserves, leaving them “in the ground” effectively means putting the industry out of business.

A new abolitionism

Is dismantling an industry so intrinsic, so imbedded in the political economy of the world possible? As Naomi Klein asks in her book, This Changes Everything, “Has an economic shift of this kind ever happened before in history?” Are there places we can look, historical periods where such transformations took place that can illuminate the challenge?

The closest one can come to an answer would be the abolition of the global system of slave labor that played such a central role in the economic development of early capitalism. In The Nation a couple of years ago, Christopher Hayes broached the idea of a “new abolitionism” to deal with the problem of climate change. It’s an idea worthy of further discussion.  

Like the fossil industry today, slavery was, in historian Greg Gandin’s words, “the flywheel on which America’s market revolution turned – not just in the United States, but in all of the Americas.” And similar to today’s fossil fuel industry, slavery’s power shaped the politics of its day even as it decayed into a system increasingly incompatible with the needs of the developing industrial societies of the U.S. and Europe. In The Nation a couple of years ago, Christopher Hayes broached the idea of a “new abolitionism” to deal with the problem of climate change. It’s an idea worthy of further discussion. 

The trend toward wage-labor and industrialization made the case that slavery’s days were numbered, but with the possibility of westward expansion in the United States, the would come later rather than sooner without active prodding. And just as the carbon industry today won’t willingly give up the trillions in profits represented by the carbon still in the ground, neither would the slavocracy abandon its source of wealth.

Just as many have still not concluded that saving the planet from climate change requires the “abolition” of fossil fuels, most had not concluded that the end of slavery was required to preserve the nation in the mid-1800s either. As historian Philip Foner illustrated in his preface to The Life and Writings of Fredrick Douglass:

“The United States entered the Civil War with the avowed object of preserving the Union, and only that. As the war continued, however, it became clear that to adhere to this position was to guarantee victory for the slave power. Gradually a fundamental change occurred in the thinking of the American people. From a confused and somewhat timid hope that slavery might die of its own weight if only it were held to the South, the lessons of the war brought to the vast majority of the Northern population the realization that slavery had been the primary cause of the conflict, and that the end of slavery was the only key to victory and a stable peace.”

This “change of thinking,” though, was not automatic. It required the active role of the abolitionist movement and leaders like Douglass to push it along. As Foner continues:

“It was the result of patient and persistent education carried on by the anti-slavery men and women. The contributions of Fredrick Douglass in this movement to educate public opinion in the North was of outstanding importance. From the very beginning of the conflict, when many other anti-slavery advocates were hesitant and indecisive, Douglass recognized the revolutionary implications of the Civil War, and clearly perceived that the objective purpose of this Second American Revolution was the destruction of slavery and the slave power.”

Ultimately, slavery’s end was the result of a broad, complicated, and contradictory movement. A movement that included the revolt and rebellions of the slaves themselves, the protests of the religious-based abolitionists, those for whom the preservation of the Union was paramount regardless of the outcome for the institution of slavery, and free-soilers (whites whose primary motivation was access to land that would otherwise be unavailable with the slave systems expansion to the western territories).

Like the complex and contradictory movement to end slavery, it will take a similarly broad and complex movement to challenge the power of “Big Carbon.” It will have to be a movement that like Douglass’s, recognizes the possibility of the moment. Though deeply flawed, the recent Paris Accord is a recognition of the world’s need to address the climate change crisis. Until 55 countries representing 55 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions present formal ratification documents, however, the accord will not take effect. This brings into focus the need and the possibility for bold grassroots action.

Putting “big carbon” on the run

The wellspring of the carbon-based economy, the fossil-fuel industry, is becoming increasingly isolated. Movements against fracking, pipelines, and coal-fired powered plants have scored some meaningful victories. The halting of the Keystone XL pipeline and the achievement of a fracking ban in New York State are among the most notable.

The peddling of climate change denial has become increasingly embarrassing. Even petroleum giant Shell has joined corporations like Google and Facebook in withdrawing their support from the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, citing the latter’s opposition to action on climate change as “clearly inconsistent” with its own outlook. Can marshalling these diverse movements create a “shift in popular thought” capable of coalescing into a powerful anti-carbon consensus? Can it bring about a new abolitionism?

Just as the original Abolitionist movement did in its time, so too must the “carbon abolition” movement bring together a broad alliance. This will mean nurturing connections with sectors of society not traditionally considered part of the progressive or environmental movements.

For example, as Tik Root noted recently, there is a growing Evangelical environmental movement: “The Evangelical Climate Initiative…has grown from about 15,000 people to over 800,000 in the past six years.” They are aiming to reach 3 million within the next two.

For the secular environmental movement to ignore this potential ally would be costly, as it holds the promise of upending the right-wing coalition that serves as the base of the fossil fuel industry’s political power.

2016: A climate referendum

Our upcoming elections will be pivotal in the fight to address climate change. Ironically, many in the Abolitionist movement only reluctantly supported Lincoln in 1860, considering him not anti-slavery enough. Yet Lincoln’s election became the most consequential event leading to the abolition of slavery. As Douglass himself explained: “Lincoln’s election has vitiated their authority, and broken their power…it has demonstrated the possibility of electing, if not an Abolitionist, at least an anti-slavery reputation to the Presidency of the United States.” Douglass went on to say, “Mr. Lincoln’s election, breaks the enchantment, dispels this terrible nightmare, and awakes the nation to the consciousness of new powers and the possibility of a higher destiny than the perpetual bondage to an ignoble fear.”

Today a majority of Americans believe that more must be done to address climate change, even as they hold mixed views as to how best to do that. There are differences around whether nuclear should be part of the renewable energy mix, and so on. As an important arena where millions of people can express their views on what is perhaps the defining issue confronting humanity, the upcoming elections will be a referendum on climate change even if it is not the central issue of the election.

By “vitiating the authority” of climate deniers in government (principally the GOP), a strong message is sent, both internationally and domestically, that addressing climate change is on the agenda for the U.S. Conversely, a win for climate deniers would lead the world to conclude that the U.S. is not serious about addressing the climate crisis and at the same time embolden the fossil fuel industry. On the heels of the Paris Accord, such an outcome would significantly undermine the building of a global consensus that the carbon-based energy industry must be dismantled and replaced with a renewable one.

Rift and reconciliation

Once you get past the climate deniers, the debate on climate change often revolves around jobs. When taking on the challenge involves altering how and where we work, communities can feel compelled to choose between “food on the table” and a “future.” As such, even the weakened trade union movement in the United States is a central player in the political drama of the climate crisis.

Between unions like those of the Building Trades, whose jobs can often be tied to the fossil-fuel industry, and those whose future is more closely linked to addressing climate change, such as transportation or health, the rift has widened. It is one unlikely to be reconciled easily. As Sean Sweeney, the director of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) notes in explaining the divisions in the labor movement over Keystone XL: “This was no ordinary squabble, and there are no plans for a “group hug” moment of reconciliation…KXL could be a precursor to a more protracted and serious union leadership-level dispute in the years ahead.”

Confronting the climate crisis and ensuring a just transition to a sustainable economy will require a deliberate effort to reconcile that rift. It will require “climate-friendly” unions to accept that mainstream environmental groups and the renewables industry will not lead a transition to a union-friendly sustainable economy without a hard push. Unions in the energy production and infrastructure industries, meanwhile, must make the perhaps more difficult recognition that policies addressing climate change are not the principle cause of union job loss.

Rather, their industries are already becoming increasingly capital-intensive and anti-union, as is the renewables industry and the U.S. economy generally. Energy is an industry in transition, just as the Longshoremen’s union had to make bold choices when faced with an increasingly-automated industry in the form of containerization, “energy” unions will have to weigh short-term job protection with long-term job security. The renewable energy economy will not be a “worker-less” industry, but a world in the grips of a climate crisis is unlikely to be a union-friendly environment.

It is not that all “carbon-friendly” unions necessarily deny the threat of climate change. Indeed, some argue that a comprehensive approach must be taken. As IBEW president Lonnie Stephenson points out, “Human-caused climate change is real, and a real threat, but focusing on power generation in isolation – leaving out industry, agriculture, and transportation – ignores three-quarters of the problem. Everyone will benefit from an effective response so everyone should share in the cost.”

A comprehensive approach can go a long way in reconciling the rift. Again though, the political climate will shape the debate. It will determine whether there will even be a debate at all. A loss for climate-change deniers in the upcoming elections will help to reframe the debate among trade unions and the labor movement generally, from the narrow “food or future” to “food and a future” – a just transition to a sustainable economy.

If the power of the fossil-fuel industry and anti-union forces over politics is resisted and reversed, the possibility opens, as Sweeney argues, for “unions in all sectors [to] work together to support an approach to energy and climate that is needs-based, grounded in the facts, and independent of both industry interests and the mainstream environmental groups.”


Like the carbon industry today, the power of the Southern slave owners shaped the politics of the day and determined the trajectory of the whole nation. At the time, their power seemed insurmountable. As Fredrick Douglass wrote, “For fifty years the country has taken the law from the lips of an exacting, haughty, and imperious slave oligarchy. The masters of slaves have been the masters of the Republic.”

Likewise, the corporate-controlled energy industry has shaped the historical development of the economy to its own interests. Steering it away from a robust public transportation system to a car culture and all that that implies. Cultivating a vast agricultural system dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides that have exhausted soil fertility. Constructing an energy distribution system that precludes any alternatives.

Just as the Union could not be preserved without the abolition of slavery, climate change cannot be solved without squarely addressing the power of the fossil fuel industry and its control over energy production. As long as the latter remains in corporate hands, efforts to make a just transition to a sustainable economy will be stymied, as will worker power in these industries and in the growing renewable energy sector which is needed to address climate change. The alternative to corporate control is democratic control of energy production at all levels of society.

The defeat of the slave oligarchy in the Civil War began what historians have coined America’s “Unfinished Revolution.” Reconstruction was, in Eric Foner’s words, “not only a specific time period, but also the beginning of an extended historical process: the adjustment of American society to the end of slavery.” As with most profound changes, it did not unfold without conflict.

Reconstructing the economy on the basis of renewable energy requires defeating the power of the fossil-fuel industry specifically, but also challenging corporate domination of the economy and politics in general – the same power that has systematically sought to destroy organized labor and its influence. The fight for a just transition to a sustainable economy can afford workers in the energy industry and the labor movement in general, an opportunity to reshape the political economy of the nation in a direction that greater reflects their interests for today and the future.

The Nov. 8 elections may be the last chance to seize that opportunity.

Photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP