Prior to the Civil War, prior to the industrial revolution and prior to climate change debate, slave labor provided much of the “energy” for the production of food, fiber and goods throughout the southern half of the nation. Enslaved human beings were seen as absolutely essential to drive the economy and maintain a comfortable standard of living for everyone else.
Moreover, balance sheets of those engaged in commerce were totally dominated by two assets; land and slaves. Economic historian Gavin Wright estimated slaves represented nearly half of the wealth of the South just prior to the Civil War. It is no wonder that abolition became the lightning rod that it was. Some 400,000 slaveholders would be required to give up a major portion of their wealth with little, if any, financial recourse.
It took a devastating conflict and the death of 620,000 Americans to settle the issue. The country is, to this day, feeling the effects of that terrible war. The end of the Civil War also signaled the rise of the fossil fuel energy economy. The subsequent one hundred fifty years have seen unprecedented economic prosperity.We have all benefitted from the widespread availability and the phenomenally low cost of coal, oil and natural gas. We have replaced dependence on slave labor energy with our current dependence on fossil fuel resources.
Today, coal, oil and natural gas make up the wealth of many individuals, corporations and nations. Investors, pension funds, the likes of ExxonMobil and Saudi Arabia and similar entities around the world all calculate part of their asset value in terms of the fossil fuel resources on their books.
The total value of world fuel reserves is difficult, if not impossible to calculate with specificity. Fluctuating energy prices, new discoveries, and the truthfulness of reported reserves all contribute to the uncertainty of a finite number. However, estimates as high as $20 trillion are common. We cannot consume anywhere close to this amount of carbon fuels and maintain a habitable planet. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to rise and contribute to the climate change impacts.
The Carbon Tracker, a group of economic and environmental analysts, has looked at the amount of carbon-based fuels we can burn. To keep worldwide temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius, some 80 percent of known, provable, extractable reserves must be left in the ground.
Thus, the dilemma and the parallel to pre-Civil War slavery. How can the ExxonMobil’s, Saudi Arabia’s and others be persuaded to forfeit up to 80 percent of their wealth with no compensatory mechanism in place? The problem will only worsen as entities continue to put billions of dollars each year into exploration for more reserves to place on their books.
This is not to suggest that war is on the horizon or required to keep climate change in check. A moral imperative comparable to slavery does not yet exist in the climate change debate. However, enormous real, complex economic issues are present.
Thoughtful analysis and targeted actions are required to loosen the shackles and allow us to move toward a carbon free future.