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Due to yesterday being Earth Day there were lots of articles discussing climate change. Most resembled the typical call to action on a variety of issues such as stopping the Keystone XL pipeline and the continued dire predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) But one article seemed to capture not just the gravity of the problem by why America’s ruling oligarchy is going to do everything in their power to evade and overcome attempts to limit carbon emissions.

If Chris Hayes over at The Nation is to be believed, the amount of exploitable energy in the ground that if exploited would make the planet near unlivable for humans represents $10 trillion in wealth.

Given the fluctuations of fuel prices, it’s a bit tricky to put an exact price tag on how much money all that unexcavated carbon would be worth, but one financial analyst puts the price at somewhere in the ballpark of $20 trillion. So in order to preserve a roughly habitable planet, we somehow need to convince or coerce the world’s most profitable corporations and the nations that partner with them to walk away from $20 trillion of wealth. Since all of these numbers are fairly complex estimates, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that we’ve overestimated the total amount of carbon and attendant cost by a factor of 2. Let’s say that it’s just $10 trillion.

While it may be closer to $20 trillion, Hayes likes that figure because it coincides with one estimate of the present day price of how much slaves were worth to the Southern economy prior to the Civil War. Hayes compares the causes of stopping climate change and abolishing slavery in terms of economic impact to the losers in both equations.

It is worth noting that the Civil War was, above all, a failure among elites to find a compromise. President Lincoln repeatedly testified that he only opposed the expansion of slavery into other states not the practice maintaining itself and that if he could save the union without freeing any slave he would. 

Which is to say the abolitionists achieved an opportunistic victory in the middle of chaos. They did not peacefully persuade the country that theirs was the best way. Even limiting the expansion of slavery was only partly a consequence of abolitionism, mostly it was due to the powerful industrialists in the north wanting to impose their own system on those states. Their system relied on wage not chattel slavery. It was a financial not moral calculation by the northern industrialists and their representatives in government.

So if stopping climate change is the new abolitionism we are surely screwed without a corresponding total upheaval of the political system. Because under this political system the interests of the energy exploiters are not just more powerful, they are on the offensive.

Image by Nils Simmon under Creative Commons license.