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'There Is No Alternative': Fossil Fuel Deposits Must Stay in the Ground

'The profits of oil, coal, and natural gas companies will have to yield to the imperative of sustaining life on earth,' says economist Robert Pollin

Jon Queally

"There is no alternative."

Those famous words were once used by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to describe the preeminence of deregulated, so-called "free market" capitalism as compared to all other economic systems.

"The fossil fuel industry will inevitably have to experience major cutbacks and, over the longer term, near-total demise. There is simply no choice in the matter if we believe the research produced by climate scientists. The profits of oil, coal, and natural gas companies will have to yield to the imperative of sustaining life on earth." —Robert Pollin, PERIHowever, in the contemporary context of planetary global warming and climate change, the phrase was employed this week by Robert Pollin, professor of economics and director of the Political Economic Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, as he presented a green energy and jobs growth plan for the United States that he and his research colleagues say could transform the fossil fuel-based economy into one based nearly entirely on renewable power in just two decades.

In an essay published in the Boston Review this week, Pollin lays out the broad contours of his research team's proposal to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously creating jobs and meeting international obligations. An official summary of the research was released last week by the Center of American Progress, which sponsored the work, and the full report is scheduled for release on Thursday, September 18.*

In addition to massive public and private investments in truly cleaner and renewable forms of energy paired with dramatic increases of energy efficiency in buildings, transportation systems, and industrial processing, Pollin declared that the other essential feature of his team's plan would be that the world's fossil fuel companies be compelled to leave their untapped reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas unexploited and in the ground.

Though Pollin acknowledges that the wealthy and politically powerful titans of industry will not let an estimated $3 trillion worth of coal, oil, and gas to become what are called "stranded assets"—simply left in the ground—"without a fight," he argues that this is  precisely what the physics of climate science and the hope for a more sane economic future both demand.

"There is no alternative," declared Pollin, stealing the famous phrase.

"The fossil fuel industry," he concludes, "will inevitably have to experience major cutbacks and, over the longer term, near-total demise. There is simply no choice in the matter if we believe the research produced by climate scientists. The profits of oil, coal, and natural gas companies will have to yield to the imperative of sustaining life on earth."

"What industry calls innovation, looks more like the final suicide throes of addiction. We are blasting the bedrock of our continents, pumping our water with toxins, lopping off mountaintops, scraping off boreal forests, endangering the deep ocean, and scrambling to exploit the melting Arctic—all to get at the last drops and the final rocks... It's madness." —Naomi Klein, 'This Changes Everything'That message is sure to be pervasive during upcoming events scheduled around the UN Climate Summit in New York City later this month and is also a key message contained in the new book by author Naomi Klein which will be published next week.

Klein's book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, takes a specific looks at that economic implications of the fight against climate change and the essential nature of the global climate justice movement that has risen to challenge the supremacy of the fossil fuel industry.

It is members of that movement who have decided to mark the UN meeting in New York city with what they are calling the "People's Climate March & Mobilization" in September 21 and a promise to counter and overcome the repeated inaction of government and private industry on the climate crisis.

Though it's clear from her book that Klein would not offer full endorsement of the assessment put forth by Pollin and his colleagues, they would certainly agree on key portions of the proposed plan, including the imperative of forcing the fossil fuel giants to suffer the losses of those so-called "stranded assets." In her book, Klein argues that the increasingly destruction extraction techniques being used by the fossil fuel industry to get at harder-to-access deposits is the best way to recognize that the answer to our future energy needs will not be found by following Exxon, Chevron, BP, or any of the other industry giants in their final push to squeeze the last deposits of "ancient sunlight" from the depths of Mother Earth.

"What industry calls innovation," Klein writes in the book, "looks more like the final suicide throes of addiction. We are blasting the bedrock of our continents, pumping our water with toxins, lopping off mountaintops, scraping off boreal forests, endangering the deep ocean, and scrambling to exploit the melting Arctic—all to get at the last drops and the final rocks."

"Yes, some very advanced technology is making this possible," she continues, "but it's not innovation, it's madness."

*Editor's note: This post was updated to more accurately reflect the upcoming release date of the full report.


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