Six Texts on Enemies of Climate Action

Guest post by Emeritus Professor Henry Shue of Merton College, Oxford.

Henry Shue has been writing about climate change since the early 1990’s, and he has been at the forefront of the climate justice literature ever since. His work articulates a powerful moral case against climate inaction, providing particularly strong criticism of the approach of the US and other ‘laggard governments’ towards just international climate agreements. What’s more, his work helps us understand how we could make a just transition away from fossil fuels. Central to this vision is the conviction that the energy transition must not come at the cost of perpetuating present and future poverty. The question is, what has Henry Shue chosen to put in the Climate Ethics Library?

General Comment:

Limiting climate change will be a political struggle.  Eliminating fossil fuels will mean eliminating the source of wealth of large numbers of the most powerful and richest people in the world.  In many cases serious efforts to reach net zero carbon promptly are existential threats to giant investor-owned enterprises (e.g., Chevron, Shell, BP, ExxonMobil) and giant state enterprises (e.g., Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, Rosneft, Sinopec, Equinor) as long as they cling to current business plans.  These enterprises have consistently fought back with deception and stealth, first by funding climate denial and now by claiming in greenwash to have plans for net zero carbon while in fact continuing to pour capital into exploration and extraction of fossil fuels and into petrochemical factories to maintain the market for natural gas.  On the principle “know your enemy”, I recommend the following books.  The last three focus on the United States, but I believe that many of their insights are transferable to the United Kingdom and other countries.

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.
Rachel Maddow.
2019, (Crown [Penguin Random House]).
Comment: In the style of an exciting detective novel, Maddow tells accessible stories of the despoliation of land and manipulation of politicians by fracking interests in the United States and stories of Putin’s power-concentrating kleptocracy in Russia, as well as interconnections between the two countries’ carbon industries like the Rosneft-Exxon Arctic Sea project, demonstrating how democracy is undercut by owners of fossil fuels.

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.
Steve Coll.
2012, (Penguin).
Comment: ExxonMobil is now in decline, surpassed by Chevron and dumped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but this massive case-study of its global operations and its role in the politics of many countries shows in depth how what is still a global ‘supermajor’ operates in poor nations least able to defend their own interests, often because they are ruled by kleptocratic dictators.  For a more theoretical study by a political philosopher, see Leif Wenar, Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World (Oxford, 2016).

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil .
Timothy Mitchell.
2011; paperback with new Afterward, 2013, (Verso).
Comment: Sophisticated historical account of how the dominant forms of energy affect democracy, including, for example, the power of coal miners in UK prior to post-WWII-dominance of oil over coal engineered through the Marshall Plan.  The battle to control climate is also the battle to restore democracy.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.
Jane Mayer.
2016, (Doubleday [Penguin Random House]).
Comment: Fascinating study of the careful and successful decades-long campaign by billionaires (not all with interests in fossil fuels) to market libertarian ideas through secretly funded ‘think-tanks’ and ‘research institutes’ and to spread resistance to climate action portrayed as ‘excessive government regulation’.  Similar initiatives are underway in the UK.  For more than most people would ever want to know about the most influential billionaires, the Koch brothers, also see Christopher Leonard, Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America (Simon & Schuster, 2019).

Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics.
Matto Mildenberger
2020, (MIT, paperback).
Comment: We know that powerful corporations have supported climate denial and resisted necessary change, but this study by a political scientist shows that labor unions, understandably concerned about losses of jobs that are often exaggerated by corporate leaders in the industry, frequently work with their own industry’s corporations to oppose change.  This gives opponents of climate action ‘double representation’ by both owners and workers.

Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States
Leah Cardamore Stokes
2020, (Oxford, paperback).
Comment: A low carbon world will depend on sophisticated electricity grids supplied with non-carbon energy.  Political scientist Stokes analyzes how current electric utilities relying on coal or gas have denied climate change and resisted the innovations that are necessary for the transition to renewables.  Many of the same tactics are used by others in the fossil fuel industry.  Stokes argues that one cannot simply ‘move on’ without first displacing entrenched power.

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