Fossil Fuel Power
Fighting for a Green New Deal means taking on corporate power — and raising the demand for democratic public ownership.
Meg Strader and Harris Liebermann are DSA activists in Seattle.
“I don’t want your hope […] I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is,” said Greta Thornburg in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2019. Thornburg’s “Fridays for Future” movement has spurred millions of students around the world to go on one-day strikes from school to demand concrete, urgent action on climate change.
The insistent tone of the protesters reflects the dire urgency of the crisis we are in. Many scientists have concluded that we are fast approaching, or have already surpassed, the point where unprecedented environmental and human catastrophe due to climate change can be averted. Taking these facts seriously means taking immediate action.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal is the first plan that has actually gained traction in the broad public that proposes action approaching the scale of what climate change demands. It’s widely popular among ordinary people. It has met fierce resistance, not only by GOP politicians who cynically deny climate change, but also by the Democratic Party apparatus.
The Democratic Party doesn’t deny climate change per se; instead they talk about wanting to fight climate change while quietly taking fossil fuel money for their election campaigns and refusing to take real action. This is epitomized in the interaction that was filmed of Senator Dianne Feinstein berating children about being “realistic.”
These politicians are able to hide behind conservative union leaders, who over the last decades have adopted a strategy of cozying up to the bosses of their industries to get this or that concession while falsely pitting good union jobs and climate action against one another.
What is the Green New Deal?
On February 7, 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Senator Edward Markey put forward a Green New Deal (GND) resolution that proposes a wide-sweeping national, social, industrial and economic mobilization to battle the climate crisis while simultaneously addressing current social injustices in the US. It includes a massive investment program for:
- A 10-year plan to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
- Move the U.S. to 100% clean and renewable energy
- Ensure a “just transition” for all communities and workers, with economic security for those currently employed in the fossil fuel industries, and with particular protection for people of color, indigenous people, and poor people
- Create millions of family-supporting, union jobs
- Implement major reforms to provide people with universal, high quality health care, paid family and medical leave and vacations, retirement security, guaranteed and affordable housing, food security for every person in the US
How We Win the Green New Deal
Without a massive upsurge of the environmental movement, linked up hand in hand with the labor movement, the Green New Deal will not pass either the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives or the Republican-controlled Senate. As DSA activists Jeremy Gong and Keith Brower Brown, together with Matt Huber and Jamie Munro, argued in Jacobin on March 21, 2019, the way we win the Green New Deal is by building a mass movement, starting with the huge mobilizations that have already taken place. The People’s Climate Marches in 2014 and the Fridays for Future student walkouts this year have shown that millions of people are prepared to participate in such a movement.
They continue: “Winning a transformative GND will require massive leverage over the political and economic system. We need the ability to force these changes over the objection of broad sections of the capitalist class, who are fiercely unwilling to lose their profits. The confrontational tactics and electoral challenges of the growing GND movement are essential parts of the leverage we need, but we think history shows they won’t be enough. We will also need direct leverage against the capitalist class, right in the places where they make their money.”
So far, the Green New Deal contains no mention of how to defeat the opposition of fossil fuel companies to the programs the Green New Deal calls for. And we can be sure there will continue to be massive opposition from the major energy companies.
The Fossil Fuel Industry
“Just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988,” The Guardian reported on July 10, 2017. “ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron are identified as among the highest emitting investor-owned companies since 1988.” Despite knowing the facts of climate change for decades, these corporations have held consumers hostage, completely binding consumers to use their products and services, and refusing to invest in sustainable industry. In the 1970s, Exxon’s own research revealed the role fossil fuels play in causing climate change, and yet the company intentionally suppressed the information. Instead of giving humanity time to slowly adjust, the energy companies deliberately lied, delayed, and wasted valuable time.
The industrial complex of fossil fuels, cars, airplanes, and military industry has dominated the world economy for decades. The accumulation of capital bound up in these industries is impressive. It’s contained in factories, land, and oil extraction rights, but also in highly developed technologies, patents, supply chains, knowledge about consumers, and the education and skills training of their workforce. Under capitalism, the major capital powers of energy and the industries that rely on them will not give up their profits—and the power to secure these profits—without a fight.
The Koch brothers own the second largest privately-owned corporation in the US, which made a large part of its profits through fossil fuels. They buy politicians like other people buy groceries.
The fossil fuel industry has driven the US into two wars in Iraq; maintained an interventionist role in the whole Middle East; propped up the ultra-conservative Saudi Arabian kingdom for decades; and attempted or carried out coups in Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, and countless other countries.
Some of them are moving slowly toward renewable energy to protect their image and diversify their portfolios to prepare for when fossil fuels run out. However, none of these mega-companies are willing to give up the profits they still aim to gain from fossil fuels, and they fight tooth and nail to delay any conversion plan to a time in the future where sea levels will already be out of control.
Taking Control Means Taking Power
The flow of corporate cash into politics must be banned from the election process. Overturning “Citizens United,” the Supreme Court decision to unleash corporate money as “speech” over our elections, can only be a small first step.
To seriously take up a Green New Deal for our planet means reckoning with the mightiest accumulation of power and capital in history. We can’t control what we don’t own, and these fossil fuel corporations have been using their wealth and power to control our government for decades. They’ve shown time and again they will go to any lengths. Defeating them and passing a robust Green New Deal will require disarming them.
There’s no way around it. Their power comes from their wealth, so disarming these warmongering billionaires means democratizing the industry by taking the major fossil fuel companies into democratic public ownership. In the end, only such a step will end their control over Congress and give us the best chance of winning this fight for our lives and our planet. As long as we leave the power in their hands, the fossil fuel billionaires will sabotage any effort to address climate change.
Under democratic public ownership, the resources amassed by the fossil fuel companies can instead be invested in non-nuclear renewable energy, reforesting, and developing other environmentally sustainable products and practices.
Greening the economy is not a threat to workers’ jobs, but actually a huge boost to the economy, which would mean a proliferation of safe, well-paid jobs. The only people public ownership actually threatens are the corporations’ super-wealthy owners, who would rather see the world burn than give up their wealth and power.
Put the Oil Barons on Trial
If the fossil fuel bosses are overpowered by a combination of a mass movement of millions and their own workforce turning against them, they will try to demand enormous compensation for their loss. However, before any compensation is paid, the energy companies must be put on trial for their lies, and for the damage they have caused the planet and humanity. Their business model has caused untold levels of destruction, and they must be held accountable, criminally and financially. This has to include the profits amassed by the owners over decades.
The new revolt happening in society started as a reaction against what a new generation won’t tolerate anymore: inequality, racism, and sexism. With the Green New Deal, there is a beginning of an outline of the future we need. Now to actually win this future, to prepare the movements to take on the question of power, the left in labor, DSA, and environmental activists should raise the demand to take the fossil fuel industry into democratic, public ownership. Winning this fight against the fossil fuel industry is the only chance our planet has. To win, it will not be enough to ignore power or try to mute it: we must take it into our own hands.
Republican Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell called the Green New Deal a “radical, top-down, socialist makeover of the entire US economy” (Bloomberg, March 26, 2019).
Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats who support the Green New Deal do not intend to end capitalism with their legislation. However, it would be far easier to implement such reforms and keep them on a permanent basis if the movement would not limit its aims to fit within the framework of capitalism, but rather directed its efforts toward a democratic socialist society. This will not include a “top-down” approach, but it must indeed be a “socialist makeover” carried out by ordinary people taking over decision-making.