Analyst Says Sustaining the Carbon Bubble is Job One for Trump
The oil industry is the primary influence in the incoming Trump administration, and a growing carbon bubble resulting from the urgency of the climate crisis is its prime motivator, self-described planetary futurist Alex Steffen argues in a recent analysis on Medium.
Climate change is the “bedrock reality of this era,” and delaying climate action is “the defining aim of the incoming Trump administration,” Steffen writes. “Trump has surrounded himself with more oil industry and oil industry-connected people than any president in history (even George W. Bush). You can’t understand what’s going on with Trump unless you understand the oil industry…and you can’t understand the oil industry without understanding climate change.”
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Although you wouldn’t know it from following the debate in the U.S., Steffen notes that that the costs of unchecked global warming “are profound already, today, as the Arctic heat wave, Syrian civil war, bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, worsening storms, droughts, wildfires, and freak weather events all show.” On a parallel track, “the innovations we need to create zero-carbon prosperity are already here,” and “a giant building boom is what successful climate action looks like. Because we have no real choice but to act — and, in fact, climate action will make most people not only safer, but better off — big changes are coming, far sooner than most Americans understand.”
That’s bad news for fossil executives who are looking ahead to a massive and growing carbon bubble, as climate change triggers an “enormous shift” in the way people value things, Steffen warns.
“If we can’t burn oil, it’s not worth very much,” he writes. “If we can’t defend coastal real estate from rising seas (or even insure it, for that matter), it’s not worth very much. If the industrial process a company owns exposes them to future climate litigation, it’s not worth very much. The value of those assets is going to plummet, inevitably…and likely, soon.”
And “here’s the thing about bubbles,” he notes: They always pop.”
That means fossil companies and their investors are counting on short-term returns, not long-term viability. “They don’t need a long game, though: their investment horizons are years (or even months), not decades.” So “all they need is the perception of the inevitability of future profit, today. That’s what keeps valuations high.” That means “the carbon bubble will pop not when high-carbon practices become impossible, but when their profits cease to be seen as reliable.”
It follows that the agenda for a government led by climate deniers and fossil executives is to keep up the perception of an invincible fossil market for as long as possible. Add a close kinship with the government of Russia, a petro-state with close ties to a multinational oil company whose CEO, Rex Tillerson, has been nominated for U.S. secretary of state, and the details fall into place.
Such a government would dispute climate science, attack international climate agreements in a bid to make them look unstable (though the rest of the world begs to differ), attack low-carbon competitors, maintain massive fossil subsidies, support a carbon price too low to have an impact, ally with anti-democratic political extremists—and, most of all, invest in as much new fossil infrastructure as possible, as quickly as possible, to make a high-carbon development path harder to abandon.
“Here’s the kicker,” Steffen writes. “If you were going to put in place a presidential administration that was dedicated to taking these actions, it would look exactly like what we have now: a cabinet and chief advisors in which nearly every member is a climate denialist with ties to the carbon lobby.”
The antidote, he says, is for journalists and others to recognize climate change as an economic and financial issue, and as the “core political issue of our day.”