Shifting ownership to avoid climate catastrophe
Johanna Bozuwa and Carla Skandier of Democracy Collaborative have contributed to Common Wealth’s series on the Green New Deal with their piece, Shifting Ownership for the Energy Transition in the Green New Deal: A Transatlantic Proposal. It examines how we can challenge ‘the underlying structures of our economy that have stopped climate action for so long: imperatives of growth, extractivism and corporate control’. The report acknowledges the potential of the Green New Deal and suggests the only way it can ‘unleash itself’ from these imperatives and transform the energy sector is through ‘shifting ownership structures at all levels’.
The report begins by tackling the issue of fossil fuel extraction. Looking at the US, it notes that the Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders ‘have proposed a ban on all new fossil fuel leases on public lands’. While a huge step, ‘US federal lands account for just 40% of national coal production, a quarter of oil production, and an eighth of gas output’. The report argues that the US government needs to secure public control of existing private fossil fuel reserves and advocates a ‘federal buyout of top US-based, publicly-traded fossil fuel companies’. The report advocates the UK following suit, arguing that
‘nationalising the fossil fuel industry in both the UK and US would reverberate across the globe. As two epicentres of major fossil fuel company headquarters, home of extraction points like the Permian Basin in Texas and the North Sea, and printers of two of the strongest currencies that underpin the global financial system, buyouts for a managed decline of fossil fuel production could take the industry out at the knees.’
The authors state the need for ‘a clear and just transition plan for the workers and communities that have been historically tied to these extractive industries’. As it stands, when US coal companies declare bankruptcy, they leave hundreds of employees jobless and thousands of retirees without a pension, while executives receive millions of dollars in bonuses. Nationalising the fossil fuel industry could reverse this and put workers and communities at the centre of transition. They look to historical examples from the original New Deal and the creation of Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), both a strategy to electrify rural America and a major jobs initiative. They acknowledge however that
‘despite the progressive, reconstructive focus of TVA […] the Authority perpetuated and further legitimised a Jim Crow style of racial discrimination against African Americans through its employment practices and community planning.’
Seeking to rectify this as part of a Green New Deal, the report argues that ‘if these regional projects are more democratically accountable, they could have “great potential for community change that is racially and economically just”’. Public ownership would ensure that ‘benefits are not exported’ and participatory democracy would ‘put control in the hands of community leaders, trade unionists and local political appointees’. The report then shifts its focus back to the UK, noting that northern England ‘hosts the majority of coal, oil, and gas production infrastructure that currently supports 28,000 jobs’, and that regional planning will be necessary ‘to think holistically about how we move from a paradigm of extraction and towards a regenerative – and reparative – economy’.
The report finally looks to ‘energy democracy’, which it defines as ‘a commitment to resisting fossil fuels while building a community-controlled and just renewable energy system’. This could take the form of ‘community-based solar, strategies for vibrant, affordable green housing, and even resisting pipelines’. It argues that the main impediment to achieving these strategies are for-profit energy utilities. Again looking to the original New Deal, it compares the investor-owned utilities, which didn’t see rural electrification as a profitable endeavour, to the utility companies today, which view ‘decarbonisation as a social value outside of their concern’. In the 1920s, the Rural Electrification Administration took charge and ‘electrified 90 per cent of rural America in just 10 years’. The report points out that some states in America are already seeking to take ‘the grid back into public control’, while the Labour Party hopes to nationalise the ‘Big Six’ to avoid climate catastrophe. It argues that
‘across the US and UK, our energy future could be removed from for-profit hands in favour of renewable energy, deep democracy, and redistributed wealth.’
Read the full report here.
Read an introduction to the project, Road Map to a Green New Deal: From Extraction to Stewardship, written by Common Wealth director and founder Mathew Lawrence.