From Oil Shock to Energy Shift

In case you missed it, The Guardian recently posted a new essay by Naomi, in video form: “Let’s kick oil while the price is down.”

Using a framework developed by the terrific climate justice group Movement Generation, Naomi explains why the abrupt crash that has seen oil prices tumble by 50% over six months is not only a shock, but also a gift: an opportunity for the climate movement to demand radical change to our energy and economic systems.

Here’s the video, followed by the full text of Naomi’s essay.

From Oil Shock to Energy Shift

We know that big shocks lead to major political and economic shifts.

And usually it’s for the worse. Wall Street collapses, say, and that triggers 7 years of austerity in Europe. The twin towers collapse, and you’re never quite sure who’s reading your emails again.

But shocks have also triggered eras of positive, progressive change. Like victories for low cost housing and free public healthcare after the Second World War

I think climate change can be such a catalyst, and that’s why I wrote THIS. That the gravity of the crisis can and should spur us to transform our economy for the better. But… it isn’t happening – far from it. Governments are wasting precious time squabbling over emission cuts that are nowhere near what science demands. The fossil fuel companies, meanwhile, keep on drilling.

But think of what we could do. In rolling out renewable energy, for instance, we could take power and wealth-generation away from multinationals and into the hands of communities. And we could ensure that the jobs paid a living wage and went to the people most in need. Same goes for reimagining our food and transit systems. In climate change jargon, this is called a “Just Transition.”

So what is it about climate change that makes it so hard to treat as a real emergency? One answer, as suggested by climate justice group Movement Generation, is thinking in terms of Shocks, Slides and Shifts.

Shocks: those dramatic moments of radical change that seem to come out of nowhere and scream for big shifts. Take the Fukushima disaster: the green movement in Germany harnessed that horror to demand a dramatic acceleration of the country’s energy transition, first from nuclear and, increasingly, from coal. Now nearly 30 per cent of Germany’s electricity comes from renewables. Hundreds of towns and cities have voted to reclaim control over their energy grids. There’s been an explosion of energy co-operatives. Roughly 400,000 jobs have been created.

The tricky thing is that climate change isn’t really a shock. Most of the time it plays out in slow motion, a slide: relentless drought, weird weather, news reports about record-breaking heat and melting glaciers. There are occasional shocks, of course – superstorms that devastate whole regions. But these are confined to a specific location, and we’re never sure how much global warming is to blame.

Sometimes, however, our energy system does deliver jarring global shocks – and pay attention, because we happen to be in the middle of one right now. Just last summer, oil was $100-a-barrel. Now it’s hovering around $50 and has been for the last three months. Make no mistake, when it comes to the most critical commodity in our economy, $100-$50 in six months is a shock.

Could this be the shock that we harness for our big shift?

I think it can.

Low oil prices, for instance, mean we can introduce a fair and meaningful carbon tax – something that’s much harder to do when petrol is expensive. And what if we don’t do it? Well, low prices will just encourage more dirty consumption. The money raised from that tax should go towards green infrastructure. Which in turn would create a whole lot of jobs – the “one million climate jobs” that some labour groups have been calling for.

And that kind of job creation makes a hell of a lot more sense than what the fossil fuel companies are demanding— new tax cuts and other bail outs so that they won’t lay off more workers. That’s insane: if public money is going to be spent on energy jobs, it has to be for jobs that will help save us, not cook us.

In truth, we have wind down the parts of economy that are fueling climate change. And the price shock helps with that too.

From the Alberta tar sands to the North Sea, fossil fuel companies are already canceling or scaling back high cost drilling and mining projects. The profits just aren’t there. Which means that now is the perfect time to unite behind bold demands to “keep it in the ground.” No drilling in the Arctic. A freeze on expansion in the tar sands. And more fracking bans like the ones in New York State and Scotland. There’s also never been a better time for institutions to divest from fossil fuels, since many of these stocks have been underperforming anyway.

Look, I wrote a book arguing that capitalism is at war with the climate – and I still believe that. But sometimes capitalism gives us a gift, and the sudden drop in oil prices is one.

But it’s fleeting: what goes down will go back up.

So let’s not blow what may be our best chance to prevent catastrophic warming.

Let’s turn this shock into the shift we need.

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the international bestsellers This Changes Everything, The Shock Doctrine and No Logo. She writes a regular column for The Nation and The Guardian and is a contributing editor at Harper's.