What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity

Photo Source Food & Water Watch | CC BY 2.0

As the nations of the world are gathered in Poland to fret about the state of the climate, there’s an unpleasant truth—one might say an inconvenient truth—that climate advocates have long refused to face: Big Fossil Fuel has beaten us.

We’ve done our damnedest to stop them from wrecking the climate, but they’re nonetheless pulling carbon from the ground in wondrous quantities. It was once astonishing that in the U.S. alone they could extract 55 quadrillion BTUs worth of oil, gas, and coal each year, as they did from 1970 to 2005. (A new home furnace puts out about 50,000 BTUs.) But 55,000,000,000,000,000 BTUs looks almost quaint now. Big Carbon extracted 60 quadrillion BTUs from U.S. soil in 2011, 70 quadrillion in 2015, and next year it’s expected to be 75 quadrillion. No wonder the 40 billion tons in CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases that our species emitted in 2001 became 45 billion in 2004, 50 billion in 2009, and 55 billion today. Climactivists have mostly preferred to ignore these ugly facts and focus instead on the impressive growth in renewable energy. And it is impressive. But here’s another somewhat inconvenient truth: We’re not using the new renewables to replace fossil fuels. We’re just using them to keep up with new energy demands—demands from our growing population and the newly consumptive lifestyles of once-poor peoples being lifted from their poverty. In short, Big Carbon is a juggernaut that we’ve hardly checked.

Sure, we’ve won some important skirmishes. We’ve gotten fracking banned in New York, Maryland, and Vermont. We’ve convinced big investors who control more than $7 trillion in assets to divest the $400 billion or so they once held in fossil fuels. Last year when Big Fossil Fuel put Prop 23 on the California ballot to poleaxe the state’s limits on greenhouse gases, we outspent them $30 million to $10 million and won the vote 61 percent to 39 percent. There’s no denying our scrappy militia is growing bit by bit into a guerilla army.

The problem is the “bit by bit” part. Big Carbon is the most powerful industry on earth, an empire as mighty as the greatest political empires in history. They can buy whole governments, not least ours. In 2015 and 2016, the $354 million they spent on U.S. politicians and lobbyists yielded an 8,200 percent return in subsidies. Quite a tidy investment, that. And the beauty is that it’s not just anti-climate Republicans on their dole. Most Democrats are too. The much-misunderstood, supposedly green Barack Obama tucked so many of Big Carbon’s bills into his waistband that he might as well have been their private pole dancer. And boy, did he dance. By the end of his tenure he had opened up so many oil and gas reserves and had adopted so many other carbon-friendly policies that he could boast, accurately, of presiding over thebiggest fossil-fuel boom in American history.

But where we’ve been trounced most resoundingly is in the public mind. The think tanks, so called, that Big Carbon has funded have spread the big lie that global warming is a hoax. Their allied earth-loathers at Fox News and beyond have expanded on the message—brilliantly convincing their audience that efforts to stop global warming aren’t really efforts to stop global warming. They’re an assault on The American Way of Life, a plot by neo-Bolsheviks who want not just to take away our SUVs but to take away our liberties as well. America is now in a literally dumbfounding state in which four in ten presumably un-lobotomized citizens think humans aren’t causing global warming, and five in ten think global warming won’t pose a serious threat in their lifetimes. By one poll an incredible nine in ten Americans think scientists haven’t come to a consensus that humans are behind global warming, despite the agreement of 97 percent of scientists that we are. Plain and simple, Big Fossil Fuel has coldcocked us. We have to give a tip the hat to our esteemed foes.

That said, the good times won’t last forever, and nobody knows it better than the Big Carbon and their money men. Last year Jeffrey Sachs—Jeffrey Sachs—grimly warned investors in fossil fuels, “Your investments are going to sour. The growing devastation caused by climate change [is] going to blow a hole through your fossil-fuel portfolio. Not only will the companies you own suffer as society begins to abandon fossil fuels in earnest, they will also be dragged through the courts here and abroad for their long-standing malfeasance and denial of what they have done to the world.” And although Big Fossil Fuel isn’t yet suffering from the plunging price of renewables—and won’t for some time—it will eventually. Fossil firms are in the predicament of the besieged Tsarists at old Sevastopol, who were holed up in a redoubt of such strength that they could, and did, make their besiegers pay dearly to take it, even though it was inevitable their defenses would fall and their empire molder. Fossil firms have given every sign they intend to hold on to the bitterest of ends, sending Earth’s temperature far beyond what we can reasonably handle and bringing ghastly suffering to a great many of us.

When I say “far beyond what we can reasonably handle,” you may think I’m referring to crossing the 2°C line—the rise in the global mean temperature of 2°C (3.6°F) beyond the pre-industrial norm. Up to 2°C we’re relatively safe. Beyond lies a dangerous world. Or so our scientists, politicians, activists, and journalists have told us time and again, mostly recently in the report of the hyper-cautious UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said we still have a dozen years before we’re in real trouble. But such statements are another great fiction in the climate debate, second only to Big Carbon’s lie that global warming is a hoax. The fact is, the earth will be horrifically unsafe well before we reach 2°C, and saying otherwise lulls us into complacency.

How desperate is our predicament? It’s crap-your-socks desperate. Perhaps you read David Wallace-Wells’s influential and bleak article last year in New York (parts of which, by the bye, were rightly criticized for relying on iffy science but which overall got our plight right) and you think you know how bad matters are. Alas, the predictions have gotten worse since then, far worse, and only immediate, profoundly deep, and extravagantly sweeping cuts in emissions can mitigate the worst of the coming cataclysm. The patient work of climate advocates can’t get it done in time.

But here’s an idea that might. What if we pay Big Carbon to get out of fossils and get into renewables? The price tag, as I’ll show below, would run a bit under $3 trillion over a span of 12 years, or $240 billion a year. That would be sufficient not only to keep fossil fuel executives gloriously rich (a regrettable necessity if they are to buy into the plan) but also to ensure all of their workers get good-paying jobs in renewable energy. Two hundred, forty billion dollars isn’t cheap, but neither is it prohibitive. It’s about what we spend each year on our niggardly support of the poor and disabled in the form of food stamps, housing vouchers, disability aid, and earned-income tax credits. It comes to all of 5.5 percent of our $4.4 trillion federal budget. That’s a small price to save humankind for a truly horrid fate.

But giving $3 trillion to Big Carbon isn’t something fiscally concerned conservatives will like much, nor will it please Big Carbon–hating progressives. Nor the American millions who are indifferent to all things climate. In fact, the only way this plan will work is if enough of us understand just how monstrous is the fate that lies before us. So here, very briefly, are a few examples of the climate holocaust we’re facing.

The coming hellscape

Start with the megadrought that’s expected to sear a goodly share of the Southwest. This is the Godzilla, the Thanos, the Sharknado of droughts, a parching that, according to scientists at NASA, Cornell, and Columbia, could last 25 to 50 years, kill nearly every tree in the region, make agriculture all but impossible, swirl up toxic dust storms so thick you can’t drive through them and sure as hell don’t want to breathe in them, and dry up so many rivers and reservoirs that cities will be pitted against one another other for water. When we hit global 2°C, the research says there’s an 80 percent chance of a southwestern megadrought sometime in the 21st century. If you live in certain parts of the Midwest, you’re luckier. The odds there are a mere 70 percent.

Ah, you might be thinking, but 2°C is still some distance down the road. After all, even with our carbon profligacy, we’ve heated the climate to only a little over 1.1°C. But that number is misleading because the physics doesn’t allow us to just put the brakes on the warming once we finally stop emitting fossil fuels. The heated climate will keep warming for many a year, which will, to take just one example, melt more permafrost, which will release more methane, which will melt more permafrost, and on and on. The committed warming is due largely to heat that oceans have soaked up and that they’ll eventually, gradually release into the atmosphere, like water in a warmed kettle whose heat is surrendered little by little to the surrounding air. And consider this: Just last month, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab concluded we’ve vastly underestimated, by up to 58 percent, just how much heat the ocean is holding.

Even with that old, overly rosy data, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology concluded that the warming embedded in oceans and elsewhere will warm the earth another 0.3°C once we stop emitting greenhouse gases. Which means even if we emitted our last particle of carbon tomorrow, we’d stop just a hair under 1.5°C. And since it is utterly impossible that we will stop emitting any and all carbon in the next decade or two, 2°C is an all-but-certain fact.

And the Max Planck study was one of the most optimistic. As far back as 2007, the IPCC said our committed warming would be 0.6°C. That’s truly cruddy news because the IPCC’s findings, which must be agreed on by a large number of the world’s climate scientists, are inevitably lowest-common-denominator affairs that have undersold our predicament time and again.

There is a still worse possibility. In 2013, a team of researchers led by James Hansen, the former NASA climatologist and unheeded Cassandra who was the first person to prominently alert the world to global warming, in 1988, concluded that if we hit global 2°C, we’ll have a committed warming of 1°C to 2°C, which means a final resting temperature of 3°C or 4°C. This isn’t just progressive fearmongering. Some fossil fuel giants agree. A report from Royal Dutch Shell a few years ago predicted an endpoint of no less than 4°C. The science is clear about what happens if we get there. We’ll see such horrors as the near-total collapse of the vast Greenland ice sheet, a nearly two-mile-thick repository of frozen water. Coupled with a partial collapse Antarctica’s ice sheets, sea levels could rise a sickening 35 feet—a far, far cry from the two or three feet we’ve long been told would be the consequence of 2°C. Thirty-five feet would put the homes of 10 percent of the world’s people underwater.

Just one more example of our potential fate: As we edge our way toward 3°C or 4°C, the number of people who will be displaced or killed by disease and famine, heat and flood, rising seas and savage hurricanes, riot and war, will number 1 billion or so. Still more people will endure unspeakable misery. Like Dengue fever, which had been on the wane for decades in places like Latin America, but is now resurgent thanks to the warmth and wet in which the mosquitos that carry it thrive. From 1990 to 2000 dengue infections doubled. They doubled again the next decade and are on course to double once more by 2020. Each year nearly 400 million people are now infected with the virus, up from 50 to 100 million in 1988. One hundred million of those 400 million have symptoms. In its worst form, dengue is known as break-bone fever because its victims feel as if their bones are being crushed. There is no cure. It will reach the United States within a few decades.

When horrors like these befall us, the price of everything—food, fuel, healthcare, manufactures—will rise. Some prices will soar. National economies will be hobbled or worse, and we’ll almost certainly find ourselves in a global depression on a scale we’ve never seen. The suggestions that civilization, which is to say organized human existence, is in peril are not the rantings of doomsayers. They’re the wisdom of those who care to look without prejudice or fear, and they’ve been telling us for some time. But how many of us listened when, say, one of the more distinguished scientists of our time, E. O. Wilson of Harvard, warned in 2009, “A few hundred years down the line they’ll look back and say the Dark Ages began with the twenty-first century.”

Pay Big Fossil Fuel to go green

So let’s talk about my $3 trillion plan, which I’m calling Cash to Convert. As I said, both progressives and conservatives have reason to dislike giving big money to the captains of carbon. But most of the money will go to the many small investors whose retirement funds are tied up in fossil fuel stocks, to ordinary workers in fossil fuel firms, and to other workers who’ll get jobs in the New Green Deal that Cash to Convert will engender. According to a 2015 study led by Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson, there could be a net 2 million U.S. jobs in renewables as we move to carbon-zero, and we can get 80 percent of the way there by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. Cash to Convert would take us through 2030.

To become 80 percent carbon-free, we’ll need to overhaul our economy overnight, just as our grandparents did in the Second World War—remaking car factories into tank factories, expanding modest shipyards into immense producers of aircraft carriers and submarines, converting textile plants to make parachutes and helmet straps and uniforms by the millions, building enormous factories to turn out the rivets and altimeters and windshields that became the fighter planes that won the air war over Africa and Europe.

America will need about 6,500 gigawatts of renewable energy to replace all fossil fuels. (A gigawatt is a lot. Just 70 gigs can power the electric grid of the entire state of New York during even its worst heat waves.) Roughly speaking, to make 1 gig of solar panels per year requires one factory of 1,500 workers. To get to carbon-zero, we’d need hundreds of these factories. And that’s just for solar panels. We’re also going to need batteries, wind turbines, and geothermal equipment in previously unthinkable quantity.

But manufacturing will be only a modest part of the new green economy. Most of the growth will come from building and maintaining the new electric grid, because renewables, of course, produce only electricity. We’ll have to retrofit existing carbon-fired power plants to become electric ones, we’ll have to build new plants and substations, we’ll have to run millions of miles of new wire, and we’ll have to install billions of solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal tubes in every part of America. That should be awfully appealing to an awful lot of Congresspeople, to have all that pork—er, investment—to pass out in literally every Congressional district in the country.

How do our titanic fossil fuel firms fit in? We put them in charge of most of this transition—running the factories and power plants, maintaining the electric lines and wind farms, installing the rooftop solar panels and the backyard geothermal systems. They wouldn’t get all of the market. Firms already in green energy would share in the spoils. But Big Carbon, as Big Carbonless, would be assured of an empire as sweeping as the one they command now.

Big Carbon will, of course, have some objections. One is that although they are used to running some of our energy infrastructure, they have little or no experience in manufacturing and installation. Subsidies won’t change that. But the subsidies of Cash to Convert aren’t merely subsidies. They’re guarantees from taxpayers to carry the firms until they’re far enough down the learning curve in their new industry to turn good profits. During the transition, in any year that fossil fuel companies don’t make the profits they’re making now, taxpayers will pay them the difference. Not a bad deal, huh?

Some people who work in Big Fossil Fuel will have another objection: Why get out of a profitable industry that they know exceedingly well? Why risk change? The answer is that change is already on the way. As I’ve said, the industry won’t decline soon, but neither is its decline in the distant future. This is a chance to get out while the gettin’s good.

The price

The study from Stanford’s Jacobson that I mentioned found that the cost of building and installing the entire new green network in the U.S. would be about $14 trillion over the three decades through 2050. (Some researchers dispute some of Jacobson’s conclusions, but the criticisms are themselves disputed.) That’s $440 billion a year, which sounds like a lot until you consider that Jacobson’s group found we’ll spend morethan $14 trillion just to keep the fossil-fuel network running through 2050. So in the long run, the net cost of going green is nothing. But building the green infrastructure—and building it in a hurry—will cost real coin upfront, which is where Cash to Convert comes in. Taxpayers won’t have to pay the whole $440 billion each year, partly because we’ll redirect some of the billions we’re already spending on our energy infrastructure to the green infrastructure and partly because the new investment in green energy will beget profits that will beget more investment, which will pay for some of the infrastructure. But we might pessimistically say taxpayers will have to pay about half of that $440 billion a year—call it $200 billion—for the 12 years of Cash to Convert.

We’ll also need to reimburse the fossil fuel industry for its stranded assets, the money it has sunk into oil rigs and rail lines and super-ports that haven’t yet earned back their cost. Some of these can be retooled for renewables. Others will pay for themselves before the 12 years are up because the fossil firms will keep using them—and profiting from them—while we make the transition to carbon-zero. According to the financial-climatological think-tank Carbon Tracker, if U.S. oilgas, and coal companies stopped all extractions today, they’d have about $370 billion in stranded assets. If we’re again pessimistic, we might estimate the cost to taxpayers at $300 billion, $25 billion per annum. That’s federal chump change—a mere half what we spend each year on the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and we don’t give a frog’s fart about HUD, and didn’t even before it was decorated, so to speak, by the furniture-fond Secretary Ben Carson.

Another expense is our guarantee that fossil fuel executives will keep getting their handsome pay because, of course, they’re never going to go for Cash to Convert if they don’t. Data on what these folks make are hard to come by, but in recent years the top dozen fossil fuel CEOs hoed in about half a billion dollars combined. Most fossil fuel executives made far less. Of late, for instance, the thirteenth best remunerated CEO didn’t even clear $10 million. (I don’t know how he faced the other fellows at the racket club.) It gets more impoverished still further down the chain of command. A typical chief compliance officer, for instance, earns about $170,000. But again, let’s be hard on taxpayers and say executives below the top twelve pulled in average $1 million a year, and let’s also pessimistically say there are 2,000 of these second-tier executives in Big Fossil Fuel. That would put their total pay at just $2 billion a year. Throw in that $500 million for the top dozen CEOs and maybe another $500 million or so for the well-paid boards of directors, plus another $500 million in slop for any unknowns, and we’re only up to $3.5 billion a year. We wouldn’t literally have to pay all that because, again, fossil firms will still make money during the conversion. But even if we had to pay most of it—say $2 billion a year—these are but pence plucked from the federal purse.

Of course, carbon investors won’t support Cash to Convert unless we protect their money too. According to the American Petroleum Institute, in big boom years like 2005 to 2007, the annual return on investment in oil and gas was 14.6 percent. In big bust years, like 2002, ROI was a mere 2.8 percent. More typical are the returns of 6.4 percent of 2012 and 5.8 percent of 2014. The profits of U.S. coal are murkier but (forgive me) they’re clearly in the pits and needn’t trouble us much.

What fossil fuel investors want—what almost all long-term investors want—is a steady return. Boom years are a delight, but they come with sorrow of bust years. If we guaranteed investors the robust 6 percent returns in good years, most would be well satisfied. After all, 6 percent is a damn sight better than the 3.3 percent ROI per year that the Standard & Poor 500 has averaged since 2000. So here’s the Cash to Convert guarantee: Whenever the returns on Big Carbon stocks dip below 6 percent, Cash to Convert will pay the difference. (And again, to be fair, we’d do the same for shareholders who have already invested in green energy. Their number, however, is comparatively small, so the taxpayers’ tab for them will be trivial.)

Estimating the cost of guaranteeing that 6 percent is tricky because of uncertainties in the value of companies and fluctuations in their stocks. What’s certain is that last year the market capitalization of the 25 largest publicly traded U.S. oil and gas companies, plus the market capitalization of most of the publicly traded U.S. coal company, came to $1.15 trillion. Lesser publicly held fossil fuel companies are much smaller and would add only a smidge to that total. Privately held fossil fuel firms are also much smaller than publicly traded firms, with the exception of Koch Industries, the domain of the feared Koch brothers, who have bankrolled the biggest of the climate change fibs. (Even the Kochs, however, are showing faint but noticeable signs of moderation, as when Charles said “there is some science behind it [global warming]. Like, there are greenhouse gases, and they do contribute to warming.”) The Koch kingdom, if its ratio of ROI to profits is something like that of publicly traded firms, would be capitalized at around $130 billion, while the remaining privately held firms might be worth a combined $300 billion. That would put the value of all U.S.-based fossil fuel firms at about $1.5 trillion, on which an annual 6 percent return would be $90 billion. If we continue forecasting gloomily and assume that renewables, although booming now and although projected to keep booming, will get mediocre returns in the immensely expanded green economy—if, let’s say, they do even a little worse than the S&P 3.3 percent, yielding 3 percent returns, we would need to pay $45 billion a year to get investors to the promised 6 percent.

And then there are the fossil fuel workers, the roughnecks of the Permian Basin, geoengineers of the Power River Basin, fracking accountants in Fargo, and pipefitters in Paducah. Cash to Convert must make sure that all of these workers get equivalent jobs in the green economy or get training for new jobs—and that whatever the jobs, they pay as well as the old ones.

This would be pretty cheap if we only had to take care of workers in fossil fuel companies proper. King Coal, for instance, employs just 53,000 people in the United States. Arby’s employs 80,000. Even oil and gas firms employ only 182,000 people. Solar employs 260,000, wind 102,000.

But there are a lot more people who work in companies that are wholly or partly dependent on fossil fuels, like the railways that haul coal, the power plants that turns it into electricity, the gas stations where we fill our tanks. In total, there are about 2 million workers in fossil fuel–related sectors, and according to Jacobson’s study, that’s about how many jobs we’ll lose as we make the carbon-free switch. But here’s the good news: We’ll create about 4 million new jobs. The net, 1.9 million jobs, will mean an abundance of work to choose from, and the extra $236 billion in new individual income will be a boon to the economy.

In taking care of fossil fuel workers, the biggest costs that taxpayers will be helping them retrain and paying them during the transition. Happily, most workers won’t need retraining because their jobs and skills pretty nearly match those in renewable energy. Office managers and marketers, welders and plumbers, truck drivers and heavy-equipment operators, janitors and groundskeepers will be just as needed in green firms as in brown ones. According to a study by Edward Louie of Oregon State University and Joshua Pearce of Michigan Tech, 65 to 70 percent of coal workers could slot into solar jobs with little ado. No one has studied the question for the oil and gas industries, but we probably wouldn’t be too far wrong if we assumed the numbers were roughly similar.

But even for those 65 to 70 percent, we’ll need to make sure they earn as much money in their new green jobs as they did in their old fossil fuel jobs. Louie and Pearce found that 60 percent of workers in the extractive part of the coal industry—miners, ordinance handlers, and their supporting accountants, secretaries, and supervisors—would get an average pay raise of $4,000 a year. Among those who work in coal-fired power plants, 85 percent would get an average raise of $7,000. Taking all workers in coal extraction and power generation, only 29 percent would make less, at an average loss of $12,700. This is the difference taxpayers would need to make up. Again, no one has done a similar study for the nearly 2 million workers in oil, natural gas, and dependent industries, but if we assume the numbers to be proportionate to those in coal, 585,000 total fossil fuel workers would lose $12,700 a year. That’s $7.4 billion a year for the dozen years of Cash to Convert—or it would be if every carbon worker left her job and went into to renewables immediately, which of course won’t happen. Moreover, some workers will leave their jobs through normal attrition or retirement. But to continue our bleak estimating, let’s say we’ll have to pay $5 billion a year—again, a piffling cost.

We’ll also need to pay to retrain the 30 to 35 percent of fossil fuel workers who won’t be able to slide seamlessly into a renewable job. Retraining gets a deservedly bad rap. We’ve all heard the stories of the auto workers and steelmakers whose jobs were NAFTA’d to Guanajuato or made surplus by robots and who were supposed to be retrained to become computer programmers—and who now work at Home Depot for $10.50 an hour. Cash to Convert has to do better. Thirty to 35 percent of the industry’s workforce comes to about 670,000 workers. Subtract those who’ll retire or go into another line of work, and we might have to retrain 500,000. According to Professors Louie and Pearce, training a coal worker to become a solar worker costs between $1,200 and $12,500. If we assume similar numbers for other energy workers, we’ll spend $600 million to $6.3 billion on our 500,000 trainees. Let’s assume the higher figure.

We’ll also need to pay these people during their training, and if Cash to Convert is to gain broad support, those payments will need to be as much as they’re making now. Most training programs for solar jobs last six to eighteen months. Typical is an academic year, nine months. For part of those nine months, trainees would get the usual unemployment benefits, but these run from crummy in blue states to abysmal in red states. We can expect them to cover only about one-third of the lost salary of trainees. We’ll have to pick up the rest, the equivalent of six months of their old pay. The average annual wage for those workers in coal extraction and coal-fired power plants is $59,000, while for those in oil and gas extraction it’s $69,000. We don’t know exactly what workers in the many other carbon-dependent sectors make, but unless Jiffy Lube and 7-Eleven have quietly raised their average wages to $34.50 an hour, most of them undoubtedly earn a lot less. Let’s nonetheless aim high again and say the average worker in a fossil fuel–dependent job earns the $59,000 of the average coal workers. To pay 500,000 trainees half a year of that wage would cost $14.8 billion. Add the $6.3 billion cost of the actual training, and the total retraining bill would be $21 billion. Not a bad one-time investment to create jobs that would generate $30 billion in personal income year in and year out.

We should also guarantee that workers have the chance to work where they want, including, if they like, where they live now. This would be easy to achieve if we simply put the first round of all those manufacturing plants I mentioned in coal country, oil country, and gas country. And we should give former fossil fuel workers dibs on those jobs. Moreover, in every community in America, we will need workers to put thousands upon thousands of solar panels on roofs, to string untold miles of power lines, and to maintain these and all the rest of the grid. And since it’s American taxpayers who are paying for it, we should ban corporations from offshoring the manufacturing jobs. But even if we failed to win that, most of the jobs couldn’t be offshored anyway—not unless someone has found a way for a crew in Suzhou to install solar panels in San Antonio or workers in Pleihu to put up power lines in Portland.

And here’s one more perk for workers: Very few renewable jobs pollute the communities in which they’re located. They don’t poison the water and air. They don’t sicken the old. They don’t give cancer to the young.

We can afford this

If you add up all of the above costs, the gross price to taxpayers is $3.4 trillion. That’s $280 billion a year spread across a dozen years. New savings and revenues will bring the cost down a bit. We’d ditch the $15 billion in subsidies we give fossil fuel companies each year, and we’ll take in at least that much in new taxes from our 2 million new jobs and new corporate gains. (I’m looking only at federal taxes here, but new taxes for state and local governments will also be substantial.) The net cost will look something like $2.9 trillion, or $240 billion a year. That’s not nothing, but we spend $886 billion a year on the military, $625 billion on Medicare, $412 billion on Medicaid. Cash to Convert’s $3 trillion compares pretty favorably with the $7 trillion in tax cuts that George W. Bush and the Republican Congress handed out between 2001 to 2012, or the $6 trillionto $10 trillion of the Trump tax cuts, or the $6 trillion for our blundering adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, or the $5 trillionto $29 trillion we lavished on the Too Big to Fail Banks after they crashed the economy in 2008. Moreover, if we wanted to, we wouldn’t even have to spend $3 trillion to spend $3 trillion. In fact, we wouldn’t have to spend a penny. We could just ask the Federal Reserve to print the money, which is what it did during the Great Recession—creating, out of the thinnest of air, nearly $4 trillion between 2008 and 2014. That’s $570 billion a year, more than twice the Cash to Convert budget.

Making Cash to Convert real

I fear the biggest opponents to Cash to Convert will be not my conservative friends with whom I so often spar but rather my progressive friends with whom I so often agree. They will detest the thought of keeping Big Fossil Fuel CEOs in Caligulan splendor, a detestation I share, but I think their greater objection, which I also share, will be that Cash to Convert does nothing to check capitalism—the overawing force that in its current rapacious form and with its demand for unceasing growth has brought us to the climate brink. Progressives must understand this is a problem for another day. They can, if they like, see themselves as Roosevelts for whom an alliance with Stalin is the only way to stop a greater evil. And for salve, there is the thought that only 1 percent of Cash to Convert’s $3 trillion will go to the captains of carbon, the rest to ordinary people.

For those of you who agree we must enact Cash to Convert or something very like it—for those, that is, who believe civilization is at dire risk and that only drastic action can save us—you’ll also agree that Cash to Convert must come before every other political goal. We must demand it be given primacy in Congress, statehouses, city council chambers, churches, union halls, and anywhere else people gather. We must push it in legislation and promote it in initiatives, and we must withhold our support from any candidate, big or small, until he or she gets behind it.

We must, in short, subordinate all other goals to Cash to Convert. This won’t be easy. Black lives matter. Abortion rights matter. The Fight for $15 matters. The Second Amendment matters. Fiscal responsibility matters. Gay wedding cakes matter. All true, even if we don’t agree which way they matter. What we can agree on is that if we don’t do something about the climate now, none of these matters will matter. We needn’t abandon our other goals, but they must come second.

None of what I’m proposing should be interpreted as a call to abandon the fight against Big Fossil Fuel—at least not until Cash to Convert is made law. Our fight is our leverage. So keep marching in the streets, blockading ports, banning fracking, suing fossil fuel corporations, disrupting shareholder meetings, and all the rest. But also understand, as King and Gandhi understood of their protests, that while it is good to defeat your foes, it is better still to bring them to your side. We cannot win this fight unless they come to our side. If the price is giving them a few billion dollars, is that so much to avert a climate holocaust?

Steve Hendricks is the author, most recently, of  A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial. His website is SteveHendricks.org.