Fossil Fuel Abolition: Legal And Social Issues


By:  Karl S. Coplan

The scientific community agrees that release of over 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere through 2050 would cause global warming in excess of the maximum tolerable level. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) is even more pessimistic with regard to the maximum tolerable level. We have already burned through 570 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (“CO2e”)—out of one teraton available—leaving only 430 gigatons of burnable carbon remaining. Ever. Currently, attempts to reduce the greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions rate—both domestically and globally—have focused on gradual reductions to achieve a sustainable rate by 2050. To date, these efforts have proven completely unsuccessful: carbon emissions global rates continue to increase. Although the IPCC has concluded that global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut between fifty and eighty percent by 2050,5 neither the now-lapsed Kyoto Protocol nor the most recent voluntary national commitments have come close.6 There is no realistic prospect that sustainable global controls on greenhouse gas emissions will be adopted in the next decade. Instead, the global community is on track to surpass the one teraton available in the next fifteen to twenty years.7 At that point, the only way to avoid climate catastrophe will be the cessation of emissions: the global abolition of fossil fuels. Abolition will be necessary, even though proven fossil fuel reserves of approximately two teratons of CO2e will still be in the ground.

Climate change’s scientific logic mandates that abolition will be necessary. Although the climate activism movement has only recently explicitly adopted this goal, the inexorable math of the climate problem has made this result apparent for years. Political commentators have observed that abolition is the logical endpoint of the climate conundrum and have begun to speculate about the economic dislocations involved under the mantle of “The New Abolitionism.” In 2008, Al Gore—one of the most prominent political advocates with regard to climate change—argued that fossil fuel use needed to be terminated within a decade. The Group of Seven (“G7”) has called to end fossil fuel use by 2100. Even the Saudi Arabian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources has been quoted as envisioning an end to fossil fuels by mid-century. This Article will examine the practical, ethical, legal, and socio-political implications of fossil fuel abolition. First, the Article will consider the practical, ethical, and legal arguments in favor of fossil fuel abolition. Then, the Article will examine possible legal means and authorities to implement abolition in the United States, as well as potential legal objections to fossil fuel abolition. Finally, the Article will consider legal abolition’s capacity to effect the far-reaching changes in our socioeconomic system that a ban on fossil fuels will entail. The Article also will compare the climate reform movement to other social law reform movements in the past, including the civil rights movement, the temperance movement, and the slavery abolition movement. The Article concludes that there are strong practical, ethical, and legal arguments for fossil fuel abolition. However, the climate activism movement must mature before it is likely to achieve the necessary social consensus to implement abolition.

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