Marking Earth Day, MSNBC’s Hayes Furthers Fossil Fuel/Slavery Comparison

As an environmentalist, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes sure does love Earth Day. He celebrated the holiday on Tuesday’s edition of All In by fantasizing about the day when 80 percent of the planet’s fossil fuel will stay in the ground. And why does Hayes not want energy companies to extract fossil fuel? To reduce emissions and prevent global warming, of course.

Hayes, however, lamented that the fuel he believes needs to stay in the ground is worth about $20 trillion, a pricey sum to leave untapped. He laid out the problem for his viewers, as he saw it:



[T]he only way this works out is if we somehow convince these giant energy companies and nations with entire economies built on fossil fuel extraction to somehow leave it behind. To give up their claim on $20 trillion of wealth. To leave that money in the ground.
 

So Hayes wants not only companies, but entire nations to relinquish their livelihoods in the name of his environmental crusade. But the host is not naive; he knows that this will be a momentously difficult task. In fact, he came up with a very interesting historical comparison:
 

[I]n all of history, there's really only one time anything even remotely like that has ever happened. 1865. The end of the Civil War and the liberation of the slaves.
 

Hayes made sure to add that he was not trying to compare the burning of fossil fuels to slavery on a moral level. His point was that it’s difficult to make “concentrated powerful interests” give up their major source of wealth. But it’s kind of amazing that he used a slavery comparison at all. If he’s willing to go there, you know he’s deadly serious about stopping people from extracting four-fifths of the world’s fossil fuel from the ground.

However, Hayes’ rant was not all doom and gloom. He also offered hope to his supporters as he began scheming about how to keep more fossil fuel in the earth:
 

The good news is that getting fossil fuels out of the ground happens to be extremely expensive. It takes a ton of capital investment, billions and billions of dollars to get it out. And that – that is the Achilles heel. One way to attack that Achilles heel is put a price on carbon that makes it not worth anyone's while to take all that stuff out of the ground.
 

Most people would consider it bad news if something is “extremely expensive.” But not Chris Hayes – he has an industry to destroy. He continued by glorifying those who obstruct the fossil fuel industry:

To bring about the day when that stuff stays in the ground, what you are seeing is a movement, including today's Keystone protest in Washington, D.C., seeking to attack that weak link, to disrupt the chain of doom that is the fossil fuel industry by preventing them from making the investments they need to get the stuff out of the ground.
 

Liberals always complain about Republican obstructionism, but apparently obstructionism is okay when left-wing activists are obstructing a major business interest.

Hayes ended his rant by riling up his environmentalist followers:
 

[T]hat is what the Keystone fight is about. It's about the pipeline and the tar sands, but it's about way, way more than that. It's about the point at which we stop, we stop pulling the stuff out of the ground. It's about the point at which we say, this stuff needs to lay there. It needs to stay there. We cannot take it out. It is the red line.
 

That is some powerful rhetoric – calling fossil fuel “this stuff,” talking about a “red line” as if the peace and security of the world were at stake. But it’s the type of liberal activism that has become the hallmark of MSNBC.

Below is a transcript of the segment:

CHRIS HAYES: If we want to stay below that 2 degrees Celsius threshold, there's a limited amount of fossil fuel we can burn. I mean, we know more or less how much fossil fuel raises the temperature a certain amount. And the amount of carbon contained in the proven fossil fuel reserves on the planet right now that we can get out with current technology is 2,795 gigatons. And if we want to stay in that zone of not exceeding the global temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius, we can only use one-fifth of it. 20 percent. That means 80 percent – 80 percent of the known fossil fuel reserves that are on the books that companies like BP and Exxon know about, along with oil-reliant nations like Saudi Arabia, 80 percent of it needs to stay in the ground. 80 percent of the fossil fuel needs to stay the ground.

And this is why I want to talk about money. Because that stuff that needs to stay in the ground, 80 percent of what’s on the books – the fossil fuel companies, the oil-producing nations –  that stuff is worth a ton of money. Best estimates are the ballpark of $20 trillion. And so the only way this works out is if we somehow convince these giant energy companies and nations with entire economies built on fossil fuel extraction to somehow leave it behind. To give up their claim on $20 trillion of wealth. To leave that money in the ground. What do you think the chances are of that happening? It's not an optimistic prospect. In fact, in all of history there's really only one time anything even remotely like that has ever happened. 1865. The end of the Civil War and the liberation of the slaves.



Now, before we go any further, I am not comparing slavery to the burning of fossil fuel. The evil of slavery is specific, distinct, and incomparable. The only thing comparable to slavery is slavery. This isn't about that. It's about a basic question of political economy. What does it take to make concentrated powerful interests relinquish their wealth on this scale? In 1860 slaves, which were considered property in the South, in fact, represented about 16 percent of the total household assets of the entire country. They represented nearly half the total wealth of the South on the eve of the secession. Historian Eric Foner told me, “In 1860 slaves as property were worth more than all the banks, factories, and railroads in the country put together.” In today's terms, a stunning $10 trillion. Again, I'm not talking about the moral price tag, which is incalculable. I'm talking about what the economic value of slavery meant to the economy of southern slave owners, and that economic value was about $10 trillion. And those slave holders, the slave power feared they were going to be forced to give it up. What followed was the bloodiest conflict this nation has ever seen and 600,000 people dead.

So where are we now? Well, here's why you should not be feeling completely hopeless, completely pessimistic faced with this single lone precedent. There may be ways to get to the point where leaving trillions of dollars of fossil fuel in the ground doesn't seem like such an impossibility. The good news is that getting fossil fuels out of the ground happens to be extremely expensive. It takes a ton of capital investment, billions and billions of dollars to get it out. And that – that is the Achilles heel. One way to attack that Achilles heel is put a price on carbon that makes it not worth anyone's while to take all that stuff out of the ground. Another is to work to create cost-competitive alternatives that make the fossil fuel sitting in the ground increasingly worthless. Solar energy, which as we have discussed on this show, is becoming a more viable alternative every day.

To bring about the day when that stuff stays in the ground, what you are seeing is a movement, including today's Keystone protest in Washington, D.C., seeking to attack that weak link, to disrupt the chain of doom that is the fossil fuel industry by preventing them from making the investments they need to get the stuff out of the ground. That, that is what the Keystone fight is about. It's about the pipeline and the tar sands, but it's about way, way more than that. It's about the point at which we stop, we stop pulling the stuff out of the ground. It's about the point at which we say, this stuff needs to lay there. It needs to stay there. We cannot take it out. It is the red line. In this case, the reason the pipeline is so important is that without that investment, without that capital expenditure to build that pipeline, it doesn't make much sense to take all the stuff out. That's the weakness. That's the weakness being attacked and that needs to be replicated times a thousand. So happy Earth Day.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.