How to bail out the planet

30 June 2020

Interview with 

George Monbiot

OIL_RIG

An oil rig in the ocean.

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Scientists are saying we need to stop emitting greenhouse gases, full stop. So bailing out the planet means avoiding bailing out fossil fuel companies so that they can keep running. But that’s a huge leap into the unknown, and if done poorly, puts a lot of people out of work at a dangerous time. So can it be done right? Phil Sansom spoke to journalist George Monbiot, who certainly thinks so…

George - Governments are spending a great deal of money keeping companies afloat. And I think that money should primarily be directed to keeping the earth's living systems afloat. And so when it comes to bailing out the oil industry, which governments have over a barrel - or over several hundred million barrels of unsold stock - or bailing out the airlines, if they're going to do so, it should be as part of a programme to re-purpose those industries into businesses which are compatible with a habitable planet.

Phil - So you're saying rather than, for example, what we've seen with Air France, where the French government said, "okay, we'll bail you out on the condition that you cut this amount of flights", you're saying "no, bail them out for the purpose of getting rid of them"?

George - Yes. I mean, either do what so many of these governments say they keep wanting to do, which is to leave things to the market. I mean, they never really do want to do that, but that's what they say, which would be the harsh way, or say "right, here is the only circumstance in which we're going to bail you out, that you are not going to be an airline company or an oil company, by the time this process has ended. You're going to be a completely different company". In either case, the emphasis should be on helping the workers rather than just pouring money into the company. I mean, we've seen lots of big companies around the world receiving huge government bailouts and then promptly burning a load of that money on dividends and share buybacks, channeling that money straight out of government coffers and into the hands of their big shareholders, which seems completely wrong.

Phil - We mentioned oil companies and airlines so far - are those the companies that are the priorities?

George - Well, the crucial task is to leave fossil fuels in the ground. We all get urged to change our light bulbs and improve our insulation. And that's all good. But actually the overriding aim must be to stop extracting fossil fuels because if they are extracted, they will be burned. So you have to deal with both the production side of it and the consumption side at the same time. And so far really we've only been dealing with the consumption side. And that means a deliberate government programme for changing your sources of energy. But that has to be a deliberate crash programme by the government, if we're going to pull out of what is increasingly looking like a death spiral. So the idea of just bailing out the oil industry, and saying "carry on as you were before", is completely incompatible with protecting the future of humanity.

Phil - But how, practically, do you do that to something like an oil company without however many thousands of people losing their jobs?

George - That's why the government has to intervene. If you just said, "right, that's it chaps, shut up shop, that's the end of your industry," hen thousands of people would lose their jobs. But if you said, "right, no, you're going to come out as a completely different industry and we're going to assist that process. So instead of building platforms for oil rigs, you'll be building platforms for wind turbines. Instead of building pipelines, you'll be building high voltage DC interconnectors to bring the electricity ashore." And in fact, there's loads of potential jobs there, if governments get behind that programme. Similarly, there's a potentially huge possibility for employing people in insulating everybody's houses properly. And that is actually quite low cost, high employment; as opposed to some of the bailouts, which are for high capital, low employment companies. So if you do it rationally, and you do it in a deliberate and considered way, you can actually employ far more people than are being employed at the moment while making the green transition.

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