After Fossil Fuels: The Next Economy

By Eric W. Orts, Guardsmark Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; Faculty Director, Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership

October 10, 2016

David Orr asked me to serve as a rapporteur for the conference that he organized (with a little help from his friends) at Oberlin College and was held from October 5-7, 2016, and I happily agreed. Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership was one of the first of a number of other organizations to agree to co-sponsor this conference, but the work of attracting a remarkable group of leading experts fell mostly to David and his staff. And what an impressive group they assembled! I have gone to conferences relating to the topic of climate change for more than twenty years, and this was by far the most impressive group of its kind. Headline keynotes were given by celebrity “top influencers” including Bill McKibben, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tom Steyer. In addition, the top executives of organizations including the Sierra Club ad CERES attended, as well as such other well-known names as Gar Alperovitz, Robert Kuttner, Hunter Lovins, and Bill Ritter.

My charge here is to attempt to review the overall course of the conference and to distill some of the major themes. My apologies in advance to anyone at the conference who may feel that I give them short shrift. Inevitably, my own intellectual bias will intrude in selecting the most important themes, but I hope to be as objective as possible in my reporting role. I will also try to be brief.

The conference divided roughly into three parts which were addressed on each day. Of course, different speakers crossed over into different areas, but in general there was an attempt to follow an agenda of organization that would lead to cumulative learning and engagement. Day 1 was devoted to a series of presentations on “theory.” Day 2 focused on elements of the post-carbon “next economy.” Day 3 considered “politics.” This report will follow this division, with transitional keynotes discussed as bridges between the categories.

Day 1: Theory

Elements of the theory needed to make progress on addressing the very large problem of global climate change were addressed by various presentations. These elements included the following.

Vision of sustainability. One must have a working definition of the goal one seeks to accomplish, and perhaps the best reference one can give here is to David Orr’s most recent book, Dangerous Years: Climate Change, the Long Emergency, and the Way Forward (2016). Both economics and politics are necessary to engage, as well as the science providing a background understanding of the challenge. A social transformation is needed to wean human civilization from the destructive use of fossil fuels—namely, coal, oil, and natural gas—and to replace them with renewable energy—such as solar, thermal, wind, and others. Making progress in greater efficiency and conservation in the use of energy is another imperative.

Systems approach. The study of interactions between the natural environment and social behavior and organizations requires a theoretical orientation appreciative of systems, rather than a reductive focus on linear processes. The “next economy” requires innovative new design and reform at both micro (local) and macro (global) levels.

Ethics and values. A general theoretical challenge is to incorporate a new sense of sustainable values and ethics into the social processes of business, work, capital markets, politics, and government. Views of business and markets as concerned strictly with “profit maximization” are inconsistent with this moral requirement. Seeing government as only a game used by people to gain power and influence is similarly impoverished.

Optimistic narratives and stories.   We know from studies in psychology that “optimism is functional” (see Martin Seligman’s work), and a general prescription from the conference seems to be that an optimistic attitude is best even when dealing with the very hard facts of current and impending climate change, including the relentless rise in global concentrations of greenhouse gases, and the fact that average global temperatures continue to set new records. Several presenters noted that 2014, 2015, and 2016 have been progressively the warmest years on record. Fourteen of the last fifteen years have been the hottest ever recorded. Nevertheless, theoretical attitudes toward solving the problem cannot succeed if they fall victim to pessimistic despondency and inaction. New language, metaphors, and concepts are needed. My own view, for example, is that rethinking the purpose and design of business firms is needed as one part of the larger solution (see Orts, Business Persons (2015)). Various presenters focused also on a need to rethink traditional concepts such as “capital” and “eco-system services.” The meanings of “sustainability” itself and somewhat newer ideas of “resilience” are also evolving.

Measurement and accountability. Scientific assessment of progress at all levels is needed as part of the theoretical background. Progress cannot be assumed, and the Paris Agreement opens the door toward better international accounting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions and various mitigation or adaptation strategies adopted by and within nation-states. Other large institutions, such as business corporations and nonprofits, should also install reliable internal accounting standards and practices, following the well-known mantra that “you manage what you measure.” Questions were raised about whether older measures of economic progress such as gross domestic product (GDP) continue to be useful—or whether it would be better to develop and follow new measures of well-being, sustainability, happiness, and freedom from hunger and homelessness.

Fairness and justice. Other key principles—emphasized, for example, by Nikki Silvestri—are fairness and justice, including especially racial justice. The phenomenon of Trump indicates also that many poor and working class whites in the United States have been hurt by current status quo policies. Everyone should be considered when making proposals for change, reform, and reinvention. Progress on climate change will not occur unless all citizens and consumers are respected and included.

McKibben Keynote

Bill McKibben provided a keynote in Finney Chapel at the end of the first day, and as a leading environmental activist (and indeed perhaps the best known activist who led the fight that shut down the Keystone Pipeline) his discussion focused on the need for a citizens’ movement to counteract the inertia and special interests supporting the status quo. McKibben struck three main themes.

Time.   First, climate change is unlike other social problems because incremental, slow progress will not be enough. Adverse effects from global warming are occurring faster than had been predicted twenty years ago. Arctic ice has melted. Ocean have acidified. Very soon, vast amounts of methane may release into the atmosphere from northern tundra landscapes. “If we do not solve [the problem] fast,” said McKibben, “we will not solve it.”

Stop fossil fuels now. According to one recent report, coal, oil, and natural gas companies own reserves that amount to four to five times the amount of carbon that can be safely emitted without blowing through the two degree Celsius average global temperature ceiling agreed as a target in the recent Paris Agreement. Another more recent report has found that current resources already being tapped by these companies will be enough to push the world past two degrees. For McKibben, and for some other environmentalists at the conference, such as the Sierra Club, this means that all expansions of fossil fuel production and distribution should be opposed and, if possible, immediately halted.

Force the change. McKibben sees the status quo, as represented by big fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil and their political influence, as the primary obstacle to positive change. Citizens coming together in a broad-based movement is the only way to counter the political influence of big oil and other large energy companies. A “Keystone-ization” needs to spread to other controversies, such as the current standoff at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to block the Dakota Access pipeline. There has been a long string of recent victories, and McKibben makes a strong argument that these should continue. Politics at the national level also matters, and McKibben opposes Trump on grounds that his campaign denies climate science and threatens to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Day 2: The Next Economy

                  Day 2 was devoted mostly to what the “next economy” in a post-carbon world would look like. Some participants, such as Gar Alperovitz, focused on the need for new local initiatives that break with the standard model of capitalist financing and management. Many examples of creative grassroots economic development were given, and a key lesson from many presentations is that good jobs are necessary for any environmental reform to succeed. The next economy must provide for secure and well-paid new jobs, because otherwise there will be no political will to make the change from business-as-usual. At the same time, other participants, such as Hunter Lovins, argued that big companies must become part of the solution too. Unilever and Walmart were discussed as positive examples, though a general consensus appeared to support the view that most large corporations were clueless, too casual, or actively dissembling (greenwashing). This widespread lack of true engagement by most businesses in finding climate solutions needs to change.

The financial markets play a large role in the problem as well. Mindy Lubber, the CEO of Ceres, examined various success stories of institutional investors pressuring public companies to disclose risk and performance measures regarding greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. In the U.S., the Securities and Exchange Commission has an important task to set “materiality” disclosure standards relating to climate change. Although the size of social impact investing may not yet have had a huge influence, it seems to be growing, and interest on college and university campuses regarding investment policies for endowments (including divestment) has been increasing too.

Mark Campanale of Carbon Tracker provided a well-received analysis of the “carbon bubble” that he and his colleagues have found in the disclosures of fossil fuel companies. A large percentage of assets currently owned by these firms “can’t be burned” if the two degree limit is to be respected. As a result, many of these companies may be financially overvalued—on the optimistic assumption that the political will is forthcoming to curtail this business model. At the moment, however, major investors do not seem perturbed—and they appear to be betting, then, that the two degree limit will be exceeded.

As for solutions, Campanale and other pointed out that the scale of the problem requires massive government (as well as private) investment. Historical low interest rates should be used to finance as much as $70 trillion in global investment in the repair and enhancement of infrastructure, including new smart grids and the development of renewable energy sources. (This very large number compares with $60 trillion as the approximate value of all publicly traded companies in the world.) A number of presenters spoke of the need for a scale of investment to address climate change similar to the expenditures made in fighting World War II. (And one questioner usefully asked: What will be the equivalent of a “Pearl Harbor moment” to provide sufficient motivation for this scale of investment?)

The need to engage with all people, especially those who feel disenfranchised or ignored by globalization, was emphasized, including urban black and white rural populations. Religious groups provide an essential organizational nexus for transformation at the local level. And leaders such as Pope Francis can have large influence at the global level. The role of cities, which account for 72 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, is also key. Joan Fitzgerald noted that the average greenhouse gas emissions in large cities were commonly much less that the average emissions of their countries as a whole. For example, average per capita emissions in New York and San Francisco are less than a third of average emissions of the United States as a whole.

New paradigms were also discussed, such as a need to move toward an objective of “plenitude,” as advocated by Juliet Schor, instead of economic growth. An attitude of plenitude adopts a view that natural resources should be enjoyed rather than exploited. And climate change policies need to fit into a larger strategic template that include other large-scale problems, according to Mark Mykleby and Patrick Doherty. Sustainability should go hand-in-hand with policies promoting economic prosperity and national security.

Brune Keynote

Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, gave a transitional keynote speech that echoed McKibben’s call to oppose the expansion of the fossil fuel industry as a primary target. He first noted an impressive record of success for environmentalists, particularly in the Beyond Coal campaign. Of 200 coal plants proposed fourteen years ago, for example, 90 percent were stopped by coordinated activism and litigation. Six years ago, there were 523 coal plants in the United States, and today more than half of them have been retired. The well-known example of stopping the Keystone Pipeline has been replicated by a string of recent environmentalist victories against similar pipelines and projects. Finally and perhaps most importantly, the overall cost of solar and wind technologies has become very competitive with, and often cheaper than, traditional coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear alternatives.

Brune then drew several lessons from his experience that provided a bridge to discussion about politics in the final day of the conference.

Keep winning. Recent environmentalist victories against the expansion of fossil fuel facilities should continue and, if possible, accelerate.

Reach out to Republicans and Independents as allies. Brune was the first to tag this theme which was later repeated by others. Many of the Sierra Club “wins” have occurred in very politically conservative areas of the country. Climate change cannot remain a cause only of one major party in the United States. Polls show majorities of Republicans believe in climate science and support transitional strategies (despite the rhetoric to the contrary expressed at the top national level). Supermajorities of the American public support policies to counter climate change as well, including many business leaders.

Get active.   People must organize and vote in order for change to happen. Solutions also must work for everyone (a repeated theme throughout the conference). Businesses that embrace climate friendly policies should be welcomed. And “what victory looks like” must include new well-paying jobs, including for unemployed coal miners and persistently marginalized populations.

Moss and Steyer Keynotes

A tag-team keynote session with Otis Moss and Tom Steyer highlighted themes of religion, race, and generational engagement as important. Moss reflected on his own effort to explain and translate environmental issues such as climate change to his religious constituents in order to make change “by any greens necessary.” Environmental justice links with racial justice in the United States, and Moss also emphasized the essential task of engaging younger people.

Tom Steyer agreed with the need to engage youth and described his efforts with NextGen Climate which, for example, has a presence now on fifty college campuses in Ohio. Steyer cited polls that indicated extremely high levels of support for clean energy solutions (around 80% of younger voters) and a transition to a 100% clean energy economy (91% of Millennials according to one poll).

Religious leaders are important as well, and the recent encyclical by Pope Francis carries great weight. Historically conservative icons such as leaders in the military provide another fulcrum from which change may be leveraged.

Day 3: Politics

It is fair to say that the outsized Arnold Schwarzenegger stole the show on the last day of the conference. The former Republican Governor of California made an impassioned case for both parties to tackle the challenge of climate change in a bipartisan manner. His catchphrase, riffing on a famous speech by Obama, was that “there is no Democratic water and Republican water; no Democratic air and Republican air.” He embodied pleas by other participants that Republicans had to come to the table, and he was hard to miss or ignore.

Sharing the stage with Tom Steyer, a Democrat who is known for bankrolling politicians who embrace climate friendly positions, the former Governor elevated California as an example that the rest of the United States could follow. Simply “copy us,” said Schwarzenegger, and I “guarantee” economic growth as well as climate progress. He compared California’s economic and environmental success to Germany’s.

In addition, Schwarzenegger emphasized that the fossil fuel companies (which he described as mostly coming from Texas) had to be opposed. He claimed, with respect to their attempts to lobby against reform, that “we terminated them.” (At the same time, he recognized the ability to work with them on climate-friendly projects such the introduction of hydrogen fuel by Chevron in California.) He reiterated a theme heard throughout the conference that policies to address climate change had to provide good jobs too. In his view, California provides an example for other states (including Ohio and Texas) that green policies can lead to economic prosperity. Interestingly, Schwarzenegger found that some of the biggest opponents of environmental policies or initiatives were in fact environmentalists. For example, proposals to build new solar plants in deserts were opposed and delayed on grounds of threats to endangered species such as tortoises.

Steyer largely agreed with Schwarzenegger on the main points. Both argued for economic growth (which was a contested idea for other participants who see a conflict emerging between growth and sustainability). Both emphasized the importance of jobs. Both made the case of a shift toward bipartisan engagement at the national level.

Earlier in the day, Robert Kuttner provided an incisive commentary on the current political situation. White working class people hurt by governmental policies for several decades appear to have become a wild card supporting the likes of Trump and his anti-establishment, anti-globalization, and anti-science rhetoric. Commenting on “the presence of prophetic voices” at the conference, such as McKibben, Kuttner argued that the deeper roots of Trumpism had to be recognized and countered in order to establish a political consensus to address climate change.   He argued against the “liberal elitism” that embraced climate change as a major issue and yet ignored large losses in wealth and well-being of large swaths of the population. A “possible politics” to remedy the situation could focus on reducing levels of material consumption and reversing the incentives that encourage what he called “predatory capitalism.” He also echoed calls by others at the conference for a massive investment in infrastructure, taking advantage of historically low interest rates. Climate change is a challenge “such as we’ve never faced,” he said, and we are “groping for analogies (but not in Trump’s sense of groping).” Kuttner concluded with one memorable quote from the conference, reflecting on the need to take our grandchildren’s perspective into account: “We need not just to be right; we need to win.”


Many others paid tribute to David Orr at the conference, and his inspiration informed many contributions. I will do so here as well, and mention again that these reflections are sifted through my own particular lenses. I would urge interested readers to consult sources provided at the conference for further avenues of self-edification and engagement. I will leave the last word to Orr, though, and quote the following from his new book, which I believe embraces the spirit of the conference overall:

I do not believe that we are fated to destroy the Earth by fire, heat, or technology run amok. But if there is a happier future it will come down to this: to act with compassion and energy, our hearts must be in it; to act intelligently, we must understand that we are but one part of an interrelated global system; to act effectively and justly, we must be governed by accountable, transparent, and robust democratic institutions; and to act sustainably, we must live and work within the limits of our natural system over the longterm. (Dangerous Years, p. xi)

If we are as a civilization in some measure successful in addressing the massive challenge of climate change, the Oberlin conference on “After Fossil Fuels: The Next Economy” will have had some role in inspiring and informing this future success. It was a privilege to be there for the experience, for the education, and for the inspiration.


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