Un-burnable carbon has recently become a popular idea among climate scientists and policy-makers who assert that by using all the known fossil reserves we would dangerously heat the atmposhere. In fact, the fossil resources already booked in corporate ledgers amount to about five times the global carbon budget which should not be exceeded by 2050 in order to keep climate change at 2°C above the preindustrial level.
This idea has led to a slew of interesting work by integrated assessment modelers who established that of all fossil fuels, climate policies would most significantly affect coal so that coal producers would lose most assets if such policies are pursued. On the other hand, fossil fuels left in the ground might serve as an "energy security buffer" and would lower energy trade to the benefit of major energy importers.
But the most interesting article I've read on the topic comes not from academia but from The Nation. Christopher Hayes draws an economic parallel between the possible divestment in fossil fuels and the abolition of slavery in the U.S. According to Hayes, the value of un-burnable carbon in the U.S., is about $20 trillion. He compares this to about $10 trillion in the present-day money which consituted wealth of U.S. slave owners in the mid-19th century. He further observes that.
"The last time in American history that some powerful set of interests relinquished its claim on $10 trillion of wealth was in 1865—and then only after four years and more than 600,000 lives lost in the bloodiest, most horrific war we’ve ever fought."
Hayes is careful to make the comparison purely economic rather than moral. We are equally careful in inferring that an agressive push for abandoning fossil fuel reserves may lead to armed conflicts. Surely not. But Hayes' analogy is an interesting reflection on the magnitude of economic and political challenge we're talking about when we articulate the need for leaving un-burnable carbon in the ground.