Let’s hark back to the childhood game of musical chairs to talk about fossil fuels and climate change.
My thought bubble: The world’s oil, natural gas and coal producers are, metaphorically speaking, encircling a bunch of chairs, and as the world tightens its grip on heat-trapping emissions, the use of these fuels drops — and so does the number of chairs.
Where it stands: The big question for fossil fuel companies — and efforts to tackle climate change — is when and by how much will demand for these fuels decline? That’s where this existential game comes in, because the possible futures are vastly different depending on the world’s appetite to curb emissions.
- We’re at the beginning of the game, which will last at least decades and may never end. Coal companies are likely the first ones to lose chairs.
- Risk is also materializing for oil and gas companies, which are increasingly seeking to differentiate their strategies to position themselves as the final chairs in this game. Even in a world with aggressive climate policies, they’re betting we'll still need some oil and gas.
But, but, but: In the actual game of musical chairs, eventually the music stops and only one chair remains. In this crude reality, we don’t know when the metaphorical music stops and the game ends — or that it even will.
Between the lines: Big oil and gas companies are employing divergent strategies to try to remain profitable in a widely uncertain future where we play the crude game of musical chairs at vastly different paces.
One future is business as usual, which continues rapid increases in wind and solar and also slow and uneven diminishing — but not abandoning — oil and natural gas.
- This is the track we’re on now. This future lacks coordinated global policy. The chairs would be removed slowly.
Another future — the one scientists, activists, Democratic politicians and a growing portion of the public say we must pursue — includes rapidly cutting emissions in the next 30 years, which inherently means a drastic reduction in fossil fuels.
- Big, global government policy is nearly essential for this future. Chairs would be removed far more quickly.
The bottom line: This isn’t fun like our childhood musical chairs, is it?