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Beyond the Carbon Death Knell


“We Cannot Afford to Lose Another Decade”

According to the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released last Sunday, the problem of anthropogenic global warning (AGW) is at a critical stage thanks to years of relative inaction by the governments of the world. Unless there is a major worldwide move off fossil fuels and onto renewable energy sources over the next fifteen years, the IPCC warns, environmental catastrophe will occur. The consequences of not switching include collapse of the world’s ice sheets, drastic increases in sea levels, massive disappearance of forests, inability to grow food supplies, and mass extinction of planet and animal species. It’s not a pretty story.

Thanks to the foot-dragging of the world’s nations, global greenhouse gas emissions rose twice as fast in the first decade of the 21st century as in the last decades of the 20th century. According to Ottman Eddenhofer, professor of climate change economics at the Berlin Institute of Technology and co-chair of IPC Working Group III, “We cannot afford to lose another decade.”

If the stalling continues, the IPCC notes, trillions of dollars will be invested over coming years in power plants, trucks, cars, and buildings that rely on deadly fossil fuels.[1]

 

An Alternative Path

We don’t have to go down that exterminist path. Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson and University of California-Davis research scientist Mark Delucchi have shown that humanity could convert to a completely renewable-based energy system by 2030 if nations would rely on technologies vetted by scientists rather than promoted by industries. Jacobson and Delucchi’s plan to have 100% of the world’s energy supplied by wind, water, and solar (WWS) sources by 2030, calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines, and solar installations. “The numbers are large,” they write, “but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle: society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled its automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956, the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.”

In the “interim,” Jacobson and Delucchi project, “certain forms of WWS power will be significantly more costly than fossil power.” In the longer term, however, nothing could be costlier than continuing on the present path. As the environmentalist slogan says, “there is no economy on a dead planet.”

A bigger obstacle to environmental reconversion than interim cost and scale is the political power of the fossil fuel corporations and their financial backers. Legislators and other policymakers who want to save a livable planet “must find ways to resist lobbying by the entrenched energy companies.”[2]

 

“A Fossil Fuel Renaissance”

Beyond the power of fossil fuel interests, with their deep sunk cost investment in the carbon-gassing of Earth, two great Western beliefs (both significantly underwritten by the carbon-industrial complex) inhibit action towards the WWS conversion. The first belief holds that scientific wizards will invent technologies to remove carbon from the air before it’s too late. No such technologies are remotely on the horizon. There is no justification for banking humanity’s future on such science fiction dreaming.

A second obstacle to the deep green energy conversion is the belief that a scarcity of fossil fuels will lead to the development of alternatives in time to stave off disaster. The belief is utterly false. Thanks in large part to new drilling technologies and energy corporations’ expanded search for new hydrocarbons beneath land and sea, Eddenhofer notes that “we are in the middle of a fossil fuel renaissance.”[3]

That is a remarkable statement with the potential to be something like a farewell reflection on homo sapiens, along with thousands of other species. As evidence mounts yet higher that irrefutably anthropogenic climate change resulting from the excessive burning of hydrocarbons poses a grave and ever more imminent existential threat to humanity and other life forms on Earth, we are in the middle of a fossil fuel renaissance.

Nowhere is that more true than in the U.S., where, President Barack Obama boasts of a new age of so called energy independence thanks in great measure to the sudden and vast expansion of domestic production of shale oil and carbon-rich natural gas (much of which is simply being combusted into the air the extraction frenzy) through the eco-cidal practice of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). According to a recent terrifying report:

 

“Thanks to the success of [the petroleum industry] …in pushing the frontiers of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ to access reserves of oil trapped in shale formations, notably here in Texas and North Dakota, America is poised to displace Saudi Arabia as the world’s top producer. With that could come a hobbling of OPEC and unforeseen shifts in US foreign policy….So rapid has been the change in its energy fortunes that even some experts, as well as policy-makers in Washington, are struggling to keep up. Nor are we just talking oil. So much natural gas is being released by the shale also that for now outlandish quantities of it are simply being burned off into the atmosphere.”[4]

A Suspect Endorsement From a “Copenhagen Conservative”

In Washington, the Obama administration claims to welcome the recent IPCC report. Obama’s science adviser John Holden praised the IPCC for “highlight[ing] the stark reality” on humanity’s need “to limit climate change to less than catastrophic levels.”[5]

Holden’s statement should be taken with a heavy grain of salt. During his first year in the White House, the supposedly “green” president almost singlehandedly destroyed initially hopeful efforts to set binding global carbon emission restrictions at the world climate summit in Copenhagen. According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama was a “Washington liberal” but “a Copenhagen conservative,” functioning as “the conservative stalwart in Copenhagen” by “supporting the least-aggressive steps, advancing the conservative position of opposition to strict world-wide limits on emissions that ask much more of developed nations than of poorer countries.”[6]

 

“An Eloquent Death Knell for the Species”

Obama’s energy policy has been richly consistent with the Wall Street’s Journal’s approving description four years ago. The eco-cidal highlights of that policy include an expansion of offshore drilling, embrace of the myth of clean coal, signing off on the epidemic plague of hydraulic fracturing, building coastal export platforms for Liquefied Natural Gas, and opening up the federal strategic oil reserve to counter Russian power in the European energy market. Two years ago, trumpeting the Keystone XL Pipeline in Cushing, Oklahoma, the supposedly “green” Obama declared the following with great satisfaction:

“Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.”[7]

 

To encircle a dying Earth, that is.

“We are drilling all over the planet – right now,” Obama added to applause.

By Noam Chomsky’s estimation, Obama’s remarks in Cushing amounted to “an eloquent death knell for the species.”[8]

“There is,” to quote one of the many environmental posters that bobbed outside the Copenhagen summit that Obama put to death (with some help from advance National Security Agency briefings on other nations’ bargaining positions[9]), “No Planet B.”

 

On Bended Knee

It is true that the current administration has increased the nation’s investment in renewable energy sources and made some halfway decent initiatives on fuel efficiency and the like. But these greenish measures are small parts of Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy – a policy that includes significant increase of fossil fuel production and subsidies for the insanely dangerous nuclear power industry.

Pretending that they make Obama’s energy record progressive is like imagining that you sent your child off to school with a healthy lunch after packing an organic tofu snack to go along with a double bacon baloney sandwich, a flask of bourbon, and a package of Hostess Ho-Ho’s.

I do not know why so many American environmentalists continue to approach the nation’s current petroleum- and coal-captive, corporate-eco-cidal administration on bended knee, continuing to address it in a respectful tone – as if the White House was run by people who genuinely care about the fate of the Earth. I guess it’s because that administration is headed by a supposedly progressive, technically black Democrat[10] who occasionally says nice green-sounding things to keep part of his party’s liberal and progressive base hopefully on board. I doubt the environmental movement would be so polite if the nation’s leading figurehead was a richer and more explicitly pro-business white male named John McCain or Mitt Romney. This partisan and identity-politicized reluctance to seriously challenge Big Carbon’s deep pockets reach in the executive branch before Clinton II or Bush III helicopters into the oil-blackened White House.

If the world can’t afford to lose another decade, it certainly can’t afford another decade of left-environmental uselessness in the USA, still very much the leading contributor[11] to anthropogenic (really capitalismogenic[12]) climate change – the greatest specter haunting humanity in the 21st century.

Paul Street is author of “Capitalism: The Real Enemy,” in Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, eds., Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA (New York: HarperCollins, 2014) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2014). Street will read from Imagine along with Debby and Michael Steven Smith at Prairie Lights Bookstore in downtown Iowa City on Tuesday, April 22nd (Earth Day) at 7pm.

 

Selected Notes

1. Justin Gillis., “United Nations Climate Panel Warns Speedier Action is Required to Avert Climate Disaster,” New York Times, April 13, 2014.

2. Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, “A Plan for a Sustainable Future,” Scientific American (November 2009), http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/sad1109Jaco5p.indd.pdf

3. Gillis, “United Nations Climate Panel.”

4. David Usborne, “Fracking is Turning the United States into a Bigger Oil Exporter Than Saudi Arabia,” The Independent (UK), March 11, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/fracking-is-turning-the-us-into-a-bigger-oil-producer-than-saudi-arabia-9185133.html

5. Gillis, “United Nations Climate Panel.”

6. Peter Brown, “Obama: Washington Liberal, Copenhagen Conservative,” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2009. According to the leading environmental activist and writer George Monbiot, “The immediate reason for the failure of the [Copenhagen] talks can be summarized in two words: Barack Obama. The man elected to put aside childish things proved to be as susceptible to immediate self-interest as any other politician. Just as George Bush did in the approach to the Iraq war, Obama went behind the backs of the UN and most of its member states and assembled a coalition of the willing to strike a deal which outraged the rest of the world. This was then presented to poorer nations without negotiation; either they signed it or they lost the adaptation funds required to help them survive the first few decades of climate breakdown.” George Monbiot, “Requiem for a Crowded Planet,” The Guardian, December 21, 2009.

7. Barack Obama, “Expanding Our Oil and Gas Pipeline Infrastructure,” Cushing, Oklahoma, March 22, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2012/03/22/expanding-our-oil-and-gas-pipeline-infrastructure

8. Noam Chomsky, “Prospects for Survival,” ZNet (April 2, 2014), http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/the-prospects-for-survival/

9. Oliver Tickel, “How the US Undermined the Copenhagen Climate Summit,” Counterpunch (March 31, 2014), http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/31/how-the-us-undermined-the-copenhagen-climate-summit/

10. Who has, it is important to note, been a disaster for black America and the cause of racial equality. For details and sources, see Paul Street, “Obama Ticket Prices and the Invisible Ruling Class,” Black Agenda Report (March 11, 2014), http://blackagendareport.com/content/obama-ticket-prices-and-invisible-ruling-class; Paul Street, “No Favor to Black America,” ZNet (April 5, 2014), http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/no-favor-to-black-america/

11. Paul Street, “Uncle Sam: Biggest Threat to Peace on/and Earth,” Z Magazine (March 2014); Paul Street, “The Blame China Syndrome,” ZNet (August 16, 2013), http://zcomm.org/zcommentary/the-blame-china-syndrome-by-paul-street/

12. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review (December 2013),http://monthlyreview.org/2012/12/01/the-planetary-emergency; John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010); Richard Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism,” Real World Economic Review, issue 53, June 26, 2010, reprinted with revisions at Truthout (January 15, 2014), http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/21215-beyond-growth-or-beyond-capitalism; Joel Kovel, Chapter 2: “The Future Will be Ecosocialist Because Without Ecosocialism There Will be No Future,” in Francis Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA (New York: Harper Collins, 2014); Paul Street, “Why I am an Ecosocialist,” Open University of the Left (December 14, 2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buHmNaTGanU&feature=c4-overview&list=UUIZ_969hFecsMFl7N7ERP3Q

4 Comments

  1. Clint LaForge April 19, 2014 10:45 am 

    There is another way to skin this cat, in fact probably the only way to skin it….is to go nuclear. And i’m not talking about your mama’s nuclear, I’m talking about Thorium reactors, using LFTR technology. This method of producing massive amounts of electricity has already been tried and proven during the ’60s at Oak Ridge National Lab, and it was only canned when Nixon decided to champion California based uranium breeder reactors, which make weapons material as a by-product, and so he killed the Thorium reactor development.
    Thorium is inherently safe, because it uses a Liquid Fluoride molten salt plus thorium as a fuel base rather than solid uranium fuel pellets in a pressurized vessel. The pressurized vessels, buildings, and redundant pumping systems make building a typical Uranium reactor very expensive; they’re not necessary with Thorium. The element Thorium is fertile, not fissile, so it can’t go critical, therefore shuts itself down in potential power outages, unlike at Fukushima. Thorium reactors use up 98% of the fuel, compared to uranium’s 3%, so much less long-term storage of radioactive waste. In fact the LFTR reactor could use the existing waste as fuel, solving that problem. over time. Thorium fuel is cheap and plentiful, with the spinoff of cleaning up the thorium from rare earth metals mining, where it is considered a contaminant.
    The hot liquid salt at 750 degrees, lends itself to efficient downstream heat processes such as power generation, desalination of seawater, separating out hydrogen for a fuel, combining N and H to get fertilizers, and using the heat to initially extract oil from tar-sands, rather than valuable natural gas.
    Ultimately, with massive electricity generation, and with scalable city size SAFE reactors, we don’t need the expensive distribution systems. Cheap electricity would revolutionize such activities as transportation…electric cars, electric maglev trains, no more need for oil/natural gas or coal for energy, with the resulting cleanup of the environment. No more desertification of the earth as Nitrogen fertilizers can be synthesized. Of course there would be engineering problems of hot salt solutions corrosions, but these could be overcome. I foresee pushback from existing extractive industries, pipelines, electric distribution companies, etc., but ultimately benefits far outweigh the risks of developing this technology. Nuclear opposition has to see the benefit of a Safe, Clean, Non polluting for centuries, relatively Cheap source of bulk power, to back up the renewables.

  2. avatar
    Paul Street April 17, 2014 4:12 pm 

    Joseph Val you appear determined to make this same exact comment (or very close) on every environmental piece I do in which I dare to connect the environmental crisis to corporate rule and capitalism. I support people reducing their energy use and waste on an individual, household, community level, and the notion of living in harmony with the natural environment and other species (beyond anthrocentrism) , sure. Still, there’s no way to a livable future without confronting the entrenched political power of Big Carbon and w/o developing WWS power. Those are big political and collective projects that are necessary.

    • Joseph Val April 18, 2014 3:52 pm 

      i am bound, and determined, to point out insufficiency in any article by anyone where/whenever i see it in the climate arena. I’m sure i don’t have to reiterate the basic point that we the people are the main driving engine of the capitalist enterprise, producers respond to our consumption (which they stimulate and encourage through various subversive means, but surely we can resist the attraction of mindless consumption); and that without a change in consumption levels even WWS will be too little, too late. Current, and recent past, consumption levels reflect a basic dichotomy in human consciousness in which humanity and the natural world (ie, everything else on the planet) exist on differing levels or occupy different spheres of importance, which in turn reflects a conceptual hierarchical chain of being, which exists nowhere outside of a human brain. The current ecological situation is the perfect and natural material expression of our state of consciousness, which guides our daily activity, and irrational activity is indicative of a basic contradictory state of mental being. It is our individual responsibility to examine our every act and take measures to reduce our personal carbon footprint to the greatest extent possible; industry will follow suit, as they endeavour to follow the profits wherever they may lead. Only consumption reduction will render WWS effective, as intended. Otherwise, it will at best buy us perhaps another lost decade of an increasingly miserable existence. The last IPCC report stressed the necessity for “a large net removal” of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, which means taking out more than we put in; WWS merely reduces the amount we will continue to pump into the atmosphere in the years, decades to come. As a species we now reach a flashpoint in which we either dazzle, or fizzle. I appreciate greatly the fact that you’ve linked Richard Smith’s recent articles from another website; they are essential reading, and could potentially be the conceptual underpinning of a transformation in how humans approach being alive on a planet devoted to the production of life. Or it could be that our overdeveloped brain is our Achilles heel.

  3. Joseph Val April 16, 2014 3:51 pm 

    i don’t know why practically every writer on the subject refuses to acknowledge that energy use in the US continues daily at staggeringly insane levels; that our current lifestyle is totally out of touch with any planetary reality; that we are blind to the exorbitant demands we make individually on global resources each and everyday; and then turns around and blames gov’t and industry, as if we had no choice in what we do from day to day. All one need do is take off the googles and look around, the evidence is all around us, all the time; it takes some discipline to not notice it.
    There is no ‘Green’ energy production for the levels we consume. Why is the idea of an 80% reduction in personal energy usage so inconceivable? We tend to only consider what we will have to ‘sacrifice’ in doing so, but never really consider what we stand to gain: a greater level of independence from private monopoly providers; reduction of monthly payments; greater freedom from financial institutions; greater flexibility in daily activity due to reduced hours of compulsory wage earning, usw.
    This is the opportunity to unplug from the pre-fabricated ‘virtual’ lifestyle downloadable from the Clouds where our de jour divinities dwell, and to reclaim a semblance of a human life which is not conceptually divorced from the fabric of planetary life, which is, after all, a holdover from the theological doctrine of human ‘exceptionalism’, itself no more than ego vainly exalting itself.
    An odd combination: self-exaltation and self-destruction.

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