By Zach Shahan, Clean Technica, May 28th, 2017
As much as we hope for and need the global pollution industry to collapse (Earth’s wonderful climate will turn into a human oven if it doesn’t), the quick collapse of the oil, gas, and coal industries will have disruptive and far-reaching effects.
The swing state of Ohio had a hand in Trump getting elected president in 2016, and part of that was its deep coal history and how important that topic is to many voters there. The US coal industry is collapsing not just because of the rise of renewable energy sources like solar and wind, but also because of the growth of natural gas production. Automation has put many more coal workers out of business as well. Despite the intricacies of this unstoppable trend, the topic of coal jobs was exploited by Trump and his team to help get elected. Trump will not save many coal jobs and certainly won’t bring any back, but that promise in the midst of the collapse of coal was one of many little keys to Trump’s win.
While Trump’s administration can’t really do much to change the coal industry’s fate, it comes as no joy to read and write about his admin’s efforts to let coal companies pollute more, cause more cancer and premature death, and fight the growth of much-needed renewables.
The bigger player in the 2016 US election was the oil & gas industry. Not only did US oil & gas industries plow millions of dollars into Republican campaigns, including Trump’s, but unfriendly petro state Russia did much on its own via massive fake news campaigns, social media manipulation, and anti-democratic hacking. Russia’s interference in favor of Trump was confirmed by the CIA, FBI, and other US national security agencies. 17 US national security agencies signed onto that conclusion due to the overwhelming evidence.
But hey, Russian leaders were primarily just trying to protect a tremendously threatened oil & gas economy. Russia knew that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats would be much more pro-renewables, pro-electric vehicles, pro-climate action, pro-Russian sanctions (primarily for other reasons), and anti-pollution government leaders. So Russia put its rather big and persuasive thumb on the scale.
We are concerned about the influence of a foreign power like this in our own democratic process, but let’s be frank, the US oil, gas, and coal industries are not looking out for American citizens either. They are trying to grow their own profits and long-term viability. They disrupt our democratic process as much or more than Russia does. They mislead, misinform, and essentially engage in treason as well — but they are permitted to and we just accept that as our political reality today. The results are perhaps no less harmful, and the stakes just keep rising.
These pollution industries are under tremendous threats. More and more people are demanding that we respond to the climate crisis with swift climate action in order to protect humanity’s chances of survival. Solar and wind power have quickly slid in below the price of coal and natural gas power. People are sick of having relatives and friends dying of cancer and suffer from other horrible health problems as a result of pollution. The future is not on the pollution industry’s side, but the pollution industry is going to do all it can to delay that future.
But here’s the thing: There are
billions and billions trillions and trillions of dollars invested in the theoretical future extraction, sale, and burning of fossil fuels. If we burn those fuels, humanity is screwed. If we don’t burn them, a lot of rich people are going to lose a lot of money (or theoretical money). Billionaires and millionaires who care more about their bank accounts than the future of society will fight back — are fighting back. Entire nations will suffer if when the carbon bubble pops. Leaders in the UAE, the USA, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and elsewhere who may understand they need to change, will still struggle to handle the transition if it occurs quickly (as it must).
Some of those people will act as traitors to society, to humanity, to life on Earth. Some of them will try to disrupt elections, smear cleantech-loving politicians, weaken democracies and democratic values. Some of these people will actually resort to murder (or essentially the same thing via wars and poorly regulated pollution industries) in order to make an extra buck or two.
If we ignore the role this financial threat played in Russia’s efforts, oil & gas companies’ efforts, coal companies’ efforts, and the Republican Party’s efforts in 2016 (and 2017), we ignore the deep underlying threat that is causing this disruption to our society.
If we ignore the fact that the popping carbon bubble will cause much more disruption — extending into economic disruption, political disruption, and national security disruption — then we ignore the challenge of dealing with this unprecedented societal transition.
What’s the solution? I’m not so sure. A better informed and more engaged society is surely important. (Share our stories! Take action! Share your cleantech love and your love of democracy!) An attempted movement toward fact-based discussions that don’t turn into food fights seems worthwhile. Compassion for the people who will lose when the carbon bubble pops seems hard to muster but valuable and empathetic.
But let’s be frank — the carbon bubble has to pop, and when it does, we will see much more economic, political, and democratic disruption. We should try to prepare ourselves for this. We should try to prepare our friends and neighbors for this. And we should, of course, try to prepare our economies for this.
Be a leader — as well as a thoughtful follower. The future is being created right now. What kind of future do we want to create internally (mentally, emotionally, spiritually) as well as externally (in the physical world, institutional world, and economic world)? I think the chaos created by the Trump + Russia drama is a good taster for what we need to prepare for in the coming years. Let’s use it as a powerful, positive lesson.
The Shift To Solar, Wind, & Electric Vehicles Is Too Monumental To Overstate, by Zach Shahan, on Clean Technica, Aug 2 2016
Technology Disruption Is Fun, But This Is Seriously Historic
And I like to share photos like this one:
Such graphs and photos help to remind people how quickly things change and how quickly new technologies can take over the market.
But to throw solar energy, wind energy, and electric vehicles into that story is actually an understatement. To live through the development and growth of the technologies in that top graph was pretty awesome, but there’s something that even sets clean energy and electric vehicles apart.
Once upon a time, humans discovered fire. Can you think of anything in human history that happened before that?
Sure, some things must have happened before the first burnt breakfast, but fire goes way back — way, way, way back. Since the discovery of fire, we have burned things to produce fire, heat, and — eventually — electricity. We burn this, we burn that, we dig deeper for more stuff to burn, we look in the ocean for “black gold” to burn, etc.
All of a sudden, we are entering a phase in human history where we can go beyond fire. Phase 2 of civilization (in an energy sense) is now beginning.
This point first landed in my head while watching a presentation from Envision Solar CEO Desmond Wheatley. (Unfortunately, the video has since been removed and I can’t find the presentation elsewhere.) While writing the above line, though, it just hit me that Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute also highlighted the shift in Reinventing Fire. Check out the book, Amory’s TED Talk on the subject, and associated resources for some great information and entertainment.
Why This Is More Than Just Cool
This would be interesting simply for technological or historical reasons, but there’s an obvious reason why this is more than just “cool.”
Humans are running a funny experiment where we will eventually find out if we are warming the world so much that humans one day won’t be able to step outside in some regions.
There’s so much destruction from global warming that would lead to that era that even if we did let the experiment run so far out of control, no human may be around to care.
We simply have to stop burning fossil remains (I’d rather not call them “fuels” at this point) if we don’t want to wreak total havoc on our civilization.
In response to an article I wrote yesterday about Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity, one commenter (Bob Fearn) responded to the section about solar prices with these rhetorical questions: “Good info BUT are we not moving to solar and wind to reduced climate change impacts? Is it therefore not essential that the estimated climate change costs associated with various energy sources be calculated and included?”
Indeed, the costs should be included, but if we are going to be honest with ourselves, the cost of not moving to renewables is $∞ (in case that isn’t obvious to read, that’s the dollar sign next to the infinity symbol).
That’s the logical end of this article, but since humans tend to be so illogical, I’ll add one more section (as an excuse to play with numbers and a chart again).
How Insanely Cheap Are Renewables & Electric Vehicles?
It’s hugely ironic (and depressing) that the #1 barrier to adoption of cleantech like solar energy and electric vehicles has for years been that clean technology is “too expensive.” Even today, with solar often cheaper than any other source of electricity (except maybe wind) and Tesla electric vehicles (Model S, Model X, and Model 3) offering more consumer value than anything else at their price points, the biggest barrier to solar & EV adoption is probably the misconception that they are too expensive.
But even the conventional “cost-competitive cleantech” story is misleading.
This is the (misleading) chart I shared yesterday to highlight the cost-competitiveness of solar energy:
The misleading bit is that chart doesn’t take into account externalities. The marketplace doesn’t take into account externalities.
If the externalities are so high that they wipe out the human species, then you get “$∞” as the cost of the energy source. However, even if you try to be a bit conservative, there is absolutely no case for continuing to burn fossil fuels.
A 2011 study led by the former head of the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment (who is now deceased) found that burning coal for electricity cost the United States ~$500 billion a year in externalities. Those are real costs not included in the price of electricity from coal (healthcare costs, premature death costs, etc.). What that worked out to was an additional 9–27 cents per kilowatt-hour. That means the bars in the chart for coal should be moved 90–270 cents per MWh to the right.
I haven’t seen a similar study for natural gas, but if we are generous and estimate that the externalities are approximately half as bad, that would be 4.5–13.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (which would mean moving the natural gas charts 45–135 cents per MWh to the right).
Hmm, which electricity choices look most sensible to you now?
It would be a very similar story for electric cars versus gasoline cars, for electric buses versus diesel buses, and so on. If someone wants to throw a chart or two together on such comparisons, I’d be happy to share.
Cleantech is ripe. The transition is happening. It could be happening faster, and it should be happening faster, but what can you do? (Oh yeah, you can share this information, go solar, and go electric.)