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The Big Disconnect

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As the world trundles from recession to man-made (‘natural’) disasters, we keep looking for scapegoats and quick fixes. Those who know what needs to be done are also keenly aware of so-called political realities. “Never gonna happen” seems to be the motto that carries the day.

–Lobbyists and fossil-fuel interests own the government. Kick them out and restore ethical democracy? Never gonna happen.

–Out-of-control US deficits stretch as far as the eye can see. Raise taxes from 4th lowest in OECD? Never gonna happen.

–As we pass 390ppm atmospheric CO2, 2010 is shaping up to be the warmest year on record. Put a price on carbon to reduce emissions? Never gonna happen.

–Hundreds of billions of dollars per year leave our country for energy imports. Jump start domestic renewables? Pay for them with a gas tax or feebates? Create a clean-energy economy and reduce the trade deficit? Never gonna happen.

–Unprecedented warming-related changes to the natural world create an accelerating parade of man-made ‘natural’ disasters. Respond with international agreements and responsible energy legislation? Never gonna happen.

We are ignoring the elephant in the room. The news cycle focuses on current near-zero interest rates, monetary policy (the “Fed”) and what can be done to stave off deflation or “fix” unemployment before the next election. Our eye is so far off the ball, we’re not even in the right stadium. Though exacerbated by corporate interests and decades of so-called “free market” (gang-bang) economics, every single last one of our economic problems relates to the unholy triad of unsustainable business practices, resource depletion and a warming world.

As my friend Lou Grinzo remarked on the Cost of Energy site, when the world finally wakes up to this terrifying reality in a few short years, the pundits will no doubt blame the scientists for “not making a convincing enough case.” I agree. That’s what I fully expect a sputtering Rush Limbaugh to croak out of his windpipe as the lights flicker out in his studio for the final time.

The case has been fully made, and we are seeing the results on a daily basis. While the right continues to insist that a warming world will be “more pleasant” and “good for crops,” the reality is different. This year’s firestorms in Russia and a year ago in Victoria, Australia are unprecedented events in human history. Flooding has increased dramatically worldwide. The dreaded tropical disease dengue fever is moving northward to Florida. The great lakes are heating up. Pine beetle larvae are no longer being killed by winter frosts in North America, and tens of thousands of square miles of formerly healthy forests are being destroyed, leading to a vicious cycle of increased carbon emissions as the dead trees decay. The winter 2009-2010 epic snowstorms in the US northeast are exactly what would be expected as warmer global temperatures force more moisture into the air. The pH of the ocean has decreased dramatically from about 8.2 to 8.1, leading to stress on coral reefs and a dramatic drop in plankton, the base of the entire marine food chain.

Yet the fossil-fueled denial machine continues to run in overdrive. Warren Buffet last year paid a 25% premium to invest $41 billion in Burlington Northern railroad, which delivers 297 million tons a year of coal to the nation’s power plants. Texas money is flowing into the 2010 California election to promote Proposition 23, a reversal of AB32, the nation’s most stringent greenhouse gas law. Though we are at or near peak coal, the coal industry continues to act as if coal is here to stay. Even as overwhelming evidence of a warming world is literally splashed across hundreds of millions of TV and computer screens, US public opinion on the reality of anthropogenic climate change continues to move towards skepticism.

In a private discussion which has spanned several years, a friend of mine maintains climate change is overblown, and that the real risk is “all of the taxes and regulations that are being proposed [which] will mean a longer period of economic malaise. And that puts it mildly.” I asked this friend if he would bet me $1,000 on the factual outcome of anthropogenic climate change, payable in 10 years (when it would presumably have become undeniable). He refused to take the bet. He won’t risk $1,000 of his own money, but implicitly he’s willing to sit by and risk trillions of dollars in losses to the global economy as we continue to destroy year on year the bounty of ecosystem services on which all industry rests.

This is a sad, sad state of affairs. And it reflects universal human tendencies to think locally and base calculations on a singular goal of short-term local gain. It stands to reason that our brains are wired that way, since for most of human history people stayed in their tribe of birth, and never traveled beyond their horizon.

The only thing standing between us and coming catastrophe is our ability to learn to think longer term and to face up to these problems we have brought on ourselves with filthy energy. Yes our behavior matters. Every time we fire up our car engine or flip a light switch or thermostat, we must remember that. We are killing ourselves with a quadrillion piston strokes. It’s no different than if we ate a little slow poison every day. And it’s not like with poison where one day we would suddenly just keel over.

At some point, if we don’t stop pinning our hopes on this bankrupt and unsustainable consumer economy, it won’t be that some of us will merely lose our jobs. We will wring our hands as the US teeters on the edge of losing its superpower status. More and more will be out of work permanently because the economy will stay broken. There’s not enough credit in the world to fix it. Little by little people will begin to accept that the jobs are not coming back. The social safety net will unravel, and once again the weak will perish. We will elect corn-pone fascists with their “drill, baby, drill” rhetoric and they will try to return to the old ways and crank up dirty and unsustainable production even more and still it won’t be enough. Unless we’re among the lucky few who’ve managed to become super-rich, we will watch as every modern convenience we enjoy is stripped from us, because we simply won’t be able to afford it anymore. We will despair as a warming world creates unending conflict, refugee crises, and a degree of instability we won’t be able to manage. For the first time in centuries, we could come to know global famine. Even the super-rich have to eat. And they alone can hire private armies to make sure they do.

That’s one possible future. Or we could close The Big Disconnect and do something smart about it. Thomas Friedman and many others have proposed solutions, but we don’t want to hear them. “Never gonna happen.” If you think so, please read the above paragraph again. If you think I’m exaggerating, you need to read Eaarth by Bill McKibben.

–President Obama needs to lay this out as a real, current, unprecedented generational challenge, not some kind of “energy independence” lip service such as has been parroted by the last seven American presidents.

–We need immediate revenue-neutral carbon feebates, coupled with tariffs on dirty imports to persuade other countries we mean business.

–A smart grid and national Renewable Portfolio Standard, with a phase-out of all US coal plants by 2025 at the latest.

–Active government participation in the renewable sector, with grants of billions–not millions for commercialization–not research. This would lead to tens of thousands of new, non-exportable jobs. We don’t need alternative energy. We need energy that doesn’t kill us and that supports economic growth on a resource-constrained planet. And we need to re-frame the national discussion accordingly.

Some readers will no-doubt accuse me of alarmism or hysteria. They will compare these predictions to the way-off-base ones Elizabeth Clare Prophet (my mother) made in 1989 about a Soviet nuclear strike on the US. They will accuse me of fanaticism and apocalypticism.

To which I say, WAKE UP, it’s later than you think!

The difference is that I’m not claiming inevitability. Nor giving unsupportable timetables. I’ll even link here to Ray Kurzweil, whose climate optimism I’m sympathetic to. Stephen Hawking, on the other hand thinks we are going to need to leave earth to survive, and he’s arguably the “smartest man in the world.” I’m hardly out on a limb.

Regardless of who’s right, these are slow-motion catastrophes that will unfold for all the world to experience. It won’t be a spectator sport. Because these conditions of ecological collapse took decades to set in motion, they will take an equal amount of time to slow or stop. And they are already underway. Unlike spiritual pronouncements of apocalypse, these are straightforward and observable movements of planetary physics. And that physics has begun to affect the global economy. Most importantly, unlike mythological threats of “divine retribution,” the outcome is completely in human hands.


Comments (17 comments)

Spanish Inquisitor / August 15th, 2010, 6:38 pm / #1

Hi Sean

Seems to me that without leadership, the earth is doomed, if all the signs you mention are correct. My visceral response was just as you said – "he's getting hysterical' – but the science is there, the signs are all there. We can hope that the earth can absorb this poisoning of its balance, but hoping won't fix it if we're wrong. The sad part is that as things get worse, our ability to think long term will diminish, and disappear, as more and more people faced with ever greater hardships (like starvation) look for immediate solutions, not long term ones. If long term solutions are to work, there must be years – decades – of advance work. We can't wait for world-wide droughts, fires and famines to start working on it.

BTW, I never really paid much attention to your family history. I remember you mentioning it in passing, but never bothered to dig into it. I just did when you mentioned your mother in the post. I Wikipediaed her (is that an acceptable verb? Like Google?) and see that she died last year. My condolences. I lost my father last year, and I'd like to think I can empathize, regardless of your family history.

Good post. Thanks.

BlackSun / August 15th, 2010, 7:22 pm / #2

Hey SI,

Thanks for the comment. It's been a while since I blogged. Glad to know people are still reading. :-)

What you said about the advance work is correct. We're already seeing people clamoring for short-term fixes. i.e. "The last thing we need when the economy's in the shitter is energy taxes." But ironically, energy taxes are the only thing that will speed the transition, and the longer we wait the harder it will be to make it happen.

And thanks for the condolences, I send you mine also.

Spanish Inquisitor / August 16th, 2010, 11:47 am / #3

I downloaded a sample of Eaarth on my e-reader after reading your post, and started reading it while working out at the Y this afternoon. Got to the end of the sample and bought the book, while I was on the treadmill, so I could keep reading it. It's depressing, so far. But really convincing.

BlackSun / August 16th, 2010, 12:40 pm / #4

In all the doom and gloom, here's the hope:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/science/earth/1

Portugal will have 45% renewable energy installed by years end. If they can do it, why not the USA? We're supposed to be number one (at least if you believe the patriotic cheering section).

Spanish Inquisitor / August 16th, 2010, 1:32 pm / #5

Maybe I'm not far enough into the book yet, but I get the impression from the first chapter that even if we dropped carbon emissions to 0 immediately, we've still done irreversible damage already.

But that article is hopeful. We have a big wind farm on the mountain ridges just north of me, that you can see from the interstate when I drive to Wilkes-Barre. They are quite majestic in the setting sun.

BlackSun / August 16th, 2010, 3:12 pm / #6

I think we have indeed done irreparable harm. But if we don't stop, it will get even worse. That's the imperative for action.

I love the look of wind turbines, too. I think they enhance property values. I was on a wind farm in Australia where livestock were lazily grazing beneath the towers. It was such a great juxtaposition of past and future.

L.Long / August 16th, 2010, 5:14 pm / #7

And here we are without a working space program so we can escape the coming doom!
And no I'm not being a wise ass as this is a true statement. Many SciFi authors saw this coming and commented the best thing is to leave there by putting the precious 'eggs' of humanity into more baskets.

Spanish Inquisitor / August 16th, 2010, 9:35 pm / #8

Not to get too SciFy here, when the issue is all too real, but I wonder if we could expand the orbit of the Earth just enough to get it that much farther from the sun so as to counteract the warming effect. Neutralize it so to speak.

I only mention it because our space program could be a lot better, but where will it take us? The closest star is 4 light years away, and we have no idea if there is a planet out there. It seems like we're stuck with good old Terra Firma, and maybe we should direct our limited technological expertise to counteract global warming.

peter / August 18th, 2010, 10:12 pm / #9

The earth will do just fine – don't worry about the biosphere for a moment, it has survived a lot harsher catastrophes, not in slo-mo.

The idea to abandon this planet to go WHERE? is just technological drivel – there is nothing out there, we are here and earth is our home.

What will happening – nothing, as anything that is required to change the situation is not affordable, with money squandered to bailout sunset industries, keeping the wallstreet capitalists happy and two wars that transfers a vast amount of public money into some private purses.
So intense research that could be done in developing alternate sustainable energy is just not on the table. Politicians are the last to make unpopular decisions, till the situation blows them onto the dust heap and warlord will reign over the last good pieces of productive earth.
The picture will nor be pretty, check out the situation in Mexico, Afghanistan to get an idea what will be coming down the pipe – not in 50 years imho, much earlier; my guess is within the next ten years the shit will start hitting the fan.

Nature has a way – it is called evolution. Those who are adapted to their environment will survive, the rest will wind up as fossils.
And we are tipping the environment to a point that we will not be able to survive as cultures with the type of sophisticated and very easily to unbalance type of economies.

BlackSun / August 19th, 2010, 9:44 am / #10

peter, I'm worried about people, not so much the biosphere. The Earth will do what it will do. As for a backup for civilization? Could be the Moon, Mars, anywhere where a self-sustaining colony could be established. The idea would be to safeguard hard-won knowledge even if the planet was no longer capable of sustaining life as we know it.

But much better to fix these problems here and now than abandon ship.

Bill / August 19th, 2010, 11:24 pm / #11

Hi Sean. From a scientific point of view I wonder if there is any way we (humans) can possibly live on earth indefinitely without upseting the "natural" balance of nature in some way? Even something as simple as a man-made driftwood campfire transforms a piece of wood in a way that nature otherwise may not have (i.e. charcoal and smoke vs. decayed compost). I'm not suggesting that conservation of resources is a futile waste of time and energy, but rather just wondering out loud if we are in some tragic way eventually doomed? It seems as if every possible source of energy has both advantages and disadvantages, all of which impact the environment. For example wind turbines kill birds and create heat; solar panels take natural resources to make, are highly inefficient, and shade the ground they cover; nuclear fuel creates waste that is almost impossible to safely dispose of; water power kills marine wildlife; biofuel is unsubstainable; etc.; etc. I know that some of my examples are flawed, however I hope you understand my point. (continued below)

BlackSun / August 20th, 2010, 12:39 pm / #12

There are two factors which cause this imbalance. The first is population. When there were less than a billion people, nature could regenerate faster than humans could use up resources, so it wasn't a problem. Now we have exceeded Earth's carrying capacity and that's where the second factor comes in: poorly designed systems and methods.

The Earth gets plenty of energy from the Sun, but we're not using it. Instead we're relying on a couple hundred million years of stored energy, and it's running out fast. Plus, burning stored carbon upsets the global carbon cycle. We need to get onto a "current account" basis, where we're only using energy as it's being supplied, and leaving the carbon in the ground.

Every system can be designed well or poorly. The "drawbacks" of renewables can and should be managed. Bird strikes on wind turbines pale into insignificance when compared with changing the climate which could cause mass extinctions. Solar panels have not come close to the limits of theoretical efficiency, they are very primitive right now. And solar thermal is a much better way to go for utility scale plants. Nuclear could be done safely and without creating a waste stream. Bill Gates is pushing a new type of reactor to do just that.

The point is, Bill we have to engage in systemic thinking. William McDonough's book "Cradle to Cradle" is a good primer. We need to remove toxic and poorly designed products from the market, and concentrate on developing an industrial model that designs products to be reused and truly recycled (instead of "downcycling" which is what takes place now).

One of the problems with getting people to understand the issue is that centuries old first industrial revolution technology and methods are being compared to new methods which are in their infancy.

There is more at stake than just the climate. What's also at stake is economic growth. Closed loop and carbon neutral methods are the ONLY way to grow and support high living standards on a resource constrained planet. The alternative leads to ecosystem destruction and ultimately human extinction.

The choice couldn't be more stark.

BlackSun / August 20th, 2010, 12:41 pm / #13

The answer is not to move backward to primitive methods, it's to move forward to Bright Green sustainable and closed loop technology. Of course it can be done.

peter / August 21st, 2010, 9:41 pm / #14

Of course it can be done.

Yes, it can be done, technologies like carbon capturing could work. Energy sources stretch the range from wind to solar (even centralized in equatorial areas), wave and tidal energy, geothermal, etc.

But neither the political will is there, nor the funds.
We have a situation where real leadership by the still most productive and industrialized country could make all the difference.
Instead this country is engaged in futile wars to sustain old energy, to bail out failed capitalist banking and investment systems, to back up old technology.
It is even worse – they seem to actively obstruct moves to sustainable sources and push oil and gas instead with all the political will they can muster.
The US instead of helping all societies and nations to advance unfortunately shortsightedly chooses to help the destruction of the economic and ecological basis necessary for long term survival of our species – good night man kind?

ChristopherTK / September 2nd, 2010, 9:30 pm / #15

Hello Sean! It has been a while.

Here in Chicago, we have the Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois teaming up with ComEd to install "smart" devices and infrastructure for 130,000 customers as part of a three-year photovoltaic pilot program partially funded with an U.S. Department of Energy grant. The grant will help ComEd install solar arrays on residential homes.

Don't laugh, but given this is Chicago with our uninspired political leadership and corruption, this program is a solid step in the right direction. A successful run will prove you don't have to live in the desert to use solar power on a large scale throughout the city and the publicity of successful testing will surely motivate others in our city to do more to improve our impact due to energy consumption.

BlackSun / September 11th, 2010, 2:40 pm / #16

Hey Christopher, I agree with you. The smart grid is a very important step. Hopefully it won't be long before it's universal.

Doris Tracey / August 6th, 2015, 8:20 am / #17

What kind of carbon are we talking about? Carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide? Carbon dioxide as we all know gives off oxygen and we release carbon dioxide and take in oxygen. Earth changes are created naturally by the sun. We are also not following the laws of nature and are polluting the energy by our own actions, which are returning to us for redemption. We will never have peace on earth until we create it ourselves and become obedient to the laws of cosmos. The laws are the same yesterday, today and forever. Energy, which is God can be abused. America is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas and we have plenty of oil here in America that would sustain us for at least 110 years. We should use these resources that would give people jobs until we find and use cleaner technology. If we all thought the way energy thinks, we would all unite and reason together. We have to learn and study the mind of energy.

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