Michael Hoexter: Politically Fashionable Carbon Gradualism vs. Reality

By Michael Hoexter, a policy analyst and marketing consultant on green issues, climate change, clean and renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Cross posted from New Economic Perspectives

The recent re-entry of the Obama Administration into public discussions and advocacy for climate change action has been a mixed blessing for the climate action movement. On the one hand, President Obama possesses the (U.S.) bully pulpit as President and thus can broadcast messages, which can be heard around the country and the world. Furthermore he leads the executive branch of the US federal government, where his Administration can enforce existing regulations, negotiate international business and political relationships, and set climate and energy targets for the functioning of the federal government’s internal operations. Indications that the US President personally is concerned about climate and assigns it a medium or high priority would, one would assume, make more likely real policy and executive actions, not just speeches. Against the background of relative US government inaction on climate change over the past two and a half decades, the decision to bring the climate issue out of the shadows in the beginning of his last term in office and his June 25th speech would under most circumstances be viewed as a net “win” for climate action and the climate movement, no matter what the exact content of his policy prescriptions.

On the other hand, Obama has had a now long history of attracting the electoral or moral support of, and then frustrating or working against, reform and progressive movements. In numerous policy arenas including climate, after exciting “hope” that change was imminent, Obama has supported corporate friendly actions by government often against the public interest. In numerous speeches, Obama has reinforced in a seemingly self-defeating manner, the deficit hawk creed that the US government is running out of money. His signature reform, the Affordable Care Act, attempts to extend health coverage by institutionalizing the roles of large profit-minded corporations within the already excessively expensive and profit-oriented American healthcare system. Despite a few critical remarks directed at Wall Street, the Obama Administration has been a steadfast friend to the bloated FIRE sector of the economy, favoring mere cosmetic reforms of the banking and financial system, the industry that blew up the world economy in 2007-2008. He has as well reinforced the covert war-fighting and surveillance capacities of the US government, belying his image in some (deluded) quarters as a “liberal” or someone who would be expected to care about civil liberties.

Obama’s climate speech on the 25th and the policy prescriptions accompanying it stoked in equal measure, the first idea that Obama is an ultra-timid liberal/progressive genuinely concerned about his legacy or, alternatively, that Obama is just playing another game with those who actually care about the content of policy as it impacts real people, the real economy and the environment.

Supporting the “timid progressive” thesis, Obama talked on June 25th, seemingly with sincerity, of the generational and moral imperative associated with climate change. He displayed a more than adequate intellectual understanding of the history of the greenhouse effect and the discovery of climate change. He said that he refused “to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing”. In a message echoed for the several months leading up to the speech by the successor to Obama’s campaign vehicle Organization for Action, Obama made fun of climate change deniers in Congress (“we don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society”) seemingly pointing the finger once again at them as the chief roadblock to climate action. In a surprise within the speech, Obama addressed the Keystone pipeline issuing saying that it would be approved only if it did not “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” At one point towards the end of the speech he, in “movement” call-and-response fashion, called upon people to “invest, divest”, seemingly giving Presidential approval to 350.org’s fossil fuel divestment program. The general tone of the speech was then in marked contrast to the usual disregard with which Obama has treated those to his “left” in his previous four and a half years in office.

However there was also adequate support for the hypothesis that Obama’s speech was the next, cunning strategic play to co-opt climate action rhetoric and policy for the oil and gas industry. Obama is well aware of a mounting consensus ranging from “centrists” to the left end of the spectrum that the Keystone XL pipeline would be a monumental step against a sound climate policy. The growing movements against various unconventional fossil fuel sources and extraction technologies cannot have escaped his notice, even if he sees them as a hindrance to his or his patrons’ plans. Still, Obama’s announced policy prescriptions on energy and climate seem to rely almost exclusively on a transition from coal to natural gas, as the primary (source) energy upon which the modern economy would be based. Much of the natural gas that Obama’s energy plan/rhetoric depends upon would be natural gas from hydraulic fracturing or fracking, with its attendant local environmental damage and fugitive methane leakage.

Natural gas system leakage of greater than 2.8%, which is a matter of course in the extraction and distribution of natural gas, will more than negate any positive climate impacts of transitioning from coal to natural gas; the marginal benefit of switching from coal to natural gas only would occur if greater than 97-98% of the fuel extracted from the ground is transformed into carbon dioxide upon combustion. The reason for this result is that uncombusted methane is a 72 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide within the first 20 years of its release into the atmosphere. The calculation of supposed reductions in emissions and net social benefit that would come from switching from coal to natural gas would then have to ignore methane leakage as well as wholesale damages to communities and eco-systems from fracking. These non greenhouse damages include overuse of the local fresh water supply for the purposes of fracking and damage to the water table from inevitable leakage of methane and fracking waste fluids.

In these beliefs about natural gas as a “bridge” fuel, Obama has unfortunately been backed by a segment of the environmental and policy community that believes or wants desperately to believe that fracked natural gas is cleaner and otherwise preferable to coal. Obama may be just acting the role of the natural gas industry lobbyist or may believe, along with this credulous and/or corrupted sector of the environmental and policy community, that there must be fossil fuel “bridge” to the radically different energy and transport system we will need which would generate net zero carbon emissions.

Carbon Gradualism, Born of Neoclassical Economics

The discovery of anthropogenic global warming as a well-supported scientific theory and ongoing process occurred in the 1980’s within the climate science community but it was only in the 1990’s that a significant segment of the international policy community came to realize that action was required in stopping or slowing global warming and addressing its impacts. Many of the world’s leaders or high level bureaucrats in environmental ministries at around the time of the UN’s Earth Summit in 1992 concluded that some policy with regard to carbon emissions would be necessary for human civilization to be sustainable over the longer term. Furthermore the issue of only a small fraction of humanity, located for the most part in developed nations, that was using up the carbon buffering capacity of the atmosphere and oceans in pursuit of its own benefit, became a central dynamic of the international politics of climate change.

The 1990’s were also a time when the neoliberal worldview, based on a blend of neoclassical and Austrian economics, became fully consolidated as the dominant understanding of human society among political elites. With the collapse of Soviet Communism and the embrace of state-led capitalist development by the People’s Republic of China, as well as the growing dominance of finance in the developed capitalist world, the “market” became both the ideal and the assumed encompassing reality of society, the combination of an aspirational goal and a natural fact. Within neoliberal ideology, people were thought to naturally and exclusively “truck and barter” with each other to maximize their individual “utility” and respond in their behavior only to price differentials or their equivalent as a guide to this supposedly all-encompassing drive towards utility maximization. The problem with Communism, it was thought, was that these natural commercial impulses were suppressed by government. Furthermore, financial markets were believed, conveniently, to be the expression of the same sort of natural commercial impulse, efficiently allocating financial resources according to the real requirements of the economy, and whose outsized profits were a reflection of the value they delivered. The nominally “left” parties, such as the Labour and Democratic Parties, in the developed world became convinced of the market’s power or inevitability and became as well political exponents of financialization of the economy and objects of political patronage by the FIRE industry.

In reflection of the dominant trends in economics and economic policy of that era, the central policy instrument which the international community arrived at to combat climate change was an offspring of the neoliberal worldview, itself based on the assumptions of Austrian and neoclassical economics. The Kyoto protocol which became the consensus instrument within the UN to slow warming is anchored in a carbon pricing system that is administered and regulated via permit trading market, a so-called cap and trade system. The idea was that governments would set a quantity cap on the amount of carbon emissions and then sell the permits to emit up to that amount of carbon into a market. In addition, less developed countries could sell offsets to the higher emitting countries, enabling the most “cost-effective” emissions cuts to happen first, often via the purchase of these offsets from less developed countries.

The only mainstream idea that has been discussed as an alternative to cap and trade, a carbon taxation system, shares with cap and trade a similar fundamental model of the economy and how to wring out or replace carbon emitting activities within the economy. Both a carbon tax and cap and trade take the task of social transformation as one that is a step-wise evolutionary transformation of the energy and transport systems, via progressively throttling demand for fossil fuels via increased pricing while, it is implied, increasing demand for non-fossil, non-emitting or low-emitting alternatives. While in the cap and trade the price is a secondary outcome of both the quantity allotments by government and then the trading market for permits and offsets, the idea behind cap and trade is that high emitters will be disadvantaged in the marketplace by having to pass on the increased costs of permits or higher carbon taxation on to buyers or from diminished output to avoid emitting over the cap.

The engine of transformation and energy innovation is in both cases the consumption and entrepreneurial activities of market participants spurred on by increases and decreases in demand brought on by the carbon price. Public sector or private sector “entrepreneurs” will supposedly over time will invent solutions that reduce carbon emissions, as the price of carbon goes up and/or the quantity of permitted emissions goes down. The idea is that successive generations of technology will be invented that gradually approach the zero-carbon bound or dip into carbon negativity, all inspired by calculations of monetary gain and loss by entrepreneurs and private sector actors in the market. The carbon pricing systems both share a view of governments as “herders” of the market and driving market participants (the “herd”) towards lower carbon activities and away from higher carbon activities.

While a carbon price is an inevitability in a carbon constrained world, the belief among policymakers and pundits that the carbon price itself is the engine of change is an outgrowth of erroneous assumptions about political and social reality more generally as well as the economic realities of technological systems, energy innovation and early deployment of energy–using technologies. The notion that markets and entrepreneurial activity will deliver a transformation of the energy and transport system is an idea that lives only in the fact-free world of neoclassical economic theory or unrealistic and/or dishonest policy advocacy derived from that theory.

Natural Gas as a Carbon Gradualist Fantasy

The carbon gradualist ideal contained within the idea of carbon pricing as the leading edge of energy transformation is not simply born out of too-studious acceptance of neoclassical economics’ worldview but also out of the fantasy of an non-disruptive, non-wrenching transition from a fossil fuel run economy to one that is run entirely on renewable energy and perhaps some as yet undiscovered nuclear energy. Politicians and political actors are not eager to join the fight against the fossil fuel industry as well as confronting our societies’ fossil fuel and “cheap” energy addiction overall. The notion that there must exist a gradual transition away from fossil fuels is preferable to a sharp turning away from them because of the consequence that political leaders would have to stage a bitter fight with fossil fuel interests, and would need to fight to assume, in most cases, complete regulatory control over the fossil fuel industry.

It is in this context that the notion of there being a fossil “bridge fuel” and anointing natural gas this status holds a powerful sway in the minds of policy makers. With (fracked) natural gas and for that matter any number of other unconventional fossil fuel products, a bone can be thrown to the oil and gas industry to keep them at bay, and or to receive patronage from the industry to promote and defend them. The threat of radically scaling down their operations by regulatory or other means, is deferred or taken off the table.

Also this allows in the area of electrical generation for there to be a temporary maintenance of the industry’s structure as it currently stands. So-called “thermal” power plants that burn a fossil fuel can be reconfigured from coal or oil to burn natural gas, thereby maintaining the basic infrastructure of the grid intact. That natural gas, however does not appear out of nowhere, and the source of it is increasingly from hydraulic fracturing of shale formations, so called “fracking”. Within the vaporous world of neoclassical economics, far from considerations of the contours of the real, physical world, the tendency of economists to “assume a can opener” is evident in not taking into account the systems of interacting parts that make real economies function. That economists and therefore policymakers would imagine a quick and easy substitution of one input for another is therefore unsurprising but fantasy-based.

While the damages to the land, the politics and welfare of regions and the nation by fracking is being publicized by the journalist/filmmaker Josh Fox and documented by a number of academic researchers, an almost equally appalling spectacle is the shocking credulousness and blindness of government and industry elites in buying the natural gas hype in the first place. Even if the worst abuses of fracking can be technically remedied, which is unlikely, not choosing the available zero-carbon emitting alternative, renewable energy generators, incurs enormous opportunity costs, including the inestimable economic value of a livable climate. One recoils at first from realizing how misled we have been on this front, especially if we include those environmental organizations that have pushed for natural gas conversion. President Obama, though he in both a rather bizarre and also predictable manner turned his big climate speech with its calls to intergenerational morality into an advertisement for natural gas and fracking, is in tune with a good portion of Washington conventional wisdom in this regard.

To be clear, the construct of “carbon gradualism” is not identical to natural gas advocacy nor is it identical to carbon pricing: one can have carbon pricing without carbon gradualist justification. Alternatively one can have natural gas advocacy (most often the case) without a carbon gradualist policy orientation. Carbon gradualism is an implied policy orientation, an embedded assumption in climate policy. The notion of “carbon gradualism” helps explain the fixity and enthusiasm with which both of these politically popular supposed “solutions” are held aloft as near panaceas for energy and climate challenges. Because of the political functions as well as the economic justifications for gradualism, we would expect to see politicians and advocates of gradualism having a hard time absorbing information that de-idealizes natural gas and fracking. The notion of a sharp turn away, a transformation, an “Energiewende” is anathema to the ways they think and or handle themselves politically. It also works against, in many cases, their own personal economic interests because of the wealth and power of the fossil fuel lobby.

Why Carbon Gradualism is Unrealistic

While carbon gradualist policy measures were conceived over twenty years ago as a non-disruptive solution to global warming (though an effective carbon price would still be somewhat disruptive to the long-term business plans of the fossil fuel industry) the physical climate landscape has literally changed. Carbon gradualism’s selling point, besides its harmony with neoclassical economic models of how the economy works, was that supposedly it reflected political and economic realism to be a gradualist rather than working immediately to effect an entire energy and transport system-change. The realism of gradualist approaches turns out to be not a very substantial assumption at all for the following reasons.

1. Time is Short; Shortening the Approach is the Only Choice.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now above 400 parts per million, 12.5% more than the 350 parts per million that was thought to be the upper boundary of carbon dioxide to maintain the Holocene climate, favorable to human civilization. Carbon emissions on a worldwide basis continue to rise and we are seeing, probably due to already “baked-in” emissions an increase in global temperatures to levels not seen for 3 million years or more. As predicted by climate scientists decades ago, we are now experiencing freakish weather in many locations around the world with either long, intense droughts or with excessive precipitation leading to record flooding. We therefore don’t have much time to take a leisurely route to a near-zero or zero-net-carbon society. We do not have the leisure to experiment and arrive at climate solutions by approximation or by lengthy trial-and-error, as the more the climate is stoked with heat-trapping gases, the more chaotic and disruptive the world will become for human endeavors.

2. Foundations of a Zero Carbon Transport and Energy System are Buildable Now

The shift then to a zero or near-zero carbon transport and energy generation infrastructure is now necessary, rather than building first an intermediate infrastructure that simply emits somewhat less carbon. For land-based energy and transport needs we have almost all the technological tools we need to go to a zero-carbon emissions system:

A. Zero carbon emissions electricity generators: renewable energy generators like wind, solar, and hydropower (with management of dam reservoir methane).
B. High-voltage DC power lines that allow low-loss long-distance electricity transmission (to balance renewable energy flows with power demand)
C. Grid-tied electric trains, trucks, and buses
D. Battery electric vehicles that can travel 200-300 miles on a charge
E. Battery switching technology that can allow battery electric vehicles unlimited mileage with 90 second refueling.
F. Building or retrofitting buildings to the Passivhaus standard reduces building energy use by anywhere from 55 to 80% in climates with high space conditioning demand.
G. Replacement in many construction applications of steel and concrete with engineered wood products, enables with sustainable forestry, structures to become carbon negative.

3. Building a Merely “Lower” Carbon-Emitting Infrastructure and Policy Regime Locks in the Carbon-Emitting Status Quo

The building of long-lived buildings and power plants in anticipation of a “somewhat-carbon constrained” world installs stakeholders in the carbon-emitting status quo in positions of power and apparent “virtue”. It also builds long-lived objects that require or at least stimulate demand for fossil fuel inputs. A carbon pricing scheme that targets “cost-effectiveness” in the short-term will encourage investments in half-measures, like for instance a somewhat more efficient way to use fossil fuels (one example are on-site co-generation facilities that use natural gas). Installing a combined-cycle natural gas power plant contrasts well with a coal fired power plant but not with a renewable energy-based supergrid (multiple generators producing the required power output). The cap and trade idea installs the private financial industry in its current bloated form as the pivotal stakeholder in determining how climate change policy is conducted.

4. For a Rapid Transition, Planning and Implementation Today for a Zero-Carbon Infrastructure is Required

Certain aspects of infrastructure, including urban and land use planning need to be anticipated by policymakers and leaders, rather than policymakers or builders waiting for or calculating the effects of a price signal, which those leaders or their predecessors had anyway designed with a certain set of intentions embedded therein. Planning can take into account anticipation of needs beyond calculation of risk reward; it draws upon human functions that are generally depreciated by market processes. Building infrastructure often means disregarding price (often it is not wise to choose the lowest bidder) and focusing on the availability and future of real resources like people and things. There is here as well a creative component which rightly or wrongly people nowadays are loathe to entrust to government: the exact planning and execution of such a building project could not be decided by plebiscite, though with online voting, alternative choices could probably be vetted and commented upon by the public. The alternative to transparent government planning is oligarchic planning where government and powerful stakeholders collude to create an outcome favorable for the few. Carbon gradualism pushes off the day to plan and implement a zero-carbon infrastructure, incentivizing market participants and policymakers to only plan for the medium-term investment horizon and not the longer-term goal.

The Only Realistic Alternative: Rapid, Planned Transition to a Zero-Carbon Energy System with Price Drivers

As above, for a number of reasons, the only practical path is to build as quickly as possible an infrastructure the use of which does not depend upon carbon-inputs for operation, an endeavor that we can plan and execute starting today in many critical economic sectors. A plan such as this requires statements of intention that are in some way or another ratified by the population that express a commitment to create a sustainable society that doesn’t depend upon fossil inputs. Without this statement of intention, followed by credible actions by government and also by individuals and businesses, a plan cannot be reasonably be put in place and acted upon. Such statements of intention are particularly important in nations such as the US or Canada, where there is a strong fossil fuel industry, fossil fuel lobby, and large fossil fuel reserves. There must be an expressed public intention “not” to extract and use fossil fuels and an expressed public intention “to” only use non-carbon emitting energy transformation process within the economy. This contrast sharply with the notion that the only realistic political stance vis-à-vis the fossil fuel industry, or any industrial lobby for that matter, is to adjust regulations slightly, levy a tax or engage them in a pollution permit trading system. A forthright intention to “stop” wholesale fossil fuel extraction and use must be in the mix in order to communicate the moral and existential imperative.

The institution of a “gradualist” carbon pricing system is not a substitute for publicly endorsed statements of intention and a plan, as well as the financial operations of a currency-issuing government that can make such a plan credible. The carbon gradualist fantasy is that somehow the operations of and gyrations within a carbon pricing system would substitute for political and social statements of intention and planning based on those intentions. What carbon gradualism edits out is the role and operations of government both in the economy and within a polity where ethical values that go beyond the purely economic have weight and consequence. Within a political and physical framework of these intentions and plans, a carbon pricing system can then play a role in driving market behavior towards the intended zero-carbon outcome. However, the notion of a “headless” (and heartless) market that somehow cobbles together the zero-carbon energy system by price setting alone, is a fantasy.

The wartime style mobilization required to credibly build such a zero-carbon energy system, rather than being a “pie in the sky” dream, is the only realistic alternative left for our societies and our governments to start on the path to solving multiple co-occurring social and economic problems. I will address the specifics of relevant policy, politics and economics in future installments.

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44 comments

  1. fatmoron

    I think America would sooner die in flames than take the time and effort to adopt any of this.

    1. Walter Map

      Amerika will not die in flames. Not with a bang, but a whimper. It’s expected to survive as a shell of its former self, assuming economic collapse, ecological collapse, and population crash are not terminally severe, and it manages to avoid other catastrophes, like nuclear armageddon and a few others.

      There will be no action on climate change because your corporate overlords (and overladies) don’t want it. They’re willing to accept, and are preparing for, a lower level of survival once planetary ecology turns into hell, so long as they’re still rich and are still in a position to dominate the tattered remnants.

      As usual, Obama’s just throwing a bone to the proles and his utterances on these subjects can be dismissed out of hand. They certainly don’t merit the high-powered analysis and commentary offered by this article, which really ought to be saved for something significant, or at least meaningful.

  2. John F. Opie

    The inevitable result of this kind of thinking is clearly a “green” dictatorship to save the masses from themselves. Democracy, freedom, personal preferences, all sacrificed at the altar of anthropogenic global warming. You don’t need to be a sceptic about AGW to seriously question the ethics involved here.

    1. Banger

      The current system is rapidly moving towards authoritarianism as it is. The question is what sort of authoritarian system do you want to live under. One that features an ethic that cares about the natural systems that sustain us or one that features a system that rewards those who seek power for the sake of power and personal gain.

      From a tribal perspective, I think you have a better chance at a decent life under the authority of those who are currently seeking a clean environment rather than making serfs of all of us.

      1. susan the other

        Agree. The data that bothers me is the IEEE. They say we cannot replace our present level of energy without fossil fuels. I think this is true so the solution is that we must cut back not just on fossil fuels but on the industries that use them to make our car batteries, maglev trains, steel, etc. This item above on “engineered wood products” sound very promising as a building material. The Japanese have long developed paper as a building material. And we can always dig in, go partially underground and use lots of stone. I agree with this post. Gradualism is going to be a disaster. We do need the equivalent of a war-time mobilization to stop CO2 buildup now. So that might be the good news since we are experienced at war.

        1. Newtownian

          I completely agree with you on this and the whole problem being wickedly complex as some people like to say which is outlined in the article.

          A great summary of the issue I recently found was in this book.

          http://digamo.free.fr/ackerman9.pdf Ackerman F. 2009. Can We Afford the Future? The Economics of a Warming World Zed Books Ltd, Cynthia Street, London.

          Ackerman goes into many of the perverse problems arising from a neoclassical perspective – especially the depreciation problem whereby no value whatever is placed on the medium to long term future.

          He is an environmental economist from the Stockholm Environment Institute and is mainstream but also deeply sceptical of its purist output including the implications of Stern and Jackson by implication. It’s a great read – much better than Prosperity without Growth or Stern’s book.

      2. jrs

        Yea I fear more a dictatorship in which eco-activists are “terrorists”. And I think that’s where we’re heading. If our dictators turned out to want to implement ecological sustainability I’d frankly be relieved at this point.

    2. Binky Bear

      Would you characterize the mobilization for both world wars in the United States to have been dictatorships?

      Would you characterize the efforts by the Nixon administration to “whip inflation now” including wage and price controls to have been a dictatorship?

      Why or why not characterize two or more centuries of U.S. Government support for capital and industry with our tax dollars, public lands and chronic misuse of the military as a tool for suppressing democracy at home and abroad as dictatorship?

      Let’s see an argument instead of name calling. AS it stands in the context of history you just sound like you’re mad at the idea that someone could change the status quo ante.

      Imagine if we put as much government effort into reducing our dependence on liquid and solid hydrocarbons as we have on securing those resources from competitors and shielding the dealers from taxes and legal oversight?

    3. Fiver

      Mr. Opie.

      The discussion concerns the end of civilization as we know it, not a century on, but in half that time, because we have trashed and will trash so much of our biosphere in conjunction with Climate Change, and not only because all the evidence indicates the rate of change is accelerating. Moreover, should we be so stupid as to not embark on the execution of this change starting now, we will certainly have global conflict and/or a US Corporate State regime enforced which sees massive regional land and ocean collapses of essential human and bio-systems in any but power-elite chosen “strategic” portions of the globe, which cuts that in half again.

      We have 20 years to complete the transformation starting now – and you pull out the old intellectual fraud that “democracy and freedom” must mean the freedom to do his/her best to help bury the human species as quickly as possible. Hard to imagine a more silly stance given the subject matter.

  3. chris Rogers

    @John F. Opie – A troll for the petro-chemical industry are we?

    No doubt you have real estate investments in properties not presently on the coast and are rubbing your hands in glee at the prospect of New York and other major population centres built on the coast being one metre under water shortly or washed away in their entirety by a rather large hurricane – think New York last year or Katrina.

    1. John F. Opie

      No and no.

      That ad hominem is the only answer you have underscores the weakness of your arguments, such as they are.

      1. Chris Rogers

        Well obviously, Michael’s take is really too much for you to fathom and allegedly cleaning up the environment and moving away from a hydrocabon-based economy equates to fascism now?

        What next, the NSA spying on its own citizens prevents crime, most of which has economic causes, but hey, too hell with the truth and sanity.

        Your comments can be taken apart quite simply, although require more time than I have presently, notwithstanding this, no doubt at the turn of the 20th century the USA was addicted to oil-based fuels – try thinking horses and corn and you’ll get the idea!!!!!!

    2. Pwelder

      This silly post by chrisRodgers shows why fatmoron, unfortunately, has it right.

      Before rushing to sign up for Hoexter’s Great Leap Forward, we need to ask ourselves why, exactly, the outcome will be better than the result for Mao’s original. Hoexter could help with this by doing some compare-and-contrast, but he seems not to see the problem.

      IMO, it’s a be-careful-what-you-wish-for situation. If anything like the crash program proposed here were to happen, the resulting chaos would give the R’s (or something worse) a lock on the Senate and the White House for a long time.

      1. Chris Rogers

        @pwelder,

        Now let me get this straight, Michael and myself, neither of whom are fascists or supporters of the present undemocratic system that rewards those who engage in illegal wars, ruining the environment and spying on its own citizens are allegedly ‘nutters’ or ‘communists’ for advocating a more sustainable energy policy not based on hydrocarbons.

        What next, if you support your actual Constitution or Bill of Rights you are an enemy of the state – oh, forgot that one, Snowdon is an enemy of the state for upsetting your PTB with the truth.

        Our planet is being destroyed by man’s greed and the biggest destroyer is the USA presently – I want a future for my daughter, evidently you want Waterworld for your own offspring!!!

        1. Pwelder

          Never said (or thought) you were a fascist, a nutter, or a communist; and I take your word for it that you’re not a spammer or a troll. But the effect of this stuff you’re putting up on the signal-to-noise ratio is about the same as if you were.

          1. Chris Rogers

            If by stating I support Michael’s core contention, and further, believe if my daughter is to have any kind of a future we need to break from our addiction too hydrocarbons – the mess from which is greater than that from nuclear energy – then evidently I must be a troll – actually, I’ll go one further, for in recognising the issue, I’m a very proud troll.

            By the way, as I don’t have a car, seldom travel and usually purchase second hand goods – I actually do try and do my little bit, so I’m an even bigger troll.

  4. Fishbum

    Actually, the situation is far more dire than the authors describe. Dr. Guy McPherson has identified at least 15 feedback loops that are causing a non linear acceleration in CO2 release which is to say they are not additive, they are multiplicative. I suggest you read it yourself :

    http://guymcpherson.com/2013/01/climate-change-summary-and-update/

    While it may be too late, it is clear that a gradualist approach will doom the planet. There are no markets for future consequences, only today’s price signals.

  5. HotFlash

    It doesn’t appear that govts are nimble enough to turn on this particular dime, but the changes are already coming up from below. Lots of planning already being done, such as here http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/cjce-2011-0523#.Ud6N1m0iwSs (a plan for the city of Toronto to fast-transition to low-carbon by 2030), and the Transition Town movement here: https://www.transitionnetwork.org/support/what-transition-initiative.

    We have no time to wait for ‘government and leaders'”, but fortunately, there are lots of us getting this show on the road now. One of these days it’s gonna be like the Bill Cosby Noah’s ark skit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Tt_YpvwrFg — those first raindrops start hitting and, “OK, Lord, me and you right? ‘Cos I knew all along…”

    1. Banger

      One of the saddest facts to face is that most governments, particularly the U.S.G. is focused not on the welfare of the people or the planet but is focused on rigging markets to favor the oligarchy based on carbon fuel, war, drugs and entertainment, and the FIRE sector. There is no free-country here but an oligarchy that has won public endorsement by providing shiny objects (entertainment, drugs) to keep the people in place. The system works and is very robust and, on the face of it, there are only local small scale solutions and a developing culture of skeptics who will resist, usually passively the authorities.

      We have the technology, the materials and the intelligence and creativity to drastically reduce carbon emisssions if we could put in place these systems–governments and corporations are blocking and repressing these technologies and ideas. Before action can happen we have to fight the system in every way possible and hope for the best.

      1. A Real Black Person

        As social creatures, humans are not smarter than lemmings, collectively, because the overall purpose of human socialization is to get all humans to conform to a common set of behavioral patterns. Yes, we allow certain people to exercise independent thought and to be individuals, but those people are usually people with higher status . In order for most societies to function, most people cannot be high status, and need to go with the flow. The alternative to going with the flow, is social ostracization.

        1. Banger

          I don’t quite agree. The role of social cohesion is not conformity per se–that would lead to too much rigidity–healthy societies exist on the edge of chaos like all organism–to much rigidity and the system cannot adapt to little and it loses integrity. Societies exist to preserve the people in it and it requires, to some degree conformity of some kind. We accept rules so we can all live together and be as synergetic as possible.

          1. A Real Black Person

            “Conformity per se–that would lead to too much rigidity–healthy societies exist on the edge of chaos like all organism–to much rigidity and the system cannot adapt to little and it loses integrity” The unhealthy society you described is exactly what we are, except we have order for low status individuals and we allow people with high status to engage in chaos. We are showing signs of rigidity, and unwillingness or inability to adapt to new information about the consequences of our actions. We have laws that, like all societies, are based on belief systems rather than facts. For example, most human societies on this planet revolve around burning fossil fuels and a general economic concept that “Growth is Good.” Whatever happens to the climate the environment is someone else problem–not ours. We live for the moment and we attribute status to consumption.

            Most human societies are unhealthy because they have too much integrity, not too little. Their belief system, over time become very rigid in many cases, and that is why many human societies periodically fail.

  6. Charles LeSeau

    The world needs to be put on a damned fuel diet, particularly the US. Freakos. I deliberately gave up driving 10 years ago. I had a lovely custom utility bicycle built for me and haven’t looked back, so my point of view is admittedly biased, but jeez, is there any distance that is too short to drive for Americans?

    In the city I had frat boy neighbors who would drive one-eighth of a mile and back for a 12-pack of lite beer, but who jogged to nowhere several miles a day for exercise. Insane.

    I have been suffering this entire summer because I moved to the country to get some quiet, only to discover my neighbor across the road loves to mow his gigantic property on a riding mower for FUN, 3 or 4 times a week, 2 hours a pop, nonstop loud lawnmower growling. (Again adding evidence to my assertion that it is the most normal among us who are the real weirdos.)

    So many things are crying for limits…

  7. Eleanor

    Nice article. I didn’t know about using wood instead of steel and concrete in construction. That it is interesting.

    If anyone has questions about how to get the global economy moving, the list of necessary changes here is an answer. We need to do all this and very rapidly. I figure the only relevant historical example is the mobilization of the US in WWII. We need that kind of command economy, that kind of rapid redirection of industry, that kind of engagement of the entire population and almost certainly price controls and rationing. American democracy survived WWII. Democracy could probably survive another such episode. But democracy and the world cannot survive the idiots in charge now. I am still trying to figure out where they plan to live after they destroy the planet.

    1. Banger

      Where will they live? Do any of them have a plan? I’m sure some have their plans for domed environments but most oligarchs are in denial about who they are and what they want. To put it another way, most powerful people with loads of money believe that their actions improve the world–they have to believe that so they do. Most people are 90% or more irrational and the rich are no exception, particularly the American rich who, for cultural reasons, have to believe they are doing the right thing of face inner chaos.

    2. Massinissa

      What I REALLY dont understand, is why the 1% think its a good idea to cut funding to NASA, since the only way for them out of this mess is to send themselves into space leaving the rest of us. But noooo, they cut NASA funding instead (Least they havnt tried to privatize it. Yet!). When the world goes to the shitter, theyre going to be here suffering with the rest of us.

      The 1% are stupid. If youre going to fuck up a planet for your own enjoyment, at least make plans to leave it.

      They are so psychopathic they apparently dont even plan for their own futures beyond a 2 year window. Hell, maybe even a shorter window. Maybe a 2 month window.

      1. Banger

        I think the elites are so convinced of their own transcendent virtue that they cannot be touched by reality.

        1. Fiver

          Disagree. They know it’s real, and it’s coming. The evidence is in Pentagon planning scenarios using 2020 as the opening frame, most crucially with respect to energy, food and water supplies globally. Big losers abound from India to North Africa, China to Europe. A key part of this “Fortress North America” (no reference to any real document intended) strategy is precisely the tar sands/shale deposits of the US/Canada, as climate chaos is virtually certain throughout the Middle East/Persian Gulf regions due to severe water and food shortages.

          What they’ve done, without ever stating it, is to begin serious planning for extended massive dislocations, growing in intensity and likely culminating in a massive die-off, as in their hopelessly skewed judgment there is no other solution for the US State or its extended corporate capitalism – if consumption must always grow but the system is finite, the only way out is to reduce the consumers and of course their toll on the biosphere. Halving the population would, to the sort of planners currently responsible for thinking about these things, “works”. Not that they planned it, mind you, just planned for it, which makes “it” the plan, when the time comes.

          1. skippy

            Concur… its the preservation of capital thesis… born of ideological perpetuity… me – mine and not thee…

  8. Thor's Hammer

    Excellent article — that is until one reaches the religion section starting at #2.

    Then the author casts aside any reference to concepts of ecosystem dynamics, carrying capacity, energy density, EROI, and built infrastructure conversion costs and feasibility. To say nothing of societal consensus, wisdom, political/ruling class control, and central planning inefficiencies.

    A zero-carbon renewable energy based human occupation of the planet is indeed theoretically possible. But it would look nothing like energy intensive fossil fuel based industrial civilization. And the ecosystem carrying capacity of the planet is probably closer to two billion humans than the seven to ten billion that are now in the womb of our species. Humanity will reach a population level that is within the carrying capacity of the planet within a few short generations. How that happens is not necessarily a pretty picture.

    “Hoping for change” to a magic future where we all drive electric cars to our suburban homes with manicured lawns and swimming pools out back, all powered by free energy from solar panels and wind turbines is as much of a fantasy as believing in a future powered by fracked gas wells that deplete 50% in their first year of operation.

    As a species there is little evidence that we are capable of unified action based upon forethought and wisdom. Even energy technologies that have the potential to keep industrial civilization running into the future like Liquid Floride Thorium Reactors or deep drilling EGS geothermal receive no investment or support because they do not put quarterly profits onto the books and generate bonuses for the “decision makers.”

    Are humans smarter than lemmings?

    1. reslez

      There’s plenty of evidence we as a species are capable of recognizing the actions that need to be taken. The problem is we also have errant humans in charge of everything who prevent this necessary change in order to further enrich themselves. This is the stranglehold that has doomed our civilization and probably our species. Of course, all civilizations eventually end. I have enough optimism to believe the self-destructive impulse of these — they are not “elites” except in their own minds, so let us call them “errors” — is not a fault of our entire species, merely those despicable enough to dictate the policy.

      As for those who estimate the oncoming ecological holocaust will reduce our numbers to 2 billion, I view that as an extremely optimistic projection… as optimistic as a carbon neutral future filled with suburban homes and solar panel swimming pools. A population of 2 billion assumes technological and ecological capacity that will not exist. And die-offs in the natural world don’t bottom out so quickly.

  9. Banger

    This is just a great post that provides a very powerful perspective. Certainly, if you believe the science (many people do not) of climate change you have to go for a zero carbon-emission goal over the current gradual approach favored by the American left.

    The main part of this we must emphasize is that we are ready to move in that direction from a technical, materials and systems point of view. What the author suggests it possible and will keep getting more possible as time goes on. We could literally transform the world without major hardships by using what we know now and funding research on what we don’t know.

    The reason we are not moving in that direction, despite the fact, it would jump start the world and national economy has nothing to do with practicality and everything to do with politics. We are, in the U.S. and, increasingly elsewhere, living in a closed static system that allows for no changes other than the continuing movement of wealth from the middle class to the very rich and their servants chief of which are politicians. We live in a de facto authoritarian and non-democratic system, with some exception with some local political entities. The system does not allow for alternate perspectives because “reality” is determined not by science or dialogue but on a virtual Ministry of Truth made up of the PR, advertising, mainstream media and so on. This truth is arrived at within these areas and is often engineered and a result of careful research on human motivation, psychology and, above all, stage magic.

    The oligarchs are systematically repressing technology and markets for their own ends. This should be obvious–because, frankly, why shouldn’t they? If patricians have the opportunity to enslave, dispossess, and exploit the plebes they will unless they happen to believe in some transcendent unitary truth which today’s patrician class most certainly does not (and I’ve glimpsed their world).

    We have to face this fact–Obama serves these oligarchs and, even if he wanted to, could not possibly advocate for the common man and woman and expect to live politically and maybe even physically. If you read history you know how power works. American Exceptionalism, in contrast posits that American leaders may be selfish and occasionally corrupt but with our system of checks and balances they will be forced to, ultimately, serve the public. That system has been hacked, gamed, and rigged at least on the national level and in most states as well. Some major issues like gay marriage can be addressed because the oligarchs see no threat from that so why block it? Real systemic change is impossible and the truths talked about in this posting have no chance to get circulated at this time in the mainstream culture.

    One bright light is local grass-roots change that can come as a result of people realizing what sort of society they actually live in and the fact that authoritarianism in the U.S. has not filtered down to the local level yet. We can organize, create community of interests and, above all, break the mythology that sustains the rich and could well destroy the planet. This destruction is a possibility–I don’t think it is the main possibility. It is also possible that carbon in the atmosphere may end up being governed by other systems or may play little role in warming–all we can do here is to improve our odds. Acting on reducing carbon will have many positive effects and few negative ones as things stand now–change is scary but it can also be fun.

  10. charles sereno

    I don’t intend my comment to indicate despair. I think it is important and necessary to develop clear thinking along the lines suggested by Hoexter. However, a course of action, without which none of the above is possible, must first and foremost be the elimination of the influence of money in politics. An achievable means to that end seems hopelessly elusive at the present time.

  11. CogWheeler

    My engaged take is that we’re rapidly rotating back to coal, on an implied carbon price of well under 1 penny per kwh, all because the Environmental side won’t empower consumers to “buy” cleaner natural gas dispatch. The practical, low hanging fruit, solutions suffer neglect in the face of idealism. Those extra 500 million tons of US CO2 we witnessed go away since 2005, will come right back on the US carbon balance sheet, all while we await the jury on fracking.

  12. heresy101

    This article has so many contradictions of correct analysis, scare value, and realistic and unrealistic solutions, that it requires a detailed response. Unfortunately, what is left of lunch will not provide time for that.

    But, in the end it doesn’t matter what the US does, the rest of the world (China & India) will/have made energy choices already.

    There is a bubble graph of new coal to electricity plants that I can’t find. The International Energy Agency shows how much of the world (including Europe)is going to coal (at least in the short term)
    http://www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/speeches/121218MCMR2012_presentation_KSK.pdf

    1. Fiver

      That’s right. Much more sensible for all of us to head the wrong way to a living hell rather than attempt to lead from the only country capable of putting enough technical and other resources into it to solve the key questions involved in ramping up the various infrastructure and production alternatives. There’s no doubt it can be done, but only if consumption is also lowered, which would remain the case until entirely new sets of technolgies are available and are assured the planet can handle it.

  13. Fiver

    A good piece, and some really good comments.

    The crucial fact is the timeframe. The evidence says the entire process of Climate Change reactions to increased GH gases and combinations of gases is accelerating, and given what we’ve seen so far in terms of widespread damage of all kinds, the implied outcomes are going to keep getting uglier, and not just in one place at a time. Some of these events are very ugly indeed.

    Looking forward to next instalments to see if he believes conservation has a decicive role in these efforts. I personally don’t see us making it without adopting (willing or not) a whole range of constraints to our choices vis a vis consumption. To some extent, we’re already heading into it.

  14. Ivan Morales

    Particulate emissions also cause the degradation of air quality in the United States. These particulates can include soot, ash, metals, and other airborne particles. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1998, entitled ‘Cars and Trucks and Air Pollution’, showed that the risk of premature death for residents in areas with high airborne particulate matter was 26 percent greater than for those in areas with low particulate levels. Natural gas emits virtually no particulates into the atmosphere: in fact, emissions of particulates from natural gas combustion are 90 percent lower than from the combustion of oil, and 99 percent lower than burning coal. Thus increased natural gas use in place of other dirtier hydrocarbons can help to reduce particulate emissions in the U.S. Current consequences stemming from global warming raised by the Union of Concerned Scientists can be found on their site .

  15. Anthony Jones

    Regardless of what other people do I like to think I do my part by getting people out renewable energy products that work affordable as possible…It makes you wonder how why you see smog picture from the embassy in China as they seem to have our renewable energy market blanketed weith inexpensive products. Seems lke the would solve their own problems.

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