Last Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill.As a contributor to Repower America, I was invited to be on a conference call the previous Monday afternoon with former Vice President Al Gore. He was incredibly inspirational in his delivery and message. He encouraged everyone to engage in whatever form of grass-roots activism they could. Following that call, I sent an email to my entire address book (about 1,500 people) urging them to call their congressman and demand passage of the bill.
As it turned out, the bill passed by only a razor-thin margin, and faces a very uncertain future in the Senate, because the fossil industry mounted a furious pressure campaign. Phones were running 9-1 against passage. So the congressmen who voted in favor had to buck tremendous political arm-twisting. I also received a fair amount of mail questioning the bill. It was largely based on the overwhelming attitude of Americans that the government should not be setting energy policy, but letting the “private sector work it out.”
Here’s a representative email:
It appears that you are on fire for the environmental cause. You continue to be an articulate and passionate spokesman for what you believe in. You’re certainly not the lukewarm type.
I agree with a number of the points you make. There is one major flaw that leads to other minor flaws in your argument, as I see it; and that is, your expectation that the Federal Government can and should legislate and execute our way to what should be free market solutions to our energy and our environment.
You seem to be ignoring that it’s Big Government Crony Capitalism that is to blame for the oil industry energy monopoly, corruption and the suppression of efficient technologies, such as Nikola Tesla’s, for example. I believe it is naive to believe that the solution to this can be brought about by more Big Government actions, like this “climate change bill.”
Compared to life before fossil fuels, I don’t see how historians in the future will see mankind’s use of them as “disgraceful.” I struggle to see how using fossil fuels can be compared to slavery or the oppression of women, except that the free market has been abused by the energy monopolists and cronies of the banker-run Federal Government. But, you make no mention of these abuses in you email.
Thanks for including me in your email list on this issue. It’s a very important one for our time and we all have a responsibility in a self-governed society to be properly educated and to help properly educate our elected officials.
It’s not environmentalism, per se, but sustainability that’s the key. The only reason we’ve been ruining the environment is that we take more from it than we put back. It’s like a bank account.
Prior to the wide use of fossil fuels, human population and food production was severely limited. Once coal, oil, natural gas were discovered, it wildly accelerated progress, living standards, and industry. We have received many benefits. But we have to consider where the fossil fuels came from. They are stored solar energy, having accumulated over 100-200 million years. We’ve burned them about a million times faster than they were formed. We’ve also released carbon stored over millions of years into the atmosphere all at once, leading to CO2 levels more than double as high as they’ve been for all of human history. This is rapidly warming the planet, which will set into motion a number of irreversible processes. As the planet warms, positive feedback ensues:
- Polar ice reflects the sun much better than the ocean. Once the ice melts, the water absorbs more of the sun’s rays on an ongoing basis, leading to a further increase in warming.
- Ocean acidification (CO2 mixed with water forms carbonic acid) kills corals which form the basis of the marine food chain. If the marine food chain collapses, it will have devastating effects on economies and populations. We also need to consider that the ocean is earth’s biggest carbon sink, (it now absorbs about half what humans produce every year).
- Permafrost melting releases further carbon and methane, which will lead to further warming. It is estimated that 1.5 trillion tons of carbon are locked into the permafrost, an amount double all of the present atmospheric carbon. That figure does not include the methane, a greenhouse gas prevalent in decaying plant matter, and 20 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat.
If all that runaway positive feedback occurs, it will melt the polar icecaps completely, and the Greenland ice sheet. No one knows precisely where the tipping points are in this system. But what’s important is that we are talking about our very life-support system on this planet. Not because of the animals, other species, nature, etc. It is vitally essential to human life. So it’s not an environmental issue, but a human one. The human race might survive 60 meter (200 foot) sea level rises by mass migrations, but the political order won’t. What new world wars would be in store under such a scenario? Half of humanity lives near coastlines, where expected sea level rises would devastate cities and agriculture. Long before cities were inundated, water tables would fill with brine and exacerbate the suffering of already strapped populations already living in incredibly difficult conditions.
So the comparison to slavery and oppression of women has to do with the old ways of thinking that make people believe it’s OK to live unsustainably, to take these kinds of risks. That it’s OK to benefit now, pay later. Slavery was profiting at the cost of dehumanizing a person’s labor. Oppression of women was dehumanizing women by using them for what men wanted without giving them a chance to be self-realized. Both were short-term strategies that were bound to backfire. Right now, the industrialized world has benefitted tremendously at other people’s expense. We deplete and pollute the world by our tremendous consumption while billions of people live at the subsistence level. Half the world has mighty industry and unbelievably productive mechanized farming, much of which goes toward meat and biofuel production–while billions are dehumanized by performing these same tasks with manual labor just to feed themselves. It’s resource slavery, to coin a phrase. Unlike American slaves, today’s impoverished are not likely to have the resources to become emancipated. That is, unless the world embraces sustainable practices.
Short term thinking is also what brought about the banking crisis you speak of: the failure to “pay as you go.” Nature doesn’t do bailouts. We are in control of the planetary ecosystem now, and we’re running a dangerous experiment with ourselves and our children in the test tube.
Please do not kid yourself that there is any controversy as to whether or not climate change is happening. Take a look at the positions of NASA, the AAAS, the NAS, the British Royal Society, insurance companies, people whose reputations and fortunes are on the line. The Earth’s climate is the most extensively studied system in history.
The naysayers are in many cases on the payroll of the fossil energy companies, or contrarians who see an opportunity to gain publicity by being a “climate change skeptic.” But that doesn’t really matter. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I want to see people look at the facts, independently of their wishes. Unfortunately, the climate change issue will affect everyone, and it will be challenging and difficult to address. So of course people want to deny it. People are grieving the loss of what they perceived as an infinite planet with infinite resources where we could just let the free market sort it out. That day is long past. And after all, denial is the first of the five stages of grief.
The Earth has never been infinite. Humans have been just too insignificant to have much effect. Until we discovered fossil fuels. The atmosphere, like the ocean, is a commons. For example, Los Angeles cleaned up its air, but now receives 25% of its smog from China. We are all connected. Everything each one of us does affects everyone else on the planet. The US has lived in a privileged position for many decades, consuming a disproportionate share of planetary energy and resources. With 5% of the population, we consume 25-30% of the world’s energy and minerals. Long term, that is a prescription for war, instability, and ultimately collapse.
And that’s all before the threat of climate change, which many in the U.S. may perceive as “someone else’s problem.” But we cannot escape the fact that we in the developed world have gotten all the benefits of industrialization that other countries now desire. We cannot lead and still remain hypocrites on this issue. If we want China to stop building coal plants, then we have to seriously embrace alternatives like wind and solar. We can do that by agreeing to restrain our carbon output and improving our clean and green technology. That would give us moral authority.
It is the opportunity of the century, and the U.S. should not miss out. If we deny, delay, and waffle, we will be left behind by other countries who see the writing on the wall and are already innovating. And if we act, we can move the world.
This subject can’t be understood without making the effort. It took me about 5 years of studying to wrap my head around it. The reason why most people misunderstand energy policy is because it is extremely complicated. Fossil fuels have been subsidized to a huge extent by the world’s governments. They’ve been a way of life for so long people can’t envision a world without them. The vast subsidies they receive are in addition to the tremendous blood and treasure expended pursuing Middle East wars. These have only been necessary because of huge U.S. oil imports and the oil intensity of the U.S. economy.
New government policy is needed precisely to reverse decades of bad policy. It’s not a choice between the government and the free market. The government has been neck-deep in the energy market since the beginning, granting dirt cheap oil leases to companies who became fabulously wealthy by drilling a public resource and selling it back to the public. What the government should have done long ago is to establish an oil depletion trust fund, knowing that the supply would eventually run out. US oil production peaked in 1971. Once we realized that, we should have responded accordingly with taxes and fees to encourage conservation and to pay for the inevitable energy transition. We did at first, with the oil intensity (barrels per dollar of GDP) dropping by half between 1973 and 1985. Then, the Reagan administration failed to keep up conservation efforts and allowed U.S. imports to rise dramatically as we began to live off the last orgy of cheap imported oil. Cars got bigger as people switched from compacts to SUVs, which were exempt under CAFE regulations because they were built on truck chassis. That era came to a close last year with $148/barrel oil slamming the international economy into steep decline. We may have been overleveraged, but it was the oil shock that pushed us into insolvency.
Which brings us to where we are today. We are living entirely unsustainably. Meaning that if we wanted to keep our current levels of consumption, we would need 2-3 earths. If everyone lived like Americans, which is where many nations are headed, it would take 12-15 earths. It is something that goes way beyond the petty problems of the bankers. Their swindling ways are just a sideshow compared to the gross warfare that’s being waged on the biosphere.
We should be living in a way that allows humanity to grow and prosper indefinitely–not with the constant fear and anxiety that we will hit the proverbial wall. The train wreck will happen in our lifetime, and our children will be directly and deeply affected. They will not have the opportunities we did, and it will be our fault and the fault of previous generations who contributed to the global inertia we now face.
That is why I am passionate. We must reverse this situation, and that starts with confronting the problem squarely and courageously. It is possible to have growth and sustainability at the same time.
It’s not just fossil fuels, but deforestation and loss of biodiversity that are a major threat. A billion people also now lack adequate clean water, and that number is projected to double in the next 15 years due to deglaciation. Darfur was the first “climate genocide” (it was largely about access to water, not just a murderous Islamic regime) and there will be many more. Global fish stocks have been 75% to 90% depleted. Governments subsidize deep-sea overfishing and they need to stop. If we curtailed fishing right now, it’s conservatively estimated it would take 20-50 years for the marine ecosystem to rebound. And that’s if the coral doesn’t collapse. About 15% of the world’s population eats mostly fish and would die without it. It doesn’t take a genius to understand we can’t continue along this treacherous path.
We will add at least another 2 billion to the world’s population in the next 40 years–if some ecosystem-induced dieoff disaster doesn’t kick in before then. It’s hard to imagine gigadeaths, I know. It’s hard to believe that with all our technology we can’t save these people, many as yet unborn. The mind recoils and immediately enters the safety of denial. But that’s where we’re headed (which is not a matter of opinion, but fact) if something is not done. Most of us have been sleepwalking into this perilous future. Our daily decisions will affect the outcome.
The best solutions are those following the Bright Green model, meaning applying technological innovation to spur growth and transition to sustainability. Putting a price on carbon emissions is the surest way to spur universal economic interest in this vital innovation. It’s the best way to get to win-win, rather than seeing progress vs. the environment as a zero-sum game, or the other false dichotomy of free market vs. government control.
Update: Regarding the Waxman-Markey Cap and Trade Bill, according to Wikipedia, “The bill was approved by the House of Representatives on June 26, 2009, by a vote of 219–212. With no prospect of overcoming a threatened Republican filibuster, the bill was never brought to the floor of the Senate for discussion or a vote.” Think about that! A bill that would have been pivotal to preserving the future of life on Earth wasn’t even brought to the floor of the Senate for a vote. It’s worth reading the Wikipedia article to understand how vital this legislation was, and what a difference it would have made. Since 2009, the U.S. Senate has been a stone wall for climate proposals, due to the filibuster, and we’ve lost 13 precious years to stave off and mitigate the worst effects of global heating. All actions the U.S. has taken since then to reduce carbon emissions have been through administrative regulatory efforts under President Obama and President Biden. The Obama administration accomplished an historic increase in fuel economy standards, became a signatory to the Paris Agreement, and the Clean Power Plan. The Trump Administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement and scrapped the Clean Power Plan. On August 9, 2022, the Biden Administration passed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which included $369 billion in spending on climate goals. But the clear message from the U.S. Republican Party on climate has been to obstruct any action toward reducing carbon emissions. Even as the U.S. has been ravaged by climate impacts including wildfires, floods, drought and deadly heat waves, the intransigence of Republicans to solving this problem has only grown. And what’s clear about the right’s unending cynicism on climate, is that it’s simply a short-term money grab. Carbon-free renewable energy is cheaper and better, and the fossil-fuel interests know this. They’ve known since the 1970s that carbon pollution was heating the Earth as demonstrated through internal documents. They’ve decided it’s an acceptable risk to delay action as long as possible to continue to squeeze out the last drop of profits before the world moves on to more modern energy sources. And this brings to mind the Cree proverb: “Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish been caught, and the last stream poisoned, will we realize we cannot eat money.” –Sean Prophet, September 2022