Renewable Energy and The Fierce Urgency of Now: A Second Call For Fossil Fuel Abolition

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now.”

Though these words were spoken in the noble pursuit of the most just of causes by Dr. Martin Luther King many years ago, they have lost none of their potency or relevance. For though those facing economic and social oppression have been justly elevated by the actions of the equality movement Dr. King so eloquently spoke for, we are now in the process of consigning ourselves and our progeny to an entirely different but no less brutal kind of oppression. A world where danger, difficulty, severe environmental hazard and poverty will come as a result of our failure to make the right energy decisions now.

It is a brutal kind of generational theft in which the current wealth of some is dependent on the enslavement of our own children to the spite of a barren and violent world. A world that could best be seen as a curse. A world of rising seas, expanding deserts, of scarce water, of ruined and abandoned cities, a world where the oceans themselves vent poison gas.

That we could set ourselves on such a path requires the very worst kind of social blindness. A zombie state of denial in which we have willfully hidden our faces from the ever-more-visible harm we are causing. For we must be in such a state to even consider the continued use of the dirty and harmful fuels. For we must be lost if we do not understand the pain we will surely inflict on future generations and even ourselves as we inflame our world to conditions not seen in 10 million, 55 million, or 250 million years. As we, with each lighting of a fossil fire, invoke the names of past great extinctions: Eocene, Jurrassic, Permian.

Mass extinction events

(Mass Extinction Events. Two of the three major mass extinctions and many more of the minor mass extinctions over the past 250 million years have been linked to greenhouse gas driven hothouse and Stratified/Canfield Ocean events. Image source: Biodiversity Crisis.)

There is no excuse for keeping on this path. No justification for the harm that would surely come from our continued burning. No rationale that could lend credence to ensuring our world becomes a place of Great Dying.

On March 22, 2013, a call was made for Fossil Fuel Abolition. Only a few have listened. Some, like the nation of Scotland, have pledged to pursue a true construction of that enlightened ‘City on a Hill,’ by harnessing the glorious blaze of solar radiance or the whispering winds of our world.

So I ask, why not America? Is Scottland to boldly lead in the turning away from the path of harm? Is it for America to come up with a vile excuse not to follow? To delay and to therefore cause more harm?

Some among us have turned their face from environmental oppression and asked others to follow. James Hansen, Rachel Carson, Bill McKibben, Joe Romm, Chris Hayes and ever so many more. Yet others dissemble, making false claims, providing rationales for escalating violence. So, in this most desperate hour, we are a house divided. Divided into those who serve a future in which humankind can rationally live and those who serve the Destroyers of the Earth.

This is an unconscionable state and it cannot stand. So the call must again go out.

Fossil Fuel Abolition!

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52 Comments

  1. Ken Barrows

     /  April 25, 2014

    Sounds good. But let’s be more specific. How about reducing 80% of the global fossil fueled vehicle fleet with five years? How about 80% worldwide reduction in meat eating today? Whatever beef is eaten has to be grass fed. Phase out all oil and natural gas heating within 10 years; change the working on the thermostat so that the heat cannot go above 60 degrees. As for air conditioning, it’s banned. Electric bills (per kwh) must quintuple today. I’d love to hear more ideas.

    Reply
    • I couldn’t agree more. These are a good start and I’d like to treat this forum as open for any suggestions/solutions. Reducing meat consumption is a fantastic way to both reduce harm and resource stress.

      Reply
    • vardarac

       /  April 27, 2014

      @Ken: More efficient temperature control is well and good, but it’s simply not realistic, especially with the prospect of increasingly severe weather and heat waves, to abolish AC or central heating entirely.

      Short of establishing a police state, and at that one where the police would have to use AC to do their job, I simply do not see this as a viable prospect. What needs to be found are cooling methods that work sustainably atop or in spite of the clumsy and inefficient infrastructure we have now.

      As far as change in vehicle fleet composition, if it can actually be done, it will need to extend also to the vehicle’s lifecycle emissions. It is for naught that we would create green vehicles and energy sources if sustainable energy sources have not been made to extend fully to the extraction and processing of materials used to manufacture those sources and those vehicles.

      I am no electrical engineer, but I do know that as long as our drills, plants, and construction equipment run off of fossil fuels, our green energy will only undercut emissions, not abolish them.

      Reply
      • Adobe houses and building partially underground help a lot with heat protection.

  2. Guy McPherson is openly advocating that the best way to deal with near term extinction from fossil fuel burning – is to fly to Ecuador on massive jet planes for grief counseling with new age flakes.

    When I queried him about his profligate personal flying to tell us about how our best hope is the collapse of industrial civilization; he justified HIS flying with the Jevons Paradox.

    The human animal routinely comes up with unless or except clauses to justify anything.

    Reply
  3. An eloquent clarion call for sanity. Will the obstructionist institutions of power ever acknowledge their complicity? If not, can they be overcome in time?

    Reply
    • Extraordinarily important questions, Bob. I sincerely hope so. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on our chances.

      Reply
      • Well Rob, I’m not much of a prognosticator. But, I’d say the answer depends on the question. If we’re talking about preserving the current form of human civilization, I believe our chances are poor. If we’re talking about a radically-altered continuance of Homo sapiens, I believe our chances are fair. Usually, I rely on history for guidance. However, in this case we are facing an unprecedented danger. There are no historical analogs to anthropogenic climate change. How we respond will determine our fate. Perhaps this is the ultimate test for our species.

  4. Andy (in San Diego)

     /  April 25, 2014

    Unfortunately as a species, too many have lost their social conscience.

    Reply
  5. mikkel

     /  April 26, 2014

    And yet even the EU has more or less dropped its emissions targets.

    I do not believe a general call will be that effective. The only hope I see is economic.

    Your vision provides communities resilience, creates jobs and gives them agency, as well as purpose. The psychological benefits are enormous.

    You focus on only a few answering the call, such as Scotland, and ask why not the US? Well the fact is that those who are trying — nations such as Scotland and some Pacific islands, then several dozen (or even hundreds) of provinces across the world — do not have the money or talent to succeed because it is largely tied up in trying to influence the Great Power or create benefits around the edges.

    I believe it is imperative that the people who understand the enormity of what we face focus on helping those courageous regions succeed in full, first and foremost. Once they have made it a reality then it will be much easier to convince the world at large, but as long as everything remains theoretical then we will not see progress. Indeed, those nations that have taken the first steps (such as Spain and Germany) did it haphazardly and without enough vision/support to succeed, so they are now starting to roll back commitments. This is because it is largely seen as a moral issue and they decided they couldn’t justify the path on that alone.

    The regions that keep moving forward are doing it largely out of necessity but failure is nearly guaranteed if they cannot get outside support. On the other hand, it means that outside support will turn quickly into reality and real — if modest — progress will finally be present.

    Reply
    • Good points, Mikkel. But however it happens, it needs to go very quickly. We don’t have the luxury of incrementalism. In any case, there’s no way things will change in this country without directly holding the bad actors to account, slow or fast. At this point, they’ve proven they’ll fight every step of the way.

      As for economics, there are two kinds of economies here. One is an advanced economy based on renewables and the other is the rather unhealthy and self-damaging economy based on fossil fuels. The economies who transition will not be as subject to economic shock once it becomes plainly apparent to any thinking person that fossil fuels are more expensive, endlessly harmful, and require large scale subsidies to remain competitive.

      Lastly, Germany’s issue is more to deal with the political influence of dying utilities than it is with base economics. The transition would have been fine economically. The problem was in the politics. Worldwide, that’s the state of things. Political pressures from vested interests delay renewable adoption despite the fact that in almost all ways renewables are less capital intensive and compete on a parity, near parity, or better than parity basis (depending on energy source and location).

      Reply
    • One more thing to consider regarding Germany…

      The plan remains to hit 40 to 45 percent renewables by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. In essence they replace 1 to 2 percent of their fossil fuel generation with renewables each year. If the rest of the world were on a similar footing, we’d be far better off.

      From the economic standpoint, it’s worth noting a downward price effect not only in the German market but in neighboring countries as well:

      http://www.triplepundit.com/2014/04/electricity-prices-fall-europe-german-renewable-energy-increases/

      Reply
      • mikkel

         /  April 26, 2014

        I hate to say it, but I disagree about Germany. They are having immense issues with the transition on a core economic basis, largely because of how they are rolling it out.

        First of all, they do not have proper grid or demand side management, so their grid is becoming destabilized. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/instability-in-power-grid-comes-at-high-cost-for-german-industry-a-850419.html

        Secondly, the generation is not well distributed with respect to population. A lot of it needs to travel very far and there isn’t the infrastructure in place. Because of the constant price feed in tariff policy, the only incentive is to build where there is maximum generation, not maximum deliverable effect.

        These two dynamics are interacting to create highly volatile energy availability, which both simultaneously lowers and raises the price of energy. Headlines talking about cheap energy due to renewables are not fully reflective of a stable system, but many times of a wholesale market breaking down; at which point Germany desperately exports as much as it can and messes with those markets (http://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/2013/01/23/germanys-green-energy-destabilizing-electric-grids/)

        This is not only destroying the finances of the dirty fossil fuel companies, but the renewables themselves are under immense stress (http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/wind-power-investments-in-germany-proving-riskier-than-thought-a-946367.html)

        Instead of renewables stepping in to fill the gap of the nuclear operators, lignite coal is making records (http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/researchers-alarmed-at-rise-in-german-brown-coal-power-output-a-942216.html) [Yes a part of that is failure of cap and trade, but some of it is physical as well]

        I saw a presentation by a renewables economist from the Max Planck Institute who helped develop the policy and he said they are concluding that it is near its failure point. He is not optimistic that Germany will even reach its 2020 target and it is all but certain they will drop longer term targets nearly entirely.

        In sum, Germany’s grid is nearly at a breaking point and if they continue to build out renewables without core changes then it will see complete economic and physical failure.

        Of course the fossil fuel/nuclear advocates are using this as a “I told you so” moment and poo-pooing renewables entirely. This needn’t be the case at all; if Germany focused first on energy reduction and demand side management through smart grids, as well as localization of renewables and regional grids then it would have the ability to largely produce from renewables. (I personally believe that nuclear will always be needed as a base load where there is not geothermal/hydro but it should be a small contribution.)

        However, the meme that rolling out renewables is only an issue of politics is pernicious, because in order for it to work the economy needs to be drastically altered to focus on localized and temporal production. Right now the fossil fuel advocates are correct that the only way to make the grid physically work is through 80%+ fossil fuel/nuclear production and in order to change this fact we must radically alter the underlying social relationships to energy.

        A few places are willing to do so, and could use partnerships, but I do not believe Germany is at that point yet.

      • These are good points, but the overall drive was far too contrarian for my tastes. There were many who said Germany could never reach 25% in the first place. And here we are with Germany at 25 and many other countries even higher. These are large scale and they are happening now. In my view, they will succeed or fail based on whether or not they receive high level policy support. Laisser faire and small scale will achieve very little, unless the small scale endeavors are pushed along a very broad front. In the end, any energy source relies on government support.

      • A detailed reading of the German energy plan locks in a 5.8 gigawatt annual expansion of renewable energy. The incentive structure is set to keep the expansion rate in that range and is more than enough to hit renewable energy targets of 40 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050:

        http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=e830e307-6471-43f0-aad2-64ebe4bf2725

      • http://ecowatch.com/2014/02/20/german-village-independent-grid-renewable-energy-future/

        I found this example of a German town that really sets a fantastic example.

      • http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/re_futures/

        NREL study shows renewables impose no additional costs at 80 percent US market build out through 2050.

      • mikkel

         /  April 26, 2014

        Following up on my comment above (which is currently in moderation due to the # of links) I agree with Robert that we cannot stand for incrementalism. But I do think we must accept that we can only usher in radicalism on a small scale at this point.

        Right now much energy is wasted arguing about whether these radical changes are possible without going back to the pre-industrial age. Not even climate change/peak oil activists agree on the answer, so how can we get traction in the general community?

        If we could get a few places in the industrialized world to make a transition — even if it was only a few hundred thousand people — to zero carbon then it would not be hypothetical any longer. I personally believe that once there are real world templates then the movement will spread quickly, but the key is that we must prove it.

      • mikkel

         /  April 27, 2014

        Yes, thanks for linking to that German village. There are several other ones in Germany and a few in Sweden with similar positions. I first ran across them when researching biogas.

        They are a great example of localities taking charge of their own economies by having communally owned and mixed energy generation built on reducing waste as well. Add in their energy efficiency measures and they really provide a template for rural areas of all sorts.

  6. To prioritize for at least an immediate thirty percent reduction in fossil fuel consumption:
    Cease immediately all unnecessary and recreational fossil fuel uses like — junkers, clunkers, muscle cars — power garden tools — energy intensive gambling casinos — junk food production, transportation and marketing — recreational airline travel — and other such frivolous things.
    This would at least give us time, and maybe enough healthy breathable air, to make the hard decisions to reduce another thirty percent.
    These are the actions a sane society would do.
    David

    Reply
    • I’m somewhat heartened by the ongoing general growth in the number of vegetarians and vegans. If the world went vegan, many of our problems become far more solvable.

      Reply
    • As for cutting out what I would consider to be a long list of malinvestments, I couldn’t agree more.

      Reply
  7. Phil

     /  April 26, 2014

    In terms of household renewables solutions, further growth is badly needed in cheap storage solutions. Especially things like solar pv. As feed in tariffs are reduced or eliminated, there is no real economic incentive to invest in solar pv.

    Once cheap storage solutions emerge, there will be an incentive for further investment in solar pv including expansion in size of pv installations to take households off the grid.

    Of course, Governments might want to have households still pay grid connection fees but if electricity tariffs increase enough and households take up pv to get off the grid, then that would be a powerful political block and angering them even for big end fossil fuel interests would be very dangerous for Governments hoping to get relected. In Australia, state Governments are wary about changing well established existing feed in tariffs for solar pv becasue of potential politcial backlash and only phased them out for recently installed pv.

    Cheap large storage systems would also be very handy for operational viability of industrial scale renewables such as wind and solar thermal in terms of meeting peak load demand (especially in the case of wind generation) and more closely approximating conventional baseload for solar thermal.

    Increasing fossil fuel costs including gas and oil would also help things along.

    In Australia, expected and actual increases in gas prices is posing enormous risks to gas generation and manufacturing industry more generally with role out of LNG and focus on exporting this to Asia with inability to secure long term gas contracts for domestic economic applications.

    There is some emerging interest in gas/solar hydrids now as an alternative to gas only generation.

    Reply
  8. A reminder re one the most fossil fuel intensive industrial addictions — and the danger of nitrogen and NOX in climate change — from Reuters via Scientific American: ‘Nitrogen is used in fertilizer to replace nutrients which are removed by soils during plant growth but excess nitrogen can harm the environment by polluting water, air and soil.
    Nitrogen can also be released into the air by animal manure or as nitrous oxide, the third most potent greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane.’
    – Meat and Dairy Consumption Should Be Halved in Europe to Cut Nitrogen: Report

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/meat-and-dairy-consumption-should-be-halved-in-europe-to-cut-nitrogen-report/

    So many threats but very little time.
    David

    Reply
  9. Tom

     /  April 26, 2014

    Robert – thanks for this article, which I’ve reposted over on CoIC, since the current thread is a “do the math” regarding Peak Oil.

    Veganism isn’t going to get very far with a widespread and worsening drought in our bread-basket state of CA. It’s certainly better than raising cattle, but just sayin’ it’s hard to grow anything without rain.

    Reply
    • Considering it takes 1/50 th the amount of land to produce a single vegatable calorie vs a single meat calorie, losing SW farmland makes veganism far more relevant. Very sorry to see the harm that’s ongoing in California.

      Reply
  10. Spike

     /  April 26, 2014

    It is interesting to see the effect of strong renewables policy on emissions now. The UK grid, one of the worst in Europe in terms of renewables generation, currently stands at 458g CO2/kWh, and is often over 500 thanks to our inconsistent and pathetic attitudes to renewables (Scotland excepted). The Danish grid, with its huge renewables deployment of recent years, is currently 248G CO2/kWh.

    As Paul Krugman states “is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be. The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests. What could go wrong? Oh, wait.”

    Reply
    • Cheers, Spike and thanks for the excellent Krugman quote. I think it’s worth putting him down as a renewable optimist, of which we need more.

      As for limits, even Limits to Growth authors pushed for a transition to renewables and sustainability. Krugman essentially validates their original point that the hardest limit of all is the human limit.

      Reply
  11. Ken Barrows

     /  April 26, 2014

    Spike,

    Paul Krugman is full of s***. Better to quote someone who explicitly acknowledges limits.

    Reply
    • Spike

       /  April 27, 2014

      I agree re limits – but it is not wise I think to alienate those like him within the conventional mindset who are at least advocating taking the first steps. We need to work with all who are advocating progress towards sustainability rather than entrenching ourselves in doctrinal purity.

      Reply
      • Ken Barrows

         /  April 28, 2014

        Professor Krugman thinks debt can go to the moon so why not industrial output, too? You are right, though, it is useful to build coalitions.

      • Economic theory is a powerful tool. That said, the notion that something can be created from nothing seemingly crops up quite a bit. Although I think Krugman instinctively knows the difference between a good investment and a bad one.

        What’s rather encouraging to me is seeing a number of previous fossil fuel cheerleaders jump ship. Though this may not be a direct acknowledgement of limits, it may well be a tacit one. Perhaps I am somewhat too optimistic on this point?

  12. Polar Vortex Revenge? US Heat Waves Melted Greenland’s Ice

    In a reversal of this year’s extraordinary winter weather, Greenland suffered the wrath of North America’s epic heat waves in 1889 and 2012, a new study reveals.

    “Last winter in the eastern United States, people associated the cold with the behavior of the polar vortex,” said lead study author William Neff, a fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “In fact the polar vortex can show two faces: a cold one or a warm one depending where you are. Last winter it showed its cold face to folks in the East. In the summer of 2012 it showed its warm face.” [Video: 2 Extreme Melt Events 123 Years Apart]

    Link

    Reply
  13. 60% of China underground water polluted: report

    Sixty percent of underground water in China which is officially monitored is too polluted to drink directly, state media have reported, underlining the country’s grave environmental problems.

    Water quality measured in 203 cities across the country last year rated “very poor” or “relatively poor” in an annual survey released by the Ministry of Land and Resources, the official Xinhua news agency said late Tuesday.

    Water rated “relatively” poor quality cannot be used for drinking without prior treatment, while water of “very” poor quality cannot be used as a source of drinking water, the report said.

    Read more at:Link

    Reply
  14. More than 180 dead, thousands displaced in Afghanistan flash floods.

    KABUL- Flash floods in Northern Afghanistan have killed more than 180 people and displaced thousands after days of torrential rain, officials say.

    http://www.nation.com.pk/international/26-Apr-2014/more-than-180-dead-thousands-displaced-in-afghanistan-flash-floods

    Reply
  15. Philip Heying

     /  April 26, 2014

    Lately I’ve been flabbergasted by the significant number of people who actually and stubbornly believe that some secret government organization has “weaponized the weather” with HAARP and chemtrails, that the New World Order is planning to depopulate the world according to Agenda 21, Al Gore has a plan to make trillions off of carbon credits and violating your property rights, and the Rothschild family has ordered Vladimir Putin to nuke the U.S. Between creationists on one side and the weird conspiracy paranoids on the other, with lots of people who find the problems we’re facing too terrifying to even think about, I have a heck of a time holding on to any hope that there is anything but increasing chaos in our future.

    Reply
  16. Considering it takes 1/50 th the amount of land to produce a single vegatable calorie vs a single meat calorie, losing SW farmland makes veganism far more relevant.

    Decades ago when I was interested in aquaculture , I remember coming across a number about what cows need burn, just to over come gravity , and maintain body heat .
    It was the conversion rates of catfish vs cows.

    I can’t recall the number, but it was eye popping.

    Reply
    • mikkel

       /  April 27, 2014

      This XKCD comic is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen

      http://xkcd.com/1338/

      The conversion ratio for cattle is terrible http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feed_conversion_ratio
      The typical quoted value for pasture fed is around 15, whereas you can see poultry and fish are around 2. They aren’t exactly analogous since poultry and fish aren’t grazers, so it is comparing grass to grain+protein. Grain fed beef is around 8.

      Rabbits are around 4 when grazing, which is the most efficient. Most people I know raising animals for small scale consumption raise chickens, rabbits and goats, never cattle.

      I think from an ecosystem standpoint, incorporating animals is beneficial; particularly since fish can be raised based on sunlight alone (since it creates algae which then goes up the food chain). But we need to reduce beef consumption by 80%+ since there isn’t enough pasture to support it.

      Reply
      • Chickens allowed to range in pastures and eat insects and fertilize the ground are a far cry from factory farming. The energy required to grow food for caged animals is another matter. Animals can definitely be advantageously incorporated into agriculture, but all the large-scale stuff is all wrong.

    • http://www.worldwatch.org/node/549

      Gives a good overview of total impacts of meat consumption in US.

      Key figures: 70 percent of all grain produced in the US goes to livestock. 56 million acres used to produce hay for livestock, only 4 million acres used to produce vegetables for humans.

      Reply
  17. Here’s what Steve Bare said :

    If we stop burning every hydrocarbon atom we find , we can use it to make an unending future . But when we burn it , it’s gone foe ever.

    Reply
  18. Steve Bare was genius . His company was called . Zomeworks.

    Reply
  19. Paul from NSW

     /  April 27, 2014

    Unfortunately we may have painted ourselves into a corner. I think that the loss of urban allotments for growing food is a actually a major issue.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140425075027.htm

    We now use the car to go to the shops to buy processed food that was shipped in from farms that used heavy machinery to cultivate mono crops.
    Sure it is economically more efficient, but we lose community, biodiversity, our health and our environment.
    Some things you just can’t put a price on because they are priceless.

    Our society is now so structured that moving away from fossil fuels has to be incremental otherwise there would be chaos. Food prices would go through the roof, interest rates would follow and then the debt burden would come home to roost.

    There needs to be a grass roots movement that turns its collective back on the old way of doing things. Preparation for hard times ahead would have to be core to the movement for it to survive, in a very practical sense. As the temperatures warm people are going to simply turn up the air con. We have collectively painted a picture of a very bleak future.

    Reply
  1. Another Week of Climate Disruption News, April 27, 2014 [A Few Things Ill Considered] | Gaia Gazette

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