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Debts, Jobs, Weather
by Bruce Fisher
Can these issues stay disconnected?
While Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video has had 934,317,696 hits on YouTube as of mid-December 2012, an hour-long video of an Englishman talking about climate change is not, sadly, going viral.
Kevin Anderson gave this year’s Cabot lecture at Bristol University a couple of weeks ago—a lecture that is the liveliest, most credibly sourced, understandable, and thus the most depressing, frightening, pull-your-hair-out frustrating message on climate change you are likely to hear or see. Anderson talks about how climate scientists, economists, and other learned people are failing themselves and everybody else on this little green planet of ours by failing to explain just how enormous and devastating the consequences of carbon dioxide buildup will be.
“These are important Government reports but they still look naked to me. I can’t see any pants on the streaking Emperor.”
An Excerpt from Anderson’s Cabot Lecture, watch online at bristol.ac.uk/cabot/events/2012/194.html
We tend to segregate difficult information. The talk in Buffalo, as anywhere, or everywhere, is how to get more—more money, more growth, more stuff. And because we’re in the general vicinity of Pennsylvania, where hydraulic fracturing has created a bonanza of cheap natural gas along with nightmares of burning tapwater, wrecked watersheds, and trampled forests, there is a vague awareness of the other new message about energy—not that fossil fuels will kill human life because of carbon dioxide overload, but rather that energy is about to become America’s opportunity.
Just a week before Anderson gave his talk in Britain, the Manhattan Institute in New York hosted a conference at which one Mark Mills delivered a paper entitled “Unleashing the North American Energy Colossus.” Mills and other speakers celebrated all the oil and natural gas pouring forth from the Canadian tar sands and from the “tight” shale formations of North Dakota, Texas, and Pennsylvania. (One can find their talks on YouTube, too.)
The Right’s view is that government at all levels needs to get out of the way, and to forget about alternatives—wind, solar, hydro—because those alternatives are simply not cost-effective, and climate change is smirked away entirely. The Left’s perspective? As usual, progressives are generally focused on the issues that hit home hard around about Christmastime, when everybody, especially debt-saddled college kids home for the holidays, wants to spend money. The Left focuses on money that is in short supply for middle-income households even while it is in historic abundance for the one percent. The Left tends to nod at the concerns of environmentalists, mouth a few pieties about “green energy,” and then get right back to the main event—distributing income more fairly, and using government to do that job, on the sensible grounds that the preponderance of evidence is that economic growth happens best when economic rewards are widely distributed.
But the climate scientists and their colleagues in physics and engineering paint a picture that is too disturbing to ignore, even when the national policy focus is on the national debt and on unemployment.
Increasingly, mainstream economists are listening up: Sustainability is no longer a small issue for a few environmental economists, like Kent Klitgaard of Wells College, who with his colleague Gary Hall wrote Energy and the Wealth of Nations. Klitgaard and Hall are economists who read physics, and they are paying close attention to the observations of the climate scientists in the field and at the computer, who are saying what Anderson complains they’re not saying loudly enough—that the carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels will kill us.
Fatih Birol, an MIT economist who advises the International Energy Commission, summarizes the policy challenge in a one-liner. Birol has concluded that all the advanced economies of the world have five years in which to change the “energy system,” or, if that system is not changed, then the advanced economies of the world will make the entire planet unliveable by 2050. Birol talks about the unthinkable—a six-degree Celsius rise, which would mean devastating droughts, coastal flooding of which Hurricane Sandy gave us only a hint, and the impossibility of growing food. That’s Venus in our future—the uninhabitable planet, not the babe in the Botticelli painting.
This is not a radical economist. Birol is a technocrat, and advisor to governments, not an idealist nor an ideologue. Neither is Cabot lecturer Anderson of YouTube un-fame (3,970 hits so far). Both are laudatory of conservation efforts in advanced countries. Anderson even praises the great advances of current automobile manufacturers, and of drivers, for reducing carbon dioxide output.
Military planners take this message seriously; the Pentagon’s public information on the US Defense Department’s efforts to secure alternative energy leaves one wondering what their non-public conclusions are. This week, after the ignominious conclusion of the United Nations-sponsored conference on climate change in Doha, Qatar, where nothing but impasse resulted, one wonders who will change the “energy system” Fatih Birol writes of. Obviously, international bodies cannot command anybody. National governments range from the desperate, like Kiribati, the Pacific atoll that will be completely submerged in rising seas by 2030, to Germany, which is already on track to produce 30 percent of its total electricity from non-fossil sources by 2030, to Canada, which wants to sell oil to China if it can’t get the Keystone pipeline extension done in the US. The poor are screaming, the smart ones are planning, and the producers are imitating Alfred E. Neuman.
One wonders: Can states or regions take a stab at energy and climate policy?
Distractions of the moment
In a recent conversation with an advisor to the Regional Economic Development Council, issues of energy, water supply and quality, transportation planning, and agriculture were simply dismissed as issues for somebody else to address. Economic development, the theory goes, is not about those issues.
It’s beginning to sound like there’s nobody in charge.
Here in Buffalo, we can be forgiven for thinking that that huge contradiction—energy-related doom versus an energy-driven golden dawn—is somebody else’s news. Here we hope for economic growth from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo billion. Here, we sigh at the news that HSBC is an admitted money-launderer even while we wish that HSBC wouldn’t vacate almost a million square feet of space in Buffalo’s tallest building and export even more thousands of Buffalo jobs to China. Here, in the city that was the world’s first to see clean, renewable, unstoppable hydropower light our lamps and power our streetcars and factories, our experience of energy is the same as the rest of the modern world’s: Clean energy is a smidgen, an afterthought, because the main action is dirty, imported, and expensive.
Our normal is everybody else’s. Fill ’er up and bitch at the $4-a-gallon price. Wonder at why Psy and “Gnagnam Style” get a billion hits. Groan that the drama queens in Washington might not avoid the year-end budget impasse that will ding the rich and ding the poor and smack the upper-middle-class. Wonder where the hell winter is.
But even here, we should be paying attention to what these contradictory news stories mean—especially in this season when President Obama and the rest of empowered Washington fights over how to cut the national debt while letting the post-crash economic recovery move ahead.
The physicists and engineers who look over the atmospheric science tend to say the same thing: There are alternatives to burning fossil fuels, and there are consequences to burning fossil fuels, so if we want to avoid the consequences, we should get going on the alternatives. Some economists pitch in with the same message, with this twist: The true costs of fossil fuels aren’t included in the retail price at which we purchase them. Half the $16 trillion debt that the US now owes is attributable to the costs and lost economic opportunities due to the energy-related wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that $8 trillion is not included in your $4 gallon of 89 octane. If it were, you would be driving an electric-battery vehicle powered by a photo-voltaic array, or riding the streetcar, because the real, all-costs-in price would be too high.
Anderson’s Cabot lecture concludes on an upbeat note, which is surprising after 55 minutes of stunningly scary numbers. He says that real change can be achieved if just the top one percent of fossil-fuel burners reduce their carbon output in ways that are perfectly achievable with current technology—real change being not a six-degree increase, but just a two- or four-degree increase.
As an engineer and a professor, he’s a credible analyst of numbers. But as a policy guy, he’s dreaming. The top one percent won’t do the right thing in the interest of the rest of the world. That’s not what they do. But at the moment, there is no instrument of compulsion on the landscape. Maybe Psy could do the job of making green energy more fashionable, but then again, it’s already pretty damned fashionable, and the numbers aren’t changing.
Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His new book is Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, available at bookstores or at www.sunypress.edu.blog comments powered by Disqus
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