Sunday, January 25, 2015

Some climate ideas to save

I originally wrote this as a letter to Revkin, for possible publication as a "Your Dot" post on his NYT blog DotEarth, a response requested by Andy to this article here. It wasn't published, so I'm saving it here in case I want it again.

(Responding to "Six Myths About Climate Change that Liberals Rarely Question."

It’s an interesting read, and I agree with much of the gist, although I’m somewhat more more gung-ho on the prospects for solar, wind, and related tech like control systems and batteries, including those needed to run fossil fuel vehicles. I’m professionally closer to and more aware of the emerging technology and economics than the author is, so I can easily quibble with some of his points.

But where Mr. Lindberg and I can agree is that denial is on both sides. In fact, I don’t think the piece comes even close to enumerating and specifying all the kinds and levels of denial I think exist in the climate debate. And some of these other areas have yet more insurmountable difficulties associated with them than the ones he mentions (most of which can be overcome by technology).

For instance, there is incredible denial right now on the interactions and “feedback” systems we’re currently building, possibly quite permanently, into our political system. Imagine what happens if things continue as they are, in ten or fifteen years' time, and the Republican Party becomes irretrievably the party of climate denial and untrammeled fossil fuel usage, to the point where the GOP must effectively crash and bottom out as a party before they are willing to compromise on climate economics; while the Democrats become similarly irretrievably the party of renewables and efficiency? I see this as the kind of scenario that led to the Civil War. One party, the South, was so existentially challenged by the economic proposals of the other (i.e., give up all that capital value you have tied up in slaves), that they couldn’t begin to countenance them politically. They preferred to try physical aggression than to continue to try to argue it out further politically, especially when they began to lose politically (after Lincoln was elected). The North tried its level best to paint them into this particular corner, led in large part by activists (in denial?).

I’m not blaming the North for the Civil War, nor the abolitionists. I just don’t see any other solution at the time for the elite leaders of the South at the time than economic ruin.

If I’m right about this partial parallel, then we’re in bigger trouble than we think. I think a much higher level of political stress, perhaps leading to street violence if not civil war, is certainly a possible outcome if current trends continue. Simply put, climate change requires that important elite individuals that own fossil fuels and related capital give up on, say, eighty percent or more of the potential capital value in those investments. That isn’t quite economic ruin, considering how rich most such individuals are, but it’s close.

Right now these individuals are just fighting back with politics, albeit fairly dirty politics, and the GOP is only somewhat wittingly their main agent, and this is working for them. But eventually, after a few more extreme weather events, say, that kind of resistance won’t work anymore. What then? Will the GOP peel away from the Koch brothers and their ilk to save itself? Will these “fossil elites” resort to sponsoring violent protests? Will this remain a populist issue in particularly heavily fossil-powered states, so that elite holders of fossil capital can maintain a populist "army” of resistance (similar to the poor, non-slave-holding whites in the CSA?). Could Texas try to secede, so it can continue burning oil at high levels?

It’s all worth thinking about, particularly as those of us who want to see change make more and more investments and commitments politically. I think these are fairly obviously predictable possibilities. We should be strategic and careful about those commitments. We could easily paint our opponents into a corner this way.

I hate to write such a jeremiad without offering some solutions to the difficulties I raise. One is more democracy — more power to ordinary people and less to the fossil elites. That way we could begin to pass, for instance, more regional climate bills like RGGI here in New England, or AB32 in California. There’s an inherent socio-economic feedback loop in this,  in that investments in renewables have intrinsic local and regional economic multipliers. They help grow the local and regional economy simply because they stem the export of money for fossil fuels. This is something we can begin to document and track. Success in California and New England ought to begin to begat success. I also like divestment as a strategy, but then I’m biased, working at Unity College.

Another kind of denial that I think about a lot occurs in both liberal and conservative views of international climate policy. The recently announced agreement with China was very helpful, but a similar agreement with the major fossil-fuel owning countries, many of which are not at all democratic, is probably going to be beyond our reach for the foreseeable. A similar gang of global "fossil elites" has effective ownership of many international fossil assets. Putin’s Russia is one example, the members of OPEC comprise several others. Neither liberals nor conservatives wish these international fossil elites particularly well. We have a shared interest in weakening them. These powers also have to be defeated politically before a real climate solution can be achieved.

Most climate advocates concentrate on trying to convince their national governments to reduce emissions, but what we really need in the long run is a kind of "League of Democracies against Climate Change", so we can begin to garner to ourselves enough political power to enforce an international climate settlement. This takes a very different kind of strategy, one that would see an effective climate endgame as resulting from strengthening democratic governance in the US and its democratic allies, not from weakening it by what could easily be called penny-ante attacks on relatively minor national-level emissions regulations.

Again, the solution I offer is more democracy — more information, for instance, has to reach the citizens of Putin’s putative New Russian Empire than currently is. More power to ordinary Russians, less to Putin’s fossil elites. But again, there’s an inherent and helpful socio-economic feedback. The more for instance, that the EU invests in renewables and efficiency (and nukes), the less they need Putin’s gas.

Putin’s fossil-based strategy for power is currently collapsing quite nicely, so we can see where to go on this. Not for the right reasons, unfortunately. Mostly he seems to be getting punished by the Sunni members of OPEC for Syria, among other defaults, and one consequence of lower oil prices will be that increased consumption will cancel out the benefits of recent emissions reduction in the EU and USA. But the West should double down if it can and bring him or preferably his successors to the table, on Ukraine, Syria, and eventually on climate emissions. Climate advocates should be in the vanguard of these developments, strengthening Obama’s hand in this domestically, if we can. If we think we can get to a global climate settlement without defeating Putin politically, then we’re in denial. But we’re also in denial if we think we can defeat Putin politically without giving the national aspirations of ordinary Russians someplace to go, in other words, if we paint them into a corner at the same time.

I don’t think there are many climate advocates that entertain these kinds of concerns very much at all. And that, as Mr. Lindberg points out for other similar issues, is clearly a problem of denial. But bottom line, when you begin to realize that the people, the fossil elites, who really benefit from the status quo are quite few, then the problem seems somewhat more surmountable.

All this assumes that you feel, as I do, relatively positive about the prospects for renewable energy, efficiency, and related technology like electric vehicles, and you see it as inherently less centralized and thus more democratic. (It’s inherently more libertarian too — a furrow we could plow more! Here’s an example.).

Mr. Lindberg, presumably is less than convinced right now about the effectiveness and economic power of renewables. I can’t say I blame him, given the situations he describes (and does so, I think, quite accurately), but I tend to want to believe that I’m closer to the truth on this. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

(But if I remember right, it was at least seven or eight years ago I was telling you that domestic, “behind the meter” solar power would soon be close to grid parity, and now it clearly is beyond that in most states.)

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