By Nicholas C. Arguimbau
15 December, 2012, from Countercurrents.org
No question, avoiding serious temperature increases from greenhouse gas emissions is one of the most difficult tasks facing humanity today, likely the most difficult it has ever faced. While the UN, the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and scientists all over the world are predicting doom if major actions are not taken before 2020, the earliest the governments, on their presently-planned time framework, will have implemented anything at all. There is ZERO evidence of progress towards dealing with the problem in the public sector or the energy industry. Greenhouse gas emissions are going up at a rate that is faster every year, when they should have been going down for decades. The Economist reports (December 1, 2012) that international climate negotiations are a "Theatre of the Absurd," and "Climate policy is going nowhere fast." An enormous amount of progress needs to be made by 2020, a difficult task indeed, but if the citizens of the planet stop waiting for the public sector, perhaps ridiculously simple, too. When it is boiled down to the basics, all you need to know is a tautology: the way to reduce emissions is to reduce emissiions.
It is an immense relief that the urgency is now understood broadly, in business circles as well as among those they might have passed off a few years ago as "environmental extremists." As with any addiction, the first step in curing the addiction to fossil fuels is recognizing the addiction. That has been a long time coming, and as a consequence, the problem has been enormously exacerbated. We are faced now with too many people using too much stuff, and almost no time to change, but there is finally a consensus, except among our moribund governments, that action NOW is essential.
But what to do? The way to reduce emissions is to reduce emissions. But then people start putting on conditions that take over, like, "We can’t reduce emissions if that will reduce total energy use," or "We can’t reduce emissions if that will slow "economic growth." Demands that were reasonable in other times may be literally impossible to fulfill now. Unrealistic optimism about growth of the economy as a guideline for what steps are or are not feasible is the hardest of all illusions to escape.
We have all had the giddying experience of the post-World-War-II climb: we have come close to unraveling the ultimate secrets of the universe, we have literally reached for the stars, we accomplished a miraculous Green Revolution, we produced this marvel, the Internet, we have made intercontinental air travel commonplace, we invented antibiotics, we ended forever the scourge of smallpox, we invented the computer and it took over the world. But that half century was two million years coming, and with unprecedented costs: the exhaustion of fossil fuels, the destruction of the world's great forests, the mining of all but a small fraction of phosphorus and potassium, two of the handful of elements essential to all life, the draining of the earth's great underground water supplies, the development and rapid degradation of virtually every farmable acre on earth - the list goes on, You’ve heard it before. My personal summary of the situation in first, "The Imminent Crash Of the Oil Supply. . .," which Market Oracle was kind enough to post on its site as the "financial analysis of the week" two years ago (and which for reasons I do not have room to discuss except a little below, is unaffected by illusions that the United States is "awash in oil" and about to become "Saudi America"); and second, "Peak Food: Can Another Green Revolution Save Us?" . In short, and as the latest post on Market Watch by Brent Arends points out, "The End of the World and How to Profit from it," the halcyon days of 3% and greater world annual GDP growth are almost certainly over, So we can no longer solve any problem by throwing enough money and technology at it, assuming that whatever the cost, we could pay now, borrow if necessary, and today’s bank-breaker would be tomorrow’s pocket change.
This includes the global warming problem. The way to reduce emissions is to reduce emissions, regardless of the formal means we use - a carbon tax, "cap and trade," traditional regulation, voluntary conservation, etc. There are essentially two devices for reducing emissions: (1) technofixes like increased engine efficiency and "sustainable energy sources" (you know, hybrid engines, solar power and so forth), with total consumption unchallenged in the interim, and (2) simple reduction of consumption (driving less, turning down the thermostat, having fewer babies and toys, etc.) The first route can be followed without built-in reduction of energy-industry profits, The second likely cannot. If reduction of energy industry profits is "off the table" for government negotiators, then they can easily find themselves in a "theatre of the absurd."
The first route is neither economical nor fast, so we had better rethink whether it can be a "nonnegotiable demand." You need to invent the technofix, then you need to manufacture it, then you need to replace the old with the new. Invest in latter-day Edisons. Invest in factories. Invest in retooling. Either the government pays or the public pays. Good things, but money and credit and keeping particular segments of the economy happy, have their limits, as we are discovering after the wild ride of debt accumulation since 1980. Picture scrapping all the cars on the road and replacing them with ones that use one quarter the fuel, if that is possible. Maybe 150 million cars at $20k each. $3trillion, yes? Not necessarily a U.S. job-creator either, given out-sourcing. Picture scrapping 100 million CO2-generating home furnaces plus the means for delivery of the fuel, and replacing them with electric heaters run on carbon-free electricity. Who is going to design the heaters? Who is going to pay for them? Maybe $2k each. And where are the three terawatts, in round numbers, of sustainable electricity we need to replace fossil-generated power? Solar and wind? No; at present they are too intermittent and only a fraction of grid energy can be replaced with them. We need to invent and produce and install economical storage devices for sustainable energy, thus far a hopeless task. Not to mention maybe $30k per household times 100 million households. $3trillion? Nuclear? Either too unsafe or too costly, probably both. And you’d better believe, not in MY back yard. Fusion? The primary concept is to pack hydrogen in a steel chamber at a temperature and pressure comparable to the center of the sun without any leaking out and melting the chamber, so you can duplicate the process in the sun of turning hydrogen into helium. The fusion scientists would grumble about this explanation but would have to admit that it’s right. They’ve been trying to do this for half a century and will probably figure out in another half century that it’s a really klutzy way to get simple solar energy.
And the cost of the three terawatts assuming we could design something that would work? Depending on what you’re building, maybe $5 per watt, $15 trillion for three terawatts of something we haven’t invented yet. Hmmm. That’s a trick. Guaranteed it won’t happen before 2020. Then there’s the retooling of all the factories and public buildings, construction of thousands of miles of public transit . . . I guess we’re talking $20-40 trillion, simply to permit us to go along as we have without limiting growth, all to be spent or borrowed NOW. Talk about a fiscal cliff. Try selling the idea in Washington or Europe right now. It’s pretty to many folks to dream of the economy growing at breakneck speed and $40 trillion being invested in the private economy NOW. But it’s not going to happen. The magic word now is "austerity."
So look at the second route. "Austerity" at the personal level? Close, but more a change of priorities, although radical. Some initial thoughts about what to do:
Stop eating beef, which costs roughly thirteen times more greenhouse emissions than chicken, 57 times as much as potatoes. Anyone can cut out beef right now and get spending money in the process. That’s a surprisingly large fraction of our ghg emissions (worldwide more than the entire transportation sector), often more than from our car. If all Americans were to give up beef, they would arguably accomplish more than all the government global warming programs to date.
Splurge in some new woolens and turn the thermostat down to 50 degrees. Here in chilly Massachusetts that will reduce your heating fuel consumption by over half. 100% in warmer places. Not everyone’s piece of cake, but it puts a lot of money in your pocket. Look what only 0.8 degrees C of warming has done to the world, and if we don’t do these things we’re talking 4 degrees or more. The critters out there have it right: Good coats to keep their bodies warm and the rest of the world cool.
Anyhow, this is just practice for what Mama Nature will force on us shortly as the fossil fuels disappear.
And they will. Thought all that had changed with shale oil? Not yet and probably not ever. With all the brouhaha, they are only turning out 800,000 barrels per day, 1% of world demand, and they’re losing money because it costs too much to get it out of the ground. The people who are saying it will be a "go" are basing that on the GDP growing at 3.5%/year so we can pay double and be happy without pain. Also, they aren’t taking into account that shale oil wells run dry much faster than conventional ones. There are no solid figures as to the actually retrievable shale oil, with estimates ranging, astonishingly, from 4.3 billion barrels (the pittance currently estimated by the United States Geological Survey) to six trillion barrels in the view of some industry people. The "Saudi America" idea seems to come from a grim reality - that by 2020, Saudi Arabia’s oil production may be down to what shale oil production may be up to, with no net gain. And then there is reality: American demand for and consumption of petroleum is dropping at 4.5% per year according to Polczer, "America’s Missing Barrels", Petroleum Economist, April 24, 2012. This is precisely the rate predicted in "Imminent Crash," above; it is masked by our economic morass and by our large-scale use of alcohol as a gasoline additive. So it is at least premature to conclude that "peak oil" is no more.
And by the way, if we are becoming "Saudi America," we are setting ourselves up to be the ultimate climate terminators - if there is a substantial amount of shale oil or tar sands oil that can be gotten out of the ground economically, it has to stay there anyhow. So regardless of what’s there, we’ve got to cut our emissions NOW. The way to cut emissions is to cut emissions.
And then there are the cars, which cost us something like $8,000 each to run annually, a trillion dollars per year, give or take, nationally. If we’re thinking "austerity" is going to be forced upon us, that’s certainly a good place to start. Our grandfathers or great-grandfathers didn’t have cars at all and neither did the folks who settled the continent. Take the backed-up commuter traffic. Thousands of cars, all going in the same direction, and because they are barely moving, unlike the commuter train that goes sailing by, there’s time to take a look. Most likely there’s not one in sight without four empty seats. So everyone should be able to find a less wasteful vehicle. And apparently close to four out of five clogging the road could be carpooling. It’s only a matter of computer-aided logistics. There are carpool lanes in many cities, you know, and they don’t jam up. And if you’re not commuting, then stay home except for necessities. Is there any earthly reason not to carpool with your neighbors for groceries? There. That should be good for at least a 50% cut in your gas bill. And if you’re a businessman, you should be able to invent a system for making carpooling simpler, and market it. Because everyone will be saving in a big way on their gas bills and their carbon counts. A little difficult, but not impossible; failing to do it only postpones the inevitable a few years. And how about giving out public transit passes as alternatives to coupons? I don’t know, but the twentieth century wasn’t the only century.
And if you stop buying "stuff" that is unnecessary or comes from unnecessarily far away, that’s another big cut. Buy local, employing what’s left of the workforce not already overseas. Your "i-phone" (what do the damn things do, anyhow?), if it’s got the Apple or Microsoft or HP or Samsung brand name on it, should have the Fox.conn brand name, because that’s the company that makes ‘em all. They’ll come from Fox.conn to the US on massive diesel freighters that are completely unregulatable as to how much they pollute the atmosphere while they’re on the high seas. So the less you buy from China (or anywhere in East Asia) the less diesel fuel you’re responsible for. The same is true, of course, if you live in the Northeast and buy vegetables and fruits from California and Florida.
Dunno, but that’s a recipe for cutting personal American carbon emissions by half, RIGHT NOW, and if we don’t do it now, Mama Nature will do it for us in about 25 years and the cost of 25 years of indulgence will be thousands, likely millions of years of a devastated planet. We’ve been waiting decades for someone else to tell us what to do, and they never have. This is real; I’ll give links discussing every fact in this harangue to anyone who asks: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Does it seem fanciful that we would reduce our carbon emissions by half overnite through conservation? Not really; ours are twice Europe’s, and they are hardly hurting. That will do for this week. Does it seem fanciful that we could settle the North American continent without a drop of oil? Of course, but we did it. Does it seem fanciful that we could destroy 90% of the earth’s species, perhaps including ourselves and leave the planet devastated without making a serious effort to avoid it? Yes, but we are about to do that also. So if we are going to do something in the near future that now appears fanciful, let it be positive.
We’ll all have to muddle through with some help from our friends. We can start by finding out our carbon footprint and how it compares to those of our neighbors and countrymen. Try a footprint calculator, which should include a pretty comprehensive and detailed coverage of your activities, because everything we do costs carbon. Carbon heating the earth and creating Katrinas and Sandys and massive drought and destroying the polar icecaps and acidifying the oceans, and it’s hardly begun.
Here’s a carbon footprint calculator: Carbon Footprint. I don’t know that it’s the best, but it’s a start. (It will also invite you to buy "offsets" so you won’t have to feel guilty - that’s where we part company.) It will tell you what you can do and hopefully convince you that you can and should reduce your fingerprint to 80% below America’s current norm. If everyone does that, the global warming problem is at least not going to get worse. Humankind can’t figure that out and see it’s better than destroying 90+ % of the world’s species and leaving our grandchildren a barren desert? We all need to know our carbon footprints and start cutting. Hopefully people in business and government will work not only to do it for themselves, but to make it easier for others. Of course no one gets to wait for that, which to date hasn’t happened. The problem to date with global warming is that everyone has been waiting for someone else to act. I mean everyone - the governments, the oil industry, small businesses, conservation organizations, consumers. NO MORE!
Let’s be clear about this idea that investing in conservation is MUCH cheaper than investing in new energy sources, with an example. In VERY round numbers, and it doesn’t matter too much how it works, the capital cost of a power plant is around $5 per watt of production capacity, generally not less than $3 nor more than $10, and then there’s the fuel, or if the power plant is truly sustainable, there is something else like sunshine. The cost of compact fluorescents is about $.06 per watt saved, or if you only light them 4 hours per day, then $0.36 per watt saved, and there isn’t any fuel. Less than ONE TENTH the initial cost and no fuel?. And how many really wonderful woolen sweaters could you splurge on every year with the savings from turning down the thermostat? There’s just no comparison in the costs. Investing in energy conservation is MUCH more cost-effective than investing in energy consumption. The fundamental idea behind "alternative energy" is to cut carbon emissions only when the alternative shows up on the scene, so your energy use never decreases.The idea of cutting consumption hasn’t been popular because everyone has been hung up on increasing or at least maintaining consumption. That’s called "economic growth." We can’t be afraid of threatening "growth" if ultimately it is growth of carbon emissions that threaten life itself. The time for buying or borrowing our way out of problems is behind us, or, if under some fantastical circumstance it’s also ahead of us, then there’s no time to wait.
There’s an element of "feel good but don’t make a difference" in this unless we’re all careful. It comes back to the footprint calculator. Everyone needs to recalculate their footprint with an eye to reducing it SOON by 80%, and at least say 10%/year without fail. Businesses can help with accurate and complete carbon costs marked on everything they sell. This is a war. We all worked together to cut energy consumption in World War II, so we can all do it now.
How did we get into this mess? Dunno. Of course business has traditionally wanted consumers to consume, not to conserve. And the mainline "conservation" groups are disturbingly quiet about conservation, just as they are disturbingly quiet about population. I guess sometimes people become so afraid of looking "extreme" or of not being able to pay the mortgage because what they need to say won’t be paid for, that they forget where they’re going. Pretty sad. Conservationists won’t push conservation? No, they won’t. See "Bill McKibben Is Wrong, We Must Not Forget That ‘We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us’", Countercurrents Editor's Picks, Energy Bulletin. And if you’re not fed up with getting sent to read things I’ve written, then about the moral issues here, there is "A Greeting For 2012: Looking Back At Durban And Other Progressive
Failures, And 'Occupying' Ourselves," By Nicholas C. Arguimbau. Bill McKibben says explicitly that he won’t push conservation. And he’s far from the only one.
The point of all this is that we ALL have responsibility for global warming, and, if everyone keeps pointing the finger at everyone else, we are doomed. It just happens that the only ones who can do enough, quickly and economically enough, are the consumers; even if that weren’t true, everyone else - government, industry, even the traditional "conservationists," have dropped the ball, leaving the consumers left to play. Everyone else, if there is anyone else, has to help them in the onerous task. NOW. Technofixes - alternative energy, efficient engines, things that let us go on doing what we did before but with less carbon - will help, but we have to come up with money to buy them before they’ll help. Standing alone they will be too little, too late, and VERY expensive. We CANNOT go on doing what we did before if the planet is to survive.
The governments may begin to act, now that unprecedented pressure is on them, but even if they do, the technofixes approach alone or arguments about whether we can afford it, are all too likely to prevail until it is too late. And there is out there among the earth’s 7 billion or the United States’ 300 million, a Gandhi - a person of vast energy, vast integrity, vast compassion, vast intelligence, who could come forth as a leader to help us along. That would be a plus.
But we cannot wait for the Second Coming while the Four Horsemen are about. So let’s get on with the show.
Nicholas C. Arguimbau is a semi-retired semi-tired lawyer with licenses to practice before the California Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court. He takes pictures and writes, and gets his dogs out to sniff the mushrooms, but less than is good for them or him.