Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Climate Change, the new era and what isn't being done
The climate change agreement is heartening in exactly the sense that President Obama said. It is a serious step, motivated by protest from below – the demonstrators, despite Hollande’s house detention of 42 climate activists, and then the 20,000 pairs of shoes in Paris, including the pope’s – to drive leaders toward trying, literally, to save life, including human life, on this frail planet. See the poem climate change here.
As Avaaz’s publicizing of Chennai floods shamed the almost shameless Modi into giving lip service to the agreement (they broadcast video of the destruction in the hall), this agreement can, through iterations and inventiveness, faced with new climate disasters, move sharply and increasingly toward doing something to stave off some of the worst effects of climate change (not enough to head off important disasters – too late – we would have to jail the coal company owners and those they hire to have a sufficiently democratic system/rule of law and put the same effort the US does into the military to do something quickly – and even then, the damage is upon us…).
Further as Michael Klare notes below, Modi is also partnering with France’s Hollande to open a $30 million solar energy center in Delhi for the International Solar Alliance (planning to raise $1,000 billion to be spend through the less developed countries). And a big part of the agreement is the less developed countries like Rwanda committing to solar energy. With fits and starts, Klare, a great expert of oil from Hampshire College, traces the beginnings of a new era below. For the free market will from now on increasingly cast incentives in the direction of solar and renewables.
Like the Iran Treaty, Obama deserves praise for this – even though he and the Democrats are, for the most part, a corrupt, slightly less oligarchic party than the Republicans…
But only continuing uprisings from below can do enough (the secret of genuine democracy in our age of politicians serving billionaires, and making Republicans, yo-yos on a string, and Hillarys’ pathetic).
I am in Dharamsala where representatives of the Tibet Women’s Congress and Lhasang Tsering speak to us about the rivers emanating from the roof of the world. All the rivers of Asia from the Brahmaputra and the Jumna to the Mekong start here.
The Chinese have been damming them up. The government has stolen Tibetan uranium, sold it and silted the place with returned nuclear waste.
The snow is now melting. Even without disaster, less fresh water is likely to come down. Day to day climate change worsens this.
A free Tibet (or even a freer autonomous region) would help in this (The Tibetans cared for trees – have compassion for all beings. Chinese lumbering has increasingly chopped them down and shipped them, by truck, to China. Decline of the forests, decline of holding carbon dioxide here, as by the Amazon.
They have increasingly confined Tibetan nomads to city reservations (I am putting it in American terms), to little house, with small plots for yaks. They often lived on the high peaks (20-25,000 feet), but are urbanized and dispirited by force.
Tibet was once much healthier for the planet…
The agreement is good, but preserving the status quo – Chinese is a big trading partner of the US and even Obama, who knows better, does not meet with the Dalai Lama… - is dangerous.
Still, the agreement starts a new era.
Michael Schwartz, my old friend, teacher of Soc Rel 148 (I was one of many co-section leaders in the course), brilliant sociologist of social movements and the Iraq War, and fellow activist, does a marvelous dissection of the meaning of the Times article below. In effect, the “reporter” says, governments can do nothing to stop climate change. But actually, the US military, moving ahead in this one way under Obama, has comparatively gone green and has worried, along with the “intelligence” community, about how climate crisis stirs suffering, political instability, sometimes Arab springs (may they continue to be upset by such things!), and sometimes – with the help of US/Israeli/Saudi aggressions and burning down everything – IS or Al Qaeda (Saudi Arabian elite/Wahhabis also fund and provide “foot-soldiers” for IS as in 9/11…)
What the Times article shows, however, is the complete obeisance of the capitalist governments to the “market” and banks. This is what Rudolf Hilferding (Finanz Kapital, 1912) and later Lenin, Imperialism analyzed as the central role of finance capital under a deteriorating or decadent capitalism (consider that alone among parties consider “conservative” in the West, the Republicans are climate change deniers, shunners of science, emperors who, despite a kept corporate press, need no child to see that they are without clothes….).
Given the silence about Lenin in American academia (the triumph of shibboleths and wishful thinking unchallenged by argument/elite created atmosphere) especially in social “science,” one is not supposed to read such things or notice the obvious.
Elsewhere many still notice (and I should mention Viggo Mortenson and others even here).
But from the uncontrollability of collateral debt obligations/derivatives and soaring inequalities to endless war and the destruction of the climate, the pinnacle of American militarism is actually a far sharper version of what Lenin warned of in World War I than what has existed previously. That is, imperialism has come into being far more sharply than in its initial outlines.
For instance, Paul Krugman in the Times has now, against his previous hope, endorsed Kalecki’s 1942 warning that in a depression, the rich will not allow obvious Keynsian measures of public works or tax cuts for the poor . Both of these measures would inject money into the economy and have a multiplier effect, putting people back to work . Instead, the agents of the foolish European/American banking elite - “Very respectable people,” Krugman calls them – keep on insisting on austerity only for the poor. Even Mel Brooks probably could not caricature these kept villains/fools, who steal food stamps from children in the Mississippi Delta, a la Paul Ryan and the other Republicans, help fuel the racism of Trump in the US, and drive more people toward IS – along with offering tax cuts for the .00001%.
Combined with the role of finance capitalism here – that governments, including Obama’s have to go beg for them to save the planet, cannot also promise large governmental steps in this direction, even when Obama has already taken some –it is hard to imagine a sharper vindication of Lenin’s basic argument or a more telling satire of most of today’s economics and political “science” professions.
If the truth is lying on the ground before your eyes, many social “scientists” will take a bulldozer of fake rocks and dump it over it. As a result of the Cold War purge of thinking in academia coupled with a preference, among Boards of Trustees and university administrations for “safe” intellectuals: academically, many choose obscure words, do not quite say what they mean about issues of inequality.
But as Mike says, the role of finance capital, a la Lenin, is before our eyes:
Coral Davenport, “Key to Success of Climate Pact Will Be Its Signals to Global Markets,” New York Times (Dec. 10, 2015), A16.
This article is the complete expression of the sovereignty of finance capital over government policy, at least with regard to climate change. This New York Times coverage of the UN conference captures this in the opening paragraphs:
E BOURGET, France — As diplomats here work through the final points of a sweeping new climate change accord, experts said the ultimate measure of success of the agreement will be whether it sends a clear signal to global financial investors that they should move money away from fossil fuels and toward clean-energy sources such as wind and solar power.
Without that signal, there is little chance that emissions will be reduced enough to stave off the most catastrophic impacts of global warming.
All you need to know about the power in the situation is to read that quote. The key everything is the phrase “clear signal to global financial investors.” It is a placeholder for the following points:
All the negotiations are aimed at creating a “signal” that will trigger corporate investment in renewables and disinvestment in fossil fuels. There is not coercion or regulation involved: just incentives whose effectiveness relies on energy executives deciding that (as Secretary of State John Kerry says at the end of the article) “trillions of dollars in profit are to be made” by shifting to renewables.
There is no interest or impulse for governments to invest in renewables and/or create national enterprises based on renewables, and thus compete with the fossil fuel companies.
So, the point of this article is that the governing body for energy policy is actually finance capital, and the various governments of the world are petitioners who can try to cajole, bribe, or purchase a policy from them. But the governments cannot legislate climate change. Only “global financial investors” can do that by deciding to “move many away from fossil fuels and toward clean-energy sources.”
Michael Klare, Go Green Young Woman, Young Man
Posted by Michael Klare at 4:53pm, December 13, 2015.
Excuse me if I take a flier today and write an introduction on the good news about climate change. Yep, the good news. It would, of course, be easy enough to do the opposite. When it comes to climate change, gloomy is a cinch. Just about any piece on the subject is likely to depress the hell out of you. Did you know -- as I learned only recently from a New York Times article -- that sea levels rose at a rate of 1.7 millimeters annually during the previous century, but from 1993 on, that rate has nearly doubled to 3.2 millimeters? Later this century, scientists estimate that it could be “16 millimeters a year, or about six-tenths of an inch” -- at least three feet by century’s end and possibly worse, depending on what's melting and how fast. If you’re a coastal dweller as I am (the eastern U.S.), that should give you pause, and if you live in a coastal area of China, you should be getting nervous. But I did say good news, didn't I, and it is the weekend that 195 countries reached a climate agreement in Paris, isn't it? So here goes.
Let’s start with the divestment movement. In Paris recently, the heroic 350.org announced a startling figure. More than 500 institutions representing $3.4 trillion in assets have agreed to get rid of all or part of the fossil fuel investments in their portfolios. That represents a big leap forward for divestment. And this is just one aspect of a growing global climate change movement that wants to point us toward the exit when it comes to the age of carbon and is proving that it can’t be ignored. And speaking of carbon emissions, here’s a little news flash from the atmospheric front lines: it’s just faintly possible that those emissions are peaking ahead of schedule. Despite a modest global economic recovery, for the last couple of years greenhouse gas emissions have flat-lined and they may even fall by a modest 0.6% in 2015. Don’t dance a jig yet. This may not even be the “peak emissions” moment, but if not, it could be coming more quickly than expected.
On a planet getting hotter all the time, this isn’t exactly nirvana-style news, but add this in: it had been hoped that somehow the negotiating nations of the world gathered in Paris these last two weeks might agree to the goal of keeping the prospective rise in temperature on planet Earth to 2 degrees Celsius. As it happens, climate scientists have increasingly been warning that even that number could result in devastating environmental disruptions. To the surprise of all, the aspirational number now mentioned in the Paris agreement is 1.5 degrees Celsius. (Humanity has already fossil-fueled the temperature upward by about a degree since the industrial revolution began.) Of course, agreeing on such a figure is one thing. Coming anywhere near achieving it is another.
Still, good news and climate change are not normally associated, so let’s give a tiny cheer for these glimpses of upbeat news this week, as well as for the agreement just reached, and then consider what's positive in the long-term outlook for all of us. There, too, as TomDispatch's invaluable energy expert Michael Klare suggests, there’s a green glow on the horizon amid the gloom when it comes to renewable energy sources. So don’t pop that champagne cork yet, but do read on! Tom
A New World Beckons
The Future Belongs to Renewables
Historically, the transition from one energy system to another, as from wood to coal or coal to oil, has proven an enormously complicated process, requiring decades to complete. In similar fashion, it will undoubtedly be many years before renewable forms of energy -- wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and others still in development -- replace fossil fuels as the world’s leading energy providers. Nonetheless, 2015 can be viewed as the year in which the epochal transition from one set of fuels to another took off, with renewables making such significant strides that, for the first time in centuries, the beginning of the end of the Fossil Fuel Era has come into sight.
This shift will take place no matter how well or poorly the deal just achieved at the U.N. climate summit in Paris is carried out. Although a robust commitment by participating nations to curb future carbon emissions will certainly help speed the transition, the necessary preconditions -- political will, investment capital, and technological momentum -- are already in place to drive the renewable revolution forward. Lending a hand to this transformation will be a sharp and continuing reduction in the cost of renewable energy, making it increasingly competitive with fossil fuels. According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), between now and 2040 global investments in renewable power capacity will total $7 trillion, accounting for 60% of all power plant investment.
Fossil fuels will not, of course, disappear during this period. Too much existing infrastructure -- refineries, distribution networks, transportation systems, power plants, and the like -- are dependent on oil, coal, and natural gas, which means, unfortunately, that these fuels will continue to play a prominent role for decades. But the primary thrust of new policies, new investment, and new technology will be in the advancement of renewables.
Two events on the periphery of the Paris climate summit were especially noteworthy in terms of the renewable revolution: the announcement of an International Solar Alliance by India and France, and the launching of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition by Bill Gates of Microsoft, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and a host of other billionaires.
As described by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the International Solar Alliance is meant to mobilize private and public funds for the development and installation of affordable solar systems on a global scale, especially in developing countries. “We intend making joint efforts through innovative policies, projects, programs, capacity-building measures, and financial instruments to mobilize more than 1,000 billion U.S. dollars of investments that are needed by 2030 for the massive deployment of affordable solar energy,” Modi and French President François Hollande indicated in a joint statement on November 30th.
According to its sponsors, the aim of this program is to pool financing from both public and private sources in order to bring down the costs of solar systems even further and speed their utilization, especially in poor tropical countries. “The vast majority of humans are blessed with sunlight throughout the year,” Modi explained. “We want to bring solar energy into their lives.”
To get the alliance off the ground, the Indian government will commit some $30 billion for the establishment of the alliance’s headquarters in New Delhi. Modi has also pledged to increase solar power generation in India by 2,500% over the next seven years, expanding output from 4 to 100 gigawatts -- thereby creating a vast new market for solar technology and devices. “This day is the sunrise of new hope, not just for clean energy, but for villages and homes still in darkness,” he said in Paris, adding that the solar alliance would create “unlimited economic opportunities” for green energy entrepreneurs.
The Breakthrough Energy Coalition, reportedly the brainchild of Bill Gates, will seek to channel private and public funds into the development of advanced green-energy technologies to speed the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. “Technology will help solve our energy issues,” the project’s website states. “Scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs can invent and scale the innovative technologies that will limit the impact of climate change while providing affordable and reliable energy to everyone.”
As Gates imagines it, the new venture will seek to bundle funds from wealthy investors in order to move innovative energy breakthroughs from the laboratory -- where they often languish -- to full-scale development and production. “Experience indicates that even the most promising ideas face daunting commercialization challenges and a nearly impassable Valley of Death between promising concept and viable product,” the project notes. “This collective failure can be addressed, in part, by a dramatically scaled-up public research pipeline, linked to a different kind of private investor with a long-term commitment to new technologies who is willing to put truly patient flexible risk capital to work.”
Joining Gates and Bezos in this venture are a host of super-rich investors, including Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, the Chinese internet giant; Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chairman of Facebook; George Soros, chairman of Soros Fund Management; and Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of India’s giant Tata Sons conglomerate. While seeking to speed the progress of green technology, these investors also see a huge potential for future profits in this field and, as the venture claims, “will certainly be motivated partly by the possibility of making big returns over the long-term, but also by the criticality of an energy transition.”
While vast in their ambitions, these two schemes are not without their critics. Some environmentalists worry, for example, that Modi’s enthusiasm for the International Solar Alliance might actually be a public relations device aimed at deflecting criticism from his plans for increasing India’s reliance on coal to generate electricity. A report by Climate Action Tracker, an environmental watchdog group, noted, for instance, that “the absolute growth in [India’s] coal-powered electric generating capacity would be significantly larger than the absolute increase in renewable/non-fossil generation capacity” in that country between 2013 and 2030. “Ultimately, this would lead to a greater lock-in of carbon-intensive power infrastructure in India than appears necessary.
The Gates initiative has come under criticism for favoring still-experimental “breakthrough” technologies over further improvements in here-and-now devices such as solar panels and wind turbines. For example, Joe Romm, a climate expert and former acting assistant secretary of energy, recently wrote at the website Climate Progress that “Gates has generally downplayed the amazing advances we’ve had in the keystone clean technologies,” such as wind and solar, while “investing in new nuclear power, geo-engineering technologies, and off-the-wall stuff.”
Despite such criticisms, the far-reaching implications and symbolic importance of these initiatives shouldn’t be dismissed. By funneling billions -- and in the end undoubtedly trillions -- of dollars into the development and deployment of green technologies, these politicians and plutocrats are ensuring that the shift from fossil fuels to renewables will gain further momentum with each passing year until it becomes unstoppable.
The Developing World Goes Green
In another sign of this epochal shift, ever more countries in the developing world -- including some oil-producing ones -- are embracing renewables as their preferred energy sources. According to the IEA, the newly industrialized countries, spearheaded by China and India, will spend $2.7 trillion on renewable-based power plants between 2015 and 2040, far more than the older industrialized nations.
This embrace of renewables by the developing world is especially significant given the way the major oil and gas companies -- led by ExxonMobil and BP -- have long argued that cheap fossil fuels provide these countries with the smoothest path to rapid economic development. Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson has even claimed that there is a “humanitarian imperative” to providing the developing world with cheap fossil fuels in order to save "millions and millions of lives."
In accordance with this self-serving rhetoric, Exxon, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and other energy giants have been madly expanding their oil and gas distribution networks in Asia, Africa, and other developing areas.
Increasingly, however, the targets of this push are rejecting fossil fuels in favor of renewables. Morocco, for example, has pledged to obtain 42% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, far more than planned by the members of the European Union. Later this month, the country will commence operations at the Ouarzazate solar thermal plant, a mammoth facility capable of supplying electricity to one million homes by relying on an array of revolving parabolic mirrors covering some 6,000 acres. These will concentrate the power of sunlight and use it to produce steam for electricity-generating turbines.
Elsewhere in Africa, authorities in Rwanda have commissioned a vast solar array at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, about 40 miles east of Kigali, the capital. Consisting of 28,360 computer-controlled solar panels, the array can generate 8.5 megawatts of electricity, or about 6% of Rwanda’s capacity. Spread over an undulating hill, the panels are laid out in the shape of the African continent and are meant to be symbolic of solar energy’s importance to that energy-starved continent. “We have plenty of sun,” said Twaha Twagirimana, the plant supervisor. “Some are living in remote areas where there is no energy. Solar will be the way forward for African countries.”
Even more significant, a number of major oil-producing countries have begun championing renewables, too. On November 28th, for example, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, vice president and ruler of Dubai, launched the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050, which aims to make the emirate a global center of green energy. According to present plans, 25% of Dubai’s energy will come from clean energy sources by 2030 and 75% by 2050. As part of this drive, solar panels will be made mandatory for all rooftops by 2030. “Our goal is to become the city with the smallest carbon footprint in the world by 2050,” Sheikh Mohammed said when announcing the initiative.
As part of its green energy drive, Dubai is constructing the
Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, intended to be the world’s largest solar facility. When completed, around 2030, the giant complex will produce some 5,000 megawatts of energy -- about eight times as much as the Ouarzazate solar plant.
Evidence that an accelerating shift to renewables is already underway can also be found in recent studies of the global energy industry, most notably in the IEA’s just-released annual assessment of industry trends, World Energy Outlook 2015. “There are unmistakable signs that the much needed global energy transition is under way,” the report noted, with “60 cents of every dollar invested in new power plants to 2040 [to be] spent on renewable energy technologies.”
The growing importance of renewables, the IEA noted, is especially evident in the case of electricity generation. As more countries follow the growth patterns seen in China and South Korea, electricity is expected to provide an ever-increasing share of world energy requirements. Global electricity use, the report says, will grow by 46% between 2013 and 2040; all other forms of energy use, by only 24%. As a result, the share of total world energy provided by electricity will rise from 38% to 42%.
This shift is significant because renewables will provide a greater share of the energy used to generate electricity. Whereas they contributed only 12% of energy to power generation in 2013, the IEA reports, they are expected to supply 24% in 2040; meanwhile, the shares provided by coal and natural gas will grow by far smaller percentages, and that by oil will actually shrink. While coal and gas are still likely to dominate the power sector in 2040, the trend lines suggest that they will lose ever more ground to renewables as time goes on.
Contributing to the growing reliance on renewables, the IEA finds, is a continuing drop in the cost of deploying these technologies. Once considered pricey compared to fossil fuels, renewables are beginning to win out on cost alone. In 2014, the agency noted, “about three-quarters of global renewables-based [power] generation was competitive with electricity from other types of power plants without subsidies,” with large hydropower facilities contributing much of this share.
Certainly, renewables continue to benefit from subsidies of various sorts. In 2014, the IEA reports, governments provided some $112 billion to underwrite renewable power generation. While this may seem like a significant amount, it is only about a quarter of the $490 billion in subsidies governments offered globally to the fossil fuel industry. If those outsized subsidies were eliminated and a price imposed on the consumption of carbon, as proposed in many of the schemes to be introduced in the wake of the Paris climate summit, renewables would become instantly competitive without subsidies.
Go Green Young Man and Young Woman
All this is not to say that the world will be a green-energy paradise in 2030 or 2040. Far from it. Barring the unexpected, fossil fuels will continue to rule in many areas, especially transportation, and the resulting carbon emissions will continue to warm the planet disastrously. By then, however, most new investment in the energy field will, at least, be devoted to renewables and in most places globally there will be rules and regulations aimed at facilitating their installation.
As a college professor, I often think about such developments in terms of my students. When they ask me for career advice these days, I urge them to gear their studies toward some field likely to prosper in exactly this future environment: renewable energy systems, green architecture and city planning, alternative transportation and industrial systems, sustainable development, and environmental law, among others. And more and more of my students are, in fact, choosing such paths.
Likewise, if I were a future venture capitalist, I would follow the lead of Gates, Bezos, and the other tycoons in the Breakthrough Energy Coalition by seeking out the most innovative work in the green energy field. It offers as close as you can get to a guarantee against failure. As the consumption of renewable energy explodes, the incentives for power and money-saving technical breakthroughs are only going to grow and the rate of discovery is sure to rise as well, undoubtedly offering enormous payback possibilities for those getting a piece of the action early.
Finally, if I were an aspiring politician, whether in this country or elsewhere, I would be spinning plans for my city, state, or nation to take the lead in the green energy revolution. Once the transition from fossil fuels to renewables gains more momentum, leadership in the development and deployment of green technologies will become a far more popular position, which means it will increase your electability. This proposition is already beginning to be tested. For example, the Labor Party candidate for mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is now leading the way by building his campaign around a promise to set that city on course to be 100% powered by renewables by 2050.
You’re still going to hear a lot about fossil fuels -- and for good reason -- but make no mistake about it: the future belongs to renewables. Of course, Big Energy, the giant utilities, and the lobbyists and politicians in their pay, including just about the complete climate-change-denying Republican Party, will do everything in their (not insignificant) power to perpetuate the Fossil Fuel Era. In the process, they will cause immeasurable harm to the planet and to us all. They will win some battles. In the process, they will also be committing some of the great crimes of history. But the war they are fighting is a losing one. Inevitably, ever more people -- especially the most dynamic and creative of the young -- will be hitching their futures to the coming of a genuinely green civilization, ensuring its ultimate triumph.
Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.