“What were they thinking?” We invoke this question on behalf of our descendants to shine a certain unforgiving light on the dissonance between our “understanding” of the climate crisis and our actions.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a more thought-provoking answer to this question than Zadie Smith’s essay in the April New York Review of Books, “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons.”
Don’t let the title fool you. It does have some moving nostalgia about the wonderful, local things we’re losing to climate disruption. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about our failure to deal, and how we still might. I’m not sure how much of it I agree with, but I find it haunting.
I quote the end at length. Yes, it’ll give away the punch line. But I bet once you read it, you’ll read the rest.
Oh, what have we done! It’s a biblical question, and we do not seem able to pull ourselves out of its familiar – essentially religious – cycle of shame, denial, and self-flagellation. This is why (I shall tell my granddaughter) the apocalyptic scenarios did not help – the terrible truth is that we had a profound, historical attraction to apocalypse. In the end, the only thing that could create the necessary traction in our minds was the intimate loss of the things we loved. Like when the seasons changed in our beloved little island, or when the lights went out on the fifteenth floor, or the day I went into an Italian garden in early July, with its owner, a woman in her eighties, and upon seeing the scorched yellow earth and withered roses, and hearing what only the really old people will confess – in all my years I’ve never seen anything like it – I found my mind finally beginning to turn from the elegiac what have we done to the practical what can we do?
Has truth met its match in the Wyoming Legislature?
The State of Wyoming has blocked adoption of the new science standards contained in the national “Common Core” curriculum. The Star-Tribune reports:
“[The standards] handle global warming as settled science,” said Rep. Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle who was one of the footnote’s authors. “There’s all kind of social implications involved in that that I don’t think would be good for Wyoming.”
Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming’s economy, as the state is the nation’s largest energy exporter, and cause other unwanted political ramifications.”
The analogy between the energy revolution and the information revolution is far from perfect. Energy technology transformation may well be slower, weighted down as it is by Titanics of sunk capital and powerful incumbents with strong incentives to forestall change.
But the revolution is clearly underway. 4 recent items:
1) The Minnesota Public Utility Commission issued a Value of Solar Tariff that includes, among other things, the federal government’s estimate of the “social cost of carbon.” Solar’s worth more because it’s better… because you don’t have to pay for it with disaster relief and mass extinctions and stuff.
2) Amory Lovins has a good rundown of how a growing number of states and countries are running their power systems on a high percentage of renewable power. The idea that renewable energy penetration is inherently limited by intermittency is becoming obsolete. (Energy demand is intermittent, but no one is suggesting we can’t deal with that.) The need for “baseload” coal and nuclear is waning fast. Resource diversity, better forecasting, distributed storage, dispatchable renewables, and demand response are all being used to integrate larger and larger percentages of renewable power — and that’s before you even get to the big storage solutions. Per the savant of Old Snowmass:
“After all, half the world’s new generating capacity added each year starting in 2008 has been renewable; solar cells are scaling faster than cellphones, probably surpassing windpower’s 2013 additions; and Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects solar power to compete with retail grid power in three-fourths of world markets in another year or two. The first part of the renewable power revolution—scaling production—is already well underway. Next comes the interesting part: ensuring that all the moving parts mesh properly.”
3) Austin Energy signed a long-term deal for 150 MW of solar from a big PV station for $.05 per kilowatt-hour. 5 cents. A nickel. Seriously cheap. Greentech Media reports:
Bret Kadison, COO of Austin-based Brazos Resources, an energy investment firm, said this was “a highly competitive solicitation….This is below the all-in cost of natural gas generation, even with low fuel prices and before factoring in commodity volatility and cost overruns.” He also points out that the original RFP was for 50 megawatts, but the utility ended up buying 150 megawatts “in a red state where hydrocarbons dominate the political landscape.” Kadison suggests that “one of the biggest cost reduction drivers that allowed solar to reach this parity came from the massive reduction in financing costs.”
4) It’s happening…. if we’ll just give it a chance, as a group of young American leaders including Oscar-winner Jared Leto urged Secretary of State John Kerry to do in a letter opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. They called on Kerry to summon up the courage and moral clarity he used to help end the Vietnam War, when he asked Congress, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Say the whipper-snappers to the Secretary:
“As young American leaders, we are confident in our ability to engineer solutions over time, and we enthusiastically support the Obama Administration’s commitment to advancing these solutions. The urgent climate imperative now – what our generation asks and expects of yours – is to give those solutions time to grow. We must not squander our precious time and capital now on making the problem intractably worse, especially when we are so bullish on the opportunities to make it better!”
Read the letter here.
The price of gasoline should be higher. There, I said it.
I will be shunned (again) by the school of political “pragmatists” who believe we must never ask anyone to do anything hard about climate disruption. But everyone who’s thinking in practical terms about climate solutions knows it’s true.
We’re just not going to do climate solutions right, at scale, in a market economy as long as the exorbitant costs of climate disruption remain external to the price of fossil fuels — that is, as long as we keep foisting those costs off on our kids and grandkids.
Freeloading is not good economics, and it’s even worse ancestoring. It’s particularly galling when it poses as an answer to poverty, since it is the world’s poor who do the least to cause climate disruption and are slammed hardest by its consequences.
This graph shows how British Columbia’s carbon tax is helping the province do just that. Six years in to the BC carbon tax experience, Alan Durning and Yoram Bauman are reviewing the promise, pitfalls, and progress to date (having planted the seeds in the first place). Read the first installment of their analysis here, and sign up for the whole series while you’re at the Sightline site. Heck, sign up for everything; their stuff is the best.
Climate solutions are many, varied, and complex. But this part is super simple: without responsible limits on climate pollution and an end to free carbon dumping, we’re not going to get those solutions done well and soon enough.
* No. Seriously. That’s the translation of: Splendor sine occasu
Yakkity-yak, you say, why don’t they do something about it? Because too many Democrats and all the Republicans are afraid. On the D side, they’re afraid of Big Fossil’s money, which is poised to pin them on the wrong side of jobs if they act on climate. On the R side, a few of them are proud climate deniers, but most of them know better. They too are afraid of Big Fossil, and the prospect that talking like anything but a nut about climate will win them an oil-funded primary challenge from the Tea Party.
So they won’t act on climate. And if you can’t act, why talk? And since everybody stopped talking, it reduced the pressure to act. And so on, til we’re toast.
The Senators are breaking that vicious cycle of silence and denial and inaction. They are talking. And the more they talk — the more they spend time and words on the unimaginably grave consequences of doing nothing — the harder it becomes to sit still.The ecosystem of denial cannot, ultimately, withstand direct daylight.
Encourage them here.
It’s on. The clean energy revolution, that is.
In a preview of a big report due out tomorrow, the Solar Energy Industries Association reports that solar electricity was the second largest source of new electric capacity in the U.S. in 2013. In 6 states in DC, solar accounted for 100% of new capacity.
Check here for the big news tomorrow.