Are We Winning the Clean vs. Dirty Energy Battle?
“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
-Thomas Edison, 1931
I’ve been doing just about all I can for the last 10 years to help build the climate movement. For virtually all of that time I’ve done so without much hope that we can defeat Dirty Coal, Oil and Gas in enough time to prevent massive climate disruption.
In all honesty, many times I’ve felt that I was doing this work mainly to be able to live with myself, to know when I die that I have done all I could to try to stabilize the earth’s unraveling climate and the extreme, catastrophic weather that would come with that unraveling.
But over the last month or two, for very specific reasons, I’m coming to see things differently. I’m beginning to believe that the human race has a fighting chance of preventing runaway, catastrophic climate change and, in so doing, open the way for a much more just, peaceful and democratic world.
Why do I think this?
One reason was the Obama victory and the Congressional losses for the climate-denying Republican Party. It isn’t that I expect great things from Obama and the Democrats, especially if left to make energy decisions without any major political pressure; it’s that their winning gives the climate movement, and other movements, openings we wouldn’t have with Republican control of the White House and Congress.
Another reason is Obama speaking more substantively than he has in years about the climate crisis in both his Inaugural and State of the Union speeches.
Then there is the important initiative taken by the national Sierra Club, joined in by 350.org, the Hip Hop Caucus and 165 other groups, to organize the first actual “march on Washington” by the climate movement. And that demonstration was a big success, 40,000 or more determined and high-spirited people on a very cold mid-February day, from all over the country.
There is the on-going development of the No Keystone XL pipeline movement, from the cutting-edge actions of Tar Sands Blockade, to demonstrations taking place when Obama or Kerry leave their offices to speak publicly, to legal action winning initial victories in Nebraska, to over 52,000 people signed up to engage in “peaceful civil disobedience” if Kerry/Obama approve the pipeline, to much more, and much more to come.
There is the emergence of a nationally-connected, impacted-communities-rooted and activist-oriented movement against fracking via Stop the Frack Attack that will likely be organizing a national week of action against fracking in late spring or summer.
And there are the continuing series of polls that show, in part because of all the extreme weather events in the US in 2012, growing numbers–about 2/3rds of the US American people–who support action to deal with the climate crisis.
All of these developments, essentially political and movement-building developments, are evidence that we are winning the “hearts and minds’ battle, at the same time that we are ramping up and deepening the climate movement.
Just as significantly, the last couple of months have made me aware of good news as far as the developing economic and social shift from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energy, particularly wind and solar.
At the national Stop the Frack Attack conference in Dallas, Texas I was inspired by solar entrepreneur Danny Kennedy’s presentation about how solar energy is poised to take off in the United States (it’s already doing so in Europe, China and elsewhere). Reading his book, Rooftop Revolution, provided a deeper understanding of what is going on: solar panels are becoming more efficient, they are coming down in a big way in price, and there are new ways for people to have them installed that make them much more affordable to many more people. As a result, rooftop solar in the US grew by 76% in 2012. China “recalibrated the target in its 12th five-year plan to 15 gigawatts installed by 2015—50% higher than the previous target.” (p, 22) “Globally, solar is the fastest-growing industry, valued at more than $100 billion. And in the US, it’s the fastest-growing job creating sector.” (p. 24) “The year 2011 marked the first time in history that [Europe, China and the US] invested more money in renewable energy than in fossil fuels.” (p. 28). “I think that history will look back on this period and see that the tide turned in 2010 when fully half of new electric generation coming online globally was renewable.” (p. 102)
As I wrote about in my March 17 column, 49% of new electrical generating capacity in the U.S. in 2012 was from renewables, primarily wind. This has never happened before, not even close. And in January of 2013, ALL new electrical power capacity, 100% of it, came from renewables.
And just today the front-page story in the New York Times Week in Review section, entitled “Life After Oil and Gas,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal, details both this economic/social shift and reports favorably on a recent analysis which shows that New York State, “not windy like the Great Plains, nor sunny like Arizona, could easily produce the power it needs from wind, solar and water power by 2030. ‘It’s absolutely not true that we need natural gas, coal or oil—we think it’s a myth,’ said Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the main author of the study, published in the journal Energy Policy.”
Finally, in an insightful article spreading over the internet by Australian writer and sustainability advisor Paul Gilding, Victory at Hand for the Climate Movement?, some extremely important contextual points are made:
Gilding says, “Considering how long other great social movements took to have an impact – such as equality for women or the end of slavery and civil rights movements – then what’s surprising is not that the climate movement hasn’t yet succeeded. What’s surprising is how far it has come and how deeply it has become embedded in such a short time. And now is the moment when its greatest success might be about to be realised – and just in time.”
Gilding explains that 2012 wasn’t just a year when we saw an increase in extreme weather events worldwide; we also saw institutions of the 1% like the World Bank, IMF and International Energy Agency all make strong statements about the need to shift away from fossil fuels, with the IEA actually saying that a majority of the fossil fuels in the ground need to stay there.
He points to the significance of “a disruptive economic shift already underway in the global energy market. There are two indicators of this, with the first being the much noted acceleration in the size of the renewable energy market with dramatic price reductions and the arrival of cost competitive solar and wind. It is hard to overstate the significance of this as it changes the game completely. . .
“Of equal importance is the awakening of the sleeping giant of carbon risk, with open discussion in mainstream financial circles of the increasing dangers in financial exposure to fossil fuels. This has been coming for several years because of the financial risk inherent in the carbon bubble. As Phil Preston and I argued in a paper in 2010 and I further elaborated in The Great Disruption, the contradiction between what the science says is essential, and the growth assumptions made by the fossil fuel industry is so large it represents a systemic global financial risk.”
Gilding summarizes what this all means:
“ – The financial markets are waking up to the transformation logic – if the future is based in renewables and these are price competitive without subsidy, or soon will be, the transformation could sweep the economy relatively suddenly, even without further government leadership.
“ – This then puts in place an enormous and systemic financial risk – in particular investments in, or debt exposure to, the multi-trillion dollar fossil fuel industry.
“ – This risk is steadily being increased by activist campaigns against fossil fuel projects (worsening each projects’ financial risk) and arguing for fossil fuel divestment (putting investors’ reputation in play as well).
“ – In response investors and lenders will reduce their exposure to fossil fuels and hedge their risk by shifting their money to high growth renewables.
“ – This will then reinforce and manifest the very trend they are hedging against.
“ – Thus it’s game on.”
I’m not enough of an economist or a student who has studied these economic trends to wholly endorse what Gilding says, but what he says has the ring of truth to it. It should be constructively criticized, or built upon, by those who are able to do. It’s a very important article.
All of us who are doing this work need to internalize that we are in a new period for our movement. We should take heart from these recent developments, realize that, as powerful as the dirty fossil fuel corporate honchos seem to be, there are very concrete and practical reasons to believe that their power and wealth is reaching its limits and will soon decline. Let’s keep the faith, step up our activism, bring new people into our ranks and keep broadening and growing our movement. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, the light of the sun combined with the light of our people-powered movement.
Get Grist in your inbox