I’m terribly worried about how my children — and humans in general — are going to deal with catastrophic global warming in the likely case that the average global temperature spike is somewhere in the 2°-4°C range. I want to highlight a couple of weekend stories on the biggest news story of the twenty-first century: The tragedy of the deniers, and likely consequences for the perpetrators.

Like most literate people whose livelihood doesn’t depend directly on the fossil-energy industry, I believe the evidence is overwhelming that anthropogenic atmospheric CO2 overload has a strong greenhouse effect whose results are already visible in receding ice and flurries of “hundred-year” natural disasters.

I’m also convinced that we can move the needle further and faster, with less economic dislocation and pain, than many others believe. The energy-economics picture has been changing so fast that unless you’re paying close attention and are open-minded about new energy sources, you might think it’s reasonable to doubt the plausibility of wholesale replacement of fossil-fuel-based power generation by renewables.

Current energy pricing trends

These are unsubsidized prices. Unfortunately, the graph doesn’t include recent trends in energy storage pricing, which are good if not quite this dramatic; see for example Power storage is the missing link in green-energy plans from The Economist.

Yes, it would require massive investment on a wartime-like scale, but Lord knows there’s plenty of surplus capital out there looking for a profitable home; just consider how effortlessly SoftBank has raised tens of billions to squander on lies and fantasies. It’s pretty obvious that “carbon disinvestment” has become a prudent mainstream financial strategy, and that the renewable-generation sector is the single biggest and best investment opportunity of the next few decades, with paybacks to be had like those harvested during the rise of the Internet.

If you’re interested in modern energy economics (and you should be) a good place to start is with Gregor Macdonald, who stays on top of the numbers and is particularly good on what’s happening in China, and with electric vehicles.

Tragic Alberta opera · Consider this CBC story: Alberta wants to flip the script in oilpatch’s favour — it won't be easy.

A few words of background: Alberta, Canada’s second province from the left, has the nation’s highest average income, no sales tax, and generally fabulous social services, all in large part based on its petroleum revenue. Until some point in my forties, I was still getting a few bucks a month in royalties from the natural-gas well on the old family farm. As a result, Upton Sinclair’s famous soundbite applies to Alberta in spades: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Bearing all this in mind, I found the language about Alberta’s “war room”, whose objective is to “shift unfavorable views of the oil and gas sector”, oddly evocative. Here we have a chorus composed of successful members of a rich society’s elite singing a chorus that nobody believes, outside of a small and shrinking fraction of society. They inveigh against outsiders who are impugning their industry: “these same organizations trying to misinform prospective investors about our environmental performance” and “the political agenda emanating from Europe, which is trying to stigmatize development of hydrocarbon energy”.

One feels that there’s material for an opera or formal Noh play in these people fighting what seems to them like the good fight, all they want to do is protect their home-towns’ livelihoods. And they’re not wrong: A whole lot of people all over the world, including me, are indeed stigmatizing the development of hydrocarbon energy. Where by “stigmatize” we mean “slam on the fucking brakes before we wreck the world.”

By the way, the “war room” has terrible Google juice despite its $30M budget, but I managed to turn it up: Welcome to the Canadian Energy Centre, an alternate reality where you fight climate change by pumping high-carbon tar-sands crude.

The experience of the crisis · To most people, it all feels so abstract; Bad things are going to happen, but to other people a long way away, and it’s not obvious what it’ll be like. Here, in Paolo Bacigalupi’s beautiful, terrible story A Full Life (interestingly, published in MIT Technology Review) is what it will feel like for a very ordinary young person in the heart of America. Seriously, if the climate crisis feels a little abstract to you, read this. It’s more important than my words that you’re reading now.

Up against the wall! · Which brings me to this little two-tweet sequence from Greta Thunberg:

Tweet from Greta Thunberg

Ms Thunberg says her message is 100% non-violent and I believe her. But when the water levels start rising; when a hundred million people start walking north, empty-handed and hungry, out of the Bengal lowlands; when Mar-a-Lago is smashed and it wasn’t even an official hurricane; when California’s inland crops fail; when the fires burn a third of Sydney; when Arizona real estate goes to zero; and especially, when some climate-change surprise nobody thought of wreaks deadly havoc in a place nobody expected, people are going to be put up against walls and not in Greta’s “Swenglish” sense, no not at all.

Alberta should really stop calling their operation a “war room”.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Paul Boddie (Dec 16 2019, at 07:54)

"the political agenda emanating from Europe"

Some of Europe, yes, but not the Polish populists, I hear, or - more relevant to me - much of the Norwegian political mainstream.

For instance, on Oslo public transport, there have been adverts running from Statoil (now greenwashed as Equinor, but let's use their real name, one that might also be recognised in Canada for all the predictably bad reasons you'd expect) where they use a convenient stooge organ of the right-wing press to "explain" why we "need" oil and gas, why we "can't rely" on renewables, and so on.

All of this packaged up in a "sponsored" podcast entitled "Explained" ("Forklart"): an apt one-word summary of the passive-aggressive, "nothing to see here" attitude already taken by swathes of the political spectrum, particularly those on the right where "the market" (propped up by subsidies) is sacred, but also in the more corrupt elements of the centre and left.

(Never mind that the country traditionally did run on renewables, if you ignore things like whaling. And it still does to a substantial extent.)

The more lazy and visionless politicians will gladly use the "times are good" excuse to do nothing even when times are not, in that moment, good. Then, it apparently isn't their fault that people don't have work, but of course they are waiting for "the market" to restore business as usual. They parade their green credentials and talk up "green transitions" but do nothing, as if it isn't the government's role to do anything of substance.

I am proud that there are people out there who refuse to take any of these non-answers as answers, or any of this inaction as action, any more.

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From: Duane Nickull (Dec 20 2019, at 12:08)

I am worried for my children as well Tim. I hope by acting and amplifying our voices we can give Jeremy and others like him a brighter future. Best wishes for the holidays my friend!

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From: Rob (Dec 24 2019, at 08:16)

"Alberta, Canada’s second province from the left, has the nation’s highest average income, no sales tax, and generally fabulous social services, all in large part based on its petroleum revenue. "

Uh, well not quite. Alberta has historically had an extremely fragile economy, with a history of repeated wild booms and deep, damaging extraordinarily painful crashes. This has left a lot of political scar tissue. Its actually, outside of oil (and coal), a pretty poor province, thin in natural resources, with poor soil and unpredictable weather (most places with a heavy livestock industry are located in agriculturally poor areas). It has virtually no manufacturing base. Its also a LONG way from any markets, whether for bitumen or beef...

BTW, for all the focus on the oil sands, Alberta also exports very large amounts of coal, mostly to China. It is regarded as very "high quality" low acid emission coal, and probably adds substantially more carbon to the atmosphere than the oil sands do. You never hear about this for some reason. (Cynical Albertans have been known to suspect that carbons sold to China are somehow cleaner than carbons sold to the West-- if we could somehow build a pipeline from Ft Mac to Shanghai all our problems would be over.)

There is a strong historical memory, accurate or not, of the rest of the country being quite happy to capitalize on the oil revenue when times were good, but getting pretty parsimonious and unsympathetic when the crashes came. There is little evidence that anything will be different in the future.

As for the "fabulous social services," well the fact is Alberta has the lowest welfare benefits in Canada, outside of Newfoundland (together with one of the higher costs of living), seriously over-crowded schools, and medical wait times as bad or worse than anywhere else. Right now, a little over 20% of young males, 18-24, are unemployed. There is a certain amount of economic pain (mortgage defaults are booming again), which is driving a lot of irrationality, and deep deep fears for the future. The feeling is we've seen this movie before, and the ending isn't happy.

There certainly is a strong perception in Alberta that the world in general, and the Canadian federal government specifically, are quite happy see the hydrocarbon producing areas pay the full price of "slamming the brakes on." From a local perspective, this looks like a pretty dire proposition.

Now, interestingly, Alberta (and Saskatchewan, the other oil producing province), are also notable for having a great deal of wind, and sunshine. And indeed, both have been leaders in developing solar and wind power (Calgary's rail transit system, for example, is 100% wind powered). If you drive across the prairies in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, you are rarely out of sight of a wind turbine. They don't quite outnumber the donkey engine well-heads yet, but they will soon I suspect.

Alberta is in some respects like your local drug dealer-- sure, his product is dangerous and damaging, so he's using less and less of it himself, but he isn't forcing anyone else to buy it at gun point. From his point of view, he's lifted himself out of poverty and exploitation. Now you want him to stop. And do what? You got another job for him? And why are you going after him, and not the customers? (If we know anything from history, its that cracking down on the drug supply system has little impact on the drug trade after all...)

Now I'm not saying that all of this is correct or anything, but getting some idea of what is driving the opposition's perspective, instead of just demonizing it, will surely help in dealing with it? And from Alberta's point of view, if transitioning away from carbon based energy is a collective goal, surely it should come at a collective cost? Paranoid bitter and fearful Alberta believes it is shaping up otherwise however, and there isn't a lot of evidence that they're wrong.

Fear is a powerful driver of irrational behaviour. The War Room is a political totem, a pacifier of sorts.

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December 15, 2019
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