“Realism” is the high ground in politics—a high ground from which to rain down artillery fire on new ideas.
To wit, this week the New York Times profiled Canadian energy analyst Vaclav Smil, who—alongside others like Daniel Yergin—has long insisted that the transformation from fossil fuels to hydrocarbons must take a long time. Smil is a good writer and a smart historian; he’s documented the many-decades-long transitions from, say, wood to coal, and coal to oil as dominant energy sources.
Now, according to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Glasgow last fall, we should reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 as compared with 2010 levels. This is undoable because there’s just eight years left, and emissions are still rising. People don’t appreciate the magnitude of the task and are setting up artificial deadlines which are unrealistic.
His new book is titled “How the World Really Works.” According to the Times, he is exhorting climate activists to “get real.” That is is a lot of reality.
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And of course he’s right: it is on the bleeding edge of the technically possible to cut emissions in half by 2030, but it’s almost certainly not politically possible to get all the way there. The momentum coming out of Paris in 2015 was fatally blunted by four years of Trump; with autocracies in control of many key nations around the world it is hard to imagine change coming as fast as we need it.
But of course pressing to make that change happen—pushing for the most rapid possible change—could get us further sooner. Smil disagrees: “What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional.” He keeps the same sour tone throughout the interview, but in fact it’s less compelling than it would have been a decade ago. Scientists and engineers have forced the price of renewable energy down 90% over the last decade; we could, if we wanted to, move quickly.
And the point is, we have to move quickly. The move from wood to coal could stretch out over a leisurely century because there was no existential question in play. We’d cut down way too many forests, and were slowly running out of timber, but that’s a different kind of threat from what’s happening, say, this week in India and Pakistan, where 10 percent of the human family is enduring truly astonishing levels of heat. Our retreat from fossil fuel has to be a forced march, or else.
And that’s where people like Smil end up having to pretend that climate change just isn’t that big a crisis, because if it was then he’d be forced off the bench and into the game. The interviewer asks him (after referring to me as America’s leading climate catastrophist, whatever that means) if we’re not facing “imminent” and grave danger. I defy you to make much sense out of his answer.
What is “imminent”? In science you have to be careful with your words. We’ve had these problems ever since we started to burn fossil fuels on a large scale. We haven’t bothered to do anything about it. There is no excuse for that. We could have chosen a different path. But this is not our only imminent and global problem. About one billion people are either undernourished or malnourished. The fact of possible nuclear war these days. Remember what they used to say about Gerald Ford? He can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. This is the problem of society today. We cannot do three things at the same time. So who decides what is imminent?
We haven’t had these problems since we started burning fossil fuel; it took centuries to accumulate enough carbon in the atmosphere to cause temperatures to noticeably rise. A billion people indeed face food insecurity—which is being made much worse by an ever-more unstable climate. (Early reports on this years Punjab wheat crop indicate that the record hot weather is quickly reducing yields). Nuclear war is a threat most immediately because of Vladimir Putin, who can afford his weapons only because of his oil and gas revenues. And so on. In other words, these tired bromides are not wisdom; they are grousing. And they are a great assist to whoever wants delay—in this case self-interested oil companies and intellectually lazy politicians.
Realism is often defined as some middle ground between opposing sides. And in controversies between humans, that’s at least a reasonable idea. (To wit, Elon Musk, this week, on his plans for his new toy: “For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.”) But the climate crisis is not a beef between two camps of people, ultimately. It’s a beef between human beings and physics. And since physics is implacable, we would be well-advised to do everything we possibly can to meet its dictates.
If we mustered all available political will, we could make change very fast, just as we made tanks very fast at the start of World War II. Climate activists, it seems to me, are more realistic than naysaying academics, if only because they know we have very little choice.
In other news from around the world of climate and energy
+A truly compelling investigation from the Washington Post finds that American beef eaters are closely linked to Amazon deforestation, through giant companies like JBS that stock many of the nation’s supermarkets.
Between January 2018 and October 2020, records show, JBS factories made at least 1,673 cattle purchases from 114 ranchers who at the time owned at least one property cited for illegal deforestation. Several ranchers from whom JBS bought cattle were notorious — alleged by authorities to be among the Amazon’s most destructive actors. The supply chain, the examination found, was infected with dozens of ranches where land had been deforested illegally. Satellite imagery showed that several of the operations had cattle on land where grazing was prohibited at the time — in what environmental regulators called a violation of Brazilian law.
If you have to eat meat, chicken or pork are less damaging, and as Brian Kateman’s new book reminds us, eating a lot less of those is a good idea too.
+In the Times, Kate Aronoff does a splendid job of explaining why the Biden administation is letting the oil industry lead it around by the nose in the wake of the Ukraine invasion
Under the fog of war and anxiety about the midterm elections, the White House is poised to hand over generous amounts of public money to a highly profitable energy industry — support that could lock in additional emissions for decades to come.
This government support — in the form of oil procurement, permits and loans — could be the deciding factor in whether a new generation of long-lived carbon and methane-spewing infrastructure gets built. As with the roughly $20 billion in subsidies the industry already receives each year, the government will demand precisely nothing in return. But it should: Any more money fossil fuel executives and shareholders get from the U.S. government should come with strings.
+Okay, so Japanese crows are going after solar farms, dropping rocks that can crack the solar panels. But never fear, Japanese falconers have been pressed into service. The raptors don’t kill the crows, “just establish a territory letting the crows know who's the new boss.”
+The National Guard is being “run ragged” responding to climate-spawned wildfires and storms. “Climate-driven wildfires don’t care who the governor is to a certain extent, they’re going to happen if they’re going to happen,” one expert told the website Task and Purpose. “So I think you’ll see more and more that states, regardless of political ideology, are just going to have to respond to what’s happening on the ground in their communities. And the National Guard will be a tool that they’ll turn to to help manage those responses.”
+Oh, “ocean animals face mass extinction from climate change.”
+The ever-fascinating oil reporter Antonia Juhasz uses a piece in the Guardian to show that shadowy middlemen are responsible for much of the rise in the price of oil, abetted by new tech. One source “pointed to a dramatic rise in speculation driven by artificial intelligence rapidly buying and selling massive energy bets based on minor or even nonexistent changes to real-world supplies. ‘Under these circumstances, a change in [supply and demand] fundamentals that might have moved prices by 50¢ or $1” will cause a change of as much as $10 a barrel of oil.’”
+It’s very hard to know what to make of Biden’s energy team. Speaking at renewable energy events, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm hits all the right notes. “Perhaps renewable energy is the greatest peace plan this world will ever know,” Granholm said during a joint appearance at a New Jersey wind farm with European Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson. “Who in their world would want to live in an energy system that can be weaponized against you?” her undersecretary Andrew Light said. “No one. Not a single person in the world.” And yet just yesterday the DOE authorized massive new exports of liquefied natural gas from a pair of American ports, which will expand for years to come America’s hydrocarbon production. So far there’s no official word on plans for exporting heat pumps and other clean tech to Europe to held reduce the need for Russian gas, but the business company Fast Money reports the idea continues to gain traction. “I think we find ourselves at a turning point, where issues of climate, energy, national security, and inflation have all collided, and the world’s attention is on the impacts of our dependence on fossil fuels,” says Kevin Johnson, a veteran and clean energy entrepreneur who is part of a coalition behind the campaign called Clean Energy Freedom.
+California’s state budget is $300 billion a year—some ideas from NextGen about how to make it climate-conscious from top to bottom. Spoiler alert: there’s a lot about a very California-specific (and none too wise) law that creats the so-called Gann Limit, making spending hard.
+Denmark is hard at work figuring out how to heat most of its homes without fossil fuels in the next few years. But of course being a tropical island paradise, Denmark has a headstart.
+The particulates from fossil fuel combustion end up, among other places, in the bloodstream of fetuses.
Damage to foetuses has lifelong consequences and Prof Tim Nawrot at Hasselt University in Belgium, who led the study, told the Guardian: “This is the most vulnerable period of life. All the organ systems are in development. For the protection of future generations, we have to reduce exposure.” He said governments had the responsibility of cutting air pollution but that people should avoid busy roads when possible.
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I fear the latest chapter in our epic nonviolent saga just serves to move events along. If you want to catch up on chapters 1-64 of The Other Cheek, the archive is here. And a note: I’m heading into the woods for a couple of weeks of camping beyond the reach of electronic interference. The Friday posts will keep coming, but they’ll just be more chapters of the novel; you’ll somehow have to wait till mid-May for my take on our overheating planet.
“Director Liu, welcome back.”
“Minister Hua, I am sorry you were not able to visit me during my sojourn in beautiful Inner Mongolia. And I’m frankly surprised to be back in Beijing—I was pretty sure my disgrace was going to last a few years.”
“It turns out you get credit for something . . . important. You remember when you spotted that little girl in the picture from Colorado and surmised she might be a possible successor to the DL? Check this out.” He slid a file folder across the desk
Liu took the folder, which was labelled “Surveillance Report—Routine From Bay Area Surveillance Team, Ministry of State Security, and he began to read aloud:
“Subject PERRY ALTERSON is seen in this photo in company of Subject GLORIA last name unknown. ALTERSON met GLORIA at Oakland Airport, where she disembarked with another Subject Unknown, female, early 20s. Following orders for comprehensive surveillance, we followed that Subject Unknown to Menlo Park, where she was photographed having dinner with this Subject Unknown.”
“That’s a lot of subject unknowns,” said Liu.
“Actually,” said Hua, “not so many. Gloria is the girl from the picture in Colorado, the one clad in white robes. We don’t know who the young woman she was with is—but that young woman had dinner with Matthias Persson, who you will remember is the child of Norwegian diplomats, and who was photographed with the Dalai Lama near the start of his march eighteen months ago.”
“Ah,” said Liu. “So we have a friend of the Dalai Lama’s—an acquaintance anyway. And we have the girl who might be his successor.”
“And Alterson is apparently the person who slipped the cartoon of the DL into the Mothra phone last year. So, basically, you were right. That is way too much coincidence for me.”
“Do we know what they’ve been talking about?”
“Alterson and Gloria have been talking about public transportation and carbonated beverages, according to the tail. But it was a loose tail, so we don’t really know. As for the girl and Persson, we didn’t have surveillance in the restaurant where they were meeting, but I immediately cabled back to see if they could get more. Our team interviewed the chef this morning, and he said only that they’d been talking extensively about eternal life, which I think must be some kind of Buddhist DL thing.”
“So that’s why I’m back?”
“Yes. You’re not director of propaganda again—Colonel Wang would not have that, and she’s powerful now. General Youxia is powerful anyway, and that’s the same thing. But I used the fact that you spotted Gloria to rehabilitate your reputation enough to make you my informal deputy for communications. Because we’ve got the Dalai situation. And we’ve got another situation.”
“You won’t believe me when I tell you—it has to do with those rockets you raised all the money for with the lottery. But it can wait a day. For now, the DL is top priority. And the next step is to disappear Wei, the lottery winner.”
“But I thought we’d decided she had nothing to do with the DL after all.”
“We did—and she’s been living quietly the last few months. But Colonel Wang is taking no chances, not after this latest news. And I have to say I agree—or at least I think it’s prudent for us if we agree.”
“Holy matrimony!” said special agent in charge Fox, who was standing in his office high enough up in San Francisco’s Federal Building that a corner of the Bay was just visible around the massive new SalesForce tower—a ferry was steaming away from the Embarcadero, its wake bright white against a blue ocean. “What the actual damn heck? The gun girl is in California now?”
“Precisely,” said Agent Reyes, looking at a copy of the same photo that Fox was holding. She was getting used to being in Fox’s office, now that she was running an entire task force on possible subversion in the tech industry. “And she’s having meetings with a key figure in the genetics industry—they met outside his workplace, in a restaurant, though they returned to his office later that evening.”
“She’s against genetics, right? Like, she’s one of these people that can’t stand the DNA?”
“Well, against genetic engineering, anyway—or that was the impression we got from her speech at the funeral. And against robots.”
“And for guns. Just what we need—armed attacks in Silicon Valley. Those guys worry about cybersecurity day and night, but what about security security? You could kill half of Google with a quarter pound of strychnine in the machine that makes the fancy coffee.”
“Yes sir,” said Agent Reyes.
“And the guy she was meeting with—he must be some kind of insider she’s got sabotaging things.”
“Possibly, sir. He’s a Norwegian national, the child of diplomats.”
“Norwegian diplomats! If you put Norwegian diplomats in one box, and you put Communists in another box, you’d only need one box,” he said.
“Because they’d be in the same box. The Chinese are still watching this?”
“More than before, sir. Instead of the one operative Ting, they’ve got a whole team—we saw three staking out the restaurant where they met, and three more at the apartment in San Francisco where she stayed the night. And that’s another problem, sir. It’s rented by that couple that was blocking the oil trains.”
“Jiminy H. Christmas on the half shell,” he said. “This is getting beyond us—I’m going to have to reach out to Washington on this one.”
I value the work and arguments presented by Dr Smil. He asks uncomfortable questions that climate activists usually skip over. The obstacles to implementing renewables or electrifying the economy are far more dauting than generally acknowledged. Just consider the transformation of cities required to go from 5% EV to 90% EV, with regards to bringing and distributing electricity, installing private and public charging stations, as well as increasing non-car alternatives. This is a massive, 5-10 year undertaking. From that standpoint, Smil correctly defines current reality.
What he does not acknowledge is that climate disasters will precipitate change, change that is inconceivable in our current reality. The economic pain from climate disasters - hurricanes, floods, megafires, heat waves and droughts - will soon reach a global breakpoint. At that time, global economies will be mobilized on an unprecedented scale and the impossible will become feasible. In this regard, Bill's view is correct: a shift is inevitable. As someone once said before: you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Who is that sponsoring this talk by Professor Smil?
Why, look at that, it's a methane company!