13 10 2012

I heard quite an earful from some of my readers and listeners about last month’s post “Meddling in the Affairs of Dragons.”

“Give us something positive,” my friends told me, and they were kind enough to point out to me that various Green Party policy wonks in the United States and Canada have written detailed, well-documented “energy descent plans,” showing how the “(over) developed world”  (that’s us) can step back from the brink of planetary suicide on which we are, in fact, currently teetering.  The Green Party of Canada ends the “Averting Climate Catastrophe” section of their platform with the following quote from Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

“We are risking the ability of the human race to survive.”

The IPCC, as you may be aware, has consistently underestimated the rate of climate change–that is, reality has almost always moved faster than their projections.  So, if they think we are “risking the ability of the human race to survive,” we must, indeed, be in peril.

The best way to extricate ourselves from this peril could be summed up in a chestnut from crime movies–we’re at the point where the police tell a cornered suspect, “Drop your gun and step away from the car.”  Yep, it’s our military spending and our car culture that have us in deep doo doo. What follows is largely borrowed from the Green Party of  New York’s platform , with input from “Vision Green,” a highly detailed energy descent plan put together by the Green Party of Canada–thanks, fellow Greens, for doing so much of my homework for me!

One of the first things the Canadians point out is that

While completely phasing out carbon emissions seems daunting, the challenge looks much less intimidating when we realize that more than half the energy we release is never used, but escapes into the environment as waste heat. Even what is traditionally considered useful energy is questionably so. Is it useful to move 2 tons of steel, glass and rubber when our real objective is to move an 80 kg person? Is it useful to heat a home that’s so leaky that most of the heat escapes within an hour? Is it useful to keep light bulbs and televisions on when no one is home? Our real energy needs are a fraction of what we use. Efficiency is our friend.

Some of this “waste heat” can be eliminated by greater efficiency, and some can be put to work heating something that needs heating, so that we gain efficiency by piggybacking functions that have been independent–i.e., that formerly needed their own heat/energy source.

It’s an often-cited statistic that Europeans use about half the energy per capita that we in the U.S. consume, yet their standard of living is virtually equal to ours, not half of it.  Much of this has to do with urban design–Europe has never seen the kind of urban sprawl that characterizes the U.S., and so it is simply easier for mass transit to work.  With more compact cities and living arrangements, it’s easier for people to walk or bicycle when they do their shopping and commuting.  This kind of restructuring of our society will not come cheap.  How can we pay for it?

Here’s where I start substantially quoting from the Green Party of New York:

A  Green government will create a $300 billion Climate Action / Green Energy Transition Fund.  (I think it’s important to point out that this is a fraction of what the Iraq/Afghan war has cost us, estimated at somewhere between 1.4 and 4.4 trillion dollars.)

Estimates of the annual investments needed to move to a carbon free economy range from several hundred billion to a trillion dollars annually – less than what Congress spent to bail out Wall Street in recent years, estimated at $4.75 trillion.. Much of this funding will come moving investment in the private sector from coal, oil and nuclear plants to clean and into renewable energy sources that will greatly reduce our long-term energy costs, helping to strengthen the economy.

To help facilitate this transition to a clean green carbon free energy system, the Green Party supports the establishment of a Climate Action / Green Energy Transition Fund. The fund would be part of the New Green Deal effort to put Americans to work and improve quality of life (e.g., healthier foods, improved mass transit, lower energy costs over time, cleaner environment).

Listed below are several specific funding proposals for such a fund. Additional funds can also be raised through a progressive income tax surcharge on wealthy Americans (e.g., not extending the Bush tax cuts) and imposing a tiny anti-speculative financial transaction tax ($150 billion a year) on Wall Street.

1. $25 – 50 Billion from a Windfall Excess Profit Tax on Fossil Fuel Companies

The top five oil companies had $137 billion in profits in 2011.

2. $150 billion cut in military budget.

Formal military budget is $686 billion annually, closer to a trillion if (we) include all true costs (nuclear energy in the Energy Dept., annual interest payments for costs of prior wars, etc.). The Green Party supports far deeper cuts (e.g., $350 billion plus) but some of those funds should be invested in other domestic programs (e.g., education, housing). The growing impact of climate change is one of the greatest threats to our national security. The military is also one of the greatest contributors to the carbon footprint. Plus a carbon free economy eliminates the need for war for oil. More than $100 billion can be raised through eliminating waste that has already been identified; tens of millions would be saved by closing some if not all of the 700 plus US military bases in more than 100 countries.

3. $15 – 20 billion. End subsidies on fossil fuels, ethanol and nukes.

Estimates of annual fossil fuel subsidies range from $10 billion to $52 billion annually.   Estimated direct subsidies for nuclear power is $2.5 billion, with $6 billion for biofuels/ ethanol.   (Greens) would end other nuclear subsides such as Price-Anderson insurance caps, and federal loan guarantees for construction.

4. Carbon fee. $50 billion

A carbon tax could generate $1.5 trillion over a decade (MIT Global Change Institute.  A carbon tax is a direct tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels. The carbon fee would be applied as far upstream–on the coal miners and oil drillers–as possible.  50% of the $100 billion raised would be directly rebated to households with incomes less than $200,000. The other could be rebated in the form of a voucher to purchase energy-saving investments; the voucher could be transferable.  A carbon tax uses the market to shift investments away from fossil fuels.

My comment:  This system of  directly compensating American families for increased fuel costs will be far more effective than a cap-and-trade system which, as experience in the U.S. and Europe has already demonstrated, results in windfall profits for speculators, not carbon reductions.  We need serious carbon reductions, fast, or we are going to get ourselves and a lot of innocent creatures killed.  But perhaps there is  a contradiction here:  we don’t want to be dependent on revenue from oil and coal extraction, we need to shut these down as quickly as possible.  No more mountaintop removal, no more fracking, no more carbon in the atmosphere, dammit!  As the Canadians point out,

“A number of scientists have determined that the risk of ‘tipping point events’ — the loss of the Gulf Stream, the collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Shelf, and the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet — is increased if global average temperature goes up by 2 degrees C above the pre-Industrial Revolution temperature. This, they estimate, could happen if concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere were to increase to somewhere between 400 to 450 ppm. We are at 389 ppm now, up from 275 ppm in the 1800s, and now it is rising at 3 ppm per year. And yet, our government resists shifting to a low-carbon economy…. Based on recently observed trends, a 350 ppm goal is now being embraced by climatologists and is becoming the new scientific consensus. To achieve this new goal, we would have to either virtually eliminate carbon emissions this decade, or set on a slightly less aggressive trajectory now and hope for technology that can reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to emerge in the future.”

5. $20 billion for energy retrofit program raised through on bill financing on utility bills

We should energy retrofit up to 30 million homes in the US over 5 years. Capital costs would be fronted by utility companies through on bill financing, with it being paid off from the savings from lower energy bills (e.g., weatherization, solar hot water and thermal, boiler upgrades, etc.). The investment is recaptured in utility bills over time, reflecting the energy savings. Based on Green Jobs Green Home model of New York.

My comment:  Like a carbon tax that is used primarily as a rebate to middle and lower-income families, a massive national energy efficiency retrofit will generate employment and teach people skills, resulting in much more benefit to the American people than all the “quantitative easing” we have been hearing about.

I would add  four items to this New York report.  The first is that we need to rethink our current system of economics, which considers ecological damage, whether in the form of damage to the planet or health problems caused by that damage, as “externalities” that do not figure in a companies bookkeeping.  If these “externalities” were factored in, most of modern industrial culture would instantly be bankrupted.

What’s the cost of these externalities?  And how much would we need to spend to change our course?  The Canadians quote Sir Nicholas Stern, former senior economist to the World Bank, who, in his report to the British Chancellor of the Exchequer

“warned that, left unchecked, climate change could constitute a $7 trillion hit to the world economy, create water shortages for 1 in 6 people planet-wide, cause the extinction of up to 40 % of species, and result in up to 200 million environmental refugees.

“Taking action now, says Stern, would cost just one to 3% of global gross domestic product annually.”

(That’s somewhere between 700 billion and 2.1 trillion dollars a year.  An ounce of prevention, as they say….)

The second is that we need to switch over to organic farming as quickly as possible.  Forget all the arguments about productivity and differences, or the lack therof, in nutritional content.  High-tech chemical farming is both heavily dependent on a plentiful and inexpensive fossil fuel supply and a major emitter of CO2 and methane.  Fossil fuels are rapidly pricing themselves out of the market, and chemical farming will soon be an economic impossibility.  You’re worried about lower yields with organic farming?  Try fossil-fuel/chemical farming without fossil fuels and chemicals and see what happens!  When we can’t afford big tractors in the fields and big trucks hauling produce cross-country,  “eating local” will be the only option, so we might as well do everything we can to promote it.

The third is that, in addition to remodeling homes, we need to put energy, money, and attention into remodelling society. We need to de-sprawl and re-introduce extended family, co-operative living and sharing. We need to get away from the industrial model of producing consumer goods; we need to get away from the notion that goods are made to be consumed.  Household items should, as much as possible, be crafted locally and built to last for generations.  We are killing our planet and ourselves with disposable plastic geegaws that foul China, fill the ocean with poison, and are brought to America in bunker-fuel burning cargo ships, which pour more carbon and sulfur into our planet’s atmosphere than all the world’s automobiles combined.

And, fourth, speaking of automobiles…there is an alternative to the automobile that can be locally constructed of renewable materials, with a means of locomotion that is not only solar-powered, but self-generating.  How cool is that?  Cooler still, the exhaust produced by this kind of engine is a valuable form of fertilizer.  This form of transportation can be employed by those of us whose knees are too far gone to ride bicycles, or who need to carry far more of a load than pedal power will permit.  That mode of transportation is called “a horse and buggy.”  I am willing to predict that it will re-emerge as the premier mode of personal transportation in the twenty-first century.  Sorry ’bout no personal jetpacks, folks, they sounded like fun, but they ain’t gonna happen.  Instead, a horse, mule, burro, or donkey to relate to–hey, they’ve got a lot more personality than a jetpack!

I had a dream the other night, in which I was riding my bicycle down a multi-lane, divided highway, on which there were no cars, just hundreds of people on bicycles.  We were all moving along at a pretty good clip.  It was quiet,the air was clean, and there was no “fear factor” –have you ever thought about how much we take for granted the peril in which we put ourselves and others, as the Canadians put it, to “move 2 tons of steel, glass and rubber when our real objective is to move an 80 kg person.”  Of course, the long-term maintenance of our interstate highway system is unlikely, but it would last a lot longer if it were used primarily by two-wheelers instead of 18-wheelers.

So, that’s what it would take to drop our carbon emissions 95% by 2050.  To do otherwise, to adopt the “drill, baby drill” approach that both Obama and Romney endorse, is the planetary equivalent of sitting in our gas-powered car while it’s running in a closed garage–except the garage is the whole planet.  There’s still a path to safety.  All it takes is the political will to put our planet’s long-term health ahead of short-term corporate profits.

It’s like a science-fiction movie, one of those ones where the Earth has been invaded by merciless creatures who are bent on sucking up all our planet’s wealth and leaving us to die.  But the merciless aliens have hidden their own hideous faces, disguised themselves as “corporations,” and turned all too many of  our fellow humans into automatons who will do their dirty work, regardless of the fact that they, too, will die from the alien depredations.  What a movie!

OK, friends, I hope you appreciate my dour effort to be positive about the future.  We in the Green Party are the only folks in the race who have the nerve to talk about energy descent instead of spinning the mirage of endless growth.That’s why, this year, I’ll be voting for reality–voting for the planet–voting Green.

Let’s go out with some Islamic devotional music….here’s Hassan Hakmoun’s song “Soutanbi.”  Maybe it’ll help you understand why a certain type of Americans hates Muslim freedom.




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