Richard Heinberg

Climate change is not an isolated issue. And techno-fixes will not solve it. Only a dramatic move away from fossils combined with the willingness of a large part of society to forgo on excessive convenience and luxury products and services, argues Richard Heinberg.

As Heinberg writes: climate change is often incorrectly described as an isolated pollution issue. In this flawed framing, humanity has simply made a mistake in its choice of energy sources; the solution entails switching sources and building enough carbon-sucking machines to clear the atmosphere of polluting CO2. Only the political power of the fossil fuel companies prevents us from adopting this solution and ending our existential environmental crisis.

But techno-fixes (that is, technological solutions that circumvent the need for personal or cultural change) aren’t working so far, and likely won’t work in the future. That’s because fossil fuels will be difficult to replace, and energy usage is central to our collective economic power.

In other words, power is the key to solving climate change—but not necessarily in the way that many pundits claim. Solutions will not come just from defeating fossil fuel interests and empowering green entrepreneurs; real climate progress will require the willingness of large swathes of the populace, especially in wealthy countries, to forgo forms of power they currently enjoy: comfort and convenience, the ability to travel far and fast, and the option to easily obtain a wide range of consumer products whose manufacture entails large inputs of energy and natural resources.

This is not a feel-good message, Heinberg mentions, but the longer we postpone grappling with power in this larger sense, the less successful we’re likely to be in coming to terms with the climate threat.

Why not?

Why can there be no climate techno-fix? There are two routes to this conclusion. The first one meanders through the history of humans on Earth, revealing how each new technological or social innovation empowered some people over others, while often imposing a long-term environmental cost. The adoption of agriculture was a milestone on this path: it enabled more people to subsist in any given area, and it led to cities, kings, and slavery; further, in many places, plowing tended to deplete or ruin topsoil, and city-dwellers cut down nearby forests, leading to eventual societal collapse.

But the real show-stopper came much more recently. The adoption of fossil fuels gave humans the biggest jolt of empowerment ever: in just the last two centuries, our global population has grown eight-fold, and so has per capita energy consumption. Our modern way of life—with cars, planes, supermarkets, tractors, trucks, electricity grids, and internet shopping—is the result.

Climate change is the shadow of this recent cavalcade of industriousness, since it results from the burning of fossil fuels, the main enablers of modern civilization. Nevertheless, rapidly increasing population and consumption levels are inherently unsustainable and are bringing about catastrophic environmental impacts on their own, even if we disregard the effects of carbon emissions. The accelerating depletion of resources, increasing loads of chemical pollution, and the hastening loss of wild nature are trends leading us toward ecological collapse, with economic and social collapse no doubt trailing close behind. Ditching fossil fuels will turn these trends around only if we also deal with the issues of population and consumption.

That’s the big picture. However, the quest for a climate techno-fix also fails on its own terms—that is, as a painless means of averting climate change while maintaining our current industrial economy and way of life.

Why Solar Panels Won’t Save Consumerism

Renewables like solar and wind are not without challenges. While sunlight and wind are themselves renewable, the technologies we use to capture them aren’t: they’re constructed of non-renewable materials like steel, silicon, concrete, and rare earth minerals, all of which require energy for mining, transport, and transformation. These materials are also depleting, and many will be difficult or impossible to recycle.

Sunlight and wind are intermittent: we cannot control when the sun will shine or the wind will blow. Therefore, to ensure constant availability of power, these sources require some combination of four strategies:

  • Energy storage (e.g., with batteries) is useful to balance out day-to-day intermittency, but nearly useless when it comes to seasonal intermittency; also, storing energy costs energy and money.
  • Source redundancy (building far more generation capacity than will actually be needed on “good” days, and then connecting far-flung solar and wind farms by way of massive super-grids), is a better solution for seasonal intermittency, but requires substantial infrastructure investment.
  • Excess electricity generated at times of peak production can be used to make synthetic fuels (such as hydrogen, ammonia, or methanol), perhaps using carbon captured from the atmosphere, as a way of storing energy; however, making large amounts of such fuels will again require substantial infrastructure investment, and the process is inherently inefficient.
  • Demand management (using electricity when it’s available, and curtailing usage when it isn’t) is the cheapest way of dealing with intermittency, but it often implies behavioral change or economic sacrifice.

Today the world uses only about 20 percent of its final energy in the form of electricity. The other 80 percent of energy is used in the forms of solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels. A transition away from fossil fuels will entail the electrification of much of that other 80 percent of energy usage, which includes most transportation and key industrial processes. However, many uses of energy, such as aviation and the making of cement for concrete, will be difficult or especially costly to electrify. In principle, the electrification conundrum could be overcome by powering aviation and high-heat industrial processes with synfuels. However, doing this at scale would require a massive infrastructure of pipelines, storage tanks, carbon capture devices, and chemical synthesis plants that would essentially replicate much of our current natural gas and oil supply system.

Machine-based carbon removal and sequestration methods work in the laboratory, but would need staggering levels of investment in order to be deployed at a meaningful scale, and it’s unclear who would pay for them. These methods also use a lot of energy, and, when full lifecycle emissions are calculated, it appears that more emissions are often generated than are captured. The best carbon capture-and-sequestration responses appear instead to consist of various methods of ecosystem restoration and soil regeneration. These strategies would also reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions. But they would require a near-complete rethinking of food systems and land management.

Heinberg: fixes require even more energy

The essence of the problem with a climate techno-fix is this, Heinberg explains: nearly everything we need to do to solve global warming (including building new low-emissions electrical generation capacity, and electrifying energy usage) requires energy and money. But society is already using all the energy and money it can muster in order to do the things that society wants and needs to do (extract resources, manufacture products, transport people and materials, provide health care and education, and so on). If we take energy and money away from those activities in order to fund a rapid energy transition on an unprecedented scale, then the economy will contract, people will be thrown out of work, and many folks will be miserable.

On the other hand, if we keep doing all those things at the current scale while also rapidly building a massive alternative infrastructure of solar panels, wind turbines, battery banks, super grids, electric cars and trucks, electrified industrial equipment, and synthetic fuel factories, the result will be a big pulse of energy usage that will significantly increase carbon emissions over the short term (10 to 20 years), since the great majority of the energy currently available for the project must be derived from fossil fuels.

The happy illusion that we can do it all can be maintained only by refusing to acknowledge the stubborn fact that all activity, including building alternative energy generators and carbon capture machinery, requires energy.

Energy is inextricably related to power. Thus, if society voluntarily reduces its energy usage by a significant amount in order to minimize climate impacts, large numbers of people will likely experience this as giving up power in some form—whether physical, social, or economic.

It can’t be emphasized too much: energy is essential to all economic activity. An economy can grow continuously only by employing more energy. World leaders demand more economic growth in order to fend off unemployment and other social ills. Thus, in effect, everyone is counting on having more energy in the future, not less.

Problems ignored usually don’t go away. And not all problems can be solved without sacrifice. If minimizing climate change really does require substantially reducing world energy usage, then policy makers should be discussing how to do this fairly and with as little negative impact as possible. The longer we delay that discussion, the fewer palatable options will be left.

If we just could give up power

The stakes could hardly be higher. If emissions continue, the result will be the failure of ecosystems, massive impacts on economies, widespread human misery and migration, and unpredictable disruptions to political systems. The return of famine as a familiar feature of human existence is a very real likelihood.

It’s easy to see why people would wish to avoid giving up social, political, economic, and physical power to the degree that’s necessary in order to deal with climate change. Fighting entrenched power is a contentious activity, often a dangerous one. People with power don’t like threats to it, and they often fight back.

That’s why environmentalists like to choose their battles. The fossil fuel industry is wealthy and formidable, but at least it’s an enemy that’s easy to identify, and a lot of people already feel critical of the oil and gas companies for a variety of reasons (gasoline is too expensive, oil pipelines cause pollution, and so on).

But not all roadblocks to climate solutions are attributable to the oil companies. The rest of us are also implicated, though to greatly varying degrees depending on where we live and how much we consume. Our whole modern consumerist way of life, the essence of our economic system, is at fault. Unless we’re willing to give up some of our power over nature—our power to extract and transform resources and deliver the goods that we have come to rely on—then we’re destined to careen from one disaster to the next until our worst fears are realized.

It’s understandable why most environmentalists frame global warming the way they do. It makes solutions seem easier to achieve. But if we’re just soothing ourselves while failing to actually stave off disaster, or even to understand our problems properly, what’s the point?

The only real long-range solution to climate change centers on reining in human physical, social, and economic power dramatically, but in ways that preserve human dignity, autonomy, and solidarity. That’s more daunting than any techno-fix. But this route has the singular advantage that, if we follow it intelligently and persistently, we will address a gamut of social and environmental problems at once. In the end, it’s the only path to a better, safer future.

This article is adapted from POWER: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (New Society Publishers, September 2021) by Richard Heinberg

Read the complete article by Richard Heinberg on resilience.org

Also read: Electric cars emit more co2 at production than conventional cars

real inconvenient truth about climate change

Some fifteen years ago, Al Gore tried to wake up the world with his Inconvenient Truth message, after dozens before him failed to do so. An audience of millions saw the movie or read the book, and moved on to business as usual. That was back in 2006.

New reports from the IPCC followed, in 2015 a major climate conference was held in Paris, and the climate continued to change. We hardly did. At all levels, we continue to underestimate climate- and societal risks.

In 2019 I wrote a column about the risk of extreme events, which is much greater than the IPCC wants us to believe. Breakthrough, an Australian think tank, described this phenomenon in a 2017 report.

It’s forecasts included both the corona pandemic (it could have been any other virus) and the current extreme weather disasters. No one responded to this really inconvenient truth. Even while the world experiences  runaway climate change, the illusion is kept alive that we can prevent worse.

Misty IPCC jargon and hidden deceivers hide real inconvenient truth

Underestimation results from the terminology the IPCC applies to describe the risk levels of events, and the level of consent about it. Outsiders are easily misled by this code.

It leads to a (far too) positive assessment of risks. For example, an event with a 33% chance, or 1 in 3, is described as ‘unlikely’. Would you get on a plane that has a 33% (or even a 10% chance = very unlikely) risk to crash? Or would you be able to insure a house that has even a 1% chance of burning down within a year? At the IPCC, they apparently don’t have a problem with those.

Hidden deeper is the underestimation that results from the risk-calculation itself, which is based on a normal distribution of the Gauss curve.

It works fine for collections of static elements, for example the height of people. However it does not work with dynamic elements, whose properties or values ​​change over time, such as the weather. With those, events with a small probability in a normal distribution could appear to pose a much greater risk as a result of the influence of external factors, creating a so called fat tail at the positive end of the graph. (What Lies Beneath, pg 13)

This can have major consequences for estimates like the possible rise of temperature, as Breakthrough shows. In a scenario of (average) 3 degrees rise, the risk that it eventually turns out to be 6 degrees warmer is not 2%, but 10%. In other words, 1 in 10, instead of 1 in 50, or 5 times as large. At the IPCC however, both are still “very unlikely”. So you can sleep peacefully.

The delusional IF word

The illusion that we can prevent worse is often preceded by the word ‘if’. If we take extra measures to reduce co2 emissions in time, if we all work together, if we… just name a few. The Paris Agreement is built on it: if we all stick to our resolutions….

In reality, we have not even done what is absolutely necessary. Even the day after the release of the last IPCC report, both China and the worst polluters of Dutch industry announced that they are not going to change their climate plans. Putin is silent. India says it can do no more and that probably goes for the rest of the world as well. Europe has a plan, but it is slow and divided.

As in the case of the corona pandemic, in the climate crisis too we are unable to organise a collective and coherent response to deal with it. Yet we know very well what needs to be done and there are more than enough resources to do so. But each and every time we don’t. Why?

Bubbles in a tunnel

This paralysis is rooted in a few reinforcing phenomena in human behaviour. Two of these are bubble thinking and tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision is the unwillingness or inability to experience events that lie outside one’s immediate world. It occurs in individuals and in group behaviour.

Bubble thinking arises when likeminded people form a group (bubble) in which they reinforce their common ideas. Thus bubbles are easily created based on tunnel vision. The larger (or louder) the group, the stronger the effect. It happens in football stadiums and in meeting rooms and more recently it happens on social media.

Add the effects of economic and political interests, socio-cultural sentiments and technical lock-ins of existing, rigid structures to this and then calculate the effects of the interplay of millions, perhaps billions, of organised and informal systems interacting. From Yellow Vests and Taliban to United Nations and football associations.

That outcome almost certainly leads to a real inconvenient truth: we won’t make it. The climate warms (much) more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. We are on course for 3 to 4.5 degree rise in temperature which will have dramatic consequences. For you, for me, for our (grand)children and for the rest of the planet, that becomes sheer uninhabitable. Dozens of disaster movies show what that looks like.

What we still might be able to do

Breakthrough argues that only an all-out war economy can turn things around. All our actions should be aimed at the max reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

It requires extreme measures that go way beyond keeping distance and wearing face masks. It will take extensive and powerful interventions.

Unavoidable in such a strategy is the rationing of CO2. Like food stamps during World War II, limited rights on emissions will be allowed. Emission equivalents are assigned to all products.

Car ownership and air travel are allowed only on a permit base. The idea that everyone can own a car is unsustainable, even if it is electric. Especially in cities we need to completely switch to car sharing and public transportation.

A progressive tax on unsustainable products will be introduced.

Climate crime will be included in criminal law.

No one would imagine it will ever come to this. But that’s what we thought too, two years ago, when it comes to face protection and lockdowns.

All of us have to act within our power to contribute: stop using fossil fuels, eat less meat, or none at all, consume less and sustainable only.
It we don’t, it will mean the end of our current civilisation. Unfortunately there is no more convenient truth.

Peter van Vliet

chief editor of iNSnet.org and Duurzaamnieuws.nl

killer climate

The leader of the European Union has seen the light: Ursula von der Leyen has discovered that doing nothing about climate change is getting too expensive. Sir Nicholas Stern came to that conclusion more than 15 years ago when he wrote his much-discussed report about the cost of climate change. In 2008 he corrected his earlier conclusion: the costs of climate change turned out to be much higher than anticipated in the first calculations. About political smalltalk in a killer climate.

As it took 15 years for EU bureaucrats to absorb a 662-page report, it would take 272 years to decide on its own climate proposal “Fit for 55”, which holds some 12000 pages and is to be approved by 27 Member States, if processed at the same speed.

The publication process of the IPCC series of climate reports follows a similar path. These too, contain an almost incalculable amount of pages about the risks of climate change, which are already obsolete at the time of publication and which have been politically watered down beforehand because of the required consensus about the articulation of scientific facts.

Belgium as a third world country

Meanwhile, at some 100 kilometers from the European capital, the rubble and wreckages of the first real European climate disaster are still piled up in the streets of – also still electricity and water deprived – villages, because the local crisis response in Belgium hardly reaches the level of an average third world country.

That is where the measures that have to save the world from a climate Armageddon have to come from, since the rest of the world still regards the EU as a forerunner in the fight against climate change.

Meanwhile politicians continue to chatter as climate change creates a killer climate. The numbers of fatal climate change related casualties are carefully kept out of the main news media, even as those numbers are significantly higher than those of the victims of the corona pandemic. By way of comparison: more than 4 million people died from corona in almost a year and a half, while in 2017 alone more than 5 million deaths were directly linked to climate change. These numbers don’t even include deaths by starvation.

Hard reality

These are not forecasts and predictions, these are the confronting numbers from the recent past and the present.

The outlook is even more confronting.

Although scientists are well aware that climate change is not gradual, they calculate with models that do suggest just that. Also, they express the risk of an event as a probability, as a percentage within a period of time. And their data are running years behind. That doesn’t work well, as we’ve noticed: the event  of flooding in Europe of the present magnitude was calculated not to occur before for 2050. Things are getting worse much sooner than expected.

The same applies to the rest of the world and to the effects of accumulating climate events. Tipping points in various types of climate change show the risks of a sudden acceleration. Look how heat leads to more wildfires, which release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing even more heat.

Or like melting ice as a result of a warmer climate creates a larger ice-free and dark water surface that absorbs more heat and makes ice melt even faster.

Stacking disasters and costs

Hardly any research has been done on the mutual reinforcement of various tipping points. Or the interplay between climate and environmental disasters (such as leaking oil pipelines in burning tundras). Perhaps this will soon no longer need to be investigated, then we will see it happen ourselves.

And just as tipping points can pile up, so will the costs of climate and environmental disasters. At an ever-increasing pace, we are going to pay for slowing down climate change (it has long been impossible to stop), for repairing damage after disasters and for preventing more damage in future disasters.

The political mills are now standing still for a while; it’s vacation after all. These will slowly start again in September and in Brussels they will then start a long grind to get 27 countries to agree with 12000 pages of new measures. With notorious climate criminals in and around the club, you can be sure that they will be slowed down and wrung out. And by the time a decision can be made, the money has already partly disappeared because it has been spent on recovery after subsequent climate disasters.

Climate change not our fault

Last minute, I read a commentary by John Sutter on CNN that holds an interesting view: Climate change is not our fault, as consumers and citizens. It is certainly the fault of waning big business owners and politicians who have been shifting their actual responsibility onto us for decades. Instead of buying tofu burgers, we should put more pressure on politicians to finally take action. For the sake of convenience, Sutter assumes that it would work in the current system and that it will work in the rest of the world as it does in the US. Nevertheless he has a point.

Maybe ballot papers from now on should show a warning: voting for unwilling politicians kills.

Peter van Vliet