Paying the bill to stop climate change

This Moyers & Company broadcast was aired about a year ago.


Naomi Klein’s THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs The Climate has convinced me that, in order to maintain a habitable planet, it’s necessary to limit and maybe eliminate the burning of coal, oil and gas, and that energy companies will never do this unless they are forced to do so.

What I’m not convinced of is that it is possible to painlessly transition to some green utopia, in which everybody’s material standard of living is the same as it is now, except for a small group of plutocrats.

naomi-klein.book0coverMy house is heated with natural gas, and my gas bills lately have been low, due to an abundance of gas supplied by hydraulic fracturing (of which I disapprove).   My car runs on gasoline, and the computer on which I write this post is powered by electricity.

Over the years I’ve read books by Lester R. Brown, George Monbiot , and Al Gore making the case that with smart technology, I can heat my house with solar energy and better insulation, I can ride a streetcar that is almost as convenient as a private automobile, and that electricity can be provided by windmills, solar panels, other innovative sources of energy and a smart electrical grid that eliminates waste in the system.

I don’t have the knowledge to question their proposals on technical grounds.  I agree with Arthur C. Clarke—that the only way to test the limits of the possible is to venture a little way into the impossible.   And the alternative to trying is to accept the “long emergency” foretold by James Howard Kunstler.

But even at best, the transition will cost enormous sums of money.  Who would pay?  Naomi Klein says that rich people in rich countries should pay, especially countries that enjoy a high level of consumption based on fossil fuels.   This means first and foremost the USA.

Now maybe we could afford it if the money the U.S. government were spending the same amount of money on renewable energy in the same unconstrained way we’re spending money on planetary military dominance and invasions of countries that don’t threaten us.

Maybe we could figure out better ways to produce renewable energy if the same amount of effort and ingenuity went into this as has gone into figuring out how to get to the smallest and hardest-to-get remaining tar sand or shale gas.

Maybe the transition would be less painful if working people hadn’t already sacrificed income for the past 30 or more years to prop up the financial system and the assets of the upper 0.1 percent of income earners.

But suppose this is not technically feasible.  Or suppose it is technically feasible but not politically feasible.

This means that the future is one in which people in upstate New York in October wake up in cold rooms, bathe in cold water and stand on chilly street corners waiting for the street car—that is, a world much like the world of my grandparents and great-grandparents.  (I’m 78, so my grandparents may have been of an earlier generation than yours).

I truly regret that this is what my generation is bequeathing to my grand-nieces and grand-nephews, but it is a world in which people in the past were happy, many people today are happy and people in the future may be happy again.  It is better than a world in which people die of hunger, thirst and exposure as a result of ever-worsening drought, floods and storms.


Climate Change: A Global Push to Save the Planet by Alex Morales for Bloomberg Quick Take.

Why scientists are (almost) certain that climate change is man-made by JP for The Economist.

The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate by Al Gore for Rolling Stone.

Tracking Climate Change by Stanford Kay for the Pacific Standard (2010). A country-by-country comparison of emissions.

Off-grid German village banks on wind, sun, pig manure by Agence France Presse

Solar Struggles to Compete With Other Renewables on Cost by Andy Tully for Oil Price.

Will a breakthrough solar technology see the light of day? by Kevin Bullis for MIT Technology Review.


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