The bubble of traditional environmentalism has burst; long live pragmatic environmentalism

In case any more confirmation was needed, 11/9 (or 9.11. for us Euros) was the final nail to the coffin of traditional environmentalism – at least when it comes to stopping the existential threat of climate change.

For years now, established environmental movements like Greenpeace, WWF, and Sierra Club have taken the prevention of dangerous climate change as one of the, if not THE, key objectives for the environmental movement. They are not mistaken to do so; out of all our current predicaments, only asteroid impacts and full-blown nuclear war are even on the same scale of existential threat for our civilization. Besides human civilization, climate change threatens to wreak havoc on the global ecosystem, and could make the sixth mass extinction one of the worst ones yet.

But for decades, the traditional environmental movement has also been extremely strict about the means it approves for averting this coming calamity. Most environmental organizations, for example, are dead set against the most important, second-largest source of low-carbon energy – nuclear power – and are highly critical about carbon capture and storage, geoengineering, and anything other than renewables and demand reductions as the answer. It’s all too often that these antiquated attitudes, dating from the 1980s or even earlier, cause these organizations to prioritize opposing nuclear power even at the expense of increased emissions.

As the urgency of climate change mitigation increases while the results of policies so far remain lackluster, there are more and more people who question the traditional prescriptions of the environmental movement and ask whether there might be a need for a more pragmatic policy and for all the options we can muster. In response, the traditional environmentalists explain their selectiveness about the weapons we use in the climate fight by saying that we don’t need them. There is a very strong 100% renewables movement that keeps repeating the same mantra all over again: given sufficient political will, renewables (and conservation) alone are sufficient to wean us off from both fossil fuels and nuclear in time to forestall a climate catastrophe. When pressed, these people generally admit that their plans would be very costly – but that when the external costs of energy sources and climate damage are “properly” accounted for, they’re actually cheaper than alternatives!

All this may be true, but it is also largely irrelevant. The Trump victory underscores the fatal flaw in the 100% renewables plans: outside our green bubble, we may never be able amass the required political will to put high enough  – “proper” – prices on carbon and other externalities so that the expensive 100% RE plans could become reality. There are various reasons why this is so, from economic costs inherent in high RE penetration to science denial to fossil fuel lobbyists to the uncomfortable fact that too many people oppose anything the “Greens” propose purely as a matter of principle.

And this is not just about Trump, as damaging as his policies may be to our chances of stopping climate change. Even if Hillary Clinton had been elected, she would still have been bound by limitations of political capital. The problem here is not that half of the Americans voted for Hillary; the problem is that nearly half voted for Trump. And this is not an American problem, far from it. Similar discontent is on the rise in other countries as well, and Europe may well see more right-wing populists in power in the near future. (France, I’m looking at you.)

The uncomfortable truth which too few environmentalists have acknowledged publicly is that our current renewable energy and emission reduction trajectories are taking us nowhere in particular. While renewable energy sources are increasing, the rate of change is pitiful compared to what is actually needed. Even more ominously, the quantity of annual new installations is actually dropping in some areas with more variable energy sources – like Germany – long before required installation rates have been achieved. Nevertheless, the traditional environmentalists are behaving as if the climate fight is going well and right-wing populist victories represent merely a temporary setback. In reality, the problem is that climate fight has never really even got started properly, and now it may be aborted altogether. This graph summarizes the problem, and underscores the folly of spending energy and resources to fight nuclear power in addition to fossil fuels.

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Build rates, normalized per capita – and the required sustained level for 2°C. If we want to save low-lying countries, we’d need 1.5°C and even higher build rates. Source

The political difficulties inherent in attempting a major acceleration of current trends in renewable energy and emission reductions make it tremendously difficult to believe the massive economic realignments and public works envisioned in the more optimistic energy plans could possibly come to fruition. To pick just one example, a recent much-publicized 100% renewable electricity simulation required Germany to build some 800 gigawatts of electric transmission capacity by 2030. Aside from the small problem of the world cable industry being totally unable to provide the quantities of cabling needed for the plan in total, the reality is that even relatively modest additions – about ten gigawatts – in transmission capacity are now bogged down in local resistance, some of which is led by environmental organizations. It’s a deja vu from nuclear energy boom of the 1970s; the environmentalists just assumed this time that new energy sources would be totally acceptable to everyone, and seem to be genuinely surprised this isn’t always so. (See also here about the uncanny similarities between 1960s-70s nuclear boom and the current renewables enthusiasm.)

Is it really even ethical anymore to keep on believing – and suggesting to others – that political problems of 100% renewables are simply swept away once the people suddenly see how wrong they’ve been all these years? (Perhaps in 2020, or maybe in 2024, or at least in 2028…) How can we continue to believe this when the U.S. state most likely affected by climate change, Florida, voted solidly for Trump?

We in the environmentalist bubble may be willing to reduce our consumption and bear the costs and discomforts of emission reductions. Unfortunately, we tend to extrapolate and believe other people would do likewise only if we could provide them with more information about (say) climate change. But the world doesn’t seem to work that way. Some people actually see the proposals we have as threats to their identity and well-being, and may oppose us just out from spite. This is a fact that should be acknowledged, even if we shouldn’t pamper to such groups. We cannot make sustainable progress as long as we rely on plans that require the world to elect green leaders wholesale. Instead, we need plans that are resilient even if the populists win occasionally. (No conceivable plan could survive sustained populist rule, though.)

Traditional environmental movements have failed to come up with such plans, and continue to present extreme optimistic outliers (see graph below) as the only options. The sad truth is that while these plans may be technically feasible – that is, they probably do not break any laws of the nature – they cannot achieve meaningful climate mitigation unless everything goes just right. Technology has to develop in precisely the manner and schedule the optimists envision; economic problems need to be solved in time; and all this requires unprecedented political will while the economy is likely to undergo wrenching changes. And all this has to be sustained over decades. Take any one leg off this stool, or simply fail to sustain it, and the plans collapse in humiliation.

150521_Climate_Gamble_image.004

164 different 100% renewable energy scenarios assessed by the IPCC in IPCC SRREN (2011). 100% RE plans that actually could deliver enough energy for a world of 9 to 10 billion people in 2050 are extreme outliers and often require, for example, devoting 1 to 3 Indias solely for biomass plantations and the invention of so far unknown technologies.

It’s not by any means certain that any plans could now avert dangerous climate change. We’re simply too late, and there are no silver bullets. But it’s certain that plans that require a revolution to occur first are even less likely to come to fruition. Sadly, the traditional environmental movement seems to be doubling up its demands for just such a green-red revolution – because it’s required for their extremely optimistic plans to work, and apparently heedless that these very threats of revolution mobilize conservative resistance. Revolutions may yet occur, but there’s an even chance they turn out to be fascist ones. In every revolution, it’s the scum that tends to float to the top.

What we need now are plans that openly acknowledge the political difficulties, the inertia, and the vagaries of human nature, instead of simulations that assume our technocrats can build everything from a clean slate and with cost or difficulty as no object. Traditional environmentalists have been extremely adept at pointing out various problems with increasing nuclear power generation rapidly, but so far they’ve all but ignored even the possibility that renewable energy sources and the infrastructure they require might also hit the wall of political opposition. This is a serious omission, since there is a chance better preparation might have reduced resistance. Perhaps it still can.

Environmentalists now also need to learn, and learn quick, that all the alternatives we have are imperfect, and that the utopian perfection is often the worst enemy of good enough. All energy sources suffer from their share of problems, and silver bullets simply don’t exist.

If we environmentalists continue to oppose the adequate because there is theoretically a perfect solution somewhere (generally, as long as it remains on paper), we all are committing the mistake many people made when voting for Jill Stein on the last elections. Voting for the “perfect” or even “least bad” candidate is a morally defensible position – but it can increase the risks that the worst option will actually be chosen. We now need to be extremely careful not to increase those risks simply because we don’t happen to like the more likely but less perfect candidate.

A pragmatic and extremely powerful message about climate change would be delivered if major environmental organizations stated that the situation now is so threatening that we need to think about all the options seriously – and not discount them with motivated reasoning. To discount any low-carbon, emission-reducing alternative, we now should demand very strong evidence.

However, it may well be that if the climate movement actually wants results in climate action, it now needs to make a break with traditional environmentalism, at least as far as much-hated solutions like nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and – yes – natural gas are concerned. Fighting two-front wars against fossil fuels and nuclear (among others) is just stupid; fighting a three-front war against fossil fuels, nuclear and nebulous concept of “capitalism” all but guarantees a defeat. (Just ask the Germans about the difficulties fighting two-front wars.)

If we can reduce emissions even somewhat using solutions that right-wingers can accept, we should do so. We simply don’t have the time to pout in our own bubble anymore and hope for a mass conversion of humanity to Green-Red principles; we need to engage in pragmatic policies that could work even if the United States doesn’t elect Jill Stein in 2020.

I’m saying this as a Democratic Socialist, who strives to see a world order based on justice, fairness and equality. It’s just that I’d prefer there is going to be a world, and a civilization, where my descendants can also strive for such outcomes. That’s why I support Ecomodernists and not the traditional environmental organizations, as much as I still like much of what these old-fashioned folks are doing.

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About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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6 Responses to The bubble of traditional environmentalism has burst; long live pragmatic environmentalism

  1. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    A useful warning on the lack of realism of “conventional”environmentalists who sing from hymnbooks provided by Greenpeace, Friends of the earth sierra club etc, whom have put all their eggs in the climate change basket and look torenewables and nothing else.

    It is also a warning to Green Christians who intone the crap from Friends of the Earth

  2. Pingback: There is now a far-right environmental movement, and I welcome it | The unpublished notebooks of J. M. Korhonen

  3. mark4asp says:

    Large numbers of traditional environmentalists want far less energy use, as well as more renewable energy. I’ve had British people tell me to cut energy to only 25% of current use. When I see their energy ‘plan’ in that light, 100% renewable energy plan makes masochistic sense. They will never propose such a plan to the public. They know it’s an vote killer. The anti-nuclear green movement are really a drastic energy reduction movement. At least, the honest ones are.

    • Actually its pretty easy to cut back 66% emissions with a little thought and have a much more comfortable home and reduce transport emissions without the hair shirt. Speaking from the UK where we don’t have much sunlight compared to Arizona. The key is to resist the supersizeme culture and go for technological updates at a rate you can afford to – i.e: in stages. For example – bought a 300 litre thermal store with all the conmections needed for soalr thermal, electric, wood burner, gas boiler etc, but couldnt afford to do each of thoise right away. 3 years on its functioning from Solar Thermal for 2/3rds of house heating and water heating. Thermaskirt where underfloor heating was prohibative etc…

      • Yeah, these are very commendable ideas in particular if they’re not already being implemented.

        Up here in Finland, most of the house insulation solutions (for example) have already been implemented, and we already use plenty of thermal stores for water for example.

        There’s still plenty that can be done and I’m all for energy saving and small scale ideas, but we very probably also need big scale ideas as well.

  4. There’s another example of this “3-front” Naomi Klein style war that just unfolded in Washington State, where measure 732 went down in flames in part due to opposition from left Greens and indifference from the Sierra Club. 732, which you’re probably familiar with, would have imposed a revenue-neutral carbon tax, with proceeds of the tax used to reduce the state sales tax.

    State level carbon taxes may be unworkable because of border problems and local costs vs. global gains, but at least this would have been an attempt. But most of the state environmental groups opposed it because it didn’t redistribute the proceeds to the “right” communities. David Roberts at Vox had a very detailed writeup. This seems like a perfect example of Green failure to work towards small victories while holding out for perfection.

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