Tag Archives: fossil fuels

I Think We’re Doomed

Every morning, I scan the headlines of the various news sites I consult, and it is a rare day when I don’t shake my head in disbelief over some crazy measure introduced in some state legislature. These bills are generally introduced by elected officials who clearly didn’t run touting their superior policy chops. (Don’t get me started on the intellects of those who voted for them…).

For the past decade or so, the vast majority of these brainiacs have been Republicans.

Allow me to share a recent example, picked up by the liberal site Daily Kos.

Lawmakers in North Carolina have introduced a bill to eliminate free charging stations for electric vehicles. Why? One of the sponsors tweeted his rationale:”Taxpayers should not be footing the bill for ‘free’ electric vehicle charging stations on state and local government property unless the same locations offer gasoline or diesel fuel at no charge. We need to do more to increase American energy production.”

I’d like to ask him whether taxpayers should be footing the bill for free streets and highways, since citizens using public transportation have to pay for that method of transport…

The bill–sponsored entirely by Republicans in the North Carolina legislature–is a mishmash of odd provisions. As the author of the article writes,

I’m having a hard time getting through HB 1049, the North Carolina House Bill that basically demonizes electric vehicle charging stations because consumers aren’t getting free fossil fuels alongside them. The bill was sponsored entirely by Republicans: Reps. Keith Kidwell, Mark Brody, George Cleveland, Donnie Loftis, and Ben Moss. It requires businesses to disclose the percentage of what they’re charging customers that is “the result of the business providing electric vehicle (EV) charging stations at no charge.” Businesses more than likely would be handing customers receipts showing 0%, given the Energy Department’s estimate that it costs just $6 for an EV with a 200-mile range and a 54kWh battery that is fully depleted to be completely recharged.

The bill also requires publicly-funded EV charging stations on state-leased or state-owned property to come with free gas and diesel pumps. The same goes for county and city property. And if anyone in those groups with EV charging stations on their property can’t adhere to those terms, the bill requires the Department of Transit to develop a system to disperse $50,000 for the sole purpose of using that money to dismantle EV charging stations. Make it make sense.

Making that measure “make sense” is probably beyond the capacity of rational folks.

The electricity provided by charging stations is produced using fossil fuels, so they aren’t a panacea for the environment–but their availability encourages people to purchase electric vehicles. You’d think getting internal combustion engines off the roads–an environmental plus– is something government should encourage.

That said, even climate change deniers would have trouble making sense of this bill, and it has come in for its share of snark. As Ezra Dyer wrote in Car and Driver, 

Politicians have to run on some kind of platform, and Ben Moss—my incoming state House representative here in North Carolina’s District 52—decided that his animating principle is Being Mad at Electricity. To prove his animosity toward this invisible menace, he’s sponsoring House Bill 1049, which would allocate $50,000 to destroy free public car chargers. It contains some other enlightened ideas, but that’s the main theme: We’ve simply got to do something about these free public chargers, even if it costs us $50,000! Those things cost tens of cents per hour, when they’re being used.

Of course, there’s a caveat here. Moss isn’t saying that free public Level 2 chargers—of which there are three in my town, with plans in the works to convert to paid kiosks—definitely need to get crushed by a monster truck. That rule only comes into play if a town refuses to build free gas and diesel pumps next to the EV chargers. So anyway, warm up El Toro Loco, we’re smashin’ some car zappers!

The last time I checked, this wacko bill had passed first reading, so I assume the North Carolina legislature has a GOP majority.

Measures like these are what happens when people running for office are utterly unserious (not to mention unknowledgeable) about governing. I don’t know what “floats the boat” of the sponsors of this particular bill, but far too many aspirants to public office are either culture warriors uninterested in the mundane nuts and bolts of governing, or empty suits wanting to “be someone.” And these days, in the GOP, “being someone” requires peddling beliefs like the Big Lie, QAnon, Christian Nationalism and a grab-bag of other irrational and illogical “alternative facts.” it sure doesn’t require expertise or common sense.

I think America is screwed…..

 

 

Progress!

In the wake of the most recent, terrifying climate report, I think it’s important to look at the positive side of the policy ledger.

Although there is plenty of data on the “dark side” (what I sometimes think of as the OMG side), there is also a lot of evidence of progress. (At least what I consider progress; the “take me back to the 1950s” folks will undoubtedly disagree.)

At the beginning of this year, The Guardian ran a story about progress against climate change during the preceding year. Granted, in 2021 we saw a number of climate disasters and what the article called “a grim prognosis from the world’s top experts.” Granted, too, some of the harm is probably irreversible. But as the article documented, a movement to fight climate change is gaining momentum.

As the UN secretary general declared in August, the urgent need to curb carbon emissions marks a “death knell” for the fossil fuel industry.

For decades, Americans were told that standing up to powerful oil and gas companies wasn’t possible. But the reality is that everyday people are making a difference in the fight to cut emissions. These grassroots victories also show that the people who have been made most vulnerable by fossil fuel extraction, including Black and brown communities, already have solutions on hand.

What were some of those victories?

After a nine-year, highly-contentious organizing battle, students with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard succeeded in pushing the university to divest all of its $42bn endowment – the largest in the world – from fossil fuel-related companies.

That victory wasn’t limited to Harvard. Both Boston University and Wellesley University also divested from fossil fuels in 2021.  With respect to Wellesley, divestment was the product of “a decade of student activism from campus groups called Renew Wellesley and Fossil Free Wellesley.” The victory also wasn’t limited to universities: Boston’s mayor signed an ordinance in late November that will require phasing out the city’s investments in fossil fuel, tobacco, and prison industries by 2025.

It’s worth noting that all of these decisions were the result of activism by the young people who are often inaccurately excoriated for their lack of civic engagement.

The Guardian also enumerated several community victories.

In Memphis, Tennessee, a majority-Black neighborhood was able to stop construction of a 49-mile underground pipeline that was slated for approval in mid-2021.

In the north-east, the Delaware River Basin Commission secured a moratorium on new drilling permits. The historic fracking ban covers some 14,000 square miles of the river’s basin.

The board of supervisors for Los Angeles county voted–unanimously–  to scrap new and existing oil and gas drilling projects.

The new rule is slated to impact Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in the country, which is surrounded by many majority-Black neighborhoods. In April, a pipeline in the oil field spilled 1,600 gallons of oil just a few hundred feet from the nearest playground.

It is heartening to see these victories by minority neighborhoods and young activists, but it is even more significant to consider what the Guardian calls “shareholder revolts.” A primary example occurred when hedge fund activists won election to three of the 12 voting seats on Exxon’s board

The activist hedge fund Engine No 1 staged an upset victory in electing three new directors to Exxon’s board after disgruntled investors hoped to push the oil giant toward a greener future.

Meanwhile, Chevron faced opposition from the Dutch activist campaign group Follow This, which led a shareholder revolt in voting to force the company to implement tougher emissions targets.

Why it matters: Mark van Baal, who founded Follow This, said the shareholder rebellions mark a “paradigm shift” for investors and a “victory in the fight against climate change”.

There were other important victories:Indigenous groups negotiated the return of stolen lands in Maine and Minnesota to halt destruction to the environment; a Dutch court ruled that Shell has to reduce its emissions by nearly half within this decade; and 16 of those young people who are routinely dismissed were victorious plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that Montana contributed to the climate crisis and violated their constitutional rights. The judgment requires the state to implement a plan to reduce emissions.

Addressing climate change–and many of the other challenges we face– requires that we change the culture–and culture change is a slow and inevitably incremental process. The term “culture wars” is apt–those who recognize the imperatives of our modern, globalized world are facing the hysterical resistance of  people who want to go “back,” or at the very  least, cling to the cultural status quo. As a friend once put it, changing the culture is like turning a tanker mid-ocean–neither quick nor nimble.

It’s easy to focus on the barriers to progress, but it’s important to recognize the progress, too.

 

The Suicidal Human Race

I used to think I understood at least some aspects of human behavior. In college, I learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and that made a lot of sense; as I aged (and boy, have I aged!), I came to understand the complexities created by our individual, still poorly-understood combinations of nature and nurture.

But reactions to the combination of a global pandemic and the existential threat of climate change have left me gobsmacked. What explains the evident preference of so many people for obviously suicidal behaviors? How do people manage to construct a “reality” contrary to science and logic, let alone personal safety?

The politicization of responses to Covid has been widely described, although that phenomenon is still not well explained. Denial of the severity of the threat, fear of lifesaving vaccines and ingestion of dangerous “cures” (for a disease that doesn’t exist??) are largely  Republican behaviors–and suicidal at both the individual and group levels. Research confirms that rural folks and members of the GOP are dying in far greater numbers than Democrats and city dwellers.

Equally suicidal is the maddening, continuing, blithe refusal to address climate change seriously, despite years of warnings. Denying the threat, and/or continuing to postpone any serious effort to combat it, should no longer be possible–at least, by sane humans–because the effects of a warming planet are already manifesting. And yet, headlines like this one from the Guardian, remind us that governments–ours and others around the globe–continue to prefer the bottom line of fossil fuel companies over the ability of the only planet we currently inhabit to sustain human life and civilization.

The fossil fuel industry benefits from subsidies of $11m every minute, according to analysis by the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF found the production and burning of coal, oil and gas was subsidised by $5.9tn in 2020, with not a single country pricing all its fuels sufficiently to reflect their full supply and environmental costs. Experts said the subsidies were “adding fuel to the fire” of the climate crisis, at a time when rapid reductions in carbon emissions were urgently needed.

If fossil fuel prices reflected their true cost, the IMF calculates we would cut global CO2 emissions by over a third.

The G20 agreed in 2009 to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies and in 2016, the G7 set a deadline of 2025, but little progress has been made. In July, a report showed that the G20 countries had subsidised fossil fuels by trillions of dollars since 2015, the year the Paris climate deal was reached.

There’s a fair amount of data available on individual suicides: my very superficial research suggests that people who try to kill themselves may suffer from depression, substance abuse or other mental disorders. (More understandably, suicides are more prevalent in people who suffer from chronic pain.) None of these reasons–with the possible exception of mental disorder–explains either the rejection of science and logic leading to refusal to be vaccinated, or the social phenomenon of lawmakers preferring the bottom line of fossil fuel companies to the survival of civilization as we know it.

I’m at a loss.

Money And The Planet

We’re at a time of the year and election cycle when news about the political campaigns tends to drown out other important or newsworthy developments. Policy arguments, particularly, take a back seat to “breaking news” about the latest evidence or eruption of Trump’s mental illness and general despicableness–like the taped confession that he knew in February how contagious and dangerous the COVID-19 virus was.

So I’ve seen very little about an important effort to counter climate change being made by the Democrats in the House of Representatives. Late last month, The Guardian reported on a three-part plan that aims to expose and counter the fossil fuel industry’s well-funded efforts to conceal the scale of the climate crisis.

Senate Democrats are set to release a 200-page plan arguing that significant US climate action will require stripping the fossil fuel industry of its influence over the government and the public’s understanding of the crisis.

“It’s important for the public to understand that this is not a failure of American democracy that’s causing this,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, a Senate Democrat from Rhode Island. “It is a very specific and successful attack on American democracy by an industry with truly massive financial motivation to corrupt democratic institutions.

A report titled Dark Money has laid out in detail just how “giant fossil fuel corporations have spent billions – much of it anonymized through scores of front groups – during a decades-long campaign to attack climate science and obstruct climate action”.

It isn’t as though the media hasn’t reported on this web of disinformation. Environmental groups have brought lawsuits that have exposed the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to conceal the scale of the problem and its use of dark money groups to slow a shift away from fossil fuels. But as Whitehouse points out, the story has yet to reach the American public.

In an indication of how interrelated our current problems are, and the extent to which campaign finance permissiveness has affected policymaking, the report blames the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed industries to spend virtually unlimited sums of money to sway elections.

The elements of the three-part plan are:

“Expose the role of the fossil fuel billionaires, executives and corporations in funding and organizing the groups trafficking in climate denial and obstruction.”

“Reform federal laws and regulations to require greater transparency and reduce the influence of money, particularly dark money, in politics.”

“Alert industries that support climate action to the depth, nature and success of the covert fossil fuel political scheme.”

The article points out that climate change–like so much else in our polarized political world–has become a defining feature of partisanship.

Republicans meanwhile are split on the climate issue, with some outright denying the science, many questioning the severity of the crisis, and a growing minority pitching technologies for capturing emissions from fossil fuels so they can continue to be used. Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax and rescinded essentially all of the federal government’s biggest climate efforts.

The article noted that fossil fuel companies knew the severity of the climate crisis as early as the late 1970s, and are only now–reluctantly–confronting it. Whitehouse pins the success of their intervening efforts to mislead and misdirect directly on Ciitizens United.

Whitehouse was elected to the Senate in 2006, and he said everything changed immediately after the supreme court issued the Citizens United ruling in 2010. “There’s a very clear before and after,” he said.

“I don’t think Americans understand enough the extent to which the fossil fuel industry has weaponized a whole variety of systems and laws that now competes with the government itself for dominance,” Whitehouse said.

A final note: The United States is scheduled to exit the Paris Climate Agreement on November 4th.

 

 

Picking Winners And Losers

One of the most common–and persuasive– arguments posed by so-called “conservatives” against government regulation is that government should not be “picking winners and losers,” that the market should make those determinations.

So what about the enormous subsidies government provides to fossil fuel interests–subsidies that those same “conservatives” defend?

Paul Krugman had a recent column in which he discussed both the subsidies and the discredited economic theories offered to justify them.The column was prompted by the arrogant response of Stephen Mnuchin to Greta Thunberg’s speech at Davos. Thunberg  had called for an end to investments in fossil fuels; Mnuchin suggested that she go “study economics” before making what he implied were uninformed and childish recommendations.

(Krugman also noted that Mnuchin “doubled down” on his claim that Trump’s 2017 tax cut will pay for itself — despite the fact that, just a few days before, his own department had confirmed that the budget deficit in 2019 was 75 percent higher than it was in 2016.)

Krugman explained why “Mnuchin was talking nonsense and that Thunberg almost certainly has it right.” He began with basic economics:

One can only surmise that Mnuchin slept through his undergraduate economics classes. Otherwise he would know that every, and I mean every, major Econ 101 textbook argues for government regulation or taxation of activities that pollute the environment, because otherwise neither producers nor consumers have an incentive to take the damage inflicted by this pollution into account.

But what about those subsidies?

The International Monetary Fund makes regular estimates of worldwide subsidies to fossil fuels — subsidies that partly take the form of tax breaks and outright cash grants, but mainly involve not holding the industry accountable for the indirect costs it imposes. In 2017 it put these subsidies at $5.2 trillion; yes, that’s trillion with a “T.” For the U.S., the subsidies amounted to $649 billion, which is about $3 million for every worker employed in the extraction of coal, oil and gas. Without these subsidies, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would still be investing in fossil fuels.

Krugman points out that, while Thunberg may be young, her views come “much closer to the consensus of the economics profession than those of the guy clinging to the zombie idea that tax cuts pay for themselves.” And he then concludes:

But could the economics consensus be wrong? Yes, but probably because it isn’t hard enough on fossil fuels.

On one side, a number of experts argue that standard models underestimate the risks of climate change, both because they don’t account for its disruptive effects and because they don’t put enough weight on the possibility of total catastrophe.

On the other side, estimates of the cost of reducing emissions tend to understate the role of innovation. Even modest incentives for expanded use of renewable energy led to a spectacular fall in prices over the past decade.

I still often find people — both right-wingers and climate activists — asserting that sharply reducing emissions would require a big decline in G.D.P. Everything we know, however, says that this is wrong, that we can decarbonize while continuing to achieve robust growth.

Given all this, however, why are people like Mnuchin and his boss Trump so adamantly pro-fossil fuel and anti-environmentalist?

Part of the answer, I believe, is that conservatives don’t want to admit that government action is ever justified. Once you concede that the government can do good by protecting the environment, people might start thinking that it can guarantee affordable health care, too.

Given the scale of subsidies we give to fossil fuels, the industry as a whole should be regarded as a gigantic grift. It makes money by ripping off everyone else, to some extent through direct taxpayer subsidies, to a greater extent by shunting the true costs of its operations off onto innocent bystanders.

And let’s be clear: Many of those “costs” take the form of sickness and death, because that’s what local air pollution causes. Other costs take the form of “natural” disasters like the burning of Australia, which increasingly bear the signature of climate change.

In a sane world we’d be trying to shut this grift down. But the grifters — which overwhelmingly means corporations and investors, since little of that $3-million-per-worker subsidy trickles down to the workers themselves — have bought themselves a lot of political influence.

And so people like Mnuchin claim not to see anything wrong with industries whose profits depend almost entirely on hurting people. Maybe he should take a course in economics — and another one in ethics.

Krugman’s being silly. No one in this administration can even spell ethics.