Where we should get our energy — domestically, by fracking in Santa Maria for instance, or by importing it from Canada versus from the Middle East — is a complicated and very real question; but those two choices are not the only ones available. In fact, neither is a good choice anymore, and both are based on 20th-century thinking that no longer cuts it in the world we live in today.
We can’t solve long-term problems with short-term solutions, especially when those solutions make the main problem worse. Fracking, for example, is not the panacea we are being sold: Serious issues exist with the extent of groundwater contamination (important studies are starting to come in) and with the amount of methane the process releases into the atmosphere, an unsolved technological obstacle at the moment. Why, then, are we rushing into it in the United States?
The same question should be asked of the dirty tar sand oil the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would bring from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Is it really about our national security? Or is it rather about exploiting land and people as quickly as possible by the one percenters who run the fossil fuel industry?
Are they going to be the “bridge” fuel to a low-carbon economy, or do they fatally delay what must be done to save us all? Do they really benefit the families and communities where they exist once all the costs to their health, safety, and sense of well-being are added up?
A powerful indictment of the industry and a smart guide to our “energy-economy-climate situation” is Richard Heinberg’s Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future. Heinberg concludes the book with the sentence: “Everything depends on recognizing the mirage for what it is, and getting on with the project of the century.” This book answers the question whether fracking should be allowed at all on the Central Coast or not. (Short answer: It shouldn’t.)
Surviving on a Warming Planet
Respect for climate science is required in this debate, and 99.99 percent of the people on this planet are better served by political and economic policies based on the science. The local chapter of 350.org is working to get the City of Santa Barbara to divest from fossil fuels and to stop fracking in Santa Barbara County (find us at 350sb.org. Restoring Earth’s atmosphere to no more than 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) is regarded as a safe planetary boundary for human life. Unfortunately, we passed 400 ppm in May.
Let’s “do the math,” as Bill McKibben, environmental hero and cofounder of this global climate justice organization, put it in the hot summer of 2012 (a year that turned out to be the hottest in the history of the United States). McKibben’s highly influential piece in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe — and that make clear who the real enemy is,” clearly outlines our predicament:
1) The science and all the world’s governments tell us that in order to avoid dangerous and likely catastrophic climate change by 2050, we must limit global warming to no more than 2° Celsius (about 3.6° Fahrenheit);
2) If we want to stay under a 2°C increase yet continue to plan to burn fossil fuels, we may burn roughly 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide;
3) About 2,795 gigatons is “the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number — 2,795 — is higher than 565. Five times higher.”
The inescapable conclusion is that 80 percent of the current reserves of all the fossil fuel companies and exporting countries in the world must stay in the ground (mind you, the scientific community reckons that 565 gigatons more carbon emissions gives us only an 80 percent chance of staying under 2 degrees. Question: Would you cross a busy street if you only had an 80 percent chance of making it across alive?).
What we need, if we are to survive our changing climate, is to do away with humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels altogether. True energy independence requires the rapid development and mass production of clean, safe, renewable energy sources. Nuclear is none of those. The horrific costs of George Bush’s cruel and immoral war for Iraqi oil is probably the plainest argument against a future tied to fossil fuels.
Just as the U.S. reoriented its world-leading auto industry to defeat fascism during WWII, we can do the same thing to fight climate change, a far worthier cause than our current war on terror. It’s all the more reason to consider whether our national security would be better served by spending a lot less on the quest for “full spectrum” military dominance and a lot more on a new energy and transportation infrastructure.
And when it comes to jobs, the good news is that clean energy makes the better investment: It creates more jobs than the same amount spent on fossil fuels, it is better for our health and way better for the climate, and this means in turn well-being and a better life for our children and our children’s children. It’s high time that we discard the outmoded paradigm in which economic growth prevails at all costs over the environment (and always pits them against each other in a crisis) and embrace instead the new, more positive and inspiring paradigm of “Prosperity Without Growth” advocated by British climate visionary Tim Jackson.
More Is Not Better
Behind “Prosperity Without Growth” is the idea that we are destroying our planet with a suicidal system that encourages “people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t like,” as Australian environmental activist and scholar Clive Hamilton put it. Contrary to what we are led to believe in this culture, prosperity and happiness are not well correlated with gross national product or carbon footprint. (If they were, we would be more prosperous and happier than we are.) Yet we have the potential to achieve these intangible goods by changing the aims and rules of the game.
And it is doable, even with the rigged game we are all forced to play now. Christian Parenti’s recent piece in Dissent Magazine “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis” soberly discusses the true nature of our climate predicament, and an innovative and practicable plan for moving quickly toward a better, greener future. His “Big Green Buy” concept starts from the fact that:
“[F]ederal, state, and local government constitute more than 38 percent of our GDP. In more concrete terms, Uncle Sam owns or leases more than 430,000 buildings (mostly large office buildings) and 650,000 vehicles. (Add state and local government activity, and all those numbers grow by about a third again.) The federal government is the world’s largest consumer of energy and vehicles, and the nation’s largest greenhouse gas emitter … .”
Parenti goes on to point out that Executive Order 13514, which Obama signed in 2009, directed all federal agencies basically to get greener and told federal agencies immediately to start purchasing 95 percent of its goods and services through green-certified programs and achieve a 28 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2020.
Now, how do we get the government to implement its own order, when we know that Washington has been captured by our real enemy — the fossil-fuel industry? Parenti passes the baton to us at this point: “Far be it from me to say exactly how such movements should be built, other than the way they always have been: by trial and error and with good leadership.” I know of only one sure way: stepping up to the challenge of fighting the defining problem of the 21st century and building the greatest social movement the world has ever seen.
It can be done. We have to muster the hope and energy to get up every day and do it, in ways large and small. The U.S. can show leadership in the most momentous challenge of our lifetimes and leave a legacy to the future that we can all be proud of — if we are brave and loving enough to do it.
John Foran is a professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at UCSB, codirector of the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory (iicat.org), and a member of 350sb.org.