I’m no longer advocating for clean energy; here’s why.

7 09 2017

Reblogged from The unpublished notebooks of J. M. Korhonen…….

My Finnish readers will already know that I announced some time ago that I’m done with energy/climate change discussions. I’ve been following the debate actively since about 2007 and have been writing about it since late 2010. I’ve written two books about the topic, one of which is translated into five languages, and blogged fairly regularly. But now it’s time to do something else.

The main reason why I’m refocusing is because I think the debate is going nowhere, and I don’t want to waste my time on a futile project. We are not going to get a decarbonized energy system by 2050. [I disagree here…….  there won’t be an economy that continues burning FFs by then…  DTM] We are going to fail the climate targets, probably by a large margin, and I suspect that a warming of about 3 degrees centigrade is going to be almost inevitable. It’s perfectly possible that self-amplifying feedback mechanisms under way will amplify this change even more. What this will mean for humans is difficult to assess, but I doubt it’s going to be anything good for the vast majority. The global poor will suffer the most, while we here in the rich North may be able – at least in the short term – to insulate ourselves from the worst effects and retreat to our own virtual bubbles to avoid hearing the cries of the others.

The reason why we’re going to fail is because we’re lulled into optimistic complacency. An occasional follower of the energy and climate news will inevitably conclude that climate change is as good as solved: page after page gushes about the relentless, inevitable progress of renewables and the just about imminent downfall of fossil fuel behemoths.

The reality, of course, is quite different from these uncritical pronouncements.



Despite the very real advances of low-carbon energy sources in the recent decades, fossil fuels are still – relatively speaking – just as dominant as they were in 1980s. Since the global energy use has increased from those days, the problem of replacing practically all fossil fuel and most of the biomass use by 2050 (which would be required to stay at accepted climate targets) is hideously difficult.

However, nothing about this urgency is communicated to the broader audience. In general, people want to hear happy stories that fit their preconceptions; and the looming Ultimate Victory of renewable energy fits perfectly to the preconceptions of almost all environmentalists (who are also the only ones really concerned about climate change). The people want to hear that the new energy messiah will deliver us from evil; and scores of people around the world deliver. Very vocal groups argue that accomplishing 100% renewable energy system by 2050 is going to be easy and cheap; I can’t but keep on thinking how long it will take for the optimist groups to begin asserting that THEIR plan can do it by 2049 while giving everyone a pony as well.

Because we’ve been here before. In the 1960s nuclear energy was supposed to be THE energy source for the 2000s. Oil drilling was supposed to become unprofitable by the turn of the millennium, and the only real question was exactly how many nuclear power plants we’d ultimately end up building. The gushing, completely uncritical rhetoric that totally ignored any and all concerns about technical, economic and political issues inherent in such grand, technocratic schemes is almost word for word identical to the rhetoric employed today in 100% RE circles, as I’ve documented in several essays (e.g. herehere, here and here).

I and many others have tried to point out that there are still unsolved issues and potential pitfalls between the rhetoric and the ultimate, total victory of renewable energy. I at least have done this because I’d like to see renewable energy prosper: most if not all of us really are concerned about issues such as RE growth curve being logistic, integration costs, hidden environmental issues and local resistance to massive projects such as wind parks and power lines. We think that these issues have been downplayed or ignored entirely in the optimistic discussion, and that in order for renewable energy industry to avoid making the mistakes the nuclear industry made in the 1970s and 1980s, these issues would need to be addressed – soon. And, yes, we’ve been saying that a prudent climate mitigation strategy should include nuclear power as well, at least for as long as it is ACTUALLY DEMONSTRATED IN PRACTICE – not just in theoretical modeling – that major nations can get most of their energy from renewable sources alone.

All this has been to no avail. Realism never makes for a good copy, as long as there are people who make a living from selling a dream instead. No matter what we do, critical discussion of problems that are likely to crop up when renewable energy use increases has been confined to the blogs and discussions between a small group of like-minded people. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been surprising: after all, this is exactly what happened with nuclear energy as well. Critics of the nuclear dream were ignored, downplayed and vilified – until at some point, with enough experience, the actual technical, economic and political challenges became too large to ignore.

And that brings me to the last reason why I’m quitting. It’s bad enough that people who claim to be critical thinkers for the environment have swallowed the renewable advocacy hook, line and sinker (to the extent that it is environmentalists who most vocally deny that renewable energy could possibly have inadvertent environmental impacts) and are actively trying to undermine other low carbon energy, such as nuclear. However, the last straw for me is to keep on hearing that those who don’t uncritically buy the wildest renewable energy dreams and have some good questions about the research and thinking behind the dreams are shills for fossil fuels or nuclear power, and therefore the enemies of “proper” environmentalists. (See e.g. this piece.)

The fact that James Hansen, probably the most prominent climate researcher ever, is one of those critics (as are many other climate researchers around the world) makes no difference to these accusations.

I’ve been involved in environmental issues for a very long time now. I was a founding partner of the first eco-design consultancy in Finland in 2007, and I’m one of the founding members of the most recent environmental organization in Finland – the Finnish ecomodernist society. I’ve made major life choices to reduce my personal environmental impact, and have lectured for nearly a decade on how to design products that are less bad for the environment. (I always tell my students that if they want real change, they need to be more active politically – that designing “greener” products is good but a bit like rearranging deck chairs on board the Titanic.) I’m going to continue doing so, and I’m going to continue to advocate for climate change mitigation and clean energy in my own circles if the topic crops up. I may also comment every now and then if I feel like it, but I’m not going to follow the debate closely any longer.

temperature rise and its effects

But, since I’m so concerned about climate change that I favor keeping the options open until very high penetration of renewable energy is demonstrated in practice, I’m not welcome to the climate or environmental community, where opposition to nuclear power is a foundational precept of their beliefs and takes priority over practically all other considerations. I have no doubt that if, and probably when, the current wonder energy stalls in a manner very reminiscent of the stall of the nuclear power in the 1980s, I will be one of those people who are going to be blamed for the outcome. The explanation (that is already being practiced as renewable expansion is encountering the first signs of real trouble) will be that naysayers and the fossil fuel industry were in cahoots to stop the perfect energy source of the future. After all, this is the explanation the most ardent supporters of nuclear power have concocted: since they’ve convinced themselves that the technology was already very nearly perfect, the only possible reason for its demise has to be a conspiracy of critics and fossil fuel interests.

This attitude where the echo chambers of the faithful convince the participants to simply ignore the very real limitations of renewable energy, and the complacent optimism bred into the broader public by absolutely uncritical coverage of renewable energy claims and the renewable energy industry (which, by the way, is vastly larger, more profitable and more powerful than “big bad” nuclear industry), are the prime reasons we’re going to fail. We’d need much more effort to climate mitigation, but how on Earth can we persuade the people to vote for more effort and more hardships, when every environmental organization shouts out loud that the victory of renewable energy is just around the corner?

Perhaps we’d be losing even if this wasn’t the case. Fossil fuel interests and the logic of current capitalism are so powerful and they have such a grip on the world’s economy (and hence politics) that this may have been a losing battle regardless. Nevertheless, these divisions within the environmental movement critically diminish our influence just when we all ought to be advocating for more clean energy – not less, as many “green” organizations are de facto doing. We ought to fight and defeat the Great Enemy first, and then – only then – resume the old fight between nuclear and renewables. But that’s not going to happen. Some blame for this lies within nuclear advocates, also – too many are nothing more than mirror images of the individuals and organizations they claim are anti-science or unwilling to change their outdated thinking. That said, it is only from the ranks of the 100% RE advocates where I keep on hearing that we should exclude some potential solutions just on principle; there is nothing close to similar attitude within pro-nuclear environmentalist circles, few zealots excepted.

Yet nothing changes; we’ve had all these discussions at least a decade ago, and if my stash of old books is any indication, since the 1970s at least. Feel free to continue with this fruitless debate if you want; I’m going to direct my energy elsewhere.



11 responses

7 09 2017
Rob Mielcarski

Excellent find.

If it was possible, let alone easy, why is there not one country, or one province, or one city, or one town, or one neighborhood anywhere in the world, rich or poor, capitalist or socialist, with or without subsidies, that operates a modern lifestyle with 100% renewable energy and 0% fossil energy to build and maintain and move it.

7 09 2017

Good luck – the evidence makes it hard to disagree as one who has followed the evidence since Limits to Growth. The dominant powers will not act in time and societal and economic collapse will not pass by the developed countries. Europe by and large depends very heavily on outside resources, they as with most developed countries have a high ecological footprint.

I am involved with Engineers Australia and groups such as the Risk Engineering Society of EA. and the past 2 presidents of my local Sustainability Group have drawn the conclusion that without a radical and socially unacceptable rate of change, that mankind’s industrialisation period, supported by a faulty economic model, is in a state that will result in system collapse in the coming decade, if not before.

7 09 2017
wandering neone

I hate to say it, but same deal here. I started filing my latest efforts under “palliative healthcare” to give you an indication…

7 09 2017

Thanks! I think I will use this “palliative healthcare” a bit.

7 09 2017

Yep, I’ve started to think (and research) quite a lot lately about future options for “palliative healthcare” ….

7 09 2017

Can you provide any links or connections for your thinking and research about such future options?

A bit more than four years ago, a friend asked me to convert an email message into a post on his blog (http://thefrogthatjumpedout.blogspot.ru/2013/05/wagon-trains-and-white-water-rafting.html). Thinking changes with time as the situation changes.

In my view, much discourse is hampered by people viewing the problems through “slow glass” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light_of_Other_Days).

7 09 2017

Mike, re your inserted comment, when do you think that economies will cease using fossil fuels ? Is this because of ‘peak oil’ and/or lack of finance following a financial collapse? Because Governments/people will finally respond appropriately to catastrophic climate change?
Because – before 2050, we will already be living a World Made by Hand lifestyle (Jim Kuntsler) …or even worse.

7 09 2017

Just bought the Kindle version. Another vision for America: http://erikassadourian.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/America-in-2100-E-Magazine-2013.pdf

7 09 2017

Robert Gifford has given me one view of the problematique, but I do have a slight disagreement with his dragon taxonomy. Specifically, two species in his Ideology genus seem to be one species in my view. That is, I believe the Technosalvation dragon is in fact a subspecies or type of the Superhuman powers. I quote his description of these dragons from https://www.dragonsofinaction.com/ideologies/:

“Suprahuman powers: Some people believe that an omnipotent deity will cause or solve environmental problems. Others believe that Mother Nature is in charge. In both cases, the believer does not feel responsible for the climate or the environment.”

“Technosalvation: This is the belief that technology, such as geoengineering, can, by itself, reverse the effects of climate change. Although this field may have some promise, overconfidence in it can lead to inaction.”

In other words, the idea that one thing more powerful than a human (whether it is a god, a carbon tax, renewable energy, the hidden hand of the market, or …) will be the basic solution of the human problems seems to be the essence of this dragon species.

A 50-minute lecture by Robert Gifford in 2013 at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin, Ireland: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqVPQEzScdc

8 09 2017
Dennis Mitchell

For some reason I hear a little kid tantrum. I have heard a backlash against renewables. Please ignore the noise and just tell me the truth. The salesmen of the world see their job as one of manipulation. Just tell me the truth. Better yet, maybe it is time to move on and talk about how to survive this cowardly new world. Time to get out of the sand box and grow up.

10 09 2017

Funny, but I agree with the author.
SA and other failures pushed me to the same conclusion. The current system is not possible on renewables.
Yes, RE (the turbines) was not the root cause of the issue but the high levels of RE floundered when conditions returned to normal.

You can run a household on RE, but not a whole economy if you include steel mills, shopping centres, air travel and everything in between.

Sadly it seems we are destined to revisit the lifestyles of the late 19th century, but that would see an end to obesity and other health issues, which can only be good.

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