Saving the Planet is More Than Just Switching to Renewables

3 05 2016

I’m too busy sawmilling, wiring up power stations, and crushing apples right now to write much on DTM, though if the current ‘drought breaking’ rain continues, I will have an opportunity to write another update…. in the meantime, enjoy this article, a true breath of fresh air, even if it makes mo mention of Limits to Growth….

Photo credit: Bush Philosopher – Dave Clarke via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND. Article cross-posted from Local Futures. Written by Steven Gorelick.

Among climate change activists, solutions usually center on a transition to renewable energy. There may be differences over whether this would be best accomplished by a carbon tax, bigger subsidies for wind and solar power, divestment from fossil fuel companies, massive demonstrations, legislative fiat, or some other strategy, but the goal is generally the same: Replace dirty fossil fuels with clean renewable energy. Such a transition is often given a significance that goes well beyond its immediate impact on greenhouse gas emissions: It would somehow make our exploitative relationship to nature more environmentally sound, our relationship to each other more socially equitable. In part, this is because the fossil fuel corporations — symbolized by the remorseless Koch brothers — will be a relic of the past, replaced by “green” corporations and entrepreneurs that display none of their predecessors’ ruthlessness and greed.

Maybe, but I have my doubts. Here in Vermont, for example, a renewable energy conference last year was titled, “Creating Prosperity and Opportunity Confronting Climate Change.” The event attracted venture capitalists, asset management companies, lawyers that represent renewable energy developers, and even a “brandthropologist” offering advice on “How to Evolve Brand Vermont” in light of the climate crisis. The keynote speaker was Jigar Shah, author of Creating Climate Wealth, who pumped up the assembled crowd by telling them that switching to renewables “represents the largest wealth creation opportunity of our generation.” He added that government has a role in making that opportunity real: “Policies that incentivize resource efficiency can mean scalable profits for businesses.”[1] If Shah is correct, the profit motive ­— in less polite company it might be called “greed” — will still be around in a renewable energy future.

But at least the renewable energy corporations will be far more socially responsible than their fossil fuel predecessors. Not if you ask the Zapotec communities in Mexico’s Oaxaca state, who will tell you that a renewable energy corporation can be just as ruthless as a fossil fuel one. Oaxaca is already home to 21 wind projects and 1,600 massive turbines, with more planned. While the indigenous population must live with the wind turbines on their communal lands, the electricity goes to distant urban areas and industries. Local people say they have been intimidated and deceived by the wind corporations: According to one indigenous leader, “They threaten us, they insult us, they spy on us, they block our roads. We don’t want any more wind turbines.” People have filed grievances with the government (which has actively promoted the wind projects) and have physically blocked access to development sites.[2]

It seems that a transition to renewable energy might not be as transformative as some people hope. Or, to put it more bluntly, renewable energy changes nothing about corporate capitalism.

Which brings me to the new film, This Changes Everything, based on Naomi Klein’s best-selling book and directed by her husband, Avi Lewis. I saw the film recently at a screening hosted by local climate activists and renewable energy developers, and was at first hopeful that the film would go even further than the book in, as Klein puts it, “connecting the dots between the carbon in the air and the economic system that put it there.”

But by film’s end, one is left with the impression that a transition from fossil fuels to renewables is pretty much all that’s needed — not only to address climate change, but to transform the economy and solve all the other problems we face. As the camera tracks skyward to reveal banks of solar panels in China or soars above 450-foot tall wind turbines in Germany, the message seems to be that fully committing to these technologies will change everything. This is surprising, since Klein’s book flatly contradicts this way of thinking:

“Over the past decade,” she wrote, “many boosters of green capitalism have tried to gloss over the clashes between market logic and ecological limits by touting the wonders of green tech…. They paint a picture of a world that can function pretty much as it does now, but in which our power will come from renewable energy and all of our various gadgets and vehicles will become so much more energy-efficient that we can consume away without worrying about the impact.”

Instead, she says, we need to “consume less, right away. [But] Policies based on encouraging people to consume less are far more difficult for our current political class to embrace than policies that are about encouraging people to consume green. Consuming green just means substituting one power source for another, or one model of consumer goods for a more efficient one. The reason we have placed all of our eggs in the green tech and green efficiency basket is precisely because these changes are safely within market logic.”[3]

Overall, Klein’s book is far better at “connecting the dots” than the film. The book explains how free trade treaties have led to a huge spike in emissions, and Klein argues that these agreements need to be renegotiated in ways that will curb both emissions and corporate power. Among other things, she says, “long-haul transport will need to be rationed, reserved for those cases where goods cannot be produced locally.” She explicitly calls for “sensible relocalization” of the economy, as well as reduced consumption and “managed degrowth” in the rich countries of the North — notions likely to curdle the blood of capitalists everywhere. She endorses government incentives for local and seasonal food, as well as land management policies that discourage sprawl and encourage low-energy, local forms of agriculture.

I don’t buy everything about Klein’s arguments: They rest heavily on unquestioned assumptions about the course of development in the global South, and focus too much on scaling up government and not enough on scaling down business. The “everything” that will change sometimes seems limited to the ideological pendulum: After decades of pointing toward the neoliberal, free-market right, she believes it must swing back to the left because climate change demands a huge expansion of government planning and support.

Nonetheless, many of the specific steps outlined in the book do have the potential to shift our economic system in important ways. Those steps, however, are given no space at all in the film. The focus is almost entirely on transitioning to renewables, which turns the film into what is essentially an informercial for industrial wind and solar.

The film starts well, debunking the notion that climate change is a product of human nature – of our innate greed and short-sightedness. Instead, Klein says, the problem lies in a “story” we’ve told ourselves for the past 400 years: that Nature is ours to tame, conquer, and extract riches from. In that way, Klein says, “Mother Nature became the mother lode.”

After a gut-wrenching segment on the environmental disaster known as the Alberta tar sands, the film centers on examples of “Blockadia” — a term coined by activists to describe local direct action against extractive industries. There is the Cree community in Alberta fighting the expansion of tar sands development; villagers in India blocking construction of a coal-fired power plant that would eliminate traditional fishing livelihoods; a community on Greece’s Halkidiki Peninsula battling their government and the police to stop an open pit gold mine that would destroy a cherished mountain; and a small-scale goat farmer in Montana joining hands with the local Cheyenne community to oppose a bevy of fossil fuel projects, including a tar sands pipeline, a shale oil project, and a new coal mine.

Klein implies that climate change underlies and connects these geographically diverse protests. But that’s partly an artifact of the examples Klein chose, and partly a misreading of the protestors’ motives: What has really driven these communities to resist is not climate change, but a deeply felt desire to maintain their traditional way of life and to protect land that is sacred to them. A woman in Halkidiki expresses it this way: “We are one with this mountain; we won’t survive without it.” At its heart, the threat that all of these communities face doesn’t stem from fossil fuels, but from a voracious economic system that will sacrifice them and the land they cherish for the sake of profit and growth.

The choice of Halkidiki as an example actually undermines Klein’s construct, since the proposed mine has nothing directly to do with fossil fuels. It does, however, have everything to do with a global economy that runs on growth, corporate profit, and — as Greece knows only too well — debt. So it is with all the other examples in the film.

Klein’s narrative would have been derailed if she profiled the indigenous Zapotec communities of Oaxaca as a Blockadia example: They fit the bill in every respect other than the fact that it’s renewable energy corporations, not fossil fuel corporations, they are trying to block. Similarly, Klein’s argument would have suffered if she visited villagers in India who are threatened not by a coal-fired power plant, but by one of India’s regulation-free corporate enclaves known as “special economic zones”. These, too, have sparked protests and police violence against villagers: In Nandigram in West Bengal, 14 villagers were killed trying to keep their way of life from being eliminated, their lands turned into another outpost of an expanding global economy.[4]

And while the tar sands region is undeniably an ecological disaster, it bears many similarities to the huge toxic lake on what was once pastureland in Baotou, on the edge of China’s Gobi Desert. The area is the source of nearly two-thirds of the world’s rare earth metals – used in almost every high-tech gadget (as well as in the magnets needed for electric cars and industrial wind turbines). The mine tailings and effluent from the many factories processing these metals have created an environmental disaster of truly monumental proportions: The BBC describes it as “the worst place on earth”.[5] A significant shrinking of global consumer demand would help reduce Baotou’s toxic lake, but it’s hard to see how a shift to renewable energy would.

Too often, climate change has been used as a Trojan horse to enable corporate interests to despoil local environments or override the concerns of local communities. Klein acknowledges this in her book: By viewing climate change only on a global scale, she writes, we end up ignoring “people with attachments to particular pieces of land with very different ideas about what constitutes a ‘solution,’ This chronic forgetfulness is the thread that unites so many fateful policy errors of recent years… [including] when policymakers ram through industrial-scale wind farms and sprawling… solar arrays without local participation or consent.”[6] But this warning is conspicuously absent from the film.

Klein’s premise is that climate change is the one issue that can unite people globally for economic change, but there’s a more strategic way to look at it. What we face is not only a climate crisis but literally hundreds of potentially devastating crises: there’s the widening gap between rich and poor, islands of plastic in the oceans, depleted topsoil and groundwater, a rise in fundamentalism and terror, growing piles of toxic and nuclear waste, the gutting of local communities and economies, the erosion of democracy, the epidemic of depression, and many more. Few of these can be easily linked to climate change, but all of them can be traced back to the global economy.

This point is made by Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of Local Futures, who explains how a scaling down of the corporate-led global economy and a strengthening of diverse, localized economies would simultaneously address all of the most serious problems we face – including climate change.[7] For this reason, what Norberg-Hodge calls “big picture activism” has the potential to unite climate change activists, small farmers, peace advocates, environmentalists, social justice groups, labor unions, indigenous rights activists, main street business owners, and many more under a single banner. If all these groups connect the dots to see the corporate-led economy as a root cause of the problems they face, it could give rise to a global movement powerful enough to halt the corporate juggernaut.

And that really could change everything.

##

[1] Shaheen, Troy, “Climate change may have economic potential for Vermont” VTDigger.org, Feb. 20, 2015.

[2] “Defining and Addressing Community Opposition to Wind Development in Oaxaca” Equitable Origin, updated January 2106.

[3] Klein, Naomi, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Simon and Shuster, 2014), page 90.

[4] “Nandigram Violence a ‘State-Sponsored Massacre’” Countercurrents.org, August 9, 2007.

[5] Maughan, Tim, “The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust” BBC Future, April 2, 2015.

[6] Klein, op. cit., page 287.

[7] Norberg-Hodge, Helena, Localisation: Essential Steps to an Economics of Happiness, Local Futures, 2015.

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Mark Cochrane on the Indonesian fires catastrophe…..

11 11 2015

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

I have finally escaped the endless haze of Indonesia for the moment. The last of my non-Indonesian team should have flown out this morning, but that still leaves the Indonesian people who have endured much more of this than anyone to continue to stew in the smoke. The rains have begun to return so the air is much clearer but worsens each afternoon and becomes serous if a day or two without rain passes.

This isn’t some ancient process started in the mists of time, this disaster began in 1996 with a misguided attempt to drain 1 million hectares of peat lands to grow rice of all things (Mega-Rice Project, overview). This calamity was made ever worse when the El Nino-spawned droughts of 1997-98 set the land aflame, initiating the now annual haze events that plague Southeast Asia. What most people do not appreciate is that once the land was drained the carbon loss process was set in place, regardless of whether the fires happen. Once drained the peat begins to be broken down by microbes and the peat subsides as CO2 is released to the atmosphere. When the fires occur they simply speed up the ongoing process, shifting the emissions to be more heavily weighted on carbon monoxide and methane. They also produce the toxic haze of particulates that blanket the region. For months no one ever saw the sun and shadows ceased to exist. The world was a luminescent ball of smoke during the daylight hours with no idea of the time of day. Usually it was white but on truly horrific days when the smoke layer was particularly thick the world was a sickly yellow in color.

The Mega Rice Project (MRP) is now long abandoned but the oil palm plantations have since taken over much of the peat lands across Indonesia furthering the country’s desire to supplant Malaysia as the leading global producer of palm oil. They’ve succeeded but now everyone is paying the price. The ex-MRP put in >4,000km of drainage canals in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) but over in Riau Province on Sumatra where I was in August the palm plantations have installed more than 22,000 km of canals to drain the peat. Out in Papua the oil palm developments are proceeding rapidly as well. Given the internal and international upheaval caused by this year’s fires, there is a desire to somehow ‘fix’ the situation with cloud seeding, air tankers dropping water, and thousands of troops in the field to fight the fires but the reality is that such measures have little effect. Now…

respiratory diseases rise

• Indonesia’s ministry of higher education is attempting to create a research consortium on disaster management.
• Data from Indonesia’s disaster management agency showed the number of people diagnosed with acute respiratory infection increased to 556,945 by November 6.
• After a limited cabinet meeting on Wednesday to discuss peat management, Jokowi said he wanted the research department of Yogyakarta’s University of Gadjah Mada to play a central role in proposing Indonesia’s new peat strategy.

Air quality in Singapore threatened to seep into unhealthy levels again on Friday as Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo instructed ministers to form a specialist haze task force to stave off another wildfire disaster next year.

“Do not let the dry season come around next year with us not having done anything,” Jokowi said.

No one wants to face the real issues of what must be done to truly stop this dynamic. If they want the fires to stop then the people will have to leave the peatlands (unlikely) or learn to live without fire as a major land use tool (doubtful). If there is truly a desire to stop carbon loss from these ancient peat forest lands then the drainage canals must be blocked (not easy or cheap) and the hydrology of the region restored, flooding the lands and the newly established palm oil plantations (economically disastrous). In short, the actions necessary to try to mitigate this disaster will be politically untenable unless there is some offsetting gain that can support relocating growing populations and replace the oil palm economy.

The worst part of this sad tale, which is also unappreciated is that the oil palm boom is going to be a short one before the bust comes on these peat soils. The peat must be drained and in many cases burned to create the conditions to allow the oil palm to grow, however once this is done the land continues to sink and erode. Every year the surface of the land will be lower and more susceptible to flooding. At best they will get one or two 20 year crop cycles in before the lands need to be abandoned. The combination of falling land levels and rising sea levels will destroy the peatlands and land uses they currently support. It is another short term strip mining operation that will yield nothing but profits for a few and another ecological disaster for the world.





The true cost of scraping the bottom of the barrel

4 03 2014

Garth Lenz

Garth Lenz

I have incredibly fond memories of travelling through Canada……  in the 1970’s it was pristine wilderness, almost everywhere you went.  What is going on in the Athabasca where the tar sands are mined is truly shocking.  So I want to share with you the impassioned plea for help from photographer Garth Lenz (what a great name for a photographer!) who shares shocking photos of the Alberta Tar Sands mining project — and the beautiful (and vital) ecosystems under threat.

For almost twenty years, Garth’s photography of threatened wilderness regions, devastation, and the impacts on indigenous peoples, has appeared in the world’s leading publications. His recent images from the boreal region of Canada have helped lead to significant victories and large new protected areas in the Northwest Territories, Quebec, and Ontario.

Filmed at TEDxVictoria (Vancouver Island) on November 19 2011

Share widely………..





What firefighters say about climate change

24 10 2013

The Conversation

Author

Michael Howes

Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Environmental Policy at Griffith University

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/what-firefighters-say-about-climate-change-19381

You do not find many climate change sceptics on the end of [fire] hoses anymore… They are dealing with increasing numbers of fires, increasing rainfall events, increasing storm events. – A senior Victorian fire officer, interviewed in 2012 for a recent National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility report.

There have been fierce arguments this week about whether it’s opportunistic to discuss climate change in connection to the devastating New South Wales fires. Amid all the bluster, it’s surprising that we’ve heard so little from one group of experts: frontline emergency service workers, including the firefighters risking their lives for the rest of us.

Yet if you do ask for their opinion – as we did for a study released in June this year – many, like the senior fire officer quoted above, are not reluctant to talk about climate change. In fact, quite a few of the emergency workers and planners we interviewed said we should be talking about it more, if our communities are to be better prepared for disasters like the one unfolding in NSW right now.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

In 2012-13, I led a joint research team from Griffith and RMIT to prepare a report for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on disaster risk management and climate change.

To do so, we compared the emergency responses to Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, the 2011 Perth hills bushfires, and the 2011 Brisbane floods.

We started by comparing the official inquiry reports into these events to the relevant research on disaster risk management. This was followed up by interviews with 22 experts from Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane, including nine fire officers, five emergency services workers, and eight assorted planners or policy officers. The proposals that emerged were then reviewed at a set of workshops.

One of the most interesting things we found in talking to the emergency service workers was an overwhelming acceptance and concern that climate change was already affecting Australia, based on their personal experiences with disasters.

As a Western Australian fire officer told our research team, we need to “get the scientists, who have a lot to share about climate change and climate change adaptation, talking to the operational people” – a suggestion backed by many of our interviewees.

Preventing future emergencies

Our report was not the first time that firefighters and other emergency workers have spoken out about climate change.

For instance, earlier this year it was reported that the United Firefighters Union released research by the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research that found almost 2 million Australians were relying largely on volunteer fire brigades to protect them and A$500 billion in assets.

The same article referred to research from the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, a collaboration between the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, on how the fire season across much of south-eastern Australia appeared to be going on for longer.

In November 2009, 25 firefighters, paramedics, police, military and emergency services workers spent nearly a month running 6000 kilometres from Cooktown in Queensland to Adelaide and back to Melbourne, speaking to communities along the way about their concerns about climate change. Many of them had worked in the Black Saturday firestorm, in which 173 people died, as well as the record-breaking heatwave beforehand that health experts estimated killed more than twice as many people as the fires.

In the same year, the United Firefighters Union’s national secretary wrote to then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:

On behalf of more than 13,000 firefighters and support staff in Australia, I write this open letter to request a review of Australia’s fire risk… As we battle blazes here in Victoria, firefighters are busy rescuing people from floods in Queensland. Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk.

Firefighters know that it is better to prevent an emergency than to have to rescue people from it, and we urge state and federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Lessons to be learnt

So what can we learn from listening to firefighters and other emergency services workers about how to be better prepared for future disasters?

Our study’s main aim was to come up with a set of practical changes based on those expert views on how to better integrate climate change adaptation into disaster management programs.

One suggestion was to set up a permanent fund, based on the success of Landcare. Anyone from government or the community might form a group and bid for money to tackle a particular issue, such as replanting local wetlands to reduce the impacts of flooding.

Another proposal was to set aside some local government funding to set up community resilience grants. Residents would be able to apply to their local council to fund projects, such as creating a network of people ready to assist elderly neighbours in times of bushfires or floods. Locals could even vote in town hall meetings on which proposals their council should fund.

Whatever we do, if we want to handle disasters better in the future, our frontline emergency workers have plenty of ideas to offer – if we’re ready to listen to what they say.