The Carbon Bubble is about to pop

Despite Trump's denial of climate change the the ghastly attacks on climate science and mitigation in the new proposed budget, the Carbon Bubble -- which overprices hydrocarbons and the industries that rely on them, as though we'll be burning all of them with impunity -- is about to pop.

Alex Steffen lists the costs and benefits, the forces marshalled for a post-carbon economy .The reason carbon is underpriced is that the external costs of burning climate change -- like rescuing people from catastrophic weather events and drowning cities -- are borne by all of us, while the profits from hydrocarbons are held in a few hands.

This is a classic corruption problem: diffused costs borne by many and concentrated benefits accruing to a few allow the few to lobby for rules to allow their corruption to continue, while the rest of us are stuck in the trap of trying to figure out how to work together to thwart them by pooling our resources, which are already depleted by the costs of cleaning up the mess the few have made for the rest of us.

But Steffen says there's a change in the increasingly chaotic winds. The post-carbon industries -- from solar to electric cars -- are a way for rich investors to go long on climate action, and short hydrocarbons, and they become a force against the carbon barons' efforts to continue burning fossil fuels unchecked. Meanwhile, some of the big powers have gotten climate religion, evidenced by the fact that America's trading partners, from China on down, have announced that they'll stay in the Paris Accord whether or not Trump pulls America out of it. There's more at work here than mere belief in climate change, of course: China perceives an opportunity to weaken American geopolitical influence by presenting itself as a responsible steward of global stability, a niche the US once claimed for itself to enormous trade, military and economic advantage.

Combine that with the increasingly undeniable problems of anthropogenic, carbon-fuelled climate change; and rapid urbanization (which offers new efficiencies in carbon-neutral living, from public transit to shared infrastructure) and you've got a recipe for "a snap forward in climate action."

It's a hopeful vision of how geopolitics and markets as they are -- not as they might be in the future -- could be sufficient to carry us into the kinds of urgent action that's long overdue.

When we hear of potential catastrophes in 2080 —low-lying cities being swamped by rising waters, the loss of most of the Amazon rainforest, droughts that last decades, hundreds of millions of climate refugees being displaced — they sound far away from our lives. But little kids alive today will still be in the workforce in 2080. People now alive will see the year 2100. When scientists worry about cataclysmic weather chaos, they’re worrying not about distant unknowable generations. They’re worrying about the kids all around us: the ones on their way to school, playing in the park, asking for a bedtime story.

Serious, responsible people take the duty of protecting those kids extremely seriously. Many are extremely motivated now to push through changes, at whatever cost. Americans’ support for climate action is growing.

We’re no longer talking about a handful of idealists, either. Those fiercely pursuing climate action include religious leaders (like the Pope, for instance), military generals and admirals, intelligence agencies, billionaire philanthropists, universities, scientists and (outside of the U.S.) political parties, labor unions and heads of state.

Public opinion is shifting towards climate action, even in the U.S.. Generational politics loom large here. Simply put, younger people have a stronger stake in our society taking bold climate action, and polls show that the younger Americans are, the more they want change. This alone is changing climate politics, since with every year, more older people opposed to change pass from the political scene, and more young people join it.

The Smokestacks Come Tumbling Down [Alex Steffen/The Nearly Now]

Notable Replies

  1. 45's own defense sec agrees and, wow!, does he look tired.

  2. Imgur

    Always seems to be that way.

    Live in one and lived in the other...can confirm.

    If he lives in Utah, that explains his "belief" that socialism is bad. The LDS Church is big on the self reliant thing and if you want help, you have to work for it (which is fine). However, they also have this memory of the "BIG BAD GOVERNMENT!!" who drove them from their homes and made them flee to Utah and blah blah blah, so they have a BIG distrust of anything at the federal level.

    On the plus side, the dumbasses...um I mean lawmakers have pretty much destroyed the tourist industry in favor of mining and oil companies so Utah is going to be hurting pretty soon.

  3. Judging by all available evidence, it's the exurb called "Short-Term Thinking Estates." AKA Galt's Gulch Lite.

    Careful, or he'll call you an out-of-touch elitist who's oppressing poor people by telling them what's good for them.

  4. Let's assume that every joule of energy that goes into making a solar panel or wind turbine comes from fossil fuels. The relevant metric here is EROEI - energy returned on energy invested. For solar PV, panels produce anywhere from 5.9 to 60 kWh for each kWh needed to produce them. For wind it is 20 to 50. (For hydro, close to 100, but there's less opportunity to build more). Over the life of the PV or wind turbine, total fossil fuel demand will be 5 to 59 kWh lower than it would have been if we used the fossil fuels directly.

    Plus, that is electrical energy. It takes 3-5 kWh of fossil fuels to make 1kWh of electrical energy in a power plant, so you're actually saving 3-5x as much.

    By comparison, the EROEI for mining fossil fuels ranges from 5-40, with coal on the high and and oil and gas near the low end. I.e. the same range as renewables. So if you need to produce 1kWh of electricity, you can spend fossil fuels to extract fossil fuels and burn them, or you can spend the same amount of fossil fuels (plus 2.5%-20% needed to extract more fossil fuels) to produce renewable power equipment, and end up using 5 to 59 times less in total.

    Over time, btw, EROEI for renewables has been steadily rising as we get better manufacturing methods, while that of fossil fuels has been steadily falling as we go after harder to reach sources.

    And yes, I'm well aware that a lot of world energy usage is thermal and/or mobile rather than electrical and grid connected. I'm not pretending we could switch to all renewables tomorrow. Electrical energy storage is not yet ready to solve that problem at the scale we will need once intermittent renewables reach sufficiently high grid penetration, let alone all other applications. This is a separate problem that won't matter until renewables grow several to maybe 10 times larger than they are now, and that many companies are already working on.

    You're argument does not hold water even on its own terms. In reality, not all the energy needed to make PV and wind turbines comes from fossil fuels, and the proportion decreases over time as the energy mix shifts toward renewables.

  5. I think of Mormons (and Amish and Mennonites) as examples of a form of socialism, actually. They aren't self-reliant at all; they're very much interdependent. So much so that being cast out is considered the greatest punishment.

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