Saturday, November 9, 2019


And lack of power.

The recent power shutdowns in California were maddening and disruptive. They also showed how utterly dependent we are on the oceans of fossil fuels we burn. With every convenience, gadget, trip, comfort, appliance, and delivery we get more enmeshed in this dependence, and become zombies when the juice is suddenly cut off. Not only is our society manifestly not robust, but every drop of fuel burned makes the problem still worse: the biosphere's decline to miserable uninhabitability. The children are right be be pissed off.

Do we have the power to kick this habit? This addiction makes opioids look like amateurs.  It won't be a matter of checking into rehab and going through a few weeks of detox. No, it is going to take decades, maybe centuries, of global detox to kick this problem from hell. Living without our fix of CO2 is impossible on any level- personal, social, political, economic, military. And the pushers have been doing their part to lull us even further into complacency, peddling lies about the risks and hazards they deal with as an industry, their own research into climate change and what our future looks like, not to mention our complicity in it.

Do we have the moral and political power to get off fossil fuels? Not when half of our political community is in denial, unwilling to take even one step along the 12 step path. I am studying the Civil War on the side, which exhibits a similar dynamic of one half of the US political system mired in, even reveling in, its moral turpitude. It took decades for the many compromises and denials to play themselves out, for the full horror to come clear enough that decent people had had enough, and were ready to stamp out the instution of slavery. Which was, somewhat like the fossil fuels of today, the muscular force behind the South's economy and wealth.

Do we have the technical and intellectual power to kick this habit? Absolutely. Solar and wind are already competitive with coal. The last remaining frontier is the storage problem- transforming intermittant and distributed forms of power into concentrated, dispatchable power. And that is largely a cost problem, with many possible solutions available, each at its price. So given a high enough price on fossil carbon, we could rapidly transition to other sources of power, for the majority of uses.

A 300 MW solar power plant in the Mojave.

Does the US have the power to affect climate change policy around the world? We don't have all the power, but have a great deal. If we were to switch from a regressive laggard to a leader in decarbonization, we would have a strong effect globally, both by our example and influence, and by the technical means and standards we would propagate. We could amplify those powers by making some of our trade policy and other relations more integrated with decarbonization policy.

Do individuals have the power to address these issues? The simple answer is no- all the virtuous recycling, biking, and light-bulb changing has little effect, and mostly liberates the unused fossil fuels for someone else to use at the currently criminally low prices. Individuals also have little power over the carbon intensity of the many products, services, and infrastructure they use. Maybe it is possible to eat less meat, and avoid fruit from Chile. But we can not unplug fully from this system- we need to rewire the system. It is fundamental economics that dictates this situation, which is why a stiff carbon tax and related regulation, with the associated political and moral will are so important.

Finally, does the State of California have the power to take responsibility for the PG&E mess? Absolutely, but probably not the will. The power shutdowns led to a common observation that the state should just buy PG&E at its bankrupt price and run it in the public interest. But keen observers have noted that the state's politicians would much rather have someone else to blame, than be saddled with a no-win institution that puts the blame on them. Power lines are going to cause fires in any case, unless we cough up the billions needed to put them underground. Customers will always complain about the price of utilities, so it is hard to see the state stepping up to this mess, or even reforming the public utilities commission, which has been so negligent as well.

  • Why did the GOP nominate, and the American people elect, a Russian asset to the White House?
  • Battle lines on health care.
  • Point to Bernie.
  • The church and psycho-social evolution.