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Fossil Fuel dependency
Image: Andrew Hart

Our convenient lie

With the Republicans back in charge of the USA, most environmental campaigners are focused on the damage that might be caused by a bonfire of regulations aimed at regenerating the fossil fuel industry.

While these concerns are very real, they also provide a convenient reason not to examine our own assumptions about climate change.  These are – to simplify – that we can have all of the benefits of an advanced industrial global economy merely by swapping out our current fossil fuels with new “green” energy.  This, according to Rufo Quintavalle at Stanford Social Innovation Review, is our convenient lie:

“Now don’t get me wrong: Electric cars, renewable energy, and biofuels are good things. But unless we simultaneously and significantly reduce our energy use and our consumption of raw materials, all the good alternatives in the world will still see us hurtling toward extinction…  And worse than being a lie, the notion is itself contributing to locking in irreversible climate change. Almost everything we construct or consume today requires fossil fuels. Reading this article has a carbon footprint, and so does building a solar panel or a wind turbine. Sure, once installed, a renewable installation will have a far lower footprint than an equivalent fossil fuel installation, and over time it will repay its original debt. But there is no guarantee that it will replace a fossil fuel installation; without a reduction in demand, the two structures might carry on in tandem.”

Most of the renewable energy that we use today is in the form of electricity generated from hydroelectric plants that were built decades ago.  While the deployment of wind and solar has increased dramatically, these technologies start from such a low base that even today, they barely register on a chart of the global energy mix:

Source: Our Finite World -
Source: Our Finite World –

As Quintavalle observes, weaning ourselves off fossil carbon is not something that can be dealt with in the timeframe available without some radical policy changes, economic disruption and major impacts on our lifestyles:

“These are colossal challenges, but given the very high stakes—the survival of our species—politicians and public figures have nothing to lose in speaking openly about these matters. If there is one positive lesson to be learned from recent events in Britain and the United States, it is that the public reacts favorably when it feels people are speaking honestly. The answer to climate change is about more than electric cars and renewable energy; we have an obligation not just to speak frankly, but also… to tell the truth.”

The trouble is that, just like those on the denial side of the climate debate, we choose the convenient lie over the inconvenient truth every time.  That is why we prefer to “virtue signal” our support for so-called “green energy” even when it turns out to be a cornucopian fantasy, an example of corporate welfare, or even a blatant scam.  When we are not sharing nonsense on social media, we salve our consciences by signing meaningless petitions that nobody in authority is going to do anything about. The reality is that we can virtue signal and petition sign as much as we want.  But as US Secretary of State and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told us last year:

“The world is going to have to continue using fossil fuels, whether they like it or not.”

The reason why Tillerson was so strident in the face of a threatened shareholder revolt was his conviction that the public in the developed countries simply lacks the stomach for the kind of changes we would have to make to wean ourselves off fossil fuels in general and oil in particular.  And in the absence of a genuine willingness – in deeds not words – on our part, those with the power and – crucially – the money to bring about change are simply going to invest elsewhere.  That, I’m afraid, is the real inconvenient truth.

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