Much of Rochester NY’s Climate and Environment Protection Resolution involves “increased use of alternative energy sources;” so if alternative energy sources aren’t really helping reduce greenhouse gases (GHG’s), then our focus on green energy could be wrong-headed. Of course, the use of alternative energy (renewable or green energy: solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) is not Rochester’s only strategy for ‘adapting to and mitigating Climate Change’* in our region. Nor is it the single silver bullet for other communities. There are also measures to “…reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy efficiency…, green space preservation and Brownfield redevelopment, air and water quality improvements, reduced traffic congestion, economic development, [and] energy conservation.” (City of Rochester, NY)
However, many environmental groups, businesses, and governments herald green energy as the ‘we-can-still-have-it-all’ solution, the way to continue with our current lifestyle while solving the most important issue of our times, i.e., have our cake and eat it too. President Obama spoke on July 25, 2013, in his Remarks by the President on Climate Change, about the critical role renewable energy will play in reducing GHG’s and producing jobs for our country’s future. In doing so, the President probably triggered a political push-back on the green energy movement by deniers, because much of our country’s attitude on Climate Change is shaped by our dysfunctional political and communications systems.
Right here at home, a poorly written and badly researched article in our predominant newspaper despairing of renewable energy got a lot of attention: Rochester man puts solar panels on home to show waste (August 13, 2013) Rochester Democrat and Chronicle). First of all, I am sure the man who spent thousands of dollars to put solar panels on his house did not do so to ‘show waste’. Few have that kind of money to throw around merely to prove a point. The man in the article put solar power on his house to save money and live a sustainable lifestyle, but was dismayed that things didn’t work out. The article also failed to interview the solar industry, which knows how to install and place solar panels to maximize effectiveness. It failed to talk about the elephant in the room, the background that rules energy choices today, i.e. Climate Change. D&C’s national sibling, USA Today, has no issue with it: Satellite to track climate change (August 10, 2013 USA Today.) Nor did this article provide any opportunity for knowledgeable people to answer the negative allegations on green energy. Thirty years of evidence has shown that when the media provides data supporting Climate Change, they also unfailingly scour the planet to find a merchant of doubt to provide an ‘objective’ rebuttal for ‘balance’. Apparently, the converse does not hold in our warped media environment.
Yet, there is a reasoned backlash against the movement towards green energy, such as “Green Illusions | The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism,” which chronicles the inherent problems in creating a green energy infrastructure that needs the fossil fuel industry to build it. There are admittedly many problems with putting all our hopes on green energy. We’ll have to address the many limitations of a nascent energy industry in a billion-dollar-subsidized, fossil-fuel-driven economy, along with a public very disdainful of any form of inconvenience. And yes, we’ll have to solve the problems of creating a green energy infrastructure that doesn’t heat up the planet even more. We’ll have to move all the parts (solar panels, wind turbines) for this new system around to where we need them using the present transportation system that is the cause of 38% of our greenhouse gas emissions. The list of problems goes on.
But here’s the thing. While green energy is problematic, there’s no doubt that fossil-fuel energy has to go. In a warming world, we’ll have to make green energy work or do without any energy to make and move our stuff—if we want a livable planet. I don’t have all the answers for those asking questions about the limitations of green energy. Environmentalists didn’t promise the public that green energy would solve Climate Change. What environmentalists said was that the last thirty years of scientists investigating this problem has long ago convinced 98% of climate scientists that Climate Change is happening, and that we humans are the cause of it, through manmade GHG emission from our agricultural practices, our energy use and production, our individual-vehicle transportation system, and more. If we reduce or reverse manmade greenhouse gases, the future for our children won’t be so dismal. We say, reductions in GHG’s and a sustainable lifestyle could be attained by the methods mentioned in the City of Rochester’s plans above—plus an increasingly better green energy system.
For environmentalists, trying to frame Climate Change as a doomsday consequence of our lifestyle will get us nowhere. Folks will shut down. Green energy is being marched out by environmentalists to give us a real hope that we don’t have to trash our kid’s future—without a whole lot of going backwards. With a lot more R&D, more subsidies for renewable energy and less for the bloated fossil fuel industry, and some new ideas—like 3D printing parts instead of transporting them, microgrids instead of today’s centralized electric grids, mining our dumps instead of our environment for materials, making solar cells with glass instead of plastics , and a whole lot more cooperation from others, instead of the endless carping about solutions to Climate Change that challenge denialists’ economic and beliefs systems, we just might pull it off without a whole lot of that doomsday stuff. As for green energy, it will be an engineering problem, not a greenie problem. We must make it work!
Of course, we should have thought about the really big problems that underlie Climate Change, that of unbridled consumption and overpopulation, and addressed the GHG issue long before a high-consumption lifestyle became entrenched. But we didn’t. Nor we did we listen to the folks like John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold who a long time ago thought destroying nature because it got in the way of prosperity might be a really bad idea. Having let free market fundamentalism go hog wild on our environment means that today we need to make some real adjustments in our lives if we want to survive. Blaming the messenger, while cathartic, just won’t fix the consequences of Climate Change.
I suggest the most intractable problem in solving Climate Change will not be the solvable engineering problems with green energy, but the unaccountability of those using billions of dollars thwarting the efforts of the rest of us trying to solve this problem. Let’s address the problems with green energy, and not allow ourselves to let this engineering problem throw us into another excuse not to act. Let’s leave behind the emotions of both hope and despair on Climate Change as we move headlong (as if a tiger were on our tail) out of danger.
* I continually use the phrase ‘adapt to and mitigate Climate Change’ because this two-phase approach to solving Climate Change is critical. We have to adapt to Climate Change because even if we stopped putting any more manmade greenhouse gases into our atmosphere we have hundreds of years of warming we will have to adapt to. Mitigation means using measures to stop Climate Change, which if it goes unchecked threatens to raise our CO2 levels by 6C by 2010 and that means our environment would have experienced 10,000 years of warming in about 300 years, an unendurable rate of rise.