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Q&A with Post-Carbon Institute’s Richard Heinberg

Kyle Curtis, BLue Oregon
… Q: In the same interview I mentioned previously, I was informed that the next 20 years aren’t going to look like the last 20 years. In what manner do you think things will be most different in our lifestyle 20 years from now?

A: Look: the rate of economic change we are beginning to see is such that it’s hard to forecast even five years ahead. Certainly in 20 years we will have an economy that scarcely resembles the last quarter-century. But whether it will be a wasteland or a new localized and resilient economy-in-construction depends on what we do now to adapt to the end of economic growth as we have known it. The end of growth need not be the end of the world, but it could be. On the other hand, it could mark a painful but ultimately beneficial transition toward sustainability.

Q: Bill McKibben and the movement has been instrumental in drawing a lot of attention to how the current carbon-based economy is threatening so many aspects of our environment and nature at a systemic level. At the same time, is there an “under-the-radar” issue or two that is escaping attention that should be discussed more by policy makers and activists?

A: Climate change is one of three legs of the global crisis. I summarize it in the word “disaster.” The other two I summarize as “depletion” and “debt”—the Three “Ds” We are depleting resources at a rate that is leading to scarcity of energy, minerals, water, fish, and other commodities. And we have a Ponzi debt-based economy.

Ironically, public attention is likely to be directed to these three interlinked crises in inverse proportion to their long-range importance. The financial meltdown is the easiest of the three to solve—just reinvent money and economics! That’s a huge job, but nations have done it before. It will be messy and awful for a while, but we can manage it.

Dealing with resource depletion is harder: there are no easy answers here other than a transition to renewable energy sources—but that doesn’t solve everything. We’re still depleting topsoil and all the rest, unless we downsize and rethink the whole industrial model.

Climate change is the hardest of the three, because we’ve already set in motion a process that has its own unstoppable momentum. Not only will the human economy be affected, but millions of other species, and for millennia and perhaps millions of years. Yet few people can understand the two deeper, systemic crises (depletion and disaster).

Most people’s attention is going to be fixated on the ongoing economic-financial implosion. So politicians will be tempted to try to solve that in a way that actually makes the deeper problems worse—with resource wars that distract people’s minds from the crumbling economy.
(17 October 2011)

Europeans fear climate change more than financial turmoil, poll shows

Fiona Harvey, Guardian
Europeans believe that dangers of climate change represent a more serious problem than the current financial turmoil, according to a new poll.

The Eurobarometer poll (pdf) suggests that the majority of the public in the European Union consider global warming to be one of the world’s most serious problems, with one-fifth saying it is the single most serious problem. Overall, respondents said climate change was the second most serious issue facing the world, after poverty.

Connie Hedegaard, European climate commissioner, said: “This is encouraging news. The survey shows that the citizens of Europe can see that economic challenges are not the only ones we face. A clear majority of Europeans expect their politicians and business leaders to address the serious climate challenge now.”

She said it was striking that the public were even more concerned about climate change than in the runup to the landmark Copenhagen summit on climate change in late 2009.
(7 October 2011)

Deep in the heart of Texas, the scientific consensus is alive and kicking — no matter what the local politicians say

George Black, Onearth
For the tens of millions of Americans who are determined to “take their country back” (from what or whom exactly is still a mystery to me), there’s no climate debate. The jury is in. Global warming is a hoax, the product of a conspiracy so immense that it dwarfs anything Senator Joe McCarthy dreamed up when he was sniffing out Chinese communists in the State Department.

The command posts of this conspiracy are well known by now: the leftist radicals at the United Nations; the University of East “Climategate” Anglia; and pointy-headed, elitist institutions like Princeton and Yale, Stanford and Berkeley. By contrast to these bicoastal cosmopolitans, we’ve been hearing a lot recently about the homespun heartland virtues of schools like Texas A&M, where we’re told that a talent for yelling loudly at football games is just as important as good grades — and is held to be no impediment to the pursuit of high office.

But hold on; there’s a problem with this scenario. It turns out that Texas A&M is in fact one of the nerve centers of the great climate conspiracy, together with other football-mad southern and Midwestern schools like the universities of Alabama, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, all of which are doing groundbreaking research on global warming.

The School of Atmospheric Science at Texas A&M boast some of the finest minds in the field. There’s department head Ken Bowman, for example, who tests and validates climate models, particularly their simulation of precipitation; there’s Andrew Dessler, who specializes in the role of clouds and water vapor in climate change; there’s Gerald North, who works on paleoclimate records from ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica; and many more. (North and Bowman also tell me they enjoy watching Aggies football games.)

Not only are these people brilliant; they’re outspoken. The school’s homepage greets the visitor with the following message, signed by all 23 faculty members after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its fourth periodic assessment report in 2007:

  • It is virtually certain that the climate is warming, and that it has warmed by about 0.7 deg. C over the last 100 years.
  • It is very likely that humans are responsible for most of the recent warming.
  • If we do nothing to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, future warming will likely be at least two degrees
  • Celsius over the next century.

  • Such a climate change brings with it a risk of serious adverse impacts on our environment and society.

These guys were clearly out to make a point. It’s unprecedented for an academic institution to come out with this kind of in-your-face language on its homepage.
(29 September 2011)
Suggested by EB contributor Luane Todd who write:
“Hah, take that you silly Texans who reject science…Rick Perry comes to mind immediately! (Remember that I am allowed to poke them, I am a transplanted Texan!)”

Marx to Market

Peter Coy, Business Week
The economic crisis has made the philosopher’s ideas relevant again, but the world shouldn’t forget what Marx got wrong

… You might even say the Bearded One has rarely looked better. The current global financial crisis has given rise to a new contingent of unlikely admirers. In 2009 the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published an article praising Marx’s diagnosis of income inequality, which is quite an endorsement considering that Marx declared religion to be “the opium of the people.” In Shanghai, the turbo-capitalist hub of Communist-in-name-alone China, audiences flocked to a 2010 musical based on Capital, Marx’s most famous work. In Japan, Capital is now out in a manga version. Brazilians elected a former Marxist guerrilla, Dilma Rousseff, as President last year.

The vogue for Marx should be expected at a time when European banks stand on the precipice of collapse and poverty levels in the U.S. have reached levels not seen in nearly two decades. Politicians know they can score points with their constituents by kicking job-creating capitalists like mangy curs.

Here’s the surprising thing, though: You don’t have to sleep in a Che Guevara T-shirt or throw rocks at McDonald’s to acknowledge that Marx’s thought is worth studying, grappling with, and possibly even applying to our current challenges. Many of the great capitalist thinkers did so,

… As misguided as Marx was about many things, and as pernicious as his influence was in places like the U.S.S.R. and China, there are pieces of his (voluminous) writings that are shockingly perceptive. One of Marx’s most important contentions was that capitalism was inherently unstable. One only has to look at the headlines out of Europe—which is haunted by the specter of a possible Greek default, a banking disaster, and the collapse of the single-currency euro zone—to see that he was right. Marx diagnosed capitalism’s instability at a time when his contemporaries and predecessors, such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, were mostly enthralled by its ability to serve human wants.

… Now, once again, unbridled capitalism is threatening to undermine itself. The world’s biggest banks, financially weak but politically powerful, are putting the screws on borrowers in an attempt to rescue their own balance sheets. Likewise, creditor nations such as China and Germany are attempting to shift the pain of rebalancing onto debtor nations, even though squeezing them too hard threatens to cause an economic and financial disaster.

It’s time for another burst of enlightenment. In years past, Britain’s John Maynard Keynes and America’s Hyman P. Minsky (author of Stabilizing an Unstable Economy) did capitalism a service by diagnosing its tendency toward crisis and advising on ways to make things better. The sooner policymakers today “recognize we’re facing a once-in-a-lifetime crisis of capitalism,” as Magnus writes, “the better equipped they will be to manage a way out of it.” Grasping the ways in which Marx was right is the first step toward making sure that his predictions of capitalism’s downfall remain wrong.

Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek’s Economics editor
(14 September 2011)