Richard Heinberg joins Sustainable Nation to discuss:

  • The current state of energy and its contributions to the climate crisis
  • The shale gas and tight oil bubble
  • Community resiliency
  • The transition to a fossil fuel free future
  • Recommendations and advice for sustainability leaders

Richard Heinberg Complete Interview:

I gave the listeners some information on your professional life but tell us a little bit about your personal life and what led you to be doing the work you’re doing today.

I studied to be a musician. I studied violin, viola and cello, and was looking for a career in classical music, actually. All this was happening back in the early 1970’s and I took a little detour into rock music for a few years and played electric guitar in rock bands. But all during that time I was thinking to myself, there are more important things going on in the world. I was reading things like a Limits to Growth and early environmental literature like that. That was really where my head and heart were to a very large extent. So I continued playing music and I still do to this day, but I started writing, at first short essays, and they started getting picked up and I got an invitation to write a book, and one thing led to another and all these years later I’m still playing the violin, but I’ve also in the meantime written a bunch of books and hundreds of articles. I feel like I get to do all the things I love to do in my life and somehow get paid for it.

And you get to do it all from beautiful Santa Rosa, California. So, give us a little background on the Post Carbon Institute, what kind of work is the organization leading and what are you focusing on today?

Post Carbon Institute is a small non-profit think tank focused on questions about the transition away from fossil fuels toward our alternative energy future. It was started in 2003, and for a number of years I was a more marginally associated with the institute on the board of directors, but not a full time employee. About 10 years ago I came on staff as a senior fellow. And so since that time I’ve been working full time with Post Carbon Institute, and that’s really entailed a lot of public presentations, hundreds of lectures all over the world and a lot of writing. And all of it has to do with fossil fuels. First of all, the fact that fossil fuels are finite depleting resources, and also with alternative energy sources, analyzing the prospects for nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, etc. And looking at the implications of our energy sources for the larger economy, for human history, the history of energy and so on. It’s a huge, huge area of study and there’s always new surprises and ways of looking at things. It’s like shining a light on our way of life that reveals things that most people never thought of before.

You’ve done extensive research on what exactly is needed to transition to a society powered by renewable energy. This is of course the end game that all of us sustainability professionals, and most citizens for that matter, really want to see. Could you tell us what you’ve learned from that research and what’s going to have to happen in our society to allow for this transition to 100% or mostly renewable energy.

Well, I did a project a couple of years ago with David Fridley who’s on the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I have tremendous regard for David. He’s one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever met with regard to energy in all forms. We did this project which was published as Our Renewable Future. It’s a book and it’s also an online website where you can find the whole contents of the book: ourenewablefuture.org. And what we found was, and this won’t be hugely surprising to other people who are experts in the field, but some of it I think was original and useful research. The energy transition is a big deal. It’s not just a matter of unplugging coal power plants and plugging in solar panels and wind turbines, and then continuing to live as we have. Energy sources carry with them economic and societal impacts. That’s always been the case and it certainly will be in the future as we transition to different energy sources.

Every energy source has characteristics. Some of the characteristics of fossil fuels have been that they’re concentrated energy sources, they’re easily storable, easily transported, ideal for transportation. Renewable energy sources have different characteristics. They’re intermittent. The sun doesn’t always shine, wind doesn’t always blow. That’s not necessarily true with geothermal and hydro, but with solar and wind, intermittency is inevitably a characteristic we’re going to have to deal with. Also, they produce electricity and we only use about 20 percent of our energy, currently, in the form of electricity. The other eighty percent we use in the form of liquid and gaseous fuels, mostly the gasoline in your car, the natural gas that you burn to heat your home or office building.

So all of that is going to have to be transitioned. We’re going to have to find ways of doing things with electricity that we currently do in other ways. And all of it is technically possible. But some of it’s going to be quite challenging. The aviation industry is going to be very challenging to transition. A lot of industrial processes, making cement, which is the crucial ingredient in concrete is going to be challenging. These things, again theoretically, there are ways of doing them, but they’re likely to be more expensive and it’s going to take research and development, time and investment in order to get there. So those are some of our main findings.

And do you see those investments happening? Are you optimistic about this transition?

Currently the investments are not happening at the scale and speed that would be required. One of my colleagues, Ugo Bardi in Italy and some of his colleagues, have written a peer reviewed paper looking at what pace of transition would actually be required in order for us to avert catastrophic climate change and economic impacts of fossil fuel depletion. And they figure we need to be moving at about 10 times the rate that we currently are. Investment in renewable energy has stalled out in the last two or three years globally, and we need that investment to continue to increase exponentially in the next few years. So, there’s no reason for complacency at this point.

Now, one area that might be helping slow down this transition is the production of shale gas and tight oil. The US government’s Energy Information Administration predicts that by 2035, 46 percent of the United States natural gas will come from shale gas. And there have been different studies that have come to different conclusions about the environmental impacts of these fuel sources when they’re using a full life cycle analysis. Are these sources much cleaner than coal in your opinion, or from the things that you’ve seen, and how sustainable is shale gas and tight oil production in the long-term?

A couple of issues here. One is the environmental impact. And of course when we’re talking about natural gas, we’re talking about methane. That’s the main chemical ingredient in commercial natural gas. And methane, of course, is a greenhouse gas. And it turns out that the natural gas industry is responsible for the leakage of a very large amount of methane into the atmosphere. And as a result of that, if you do a full life cycle analysis, the climate impact of natural gas is roughly comparable to coal. So even though burning natural gas releases much less a CO2 than burning coal, if you look at the full environmental impact, it’s actually not that much different. Now the other issue is with regard to supply. You mentioned the EIA. We have been following the EIA reports and forecasts for future natural gas supply and we’ve been looking at the same numbers.

We subscribe to proprietary databases on US drilling and production of natural gas and tight oil. And we do our own in-house estimates for future production, and they differ quite radically from what we’re seeing from the EIA. In our view, the nature of the resources, shale gas and tight oil, the nature of the rocks themselves that are being drilled, suggests that these are not long-term sources of fuel for the United States. And we’re actually already seeing that. Of the five primary shale gas plays in the US, four of them have already peaked and are in substantial decline, and it’s only the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania region that’s still seeing increasing rates with production. Forecasts predict that that’s going to probably change the next few years.

So shale gas and tight oil have been miracles for the industry over the short term in terms of production. They hadn’t been so much miracles in terms of finances, because most companies that produce, especially tight oil but also shale gas, are actually losing money on production and only staying in business because they’re able to subsist on cheap debt because of low interest rates. And also, massive influxes of investment money from folks who believe that these are going to be huge money makers at some point in the future. But we don’t see that happening. The best rocks are getting drilled first. And as time goes on the industry is going to be stuck with worse and worse production prospects, and shale gas and tight oil, in our view, are going to be seen in hindsight as a short term bubble.

With these things not having long-term potential, and the transition to renewable not happening at the pace that it needs to and not seeing the investments that it needs to, give us your vision of what happens 50 years from now. Where are we going to be at?

Right now, we are on track for not a very happy energy future, I have to say, unless something changes. And of course that’s why we do our work to raise the alarm and help people to understand where we are with regard to both fossil fuel depletion and the transition to alternative energy sources. We have come to the conclusion that it’s not going to be possible to maintain the kind of economic growth that we saw during the twentieth century in the face of these twin challenges of depletion and the challenges of the transition.

So we think it’s extremely important that in addition to developing a renewable energy and all of the technology that will be required to use renewable energy for all the industrial processes, transportation, technologies and so on will be needed. In addition to all of that, we also need to find ways to use less energy. So that’s about efficiency, finding ways to get the same economic benefit with less energy used, but also its finding ways to rearrange our economy so that there’s just less energy demand altogether. And that may mean rather than depending on GDP growth from now until kingdom come, we find ways to produce more of a satisfying lifestyle, ways of increasing human happiness and satisfaction with, in fact, lower economic output and lower GDP. This is a subject that’s being explored pretty extensively in Europe. There’s pretty widespread discussion about degrowth and alternatives to GDP that we just don’t see here in the United States to the same extent.

Yeah, I love the things that are happening in that space and the Genuine Progress Indicator. Do you ever see the US getting onboard with something like that?

Well, it’s hard to imagine with the current administration. My guess is that for the United States, it’s going to take another economic shock to the system like we had in 2008 before. There’s that kind of deep thinking about our economic future. You may recall back in 2008, we were seeing outlets like Time magazine, The New York Times, CNN discussing alternatives to capitalism and the possibilities that capitalism wasn’t sustainable. The really radical questions about our economic system that in ordinary times nobody is willing to ask.

Well, I think we have to get probably to another place of a crisis before we’re going to start asking those questions again. And next time I don’t think we’re going to be able to solve the problem as easily as we did in 2008. Because the way we did it then was with massive central bank intervention with a very low interest rates and a massive injection of new money into the financial system via quantitative easing that’s already been done. Interest rates are still very low. Historically, they don’t have much lower to go and it’s unlikely that those same remedies can be applied successfully next time.

We are seeing a hopeful movement led by universities and even some corporations now that are divesting from fossil fuel companies. I’m wondering if you could give some advice maybe to sustainability professionals out there that are maybe leading sustainability at these universities or corporations and that might be thinking about embarking on this type of endeavor for their organization. How can they sell this to the higher ups? How would you make the case to a president of a large company or university on why they should divest from fossil fuels?

The first thing I would ask them to do is read our reports for the analysis that we’ve done at www.shalebubble.org. And look at the characteristics of shale gas and tight oil, the real economic prospects for these fuels. If you have an investment fund that is in shale gas or tight oil, that’s just a horrible investment on its face. Forget about the climate impacts or the environmental consequences just from a purely financial standpoint. This is a bad investment. And then add in the inevitability, at some point, of real climate legislation that would put a price on carbon. And these investments in coal, natural gas, oil are investments in stranded assets. Most of those resources are going to remain in the ground when all is said and done. And if we have sound opportunities for energy investment in the future, I would say they’re going to be almost entirely in the realm of a renewable energy sources and in the technologies to use electricity, renewably generated electricity, and the various aspects of the economy, transportation, industrial processes and so on.

The Post Carbon Institute published a book called the Community Resilience Reader. And the point is really that the efforts to stop climate change and this transition to fossil fuels hasn’t happened and we’re kind of coming up short. And now we need to confront these issues by building resiliency in the community. I’m wondering if you can speak to us a little bit about building community resiliency and what role sustainability professionals can play in that.

Well, we’re by no means the only ones to come to this conclusion that building community resilience has to be a main strategy going forward. There are lots of other analysts and organizations that are looking at likely climate impacts and the challenges to society during the twentieth century of economic challenges, demographic challenges, challenges from our energy system and so on. And they’re all saying, there is a lot coming down the road and we’re just not preparing ourselves and our governance systems at the national level. We just are not dealing with these impending crises the way that we would need to do in order to adapt and adjust in time. So that means that one way or another we will be dealing with the impacts, and those impacts will fall mostly at the local level. And we’re seeing that of course already with the last hurricane season in Puerto Rico and in Houston.

We all know the litany of climate disasters that are occurring increasingly. Again, these impacts occur mostly at the local level, and in our view, it’s at the local level where it’s easiest to build resilience for the future. Why? Because it’s easier for people at the community level to get together and talk to each other and work past the kinds of divisive, polarizing political messages that are keeping us from taking these problems seriously at the national level and doing something about them. And we’re seeing that at the national level in the US, there’s not much happening on climate right now. In fact, we’re backpedaling. The EPA is shedding its climate efforts and other government agencies and so on. But in California and Colorado and even in some parts of Florida, a very red state, we’re seeing communities working to see what the likely impacts will be and how they can not only deal with those impacts, but also how they can reduce the scale of those impacts proactively by redesigning their infrastructure and by reducing carbon emissions. I’m actually much more hopeful about building resilience at the community level than I am about national efforts to deal with climate change and some of the other impending crises.

And you being in Santa Rosa, you were in the heart of one of these climate related disasters recently. I’m wondering, what was the response in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa and the idea of building community resilience after those fires?

Well, when you’re in a disaster, everybody’s attention is suddenly focused on how can we get through this together. Neighbors start talking to neighbors and helping each other out. And that of course is exactly what we need to be doing. Building community resilience is very much about building social networks. And I don’t mean online social networks, but I mean face to face social networks within communities so that people know who to call when disaster strikes. So here in Sonoma County, I can tell you the personal story of us getting awakened at 3:00 AM by a neighbor knocking on our door and looking out the front door and seeing the whole northern horizon glowing orange with huge columns of black smoke rising up. Everybody on our block immediately getting into their cars and going to an evacuation shelter.

Fortunately we were able to come home, but there was no electricity for a week. Friends on our block were getting together. We were getting together with people we didn’t even know on our block and having dinners of food from our refrigerators. That kind of a social interaction is extremely helpful. And if we can build those networks, that relationship before the crisis, then it’s much easier to get through the crisis now. Of course, then there’s the question of how we rebuild. The natural thing is to just want to get back to normal as quickly as possible. But that’s actually not the healthiest response. I think there’s been far too much of that here in Sonoma county. What we should be asking is what do we need to do differently so that this doesn’t happen again? So that we’re better prepared when the next crisis hits. And that kind of conversation is happening. There are certainly people who are asking those questions and trying to make that conversation happen. But, if you look at the elected officials, I think they’re mostly in the camp of “how can we make it easy for people to rebuild pretty much the same houses they had?” Rebuilding them where they were in the path of future fires.

What is one piece of advice you’d give other sustainability professionals that might help them in their careers?

I don’t know if it’s a piece of advice, but I’d just say, hey you’re doing the most important work anybody is doing right now, so even if it’s tough, keep at it.

What are you most excited about right now in the world of sustainability and regenerative development?

One of the things I’m excited about is carbon farming. I think there’s a huge opportunity for us to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it back in soil, and as a result of that, we could change our whole food system for the better.

And we could reverse climate change if everybody switched over to regenerative agriculture practices. Northern California is definitely doing a lot of great work in that area. What is one book you would recommend sustainability professionals read?

Sustainability professionals are sort of keeping up with the latest literature on climate and renewable energy and so on. But I would really recommend that sustainable professionals also read some of the classics in the field going back all the way to the seventies and before. Things like Limits to Growth. If you haven’t read that book, you really owe it to yourself to study it closely.

How are we tracking those predictions from that book?

We’re very much on track. Not just the team of scientists who produced that book, but also independent groups have gone back and looked at the scenarios and the trajectories that were discussed in Limits to Growth. It’s some of the most accurate modeling that’s been done on world systems.

That’s pretty incredible. Especially, all the controversy surrounding that book when it came out. And here we are 40 years later, 50 years almost, and where we’re right on track with most of it. It’s kind of scary. What are some of your favorite resources or tools that really help you in the work that you do?

You know, there’s a great website for modeling energy and climate. It’s called Climate Interactive. And you can go there and tweak the dials yourself. There’s a tool called C Roads that’s for carbon emissions, and one called EN Roads that’s for working with an energy sources. And again, you can tweak the dials with energy and public policy and so on, and see what actually happens in terms of carbon emissions. If you do that, I think one of the things you learn is that there are no easy answers. There are a lot of tradeoffs and there’s no silver bullet.

And finally, where can our listeners go to learn more about you and your work?

There are a couple of websites I’ve mentioned for my work, Richard Heinberg.com is a good place to go. I have lots and lots of archived essays there. And then for Post Carbon Institute I would recommend our public website resilience.org. And that’s just a fantastic website to look at every morning to see news about resilience work and sustainability. Not just in the US, but also elsewhere in the world. So those are the best.