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2023 – 2033, The Decisive Decade

October 2, 2023

If I could turn the page
In time then I’d rearrange
Just a day or two
Close my, close my, close my eyes

But I couldn’t find a way
So I’ll settle for one day
To believe in you
Tell me, tell me , tell me lies

— Fleetwood Mac

Something extraordinarily strange is happening, and almost no one is talking about it. In order to try and avert worst case climate scenarios in the future, a huge swath of humanity has decided to build just as much so-called renewable energy infrastructure and devices as can be managed, and just as quickly as is possible. This includes solar panels and wind turbines and electric cars, but also some means of storing intermittent energy, and lots more. Even a newfangled electric grid may be necessary, it has been said.

But to build all of this would require a massive expansion in mining, smelting, manufacturing, transporting and installing. All of this requires a lot of energy to do. And our principal energy source for all of this activity is fossil fuels. So fossil fuels will be the principal fuel enabling and powering what folks are calling “the energy transition”.

Here’s how Richard Heinberg put it in a recent article.:

Renewable energy sources require energy investment up front for construction; they pay for themselves energetically over a period of years. Therefore, a fast transition requires increased energy usage over the short term. And, in the early stages at least, most of that energy will have to come from fossil fuels, because those are the energy sources we currently have.

— from Why We Can’t Just Do It: The Truth about Our Failure to Curb Carbon Emissions – resilience

In an earlier article, Heinberg said much the same thing, but with a crucial twist.

There’s one other hurdle to addressing climate change that goes almost entirely unnoticed. Most cost estimates for the transition are in terms of money. What about the energy costs? It will take a tremendous amount of energy to mine materials; transport and transform them through industrial processes like smelting; turn them into solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, vehicles, infrastructure, and industrial machinery; install all of the above, and do this at a sufficient scale to replace our current fossil-fuel-based industrial system. In the early stages of the process, this energy will have to come mostly from fossil fuels, since they supply about 83 percent of current global energy. The result will surely be a pulse of emissions; however, as far as I know, nobody has tried to calculate its magnitude.

— from Is the Energy Transition Taking Off—or Hitting a Wall?

If you’re reading this article, odds are you know of the climate scientist Dr. Kevin Anderson. If there are rock stars among climate scientists, he’s got to be one of them. For what must be well over a decade, one of the main themes one can find in Anderson’s prolific public speaking (and YouTube videos) is the perpetual repetition of Anderson’s view that carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels must begin to decline very significantly immediately, and continue to decline significantly for the remainder of time, until there are basically no such emissions. According to Anderson, we can’t avert worst case future climate scenarios decades from now, but must reduce climate disrupting emissions immediately, and rather dramatically.

If you’re reading this article, odds are you are well aware of the fact that atmospheric carbon emissions have been steadily increasing, not declining. The graph line for fossil fuel consumption just keeps going up and up, and renewable energy (so-called) hasn’t replaced any fossil fuels, but has only added to the total world energy supply, 84% of which is fossil energy. So there really hasn’t been any progress in reducing fossil fuel consumption — and the associated greenhouse gas emissions—, despite more than three decades of talking about it.

“The result will surely be a pulse of emissions; however,

as far as I know, nobody has tried to calculate its magnitude.”

— Richard Heinberg

I believe Kevin Anderson has been (and still is) completely correct, and we must rapidly and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions—and thus fossil fuel consumption. He was right when he was saying this more than a decade ago, though we failed to change the direction on the graph line in those years. But, like Richard Heinberg, I can’t imagine any way to rapidly and dramatically expand so-called renewable energy infrastructure and devices without simultaneously, rapidly and dramatically expanding fossil energy use, and thus emissions.

Pretending (What is climate action?)

really, really don’t want to waste the next ten years, which may be the most crucial and decisive years of all of human history, collectively pretending that we can avert worst case future climate scenarios by dramatically increasing fossil fuel consumption. Can we please get honest for just a moment? Right now the authorized, official, mainstream, orthodox… answer to the question “What is climate action?” is defined by the phrase “energy transition,” which is defined by replacing fossil fuel devices, technologies and infrastructure with so-called “renewable energy”.

Pretending is sometimes a form of lying. But even when children are playing Make Believe—suspending disbelief for a while and pretending that they really are Cowboys and Indians, or that they can fly like birds, or whatever—they know they are pretending. They haven’t forgotten that they really aren’t birds who can fly.

But it seems to me that most of the adult world has forgotten that we were pretending. And there will need to be some waking up before we make matters much, much worse than they already are. That’s why this little essay has been so nauseatingly repetitive, redundant, and speaking plainly of the obvious! I’m trying to point out how entirely mad this official, orthodox Alice In Wonderland tea party really is!

”… Nobody has tried to calculate its magnitude”

We need to assemble a team of qualified people — a team of experts in various fields: math, energy tech, ecological economics, etc. — and calculate its magnitude. That seems to me a necessary step toward being able to say, definitively, that we’re barking up the wrong tree while sipping tea with the Mad Hatter. Unfortunately, our intuitions of Wonderland will not be sufficient unto itself. We have to demonstrate what we intuitively know and understand. We have to relate it to what Kevin Anderson has been saying about immediate carbon reductions. We have to build from parts which are presently but lacunae. That’s what will get folks’ attention. We need to show, not just tell, why we’re way, way off course. And then we have to show what our course must be if we’re to avert worst case future scenarios. Only after we have shown we’re off course can we reveal a better course of climate (and ecological) action.

I asked Richard Heinberg whether he was okay with my calling the “pulse” he spoke of “the Heinberg Pulse”. He said he’d like to gently discourage calling it that. So we need a good, clever, simple name which is catchy. But can we get started, folks? Please. As I said, I don’t want to waste any more time pretending.

I’m assembling a team. If you have talents and skills to offer, let’s get started. No more pussyfooting around! Let’s quantify and explain this! Let’s put an end to the lies.

James R. Martin

I'm an eco-cultural philosopher -- which is a fancy way of saying I am obsessed with trying to understand our human relationship to ecosystems and the biosphere in relation to philosophy of culture.