Kyotomotors is back! Check in Wednesdays for commentary on the age of abundance, climate change
and the dawning of the post-carbon eventuality...

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

More or Less cynical?

Having a look at the recent election numbers from another point of view, I thought I’d try a “glass half full” interpretation of our current situation. With 33% of the popular vote going to the Liberals, and another 31% going against the Conservative camp, we have almost a two thirds majority of support for at least, er, lip-service. Donning my less-cynical hat, I suppose I’ll agree that it's a step in the right direction...

The devil-in-the-details would be the expectations behind the numbers. What hopes are pinned to the Liberal plan, if not having our collective cake and eating it too? And what fantasies are projected via GND but promises of a grandiose and sweeping technological shift toward perfect balance in short order? As fantasies these narratives may keep us going psychologically, but at the end of the day, if you eat your cake, you no longer have it to behold. If we don’t vote for a GND, there’s no knowing what even a mere attempt at that kind of shift will look like.

If only someone could answer what the actual future is likely to have in store for us…
Clearly a “Green New Deal” or equivalent, is not on the books since that’s not in the Liberal’s platform. Clearly also, an approach to maintain national unity will trump all sorts of other ideals, leading to compromises that will leave regions in various states of disgruntlement, and environmentalists especially, fuming on the back-burner. If the minority government lasts four years, my call is that Canadians will continue to lead the world in carbon emissions per-capita – if not surpassed by the Americans south of the border who will also be too busy with unity politics to care very much about their emissions. Besides, they’ll be deep into the last hurrah of fracking for oil and gas – itself a huge source of carbon emissions. Will the American people turn their backs on both Trump and the Dems to vote Green? My guess is not a chance.

So, there are my predictions based on our recent (predictable) election results, and projecting similar (if not worse) results in the 2020 US elections. Will the green activist camp continue growing over that time? Let’s hope so. But the next big push may not come until after another four years of status quo, when the campaigning ramps up again.
The only other course of action remains the one area where each of us has the most control over our share of CO2 emissions, and that’s our own lifestyles. Changes on this front may not affect the lion’s share of emissions, but it may be all that actually gets done…

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Green Inaction

There you have it, people: Canada has voted, and after the urgency of climate change seemed to have captured the imagination of a nation, we have settled instead for the party of lip service. Lumping together the one third of voters apparently happy with the Liberals with another third supporting the Conservatives, brings us a total of 67.5% of the population who voted for the status quo or worse. But what do you expect from Canadians? We are, after all, the world leaders in per-capita carbon emissions. Surely with that status come a whole host of bad habits, and bad habits are usually the hardest to give up.

Our collective stance on the Climate Change issue can be summed up by the photo-op that the prime minister went after when Greta Thunberg was in Montreal. Some more shrewd observers pointed out that it amounted to the leadership of the nation protesting against itself. Indeed, the whole problem of the success of the movement is that it is not a counter-culture. Much to the contrary, the movement is such a mainstream, even corporate phenomenon, that it is perfectly natural for the leader of the country with the worst per capita emissions on record, to rub shoulders with the poster child for the “revolution”.

Thunberg may deliver a good speech, with biting criticism, but if that discourse is co-opted by leaders she would otherwise be attacking, the whole ritual of protest becomes something of a charade. It then becomes merely a mechanism by which politicians leverage power. It’s an effective device for a populace that wants to hear promises that can never be kept. The election results confirm this; or worse still: maybe people really just don’t care as much as they pretend to with their forays into “climate activism”.

For the record, I think the most effective, meaningful action would come first in the form of imposed limits on extravagance – definition of which to be discussed, but not all that hard to imagine: the wealthiest can stand to sacrifice the most without feeling anything like the pinch that already has a hold on the struggling masses around the world. Instead, what we’ll be treated to is more likely to be forms of austerity affecting the lower-middle and working classes, or worse: hand-waving, scapegoating, foot-dragging and more lip-service.

Luckily – outside of the official, political sphere, there is, and always has been a directly effective way to reduce carbon emissions, and that is on an entirely personal level, to not burn fossil fuels; to avoid doing so as much as possible, and to think twice about alternatives whenever you do… It may not seem like the answer that will save the world because it’s not, and it won’t – at least not on a dime. But this is how new habits are formed. Habits of thought are especially useful if they translate into habits of action – or if you will, habits of inaction. After all, if the carbon we release into the atmosphere is a by-product of economic activity (consumerism) we might simply need to dial some of that back. Maybe it’s a question of not booking that next flight, or of not upgrading that flat-screen TV, or simply not turning the key in that ignition. Ask yourself what else could be done instead? That’s when new habits may just emerge.

If there is a real sea-change afoot, it’s going to be a question of will, and of good will: a cultural transformation that sheds outdated habits of thought and embraces new measures of success. A combination of leading by example, making do, and doing what you can.

It’s like Miles Davis said to John Coltrane:

"Try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth."

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Did Somebody Say "De-growth"?

Surprisingly, though somewhat under the radar, the issue of something called “de-growth” came up during Canada’s recent English language debate, where a citizen asked about it in the context of ecological strain due to climate change – suggesting, I think, quite rightly, that it was an appropriate response to the problem. Unsurprisingly, even Elisabeth May’s response was all about economic “transition” intended to steer well clear of anything like economic contraction, and unlike the sound of “de-growth” hers is a palatable proposition. In other words, she’s careful to say what people want to hear.

If sacrifice is the taboo for the individual consumer in the age of abundance, “de-growth” is its equivalent in the economic and financial spheres of contemporary life. Any politician knows that to conjure either one in today’s culture of perpetual progress, is tantamount to career suicide. It’s as though growth is equated with all things good, and its opposite is therefore evil. It’s taken as a given. Non-negotiable.

The only problem is that perpetual growth on a finite planet is a physical impossibility, and this inconvenient truth is at the heart of our ineffectual responses to climate change, from Al Gore to the Paris Agreement, and (dare I say) to Greta Thunberg.

Anyone familiar with the basics of the Climate Change movement/debate, has heard about emissions targets, usually expressed in terms of percentages below annual output of a given year (1990 or 2005 are common). Our current aim is for what is referred to as the “Paris targets”, but they cannot be defined succinctly, because they will be decided upon differently by each participating country – which is fair, but it’s also a great way to ensure many players will drag their feet.

Summit after summit (we’re up to “COP25” now) we have moved the goalposts in this game of climate action, dragged our feet in ratifying, and have simply failed to meet targets. Before Paris we spoke of Copenhagen, and Cancun; before that of Rio, and originally of Kyoto – we are a quarter of a century into Climate action, and by and large the mechanisms for implementation and enforcement have been largely toothless, given that overall emissions globally have gone up year after year.

The underlying reason for that is not too difficult to explain, and it speaks to the allergy to sacrifice I’ve alluding to in recent posts. But I think it’s helpful to look at the roots of the matter from a slightly different angle, which speaks to our economic model for prosperity, and our allergy to “de-growth”, or contraction.

In our current system of creating wealth through industrial production, energy has always been the key ingredient: coal, oil, and gas leading the way. Returns on investment have always been underpinned by these historically negligible costs that bear enormous returns in terms of the ability to do work. The net effect is that growth is by definition coupled to CO2 emissions. If we start talking about cutting emissions, we are by definition speaking of cutting energy use, and therefore of bringing the notion of “de-growth” into the conversation. But in true “have our cake and eat it too” form, we have tried to insist that growth remains on the table. So long as it does, the question of climate change will remain a predicament, from which there is no real escape, and not a problem that can be solved via practicable measures.

Now of course, the extent to which some renewable sources of electricity can alter this equation is definitely part of the more sane approaches to the challenges of the near future. But having unreal expectations of growth sustained by “renewables” is not helpful. Folding de-growth into the recipe offers a whole new area in which gains can be made.

I don’t know if people can get their heads around what de-growth actually means. I’m not even sure I know what that would look like globally in twenty to fifty years. It certainly should not simply be a matter of have-nots of the world going with even less access to the amenities of modern life – although that certainly is the risk, given our track record of concentrating wealth in the hands of the few. By opting for a de-growth path, we would be entering into uncharted territory, but then again, by wading into the deep waters of climate change, we are already doing that. We may now have to choose between the lesser of two evils. Either way, one of the best things to do now, is to embrace a low carbon lifestyle and be prepared for new ways of thinking about energy. It’s a theme I aim to explore further here at Kyotomotors.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Why on Earth Sacrifice?

As alluded to previously, the tendency of ours to accept lip-service on climate change (or its more robust cousin, the collective fantasy of a utopic green state) has roots in our collective allergy to sacrifice. Sacrifice is what previous generations did. Grandparents who survived the Great Depression, did so at great cost to themselves. Immigrants worked like hell so their kids and grand-kids could have it good. During WWII, sacrifice was the order of the day in so many respects – a great many made the “ultimate sacrifice”. But since then, sacrifice has been shunned from the dominant narrative of progress that we have enjoyed in the West.

You could argue this was done in good faith, and with good reason, to the extent that we didn’t know any better. The sheer abundance achieved by post-war industrial production is astounding to be sure. [So much more so it would have been, had humans worked a little harder at spreading the wealth about more equitably – but that’s another discussion.] However, as loud as the warning bells are today, they only echo early warnings that go back almost fifty years, when the alternative economic scene was pointing out that there are necessarily limits to industrial growth on a finite planet. The main limit coming into play these days is that of the biosphere’s ability to absorb the waste we spew into the air as though it were an open sewer. And while the health of our oceans is failing – signalling an unacceptable level of saturation, it is the level of CO2 in the atmosphere that is proving to be the primary limiting factor moving forward.

Forty years ago environmentalism enjoyed its first heyday, but instead of pushing for a transition to a nascent alternative energy economy (while we still had lots of time and plenty of fossil fuels to build the necessary infrastructure), we doubled down on the oil and gas project – despite (or because of) new supply issues that emerged after the United States’ continental supply of conventional crude peaked in the early seventies. The results? Reaganomics opened up the Alaskan wilderness to oil production, the Thatcherites approved North Sea operations, and we in the West were able to pretend there were no limits for another two decades. Gradually this cheap oil culture spawned the infamous SUVs of the nineties and early 2000s. “Global Warming” was only just gaining traction in the collective consciousness.

More recently, “peak oil” (for a time, at least) came into common parlance as well. In the early 2000s it became apparent to anyone paying attention (including the Pentagon, btw) that the cheap and easy conventional oil supply was starting to wane world wide. Prices climbed and even spiked, and although few people in the political sphere broached the subject of peak oil (never mind the MSM), the economics of peak oil allowed for new, more expensive oil production to come on line. This is why Canada’s tar sands can now pretend to make economic sense, and similarly, south of the border, it’s the reason that the US has been able to double-down once again and frack their way forward: shale oil production in the last seven years has literally doubled their otherwise dwindling output, even breaking new records in annual output. Some critics try to claim this disproves the “peak oil” forecast, but in fact it only confirms it: “peak oil theory” was only ever about conventional oil – besides, new forecasts for fracked oil are not immune to the simple premise that ultimately, finite supplies of any oil will always peak and deplete – but that too is another story.

From a Climate change perspective, the additional supply of some 8 million barrels of fracked oil per day is a disaster – especially when you consider the fracking process releases copious amounts of methane directly into the atmosphere. Similarly, the tar sands operations contribute enormously to Canadians’ world leading GHG per-capita emissions. So, while “running out” of conventional oil might have seemed to promise a reduction in pollution, it turns out that we have plenty of the even dirtier stuff to tear through before supply becomes an issue. So now it becomes a matter of will. Can we choose to not burn it? To leave it in the ground…

Maybe that’s too much sacrifice for most?

On the other hand, if the huge numbers of protesters we’ve seen in the streets across the country (and around the world) represent a truly determined population of environmentally motivated activists, then perhaps we can start talking about sacrifice.

I contend that the results of this next federal election here in Canada will be a good indicator as to just how sincere, and how deep the current environmental movement actually is. Only if a majority of Canadians turn their back on the two front-runners, can we start to take ourselves seriously as a country that wants to make an ecological difference and lead by example. Any other choice means we are asking to have our cake and eat it too.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Green New Deals

If you’re a Canadian, and you’ve been satisfied with the Liberal and Conservative governments’ records on Climate Change since the Kyoto Protocol marked the beginning of the present era in 1997, you’d probably be happy to vote for one or the other party again, because it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll get more of the same: toothless policy, broken promises, mere lip-service and outright lies. If you’re not satisfied with more of the same-old, same-old, you’re maybe looking for someone else to vote for – if you’re not completely fed up with the whole system by now, and have dropped out of the simulacrum-democracy we maintain…

But I will presume that you are one of the millions who appear to be answering the latest rallying cries we are hearing from the likes of Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on the international stage, or, here at home, party leaders such as Elizabeth May or Jagmeet Singh – to name but a few. There does seem to be a growing consensus that a) the need for action is urgent, and a burgeoning belief that b) real changes are afoot. As someone who is on the record for having come to this first conclusion more than twelve years ago, I feel the need to express some skepticism about the second assertion – despite my own hopes and wishes. Twelve years ago, as I mentioned last week, there was a similar groundswell of protest against inaction regarding the very same crisis.

Here are some of my observations of that bandwagon of yore, and the trends that emerged since:

  •           People who insist that government regulate the problem away, saying that corporations and big industry have to be brought into line, often use this as an excuse to wait, and in the meantime take very action themselves
  •           People who do make and have made changes and sacrifices, see what little effect their example has on the greater community, and become discouraged, and/or cynical – sometimes ceasing to practice what they preach.
  •           Corporations use economic bribery to persuade people and governments to back down on their insistence for change.
  •           Activists and scientists have become very good at analysing the problems, criss-crossing the globe to conferences and summits, making declarations and recommendations, targets etc.; Having become experts at studying and recommending, this sub-class of bureaucrats cease to be activists.
  •           Politicians master lip-service, pass toothless laws and fail to meet targets – as mentioned at the outset.
  •           Gains made with moderate, well-intentioned attempts to increase alt-energy output have barely kept pace with global increases in energy consumption, putting no dent into fossil fuel numbers. In fact, overall emissions keep going up.
  •           Humans burn 90 million barrels of oil a day, about a quarter of which is consumed by 5% of the (affluent) population – which includes Canada

How do we ensure we don’t fall into the same patterns moving forward?

One favourite response is what has been presented as the “Green New Deal” which, in its American form, is both sweeping and progressive, and is verging on utopic: it promises to achieve a zero-carbon economy within ten years, and in doing so, provide social justice all around. Who can say no to that? (yes, some people will say no to that, but no, were not going to go there just now).

“…to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers;  (B) to create millions of good, high-wage  jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; (C) to invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century; (D) to secure for all people of the United States for generations to come— (i) clean air and water; (ii) climate and community resiliency; (iii) healthy food; (iv) access to nature; and (v) a sustainable environment; and (E) to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (referred to in this resolution as ‘‘frontline and vulnerable communities’’); (2) the goals described in subparagraphs (A) through (E) of paragraph (1) (referred to in this resolution as the ‘‘Green New Deal goals’’) should be accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization (referred to in this resolution as the ‘‘Green New Deal mobilization’’)…”

Again, I have been arguing for urgent, even drastic, sweeping measures for these past twelve years, and so, I do agree that a Green New Deal of policies is very attractive, but I have to object to the fantasies that are used to sell the program. Doesn’t a simple ten years that will usher in an ideal world not sound a little too good to be true?

Apart from wondering how a “GND” might avoid the pitfalls listed above, there are some serious questions to be asked regarding the plans’ feasibility, in energy terms. Or, as is cogently observed by Andrew Nikiforuk , the GND proponents (just like the delusional business-as-usual camp) may well be “energy-illiterate”. He makes the argument that any plan that aims to run the current, accepted “happy-motoring” techno-society on strictly green energy is dreaming wildly. I would add that it’s because we have a simple “have the cake and eat it too” mentality when it comes to our energy-intensive, consumptive lifestyle. We want to believe that all our current habits and privileges can continue unchanged on the renewable energy plan. Politics being what it is, that’s the only way we tend to sell it.

The fight against Climate change has always been faced with a conundrum: It is an abundance issue, and as we all do enjoy abundance – even if it is shared in a pathetically unequal manner – our problem at hand (CO2) is in a sense, just another aspect of exactly what we cherish and strive for. Therefore, the fight has always required some measure of sacrifice, yet sacrifice hasn’t been part of our vocabulary in the climate discussion. Probably due to the traumas of the early 20 Century, we have become allergic to the notion of sacrifice, but until we embrace it, we may only ever get lip-service on climate change …and rising temperatures.