There are some days I’m not sure we humans deserve being saved from ourselves. After all, we’ve treated our planet worse than a gas station toilet and this is the ONLY place in the universe we know of that can sustain us. The mere fact that we’re even here, that we even got this far, evolving to the point that we’re capable of looking beyond our precious planet and across the galaxy, and only just beginning to appreciate how rare intelligent life is (many scientists think that there’s an evolutionary bias against intelligent life) yanks me back into thinking that, yes, we are worth saving. Plus, we really need to be here to clean up the mess we’ve made.
I’ve been writing about climate change for a year now, and every once in a while, I’m accused of being too aggressive, too confrontational, too unorthodox, or too militant. All I can say to that is, “guilty as charged.” There is so damn much at stake that if more of us don’t rise up and get really mad, we humans just aren’t going to make it to the 22nd century. Kind, decent, honest people break my heart because I can see that they’re terribly conflicted about appropriate (and polite) ways to fight climate change. Most people believe that their government is meant to protect and serve its citizens. I know that I used to believe it. I’m 51 years old and I probably felt that way up until five or six years ago. In fact, until quite recently I thought that the environmental mess we’re in was primarily the fault of the fossil fuel industry and big business. Except that I’ve increasingly read about oil and gas lease sales being offered by the government which have no bidders. And the dangerous and aggressive pursuit of capturing methane hydrates (which are being unleashed by global warming) by our own government holds little interest for the extractive industry to pursue themselves. In fact, the “usual suspects,” like the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior, are now being forced to resort to second-string players in obscure universities to do their dirty work as Big Oil won’t come out to play. There are many signs that the tail actually MAY wag the dog, making the whole situation very confusing and kind of “shape shifting.”
There are, however, a few things which remain constant and which I’m still certain of: the bad guys, whatever we call them, are playing by an entirely different set of rules than the rest of us. And, of course they even have a playbook, written down and freely accessible to the general public. I am, of course, referring to “Bad Science,” which was originally used by the tobacco industry to confuse the general public about the hazards of cigarette smoking. As many of you already know, the fossil fuel industry, and indeed even some of the very same people, have adapted that book in order to perpetuate our carbon-based economy. It’s almost too easy, or at least it should be. We know the modus operandi of the fossil fuel industry, we can totally see how they play the game, and yet, modern-day environmentalists continue to fail miserably. They are either in business with the fossil fuel industry or they naïvely assume that simply because they have real science and facts on their side, the good guys don’t have to play the same kind of dirty game to win. Which is why we’re losing.
The other thing I firmly continue to believe is that modern technology and incredible global communication capabilities can level the playing field. Never before has humanity stood at such a mind blowing precipice. Right here, right now, there are so many catastrophic tipping points looming before us, and so many incredible opportunities. If, for example, somewhere on Earth we should experience a large methane blast/eruption caused by melting permafrost (which is entirely possible), the general public, for the most part, will freak out, never having seen it coming, and drastic, horrible measures will be taken on our behalf (such as dimming the sun, a form of geoengineering) which will only further doom our species. Such blind devotion by a scared population never needs to play itself out again if people will only start to share important information, link their actions together, and empower each other.
Our corrupt leaders fully and completely understand and grasp the significance of this potential shift in authority. There are very good reasons that corrupt dictators and their families in Africa (like Isabel dos Santos) are furiously trying to buy up telecommunications companies. They see the writing on the wall, so to speak. The problem is that most people don’t understand their own power, particularly when it’s harnessed on a planetary scale which is now made entirely possible. And, as I’ve written before, a sizable portion of the world is already linked together with something they hold in their hand every day, something that contains access to basically everything ever known: smartphones.
The deck is heavily stacked against us, as I will outline below, and yet, small and perceptible positive change is peeking through. I can imagine, in my darkest hours, what is achievable for humans if we can only topple the evil lurking amongst us. But let me get back to that “stacked deck.” Sometimes it’s hard to see how things are structured wrong, or how they might be made right, especially if we have only known one “way.” Keep in mind that it was only a few hundred years ago that people believed we were surrounded by an invisible medium called “ether” which was thought to enable gravity, electromagnetism, etc. Many such fundamental misunderstandings of our world have been toppled before. We should never forget that humans are entirely capable of thinking outside the box. Unlike that mysterious ether, however, there are entirely real and discoverable forces perpetuating our global reliance on carbon-based energy which, as the saying goes, have names and addresses.
I’ve identified 7 ways the entire system is rigged against responsible environmental stewardship and steady progress towards widespread availability and implementation of renewable energy:
1) There is a long and well documented list of dirty tricks perpetrated upon an unsuspecting public by the fossil fuel industry which would make even Machiavelli’s head spin, and which are too numerous to list here. They range from the mundane (attacks on LEED green building standards) to the extreme (years of legal action against virtually every significant, and insignificant, climate scientist both here and abroad). But thanks to investigations by organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Guardian, Desmogblog, and the Energy and Policy Institute who are intent on exposing the labyrinth of funding mechanisms behind the climate change denier movement, many of their subversive tactics are increasingly becoming common knowledge.
For me, the most surprising thing about the underhanded shenanigans which are played out, 24/7, by the fossil fuel industry and its foot soldiers is just how low they’ll go…how petty and vicious they can be. For example, after ass-kissing, pleading, pandering, and badgering Pope Francis for half a year (with zero results) prior to the release of his climate change encyclical, those very same people swiftly turned on him, attacking his intent, intellect, “jurisdiction,” mental and emotional state, and authority within the Catholic Church. This low brow commedia dell arte continues to be highly entertaining to watch as it unfolds. We’re talking about the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, and other such organizations, so you have to keep in mind that their audience is almost entirely made up of right wing, religious people which makes their attacks on the Pope the ultimate tightrope walk.
2) The US government, along with the rest of the world, fully subsidizes the fossil fuel industry, artificially making the price of carbon-based energy much lower than it should be. A recent report by the IMF put the 2015 global oil subsidy at $5.3 trillion dollars, which is 6.5% of global GDP. This amount actually exceeds GLOBAL expenditures on public health, a finding the IMF called “shocking.” These multilayered subsidies translate into $14.5 billion dollars per day, OR $600 million dollars per hour, OR $10 million dollars per minute, OR $168,000 dollars per second in subsidies to the (already) wealthiest corporations and people on Earth. Adding insult to injury is the fact that many of these energy subsidies go towards finding new reserves of oil, gas, and coal, which we now know MUST be left in the ground if we’re to have any chance of long term species-wide survival.
The real kicker here is that if these subsidies ceased to exist, renewable energy wouldn’t NEED to be subsidized since it would end up being much less expensive when priced in actual terms compared to unsubsidized, market-priced carbon fuel.
3) In the case of US government-funded research and development, countless billions of dollars goes into the development of carbon fuels, from the sourcing of new wells to improved extraction methods and more secure storage methods and quicker transportation. As an example of such lunacy, you can read about a recent report the Department of Energy commissioned the RAND Corporation to write about why future employees are getting harder and harder for the fossil fuel industry to find. Numerous government-funded research institutes and departments, like NETL, ShaleNet, the Office of Fossil Energy, and the National Petroleum Council exist solely to keep the fossil fuel gravy train running as smoothly as possible. I’ve written about this many, many times. For more on this, you can use the “Search” box on this website for other Department of Energy posts.
4) The fossil fuel industries’ virtually unfettered access to any and all natural resources is coupled with minimal regulatory oversight resulting in environmental catastrophes on a global scale. Our waterways are fouled, our air is polluted, our soil is contaminated, and we’re even changing our planet’s gravity by melting Antarctica’s ice sheet. Precious and dwindling clean water reserves are used for hydraulic fracturing, making them forever toxic and unusable, while earthquakes and property damage from fracking continue unabated. Any sane public policy would hold those responsible accountable. Instead, there is a revolving door between politicians, regulators and the fossil fuel industry, and, amazingly, many regulatory bodies are often staffed by fossil fuel industry insiders. There is rarely, if ever, criminal prosecution for violations of environmental regulations regardless of how egregious the crime. In place of criminal prosecution, which would serve as a deterrent to these white-collar criminals, paltry fines are levied and often never paid, resulting in countless repeat offenders.
5) Think about this for a second: here in the United States we have the technical capability to provide energy consumers with an a la carte-style menu for how they want to purchase their energy. And yet, no one can choose freely between solar, wind, geothermal, etc., which would be based on our geography and our budgets. The fossil fuel industry, aided and abetted by the government, has a virtual monopoly on the public’s choices. Time after time, consumers indicate they would choose renewable energy over fossil fuels even if it were more expensive. Thanks to item number one in this list, such possibilities never see the light of day.
6) The fossil fuel industry, through well-paid lobbyists, law firms and think tanks, continue to have unrestricted access to policymakers, regulators, and, amazingly, even negotiations centered around fighting climate change. Thanks to lax campaign laws here in the United States, immense amounts of money are invested in elections, from the local, to the state and federal level. This money drowns out the voices of the average citizen, making us nothing more than a nuisance to politicians who feel they must maneuver around us like we’re traffic cones.
7) The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), both part of the Department of the Interior, control access to virtually every aspect of the permitting process for resource extraction, both on land and in America’s waters. Preferential treatment in permitting is a long-standing tradition here in the US. And when you look at the enormous sums of money involved, the much-needed income to the government’s coffers (billions and billions of dollars each year) from resource extraction by the oil, gas, and mining industries dwarfs anything coming in from renewables. Much like how airlines didn’t offer Wi-Fi several years ago because they didn’t know how to charge passengers for it, our government doesn’t know how to make money off the sun or the wind, which they can’t figure out how to own.
And so, we are left in the unsavory position of being held hostage, with no choices, no voices, and no real input, perceived as nothing more than a nuisance by our own government and big business.
Or are we?
I think that we, much like Schrödinger’s wily cat who is both dead and alive, are impotent and voiceless, AND simultaneously more powerful than we can even imagine. So what’s holding us back? There are many things, each identifiable and overcome-able. If I had to focus on just one thing, it would be that we who are on the side of the environment MUST start playing by the same rules as the fossil fuel industry. Hell, they’ve even given us their damn playbook, and we don’t even crack it open. How else are we at a disadvantage? 4 ways:
1) While the vanguard of the fossil fuel economy is made up of ruthless, aggressive, and highly incentivized individuals, the good guys on our side are scientists, academics, and “granola types.” I choose that last moniker not to be dismissive or insulting, but simply to illustrate my point. Scientists just aren’t wired to communicate their message in absolutes, certainties, and alarmist jargon. Moreover, their vocabulary is at odds with non-scientists. When they say “theory,” for example, the general public hears “uncertainty,” which is not at all what is intended. Other such problematic terms include significant, natural, law, organic, probable, model, and hypothesis.
I’ve watched Bill Maher (who talks about the dangers of climate change on his TV show every chance he gets) interview Dr. Michael Mann, practically begging him to sound any kind of alarm about global warming. No matter how hard Maher tried to get Mann to speak in absolutes, he just couldn’t. The flip side of this coin is that the paid climate change deniers have absolutely no qualms lying, falsifying data and screaming at the tops of their lungs in their own ”absolutes.” Indeed, THEY are all about certainties. They are certain climate change is not happening, they are certain scientists around the world are wrong, they are certain those same scientists are corrupt, and they are certain that they alone are right. They have successfully filled a vacuum (and been paid very well to do so), which the scientific community is unable or ill-equipped to deal with. This is where those of us who CAN spread the word, and squeeze ourselves into that space now occupied solely by liars and crooks like Marc Morano and Christopher Monckton must step up to the plate. We are unconstrained by the things which impede scientists from dropping down into the mud slinging. If all of you who are reading this can help communicate the important messages about climate change and what the fossil fuel industry is up to, in any way you feel comfortable, on behalf of those who cannot, we can make such a difference;
2) For the 7 reasons listed above, the people who truly care about the environment and who desperately need to have their voices heard, often find themselves on the ugly flip side of that same coin, with limited access to policymakers and regulators whose time and attention is taken by fossil fuel industry lobbyists. There’s a reason that the people I put on my Wall of Shame aren’t big names or, for the most part, aren’t famous. If you’re just a cog in a wheel that’s being oiled by the fossil fuel industry, you don’t think anyone is watching, right? I try to find THAT guy (or lady) and shame them. And it definitely gets under their skin. A little secret: as the administrator of this website, I can see which posts get read the most, how often, and sometimes, I can figure out who’s pulling them up. I’m not naming names except to say that some of those characters keep coming back to read about themselves and then they send me mean messages. Good.
3) There just isn’t any money to be made (yet) in renewable energy thanks to regulatory hurdles erected by our government, coupled with clean energy’s inability to compete financially on the current uneven playing field against the oil and gas industry who receive enormous subsidies. And, of course, because of that taxpayer money spent on R&D which focuses on increasingly aggressive access to dwindling carbon-based fuel, renewables are left to mature and develop on their own. Subsidies need to end. Now. Not gradually. Those same businessmen who want to ax Sesame Street because it doesn’t “pull it’s own weight” financially need to take a look in the mirror, because the rest of us are sick and tired of paying for their private jets.
4) No public education campaign exists to alert the people to our energy crisis, or explain energy consumption (do you understand what happens when you flip a switch in your house…how the lump of coal in the ground ends up turning on the light in your home?). How many people have even the remotest clue about their potential renewable energy options? Or the dangers of climate change? Or the perilous situation the government has put us in by continuing our reliance on carbon based energy? What to do? First, get yourself informed. You may have heard the saying, “In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.” Sign up for newsletters, have your “in box” deluged with info and then pick and choose what you can stand to dive into. Learn about whatever it is and tell someone about it. It’s that simple. If you look at this website and read the post about Angola which then led to 6 or 7 other articles I wrote related to the same subject you can see what a little information can do. I had signed up for the Open Society Newsletter and I got an article about Dodd Frank’s Section 1504…boom. It led to SO much more from there. CREDO Action is also really good, as is the Union of Concerned Scientists. The mainstream media will not cover 99% of what you can find on your own.
Lest we forget, warning citizens about undetectable dangers is one of the key responsibilities of any government. Much like a color-coded terrorist alert, our government is charged with managing actual threats which imperil our safety, both precautionary and cautionary. And if citizens don’t heed the warnings, that doesn’t mean the government is “off the hook” and not responsible for what follows. Unlike the owner putting up a sign after he’s mopped the restaurant floor so patrons don’t slip and fall, the government has absolutely no defense against future liability for past negligence. If commensurate actions aren’t taken by citizens after receiving warnings, the government must not stop trying. Inaction simply means that the warnings weren’t effective enough to change people’s behavior to what a reasonable and rational person would do if they fully grasped their predicament.
In the United States, the public remains grossly unprepared and blissfully unaware of its precarious situation. This utter failure, on the grandest scale imaginable, is being perpetrated upon the American people. Somehow the roles have been reversed, and instead of our government and elected leaders serving us, we the people have become the chattel of those who we’ve tasked to keep us safe and informed.
Angry yet? You should be, because until more of us become really pissed off, nothing will change.