State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Fossil Fuels Are Dying, but They’re Not Dead Yet

We are in a generation-long transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. As sure as the auto replaced the horse and streaming video ended the VCR, the demise of fossil fuels is underway. The speed mainly depends on technological innovation, price, convenience, and reliability. Politics will influence the pace of change but not the fact of change. Nevertheless, the idea that renewable energy technology can immediately replace fossil fuels today is not true. It’s tautological: If the technology were here, we’d all be using it. As much as climate activists (and I) might like to see it, we cannot move off of fossil fuels immediately. Our world economy depends on energy to function, and if we remove it, the economy would collapse. A radical and immediate removal of fossil fuels would cause a worldwide economic depression. Children would die of starvation. Economic depression would lead to political instability, which in turn would lead to terrorism. The destructive force of terrorism would make us nostalgic for sea level rise.

Our environment, economy, and political systems are interconnected in a delicate web of relationships and interactions. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its impact on energy supplies in Europe is a real-world demonstration of those connections. Some of the protesters at COP27, at least the ones able to break through the authoritarian barriers to protest in Egypt, want the transition away from fossil fuels to happen immediately. That won’t happen and should not happen. Instead of protesting America’s most successful climate president ever, activists might move away from symbolism and turn to the hard and prosaic work of moving our economy away from fossil fuels. The Biden administration has rolled up its sleeves and gotten to work. Not only has Joe Biden budgeted several hundred billion dollars for renewable energy, but by executive order, he is requiring all federal agencies to appoint chief sustainability officers, responsible for moving the federal government away from fossil fuels. It is not politics preventing the transition to renewable energy, but the time and investment it takes to complete a technological and economic transition. My home and your home are mainly powered by fossil fuels. The transition from fossil fuels has begun, but the process will take many years to complete.

Here in New York City, we’ve begun the decades-long effort mandated by Local Law 97 to decarbonize the city’s built-environment. That will require building owners, developers, superintendents, and workers to rip out old heating, lighting, and cooling systems and put in new ones. All of this will take time and effort and requires financial investment and balancing of multiple objectives. New York City has a large and growing group of homeless and under-housed people. Reducing greenhouse gases must be balanced against the need for affordable housing. We can achieve both, but we don’t want to reduce global warming by raising the costs of housing and increasing homelessness.

The good news about decarbonization is that in the long run, a renewable resource-based energy system that is more efficient will be less expensive than the current inefficient, ancient, and polluting system. Investments in developing and implementing a new energy system will pay off financially. But the transition may require public subsidies to prevent harm to people who cannot afford the investment capital required to install new technologies. Utilities required to shift from fossil fuels to renewables may also need to be subsidized.

These are the real, on-the-ground issues of reducing global warming. This is far removed from the climate change trade show underway in Egypt. Predictions of impending doom, calls for rich states to pay developing nations for climate-induced damage, and other messages coming from the gathering have the value of keeping climate change in the media and on the political agenda. But so, too, did a November hurricane that recently moved up the east coast of the United States. I am far less interested in the symbolism of COP27 than the operational reality of Local Law 97 and Joe Biden’s (poorly named) Inflation Reduction Act. It’s relatively easy to hang banners and call for rapid change. It’s far more difficult to do the work required to build the new energy system we need.

A major issue raised at COP27 was the demand by developing nations to be compensated for the climate destruction caused by developed nations. According to the Washington Post’s Matt Viser, Timothy Puko, and Sarah Kaplan:

“Biden said he would keep fighting for Congress to approve the $11 billion he has promised to the international community. He and other Democrats also emphasized the potential emissions reductions from their climate and tax package and said they would keep pushing for more, despite the gains Republicans made in Tuesday’s midterm elections…The U.S. delegation’s main offering so far in Egypt is a new proposal from major philanthropic organizations and companies that would funnel private money to developing countries for clean-energy projects. The group hopes to lure more than $100 billion by the end of the decade, but its plan, reliant on voluntary participation from private companies, has drawn skepticism. Instead, momentum is growing behind calls for rich nations to raise money by taxing companies.”

I understand the value of raising these issues of global environmental equity, but they are far removed from political and operational reality. I assume they are articulated by diplomats for consumption at home, because all they will receive from wealthy nations are the same tepid and symbolic responses they received from Biden’s team. More important was Biden’s point that the funding America is spending to modernize its energy system will improve energy technology and cost-effectiveness in the developing world. We live on a planet of sovereign nation-states. The wealthy nations are going to take care of their own needs before they worry about anyone else’s needs. Developing nations will grow their economies and build their capacity to adapt to climate change by attracting private investment. The climate damage caused by the developed world and the costs of climate adaptation will not be paid by wealthy nations. In a world governed by self-interested nation-states, I see no mechanism that changes that result.

The urgency of our crisis of global environmental sustainability drives some people toward symbolic statements of principle, but drives me toward pragmatic, operational steps. I increasingly see these symbolic events like COP27 and all the resources expended on them as distractions from the real work of saving the planet. While I still accept the argument that they raise awareness of environmental issues and gather media attention, I am disheartened when I hear protestors shout down President Biden, who has done more on these issues than any elected leader in world history. We need to recognize and support our friends.

The transition to a renewable resource-based economy has begun, but it will be a long transition, and while it’s going on, our planet will get warmer, our ecosystems will continue to degrade, and people will suffer from this damage. None of this can be prevented. What we can do is speed up the transition and focus on the operational tasks, financial resources, and organizational capacity needed to bring about this change.

The growth of social media and the narrowcasting of the news media has monetized political conflict and polarization. Interest groups raise money from crises and conflict. Good news and progress lack drama and can’t attract “clicks” and “eyeballs.” When he ran for president in 1964, Barry Goldwater said: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” In our contemporary polarized world, I’m starting to think he was wrong. Extremism is always a vice and moderation is always a virtue. Moreover, listening to people you disagree with is necessary if we are to forge the compromises needed to ensure a world made safe for diversity. To the owners of fossil fuel businesses: You’re in a dying business. To climate activists that want to divest and shut down fossil fuel businesses: we still need the energy produced by those businesses. Fossil fuels are dying, but they are not yet dead.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Dan Pinkel
Dan Pinkel
1 year ago

This is an essential and sober article. However I don’t think the Goldwater quote helped with making the point.

Alessio F.
Alessio F.
1 year ago

A dreadful and disheartening message from this article, which is surprising, coming from a commentator who celebrates the virtues of sobriety and moderation and who usually sticks to those values.
Breakthroughs in the development of renewable energy that made it competitive wasn’t achieved by magic, but, to a large degree, through deliberate industrial policy and targeted public investment. While some activists are arguably guilty of choosing poor tactics and language to convey their protest, without public awareness, activism and participation, it’s unlikely there would have been or will be such a shift from business-as-usual, kicking-the-can-down-the-road type of policies. Political agenda depends on public opinion. Telling people to stop complaining and let the adults handle it is a terrible message, counterproductive and patronizing. Economic and technological advancements respond to people’s needs, and people protesting and manifesting their opinion is the way they are telling those in power that their needs are unmet. It’s quite misguided to believe that we live in an ideological vacuum and that politics do not matter when it comes to where we need the society’s efforts and resources to go.
Let’s also remember that while we might feel entitled to ignore pleas by developing countries most affected by (but least guilty of) environmental damage, perhaps sovereign nations should at least consider the wellbeing of those who will inherit the very same nations, only devastated and possibly unlivable. Let us really hope this is not the direction that climate policy takes for the immediate future; to solve the problem we need more democracy, more discussion and, yes, perhaps more protests, not less.

Last edited 1 year ago by Alessio F.
Kenneth Tobin
Kenneth Tobin
1 year ago

We are behind budget. We have tighter CO2 budget target and emissions keep going up.

Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change – Uppsala, Manchester and the Tyndall Centre Uppsala, Manchester and the Tyndall Centre.

James Hanson, an American adjunct
professor directing the Program on Climate Science Awareness and Solutions of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.