Alice Slater: Sustainable Energy Will Bring Peace on Earth

Alice Slater l  Left Forum   March 18, 2012    

Despite promising reports and overwhelming factual evidence that it is eminently possible to wean ourselves off of polluting and death delivering energy systems—fossil, nuclear, and industrial biomass —which are threatening planetary destruction and public health around the globe-- the common conversation about the possibilities for a safe clean energy future has been distorted in the media-- muddled by the energy corporations, peddling their toxic fuels by flooding the airwaves with false advertising and corrupting our elected leaders with hundreds of millions of dollars spent in lobbying and campaign contributions to buy their twisted votes.

One most recent example of corporate deception, are the factual distortions raised in the media about the oil industry’s efforts to mine the filthy tar sands in northern Canada and pipe in millions of gallons of the dirtiest, most carbon-laden oil clear across America, from Canada to New Orleans, adding to the catastrophic potential we are facing if we don’t rein in our use of fossil fuel. One of the most successful grassroots demonstrations brought forth thousands of activists to create a physical ring of people around the White House this fall which moved Obama to delay his decision on the pipeline until further environmental review. Nevertheless, Republicans, and some Democrats in Congress as well, are still trying to tack an amendment on to various bills to order that the pipeline be built now, falsely arguing that as many as 20,000 jobs would be created by the project. USA Today touted that number in a headline, “Obama Rejects Keystone Pipeline: Business Leaders, GOP Say Decision Kills 20,000 New Jobs.”1, despite a Cornell University Global Labor Institute finding that the pipeline would add only 500 to 1400 temporary construction jobs. 2

Numerous studies show that green energy jobs are growing faster than traditional jobs. A Pew Charitable Trust report found that between 1998 and 2007, jobs in the clean energy economy grew at a national rate of 9.1 percent while traditional jobs grew by only 3.7 percent. By 2007, more than 68,200 businesses across all 50 states and the District of Columbia accounted for more than 770,000 green energy jobs, despite a lack of sustained government support in the past decade.3 A 2011 Brookings Institute Report found that the clean-economy sector, includes 2.7 million jobs. The oil and gas industry, by contrast, has 2.4 million jobs. Its study, called "Sizing the Clean Economy," cited jobs scattered across more than 41,000 companies nationwide, not just in clean energy industries like solar and wind power, but emerging fields like greenhouse-gas reduction, environmental management, recycling, and air and water purification technologies. Smart-grid efforts directly employ nearly 16,000 people, and battery technology about the same. Conservation accounts for a big chunk, with 314,000 jobs, as does public mass transit – 350,000 jobs. Add to that wind power and solar power, with about 24,000 direct jobs each, and sustainable forestry products with 61,000.4 .

Working against the momentum to move to a green energy economy, industry has been able to influence government policy to continue to subsidize polluting fossil, nuclear, and industrial biomass industries at much higher levels than funds made available to clean safe, sun, wind, geothermal and hydropower. The International Energy Agency estimates indicate that fossil-fuel consumption subsidies worldwide amounted to $409 billion in 2010, up from $300 billion in 2009 which was six times more than the annual subsidies for biofuels, wind power and solar energy. 5 And the IEA figure doesn’t include the $50 billion a year or so which the US was giving to the Pentagon even in peace time, just to protect the sea lanes for the oil tankers plying their way across the oceans with their toxic cargoes.

This year, Obama announced an $8.3 billion subsidy to build two new nuclear reactors in Georgia—the first new ones to be built since the catastrophe at Three Mile Island,7 giving short shrift to the greatest industrial tragedy the world has ever experienced—the melt down of four nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan only one year ago. Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy and Belgium have agreed to phase out nuclear power, but the United States is in the grip of a nuclear industry, which keeps insisting that nuclear power is the answer to global warming because it doesn’t emit carbon during its operation. This is another gross industry distortion since there are fossil costs associated with the whole nuclear fuel chain—from mining, milling and processing uranium to the decommissioning at the end of the reactor’s lifetime. And a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Gift That Keeps on Giving, estimates that the nuclear industry has received hundreds of billions of dollars over the past 50 years from the US taxpayer, for every aspect of the nuclear chain, including liability insurance to cap catastrophic losses, with any additional charges to be paid by the government.8

Every 30 minutes, enough of the sun’s energy reaches the earth’s surface to meet global energy demand for an entire year. Wind can satisfy the world’s electricity needs 40 times over, and meet all global energy demands five times over. The geothermal energy stored in the top six miles of the earth’s crust contains 50,000 times the energy of the world’s known oil and gas resources. Tidal, wave and small hydropower, can also provide vast stores of energy everywhere on earth, abundant and free for every person on our planet, rich and poor alike. From water, broken down by solar or wind- powered electrolysis into hydrogen and oxygen, we can make and store hydrogen fuel in cells to be used when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. When hydrogen fuel is burned, it recombines with oxygen and produces water vapor, pure enough to drink, with no contamination added to the planet. Iceland plans to be completely sustainable by 2050, using hydrogen in its vehicles, trains, busses and ships, made from geothermal and marine energy. 9

New research and reports are affirming the possibilities for shifting the global energy paradigm. Scientific American, reported a plan in 2009 to power 100% of the planet by 2030 with only solar, wind and water renewables, calling for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations to accomplish that task. The authors assert that “the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before”, reminding us that “[d]uring World War II, the U.S retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft and other countries produced 486,000 more”. Their scenario for 2030 contemplates, in part, building 3.8 million windmills to provide 51% of the world’s energy demand which would take up less than 50 square kilometers (smaller than Manhattan). They reassure us that even though the number seems enormous, the world manufactures 73 million cars and lights trucks every year.

The authors review the policies that would need to be in place to make the energy transition, such as taxes on fossil fuels, or at least the elimination of existing subsidies for fossil and nuclear energy to level the playing field, and an intelligently expanded grid to ensure rapid deployment of clean energy sources. 10

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also issued a Report in 2010, 100% Renewable Energy which outlined a scenario for relying on sustainable energy that, unlike the Scientific American plan, included biofuels as renewable energy. The WWF Director for Global Energy Policy, Stephan Singer, took issue with another report issued this year from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

which predicted that the world could meet 80% of its energy needs from renewables by 2050. Singer cited the WWF study that looked at a scenario for going to 100% renewables by 2050. 11

The Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century(REN), released their Renewables Global Status Report in July, 2011. 12 Despite countervailing factors like the continuing economic recession, incentive cuts for implementing sustainable energy measures, and low natural-gas prices, there was much encouraging news to report for 2010:

  -  Existing solar water and space heating capacity increased by 16%
  -  Global solar photovoltaic (PV) production and markets doubled from 2009.
  -  Germany installed more PV than the entire world in 2009; PV markets in Japan and the US doubled
  -  At least 119 countries had enacted renewable national policies, compared to 55 countries in 2005
  -  Investment was $211 billion in renewables, compared to $160 billion in 2009, five times that in 2005
  -  Investments in developing countries surpassed developed nations for the first time

Yet despite these encouraging reports and facts on the ground, the corporate dominated media is still beating the drums for continued reliance on fossil, nuclear and industrial biomass fuels. It is obvious that they will do all they can to block the development of green energy because they will lose their cash cows. Once the infrastructure is in, they can’t sell the sun, or the wind or the tides the way they can peddle coal, oil, gas, uranium, and biomass.

While it is inspiring to know of the many initiatives, both private and public, that have the capacity to reorder our energy economy in a safer new millennium, there are enormous forces we must overcome. We are at a time which the eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, describes as”the great turning”. In shifting the energy paradigm we would essentially be turning away from “the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization”, foregoing a failed economic model which “ measures its performance in terms of ever-increasing corporate profits--in other words by how fast materials can be extracted from Earth and turned into consumer products, weapons, and waste.”13 Relying on the inexhaustible abundance of the sun, wind, tides, and heat of the earth for our energy needs, freely available to all, will diminish the competitive, industrial, consumer society that is threatening our planetary survival. By ending our dependence on the old structures, beginning with the compelling urgency to transform the way we meet our energy needs, we may finally be able to put an end to war as well. 

1 USA Today, 1-19-12

2 EXTRA!, March 2012, p.3

3 http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/Clean_Economy_Report_Web.pdf, 2009

4 http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/Programs/Metro/clean_economy/0713_clean_economy.pdf, 2009

5 http://www.iea.org/weo/docs/weo2011/factsheets.pdf

6 Winning the Oil Endgame Fact Sheet, Rocky Mountain Institute.

7 http://my.firedoglake.com/jest/2012/02/20/post-fukushima-obama-gives-nuclear-industry-an-8-3b-loan-guarantee-bailout- as-residents-die-of-cancer/

8 http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/nuclear_power_and_global_warming/nuclear-power-subsidies-report.html
9 See generally, A Sustainable Energy Future is Possible Now, http://www.abolition2000.org/a2000-files/sustainable-

now.pdf
10 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-path-to-sustainable-energy-by-2030
11 http://www.worldwildlife.org/climate/energy-report.html
12 http://www.ren21.net/REN21Activities/Publications/GlobalStatusReport/GSR2011/tabid/56142/Default.aspx 13 http://www.ecoliteracy.org/essays/great-turning 


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Nuclear Power is not the Answer