Geoengineering: No Choice but Damocles?

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Image: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

The planet continues to warm unabated.

The level of CO2 in the atmosphere surpassed the 410 ppm (parts per million) threshold in April last year (Kahn, 2017), a level not reached in millions of years in the history of Earth (and certainly not in the history of humankind). Keeping global warming to below 2°C, the goal of the UNFCCC in 2015, is now extremely unlikely (Raftery et al., 2017), and we may already be committed to a rise in temperatures of 1.5°C (King & Henley, 2016; Mauritsen & Pincus, 2017). This means more extreme precipitation events, droughts, the drowning of island communities, agricultural areas rendered useless, and mass migration (Shankman, 2016; Shurma & Oriwg, 2017; Lederman, 2018; Goodell, 2018).

We may even be faced with an increase of 3°C or 4°C. Millions of people live in areas that would be irreversibly flooded in such a world (Holder et al., 2017), food production would “significantly drop” (Lewis, 2015), and in some cases “developed human society would no longer be sustainable” (Lynas, 2008; Lelieveld et al., 2016).

The victory of the “carbon-industrial machine” is clear, according to Stephenson (2017), and we are approaching “geophysical and social tipping points unimagined by previous generations”. 77% of global warming since the 1980s is the responsibility of only a hundred corporations, largely in the business of extracting and marketing fossil fuels, and these corporations are inextricably tied to a warming future (Aronoff, 2017).

The governments and capitalists of the world are aware of the danger approaching, and they are making preparations to maintain the current status quo of inequality. From enforcing borders and restricting the movement of migrants to establishing private militias and hideouts, preparations for climate change “are based upon and aim to reinforce a systemic logic of competition and scarcity” (Buckland, 2017).

Geoengineering, thus, is a method for capitalism to maintain its extractivist, ecocidal nature and continue business-as-usual without the need for social, political, or economic change (Preston, 2013; Hamilton, 2013). A capitalist geoengineering would slow, manage, or maybe stop climate change, but would not be able to stop itself from the “totalising biocrisis” that capitalism represents for non-human nature (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009). But what of a geoengineering that was not aligned with capitalist interests?

Solar Radiation Management

A draft United Nations report on the feasibility of Solar Radiation Management (SRM) geoengineering via aerosols identified several problems despite its attractiveness as a “cheap fix” [for more on the fallacy of seeking simple techno-solutions to complex problems see Weinberg (1967) and Harvey (2003)]. SRM in the report was described as “economically, socially and institutionally infeasible” based on issues of testing, responsibility, and the lack of scientific study (Doyle, 2018a). This is corroborated by the revised position of the American Geophysical Union, who stressed that the scientific understanding of geoengineering and its impacts “remains poor” (Landau, 2018; see also Dunne, 2018).

The report also warns of the danger of the “termination effect”. This is one of the greatest dangers of SRM:

“All the models suggest that if, say, you were geoengineering from now into 2100, and then suddenly stopped in 2100 … you would get all of the global warming accumulated in the business as usual model, in about five years,” Haywood says. This rebound, known as the “termination effect,” means that if humans want to use any geoengineering scheme based on reflection (those that use aerosols or reflective surfaces), we would also have to dramatically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the amount of emissions we produce.” (Geib, 2018)

Essentially, if the world governments together initiated a program of SRM to reduce global temperatures, it might be too dangerous to stop – we’d effectively be locked into a program of anthropogenic temperature regulation (Trisos et al., 2018). If anything interrupted this regular injection of aerosols into the atmosphere, such as a war or natural disaster, it would produce what the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute call a “double catastrophe scenario”, where

“it could precipitate a runaway greenhouse effect that turns Earth into an uninhabitable hellish cauldron like our planetary neighbor Venus … once a stratospheric geoengineering program has been established by anyone, anywhere, it must not be interrupted for any reason, especially not abruptly. But one or more interruptions cannot be ruled out, hence the existential danger.” (Torres, 2017)

There is however scientific literature that claims concerns regarding the termination have been “significantly overestimated” and that the idea of a being locked into geoengineering “is not accurate” (Parker & Irvine, 2018). This proves the point of the AGU that the science and impacts behind SRM are incomplete.

Other studies have found that SRM, combined with cloud modification, could recover “average” levels of temperature and precipitation, but regional differences would persist (Cao et al., 2017; Irvine et al., 2017). Who has the authority to decide which countries or populations win or lose in such a scenario? Such decision making would fall to the de-facto rulers, the wealthiest of the global North, where such authority would be used to entrench the interests of capital over people.

Other methods of SRM by altering the albedo of the earth via cloud modification or orbital sunshades produce mixed results. “Sunshade geoengineering” would improve global crop yields compared to a world of global warming according to Pongratz et al. (2012) but they admit there are unknown side effects and risks, and that “the most certain way to reduce climate risks to global food security is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.” Likewise Parkes et al. (2015) find that “marine sky brightening” could improve agricultural yields and reduce crop failures in areas of the world, but “further work is required” regarding other agricultural impacts. Such geoengineering methods do nothing to prevent other environmental catastrophes such as ocean acidification (Williamson & Turley, 2012), nor does it address the global economy’s disastrous reliance on fossil fuels (Lim, 2018; Klein, 2016).

However, in a perverse state of affairs, our limited “geoengineering” of unintentional aerosol release due to industrial activity has been masking the true warming associated with rising greenhouse gas emissions for some time. Removing these aerosols from the atmosphere as part of efforts to reduce pollution and clean the air (especially in urban centres) would

“induce a global mean surface heating of 0.5–1.1°C, and precipitation increase of 2.0–4.6%. Extreme weather indices also increase.” (Samset et al., 2018)

Cleaning up our air would therefore produce a miniature termination effect, triggering increased temperature, rain, and extreme weather events as the cooling effect of aerosol pollution diminishes and our suppressed climate impacts rush up to meet us. Do we have no choice but to maintain an aerosol shield lest dangerous warming already occur? Or are there alternative geoengineering options?

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR)

The direct removal of carbon dioxide, the most abundant of greenhouse gases emitted by industrial and agricultural activity, is the other geoengineering option.

The simplest and most obvious method is afforestation, or “carbon farming” (Biggers, 2015; Velasquez-Manoff, 2018). Plantations of fast-growing woody plants at the world’s dry coastal areas (Becker et al., 2013) and sequestering carbon as “biochar” (Lehmann, 2007; Matovic, 2011; Smith, 2016) are both proven methods of removing carbon dioxide that do not require fundamental scientific advancements, only scaling-up. This is a promising opportunity, especially with its agricultural benefits that could do much to reverse the desolation of the world’s soils (Laird, 2008; Tan et al., 2017), as well as to mitigate the troubling decline of forest carbon sinks globally (McSweeney, 2015; Nave et al., 2018).

However, there are limits. To be effective, land-based CDR would have to be scaled-up to a massive level. The “land requirements could be immense, affecting global food prices and food security” (Pasztor et al., 2017), and the water and other resource requirements would also be unsustainable (Heck et al., 2018). In saving one planetary boundary (Rockström et al. 2009), we could threaten others in the process (Harvey, 2018). In such a case “global mean temperature would no longer be a reasonable measure of the level of danger posed by climate change” (Irvine et al., 2017).

The “Atlas for the End of the World” is more direct:

“In short, as this century unfolds there will not be enough land to utilize forestry as the single mechanism for carbon sequestration.” (Weller et al., 2017)

carbon forest

Carbon Forest. Credit: Weller et al., 2017

As a result, it’s important to remember that “any sort of geo-engineering is not a substitute for emissions reductions” (Meyer, 2018).

One form of CDR that does not compete for land use involves stimulating blooms of phytoplankton in the ocean, often with iron nutrients (hence the term “iron fertilisation”) in order to increase photosynthesis rates and thus increase carbon dioxide drawdown (probablyasocialecologist, 2016). While promising, and potentially less problematic and more predictable then pumping aerosols in the atmosphere, there are still unknowns. Phytoplankton fertilisation on a large scale can release large quantities of dimethyl sulfide, increasing albedo and further cooling the earth alongside removing carbon dioxide, but at the cost of precipitation decreases across Europe, Africa, and parts of the Middle East (Grandey & Wang, 2015), or potential oceanic deadzones once the phytoplankton die (Geib, 2018). The use of algae plantations, which do not cause competition for agricultural land or freshwater resources, is another promising form of oceanic carbon capture that seems to avoid these issues (Sayre, 2010; Beal et al., 2018).

What of replacing the biologies of chlorophyll with machines? Already start-up businesses exist that are attempting to “decarbonise” the capitalist economy by extracting carbon dioxide from the air and subsequently utilising the gas for agriculture (Marshall, 2017) or hydrocarbon production (Vidal, 2018). Although promising these methods are in their early infancy – scaling them up will cost trillions (Temple, 2017). It’s no wonder that plutocrats like Bill Gates support such geoengineering approaches given their technocratic nature and the relative ease such technics can integrate into the world economy with minimum disruption (Malm, 2015).

An (Un)Natural Climate

In his latest work the philosopher Timothy Morton warns of the irreversibility of geoengineering, reminding us that it “affects the whole of the biosphere” and that there is no way to completely undo its unpredictable effects (Morton, 2018).

But what is climate change if not an (unintentional) geoengineering experiment let loose upon the biosphere? The trouble is not that we have modified nature – something that we cannot help but do as part of our existence on Earth (Li, 2009; Millar & Mitchell, 2015) – but that nature has been modified as part of a class project in pursuit of wealth, resource extraction, and cheap nature (Moore, 2016).

Anthropogenically-induced climate change is virtually indistinguishable from geoengineering – the only difference is intention, and speed. For over 10,000 years (Boivin et al, 2016) we have lived on a “cyborg planet” with “cyborg weather” (Wark, 2016). Popular conceptions of “pristine” nature and a human/nature dichotomy have attempted to mask this (Bookchin, 1995; Denevan, 2011), but we cannot “abandon” nature now – we have, as Frase (2016) explains,

“no choice but to become ever more involved in consciously changing nature. We have no choice but to love the monster we have made, lest it turn on us and destroy us.”

If geoengineering is unnatural, then so is climate change. The question is not whether we should intervene in biosphere (a moot point, since we already are) but to what extent, and what motivates us to do so, and how careful we are.

The problem of resolving the biocrisis in its climatic form is Herculean and cannot be underestimated. As Collings (2014) said:

“If we do manage to rise to this challenge, we will have accomplished a feat virtually unique in human history. If we do not, our failure will be understandable, even if it will make us uniquely horrific. Either way, our generation will be the only of its kind in the history of the species. No wonder this moment feels so strange.”

We will have to sacrifice the childish notions of a pristine, natural Earth despoiled by a homogenous humanity (Bookchin, 2005) if we have a hope of preventing the biocrisis.

No Choice?

Geoengineering our climate has been likened to the Sword of Damocles hanging over the collective head of humanity (Appell, 2012), and this analogy is far from imperfect. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to “net zero” by 2090 at the latest according to the IPCC (Vidal, 2018).

UN simulations are themselves predicated upon negative emissions technology to reach emission reduction targets:

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its Fifth Assessment Report, presented more than 100 modeled scenarios that it said had a high likelihood of keeping global temperatures within 2 degrees Celsius of preindustrial levels. Nearly all of them assumed that negative emissions technology would be viable and widely used” (Harvey, 2018)

But what if we – a hypothetical, united, sustainable humanity – needed to geoengineer?

Not all geoengineering technics are made equal – as described above there is a world of difference between the technocratic, centralising propensities of SRM and the decentralised, “natural” methods of CDR.

Some climate simulations in fact suggest global biodiversity would suffer more from unchecked climate change than from a purposefully geoengineered climate (Trisos et al., 2018). A climate scientist from Stanford University emphasised that geoengineering is “the only known way to cause the planet to start cooling off within socially-relevant timescales” (Geib, 2018). The fossil fuels emitted by previous generations “weighs like a nightmare” on the lives of the living, to paraphrase Marx (Marx, 1852) – and time is running out (Malm, 2016). At the rate at which the capitalist economy is despoiling the biosphere (Carr & Gilblom, 2018) geoengineering may be the only method of preventing runaway climate change (Keith et al., 2017). As Bookchin (2005) warned,

“If we do not intervene in the world today for purposes of ecological restoration…neither we nor the wildlife we wish to conserve is likely to have any future at all. We have gone beyond a so-called “primeval” world, to a point where the possibility of returning to it is simply excluded.”

Although we may be forced to use intentional geoengineering it has to be noted that geoengineering is not an alternative to emissions reductions (Doyle, 2018a; Meyer, 2018; McSweeney, 2018; Keith et al., 2017). Kim Stanley Robinson sums it up well: “The most powerful geoengineering technology for reducing our carbon burn would be a rapid shift to social justice and an end to capitalism” (Canavan et al., 2010). What we need is a new, anti-capitalist economic model that allows us to pursue and implement energy and climate policies that benefit us all, not the needs of the wealthy few (Evans, 2018; Doyle, 2018b).

We have always intervened with non-human nature for our benefit. If we have to intentionally geoengineer, let it be as part of an anti-capitalist praxis that recognises the social construction of nature, the necessity of intervention to protect non-human nature from the previous ravages of capitalism, and that climate modification is but one tool in a plethora of mitigation and adaptation options in pursuit of a free, just, sustainable future.

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Weller, R. J., Hoch, C., Huang, C. (2017). Carbon Forest http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com/datascapes/carbon_forest.html. Accessed 10th March 2018.

Williamson, P., Turley, C. (2012). Ocean acidification in a geoengineering context. Philos Trans A Math Phys Eng Sci 370 (1974), 4317-4342.

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Hope Before the Ruins

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Occupy Sandy

To paraphrase the anarchist revolutionary Buenaventura Durruti, we are not afraid of ruins because we know how to build a better world.

We have the technological capacity to abolish a fossil fuel powered global infrastructure and switch to renewable energy. Wind, water, and solar energy can “reliably supply the world’s needs” (Jacobson & Delucchi, 2009). We already have the “fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how” to solve the climate crisis (Pacala & Socolow, 2004). Even under the global capitalist framework “market trends” are driving “new renewable energy deployment” (Anderson, 2017) and “investors” are increasingly divesting funds from fossil fuel developments (Johnston, 2016). We even have appropriate forms of geoengineering we can use to slow down and stabilise the biosphere while we put our global oikos in order (Lehmann, 2007; Becker et al., 2013; Biggers, 2015).

So what is stopping us?

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Photo by Evergreen Energy Solutions

As Roberts (2017) warns “political and social barriers will do more to slow that growth than any technical limitation.” Clear leadership is needed to ensure clean technologies are promoted rather than the technologies of the entrenched fossil fuel industries (Jacobson & Delucchi, 2009). But this leadership must come from below, not above:

“The historical record shows very clearly that deep, enduring changes in energy industries require the mobilization of mass social movements. We cannot simply wait for visionary politicians to forge the way.” (Podobnik, 2010)

These social and political barriers will need overcoming if we are to ever properly confront the Biocrisis. Although we have the technology for a 100% renewable global system, the changes needed are monumental – “We can’t slap on a carbon tax and call it a day. We have to remake the world, and we have to talk about it” (Battistoni, 2012). To quote Chaudhary (2016), we must address the fact that “the crisis is not now, the crisis has already been for some time”. If we don’t, we risk facing a future with “the same winners, the similar losers, the crimes, the human degradation”.

A society powered by clean and renewable energy “is a necessity for a sustainable and equitable society, but not a guarantee of one” (McBay, 2011). But we do have an innate capacity for cooperation rather than competition, a capacity that is not encouraged in today’s capitalist society (Cott, 1980; Schwartzman, 2015; Taylor, 2016). Our future society will have to be modelled on values above and beyond commodification and profit if we are to survive. It will focus on democratic management of resources to prevent pollution and waste (Löwy, 2007), an “economically rational” society with needs guided by ecological standards (Bookchin, 1991). Whether we like it or not, we will have to transition to a situation where we accept and live within biophysical limits (Levy, 2012). As for green growth, it is a dangerous oxymoron if there ever was one.

Surviving and repairing the damage of the Biocrisis will

“require more ability to improvise together, stronger societies, more confidence in each other. It will require a world in which we are each other’s wealth and have each other’s trust.” (Solnit, 2009)

We should take hope in the rebellions already taking place. The story of the US National Park Service going “rogue”, at least on social media, presents a model of subversion within traditional institutions (Jacobin, 2017). Calls for the global science community to involve itself in protest and “rebellion” against climate change continue to mount (Klein, 2013; Johnston, 2017), a promising development in an otherwise detached and aloof institution. People everywhere are “turning to mutual aid, collectivity, cooperatives, communalist ventures and the commons for an alternative” to the status quo (Curl, 2016). A growing “climate insurgency” aims to use “activities the authorities claim to be illegal” in order to “create an irresistible momentum of escalating popular action for climate protection” (Brecher, 2017). Indeed, for multitudes of people across the world, these struggles are far from over – their resistance is just beginning (Bosworth, 2016).

From joining Blockadia to supporting divestment campaigns to standing in solidarity with refugees, there are many ways to fight climate chaos in the immediate future (Out of the Woods 2015; 2016). But to fully address and solve the host of problems that constitute the Biocrisis we will have to “raise long-range, transformative demands that the dominant economic and political systems may prove unable to accommodate” (Tokar, 2014).

Despite our optimism, it may well be that the transnational actors that control the global economy and enforce the world’s borders may be unwilling to adapt to or accommodate our demands for a better world. They may prefer to necrotise the entire planet (McBrien, 2016) rather than change their ways – after all, “one might more easily persuade a green plant to desist from photosynthesis than to ask the bourgeois economy to desist from capital accumulation” (Bookchin, 1980). We may inherit a world of irreversibly damaged ecosystems and little energy resources left to build our dreams (Keefer, 2009).

But as Gastón Gordillo and Andreas Malm agree, rubble is a gateway to the future. Malm (2017) prepares us for the fact that “we must accept that loss is a major predicament of our time”, but this loss, as Gordillo (2014) notes, represented by the rubble of the old world – a world of divisiveness, cruelty, and injustice – is “an invitation to remake the world differently”. A world of fairness, ecological balance, justice, and hope. A world where each contributes according to their ability, and each receives according to their need. Let us scoop the rubble into our hands and join together as “heroes in an army of construction” (Keller, 1916) to build our better world.

References

Anderson, A. (2017). The Fate of the Clean Power Plan under President Trump http://blog.ucsusa.org/angela-anderson/the-fate-of-the-clean-power-plan-under-president-trump Accessed 27th April 2017.

Battistoni, A. (2012). The Flood Next Time https://www.jacobinmag.com/2012/12/the-flood-next-time/ Accessed 27th April 2017.

Becker, K., Wulfmeyer, V., Berger, T., Gebel, J., Münch, W. (2013). Carbon farming in hot, dry coastal areas: an option for climate change mitigation. Earth System Dynamics 4, 237-251.

Biggers, J. (2015). Iowa’s Climate-Change Wisdom https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/21/opinion/iowas-climate-change-wisdom.html Accessed 2nd May 2017.

Bookchin, M. (1980). Toward an Ecological Society. Black Rose Books, Montreal.

Bookchin, M. (1991). Libertarian Municipalism: An Overview https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-libertarian-municipalism-an-overview.html Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Bosworth, K. (2016). Voices Against the Pipeline — “Five Lessons from Pipeline Struggles” http://nobakken.com/2016/09/05/voices-against-the-pipeline-five-lessons-from-pipeline-struggles-by-kai-bosworth/ Accessed 7th May 2017.

Brecher, J. (2017). A climate insurgency: building a Trump-free, fossil-free future http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2988898/a_climate_insurgency_building_a_trumpfree_fossilfree_future.html Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Chaudhary, A. S. (2016). The Supermanagerial Reich https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-supermanagerial-reich/ Accessed 27th April 2017.

Cott, J. (1980). The Cosmos: An Interview With Carl Sagan http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/the-cosmos-19801225 Accessed 1st May 2017.

Curl, J. (2016). Reclaiming the American Commons https://roarmag.org/magazine/reclaiming-the-american-commons/ Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Gordillo, G. R. (2014). Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Duke University Press, Durham.

Hudson, A. D. (2015). On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk https://medium.com/solarpunks/on-the-political-dimensions-of-solarpunk-c5a7b4bf8df4 Accessed 2nd May 2017.

Jacobin (2017). The National Park Service Goes Rogue https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/donald-trump-bureaucracy-national-park-service-smokey-bear/ Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Jacobson, M. Z., Delucchi, M. A. (2009). A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030. Scientific American 301 (5), 58-65.

Johnston, I. (2016). The people providing hope in a post-Trump world of climate denial https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change-global-warming-donald-trump-divestment-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels-google-bill-a7471926.html Accessed 27th April 2017.

Johnston, I. (2017). World-leading climate change scientist calls for ‘rebellion’ against Donald Trump https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-climate-change-rebellion-michael-mann-global-warming-scientists-a7556696.html Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Keefer, T. (2009). Fossil Fuels, Capitalism, And Class Struggle. The Commoner 13, 15-21.

Keller, H. (1916). Strike Against War http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/helenstrike.html Accessed 23rd May 2017.

Klein, N. (2013). Naomi Klein: How science is telling us all to revolt http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/science-says-revolt Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Lehmann, J. (2007). A handful of carbon. Nature 447, 143-144.

Levy, G. (2012). Natural limits, sustainability and socialism https://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/article-store/the-trouble-with-economic-growth/natural-limits-sustainability-and-socialism/ Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Löwy, M. (2007). Eco-Socialism and Democratic Planning. Socialist Register 43, 1-16.

Malm, A. The Walls of the Tank: On Palestinian Resistance http://salvage.zone/in-print/the-walls-of-the-tank-on-palestinian-resistance/ Accessed 23rd May 2017.

McBay, A. (2011). A Taxonomy of Action. In: McBay, A., Keith, L., Jensen, D. eds. Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet. Seven Stories Press, New York, 239-276.

McBrien, J. (2016). Accumulating Extinction: Planetary Catastrophism in the Necrocene. In Moore, J. ed. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. PM Press, San Francisco, 116-137.

Out of the Woods (2015). 6 Ways to Fight Climate Chaos http://novaramedia.com/2015/05/30/6-ways-to-fight-climate-chaos/ Accessed 15th May 2017.

Out of the Woods (2016). Infrastructure against borders https://libcom.org/blog/infrastructure-against-borders-06122016 Accessed 15th May 2017.

Pacala, S., Socolow, R. (2004). Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. Science 305 (5686), 986-972.

Podobnik, B. (2010). Building the Clean Energy Movement: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective. In: Abramsky, K.. ed. Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-petrol World. AK Press, Oakland, 72-80.

Roberts, D. (2017). Is 100% renewable energy realistic? Here’s what we know http://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/4/7/15159034/100-renewable-energy-studies Accessed 27th April 2017.

Schwartzman, D. (2015). From Climate Crisis to Solar Communism https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/12/cop-21-paris-climate-change-global-warming-fossil-fuels/ Accessed 1st May 2017.

Solnit, R. (2009). A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Viking Press, New York.

Taylor, S. (2016). How Natural is War to Human Beings? https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201609/how-natural-is-war-human-beings Accessed 2nd May 2017.

Tokar, B. (2014). Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change (2nd edition). New Compass Press, Porsgrunn.

Donald Trump, and the Slow Violence of Climate Change

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Credit: National Wildlife Federation

While Donald Trump embraces the modern equivalent of playing the fiddle while Rome burns, the world is hurtling towards the Biocrisis.

In catastrophic times (Stengers, 2015) like these, apocalyptic scenarios have become the norm. We only have four years until our “carbon budget” is blown – according to McSweeney and Pearce (2016):

“Four years of current emissions would be enough to blow what’s left of the carbon budget for a good chance of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5C.”

1.5C being the target of the COP21 Paris climate conference that aims to “significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” (Pearce, 2016; King & Henley, 2016) and thus avoid the threat of “runaway” climate change. Global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak within the decade before precipitously dropping for this target to ever be reached (Walsh et al., 2017).

Meanwhile the Antarctic ice shelves continue to crack and fragment (Mooney, 2017), potentially accelerating sea level rise, and a “massive global permafrost melt” is underway that will release huge amounts of carbon dioxide that were previously buried in the frozen soil (Knight, 2017; Kokelj et al., 2017).

As climate change accelerates the Trump administration embraces the largest driver of this death spiral – fossil fuels – by repealing climate change legislation and planting an ExxonMobil CEO as Secretary of State (Lavelle, 2017; Stokes & Bowman, 2017; Meyer, 2017). Trump will make “America Safe through Energy Independence” by decimating public lands with accelerated fossil fuel extraction (Streater, 2017).

Like a ghastly cannibal cult, in the words of Carl Sagan (1997), “we subsist on the dead bodies of our ancestors and distant relatives”.

While the greenhouse gas levels rise, so will the seas – and so will the number of refugees seeking safety and stable climates (Out of the Woods, 2016). Climate change will displace millions and “reshape” the coastal geography of countries (Hays, 2017; Hauer, 2017), a fact now admitted by conservative policymakers and security experts (although such concerns focus on the dangers of terrorism and the loss of coastal military bases) (Milman, 2016; Nett & Rüttinger, 2016; Goodman, 2017). Indeed the first ever grant for climate refugees was issued in the USA just last year, allocating $48 million for the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana in what is “the first allocation of federal tax dollars to move an entire community of climate refugees” (Hunziker, 2016).

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Scientists look down at a river of meltwater flowing from southern Greenland. Photo by Justine Evans/Alamy Stock Photo

As communities are forcibly relocated by the harsh realities of climate change, so too will others have their land stolen from them – except not by slow disaster, but by pipeline construction and fossil fuel extraction. Construction of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline was restarted by Trump recently (Brown, 2017), a week after a pipeline owned by pipeline equity co-owner Enbridge ruptured, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil in Texas (Horn, 2017). Sunoco, another player in the construction of the pipeline, has had hundreds of leaks (Hampton, 2016). The sheer number of pipeline spills, leaks, and failures in the USA is grotesquely astounding – thousands of incidents in the last thirty years, resulting in hundreds of deaths and billions in damages (Joseph, 2016).

Resistance and acts of sabotage against the Dakota Access pipeline continue to hamper its ability to reliably transport oil (Sexton, 2017; Nicholson & Karnowski, 2017).

Despite these struggles, pipelines are continuously being built in order to “unleash rich reserves of shale gas” so that the USA may “become one of the world’s top natural gas exporters” (DiSavino, 2017), despite problems concerning accurate shale gas reserve estimates and over hyped production forecasts (Rogers, 2013; Hughes, 2013). It is important to note at the forefront of these struggles, and those most affected by them, are indigenous populations (in the USA and the rest of the world), who still face an enduring legacy of colonialism and violence (Hall, 2017; Out of the Woods, 2017).

A Picture and Its Story: Documenting Standing Rock

“Water protectors” demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

It is the poorest and most vulnerable who, just as under capitalism, will suffer the most with climate change. As Malm and Hornborg (2014) write,

“…witness Katrina in black and white neighborhoods of New Orleans, or Sandy in Haiti and Manhattan, or sea level rise in Bangladesh and the Netherlands, or practically any other impact, direct or indirect, of climate change. For the foreseeable future – indeed, as long as there are human societies on Earth – there will be lifeboats for the rich and privileged. If climate change represents a form of apocalypse, it is not universal, but uneven and combined.”

Similarly Stengers (2015) writes of “the possibility of a New Orleans on a global scale” where the wealthy survive and the fate of the poor is left uncertain – “but as for the others…”. Just because all humans share one planet and one atmosphere does not mean we are in this together (Purdy, 2016). To believe so depoliticises climate change – the apocalyptic imaginations so frequent in the headlines today “foreclose a proper political framing” by presenting global warming as a “humanitarian cause” that “is not articulated with specific political programs or socio-ecological project or revolutions” (Swyngedouw, 2010).

As the wealthy get wealthier, carbon emissions grow (Jorgenson et al., 2017). An average US citizen “emits more than 500 citizens of Ethiopia, Chad, Afghanistan, Mali, or Burundi” (Malm, 2015). A wealthy individual’s carbon emissions may be ten times higher than a poorer person (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). But this is the exact economic and social class of people who, as Davis (2008) warns, are capable “of creating green and gated oases of permanent affluence on an otherwise stricken planet” as the rest of us suffer.

The world’s poorest countries have contributed less than 1% of the greenhouse gases that endanger our stable climate system (Steffen et al., 2011). So we should call climate change what it truly is – violence, genocide against the poor, and inaction equals annihilation (Solnit, 2014; Klare, 2017). Where can we draw our tales of resistance and hope to guide us into the future?

(As this is written the 410 ppm threshold for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels has been reached, the first time since millions of years ago (Kahn, 2017). We are in the Biocrisis, inundated in it. The Biocrisis is the Anthropocene.)

References

Brown, A. (2017). As Construction Near Standing Rock Restarts, Pipeline Fights Flare Across the U.S. https://theintercept.com/2017/02/19/as-construction-near-standing-rock-restarts-pipeline-fights-flare-across-the-u-s/ Accessed 19th April 2017.

Davis, M. (2008). Living on the Ice Shelf http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174949 Accessed 23rd April 2017.

DiSavino, S. (2017). RPT-ANALYSIS-New U.S. pipelines to drive natural gas boom as exports surge http://uk.reuters.com/article/usa-lng-pipelines-idUKL1N1HK1DT Accessed 20th April 2017.

Goodman, S. (2017). Climate change is a clear and present danger to US security http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/energy-environment/318950-climate-change-is-a-clear-and-present-danger-to-us Accessed 17th April 2017.

Hall, A. (2017). Colonialism, climate change and the need to defund DAPL https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/amy-hall/colonialism-climate-change-and-need-to-defund-dapl Accessed 20th April 2017.

Hampton, L. (2016). Sunoco, behind protested Dakota pipeline, tops U.S. crude spill charts http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-pipeline-nativeamericans-safety-i-idUSKCN11T1UW Accessed 20th April 2017.

Hauer, M. E. (2017). Migration induced by sea-level rise could reshape the US population landscape. Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate3271.

Hays, B. (2017). Sea level rise to trigger human migration, reshape inland cities http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2017/04/17/Sea-level-rise-to-trigger-human-migration-reshape-inland-cities/9471492453676/ Accessed 17th April 2017.

Horn, S. (2017). Dakota Access Pipeline Approved a Week After Co-Owner’s Pipeline Spilled 600,000 Gallons of Oil in Texas https://www.desmogblog.com/2017/02/09/dakota-access-pipeline-approved-enbridge-spill-texas Accessed 20th April 2017.

Hughes, J. D. (2013). Energy: A reality check on the shale revolution. Nature 494, 307-308.

Hunziker, R. (2016). The Political Era of Climate Refugees http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/10/28/the-political-era-of-climate-refugees/ Accessed 19th April 2017.

Jorgenson, A., Schor, J., Huang, X. (2017). Income Inequality and Carbon Emissions in the United States: A State-level Analysis, 1997–2012. Ecological Economics 134, 40-48.

Joseph, G. (2016). 30 Years of Oil and Gas Pipeline Accidents, Mapped https://www.citylab.com/environment/2016/11/30-years-of-pipeline-accidents-mapped/509066/ Accessed 25th April 2016.

Kahn, B. (2017). We Just Breached the 410 PPM Threshold for CO2 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/we-just-breached-the-410-ppm-threshold-for-co2/ Accessed 24th April 2017.

King, A., Henley, B. (2016). We have almost certainly blown the 1.5-degree global warming target https://theconversation.com/we-have-almost-certainly-blown-the-1-5-degree-global-warming-target-63720 Accessed 19th April 2017.

Klare, M. T. (2017). Climate Change As Genocide: Inaction Equals Annihilation http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/climate-change-as-genocide-inaction-equals-annihilation_us_58f8c4a3e4b0cb086d7eaf4e Accessed 20th April 2017.

Knight, N. (2017). Study Shows Massive Global Permafrost Melt Underway While Trump Mentions Climate Not Once https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/03/01/study-shows-massive-global-permafrost-melt-underway-while-trump-mentions-climate-not Accessed 17th April 2017.

Kokelj, S. V., Lantz, T. C., Tunnicliffe, J., Segal, R., Lacelle, D. (2017). Climate-driven thaw of permafrost preserved glacial landscapes, northwestern Canada. Geology, G38626.1.

Lavelle, M. (2017). Trump’s Executive Order: More Fossil Fuels, Regardless of Climate Change https://insideclimatenews.org/news/28032017/trump-executive-order-climate-change-paris-climate-agreement-clean-power-plan-pruitt Accessed 17th April 2017.

Malm, A. (2015). The Anthropocene Myth https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/03/anthropocene-capitalism-climate-change/ Accessed 24th April 2017.

Malm, A., Hornborg, A. (2014). The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative. The Anthropocene Review 1 (1), 62–69.

McSweeney, R. Pearce, R. (2016). Analysis: Only five years left before 1.5C carbon budget is blown https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-only-five-years-left-before-one-point-five-c-budget-is-blown Accessed 17th April 2017.

Meyer, R. (2017). Rex Tillerson Says Climate Change Is Real, but … https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/rex-tillerson-climate-change/512843/ Accessed 17th April 2017.

Milman, O. (2016). Military experts say climate change poses ‘significant risk’ to security https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/14/military-experts-climate-change-significant-security-risk Accessed 17th April 2017.

Mooney, C. (2017). The huge crack in this Antarctic ice shelf just grew by another 6 miles https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/01/19/enormous-antarctic-ice-shelf-rift-grows-by-another-6-miles/ Accessed 17th April 2017.

Nett, K., Rüttinger, L. (2016). Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate https://uploads.guim.co.uk/2017/04/20/CD_Report_Insurgency_170419_(1).pdf Accessed 25th April 2017.

Nicholson, B., Karnowski, S. (2017). Reported Dakota Access Pipeline Vandalism Exposes Risk of Sabotage http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/midwest/2017/03/23/445462.htm Accessed 19th April 2017.

Out of the Woods (2016). Refuges and death-worlds https://libcom.org/blog/refuges-death-worlds-25112016 Accessed 17th April 2017.

Out of the Woods (2017). Lies of the land: against and beyond Paul Kingsnorth’s völkisch environmentalism https://libcom.org/blog/lies-land-against-beyond-paul-kingsnorth%E2%80%99s-v%C3%B6lkisch-environmentalism-31032017 Accessed 20th April 2017.

Pearce, F. (2016). What Would a Global Warming Increase of 1.5 Degrees Be Like? https://e360.yale.edu/features/what_would_a_global_warming_increase_15_degree_be_like Accessed 19th April 2017.

Purdy, J. (2016). What I Had Lost Was a Country https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/what-i-had-lost-was-a-country/ Accessed 20th April 2017.

Rogers, D. (2013). Shale and Wall Street: Was the Decline in Natural Gas Prices Orchestrated? http://shalebubble.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/SWS-report-FINAL.pdf Accessed 20th April 2017.

Sagan, C. (1997). Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Random House, Inc., New York.

Sexton, J. (2017). Dakota Access Pipeline sabotaged in two states http://hotair.com/archives/2017/03/22/dakota-access-pipeline-sabotaged-in-two-states/ Accessed 19th April 2017.

Solnit, R. (2014). Call climate change what it is: violence https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/07/climate-change-violence-occupy-earth Accessed 20th April 2017.

Steffen, W., Persson, A., Deutsch, L., Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Richardson, K., Crumley, C., Crutzen, P., Folke, C., Gordon, L., Molina, M., Ramanathan, V., Rockström, J., Scheffer, M., Schellnhuber, H. J., Svedin, U. (2011). The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship. Ambio 40 (7), 739-761.

Stengers, I. (2015). In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Translated from French by Goffey, A. Open Humanities Press, Paris.

Stokes, E., Bowman, T. (2017).  Trump’s Pro-Coal Orders Are Doomed to Fail http://time.com/4709796/trump-epa-climate-fossil-fuels/ Accessed 17th April 2017.

Streater, S. (2017). BLM ‘priority’ list pushes drilling, wall — leaked docs https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060052879 Accessed 17th April 2017.

Swyngedouw, E. (2010). Apocalypse Forever? Post-political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change. Theory, Culture & Society 27 (2-3), 213-232.

Walsh, B., Ciais, P., Janssens, I. A., Peñuelas, J., Riahi, K., Rydzak, F., van Vuuren, D. P., Obersteiner, M. (2017). Pathways for balancing CO2 emissions and sinks. Nature Communications 8, doi:10.1038/ncomms14856.

Wilkinson, R., Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. Bloomsbury Press, New York.

Trump and the EPA

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Donald Trump is now President, an unpalatable fact but unfortunately a reality we must learn to live with. Over the next few posts we will analyse what his presidency might mean for the environment, and the changes that have already come to pass in the few months since he has come to power. Among environmentalists Trump is known as a climate change denier and a person with scant regard for the ecosystem services provided by a healthy environment so it will certainly be interesting to look into. It won’t all be doom and gloom as we will also address ways we can all be hopeful and fight the changes he has enacted.

First up, the EPA:

What is the EPA?

For those living outside the US, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is an agency of the US government created with the aim of protecting human health and the environment. It writes and enforces regulations according to laws passed by Congress, and conducts environmental assessments, research and education.

Who is now in charge?

Scott Pruitt, a climate change doubter, who in the past has actually sued the EPA several times when he was Attorney General for Oklahoma, an oil-producing state.  Since coming to power Trump has already ordered the EPA to remove all references to climate change from the site, so it’s clear he has appointed a like-minded person in Pruitt. Despite Pruitt being confirmed by the US Senate, there has been resistance from former EPA staff, concerned that he has no interest in upholding environmental laws. Prior to Pruitt’s confirmation, senator Cory Booker had stated: “If you look at this individual, Scott Pruitt, if you look at his track record, you will see that his actual work has undermined the mission of the agency that he is now nominated to lead“, so the Republicans were aware of these concerns. 

The appointment of Scott Pruitt will also be closely followed by those in South Florida. Miami Beach is experiencing increased flooding in its streets at spring tides due to sea level rise and this will only get worse if no action is take to curb carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. California will also be keeping a close eye considering their struggle with drought and water shortages.

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Scott Pruitt

Can the EPA just ignore climate change?

Well, it’s not that the EPA is ignoring climate change. I am sure the EPA is full of scientists who just want to get on with their work, but are being forced into silence by the Trump administration. As former EPA scientists stated: “Reasoned action and acknowledgment of scientific truth are fundamental to democracy, public health, and economic growth. Scientific evidence does not change when the administration changes.” However, the results of EPA studies must now all undergo political review before the information can be passed to the press. Politics should never interfere with the distribution of scientific findings and fact. The public face of the EPA can deny climate change as much as they want, but that doesn’t stop it from existing. It DOES exist and we need to do something about it. Even FOX news network, a normal ally and favourite of Donald Trump roasted Scott Pruitt in an interview over his beliefs.

Budget Cuts

Republican congressman, Matt Gaetz has recently released text of a proposed bill to abolish the EPA. Luckily, nothing seems to have come of that, but Trump has since released his budget proposals and it’s not good news for the EPA. The proposal would see the EPA have its funding cut by almost a third and roughly one in five EPA employees would lose their jobs. Funding reductions would mean the cancellation of all climate change research and even a reduction in the air and water quality work they do. In addition, the Clean Power Plan, along with 50 plus other initiatives would be scrapped.

Clean Power Plan

The Clean Power Plan was one of the best things, at least in my mind, to come out of the Obama administration: a plan to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. As one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, the USA needs a plan like this to get on track with tackling climate change.  However, all Trump wants to do is increase jobs by bringing coal plants back on line and increase the use of oil and gas.  In a recent speech he continually talked about “clean coal”, a contradiction if ever I heard one. Even industry leaders in the fossil fuel sector believe that coal has had its day. There is a grain of hope as the proposal does still have to pass Congress, but that is controlled by Republicans so I am not sure how much resistance it will receive.

Clean Water

Trump is currently asking the EPA and Army Corp of Engineers to review the Waters of the US rule, which expanded the authority of regulators over waterways and wetlands. The rule is disputed by landowners and developers who think it has been too overreaching in its powers, but I think it is very sensible. It helps prevent people polluting drinking water and draining wetlands, effectively saving the environment in cases where development or farming methods are too intensive or not suitable to the land. In the UK we have a similar thing called the Environment Agency which has helped clean up our waterways immensely in conjunction with the relevant local water authorities and councils. It issues fines where rules have been flouted but I don’t see why the US think that is an overreaching power. If a regulation has been broken, there should be some penalty in place to discourage further flouting of the law. I think it’s clear from this that the Trump administration are more concerned about putting people in work than having clean air and water.

Conclusion

Overall, it’s clear that big changes are afoot for the EPA and the USA as a whole. It will take a while to see what the impact of the Trump administration is going to be, but initial signs indicate less protection for environmental resources, and a move away from curbing climate change to increased use of fossil fuels. Among all this doubt though there is certainly resistance. Most recently the Natonal Resources Defence Council and Pesticide Action Network have filed a case against the EPA over its move to ignore the results of a scientific study stating the pesticide chlorpyrifos has links to brain damage. I wish them the best of luck in taking on the EPA and am sure this will be the first of many challenges against the EPA if they continue on in this way.

 

 

 

 

 

Donald Trump and the Environment

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Source: Huffington Post

 

So, it’s election day in the US and the world is waiting to see who will be their next president: Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton. In this article focus on Donald Trump  and what he has (or hasn’t) said regarding the environment if he ends up in office. Sources for all the information are listed at the end.

Denial of Climate Change

Firstly, Trump doesn’t outline any environmental policy on the issues section of his campaign site. To my mind this indicates he doesn’t think the environment is a worthwhile issue and there is information to back up this theory; he denies climate change. It is well known that back in 2012 he tweeted “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He hasn’t deleted this tweet, so presumably he still believes this. In fact, if he were to be elected he would be the only leader of a country to deny climate change. Trump has also stated that he would remove the US from the Paris agreement which, as outlined on the European Commission’s website, is “the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal”. This deal is ever more important than the Kyoto agreement and would be a devastating blow for the planet if the US left.

Abolishment of the EPA

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) would be abolished under a Trump presidency. To put this into perspective this is the equivalent of the UK doing away with the Environment Agency. Trump believes the EPA has created too much red tape over the years limiting the ability of companies to operate. I admit that no environmental agency is perfect, but the red tape is usually there for good reason: to protect the environment from humans and their activities. The strange thing is, whilst he wishes to destroy the EPA, he wants to improve water and air quality, aims that are surely at odds with one another. At an oil conference in Bismarck, North Dakota he states:  “My priorities are simple: clean air and clean water.” He hasn’t deemed to outline how he aims to do that without the EPA, and I don’t think I need to point out the irony of him making this statement at an oil industry conference. He has also been accused of using the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, for self promotion and not out of real concern for the residents. 

Energy Policy

Trump supported the Keystone XL pipeline before it was rejected by Obama due to climate change concerns, and it has now emerged he owns stocks in two fossil fuel companies involved in the Dakota Access pipeline. One of his energy advisers is an oil billionaire and CEO of the largest US fracking company, Harold Hamm. It should therefore come as no surprise that he wishes to increase oil and gas production and he recently stated “We’re going to save the coal industry”.  This all sounds rather worrying in an age where we should be moving to renewables, but there have been warning signs that he isn’t a fan of renewable energy. For example, has been waging a battle for some years now against the proposed building of an offshore windfarm near his Aberdeenshire golf course. 

Trump has also stated he would relax the Clean Power Plan, which includes stricter fuel efficiency standards for vehicles in the US. How would he prioritise making the air cleaner whilst at the same time allowing vehicles to be more polluting?

Other Environmental Issues

Trump has proposed a wall is built along the entire Mexican/US border. Whilst the aim of this idea is clearly to prevent illegal immigration I don’t think anyone has considered the environmental impact this would have. Animals don’t keep to borders. Birds can fly over a wall, but what are others to do? Tunnels could be put in the wall for them to move through however that is no substitute for the freedom of populations to roam. Any species that is already low in numbers could be split in two, reducing the gene pool further and making extinction more likely. I imagine cougars and desert bighorn sheep wouldn’t be able to have tunnels built, as they would be large enough for humans to fit through, and therefore render the wall pointless.

Conclusion

Whether it be the denial of climate change, proposed abolition of the EPA or his energy policy it is clear that Donald Trump has scant regard for the environment. It can be hard to cover everything in one post, but I hope this at least makes you aware of the basics. I for one don’t think he is fit to be in charge of a country, but it is up to each of you to make up your minds. If you are an American citizen I hope you have gone out and voted, and remember, only if you vote do you have the right to criticise the outcome.

P.S. There was meant to be an article on Hilary Clinton to portray a balanced view on both of the Democratic and Republican candidates. Unfortunately, we have run out of time, but hope to bring you that one at a later date regardless of the outcome of the election.

Sources

https://www.donaldjtrump.com/issues/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/09/27/trump-didnt-delete-his-tweet-calling-global-warming-a-chinese-hoax/

http://www.dailydot.com/layer8/trump-vs-clinton-environmental-issues/

http://www.ecowatch.com/voter-guide-climate-change-2012756804.html

https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/international/negotiations/paris/index_en.htm

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/14/donald-trump-flint-visit-water-plant-tour

http://www.vox.com/2016/5/26/11788374/donald-trump-energy-speech

http://www.ecowatch.com/donald-trump-dakota-access-pipeline-2040029544.html

https://www.epa.gov/cleanpowerplan/clean-power-plan-existing-power-plants

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/22/trump-resumes-fight-against-windfarm-near-his-golf-course

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-37200583

Part 2: Hinkley Point C – Alternatives to Nuclear Ideology

paneles solares

Image: Jose Juan Castellano

As we saw in the last post plans for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C, Somerset have been beset by troubles. This next post aims to detail further problems with a nuclear strategy for the UK, and highlight the alternatives to achieve a genuine low-carbon energy sector.

The Problems

Hinkley Point C (henceforth just Hinkley) is simply another example of the current UK government engaging with projects not for economic or environmental concerns, but for ideological reasons. For example, “taxpayers could end up paying more than £30bn through a range of subsidies” in order to support the new power station because it is not profitable by itself (Business Leader, 2016). Advisors in DECC (when it existed) also had links to EDF, which could explain the preferential treatment given to nuclear energy (Clarke, 2016) despite the fact that the current set price for electricity generated from the power station offered by the UK government is double average wholesale electricity prices (Elmes, 2016), representing another loss for the average UK citizen. As if that wasn’t enough,

“The predicted cost of Hinkley Point C has steadily risen from £14bn to £24.5bn and has steadily risen from earlier estimates of £16bn. The complexity of the project is enormous, due to what is believed to be by many to be an over-engineered design. There are also reported issues regarding the manufacture of the reactor pressure vessel for the EPR [European Pressurised Reactor] associated with anomalies in the composition of the steel.” (Freer, 2015)

These defects – enormously dangerous in a nuclear power station – are down to the French nuclear firm Areva, responsible for leading the construction of Hinkley, misreporting or failing to report key information in their quality control documents. As a result Hinkley – and other nuclear power plants around the world – may be using components that would be unable to “withstand sudden breakdown in certain conditions” (Boren, 2016).

On the bright side, we won’t have to worry about these manufacturing errors causing problems in the immediate future. Due to ongoing delays “Hinkley C is unlikely to produce electricity much before 2030” (Carrington, 2016a). By the time it is online it is likely to face ongoing problems due to extreme weather events caused by climate change (if global warming hasn’t been mitigated appropriately by then). Nuclear power stations are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather as these events

“could disrupt the functioning of critical equipment and processes that are indispensable to safe operation including reactor vessels, cooling equipment, control instruments and back-up generators.” (World Energy Council, 2014)

So at the moment we are looking forward to a nuclear power station billions over budget, not scaled to be completed until 2025 (Farrell, 2016), and subsequently vulnerable to storm damage and rising sea levels.

On top of this the justification that Hinkley will provide the UK with “baseload”power that is “vital to the UK” (EDF, 2016) is a myth. The importance of the new power station “has been repeatedly overplayed” (Gosden, 2016) and “the idea of large power stations [nuclear or not] for baseload is outdated” (Beckman, 2015). Practical experience, such as the German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Schleswig-Holstein running on 100% renewable energy, and a host of studies and computer simulations of electricity markets and supply-demand systems prove that monolithic power stations providing baseload power are not required (Diesendorf, 2016). Other studies have shown that closing down nuclear power stations and transitioning to renewable energy provides a host of environmental and economic benefits without jeopardising energy security (Phys.org, 2012; Gawel & Strunz, 2014).

Additionally, any employment supported by the construction of Hinkley will be temporary and filled by overseas workers, and less than a thousand jobs will be “created” for day-to-day operations (Fairlie, 2016). Jobs in the renewable energy sector far outweigh nuclear jobs. It is no surprise then that public support for Hinkley is very low (Chrisafis, 2016; Pagnamenta, 2016). There are even internal disputes within the board of EDF, with worker representatives filing “a challenge to overturn the company’s controversial decision to build the nuclear reactors” due to essential information about the power station not being shared with all board members (Chrisafis, 2016).

So we have seen that nuclear energy would be problematic for UK, and if Hinkley Point C were allowed to develop it would be a tacit endorsement for further nuclear development regardless of its practicality. So what are the alternatives?

The Solutions

The current situation seems dire. At the moment “the percentage of energy Britain now has to import has returned to the levels last seen in the early 1970s, before North Sea oil came on stream” (Elliott, 2016). This is a fear that the nuclear industry has exploited in order to appear as a solution. But as Elliott continues, “the cost of renewables are coming down all the time”. To develop a practical, secure energy supply requires the UK “to move away from large Hinkley-type projects” (Business Leader, 2016). This is not only an environmentally safer option but more economically secure – the thinktank Intergenerational Foundation found that “Britain would pay up to £40bn less for renewable alternatives that would generate the equivalent power to Hinkley over the plant’s planned lifetime” (Vaughan, 2016a). For the UK to pursue nuclear energy when “the world is finally producing renewable energy at an industrial scale” and with global installations of renewable energy projects surpassing “100,000 megawatts of capacity” in 2014 seems ludicrous (Steiner, 2015). As The Economist (2016) reports,

“Since Hinkley became a serious proposal less than a decade ago, the cost of nuclear power has increased, that of renewables has fallen and the price of battery storage—which could one day disrupt the entire power system—has plummeted. What is more, EDF’s nuclear technology has failed to get off the ground in the two projects in Finland and France that have sought to use it.”

So what are our options? Let us assess the evidence.

Wind

The world’s largest offshore windfarm was recently approved by the UK government, set to be constructed 100km off the Yorkshire coast (Anthony, 2016). It will provide power to almost two million homes when completed. As more of these windfarms are constructed (there are currently thirty offshore windfarms in UK territory) the energy generated will steadily become more reliable – as den Rooijen (2016) explains, “if the wind doesn’t blow in one [area], the wind blows in another, and the net effect is that the combined power output is less variable”. He continues

“At present, we have 2,200 wind turbines in operation and under construction, taking up less than 1% of our total seabed. National Grid estimates that nearly half of all power could be generated from our seabed by 2030 through offshore wind, combined with tidal power lagoons and strong electrical connections to our neighbouring countries.”

With 5GW (gigawatts) of offshore wind energy and 9GW of onshore wind currently online with new projects constantly in the pipeline (e.g. Hornsea Projects 1, 2, and 3) the 3.2GW that Hinkley will provide seems insignificant by comparison (Macalister, 2016a).

At the moment offshore windfarms are already being built at cheaper prices than Hinkley, and will meet 10% of the UK’s electricity demand by 2020 (Sauven, 2016; Macalister, 2016b) while Hinkley will only produce 7% when it is finally built in 2025 (ignoring delays common with the reactor design – see Stacey & Burgis, 2016). Looking to land, the UK government’s own calculations predict that “onshore wind power and large-scale solar [will] cost less per megawatt hour than new nuclear by 2025” (Vaughan, 2016b). Renewables will also be cheaper to build – the Intergenerational Foundation found that onshore wind power would be £31.2 billion cheaper than Hinkley whilst producing the same amount of energy over a thirty-five year period (Simms, 2016).

In reality the UK has exploited less than 1% of its offshore wind energy potential – a total of 675GW is economically feasible, which is more than six times the UK’s current electricity demand (Cavazzi & Dutton, 2016). The potential for wind energy alone dwarfs UK nuclear power.

Solar

Solar power is similar to wind power – it is cheap, efficient, and a far better alternative to nuclear projects like Hinkley. By 2025, large-scale solar is expected to cost between £50 and £75 per megawatt hour, according to the UK government’s energy department, whereas nuclear power is expected to cost “around £85-125/MWh, in line with the guaranteed price of £92.50/MWh that the government has offered Hinkley’s developer, EDF” (Vaughan, 2016b). The Intergenerational Foundation’s report consolidates the cheapness of solar compared to nuclear, citing evidence that solar power in the UK would be £40 billion cheaper compared to Hinkley over the thirty-five year contract period (Simms, 2016).

Solar power is now 50% cheaper than it was in 2011, and “more than 800,000 homes now have rooftop solar” (Sauven, 2016) proving its effectiveness. Solar power recently beat coal power in the UK for the first time some months ago, generating “1,273 gigawatt hours of power” in May, beating the 778 gigawatt hours generated by coal (Evans, 2016), showcasing its ability to outclass fossil fuels in power generation.

Looking past simple economic comparisons, solar power arrays can also enhance biodiversity as they take up only a small percentage of the land and often allow insect species “to thrive” compared to arable land (Solarcentury, 2014). A more recent study found that “solar farms can lead to an increase in the diversity and abundance of broad leaved plants, grasses, butterflies, bumblebees and birds” (Montag et al., 2016). Solar power on agricultural land is also a possibility – a 2013 study published in Agricultural and Forest Meteorology found that crops under a “half-density” array of solar panels “were just as productive as the ones in the unshaded control plots; in a few cases, they were even more productive”and that “shading irrigated vegetable crops with PVPs [photovoltaic panels] allowed a saving of 14 percent to 29 percent of evapotranspired water, depending on the level of shade created and the crop grown” (Marrou et al., 2013). Solar power is thus an effective energy delivery strategy without having to sacrifice grassland or arable land, compared to the large footprint required of nuclear power stations like Hinkley.

Other Possibilities

Solar and wind power are not the only alternatives to Hinkley available to us – there is a miscellany of other technologies available. Wave energy devices, for example, placed in the “most economic areas” around the UK’s coast could generate up to 10GW, which equates to “11% of the UK’s current power generation” (Carbon Trust, 2012).

Instead of producing additional power, increased energy efficiency measures in the UK would make projects like Hinkley obsolete. Improving efficiency could, according to various authors, reduce electricity demand by the equivalent of four to six Hinkley power stations (DECC, 2012; Blackman, 2016) and save billions of pounds a year. As Damian Carrington (2016b) writes,

“Energy efficiency could deliver six Hinkley’s worth of electricity by 2030, interconnector cables to Norway, Denmark and France could add another two or three Hinkleys to the grid by 2025 and four Hinkleys’ worth of electricity could be saved by 2030 by increasing the ability to store electricity and making the grid smarter, with the latter alone saving bill payers £8bn a year.”

These trends in efficiency, smart grids, and better energy storage won’t go away – “the National Grid predicts that in some scenarios by 2020, small-scale and distributed generation will represent a third of total capacity in the UK” (Sauven, 2016).  This is simply proof that the age of megaprojects like Hinkley is over – the UK needs to focus on connecting “consumption as well as supply and think more decentralised than central” (Elmes, 2016).

Is it Possible?

These technics are far from implausible – many of them rely on technology that exists today and trends that are already occurring. If Hinkley Point C is cancelled (and it should be) additional renewable energy projects can “plug significant gaps in capacity very quickly – much more quickly than long lead time and significantly delayed new nuclear” (Caldecott, 2016). The recent analysis from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit using “ultra-conservative” estimates and considering “only mature technologies” succinctly surmised that “Hinkley is not essential” (ECIU, 2016), contrary to the assertions of the EDF chief executive (de Rivaz, 2016).

As Gawel and Strunz (2014) wrote in their case study of Germany’s nuclear phase-out, it is less about technology and more about providing a “a long-term transition perspective and a stable political consensus” that will encourage the development of renewable energy and not so-called “low-carbon” energy sources like nuclear or gas. This social and political shift will readily yield “measurable economic and environmental benefits” (Phys.org, 2012).

Many studies and analyses looking at the possibility of a long-term, global shift to renewable energy have found that it is plausible and easily achievable. EDF’s claim that we shouldn’t “hope that a new technology will meet all our needs” is unfounded and false – we don’t need “new” technologies because existing ones are more than enough (de Rivaz, 2016). Such claims muddy the waters when it comes to discussing a sustainable future and betray the wants of large energy corporations like EDF who are threatened by the coming wave of renewable and decentralised energy technologies. In fact, pursuing the idea of nuclear power as part of the UK’s energy strategy would be harmful to genuine renewable energy uptake – a study by the University of Sussex found that countries like the UK who are “nuclear-committed” and plan to replace old nuclear power plants with newer models are slower to adopt renewable energy and reduce the carbon intensity of energy generation (Lawrence et al., 2016; Cuff, 2016). The study identified that

“progress in both carbon emissions reduction and in adoption of renewables appears to be inversely related to the strength of continuing nuclear commitments.”

Thus any and all assertions that nuclear power should be a component of the UK’s energy strategy are detrimental in the long-term.

Jacobson and Delucchi (2010) in a peer-reviewed study found that instituting a global infrastructure based on wind, water, and solar energy could not only meet the world’s energy needs but reduce “world power demand by 30%”. In a growing trend, they emphasise that “barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic”. Schwartzman and Schwartzman’s (2011) similar study, published via the Institute for Policy Research & Development, found that a global transition to (only) wind and solar power could

“occur in two or three decades and requires very little fossil fuel (on the order of one half of a year’s present global consumption) and no revolutionary technological innovations.”

As far back as 2004 one peer-reviewed study identified that “humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century” (Pacala and Socolow, 2004).

Importantly though, we cannot wait for these energy trends to unfold by themselves. Many political and economic actors will work and lobby to ensure that energy systems in the UK remain centralised and based on scarce supplies of fossil fuels, the better to control energy distribution in a country gripped by the worst inequality in decades (Williams-Grut, 2015; Reuben, 2015). But as Podobnik (2010) warned

“The historical record shows very clearly that deep, enduring changes in energy industries require the mobilization of mass social movements. We cannot simply wait for visionary politicians to forge the way.”

A mass social movement in the UK calling for fair, equitable, renewable energy generation (e.g. plasmatelly, 2014) is thus required to not only break the trend of monolithic, centralised energy projects being built, but also to protect and defend the environment from the biocrisis (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009). Projects like Hinkley Point C must be opposed whenever they emerge. Any form of society that hopes to survive in the coming decades can and must be powered by renewable energy.

References

Anthony, S. (2016). World’s largest offshore windfarm in Yorkshire approved by UK government. http://arstechnica.co.uk/science/2016/08/world-largest-windfarm-hornsea-two-uk/ Accessed 22/08/16

Beckman, K. (2015). Steve Holliday, CEO National Grid: “The idea of large power stations for baseload is outdated”. http://www.energypost.eu/interview-steve-holliday-ceo-national-grid-idea-large-power-stations-baseload-power-outdated/ Accessed 21/08/16

Blackman, J. (2016). The role for energy storage as an alternative to Hinkley Point C. http://www.energy-storage.news/analysis/the-role-for-energy-storage-as-an-alternative-to-hinkley-point-c Accessed 27/08/16

Boren, Z. D. (2016). Hinkley builder admits defective parts may be found in nuclear plants around the world. https://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2016/06/18/flamanville-defective-parts-around-the-world/ Accessed 21/08/16

Business Leader (2016). Security is not the only reason to cancel Hinkley. There are many others. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/aug/14/hinkley-point-security-not-only-reason-to-cancel-many-others Accessed 20/08/16

Caldecott, B. (2016). Keeping the lights on: security of supply after coal. http://www.brightblue.org.uk/images/lightson.pdf Accessed 27/08/16

Carbon Trust (2012). Revealed: the UK’s wave power hot spots. https://www.carbontrust.com/about-us/press/2012/10/revealed-the-uks-wave-power-hot-spots/ Accessed 27/08/16.

Carrington, D. (2016a). Five ways to power the UK that are far better than Hinkley Point. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2016/mar/18/five-ways-to-power-the-uk-that-are-far-better-than-hinkley-point Accessed 21/08/16

Carrington, D. (2016b). Hinkley’s nuclear plant fails all tests – bar the politics. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2016/jul/28/hinkley-point-c-nuclear-plant-fails-all-tests-bar-the-politics Accessed 27/08/16.

Cavazzi, S., Dutton, A. G. (2016). An Offshore Wind Energy Geographic Information System (OWE-GIS) for assessment of the UK’s offshore wind energy potential. Renewable Energy 87 (1), 212-228.

Chrisafis, A. (2016). EDF representatives file legal challenge in France over Hinkley Point. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/31/edf-representatives-file-legal-challenge-in-france-over-hinkley-point Accessed 01/09/16

Clarke, J. S. (2016). Hinkley C: government’s ‘revolving door’ to EDF execs. http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_round_up/2988011/hinkley_c_governments_revolving_door_to_edf_execs.html Accessed 21/08/16

Cuff, M. (2016). Study: Countries that support nuclear energy lag on climate targets. http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2468561/study-countries-that-support-nuclear-energy-lag-on-climate-targets Accessed 28/08/16

DECC [Department of Energy and Climate Change] (2012). Capturing the full electricity efficiency potential of the UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/capturing-the-full-electricity-efficiency-potential-of-the-uk–2 Accessed 27/08/16.

Diesendorf, M. (2016). Dispelling the nuclear ‘baseload’ myth: nothing renewables can’t do better! http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2987376/dispelling_the_nuclear_baseload_myth_nothing_renewables_cant_do_better.html Accessed 21/08/16

ECIU [Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit] (2016). Hinkley: What If? Can the UK solve its energy trilemma without Hinkley Point C? http://eciu.net/reports/2016/hinkley-what-if-can-the-uk-solve-its-energy-trilemma-without-hinkley-point-c Accessed 28/08/16

EDF (2016). Why Hinkley Point C is vital to the UK. https://www.edfenergy.com/energy/nuclear-new-build-projects/hinkley-point-c/why_we_need_HPC Accessed 21/08/16

Elliott, L. (2016). UK green energy sector needs nurturing over nuclear. https://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2016/aug/15/uk-green-energy-sector-needs-nurturing-hinkley-point-nuclear Accessed 22/08/16

Elmes, D. (2016). As Hinkley Point C put on ice: the UK needs to get over energy megaprojects. https://theconversation.com/as-hinkley-point-c-put-on-ice-the-uk-needs-to-get-over-energy-megaprojects-63166 Accessed 21/08/16

Evans, S. (2016). Analysis: Solar beats coal over a whole month in UK for first time. http://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-solar-beats-coal-over-a-whole-month-in-uk-for-first-time Accessed 27/08/16

Fairlie, I. (2016). If it’s jobs they want, Labour and the unions must back renewables, not Hinkley C! http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2988060/if_its_jobs_they_want_labour_and_the_unions_must_back_renewables_not_hinkley_c.html Accessed 01/09/16

Farrell, S. (2016). Hinkley Point C: what you need to know about the nuclear power project. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/07/hinkley-point-c-what-you-need-to-know-nuclear-power-station Accessed 21/08/16

Freer, M. (2015). Simpler, smaller, cheaper? Alternatives to Britain’s new nuclear power plant. https://theconversation.com/simpler-smaller-cheaper-alternatives-to-britains-new-nuclear-power-plant-48071 Accessed 21/08/16

Gawel, E., Strunz, S. (2014). Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power is fundamentally sensible from an economic perspective. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/10/27/germanys-decision-to-phase-out-nuclear-power-is-fundamentally-sensible-from-an-economic-perspective/ Accessed 22/08/16

Gosden, E. (2016). Hinkley Point not necessary to keep the lights on, says SSE chief. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/08/16/hinkley-point-not-necessary-to-keep-the-lights-on-says-sse-chief/ Accessed 21/08/16

Institute for Experimental Freedom (2009). Introduction to the Apocalypse. https://www.indybay.org/uploads/2009/12/02/apocalypse_read.pdf Accessed 28/08/16

Jacobson, M. Z. & Delucchi, M. A. (2010). Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power. Energy Policy 39 (3), 1154–1169.

Lawrence, A., Sovacool, B., Stirling, A. (2016). Nuclear energy and path dependence in Europe’s ‘Energy union’: coherence or continued divergence? Climate Policy 16 (5).

Macalister, T. (2016a). Hinkley Point C is not only new energy option, says windfarm developer. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/aug/04/windfarms-hinckley-point-plant-henrik-paulsen-dong Accessed 23/08/16

Macalister, T. (2016b). Crown estate wades into Hinkley Point nuclear debate. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/14/crown-estate-hinkley-point-nuclear-debate Accessed 22/08/16

Marrou, H., Guilioni, L., Dufour, L., Dupraz, C., Wery, J. (2013). Microclimate under agrivoltaic systems: Is crop growth rate affected in the partial shade of solar panels? Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 177, 117-132.

Montag, H., Parker, G., Clarkson, T. (2016). The Effects of Solar Farms on Local Biodiversity: A Comparative Study. http://www.solar-trade.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/The-effects-of-solar-farms-on-local-biodiversity-study.pdf Accessed 25/08/16

Pacala, S., Socolow, R. (2004). Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. Science 305, 968-972.

Pagnamenta, R. (2016). Hinkley nuclear support falls as majority oppose China role. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hinkley-nuclear-support-falls-as-majority-oppose-china-role-23lgfff3g Accessed 01/09/16

Phys.org (2012). Bulletin: German nuclear exit delivers economic, environmental benefits. http://phys.org/news/2012-11-bulletin-german-nuclear-exit-economic.html Accessed 22/08/16

plasmatelly (2014). Communising energy: power to the people! https://libcom.org/blog/communising-energy-power-people-18022014 Accessed 28/08/16

Podobnik, B. (2010). Building the Clean Energy Movement: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective. In: Abramsky, K.. ed. Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-petrol World. AK Press, Oakland, 72-80.

Reuben, A. (2015). Gap between rich and poor ‘keeps growing’. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-32824770 Accessed 28/08/16

de Rivaz, V. (2016). ‘New nuclear’ has to be part of our low-carbon energy future. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/08/27/new-nuclear-has-to-be-part-of-our-low-carbon-energy-future/ Accessed 28/08/16

den Rooijen, H. (2016). Hinkley C’s future is in doubt. Let’s turn our sights to offshore wind. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/14/hinkley-cs-future-is-in-doubt-lets-turn-our-sights-to-offshore-wind Accessed 22/08/16

Sauven, J. (2016). For a secure energy future, there are far better investments than Hinkley. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/08/for-a-secure-energy-future-there-are-far-better-investments-than-hinkley Accessed 23/08/16

Schwartzman, P. D. & Schwartzman, D. W. (2011). A Solar Transition is Possible. Institute for Policy Research & Development, London.

Simms, A. (2016). Toxic Time Capsule: Why nuclear energy is an intergenerational issue. http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Toxic-Time-Capsule_Final_28-Mar.pdf Accessed 23/08/16.

Solarcentury (2014). Further evidence supports opportunity for creating bio-diverse solar farms. http://www.solarcentury.com/uk/media-centre/evidence-supports-opportunity-creating-bio-diverse-solar-farms/ Accessed 25/08/16

Stacey, K., Burgis, T. (2016). EDF’s French nuclear plant faces years of further delay. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/73d62552-ec65-11e5-bb79-2303682345c8.html Accessed 22/08/16

Steiner, A. (2015). ‘The world is finally producing renewable energy at an industrial scale’. https://www.theguardian.com/vital-signs/2015/apr/20/renewable-energy-global-trends-solar-power Accessed 22/08/16

The Economist (2016). When the facts change… http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21703396-hinkley-point-would-tie-britain-energy-system-already-out-date-when-facts Accessed 01/09/16

Vaughan, A. (2016a). Scrapping Hinkley for renewable alternatives would save ‘tens of billions’. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/05/scrapping-hinkley-for-renewable-alternatives-will-save-tens-of-billions Accessed 22/08/16

Vaughan, A. (2016b). Solar and wind ‘cheaper than new nuclear’ by the time Hinkley is built. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/11/solar-and-wind-cheaper-than-new-nuclear-by-the-time-hinkley-is-built Accessed 23/08/16

Williams-Grut, O. (2015). Here’s just how wealthy the top 1% in Britain are. http://uk.businessinsider.com/ons-chart-on-wealth-inequality-in-britain-2015-12 Accessed 28/08/16

World Energy Council (2014). Climate Change: Implications for the Energy Sector. http://www.worldenergy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Climate-Change-Implications-for-the-Energy-Sector-Summary-from-IPCC-AR5-2014-Full-report.pdf Accessed 21/08/16

Part 1: Hinkley Point C – What is all the fuss about?

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Image: Adrian Sherratt

You may have seen in the news recently much debate about the new nuclear reactor planned for Hinkley Point in Somerset. EDF had been wondering whether to finance it, Theresa May is delaying the decision, but what is really going on? This post aims to clear up the situation.

UK Government

The government gave the go ahead for new nuclear power stations back in 2006, stating they would make a “significant contribution” to energy generation, considering we are phasing out coal fired power stations. Before Hinkley C the last new nuclear station was Sizewell B which opened in 1995.

The new power plant at Hinkley C will purportedly provide just 7% of our electricity. For some silly reason we have also agreed to pay double the current market price for it over 35 years. To even a passing reader this seems rather expensive to fulfill not much of our energy needs. In comparison, gas power stations are £27.50 per MWh less expensive at generating energy. The executive director of Greenpeace, John Sauven, says it is “terrible value for money”.

Amber Rudd, the former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, emphasised “we have to secure baseload electricity”. However, more and more research is suggesting the idea of needing power stations to maintain baseload is a fallacy. Practical experience shows that renewable energy can easily cope alone. As an example, the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Schleswig-Holstein in Germany already use 100% renewable energy. This is a net figure because they trade with each other and between other states to achieve this, but does show with a bit of effort it is possible.

As for construction, at least that will provide 25,000 jobs, although it remains to be seen how many of them come from the local area. Once construction has finished 900 people will be employed to operate the station itself. What will it cost taxpayers? The government has insisted consumers will only have to pay about £10 per year for Hinkley C’s construction, but has provided no figures or evidence to back this up.

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EDF

EDF, the French power giant, has been tasked with building the power station. They have yet to complete building any reactors like those which will be used at Hinkley. The construction of their nuclear power plant at Flamanville in France has had many problems and is now years behind schedule and way over budget. I wonder if this is what we have to look forward to in the construction of Hinkley C? It certainly hints that the £10 per year cost to UK taxpayers is like rise and not just by a bit.

As EDF is 85% owned by the French government, any decision on this scale also effects them. They have been under strain to approve this project, even leading to EDF’s finance director, Thomas Piquemal, resigning reportedly amid fears the investment could damage EDF. In July the French Financial Markets Authority raided EDF’s offices, investigating claims they had misrepresented the cost of Hinkley. Some staff believe the project could sink the company, with the company warned its credit rating may be downgraded if it goes ahead. The French government have even offered to help bailout EDF to cover construction costs. Things are certainly not looking good for EDF as a company in its own right, and many are already calling Hinkley C a ‘white elephant’.

Assuming the plant gets built, what would happen should a future UK government decide to close it prior to 2060? Documents seen by The Guardian show that UK taxpayers could be left with a £22b bill if that were to happen. This gives EDF zero risk, but there could be numerous reasons why the UK may not want to continue for instance costs, loss of public confidence and a change in energy infrastructure (IS THIS THE RIGHT WORD?). Do we really want to be tied into such a contract?

Chinese Investment in Hinkley

Now EDF have finally made the decision to proceed with construction the Conservative PM Theresa May has decided to delay the start. May, as former home secretary, had apparently voiced concern about the attitude to Chinese investment in Hinkley, according to Vince Cable. The Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNCP) are providing a third of the £18b cost. It has recently been alleged that the CGNCP had conspired to produce nuclear material without the USA’s permission and were involved in nuclear espionage. Hardly an ideal start to a relationship that will have to last the duration of construction. Wisely, May and her ministers now want to read through the contract and make a final decision this autumn. However at this rate it is projected Hinkley C might not be up and working until 2030 due to delay after delay! Barry Gardiner, the shadow energy secretary, has called the handling of the situation “absolute chaos” and I am inclined to agree.

I understand the need to look at the fine print, but China has now said the delay is putting strain on UK – China relations and warn we are at a “crucial historical juncture”. It isn’t good to rely on any country too much, but the Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming, says China have already “invested more in the UK than in Germany, France and Italy combined over the past five years”. China is such a super power and their decisions effect us on a day to day basis. Annoying them post-Brexit would not be a smart move and the UK would be wise to consider the current position they have put themselves in.

Conclusion

Hinkley C has been dogged by investment and costs issues from the start and its construction has barely started which is hardly a good omen. Why haven’t the UK decided to look into renewable energy instead of nuclear? Is the government determined to deny climate change is happening and avoid the fact renewables are the way forward? Or have they decided to proceed because it would be far to complicated to stop what is in motion already? These are questions which will be addressed in our next post.

Links that provided information for this post:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/30/theresa-may-delayed-hinkley-point-chinese-beijing-vince-cable

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-36921785

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jul/28/hinkley-point-c-to-go-ahead-after-edf-board-approves-project

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-36903904

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37016120

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-36897180

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/11/nuclear-espionage-charge-for-china-firm-with-one-third-stake-in-hinkley-point

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/08/china-warns-uk-relations-historical-juncture-hinkley-point-liu-xiaoming

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2016/jul/28/hinkley-point-c-nuclear-plant-fails-all-tests-bar-the-politics?CMP=share_btn_tw

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/18/hinkley-point-c-nuclear-deal-22bn-poison-pill-taxpayer

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/17/french-government-edf-united-front-hinkley-point-money-nuclear-plant-union

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/11/nuclear-espionage-charge-for-china-firm-with-one-third-stake-in-hinkley-point

http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2987376/dispelling_the_nuclear_baseload_myth_nothing_renewables_cant_do_better.html

 

New posts coming soon

It has been a while since we last posted a series of posts as a team so we thought it was high time to get our act together.

In the coming months we shall be posting on a range of subjects all key to understanding how the environment will fair in the UK post-Brexit. We shall be spotlighting MPs, many newly appointed to the Cabinet by our new PM Theresa May, and definitely touching upon the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Their background prior to being assigned their new roles will be analysed as this if often a good indicator of what they will be like in office. We hope to cover topics including farming, fisheries, forestry, climate change and energy to name a few. In addition to these series of posts there may be reviews of TV programmes that focus on the environment. Personally, I am hoping to watch the latest installment of Hugh’s War on Waste (this evening at on BBC One at 9pm for those interested). Stay tuned!

Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Eleven)

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Conclusion  

“Learning to honor the wild…means never imagining that we can flee into a mythical wilderness to escape history and the obligation to take responsibility for our own actions that history inescapably entails.” — William Cronon, 1995

We have seen, then, the horrors that await us in a capitalist future. We seem stuck between two hellish paths. One is of climate crisis, of “climate-induced scarcity” and “militarised policing of the class lines” (Out of the Woods, 2014a), and of “increasingly authoritarian forms of state power” to discipline unrest triggered by resource shortages (Steven, 2012). As Davis (2008) warns, “we’re talking here of the prospect of creating green and gated oases of permanent affluence on an otherwise stricken planet”.

The other is of a world disciplined not only by capital but by technocracy, characterised by the concealing of scientific research from the public (Mirowski et al., 2013), of control of weather systems for reasons of national security, and of a wealthy techno-elite patenting geoengineering technologies and profiting off climate inaction (Yusoff, 2013: 2803). In this scenario, “we would have a roof, not a sky – a milky, geoengineered ceiling gazing down on a dying, acidified sea” (Klein, 2014: 260). The idea of human ingenuity solving the problem of climate change with a technical fix without any need for structural change is seductive, especially for those in power (Andersen, 2015).

But this is a false dichotomy. A third way, characterised by anti-capitalism, rational economic management, and a holistic approach to humanity’s place in the earth system, is possible and realisable.

Resistance to state and capitalist failures at addressing the climate crisis is growing (Out of the Woods, 2015). As Battistoni (2012) tells us, “we have to remake the world, and we have to talk about it”, and more importantly act on it. There is hope that the “extraordinary” natural disasters we may face with climate change will lead to the resurgence of “extraordinary communities” (Karlin, 2013), whilst at the same time we combat reactionary, xenophobic attitudes that divert attention to the symptoms of the climate crisis and not the cause (McGrath, 2014; Out of the Woods, 2014b).

The technics we need to mitigate and adapt to a warming world already exist. From agricultural adaptations (McVeigh, 2014; White, 2014) to methods of energy generation (Jacobson & Delucchi, 2010; Saenz, 2012; Grover, 2014) to “appropriate” forms of geoengineering (Lehmann, 2007; Becker et al., 2013; Biggers, 2015). Indeed, “humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century” (Pacala and Socolow, 2004) and the “knowledge and physical instruments for promoting a harmonization of humanity with nature…are largely at hand or could easily be devised” (Bookchin, 2005: 83).

But this future is not for certain. In order to maintain the habitability of the earth system (for humans, at least) we will require a fundamental restructuring of politics, economics, and society’s attitude to the nature/human false dichotomy. As Carl Sagan warned,

“We’ve never done such a thing before, certainly not on a global scale. It may be too difficult for us. Dangerous technologies may be too widespread. Corruption may be too pervasive. Too many leaders may be focused on the short term rather than the long.” (1997)

We need to make sure that our descendants do not “one day say that ours was a time of affluence, subsidized by their suffering” (Andersen, 2015). Our choice to embark towards an anti-capitalist and “ecological society” must be predicated upon our ability “to learn from the material lessons of the past and to appreciate the real prospects of the future” (Bookchin, 2003). The concept of “solar communism”, an embodiment of Marx’s dictum “from each according to her ability, to each according to her needs” for both humans and the natural world, is one example of a model society we should strive for (Schwartzman, 2015).

If we succeed then perhaps, as William Cronon concluded twenty years ago, “we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both” (Cronon, 1995).

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Part Nine | Part Ten


References

Climate Imperial: Geoengineering and Capitalist Hegemony (Part Ten)

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Non-Wilderness   

It is important to realise the concept of a natural, untouched “wilderness” is a false one, and one we must eject from our thinking when it comes to issues such as climate change, climate stabilisation, and geoengineering. Indeed, the neat divide between “natural” and “artificial” is a false one – as Donna Haraway (1991) puts it, in modern society “the certainty of what counts as nature — a source of insight and promise of innocence — is undermined, probably fatally” (152-3). To quote Murray Bookchin’s work at length:

“There is no part of the world that has not been profoundly affected by human activity–neither the remote fastnesses of Antarctica nor the canyons of the ocean’s depths. Even wilderness areas require protection from human intervention; much that is designated as wilderness today has already been profoundly affected by human activity. Indeed, wilderness can be said to exist primarily as a result of a human decision to preserve it. Nearly all the nonhuman life-forms that exist today are, like it or not, to some degree in human custody, and whether they are preserved in their wild lifeways depends largely on human attitudes and behavior.” (1995)

The “primeval” world that some desire, Bookchin continues, no longer exists and so “the possibility of returning to it is simply excluded” (2005: 58). Returning to the theme of alienation William Cronon (1995) adds to this, stating that

“Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land.”

In less abstract terms, Li (2009) points out that “in reality, it is impossible for human economic activities to have zero impact on the environment” (1041).

In this sense geoengineering technologies should not be rejected based on their supposed artificiality or naturalness, but based on their appropriateness and limitations. CDR, for example, should be seen as a prudent alternative to SRM not because it involves “respecting nature” (Preston, 2013: 24) but because it mimics processes of carbon dioxide drawdown that have been proven to work. As the GHGs humanity emits will “last many thousands of years in the atmosphere before losing even half its warming potential” (Kintisch, 2010: 231) we must come to terms with the fact that “if we do not intervene in the world today for purposes of ecological restoration” then the earth system will be in grave danger (Bookchin, 2005: 58).

This does not entail uncritical use of geoengineering technologies however. As detailed some geoengineering approaches may simply replicate or worsen the already deadly effects of future climate change (Cooper, 2010: 184; Klein, 2014: 261; Dwortzan, 2015). But as a degree of climate chaos is expected with locked-in atmospheric warming we are faced with the “daunting challenge” of taking action and acting as “caretaker of both people and ecosystems” (Preston, 2012: 197). As David Orrell (2007) informs us, “we have passed a kind of tipping point in our relationship with the world” and, like it or not, “our actions now influence its workings at every level” (12).

Public Science

Science is increasingly seen not as a public good but as something that belongs in the private domain. Science, Mirowski et al (2013) fear, is being made “to conform to the market imperative, as can be seen from attacks on high school science teachers and the re-engineering of the university for the knowledge economy”. Even in the lofty world of peer-reviewed journals it was found that “the greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true” (Ioannidis, 2005: 699). As institutions are privatised or reduced to “joint-ventures” the common person’s control of science and the public accountability of scientific research will diminish (Brown, 2000; Vaughan, 2014). This comes naturally as under capitalism there is

“a disincentive to communicate information. The market encourages secrecy, which is inimical to openness in science. It presupposes a view of property in which the owner has rights to exclude others. In the sphere of science, such rights of exclusion place limits on the communication of information and theories which are incompatible with the growth of knowledge … science tends to grow when communication is open… [In addition a] necessary condition for the acceptability of a theory or experimental result is that it pass the public, critical scrutiny of competent scientific judges. A private theory or result is one that is shielded from the criteria of scientific acceptability.” (O’Neill, 1998: 153)

Even further, Levins and Lewontin (1985) comment on evidence that “modern science is a product of capitalism” (197) and that “the commoditization of science, then, is not a unique transformation but a natural part of capitalist development” (199). Such appropriation of scientific findings in the context of geoengineering is dangerous, limiting public accountability and fuelling technocratic practices. More forcefully Albert Camus (1956) accuses science of betraying “its origins…in allowing itself to be put to the service of State terrorism and the desire for power” (295). As Francisco Ferrer argued, “science, which is produced by observers and workers of all countries and ages, ought not be restricted to class” (Harper, 1987: 100).

What we need then is “socially responsible science” to play a larger role in any and all geoengineering research. As geoengineering research is carried out “in the name of society” and as a result needs to express society’s “needs, interests, and priorities” scientists need to accept their responsibilities and duties to the common good and not to private or state interests (Bird, 2014: 170). Scientists are part of society, not separate or above it.

In this regard the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) is a welcome template. Established in 1969 the BSSRS “aimed to open up the politics of science to both scientific and public scrutiny”, noting the importance of environmental issues and women’s rights and having a “strong commitment to the class component of environmental problems” (Bell, 2013). Science was a force for good but “as it was currently constructed was part of the problem” and needed to be changed. The BSSRS passed what was to be known as the “Durham Resolution”, whereby they pledged, among other things, “not to conceal from the public any information about the general nature of my research and about the dangerous uses to which it might be put” and “to explain to the public the general nature and possible uses of research conducted by private or State bodies over which there is little or no public control” (Solidarity, 1971). Such attitudes, if adopted by contemporary scientists in the fields of geoengineering research, would ensure research into modifying the planet’s climate was acceptably controlled, understandable, and communicated adequately to wider society. As Levins and Lewontin (1985) remind us, “the irrationalities of a scientifically sophisticated world come not from failures of intelligence but from the persistence of capitalism” (208).

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Part Nine 

Part Eleven coming soon


References

  • Bell, A. (2013). Beneath the white coat: the radical science movement. http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/jul/18/beneath-white-coat-radical-science-movement Accessed 10 December 2015.
  • Bird, S. J. (2014). Socially Responsible Science Is More than “Good Science”. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education 15 (2), 169–172.
  • Bookchin, M. (1995). A Philosophical Naturalism. http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/philosonatural.html Accessed 11 December 2015.
  • Bookchin, M. (2005). The Ecology of Freedom. AK Press, Oakland.
  • Brown, J. R. (2000). Privatizing the University–the New Tragedy of the Commons. Science 290 (5497), 1701-1702.
  • Camus, A. (1956). The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. Trans. by Anthony Bower. Vintage Books, New York.
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  • Cronon, W. (1995). The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. In: Cronon, W. ed. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. W. W. Norton & Co, New York, 69-90.
  • Dwortzan, M. (2015). NEWS RELEASE: Fertilize the Ocean, Cool the Planet? http://globalchange.mit.edu/news-events/news/news_id/480#.Vmq8wtKLS9I Accessed 11 December 2015.
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