About 2,500 years ago a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher named Heraclitus observed the paradox that change is essentially the only constant. It creeps up on us in countless ways. Social attitudes shift, and technological innovations bombard us. Yet we also fear its potential to disrupt the comfort of our assumptions and understandings of our world.
In 1989, I read the first of many books on the increasing threat of climate change. That first book stuck in my memory, largely because its subject was essentially new, and because its implications were startling in the projection of its possibilities for catastrophic damage worldwide.
That year industrial nations had just signed the Montreal Protocol to protect the atmospheric ozone layer from chlorofluorocarbons. This was a rapid achievement, progressing from the identification of a hitherto unknown but terribly threatening problem requiring international action to a signed agreement in only 14 years. Progress so far suggests that the ozone will be back to normal by 2050 or so, saving millions of lives.
I was naively confident that as the problem became clearer and better-defined, policy-makers would step up and begin the required action. Oddly, however, here in North America (supposedly forward-thinking and innovative), proposed political actions to date have been contentious, clumsy and ineffective.
While much of the developed world has made remarkable progress to replace toxic carbon-based energy with renewables, America’s government, largely owned by energy corporations, has determined to return to its carbon addictions with a vengeance, regardless of the consequences for all of us.
Vocal and corrupt politicians’ competition to outshout one another about the “hoax” of climate change is grimly amusing, especially when proudly (and ironically) they often also boast of their lack of science credentials.
In America, such ignorance has become a virtue. Special interests led by industries such as Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries have spent millions buying influence through campaign contributions and lobbying through phony “skeptic” organizations.
As early as the late 1970s, through its own research, Exxon Corporation knew the climate dangers of continuing to expand its operations, but rather than make needed changes has chosen since then to deny the problem.
Carbon industries have been guilty of some of the most egregious acts in history. Aside from the predictable oil spills and polluted air one can add everything from blowing the tops off mountains to get to coal (whose burned ash is horrifically toxic), earthquakes from fracking, pollution of water tables, not to mention run of the mill frauds, scams, thefts, felonies, labour violations and unsafe working conditions (occasionally leading to deaths).
By contrast, corporations such as Unilever, Google, IKEA, Microsoft, Starbucks and others have proposed plans to power themselves with 100 per cent renewables. Aside from climate benefits, their executives understand the change to be financially sound.
Why pay more for dirtier energy? It doesn’t make sense. If a benefit of capitalism is meant to bring in new, efficient technologies with free market forces, it is only a matter of time before greener technologies displace coal, oil and gas (though considering climate change we may already be too late). Economic advantage will demand it.
A yearly study called Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis shows that costs of unsubsidized solar generation have dropped 82 per cent over six years, wind’s costs dropped 61 per cent over the same period. Now roughly equal in cost to natural gas-fired generation, renewable efficiency is improving.
A recent article from Wharton Business School, whose alumni include Warren Buffett, Elon Musk and Donald Trump, argues that Trump would be foolish not to pursue renewables. China is consistently upping its game to dominate the clean tech race. If North America is to be competitive, we’d better do likewise.
Don’t hold your breath, though. Fear and ignorance trump logic.
Retired English teacher Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, B.C.