So-called “Bridge Fuels”

So-called “Bridge Fuels”


Many people and governments who recognize the looming climate crisis are calling for the use of “bridge fuels” that will get us across the gulf from dirty fuels like coal and oil and into the era of wind and solar. One of these is natural gas but we need to recall that there is no such thing as a clean fossil fuel. They are all more or less dirty but it is true that natural gas emits about half the pollutants as coal which makes it attractive to some. But, using it as a so-called “bridge fuel” involves us in emissions that will continue for at least fifty years as the fossil fuel companies and utilities will need to get their investments back on the heavy infrastructure needed to recover and distribute the gas. Furthermore, the current natural gas boom is the result primarily of hydraulic fracturing which creates three problems of its own. First, it has been linked to ground water and well contamination by various pollutants including some that are carcinogenic. Second, the wells and pipelines leak methane, in some documented cases in the Bakken Shale fields in North Dakota, up to 10 percent. Since methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, the result “would be worse than burning coal” according to Robert Pollin in his new book, Greening The Global Economy. Furthermore, even switching 50 percent from coal to natural gas would provide only very modest gains, reducing CO2 emissions by only 8 percent. Finally, the extraction of natural gas requires the drilling of many, many wells but the supplies in each tend to be quite limited so that, as Lester Brown writes in The Great Transition: Shifting From Fossil Fuels To Solar And Wind Energy: “. . . the new wells are depleted quite rapidly. . . ” and therefore “. . . it makes little sense for society to invest in expanding gas infrastructure and then have to abandon it.”

In short, a necessary path to holding global average temperatures to 3.6° means leaving the majority of the fossil fuels in the ground including natural gas.

Many people including some environmentalists are advocating nuclear energy as the solution or at least as a bridge to clean renewables but nuclear has its own insurmountable problems. Currently it supplies only 4.8 percent of global generation and would have to be ramped up on a colossal scale to become relevant. However, nuclear generating plants take a long time to build and are horrifically expensive, much more expensive than clean alternatives that are now on the shelf. Even if we started to build them now, they would not come on line in time to ameliorate the climate crisis. Even more importantly, nuclear plants are not fossil free. They depend on large expenditures of fossil fuels for fuel processing, transport and construction. Nuclear has a large carbon footprint. Further, they leave us with horrific toxins for ten times longer than civilization has yet been around and also with useless, heavily irradiated structures that will need to be dismantled and buried at an astronomical cost per plant. Then there is the risk of the next Fukushima type meltdown. Finally, they complicate the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation and are prime targets for terrorist attacks which would make the World Trade Center attack pale by comparison. Finally, nuclear power just doesn’t make sense. It is an incredibly complex and dangerous technology just to heat water into steam to turn a turbine to turn a magnet inside a copper coil. Heating water by fissioning uranium is just silly. I suspect it was developed for two reasons; one, because we could. It was what the atomic physicists called “technologically sweet.” The second was guilt over unleashing horrific weapons of mass destruction on the world. Nuclear power plants would offset–atoms for peace, as it were. Expanding nuclear is a non-starter.  Wind and solar power are off the shelf ready today and in fact are the fastest growing sector of the energy economy. We don’t need any bridges that simply prolong the fossil fuel era or threaten us with toxic waste and radioactive meltdowns.


The Paradox Of War

There is a puzzling paradox about war. Good people support it. We will never understand and eliminate it unless we start from this premise. In war time, people who in their normal lives would never hurt anyone support both the preparation for and the carrying out of massive violence. Perfectly nice young men who grew up in small towns in mid America, who went to church on Sundays and learned the Ten Commandments, including: “Thou shalt not kill”; who were taught decency, kindness and fair play by their parents back in the 1930s, found themselves flying over Germany in Liberator bombers in 1943, dropping white phosphorous fire bombs that burned alive the men, women and children hiding below. Good men who love their families work in munitions factories making land mines and cluster bombs that blow the feet off children on the other side of the world. At this moment, a boy who would never think of hitting a dog or kicking a cat is being trained to shove a bayonet in the belly of another boy he does not know who is being trained to do the same thing to him. People who hate war and its maiming, killing, destruction, nevertheless fall in line when their leaders declare war. Almost no one of these people is evil, but they acquiesce in and some of them perform evil deeds. Almost nobody wants war; almost everyone supports it. Why?

Humanity has suffered in the dark night of war for thousands of years, where “ignorant armies clash by night” in fearful slaughter and destruction. The destructiveness of war has increased exponentially in the last hundred years—World War II saw at least fifty million deaths and some estimates are twice that. The largest proportion by far of those killed in war are now civilians. A nuclear war could easily take hundreds of millions of lives in the first week and, in the worst case scenario, bring on nuclear winter and the destruction of civilization itself. But over the last hundred years we have begun to move toward the dawning of a new age. It is not easy to see, surely we are still in that very early moment before the sun clears the horizon, or even lights up the high clouds, but it is indisputably lighter on the horizon. There are several reasons to assert such an optimistic view. First, the old belief that war is honorable is beginning to fade in the terrible light of the modern battlefield where bravery and courage count for little when the air is filled with the hail of flying metal and rent by concussive explosions. To paraphrase the English philosopher, Hobbes, war is that place where life is “nasty and brutish and short.”

Second, while many still believe that war is, however nasty, nevertheless inevitable, many others are beginning to see that war is a social phenomenon, a social and cultural system with causes and conditions that can be understood and eliminated. Many now believe that we will see the end of war in this century, just as we saw the end of legalized slavery in the nineteenth century. But it is more than just beliefs and attitudes that convince me that war is on its way out, even as it rages in the Middle East. It is the development of new institutions and techniques of dealing with conflict that have arisen since the World Court came into being in 1899. These include international political institutions, thousands of non-government agencies working for peace, and the evolution and spread of peace education. Finally, the existence of real peace in many parts of the world where war used to be the dominant mode, such as Scandinavia, North America, and now western Europe, confirms Kenneth Boulding’s maxim, “whatever exists, is real.” Peace is just as real as war.

And so, while nearly all people would be delighted if war were abolished, they never think to ask the question, “How do we abolish war?” It’s because they believe it is inevitable and sometimes perfectly justified, and because they share a mutual fear one of the other. And if they never ask the question, they will never get the answer.

What needed to be invented to end war has been invented. Now all we need to do is to spread the knowledge of these developments and inspire even more people to join the ongoing work of changing the behavior of individuals and governments.

[This entry is slightly edited and excerpted from Kent D. Shifferd, From War To Peace: A Guide To The Next Hundred Years (McFarland Publishers, 2011).]



Not All The Environmental News Is Bad

Not All The Environmental News Is Bad

In spite of climate deniers and mistaken policy, good things are happening, even at the national level. For example, the U.S. Congress has passed a ban on those tiny, tiny plastic beads, called microbeads, that are found in cosmetics, toothpaste and elsewhere that go down the drain and into our lakes and rivers by the millions (the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015). And we can’t forget the historic climate agreement reached in Paris in December. But not all change occurs at the national and international levels. Good things are happening at the local level even though they do not get noticed in the national media. For example, the small town of Spooner, Wisconsin (population 2,682) is preparing to install a large solar field to help power the city. People are rising up against the big polluters. Activists in the Pacific Northwest are mobilizing against the coal and oil industries which are trying to gain port outlets for their dirty fuels. Coalitions of environmentalists, indigenous peoples and religious institutions are organizing to block further development of these outmoded energy sources and to help the transition to a more sustainable society. Just to mention one such organization, Earth Ministry (headquartered in Seattle) is leading the struggle there. In 2015 Pope Francis published his encyclical, “Care For Our Common Home,” a powerful statement for environmental protection and equitable development that includes the world’s poor. And in many places where we travel—in the Oregon, Illinois, Iowa, etc., or around the globe—England, France, China, the Netherlands, Germany, etc., we see with our own eyes the big wind turbines turning. In fact, clean renewables are the fastest growing sector in energy development and are now cheaper than coal or nuclear. (Well, what isn’t cheaper than nuclear if you factor in the very real costs of the fuel preparation which is powered by coal, and the cost of isolating the wastes for thousands of years?) So the news is not all bad. We have not turned the corner, but something Winston Churchill said during the early years of World War II is relevant here: “It’s not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.” Hope, defined as faith in action, is justified.

Paris Climate Summit Summarized

Paris Climate Summit Summarized

On December 12 world leaders came to an historic agreement to head off the worst effects of climate change caused by Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs). The deal was made possible by a prior agreement between the U.S. and China stating that both advanced industrial countries and developing countries need to take action, and nearly all nations came to the Summit having pledged to achieve certain reductions in emissions. Ever since 1992 when the nations at the Rio Earth Summit agreed that something ought to be done about climate change, all meetings had failed. Even the Kyoto Accord of 1997 fell short since it did not require the developing nations including China and India who are big coal burners to do anything. So Paris was a triumph, of sorts. But before detailing what was agreed to, it is important to note that this is just a first step. Winston Churchill’s World War II observation after the first significant defeat of the Nazis is appropriate here:

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.”

There is much more to do as we shall see. Nevertheless, here is what we can celebrate. The New York Times reported: “. . . the delegates achieved what had been unreachable for two decades: a consensus on the need to shift from carbon-based fuels and a road map for the 195 nations to do so.” (NYT by Reuters, Dec. 12, 2015) The agreement sets the goal of having emissions peak “as soon as possible” and requires the nations to return in 2020 and then every five years thereafter to negotiate even tougher goals for reductions in GHGs. According to the Times article: “The accord also requires “stocktaking” meetings every five years, at which countries will report how they are reducing their emissions compared with their targets. And it includes language requiring countries to monitor, verify and publicly report their emission levels.” But for all that this is a breakthrough, it is not enough. The Times says: “The new deal will not, on its own, solve global warming. At best, scientists who have analyzed it say, it will cut emissions by about half of what is needed to prevent an increase in atmospheric temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.”

The developing nations wanted a commitment from the industrialized nations which have contributed the overwhelming portion of GHGs to provide $100 billion a year to assist them in cutting their GHGs but that language was inserted only in the preamble and not in the legally binding part of the agreement. In fact, no emissions levels are in the legally binding part of the agreement, due primarily to the opposition of the Republican controlled U.S. legislature which, had they been, would have made the pact a treaty in international law and subject to ratification which they have sworn to oppose.

According to Robert Pollin, author of an excellent new study titled The Greening of the Global Economy (MIT Press, 2015), here’s what we face if we fail. (I am summarizing here). We can expect more frequent and intense heat waves and storms, previously fertile areas in the tropics to become barren and in other areas blights may affect crops and natural vegetation, small shifts in temperature to put pressure on governments that fail to respond which could lead to famine, disease, mass migrations, political instability. If the Greenland ice cap melts, seas will rise by 22 feet flooding much of southern Florida, lower Manhattan. This means disaster for 15 of the largest cities in the world that are located on estuaries. We are, he writes: “. . .courting ecological disaster.”

Having said that, Pollin lays out a feasible path whereby we could achieve a temperature rise of no more than 3.6 degrees F. (For those of you who love data, I have posted a summary of his numbers following this piece.) It will require major investments in energy efficiency and renewables, about 2 percent of global GDP per year. However, we are already making about a third of that investment and so need only to ratchet up what we are already doing. Furthermore the price of renewables is dropping precipitously. But it will require massive public investment, something that the political right wing is opposed to on principle. We will have to change their minds.

The Paris Summit was a breakthrough, a turning in the right direction. Now we need to speed up the pace.

While international and national policy changes are absolutely essential, we can’t leave this just to the governments. Each of us has a role to play; every one of us can both conserve and cajole the governments and educate the opponents. After all, it’s their grandchildren whose quality of life is at stake. So to end with two affirmations I love–Bill Mollison (the man who invented permaculture), is fond of concluding his talks with these words: “I can’t save the world by myself. It’s going to take at least three of us!” So take heart and keep in mind also this assertion by Lester Brown, the head of World Watch Institute: “First we decide what to do. Then we do it. Then we decide if it was impossible.” The fate of the earth is in our hands.