The Challenges and Necessity of Phasing Out Fossil Fuels

The challenges and necessity of phasing out fossil fuels
Bob Sheak – April 5, 2019

The Green New Deal resolution was proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) on February 7, 2019, with a nearly a dozen co-sponsors, while in the Senate Edward Markey (D-Mass) introduced a companion measure. There are now over 60 so-sponsors, according to a report by Louis Jacobson (https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2019/feb/12/seven-questions-about-green-new-deal). Natalie Sauer reports for Climate Change News that Democratic presidential candidates “have flocked to back the concept,” but the support ranges “from the bold and radical to the vaguely-worded.” “Having presidential candidates say they are supportive of the concept of doing something like the Green New Deal is amazing, but it’s not sufficient,” Saikat Chakrabarti, head of staff to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, told the Washington Examiner” (as reported by Sauer). “Environmentalists and progressives have begun,” Sauer writes, “to lose patience over wooly assurances” (https://www.climatechangenews.com/2019/02/04/democrat-presidential-hopefuls-dont-say-green-new-deal).

The resolution has ignited a flurry of media coverage and a range of responses, from ridicule by the President and Republicans in the U.S. Congress, to cries that is it impractical and may alienate important constituencies from moderate Democrats, to praise from proponents for initiating a process that would have the federal government take climate change and its many deleterious environmental and human effects far more seriously than up to now and take the necessary action.

A resolution is aimed at conveying a sense of the kind of legislation that allows the signatories to go on record on the proposal with the hope it will garner support from other members (https://www.thoughtco.com/sense-of-congress-resolutions-3322308). A resolution is not intended to lead to a new law, passed by both branches of the Congress and signed by the President, but is rather a preliminary or exploratory “framework” for ascertaining the level of support in the Congress and for initiating a process by which the plan can be clarified by hearings, research, expert testimony and other inputs, incorporating relevant evidence to clarify and strengthen the resolution. In this case, the Green New Deal resolution proposes the creation of a “Select Committee for the Green New Deal,” which will have “the authority to develop a detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan.” Such a committee has not yet been authorized by Speaker Pelosi. Then, if the 2020 election goes well, specific bills will be created and advanced in the regular legislative processes, culminating in laws and budgets that supporting some or all of the major components of the Green New Deal.

The opposition: examples

Already in campaign mode for 2020, Trump has chortled that he welcomes the opportunity to tell the American people how the Green New Deal is a socialist plot that will end the “freedoms” Americans enjoy and, if ever implemented, will bankrupt the country. To make his case (as usual), the president makes up what the costs of the Green New Deal will be, twitting out that it will cost $100 trillion to implement it and will bankrupt the country (https://truthout.org/articles/whos-behind-trumps-claim-the-green-new-deal-will-cost-100-trillion). If the economy doesn’t tank before 2020, the tens of millions of people who are in Trump’s base are likely to continue their support of him. But there are powerful economic interests behind Trump as well. Sandra Lavelle reports that top oil firms are spending millions lobbying to block climate change policies (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/mar/22/top-oil-firms-spending-millions-lobbying-to-block-climate-change-policies-says-report). And Jessica Corbett writes on how big banks are pouring billions into the fossil fuel industry (https://www/commondreams.org/news/2019/03/20/green-groups-call-out-big-banks-pouring-billions-fossil-fuel-industry). The Koch Brothers network of billionaires will spend more than anyone else through a bevy or organizations to support Trump (and Republican candidates) and prevent any serious consideration of phasing out fossil fuels. For background on the Koch’s influenced, see the documentary on The Real News narrated by Danny Glover (https://therealnews.com/stories/trump-the-koch-brothers-and-their-war-on-climate-science). In an outstanding analysis identifying and refuting arguments levied against the Green New Deal, Lance Olsen documents that an attack against renewables is not new but “was kicked into gear years ago, and the current anti-Green New Deal brouhaha is just a rehash of an old campaign to defend the capital and capitalists aligned around combustion of coal, oil and natural gas” (https://counterpunch.org/2019/04/03/why-all-the-uproar-over-the-green-new-deal). He adds that the what’s new is “that advocates of the Green New Deal take climate change more seriously than ever before, and this is rocking the coal, oil, and gas capitalists’ boat like never before.”

The hopes of proponents

Proponents view the “green new deal” as an incipient plan, now in “draft form” and as a resolution in the House, for not only shifting the economy from an energy system dominated by fossil fuels to one based on renewables and energy efficiency but also for reducing poverty and inequality. It is unlikely that all or many parts of the Green New Deal will emerge as policy proposals ready for legislative action by the 117th U.S. Congress in 2021. It depends on who gets elected. In this post, I focus on the climate-change related provisions, which by themselves call for unprecedented and comprehensive changes. Sauer provides an informative summary of these aspects of the Green New Deal, as follows.

“A draft of the bill currently in circulation commits the US to source 100% of national power from renewable sources by 2030 as well as to build a national, energy-efficient, ‘smart grid”. Also on the table are upgrades of ‘every residential and industrial building [with] state-of-the-art energy efficiency’, along with measures to ‘eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries, including by investing in local-scale agriculture in communities across the country’. Finally, it would invest in green technology research and development and provide training for jobs in the new green economy.”

There are two issues that stand out. The first is that in setting their sights on achieving and U.S. energy based on 100% renewables, the sponsors of the Green New Deal are calling for changes that will lead to the elimination of fossil fuels in the society’s energy system. Sauer’s summary indicates that the sponsors of the plan expect that there will be a need for a host of new legislative initiatives to achieve this goal. Second, advocates recognize that it is important to provide support for workers who are displaced from jobs in the fossil fuel industry, thus requiring legislative action(s) on transitional assistance, re-training, re-location in some cases, job creation in renewables and ancillary industries, along with some formula for where the investment in renewables will go. If one of the goals is “full employment,” then this calls for additional legislation.

The politics

If the plan gains momentum and support from the Democratic leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, advocates hope that, between now and the 2020 elections, hearings will be held on aspects of the green new deal, that evidence from experts and scientists will be gathered that clarify and build the case for phasing out fossil fuels, supporting renewables, and for the employment measures. There are many media reports that the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate are wary of the green new deal, are reluctant to call for a phasing out of fossil fuels and have yet to say whether they support a comprehensive jobs’ bill that includes an employment guarantee. For the process evolving around the Green New Deal to be successful, progressive Democrats who favor the goal of phasing out fossil fuels and the multi-faceted jobs provisions will have to win control or hold a significant number of seats in both the House, the Senate, and have a progressively-minded president in the White House as a result of the 2020 elections.

Proponents are counting on a huge turnout of people who support the thrust of their agenda on the climate-related issues in 2020. Of course, no one can now predict how these elections will turn out. While a few polls that ask respondents on whether they support “the green new deal” find a majority in favor of it, the resolution is still based on a general, rather abstract depiction and understanding of what it stands for. As already noted, there are many details yet to be flushed out. But the changes that proponents want – and that are necessary to avoid further cataclysmic environmental, economic, and social upheavals from climate change – the proposal aimed at phasing out fossil fuels will require multiple bills. Given the enormity of the changes called for, not all the ramifying effects can be readily identified. It is reasonable to anticipate that many voters will be concerned or fearful about such changes that will affect many aspects of their lives. Thus, winning the support of a majority of voters will require an extraordinary and sustained effort by candidates and activists who favor the resolution. They must somehow create and enlarge a movement of activists who are ready to educate citizens about the realty of the climate crisis. And they must be able to convince voters that fossil fuels can and must be phased out without jeopardizing the livelihoods of their lives or and seriously disrupting the economy generally. Furthermore, they must do this while not distracting voters from other parts of the Democratic agenda (e.g., proposals to reform health care, public education, college affordability).

Jeremy Brecher provides a host of ideas for activists on how, beyond ordinary policies, a “climate insurgency” is necessary, with examples of some success stories associated with resistance and non-violent actions against fossil fuel corporations and infrastructure from around the world. See his book: Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual. It will require extraordinary understanding, courage, and commitment for grassroots activists to have a significant effect on voters within the limited time available. Be that as it may, Brecher reminds us that there are many successful movements throughout American history.

The complexity of phasing out fossil fuels

Reducing emissions

It is a daunting just to imagine how all aspects of the Green New Deal related to phasing out fossil fuels can be addressed in our political system, a project that will require interrelated, governmental actions – governmental planning, coordination with companies in the private sector, industrial policies, job creation – to phase out fossil fuels from the economy and everyday life. If advocates of the Green New Deal have the political opportunity as a result of victories in the 2020 elections to move ahead on the phasing out of fossil fuels, what will “the first step or steps” be? And can government action on phasing out fossil fuels occur in a decade, in time to avoid the dooms-day scenario evidenced by recent reports by the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Climate Assessment and the ongoing stream of scientific research findings that document how greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are causing more frequent severe weather events, the shrinking of ice in the polar regions and on glaciers, rising ocean levels, tens of millions of environmental refugees, increasing conflict over dwindling resources, and so forth.

A lot of things must full in place politically and in preparation for the implementation of the plant to phase out fossil fuels. If we cannot be put on a path to phase fossil fuels soon, then humanity has little hope of avoiding ever-increasing environmental devastation. Economist Robert Pollin identifies the enormous range of changes that are necessary to “stabilize the climate” (https://www.thenation.com/article/think-we-cant-stabilize-the-climate-while-fostering-growth-think-again). Here’s what he writes.

“…executing this green-growth plan is easier said than done. To begin with, energy-efficiency investments in all regions of the world will need to span each country’s stock of buildings, transportation systems, and industrial processes. Efficiency levels will need to rise in office towers and homes (among other places), in residential lighting and cooking equipment, and in the performance of automobiles and provision of public transportation. Expanding the supply of clean renewable energy will require major investments in solar, wind, geothermal, and small-scale hydropower, as well as in low-emissions bioenergy sources, such as ethanol from switchgrass, agricultural wastes, and waste grease. By contrast, expanding the supply of high-emissions bioenergy sources, such as corn ethanol and wood, provides no benefit relative to fossil-fuel sources. Dependency on these high-emissions bioenergy renewables needs to be slashed at the same rate as fossil fuels.

What must be done to phase out fossil fuels, a major part of the climate crisis?

On the one hand, phasing out fossil fuels means that government must take a host of actions to discourage and stop the emissions. For example, it must increase regulations to discourage, if not prohibit, new coal mining; close existing coal operations; do the same with fracking; prohibit drilling on public land (e.g., national parks) and on offshore coastal areas; end government subsidies to fossil fuel companies; perhaps impose a substantial carbon tax in a way that does not burden low-income drivers but focuses on the sources of the problem.

On the other hand, it means supporting renewable energy alternatives like solar and wind, requiring solar panels on all federal government buildings and military installations (when appropriate) and offering incentives and subsidies to automobile corporations to switch rapidly to the manufacture of electric and hybrid cars, solar panels, and wind turbines, as well as support investments in fuel-efficient public transit systems and new energy efficiency standards for buildings. Mounting public relations offenses to foster the divestment of investments in fossil fuel corporations.

The authors of the book, A Finer Future, point out that there is a need for other policies that foster the reduction of materials that now depend on fossil-fuel energy from the steel, cement, plastics, and aluminum sectors of the economy. Using fewer materials from these sectors, which now require fossil fuel energy directly or indirectly, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The authors call for changes at both the manufacturing and consumption ends of the energy system. They want regulations or standards that encourage the “reuse, recycling, extended product life, and remanufacturing.” Material substitution may be feasible in some sectors (e.g., using wood or bamboo instead of steel and cement in construction) (p. 84). By strengthening recycling and reuse targets, the amount of waste going into highly polluting incinerators would drop. They would encourage government to offer “feed-in-tariffs, tax-credits or tax cuts, and green certificates” to promote renewable energy. They would like to see design requirements for new products “for ease of repair and maintenance [and] dismantling” and to have warranties extended for products “from 2 to 3 years to 8 to 10 years” (p. 98).

The federal government has served the public interest on massive efforts before

There are precedents in U.S. history for successful large-scale government economic interventions, most prominently the extraordinary and rapid mobilization of the economy by the Roosevelt government for WWII. Mark R. Wilson reconstructs the history of this mobilization in his masterful book, Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II. Wilson writes: “…the American approach to all-out war mobilization created a balanced, flexible style of government-business interaction, which might well be as effective as the more privatized version that ascended after 1945.” He also writes: “The lesson of World War II is that difficult challenges can be managed successfully with creative approaches, combining contracting with robust regulation and targeted public enterprise and investment” (p. 287). Olsen (cited earlier) refers to two: (1) the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s, (2) the Interstate highway system begun in the 1950s. The notion that government is too bureaucratically and politically burdened to provide constructive and innovative leadership is contested by the research and analysis of economist Mariana Mazzucato in her book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public VS. Private Sector Myths. In the concluding paragraph of the book, she writes: “This book is an open call to change the way we talk about the State, its role in the economy and the images and ideas we use to describe the role.” She continues:

“Only then can we begin to build the kind of society we want to live in, and want our children to live in, in a manner that pushes aside false myths about the state and recognizes how it can, when mission driven and organized in a dynamic way, solve problems as complex as putting a man on the moon and solving climate change” (p. 213).

Another example. In her new book, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy, Mazzucato documents, in just one of her examples, how “all the technology that makes the smartphone smart was publicly funded.

Other steps to keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere

There are yet other challenges for those who want to serious steps to avoid disastrous climate disruptions. In the race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is a need for government to encourage ways to keep emissions out of the atmosphere in the first place, through reforestation projects, wise forestry management and reforestation, as well as through the kind of soil-enriching farming that keeps absorbs carbon rather than emitting it. On the latter point, see Kristin Ohlson’ book, the soil will save us,” for an in-depth analysis of “how scientists, farmers, and foodies are healing the soil to save the planet,” and Brian K. Obach’s book, Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States. The Green New Deal begins to address these issues.

Extracting CO2 out of the atmosphere

There’s more. Howard J. Harzog, a Senior Research Engineer in the MIT Energy Initiative, recommends a method, yet only in its early stages of development, to extract carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere called “carbon dioxide capture and storage” (Carbon Capture). He argues that even if we phased out fossil fuel emissions soon, there would still be a huge quantity of greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere over the history of industrial capitalism. Curtailing or eliminating emissions would do nothing to extract the greenhouse gases that are already there. Nonetheless, phasing out fossil fuels is a good, multifaceted initial step or series of steps to curtail and eliminate new greenhouse gas emissions.

A few scenarios

The obvious: Much hinges on what happens in the 2020 elections.

If Trump is re-elected, and even if Democrats win the Senate and retain control of the House, he will be in a position to have a major impact on policy and events through executive orders, emergency declarations, and vetoing legislation coming to his desk from Congress, though Congress may be able to contest and delay (perhaps even defeat) some of his policies and appointments to decision-making positions in the executive branch and to the federal judiciary. There will be, with Trump in the White House, more deregulation (e.g., more surveillance), more privatization (e.g., support for charter schools, corporate ownership of major parts of the highways), more lack of enforcement of laws that are designed to protect the environment, worker safety, civil rights, and LGBTQ rights. There will be further evisceration of the National Labor Relations system.

Oil and gas companies will be given more opportunities to drill virtually wherever they want, exacerbating the already worsening climate crisis. There will be major assaults on the social safety net (e.g., SNAP, Medicaid, housing assistance) and social insurance (Social Security, Medicare). The salaries of government workers will remain stagnant. Trump will further consolidate his base of support, including the right-wing evangelicals who want the end of legal abortions, the gun owners who want maximum freedom to own as many weapons as they want, the white nationalists/supremacists who want harsh immigration policies and the diminution of civil rights, and the law-and-order zealots who like the massive prison system and the high rates of incarceration of people of color. Most corporations (hoping for lucrative government contracts, even fewer regulations, and opportunities to profit from privatization of government functions) and rich people (happy with the highly regressive tax system already in place and the general emphasis on deregulation) will go along.

There will be budget proposals from Trump that, if passed, will continue the increases in the military budget, with the support of many congressional Democrats of a “moderate persuasion.” Trump and his hawkish advisers will give momentum to the new cold war and thus increase chances of nuclear war, by accident or intention. Bear in mind that unstable Trump has the power to launch nuclear weapons at his command. Trump will continue to bring media attention to his positions of the moment through his daily tweets, occasional press conferences, and rallies with adoring crowds, the latter reminiscent of the rallies for Hitler in 1930s Nazi Germany. The culmination of all this is that the threat to our already tenuous democracy will move further toward a modern version of fascism. See Jason Stanley’s book, How Fascism Works, for an explanation of the main features of contemporary fascism. Here’s how he summarizes the “myths” that undergird the appeal of fascists.

“The mechanisms of fascist politics all build on and support one another. They weave a myth of a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ based in a romanticized fictional past featuring ‘us’ and no ‘them,’ and supported by a resentment for a corrupt liberal elite, who take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions. ‘They’ are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted (and who don’t deserve it, in any case). ‘They’ make their destructive goals with the language of liberalism or ‘social justice,’ and are out to destroy our culture and traditions and make ‘us’ weak. ‘We’ are industrious and law-abiding, having earned our freedoms through work; ‘they’ are lazy, perverse, corrupt, and decadent. Fascist politics traffics in delusions that create these kinds of false distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ regardless of obvious realities” (p. 187).

If a moderate Democrat wins the presidency and Democrats control both the House and Senate, much of what would transpire under a Trump administration would be avoided or diminished. Among many other differences, there would not be fascist-like appeal to the electorate. At the same time, Democrats would be saddled with a $22-$23 trillion national debt that would limit their policy options, something congressional Republicans have been ignoring as they support huge regressive tax policies and military spending that begins to reach WWII levels. Moderates will do their best to make some positive changes in the Affordable Care Act and oppose a single-payer option. They will the do their best to protect the reproductive rights of women and advance other measures to bring equality to women in all spheres of society. They will do their best to limit cuts to the social safety net. They will support “liberal” appointments to policy-making positions and to the federal judiciary. For these reasons and others, a Democratic president of moderate persuasion and a Democratic Congress (with moderates and progressives) will accomplish or try to accomplish some meaningful changes and avoid the wholesale horrors that Trump would bring to the society.

However, a moderate Democratic president and a Congress dominated by moderate Democrats are unlikely to confront adequately the ever-unfolding climate disruption and its effects by taking the paramount steps to phase out fossil fuels. So, if the research findings of climate scientists are valid, and there is no reason to doubt them, it is unlikely that moderate Democratic administration and Congress will have the political will and courage to take on the fossil fuel interests and all the other economic interests linked to them.

There is a third scenario, that is, that the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party for the 2020 election is a progressive who endorse the key provisions of the green new deal and other progressive policies (e.g., a single-payer health system, steep reductions in military spending, a full-employment policy). And in the best of political worlds, this president will also have a Congress that is controlled by Democrats, many with a progressive bent. The party platform in these circumstances will be progressive and bold across the board. The big question: Will the advocates of the new green deal be able to focus enough of their attention on the issues most directly related to the climate crisis, and move ahead with alacrity in passing legislation to ramp up renewables while phasing fossil fuels?

Many moderate Democrats, including Democratic leaders in the present U.S. Congress, say that the progressive, pro Green New Deal, scenario is impractical politically (will alienate voters because of its huge potential and unknown impact and thus contribute to defeat in 2020) and economically (will face overwhelming opposition from the rich and powerful and their ability to sway elections with their boundless money and ability to resist, if not sabotage, such efforts ).

While the complexity of phasing out fossil fuels is enormous, there are experts who have done research that we do have the means to replace them in the U.S. energy system. As I wrote in my last post on March 16, titled “The Green New Deal, its critics, its promise,” Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford is quoted as saying: “we have about ninety percent or ninety-five percent of the technology we need” (page 1 of the post). Tyson Stevens also sees at least important reasons for shifting from fossil fuels to renewables including that renewables are already growing faster than fossil fuels, they are better for the environment, and, to the point, they “cost less than fossil fuels” (https://www.amigoenergy.com/blog/renewable-energy-vs-fossil-fuels). Robert Pollin advances the idea of a cost-effective “worker superfund,” arguing that it is practical as well as necessary. “Green growth projects must provide transitional support for workers and communities whose livelihoods depend on fossil fuels…. It is a matter of simple justice, but it is also a matter of strategic politics. Without such adjustment-assistance programs operating on a national scale, the workers and communities facing retrenchment will, predictably and understandably, fight to defend their livelihoods. This, in turn, will create unacceptable delays in proceeding with effective climate-stabilization policies. Pollin explains what a worker super-fund would entail

“Well-funded “worker Superfund” policies therefore need to be incorporated into each country’s green-growth program. For the US case, I estimate that a generous Superfund would be in the range of $1 billion per year…. In addition, the impact on workers and communities from retrenchments in the fossil-fuel sectors will not depend only on the support provided through an explicit Superfund budget. The broader set of opportunities available to workers will also be critical. The fact that clean-energy investments will generate a net expansion in employment in all regions of the globe means that there will be new opportunities for displaced fossil-fuel-sector workers within the energy industry. But more than this, the best form of protection for displaced workers is an economy that operates at full employment. In a full-employment economy, the troubles faced by displaced workers—regardless of the reasons for their having become displaced—are greatly diminished simply because they should be able to find other decent jobs without excessive difficulty.

A wild card

Lance Olsen (referred to earlier) reports that there are divisions among capitalists that are bringing some corporate chiefs to support Democratic candidates, perhaps even progress candidate. He gives the example of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change that includes “415 investment firms managing combined assets worth more than twice the size of the entire Chinese economy. The group “told governments to 1 – back away from reliance on thermal coal, and 2 – to give up subsidizing all fossil fuels, and 3 – to get on with putting a price on carbon.” With respect to “the price on carbon,” a lot depends on whether the price is high enough to discourage the use of fossil fuels. Whatever, this is an indication that some corporations are recognizing the need to phase out fossil fuels and perhaps some could end up supporting more progressive Democratic candidates in the months leading to the 2020 elections.

But one thing is clear, namely, that the Trump/Republican or moderate scenarios do not solve the climate crisis. So, if these are the only “realistic” options, we will continue on a path of devastation and destruction, as indicated by such facts as these:

In 2018, carbon dioxide levels were the highest on record, the last 4 years have been the warmest on record, and extreme weather events are affecting a growing number of people (62 million in 2018). (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/03/29/extreme-weather-fueled-climate-change-disasters-hit-62-m-last-year/3304707002).

The choice

I’ll close this essay by quoting the last paragraph from Lance Olsen’s article on how our choices are stark and irreconcilable. It’s either/or.

“Broadly framed, we have two choices. Either we get the rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society that scientists and Green New Deal Advocates are urging, or we get another, more costly, and decidedly unkinder kind of rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society if we allow fossil fuel capitalism to defeat us.”

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