How NOT to talk about fixing climate change

Too often people in the Green is Good movement curl up in a defensive crouch when discussing jobs and climate change with conservatives. Seems the conservative line whenever any kind of change is suggested, is that it will cost money and jobs and the poor workers and tax payers are the ones who will be adversely affected. They say, let’s not do that, let’s save money and jobs but what they’re admitting is that they’re on the hook for funding as well as writing down their obsolete infrastructures.

In the recent Australian elections, the winning conservative candidate Prime Minister Scott Morrison,made mincemeat of his opponent, a green candidate from the Labor Party, Bill Shorten. Morrison made the contest a choice of jobs and a healthy economy vs. doing reasonable things about climate. All this despite the fact that, as an article in the New York Timesreported happened, “…in a country devastated by drought, heat waves, brush fires and the loss of its magnificent Great Barrier Reef to warming seas.”

How did this happen? How could it happen? Simply put the Greens thought they had a logical argument what with all the climate chaos around them. They didn’t think of arming themselves with information or consider the emotional side of losing a home to fire or the Great Barrier Reef. It was a big mistake and sadly, it is a recurrent theme. But it doesn’t have to be. The Green movement could start by educating itself rather than drafting behind catchy slogans, including the Green New Deal, whatever that is.

I’d like to convince you that the choice of jobs and a healthy economy or doing reasonable things about climate is a false dichotomy. It’s not an OR situation, it’s an AND. Economic change often forces the situation from OR to AND. Economic changes induced by disruptive innovations often require construction which creates jobs both in the actual construction of new infrastructure and later in operating the new systems. But constructing a new infrastructure costs money and surprise(!) it’s the capitalists whose finances are stressed by change, not the working man or woman.

Building Infrastructure

Consider this. In 2016, China added 64 GW of clean power generation capacity, about four times the US contribution, but then again, China’s population is about four times the size of the US. The European Union added 21 GW and India 13 GW.Unfortunately, not all of this capacity was added to a grid.

China is not adding transmission lines as fast as it adds generating capacity, for the simple reason that grids are bigger and more expensive construction projects than constructing a solar or wind farm. This results in stranded resources and curtailment meaning some existing generating resources can’t get their power to market. China’s attention is now focused more on building transmission lines to hook up those curtailed assets. According to Justin Wu, head of APAC at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, “China is facing slowing power demand and growing wind and solar curtailment. The government is now focused on investing in grids and reforming the power market so that the renewables in place can generate to their full potential.”

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Closer to home it’s much the same story. When I wrote “The Age of Sustainability” I was struck by some data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that still haunts me. According to a front-page article in April 2017 in The New York Times, jobs in solar energy already outpace those in coal (at the time) by a lopsided margin 373,807 to 160,119.But the same article also notes 398,235 jobs in natural gas and 515,518 in oil, so there’s work to do. But then again, we’re not talking about closing down the oil and gas industries. Also, bioenergy and wind support 130,677 and 101,738 jobs respectively.

As you can see in the graph above, jobs in coal have been declining for generations. Part of the decline is due to automation and a shift from tunneling in the earth to blowing up mountain tops and strip mining. In fact, there are more jobs now in solar than there are in coal, oil, and gas extraction in the US (see graphic below). Part of the reason for the shift is that solar and other renewables have crossed over and are now or becoming cost competitive with fossil fuels. That’s a paradigm shift and such things don’t go backwards so the idea of re-energizing the coal industry is a pipedream.

A simple BLS table lists the top two, and fastest growing jobs from 2016 to 2026 as solar photovoltaic installers (105-percent increase) and wind turbine service technicians (96-percent increase) — and neither one even requires a college education. So the Greening of America is well under way and you can see it in the shifts in employment. That’s the free market acting.

My two bits

The Green movement has a story to tell and it’s a good one. The technology is here today and capable of replacing fossil fuels. The economics are favorable because green solutions generate jobs and deliver power better and cheaper than corporate fossil fuel generators can.

We’re in a transition state where both fossil fuels and green solutions will coexist for a while. But given that earth is running out of fossil fuels as well as the state of the environment, there’s no reason to be timid about supporting the new energy paradigm. Be vocal but respectful when conservatives say we can’t do anything about the problem. There’s lots we can do and it’s being done by conservatives’ favorite mechanism, the free market. It all starts with educating yourself so that you don’t end up in a fetal position while some conservatives spew nonsense about your interest in preserving the planet for yourself and for them.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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