Sunday, August 27, 2017

Keep It 100 - by Bill Mckibben

The unimaginable is now possible:  100% renewable energy.  We can't settle for less.

The Knock On Environmentalists Is that They’ve Been Better at Opposing than Proposing.  Sure, being against overheating the planet or melting the ice caps should probably speak for itself—but it doesn’t give us a means.  So it’s important news that the environmental movement seems to be rallying round a new flag.  That standard bears a number:  100 percent.

It’s the call for the rapid conversion of energy systems around the country to 100 percent renewable power—a call for running the United States (and the world) on sun, wind, and water. What Medicare for All is to the healthcare debate, or Fight for $15 is to the battle against inequality, 100% Renewable is to the struggle for the planet’s future. It’s how progressives will think about energy going forward—and though it started in northern Europe and Northern California, it’s a call that’s gaining traction outside the obvious green enclaves.  In the last few months, cities as diverse as Atlanta and Salt Lake have taken the pledge.

No more half-measures.  Barack Obama drove environmentalists crazy with his “all-of-the-above” energy policy, which treated sun and wind as two items on a menu that included coal, gas and oil.  That is not good enough.  Many scientists tell us that within a decade, at current rates, we’ll likely have put enough carbon in the atmosphere to warm the Earth past the Paris climate targets.  Renewables—even the most rapid transition—won’t stop climate change, but getting off fossil fuel now might (there are no longer any guarantees) keep us from the level of damage that would shake civilization.

The plummeting cost of home solar (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
In any event, we no longer need to go slow:  In the last few years, engineers have brought the price of renewables so low that, according to many experts, it would make economic sense to switch over even if fossil fuels weren’t wrecking the Earth.  That’s why the appeal of 100% Renewable goes beyond the Left.  If you pay a power bill, it’s the common-sense path forward.
With each passing quarter, the 100 percent target is becoming less an aspirational goal and more the obvious solution.  Hell, I spent the spring in some of the poorest parts of Africa where people—for the daily price of enough kerosene to fill a single lamp—were installing solar panels and powering up TVs, radios and LED bulbs.  If you can do it in Germany and Ghana, you can do it in Grand Rapids and Gainesville.

Even 72 percent of Republicans want to “accelerate the development of clean energy.”  That explains why, for example, the Sierra Club is finding dramatic success with its #ReadyFor100 campaign, which lobbies cities to commit to 100 percent renewable.  Sure, the usual suspects, such as Berkeley, Calif., were quick to sign on.  But by early summer the U.S. Conference of Mayors had endorsed the drive, and leaders were popping up in unexpected places. Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin put it this way:  “It’s not merely an option now; it’s imperative.”

Environmental groups from the Climate Mobilization to Greenpeace to Food and Water Watch are backing the 100 percent target, differing mainly on how quickly we must achieve the transition, with answers ranging from one decade to around three.  The right answer, given the state of the planet, is 25 years ago.  The second best:  as fast as is humanly possible.  That means, at least in part, as fast as government can help make it happen.  The market will make the transition naturally over time (free sunlight and wind is a hard proposition to beat), but time is the one thing we haven’t got, so subsidies, hard targets and money to help spread the revolution to the poorest parts of the world are all crucial.

That’s why it’s so significant that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in April to propose the first federal 100 percent bill.  It won’t pass Congress this year—but as a standard to shape the Democratic Party agenda in 2018 and 2020, it’s critically important.

Congress, however, is not the only legislative body that matters in America.  Earlier this year, for instance, the California State Senate passed—by a 2-1 margin—a bill that would take the world’s sixth-largest economy to 100 percent renewable by 2045.  Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown, in a bid to recreate the spirit of the Paris climate talks, invited the world’s “sub-national” leaders—governors, mayors, regional administrators—to a San Francisco conference in September 2018.

“Look, it’s up to you and it’s up to me and tens of millions of other people to get it together,” Brown said, as he invited the world to his gathering.

That’s Not to Say that This Fight Is Going to Be Easy.  Fossil fuel corporations know they’re not the future, yet they’re determined to keep us stuck in the past.  Energy Secretary Rick Perry, for example, recently ordered a “study” that, as Democratic senators have pointed out, is “a thinly disguised attempt to promote less economic electric generation technologies, such as coal” by trying to show that intermittent sources of power such as sun and wind make the grid unreliable.

From the September issue of the new In These Times. (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
That’s always been the trouble with renewables:  The sun sets and the wind dies down.  Indeed, one group of academics challenged Mark Jacobson’s calculations this spring partly on these grounds, arguing that unproven techniques of capturing and storing carbon from fossil fuel plants will likely be necessary, as well as continued reliance on nuclear power.  Yet technology marches on.  Elon Musk’s batteries work in Tesla cars, but scaled up they make it economically feasible for utilities to store the afternoon’s sun for the evening’s electric demand.  In May, at an industry confab, one California utility executive put it this way: “The technology has been resolved.  How fast do you want to get to 100 percent?  That can be done today.”
That Means, of Course, that Renewables Advocates Need to Emphasize the Jobs that Will Be Created as We Move Toward Sun and Wind.  Already, more Americans are employed in the solar industry than in coal fields, and the conversion is only just beginning. Sanders and Merkley’s federal 100 percent bill, beyond its generous climate benefits, is expected to produce 4 million new jobs over the coming decades.

And since those jobs aren’t always going to be in the same places as the fossil fuel ones they replace, renewable advocates must also demand a just transition for displaced workers.  Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) is a pro-climate and pro-labor group advocating that such workers get a deal like the 1944 G.I. Bill: three years of full wages and benefits, four years of education and retraining, and job placement in community economic development programs. This, by the way, is also a strong reason for a robust social safety net—revolutions come with losers as well as winners.
The political battle for renewables will be hard-fought.  In January the New York Times reported that the Koch brothers have begun to aggressively (and cynically) court minority communities, arguing that they “benefit the most from cheap and abundant fossil fuels.”  Their goal is not only to win black voters to the GOP’s energy program, but to stall renewables in majority-black-and-brown cities like Richmond, Calif.

Read more at Keep It 100.

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