Did Climate Change Save the Environmental Movement?

– by The Shitty Activist

climate-change_marchIn many ways, climate change is the best thing that’s ever happened to the environmental movement. Not since the days of Three Mile Island and Love Canal has the fate of the planet figured so prominently in the public consciousness.

Popularized, in part, by Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, climate change awareness went mainstream around 2006. It seems the specter of global calamity was enough to finally convince the media, general public, and politicians – it usually goes in that order – to start taking our relationship with the Earth seriously.

Since then, climate change has been synonymous with environmentalism, with a major boost given by Bill McKibben and 350.org. And while there’s no question that climate change raised the profile of going green, has the focus on climate change eclipsed other aspects of the environmental movement? Or even worked counter to some of those campaigns?

Room to Consume?

The climate movement’s main push is to wean us off fossil fuels and transition to a renewable energy economy. Unless you’re a climate denier, you probably agree that’s a good idea (even if don’t believe in climate change, fossil fuels are still a finite resource that we’ll run out of eventually, anyway). However, the fossilized mammoth in the room is the fact that coal, oil, and natural gas currently make up 80% of our energy in the U.S. Individually, this amounts to about 20 tons of fossil fuels per person, per year. Over a 75-year life span, that’s 1,500 tons consumed by every single American.

While many climate activists support a reduction in energy use through conservation, efficiency, and lifestyle change, the “power down” concept is seldom a prominent message within the larger climate movement. For example, of the sixteen campaigns listed on the 350.org website, none address reducing energy consumption.

While it’s a noble goal, the climate movement has yet to provide a readable roadmap for how we’re going to go from our current 10% renewable energy to 100%, as we continue to consume more and more energy and exponentially grow our population.

Perhaps an analogy can make it more clear: If climate change can be likened to filling up a bathtub with water, and runaway climate change is what happens when the tub overflows, shouldn’t the first step be to turn down the faucet?

There’s no question that divestment from fossil fuels and the “keep it in the ground” campaign deserve to be one of the main priorities of the environmental movement. However, without equally addressing energy consumption, even if it’s effective, the anti-fossil fuels push may have some serious and potentially catastrophic unintended consequences.

Ironically, advocating for less fossil fuel without curbing our energy appetite threatens to knock out two of the foundational pillars of the environmental movement – the anti-nuclear and forest protection contingent.

Forests = Carbon

When you hear the term “renewable energy,” what do you picture? Solar panels twinkling from rooftops? Pinwheeling wind turbines? Well, the reality is that solar PV is only 4.4% of renewable energy (which, remember, is only 10% of total energy), and wind 18%.

And I’ll bet you a dollar you didn’t know that the #1 “renewable” energy source in the U.S. — nearly 50% — is bioenergy: burning trees, plants, manure, and trash for electricity, heat, and transportation fuels.

Forests are a significant and growing source of bioenergy. Aside from the invaluable services of fish and wildlife habitat, purifying clean water and regulating rainfall, and erosion and flood control, forests are also one of the world’s most effective buffers against climate change, sequestering and storing mind-boggling amounts of carbon in trees, roots, leaf litter, and soil. It shouldn’t take a climate scientist to explain what cutting and burning more forests for energy will do to the climate.

(Forests aside, burning biomass emits dozens of toxic air pollutants, such as asthma-inducing particulate matter and carcinogenic Volatile Organic Compounds, with many of these facilities sited in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.)

Opposing fossil fuels while maintaining the same (or increasing) energy consumption, and not delineating a specific renewable energy profile, is pretty much a vote for bioenergy — the low hanging fruit of alternative energy.

No Nukes is Good Nukes

Another unintended consequence of the climate movement’s opposition to fossil fuels alone is a potential resurgence of nuclear power. Without the Fukushima tragedy, we might already be seeing more nuke plants. The horrific and devastating events in Japan have bought us some time, but as soon as the disaster is eroded from the collective memory, I suspect we’ll see nuclear back on the table.

It’s important to note that NASA’s James Hansen, the climate scientist behind the infamous 350 number (referring to 350 parts per million, the “safe” level of CO2 in the atmosphere – we’re currently at 400) is an outspoken supporter of nuclear power. While nuclear power emits less CO2 than fossil fuels, it’s still a significant emitter.

And while carbon emissions are certainly one of the most important aspects to consider when it comes to choosing energy sources, there are other aspects of equal, perhaps even greater importance.

In the brief six decades that we’ve been utilizing nuclear power, there have been 33 “serious incidents,” several of which have been devastating, such as Fukushima and Chernobyl. Moving forward with nuclear power almost definitely means more radioactive contamination, sickness, and lives lost.

And let’s not forget that nuclear waste, the unavoidable byproduct of the generation of nuclear power, can last for hundreds of thousands of years.

The fact that a nuclear reactor hasn’t been built in the U.S. since 1990 is one of the environmental movement’s greatest achievements. Is a climate movement that seeks to eliminate fossil fuel use without specifically condemning nuclear power anything less than an endorsement?

Evolution of a Movement?

To be clear (because activists sometimes confuse constructive criticism with opposition), nothing in this article suggests that the climate movement is wrong-headed, that it should give up its anti-fossil fuels platform, or that it isn’t rightly at the forefront of the environmental movement.

However, it’s important for the climate movement (and all activist movements) to be realistic about its effectiveness, how it can adapt to meet its goals in regards to one of the most serious issues humanity has ever faced. As painful as it is to accept, we have to be honest with ourselves that, despite the vastly increased awareness of climate change — for which the climate movement is largely responsible — fossil fuel use continues to increase.

Unless the climate movement adopts a platform of reduced energy consumption, its ultimate legacy may not be the reduction of fossil fuels at all, but instead, merely providing “green” cover for a mushrooming of nuclear power and a barrage of bioenergy.


  1. says

    The climate movement in the USA is a large river fed by many tributaries and is often inconsistent and incoherent. As a group there is little agreement on a real plan, a clear strategy or effective tactics. There is much sugar coating of the truth and pushing of campaigns, like divestment, which pose little threat to business as usual. I agree with those who are calling for massive and wide spread civil disobedience instead of carnival marches and convergence of paid activists living in hotels. We need to get serious…

  2. says

    Bio-fuels should not be considered renewable energy. We will see a much larger reduction in CO2 emissions by adding wind and solar connected to nat gas plants with some batteries. Your reduction in overall CO2 will be much greater and faster for the same costs.

  3. says

    It’s bullshit that the climate change movement haven’t envisioned the transition to 100 percent wind, water, and solar energy. You’re doing the corporate media’s job for them by suggesting that rotting fish. Look at Robert Pollin’s “1.2 percent solution”: http://www.bostonreview.net/forum/robert-pollin-build-green-economy of Mark Jacobson’s the solutions project for state-by-state transitions: http://thesolutionsproject.org/

    • says

      Thanks for the comment.

      I agree that the climate movement is talking about renewable energy (though most of it currently involves bioenergy and big hydro dams). However, without a reduction in energy consumption — the main point of this article — it’ll be quite a difficult road to travel.

      Would love to see more examples of the climate movement talking about “destruction of demand” of energy. If you have any, please post them.

    • says

      The logistics of energy production and the fact that fossil fuels are needed to make and install solar PV and the rest are unaddressed by Mr. Jacobson’s reports. I’ve only used PV for a quarter century and don’t have a fancy job at Stanford, so my opinions probably don’t matter to those who think we will replace concentrated fossil fuels with diffused renewables without having to change the way we live.

      A much better series of reports that includes logistics is the series from Post Carbon Institute – http://www.postcarbon.org They look at the “100% renewable” requirement while recognizing we need to relocalize food production and prepare to use much less energy as the fossil fuels go into decline, imposed by Nature.

  4. turboblocke says

    Just look to Europe where many countries have energy efficiency programs, including subsidies for building insulation, more efficient heaters and low emission vehicles.

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