Barreling Past 400 Parts per Million of CO2 in the Atmosphere

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Barreling Past 400 Parts per Million of CO2 in the Atmosphere
The Status of Renewable Energy – REN21 Policy Briefing with US Representative Holt

Trinica Sampson, Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions | May 8, 2013

On April 25, Worldwatch Institute hosted the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), a policy briefing on the present and future of renewables in the United States and around the world. Founded in 2004, REN21 is a global policy network which aims to provide a forum for international leadership on renewable energy. Its mission is to allow the rapid expansion of renewable energies in developing countries by strengthening policy development and decision-making on sub-national, national, and international levels. The briefing presented information from the Renewables 2013 Global Status Report, which is one of the most referenced reports on renewable energy technology, market, and policy trends worldwide; and the Renewables Global Future Report, which provides a range of conclusions on the future of renewable energy based on the opinions of 170 leading experts around the world. This year’s emphasis is on system integration of renewables with electricity and energy.

Mohamed El-Ashry, Senior Fellow with the UN Foundation, provided some context for the world’s current relationship with renewables during his Introductory Remarks. He noted that, although the recent natural gas boom in the United States has helped the renewables industry, the lack of strong support mechanisms and uncertainty over production tax credit expiration dates leaves investors uncertain and unwilling to take the risk of investing in renewables. Despite this insecurity, renewable energy has had remarkable growth in the last year alone. El-Ashry pointed out that 70% of new power capacity added in Europe in 2011 was renewable, and in the last six years, the United States has quadrupled its electricity from renewables. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 the solar industry employed 35% more people than the coal mining industry. If this growth is to continue, however, he believes we will need to tighten our policies to ensure investors feel secure enough to continue investing.

Christine Lins, Executive Secretary of REN21, offered some insights and figures from the upcoming July 2013 edition of the REN21 Renewables Global Status Report. Lins explained that today, renewables supply an estimated 18% of global final energy consumption, about half of which is traditional biomass. REN21 is committed to doubling the share by 2030, with an emphasis on sustainable renewables. According to Lins, this means that “the modern renewables in the form of wind, modern biomass, solar, and hydro need to triple or even quadruple over the next two decades.” She noted that in 2011, 25% of global power generation capacity was based on renewables, and about 20% of global electricity was produced from renewable energy—with renewables accounting for nearly half of the new electricity capacity that was installed worldwide. In 2012, 30 gigabytes of new solar PV capacity came into being, with a total global capacity of 101 gigabytes installed. As Lins stated, this growth is indicative of the evolving market and falling prices, making renewable energy sources more accessible to more people in the world, including those in developing countries. Half of the 120 countries that have renewable energy policies in place are developing countries. But despite this good news, Lins clarified that this continued growth in manufacturing, sales, and installation was likely a result of a backlog of installations financed through recovery packages in 2011 and is not likely to continue at the same capacity in 2013. Between 2011 and 2012, a drop of 32% in investments occurred due to changes in policy and uncertainty in the market. Again, the shakiness of renewable energy policies is affecting investors. Lins shared three goals that REN21 would like to accomplish by 2030: Ensure universal access to modern energy services, double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

Although REN21’s goals are impressive and achieving them is crucial in the development of widespread renewable energy programs and integration, other issues came to the forefront when author Eric Martinot described the future of renewable energy. He had published a report featuring 150 leading experts in renewable energy and their opinions on the future of renewable energy. The findings led Martinot to three key realizations: our current thinking about renewable energy is “ten or twenty years behind the reality of where renewables are today”; we are facing an “explosion of policies” related to power grids, transport, buildings, and industry in the next five to ten years; and the future of renewable energy is no longer a question of technology or cost but is instead related to finance, business models, investments, standards and codes, and new ways of integrating types of business models for utilities that have to come into play.

Martinot outlined three main aspects of renewable energy that must be addressed now and in the near future: what share of our energy mix we can get from renewable sources in a long-term time period, investments, and cost. In terms of shares coming from renewables, he gave three common scenarios: low-shares or conservative scenarios in the 15-20% range, moderate-share scenarios in the 30-50% range, and high-share scenarios with 50-80% of total global energy. Martinot argued that low-share projections are no longer credible because we are already reaching moderate-share of renewables in the energy mix. He also claimed that, since countries such as Germany and Denmark project eighty and even one hundred percent shares, it is becoming a question of how and when we will reach such levels rather than if. (Such optimism seems questionable, with only 3% of US energy coming from renewables and no talk of the need to reduce consumption.)

As far as investments are concerned, Martinot said experts expect renewable energy investments to double by 2020 or 2050, bringing our annual number of investments up to 500 billion. However, our current sources of finance—bank lending and utility balance sheet finance— “just won’t cut it.” Experts are looking at insurance and pension funds as viable new sources of investment. The hope is that renewable energy would be seen as the lowest risk renewable energy policy and a way to balance portfolios. Martinot also listed aggregated securities funds, community funds, oil companies, equipment suppliers and vendors, sovereign wealth funds, and national governments as other possible sources of investment.

Less worrisome was the aspect of cost. In fact, Martinot showed that, at less than $1 per watt, the cost of solar PV panels has fallen by a factor of three in the last three to four years. The cost of the panel is a non-issue. According to Martinot, “the issue is the cost of the installation labor, the cost of the framing, the cost of wiring the house, the cost of the system.” There are ways to lower these costs, he said, such as building standards, pre-wired solar PV, and building integration materials. He noted that if such changes are made, experts see solar PV panels spreading around the world in the next five to ten years.

United States Representative Rush Holt was able to lend some congressional insight about renewable energy, but the news was not all positive. Holt called out his fellow congressman and the U.S. administration for not looking at environmental issues with any sense of the urgency that is so vital if we are to achieve levels of sustainability. When asked why the administration has been quiet on the issue of climate change, he said that it has become a passing topic in Congress. He attributes that to his colleagues saying, “‘I don’t know what to think, so we won’t think about it.’” Holt acknowledged their reticence toward a discourse on climate change, stating that “we are losing track in this country—we have lost track here in Congress. We are barreling past 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.” As of April 30, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured a reading of 399.50 ppm, nearly 50 parts higher than the amount at which uncontrollable climate change occurs. Holt lambasted his fellow congressmen, asking “how many Hurricane Sandy’s, how many barges running aground in the Mississippi, how many wildfires out west, how many disruptions—costly in lives and dollars—in our climate do we need before we actually assign some urgency to the energy transition?” Holt calls the way we produce and use energy today “the greatest insult to our planet,” and as the month of May continues, we may very well find our CO2 levels reaching 400 ppm for the first time in 5,000,000 years. According to Holt, “It’s not how much energy we generate; it’s whether we are generating energy in a way that actually helps improve the lives of people.”

The briefing examined the positive aspects of our current status with renewable energy, but the points brought up by Congressman Holt were sobering. As Alexander Ochs, Moderator and Director of Climate and Energy at Worldwatch Institute pointed out, “This is amazing, but this isn’t enough. We’re already beyond 400 parts per million of climate change. We’re still driving head-on into war.” It is a war not of weapons, but of willpower against a common enemy—ourselves. If we cannot fight our way of thinking which glorifies an unsustainable, consumption-driven economy, and if we do not establish a sense of urgency on a worldwide level, we will lose the struggle.

Global Status Report 2013 will be published on June 11 and can be found at www.ren21.net


Trinica Sampson is an Antioch College intern doing her spring quarter co-op job at Community Solutions. To follow the work of the Antioch interns at Community Solutions, visit their blog.

Worldwatch Symposium – Is Sustainability Still Possible?

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Worldwatch Institute Symposium – April 16, 2013
Is Sustainability Still Possible?

By Trinica Sampson, Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions

Pat Murphy in a panel discussion.
Left to right: Tomas Prugh, Pat Murphy, Erik Assadourian, Laurie Mazur, and Michael Maniates.

On Tuesday, April 16, the Worldwatch Institute held its seventeenth annual State of the World Symposium to launch its latest book, State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? As contributors to the book, Pat Murphy and Faith Morgan of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions were invited to attend the event, where Pat spoke on one of several panels. The complex topic of sustainability was addressed along with the need to measure it in order to prepare for the currently unsustainable future toward which we are making quick strides. The symposium was held in Washington, but an online live stream of the panels was offered for those of us who could not make it to D.C.

It began with an introductory video sprinkled with pop culture references that gave an appropriately thorough summary of the state of the world to the whimsical background music of a Ludwig van Beethoven symphony. Quickly, however, the initially light-hearted tone of the video gave way to powerful images of urban graveyards, burning forests, and collapsed ecosystems, showing the effects of the consumptive lifestyle we as a species have fallen into. The music faded away, leaving only a steady, heavy ticking that alerted the audience to the fact that we are on a schedule, and our time is running out. As the video ended, Tom Prugh, co-director of State of the World 2013, stepped to the front of the stage to deliver his opening remarks. As he surveyed the audience, he spread his arms and pronounced, “Welcome to our world.”

Despite the somber atmosphere established early on, the symposium was not depressing by any means. Rather, it was realistic about our situation, an admirable feat when one considers the nonchalant attitude that the majority of the world takes when it comes to the problems we are facing today. Robert Engelman, President of Worldwatch Institute, called attention to one inconsistency that contributes to the issue. According to Engelman, an unambiguous definition for sustainability is necessary to avoid incomprehensible “sustainababble” and the tendency that has arisen to use sustainability as a marketing tool, effectively ridding the word of all impact. Until we have such a definition, it is nearly impossible to determine what sustainability is, how we can achieve it, and how far away from it we are. Engelman defined it as “living decently in the present without undermining the capacity of future generations to live just as decently as we are doing,” or, to put it more succinctly, “that which can endure and takes the future into account.” In terms of that definition, he does not think we are on the right track. In fact, he claimed, “Today, we are probably further away from sustainability than we were twenty-one years ago.” When it comes to the question that State of the World 2013 asks—Is sustainability still possible?—Engelman said he doesn’t consider the question necessary. He went on to say that nature is in the early stages of unraveling and will find a sustainable level eventually, noting that with climate change comes an increasing need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Rather than laboring over whether or not sustainability is possible, Engelman supposes we should prepare for a world that has nearly exhausted its resources and a future that will bring hardships unlike any humanity has previously experienced.

The first panel, Getting to True Sustainability, endeavored to address possible solutions for repairing our world. The panelists were Shakuntala Makhijani, research associate for Worldwatch Institute’s Climate and Energy Program; Jennie Moore, director of sustainable development and environmental stewardship in the School of Construction and the Environment at British Columbia Institute of Technology; Eric Zencey, fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont; and Sandra Postel, director and founder of the Global Water Policy Project. Each speaker discussed the overwhelming addiction to consumption that humans have displayed for decades. Moore advocated for reducing our intake of red meat, transitioning into an economy that shares resources, and stopping reliance on the automobile. Following this line of curtailment, Makhijani said that, although we have the land for renewable energy to fill our needs, widespread use of land could have devastating impacts on many ecosystems. She said that renewable energy programs must be integrated to respect local land agreements and limitations, and would need to be implemented globally. Postel agreed with the need to reduce red-meat consumption, and also spoke about the problem of a growing consumer population in regards to our fresh water. She explained that 10% of today’s food supply depends on the currently unsustainable use of rapidly diminishing groundwater. “Sustainability means,” she stressed, “providing enough water, at sufficient quality, at the right time, to sustain both people and ecosystems—and where we tap ground water, making sure we don’t deplete the supply. We’re literally taking tomorrow’s water to meet today’s food demands. It’s unsustainable at every level.” She also noted that, as our population continues to grow, the amount of water remains at a constant level. Having balances to control our use of water can apply across the board to all rapidly depleting resources. According to Postel, there is also an overwhelming need for us to create “space” for people living in poor conditions to have an improved quality of life, and this cannot happen without caps on our consumption. She suggested reducing the amount of water we “eat” through processed foods, buying less clothing each year, and carpooling to save both water and energy.

With an economist’s point-of-view, Zencey interjected, “The point of the economy isn’t to cycle resources through as fast as possible . . . the point of the economy should be deliberate, sustainable well-being.” He cautioned, however, that we can’t reach this target without learning to measure the costs compared to the gains of our productivity methods. He noted that there are consequences of using land and water for renewable energy. The Earth may reach sustainability, but how much will we suffer on the journey? There is a need, Zencey said, to get the press to report these and other ecological truths rather than what they imagine the people want to hear. Civil society should be the drivers of the change, rather than merely be consumers.

The second panel, Preparing for the Long Emergency, examined our future on this planet. The panelists were Erik Assadourian, senior fellow at Worldwatch Institute; Michael Maniates, professor of environmental science and political science at Allegheny College and an Oberlin College visiting professor of environmental studies; author Laurie Mazur; and our own Research Director, Pat Murphy. They emphasized that we do not have to resign ourselves to a completely bleak future. As Mazur said, “The good news is that humans are nothing if not resilient. . . . but the bad news is that the societies that we are living in are undermining both natural and human resilience at every turn. I think the challenge surrounding us is to build societies that re-enforce rather than undermine our innate resilience.” As she explained in her chapter “Cultivating Resilience in a Dangerous World,” a system for a successful, resilient society must have diverse components, several ways to perform basic functions, modularity and self-sufficiency, reserves, social capital, agency, inclusiveness, and tight feedback. While the overpopulation of the rich makes population control a difficult topic to discuss, Mazur maintained that the reparation of our world will require “inclusive economic shrinkage” and exercising our human capacity for innovation and compassion for one another as well as the world.

Maniates approached the topic of sustainability from an educator’s perspective. He affirmed that the good news is there are more students in environmental science programs today than ever before. According to Maniates’s chapter, “Teaching for Turbulence,” the United States has the largest concentration of environmental studies and science (ESS) programs in the world. In the past 23 years the number has nearly doubled from 500 programs to 1,200, making ESS one of the fastest-growing fields of undergraduate study in the country. The bad news, however, is that the training the students are receiving is inefficient and incoherent, leaving graduates ill-prepared to traverse a turbulent future. ESS programs became the go-to for students who could not succeed in biology, chemistry, or geology. “On more than a few campuses,” Maniates wrote, “‘ES’ came to stand for “easy science.”

One problem is that current programs are too small-scale. In addition, he explained three common patterns of teaching that are apparent in today’s programs. The first tends toward giving students a sense of urgency for the coming crisis. They realize that the institutions they would normally look to for solutions—the market, the government, and education—are unable to address current environmental issues, and they begin to assume that crises are the only way to prompt the system into change. The second teaching design focuses on assessing environmental dangers and evaluating differing solutions. The third type of course encourages local or campus-wide community projects such as recycling initiatives with the hope that the knowledge gleaned can be applied on a larger scale. Although these approaches are admirable, Maniates believes that it is necessary to have an emphasis on political power and cultural transformation in order to implement any lasting change. After a survey conducted by Sam Rigotti, an environmental studies student at Allegheny College, it became clear that around 75% of students surveyed thought that buying more vegetables, applying a few “green” lifestyle changes, and simply spreading the word would be more likely to change the world than any political engagement. Maniates finds this way of thinking to be “attractive, plausible, and dead wrong.” He notes that most Americans resist changing their behavior in any consistent manner. But even if they were to drastically change their lifestyles, Maniates maintained that problems largely unrelated to personal consumption would still cause our ecosystem to collapse, “albeit just a bit more slowly.” Thus his stress on the need for political engagement.

Clearly, crises are coming. However, Maniates believes they will not be the “system-jarring” crises that people expect. Instead, he said, “the disasters that ESS graduates will confront are likely to be slow-motion affairs. . . . Water will grow scarcer, food prices will rise, coastal cities will periodically flood as increasingly intense storms lash their shores, droughts will become more commonplace, livelihoods will be disrupted, economies may falter, and inequality will deepen.” These smaller, gradual disasters will cause what environmental analysts refer to as “‘insecure affluence’: the growing sense among a large slice of Americans that their economic position in life is unstable at best and more likely at imminent risk.” They will not want to sacrifice, especially not when asked to by “elitist” environmentalists.

Despite this bleak outlook, he insisted that it “doesn’t have to be this way.” He advocated a reworking of current ESS programs, and in “Teaching for Turbulence,” he outlined a successful program as one which gave students the “theoretical background and classroom practice to explore how they can best pursue their passions in rough water.” The program would ask students to think critically and imaginatively about human nature and the nature of crisis, interrogate competing theories of political and cultural change, and foster strategic thinking about a politics of anger or the anxiety that comes with insecure affluence. He also encourages programs to “explore the changing role of science and scientists in the struggle for sustainability.” Maniates believes that if these programs are made to be coherent and if students are re-engaged with problems that really matter along with a focus on social transformation, a successful environmental revolution can be effected.

Pat used Cuba as an example of such a revolution. In their chapter “Cuba: Lessons from a Forced Decline,” Pat noted that “Cuba has become an important example, since in the past two decades it has reduced its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 25 percent, from 3.2 tons per person in 1990 to 2.4 tons in 2009. Cuba’s focus on meeting basic human needs instead of on economic growth and consumption offers an important example to the rest of the world.” With the collapse of the USSR in 1990, Cuba was cut off from 80% of their food supply and half their oil. Without fuel, car use declined and the public transportation system was revitalized. Without food imports, they were forced to change their diet and begin organic gardening with oxen. The United States cut off trade access to Cuba, and without a market for its goods, exports dropped 75 percent, resulting in critical food shortages. “In response to the crisis,” Pat noted, “Cuba announced the implementation of the Periodo Especial (Special Period) in August 1990,” a series of contingency plans developed for wartime. They rationed their food, began reforestation projects for bio fuels, cleaned up rivers, and implemented solar, wind, and mini-hydropower for additional electricity. Urban farming has become a large contributor of domestic fruits and vegetables. According to Pat, “Urban farms produce 1.5 million tons of vegetables a year without using synthetic chemicals and supply 70 percent or more of the fresh vegetables consumed in Havana and other cities. Pat believes that the reason Cuba has survived and thrived despite the crushing blow to their economy is because “they operate on a system of cooperation rather than competition.Clearly, their forced decline resulted in a system that has improved their way of living in many ways—Cuba holds equal or better figures with the United States on many terms. Pat writes that “Cubans use 85 percent less energy on average and account for 86 percent less CO2” than Americans. Cuba boasts 6.4 physicians per 1,000 people, more than double the 2.67 physicians per 1,000 people that the United States has. Cubans are just below the United States life expectancy of 78.4 years with an expectancy of 77.7 years, and their birth rate of 4.8 deaths per 1,000 births is much lower than the United States mortality rate of 6.06 deaths. Pat pointed out, “Cuba represents an alternative where material success as measured by energy consumption is secondary while other quality-of-life issues are given priority. The message is clear: humanity will survive and can even thrive in a resource-constrained world if it learns from the Cuban example.”

People were intrigued by Cuba’s success, and Pat was asked several questions about the Cubans and their lifestyle. David Orr of Oberlin College said that an American audience would complain, ‘Oh my god, you’re asking us to sacrifice!’ if asked to change their way of living as drastically as the Cubans did. He challenged Pat to morph the message into a more positive one in order to appeal to a wider audience, and Pat’s frank response was to relate Cuba’s situation to what he learned from his heart attack years before. “If you want to survive,” he said, “you’re going to have to make some changes.”

Assadourian agreed, saying that this is about saving the planet as well as ourselves. In his chapter “Building an Enduring Environmental Movement,” he stressed the need for a shift to a sustainable, independent, and resilient society. He wrote, “Humanity needs… a sense of intergenerational responsibility.… To spread these, the movement will need to redevelop its grassroots potential, diversify its sources of funding, and use a variety of innovative strategies like embedding environmental education into schools’ core curricula.” It is his belief that, rather than struggling to reduce overall toxicity levels, environmentalism should aim to “transform the dominant growth-centric economic and cultural paradigm into an eco-centric one that respects planetary boundaries.” How is such a feat accomplished? One way, Assadourian suggested, is to create an ecological philosophy able to guide individuals’ behavior and recommit a large community of people to helping the planet flourish. He wrote, “The ethics of an effective eco-philosophy must be grounded … in Earth’s ecological realities and should facilitate humanity’s Earth-nurturing purpose.” He compared such a philosophy to religions of the past in that it cannot be successful without the ability to spread its message and cultivate a community. He suggested providing social programs, schools that promote an environmentalist philosophy and eco-clinics that spread prevention methods as well as supplying medicine. To receive money for such services will require a tight-knit community, and Assadourian believes that people are more likely to give to their own communities than to indifferent door-to-door solicitors. Whether or not an environmentalist philosophy takes off, he hopes we can avoid a total collapse. “The second hope is that, failing this,” he wrote, “we preserve enough knowledge and wisdom so that… our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren do not reinvent our mistakes.”

Science fiction novelist and keynote speaker Kim Stanley Robinson presented a similar message. According to Robinson, when we ask whether it is too late to become sustainable, the question we are truly asking is, “Have we wrecked the capacity of our earth to sustain our weight and needs?” He predicted that with our current lifestyle, it is inevitable that we will pass the planet’s carrying capacity. As a result, the planet will have to find some equilibrium. “At some point,” he said, “sustainability comes about because the opposite is a crash.” But what will the consequences be?  We want to believe in a silver bullet, a fix-all to this problem, but what we need is a new society that measures and uses science to take action. His perspective as a writer of science fiction was interesting—truly, the dystopian futures that are so prevalent in such novels have become our present and our immediate future if we do not change our ways. Still, although prospects seem grim, there is also hope. As Robinson said, “I think we can do this, because I think it is the only thing— to adapt to dangerous situations.”

Sustainability is not just a word but, as Erik Assadourian pointed out, a philosophy. The fact that books such as this are written, that we hold symposiums with people who believe so strongly in the need for change, the fact that we are able to have intelligent discourse on the merits and problems of the subject… that, I think, is one of the greatest tools we have. We may not be a majority, but to quote Samuel Adams, “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.”


The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions is a small non-profit organization located in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Founded by Arthur Morgan in 1940, the organization is now headed by Executive Director Faith Morgan and Research Director Pat Murphy. Its mission is to use the benefits of small communities to create a sustainable, low-energy world that seeks to rise above the struggle of peak oil, fossil fuel depletion, climate change, and inequity. For more about Cuba and the organization, and their film, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, visit www.powerofcommunity.org or www.communitysolution.org

Trinica Sampson is an Antioch College intern doing her spring quarter co-op job at Community Solutions. To follow the Antioch interns at Community Solutions visit: http://antiochinterns-cs.blogspot.com/2013/05/worldwatch-institute-state-of-world.html

Climate Change Update

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December 5, 2012

Season’s Greetings,

Ten years ago we began the Community Solutions program by talking about community as an antidote to diminishing fossil fuels in the future. As our awareness grew climate change moved to the forefront of our concern – with the realization that the fossil fuels in the earth today may need to stay there unused.

Pat and I are old enough to have both lived in earlier, simpler times, where houses were smaller, families had one car, and in general consumption (and fossil fuel use) was considerably less than it is today. It doesn’t appear to us that the current fast-passed life with more resource consumption is bringing more satisfaction to us or others. In the 1950’s and 60’s we had good schools and medical care, and inequality was not as severe as it is now. This leads us to believe that cutting back on fossil fuel use will not mean going back to a time when people were very materially lacking. We are talking about moving from a society that is strongly individualistic and based on consumption to one that is based on cooperation and sharing and which is more equitable.

Climate Change Update

We sometimes feel we have been a voice crying in the wilderness, arguing for curtailment, for a voluntary reduction in fossil fuel consumption to avoid the ravages of climate change – while the dominant voices are arguing for technical breakthroughs and the “greening” of everything imaginable. Now it suddenly seems like everyone has begun talking (or writing), and repeating some of our views – and the idea of curtailment is now in the air. Two recent papers come to mind, one an interview with a leading British climate scientist and the other an article in Green Car Congress that covers the latest “Low Carbon Economy Index” report from consulting company PwC.

The climate scientist is Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the UK Tyndall Centre on Climate Change and an expert on greenhouse-gas emissions trajectories. In the article he explains that it’s difficult to link any particular extreme in the weather to greenhouse-gas emissions. He states, “We always have had such events; extremes do occur. But if extremes start to occur regularly they’re no longer extremes, and what you’re then seeing is not a weather extreme, you’re seeing change in the climate.” He goes on to say, “We are struggling to find any other reasons for them and therefore it does seem a high probability that these events are caused, if not exacerbated by, the rise in CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases and hence the increase in temperature.”

Anderson is part of a growing concern that mankind may have gone too far to reverse a degrading climate. He states that, “If you look at the emissions we’ve already put out into the atmosphere since the start of this century, and you look at what’s likely to be emitted over the next few years…  It’s hard to imagine that, unless we have a radical sea-change in attitudes towards emissions, we will avoid heading towards a 6° Celsius rise [in the Earth’s atmosphere] by the end of this century.” He notes that keeping the Earth’s temperature rise to only 2° C will require an annual 10% (absolute) reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the wealthiest countries in the world, the OECD nations.

He is not the only one calling for a greater than 3% per year reduction in CO2 emissions. In the November 5th article in Green Car Congress, the title states, “PwC analysis finds meeting 2° C warming target would require ‘unprecedented and sustained’ reductions over four decades” (italics are theirs). It goes on to say that a rate of 5.1% per year in reduction of carbon intensity (i.e. the use of fossil fuels for energy) is necessary from now to 2050 since so little progress has been made in the past ten years. PwC is quoted, “The challenge now is to implement gigatonne scale reductions across the economy, in power generation, energy efficiency, transport and industry…We have passed a critical threshold—not once since World War 2 has the world achieved that rate of decarbonization, but the task now confronting us is to achieve it for 39 consecutive years.”

The Climate Crisis Demands Planned Economic Contraction

Both writers say that we simply must consume a lot less energy in the short and medium time framework – i.e. now. They note that we do not have an alternate low carbon energy supply in place – and that we cannot get one in place quickly enough to replace fossil fuels. The problem, Anderson points out, is that, “if our economy was … growing at 2% per annum, and we were trying to get a 3% per annum reduction in our emission, that’s a 5% improvement in the efficiency,” which Pat often points out is historically extremely unlikely. Anderson goes on to make it clear that the reductions we need to make are not compatible with economic growth. He notes that, “the Stern Report… was quite clear that there was no evidence that any more than a 1% per annum reduction in emissions had ever been associated with anything other than ‘economic recession or upheaval.’

It is worth looking at what happened when the USSR collapsed. In his article, Anderson explains that as the Eastern Bloc countries economy collapsed their emissions drop was about 5% per year for about 10 years – relatively prolonged, completely unplanned and very chaotic. Though this was a terrible time for many people, it still did not achieve the rate of reductions that we need now. With the Soviet Bloc and Cuba as examples, it is clear that we would be better off if we planned the economic contraction that would result from reducing fossil fuel use. If planned we believe it need not have the devastating and very inequitable impact that it very clearly had in Russia in particular.

Looking for a New Language Paradigm

None of us really want to face what it means to have a contracting economy, and promises of technical breakthroughs continue to make us complacent. There is something else, the words we use, that also keeps us in a state of denial. Some popular ones are sustainable, green, and resilient. In particular sustainability is now used by corporations and other institutions, and reported on in annual sustainability plans.  The contradiction is obvious when Ford produces a report noting the reduction of water use in car manufacturing, followed by an upbeat announcement that the company has produced 350,000,000 cars in its lifetime. The term sustainability is now so broadly used that there is no hope of any meaningful measure that can be attached to it – such measures must somehow lead to an 80% cut in CO2 emissions within 38 years.

Sustainability became a watchword when the UN Brundtland Commission published its 300 page report “Our Common Future” in 1987, which defined “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The core of this report is the assumption that the Third World could (and should) be “Lifted Up” to the level of consumption of the First World through economic growth. The implication was an ever increasing use of fossil fuels to achieve this goal. Our current high energy globalization efforts are based on this very questionable assumption.

A recent article by law professor Robin Graig entitled “Climate Change Means the Death of Sustainability” states that in light of climate change, sustainable economic development (i.e. economic growth) no longer makes any sense. He points out that human well being ultimately depends on the physical, chemical, and biological processes throughout the earth including its atmosphere and oceans. He makes the key point that the effects of climate change will be a factor in human existence far longer into the future than the U.S. has been a country.

We think that the concept of sustainable development should be replaced with sustainable contraction. But even as an adjective, the word sustainable does not communicate the seriousness of the crisis. Words such as “survivability” and “sufficiency” are far more appropriate. Kevin Anderson agrees noting “It’s a future about sufficiency more than it is about greed and wants. Whether it’ll be radically different from where we are today will depend on how fast we respond now…we will have lots of opportunities to behave differently, adopt lower consumption habits…With a greater degree of equity, scarce energy resources can be balanced with high-welfare lives.”

There is no such thing as sustainable development at this point – it is time for “curtailment of energy use” and to “become more sustainable” will mean to “cut CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050”. All other factors and goals must become secondary to this one.

Looking for a New Cultural Paradigm

Our first trip to Cuba was in 2003. We saw firsthand how adaptive people can be when they don’t have financial or high-tech resources to address the crisis caused by a lack of fossil fuel availability. We have maintained our relationship with Cuba – as it has become for us the most significant low-energy model of all the countries of the world. We are thrilled to have an article in the upcoming WorldWatch State of the World 2013 due out in April 2013 – Cuba: Lessons from a Forced Decline. Island Press already has a description of the book on their website at http://islandpress.org/ip/books/book/islandpress/S/bo9243427.html which says:

“Every day, we are presented with a range of ‘sustainable’ products and activities—from ‘green’ cleaning supplies to carbon offsets—but with so much labeled as ‘sustainable,’ the term has become essentially sustainababble, at best indicating a practice or product slightly less damaging than the conventional alternative. Is it time to abandon the concept altogether, or can we find an accurate way to measure sustainability? If so, how can we achieve it? And if not, how can we best prepare for the coming ecological decline?

In the latest edition of WorldWatch Institute’s State of the World series, scientists, policy experts, and thought leaders tackle these questions, attempting to restore meaning to sustainability as more than just a marketing tool. In State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, experts define clear sustainability metrics and examine various policies and perspectives, including geo-engineering, corporate transformation, and changes in agricultural policy, that could put us on the path to prosperity without diminishing the well-being of future generations. If these approaches fall short, the final chapters explore ways to prepare for drastic environmental change and resource depletion, such as strengthening democracy and societal resilience, protecting cultural heritage, and dealing with increased conflict and migration flows.”

We are pleased to have a spot in the final section. We are done arguing about the s-word. We are ready to face the challenge of environment change and resource depletion, and are always ready to strengthen democracy, and protect cultural heritage. The cultural heritage we want to protect, reinvigorate, and return to is community. This has many meanings but for us it is counter to the materialism of the post WW II period and is a vision of returning to a path based on relationship not resources. We, and many of our friends and co-workers, are busy reducing our resource use and finding it exciting and challenging. That attitude – one of being ready to take up the challenge, rejecting the focus on wealth and power (warned against by all our religious traditions and philosophers), and choosing to be part of the transformation to a new and better world, lessens our fears.

To quote Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

New Plug-in Scam Website

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Visit www.pluginscam.org

Click logo to visit www.pluginscam.org

Due to the growing concern about the prevalence of misinformation about energy – and especially information relative to plug-in electric vehicles, Pat created a website, PlugInScam.org, where he writes regular blog postings and white papers addressing vehicle electrification.

Car companies, government agencies, and our President are involved in covering up the actual fuel economy (MPG) and associated carbon dioxide emissions of such vehicles.  PlugInScam.org is devoted to exposing the “false solution” of plug-in cars, both battery electric vehicles (BEV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV). Its objective is to inform people about the MPG misrepresentation for BEVs and PHEVs done to provide false hope for the “clean” electrification of personal transportation.

The main purpose of this website is to expose government misrepresentation of the miles per gallon (MPG) ratings of plug-in cars. Pat believes conventional gasoline hybrids combined with real time ride sharing, represents the best approach for the nation to significantly reduce its use of gasoline. He and his wife own a Toyota Prius and a Honda Insight.

A Summary of Transition

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Pat Murphy                March 21, 2011

Developing this eight part critique on the Transition movement via a series of blog entries has been highly educational. I had hoped to do one more on the topic of relocalization but other demands on my time require that it be deferred. I feel the existing blogs provide a sufficient review of the Transition Movement.

For this final post, I will focus my comments on some of Transition’s strategic principles. After all, at the end of the day, people’s question about Transition may be “So do you like it or not?” However, the question I ask myself is “Is Transition an important movement for the U.S. that will help us address Peak Oil and Climate Change?” I have four considerations in answer to this which are:

Transition’s Success Claims

Cheerful Disclaimer Commentary

Collective Genius Argument

What next for Transition

Transition’s Success Claims

Transition leaders’ claims of success are largely a function of its supposedly “explosive” growth. The dual threats to humanity from Peak Oil and Climate Change are significant and I feel strongly that people should not be misled with exaggerated marketing statements. They need factual verifiable information. Recently I made my weekly visit to the Transition US web site where I observed a one hour video presentation by official Transition trainer Tina Clarke made in February 2011 at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. She opened her talk with the comment “There are a thousand communities in the UK where this whole thing started and there are thousands more around the world.”[1] She referenced  transitionnetwork.org which shows 352 initiatives worldwide, 200 of them in the UK as of March 1, 2011.[2] By Transition records, there are hundreds (not thousands) of communities that have started Transition Initiatives; but the Transition leadership constantly and consistently refers to thousands of communities. It is very difficult for me to accept this level of hyperbole. If Transition cannot succeed based on its actual record but requires an order of magnitude exaggeration, then its future is dubious.

Cheerful Disclaimer Commentary

The Transition U.S. Vision, Mission, and Strategic Action Plan include the “Cheerful Disclaimer” restated here. [3]

Cheerful Disclaimer - Just in case you were under the impression that Transition is a process defined by people who have all the answers, you need to be aware of a key fact. We truly don’t know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale. What we are convinced of is this:

If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late

If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little

But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.

The Cheerful Disclaimer acknowledges that Transition is a social experiment. But more important in the statement is a core principle that questions the contribution of individuals and governments. In my talks to Transition groups and others, I discuss what key individuals are doing, particularly individuals in my local community of Yellow Springs. I also explain important programs and activities of the U.S. government and non profit organizational efforts. More often than not, someone in the audience queries this, wondering why I bring up government and individuals since Transition focuses on the community to their exclusion. I cannot accept this particular Transition perspective, particularly in the U.S.

In one sense, the whole Peak Oil movement is the work of extraordinary individuals starting with M. King Hubbert in the U.S. and continuing with people like J. Gever, R, Kaufman, D Skole and C. Vorosmarty (authors of the 1986 book Beyond Oil)[4],  Matt Simmons, Ken Deffeyes, Steve Andrews, Randy Udall, Michael Klare, Richard Heinberg, and Michael Ruppert, to mention some early pioneers. There are a few dozen other U.S. authors and key activists who are the leaders of this movement. Even Rob Hopkins’ personal significant contribution seems a contradiction to the idea that individual efforts will be too little. In terms of climate change, the leading figures in the U.S. are individuals such as James Hansen and Bill McGibbon. They are backed up by researchers in climate change, many (if not most) of whom are directly or indirectly funded by national governments. To date, most of the efforts have been by governments and individuals and small non profits – there has been little “local community” involvement in the sense that Transition uses it.

Solutions are also coming from individuals, both those in government and without. Consider the work of the Passive House movement (highly individualistic Germans and Americans) and the Building America high performance building program (government backed). The dynamic shared transport movement springs very much from innovative individuals such as Sean O’Sullivan (entrepreneur) of Avego in Ireland. David Pimentel (educator) is a classic individual contributor with his many decades long analysis of energy and food. There are many more.

One could easily interpret the Cheerful Disclaimer statement to imply that Transition may possibly be the only viable alternative to disaster, since no one else is trying to organize communities as they are. Transition proposes to be unique, which it is, and that may be its appeal. However, it gives the impression that its supporters have the only solutions (or the ways of finding them) with all others being likely to fail. The missionary zeal that accompanies its uniqueness is disquieting. Some Transition advocates have reacted negatively to my examples of good government programs and some absolutely heroic individual efforts. The devaluation of individual work is surprising and the assumption that governments cannot or will not make a contribution is naive.

One possible result is a separation between Transition advocates and the activists who are working directly on the core issue of climate change and peak oil – consumption. Governments, individuals and non profits will continue to go about their business of reducing energy – knowing that in doing so society is likely to change dramatically. I live in the community of Yellow Springs (population 3,500), which is taking important steps to curtail fossil fuel use – steps supported by the local government. This is happening without an Energy Descent Action Plan. We have six passive house homes and retrofits underway, three farmers markets and several CSAs.

Collective Genius Argument

The Vision and Mission of Transition is stated as follows:

Vision – Our vision is that every community in the United States has engaged its collective creativity to unleash an extraordinary and historic transition to a future beyond fossil fuels; a future that is more vibrant, abundant and resilient; one that is ultimately preferable to the present.

Mission – Transition US is a resource and catalyst for building resilient communities across the United States that are able to withstand severe energy, climate or economic shocks while creating a better quality of life in the process. We will accomplish our mission by inspiring, encouraging, supporting, networking and training individuals and their communities as they consider, adopt, adapt, and implement the Transition approach to community empowerment and change. The Transition approach is based on four key assumptions:

That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise

That our communities currently lack resilience

That we have to act collectively, and we have to act now to build community resilience and prepare for life without fossil fuels

That by unleashing the collective genius of our communities it is possible to design new ways of living that are more nourishing, fulfilling and ecologically sustainable

The Vision statement emphasizes the need for a community to have “engaged its collective creativity.” The first three assumptions in the Mission statement discuss the “problem,” the “need for resilience” (which I covered in depth in an earlier blog entry) and the “need to act collectively” within a geographic community. The fourth and final assumption says “that by unleashing the collective genius of our communities it is possible to design new ways of living that are more nourishing, fulfilling and ecologically sustainable.”

Unleashing the collective genius and engaged its collective creativity seem to be the core principles of the Transition program. The Handbook and many other Transition documents describe the process of how to do this – to some extent it is a formula for change. And the Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP) is the final product of Transition’s 12 step program. These principles are a statement of belief about how people work together, which is not my personal experience. I have had very fulfilling jobs in multiple occupations and have had wonderful relations with people and organizations in a wide variety of circumstances addressing a myriad set of opportunities and problems. I have never experienced this kind of group metamorphism and am not sure it is possible. In my experience, in any group of ordinary people some useful ideas may arise in a visioning or brainstorming type of process. But more often, innovations and solutions tend to come from a unique minority of people of extraordinary ability or insight. In many cases group thinking from average people has been insufficient to solve complex problems. The names mentioned earlier, including Rob Hopkins, illustrate my point.

As part of its program, Transition emphasizes the necessity of “engaging the whole (or entire) community.” This “whole collective community” unleashing concept was not proven in Totnes. Analysis shows it to be far less than the entire community, maybe 800 people[5] in the Totnes and District area out of a population of 24,000 people. I suspect it may well be the reason why so few EDAPs have been completed. Transition promises success if one follows its rules or patterns or ingredients (while allowing local customization) which will unleash the creativity of the community to define unique solutions. If the EDAP never gets written or if it is not effective, the Transition group might falter. I wonder if Totnes has experienced an unleashing of its creative genius as exemplified in the plan or possibly since the plan was published almost a year ago. Little is written about it. This view of the way people cooperate is a risky bet on the future.

What next with Transition

Undoubtedly the lack of a worldwide unleashing of community creativity in completing EDAPS must be apparent to Rob Hopkins and he may well be devising a new strategy. A hint of this is seen in a recent blog[6] in which he says (under “The Challenge”) “Creating an Energy Descent Action Plan and/or the intentional relocalization of a community will raise a lot of questions.”  This “and/or” statement may imply a shift away from the EDAP focus to something less ambitious. I know of two U.S. Transition Initiatives that are abandoning the EDAP as too complex and unlikely to succeed. Rob’s new approach may be explained in a book he began in June, 2010 after the completion of the Totnes EDAP.[7] [8] This book, a sequel to the Transition Handbook, is in the format of Christopher Alexander’s 1977 book A Pattern Language.[9] The proposed title is The Transition Companion: making your community more resilient in uncertain times.” [10] [11] Preliminary publication date is September 2011.

Transition leaders’ hope of taking the primary leadership role for the nation and the world in addressing Peak Oil and Climate Change is doubtful. Their dream of “engaging the whole community” to transform society is more difficult than anticipated. Transition Initiatives may become just another special interest group addressing peak oil and climate change, but with a strong emphasis on a wide range of permaculture activities and options. As noted above, Transition seems to be moving away from EDAPs or at least extending the completion of the EDAP to some future time. It would be a shame if Transition ended up becoming a blogging network of philosophy and local interest reports that do not adequately prepare the U.S. for the coming changes. My hope is that it becomes better grounded in what it can actually accomplish and that its leadership stops overstating its capabilities and results.

Transition groups, be they small (2 or 3 people) or larger, are part of the answer. I would hope that they would not see themselves as in competition for the hearts and minds of other people who are also taking action to reduce CO2 and fossil fuel consumption but who are not attempting to create a new culture. Such people are working within the limits of their community and some are working with their elected officials and utilizing state and national programs. Our problems are too complex for a “one size fits all” approach.


[1] http://www.transitionus.org/stories/february-round-whats-happening-world-transition-us-edition

[2] http://www.transitionnetwork.org/initiatives/by-number

[3] http://www.transitionus.org/mission

[4] Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades J. Gever, R, Kaufman, D Skole and C. Vorosmarty  Ballinger Pub Co Jan 1986

[5] http://transitionculture.org/2010/11/23/new-report-so-what-does-transition-town-totnes-actually-do/

[6] Ingredients of Transition: Strategic Thinking March 3, 2011 http://transitionculture.org/2011/03/03/ingredients-of-transition-strategic-thinking/

[7] Rethinking Transition as a Pattern Language: an introduction June 4, 2010 http://transitionculture.org/2010/06/04/rethinking-transition-as-a-pattern-language-an-introduction/

[8] Starting Monday: Will You Help With Re-Writing the Transition Handbook? Sept. 17, 2010

http://transitionculture.org/2010/09/17/will-you-help-with-re-writing-the-transition-handbook/

[9] An interview with Christopher Alexander Dec 23, 2010 http://transitionculture.org/2010/12/23/exclusive-to-transition-culture-an-interview-with-christopher-alexander/

[10] Your help needed with naming the sequel to ‘Transition Handbook’ Jan 10 2011 http://transitionculture.org/2011/01/10/your-help-needed-with-naming-the-sequel-to-transition-handbook/

[11] Seeking photos that capture the spirit of Transition Feb 17, 2011

http://transitionculture.org/2011/02/17/seeking-photos-that-capture-the-spirit-of-transition/


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