Op/Ed Opinion

Climate Matters: McKibben says transitions unleash creativity

16th in a series

Most of the time I’m writing about vested interest as the key obstacle to making the energy transition. And it is — without the endless campaign of delay, denial and disinformation from Big Oil and its friends, we’d have started making big changes long ago. But there’s another force at work alongside Interest, and that’s inertia, defined as the force that has kept you from, say, cleaning the coil on the bottom of your fridge, even though doing so would cut your electric use considerably.

Photo by Nancie Battaglia

We’re going to have to summon the will to make some changes. Many are fairly easy: Installing air-source heat pumps, for instance, would not just help defeat Vladimir Putin, but doing so could heat your home more pleasantly, efficiently and affordably — you can tell the appliance is having its day in the sun when Wired features it in its digital pages:

“Heat pumps are a few years behind electric vehicles but really deserve similar attention and could deliver very sizable reductions in emissions if we deployed them much more rapidly,” says Jan Rosenow, director of European programs at the Regulatory Assistance Project, an NGO dedicated to the transition to clean energy, Wired reports.

Other changes require shifts in how we behave. But not impossible ones. Take, for instance, e-bikes: If you were looking for a perfect transportation mode in a climate-conscious era, this might be it, since it delivers mobility at a fraction of the environmental cost even of an electric car. E-bikes are outselling electric cars in America; in Europe, they’re so popular that they may soon be outselling all cars.

But to make this work at scale and at speed, which is what the climate crisis requires, you need more than the bike itself, elegant as it is. It helps immensely to also have safe bike paths. (Listen to Doug Gordon’s “War on Cars” podcast; follow Peter Flax’s twitter account). And office buildings with showers. And even safe panniers — that’s why I was interested when Brian Hoffman wrote me with a description of his new product, the Velocker. They’re sturdy, i.e. heavy, which was always a problem with bike bikes, but not so much when you’ve got that electric assist motor to get you up a hill. You can carry kids in them (well, on them, in clever seats with handles) and then convert them easily to hauling groceries. And they come with a lockable top that you can run a chain through — which is to say, if we’re going to be doing a lot of biking we’re going to need to be real about the fact that people steal stuff sometimes, even from good folks who virtuously ride bikes.

Transitions unleash creativity — new ways of doing things. Yes, new ways of doing things require us to change our daily habits a little. So anything that makes that easier is appreciated. Friction is the enemy. Well, Exxon is the enemy. But friction is an accomplice.

  • Emily Atkin, writing in GQ, does a bang-up job of explaining what difference a few tenths of a degree will end up making.
  • From the good folks at NDN Collective, a detailed report on the risks posed by the operation of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The 2016 showdown at Standing Rock, an epic moment in the history of both environmental campaigning and indigenous solidarity, continues to reverberate.
  • Former Sierra Club boss Mike Brune has been heading an effort to persuade bitcoin miners to reduce their energy consumption by 99% by changing the “proof-of-work” algorithm at the core of the alternative currency. Note to Twitter users: If you’re feeling neglected and lonely, a good way to get a lot of attention is to say anything even slightly negative about bitcoin.
  • As Bloomberg columnist Javier Blas points out, cutting gas taxes — as many American states have done — is a gift to Vladimir Putin in the middle of his war.

Fuel tax cuts are essentially a subsidy to Vladimir Putin, and they hurt the effort to end the war in Ukraine. Think about it: If oil becomes more affordable, consumption rises. The higher oil demand goes, the higher oil prices go, too, and the more money the Kremlin makes. Those extra petrodollars can go toward killing more Ukrainians.

  • Corporate America has a pretty good green-washing scheme up and running. As Judd Legum points out, the companies put out press releases extolling their climate plans, and then use their trade associations, like the ever-retrograde Chamber of Commerce, to quash the legislation that would make those plans real.
  • Alec Connon, writing in Common Dreams, explains the even more devious mechanics of the bank green-washing schemes

Rather than actually reducing the overall greenhouse gas emissions associated with its lending, Chase has created a convoluted accounting trick known as “carbon intensity,” pledging that by 2030 it will achieve a 15% reduction in the “carbon intensity” of the oil and gas firms it finances. The most important thing to know here is that reductions in “carbon intensity” and reductions in “actual greenhouse gas emissions” are two very different things.

Imagine you are the CEO of an oil firm. Your company owns 1,000 oil wells; it doesn’t own any windmills. Now Chase gives you a $10 billion loan. You use that loan to buy 400 new oil wells and 200 windmills. You now own 400 additional oil wells. This means you are digging up and burning more oil than ever before; your overall contributions to climate change have gone up significantly. But because you are now also profiting from wind power, the “carbon intensity” of your company has gone down ― an accounting trick that enables your oil company to both expand oil production and meet Chase’s callow climate targets.

  • The Red Sox returned to Boston last week to play all seven games this week at Fenway, home to MLB’s first carbon-neutral ballpark. They don’t call it the Green Monster for nothing.


Bill McKibben is an internationally known climate activist and writer who lives in Ripton.

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