Forget sea level rise for a moment -- this is a sea change, happening in real time before our eyes, as the confidence in an old order starts to collapse. Last September the members of the Rockefeller family -- the first family of fossil fuels -- announced that they were divesting their philanthropies from coal, oil, and gas for reasons "both moral and economic." As the head of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund put it, "We are quite convinced that if John D. Rockefeller were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy." This is the rough equivalent of the Pope appearing at his Vatican window in saffron robes to tell the crowd below he's now a Hare Krishna, or Richard Dawkins showing up at Lourdes in a bathing suit.
The fossil fuel industry -- facing a serious challenge for the first time in its 300-year run -- has tried to pretend it's not happening. They're just a year or two removed from record profits, and they keep producing internal forecasts showing that the world will stick with fossil fuels for decades to come (forecasts that caused Shell and BP, among others, to dump their tiny renewables divisions and double down on hydrocarbons). Here's Exxon, for instance, arguing that divestment campaigners are fools because the company's "estimates suggest that wind, solar, and geothermal will make up no more than 4% of the global energy supply by 2040." Shell was blunter still: "We do not believe that any of our proven reserves will become stranded."
Increasingly they've fallen back on public relations, with some companies funding a PR guru named Rick Berman, who once worked for the tobacco industry and who promised at a secretly videotaped industry meeting to wage "endless war" against environmentalists. But their great offensive has been a damp squib, consisting mostly of lecturing greens that we can't "turn off fossil fuels overnight." A highlight, produced by Berman in the lead-up to Global Divestment Day, was a minute-long cartoon about a boy whose girlfriend was a barrel of oil till his enviro friends convinced him to break up with her -- at which point he could no longer use his cellphone, or eat food, or do much of anything else. (It features my floating disembodied head as a leering demon).
No one thinks, of course, that we will get off fossil fuel overnight; there's a couple of hundred years worth of infrastructure guaranteeing it will take a while. And of course the industry argument, if true, is a good one. Even facing catastrophic global warming, we're not going to stop using energy. In the face of that brute fact, a fossil freeze might seem like so much posturing.
Which is where the solar thaw comes in. Because the fossil fuel industry faces a closing pincers. Month by month, activists hold up its expansion and damage its reputation. And month by month engineers undercut its rationale. The price of solar panels has dropped 75% in the past six years, and now the "soft costs" of putting them on your roof is falling just as fast -- Deutschebank estimates they'll be 40% less expensive in the next two years.
Exxon thinks, in their Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040 report, that wind and sun will supply 4% of the world's power in 2040? The Danes got 40% of their juice from wind turbines last year, and sadly for the fossil fuel industry Denmark has no monopoly on wind. There were days last summer when the Germans got 80% of their electricity from solar panels -- and Germany, on average, gets as much sunshine as Alaska. The fastest gains will be made where energy is needed most, across the sun-rich tropics. I saw the first solar panel ever installed in Bangladesh, a single panel atop a village schoolhouse roof that went up sometime in the late 1990s. By now Bangladesh has 15m solar arrays, and 60,000 new homes a month come on line: the nation plans to be entirely solarised by 2020. When the Indian state of Aandhra Pradesh put out a tender offer for new power last October, the winning bid came from a big solar farm -- at two cents a kilowatt hour less than the cost of importing coal.
Judy Watson, red flood (2011), pigment, pencil and acrylic on canvas
(Image by The Guardian) Details DMCA
The erosion is happening at both ends of the technological scale: Indian peasants are powering their cellphones with the extra power generated by the solar panels that runs the cellphone towers themselves. And Apple is building giant data centers in California, Denmark, and Ireland that run entirely on renewables. Investors see where the growth will come: Tesla, which produced 2,500 cars a month last year, now carries half the valuation of General Motors, which produced 300 times as many. As the electric car fleet expands, the demand for oil will start to dwindle, and there will be an ever-larger number of four-wheeled batteries to rejigger the grid.
None of the problems the fossil fuel players keep predicting for renewables seem decisive. Yes, the sun goes down at night, but that tends to be when the wind kicks up. We're learning to store peak power in all kinds of ways: a California auction for new power supply was won by a company that uses extra solar energy to freeze ice, which then melts during the day to supply power. The smart meters now coming on line around the world allow utilities to juggle demand, turning off your water heater when its not needed. Wise companies have either seen the future or learned their lesson: E.ON, Germany's biggest utility, announced last year that it will now focus on wind and sun. "We are the first to resolutely draw the conclusion from the change of the energy world," chief executive Johannes Teyssen told reporters in Dusseldorf. "We're convinced that energy companies will have to focus on one of the two energy worlds if they want to be successful."
Most utility executives aren't so far-seeing, of course -- in the US, for instance, many are coping with the threat posed by solar power by trying to make it prohibitively expensive for customers to put panels on their rooftops, a strategy embraced by the Koch Brothers. But the pushback is coming not just from enviros but from Tea Party conservatives -- a "Green Tea" coalition has had success even in Deep South bastions like Georgia. As national Tea Party founding member Debbie Dooley puts it: "This is about the freedom to choose and create your own electricity."
Polls show that even people who doubt the climate is changing instinctively understand the pleasure of controlling their own energy destiny. Even large elements of the labour movement are coming to understand the appeal of renewable energy, where jobs are growing far faster than in the economy as a whole (and where the profits don't end up funding your bitterest enemies, like the Koch Brothers).
The best news, of course, is that the new renewables make the most sense in the developing world, where whole nations are poised to leapfrog past coal just as they went straight to mobile phones. They'll need money to make that happen -- which is why the most crucial decisions at Paris may be about providing financing for poor nations -- but they've got the crucial ingredient: sunshine.
And so the race is fully, finally on. There are three teams. Team one, in the green: that's the climate justice activists and the solar engineers, working together, scrappy but gaining. Team two, in the red as the price of oil drops: that's the fossil fuel industry. It has a big lead, but a big gut too; it's tiring fast. And the third? That's physics, the most mysterious of the contestants, and arguably the most important. So far physics has meant that a single degree of global warming was enough to melt most Arctic ice. Last year the California heatwave lifted 63tn gallons of groundwater from the drought-stricken state, allowing its main mountain range to jump half an inch skyward. The heavy groundwater was depressing the Earth's crust so when it evaporated in the drought, the land rebounded upwards. The world's sea levels are now rising inexorably, turning every storm and high tide into peril. It's happening faster and scarier than we thought a quarter-century ago when I wrote the first book for a general audience about all this.
Had we acted a quarter century ago, physics would be working on our side by now. We could have acted from a sense of justice, since global warming's inherent unfairness -- that those who contributed the least suffer the most -- has been obvious from the start. Or we could have acted, you know, rationally: every economist, left, right and centre, has said for a generation that it makes no sense to let the fossil fuel companies pour their carbon out for free, and that the economic mess we're creating far outweighs the cost of preventing it.
But this fight, as it took me too long to figure out, was never going to be settled on the grounds of justice or reason. We won the argument, but that didn't matter: like most fights it was, and is, about power. The richest industry in human history wants to keep on their current path for a few more years, even if it means dragging the whole planet over a cliff. (Never forget for a moment that this industry, having watched the Arctic melt, immediately set out to drill the newly open waters for more oil.) Their power lies in money and the political favor it can buy; our power lies in movement-building, and the political fear it can instill. They know they're in a tough spot so they're spending like crazy (the Koch Brothers, party of two, just announced plans to dump $900m on the next US election, which is more than the Republicans or the Democrats will spend). We've therefore got to organize like crazy.
And if we do we have a chance. The Copenhagen climate summit was a fiasco, but not because the science wasn't clear -- in 2009, too, the world had just come off a record hot year. Copenhagen was a fiasco because environmentalists were hopeful that our leaders would do the right thing. Not this time -- we'll push as hard as we possibly can, and if we do then good things will happen before Paris, after Paris, and for years to come. Our task is brutally hard and painfully simple: keep the carbon in the ground.