There's a crossroads moment in our recent history that comes back to me whenever I think of our warming planet. (2013 is shaping up to be the seventh warmest year since records began to be kept in 1850. The 10 warmest years have all occured since 1998.) In the six months from July 1979 to January 1980, as Jimmy Carter's one-term presidency was winding down, he urged two approaches to global energy on Americans. One was dismissed out of hand, the other taken up with alacrity -- and our world is incommensurately the worse for it. Here's a description I wrote back in May that is worth quoting again:
"On July 15, 1979, at a time when gas lines, sometimes blocks long, were a disturbing fixture of American life, President Jimmy Carter spoke directly to the American people on television for 32 minutes, calling for a concerted effort to end the country's oil dependence on the Middle East. 'To give us energy security,' he announced, 'I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation's history to develop America's own alternative sources of fuel -- from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the sun...'
"It's true that, with the science of climate change then in its infancy, Carter wouldn't have known about the possibility of an overheating world, and his vision of "alternative energy' wasn't exactly a fossil-fuel-free one. Even then -- shades of today or possibly tomorrow -- he was talking about having "more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias.' Still, it was a remarkably forward-looking speech.- Advertisement -
"Had we invested massively in alternative energy R&D back then, who knows where we might be today? Instead, the media dubbed it the "malaise speech,' though the president never actually used that word, speaking instead of an American "crisis of confidence.' While the initial public reaction seemed positive, it didn't last long. In the end, the president's energy proposals were essentially laughed out of the room and ignored for decades.
"Carter would, however, make his mark on U.S. energy policy, just not quite in the way he had imagined. Six months later, on January 23, 1980, in his last State of the Union Address, he would proclaim what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine: "Let our position be absolutely clear,' he said. "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.'
"No one would laugh him out of the room for that. Instead, the Pentagon would fatefully begin organizing itself to protect U.S. (and oil) interests in the Persian Gulf on a new scale and America's oil wars would follow soon enough. Not long after that address, it would start building up a Rapid Deployment Force in the Gulf that would in the end become U.S. Central Command. More than three decades later, ironies abound: thanks in part to those oil wars, whole swaths of the energy-rich Middle East are in crisis, if not chaos, while the big energy companies have put time and money into a staggeringly fossil-fuel version of Carter's "alternative' North America. They've focused on shale oil, and on shale gas as well, and with new production methods, they are reputedly on the brink of turning the United States into a "new Saudi Arabia.'"- Advertisement -
Could there have been a sadder choice in recent history? If, in 1979, the U.S. had invested in a big way in solar, wind, tidal power, and who knows what else, imagine where we might be today. Imagine a world not facing a future in which storms like Super-Typhoon Haiyan, which recently leveled part of the Philippines, its winds devastating, its storm surge killing staggering numbers, threaten to become the norm for our children and grandchildren.
So oil wars, yes! -- which meant transforming the Greater Middle East into a region of chaos, instability, and death. An oil-ravaged planet, yes indeed! -- which meant potentially transforming a future version of Earth into a planet of chaos, instability, and death! A green energy revolution, not on your life! -- not while the giant energy corporations have so much invested in underground reserves of fossil fuels and such gigantic profits to make, not while so many governments are deeply intertwined with those energy giants or are themselves essentially giant energy companies. No wonder TomDispatch regular Michael Klare suggests that it falls into our hands to ensure that a green energy revolution arrives ahead of a human-created, fossil-fueled apocalypse. Tom
Surviving Climate Change
Is a Green Energy Revolution on the Global Agenda?
By Michael T. Klare
A week after the most powerful "super typhoon" ever recorded pummeled the Philippines, killing thousands in a single province, and three weeks after the northern Chinese city of Harbin suffered a devastating "airpocalypse," suffocating the city with coal-plant pollution, government leaders beware! Although individual events like these cannot be attributed with absolute certainty to increased fossil fuel use and climate change, they are the type of disasters that, scientists tell us, will become a pervasive part of life on a planet being transformed by the massive consumption of carbon-based fuels. If, as is now the case, governments across the planet back an extension of the carbon age and ever increasing reliance on "unconventional" fossil fuels like tar sands and shale gas, we should all expect trouble. In fact, we should expect mass upheavals leading to a green energy revolution.
None of us can predict the future, but when it comes to a mass rebellion against the perpetrators of global destruction, we can see a glimmer of the coming upheaval in events of the present moment. Take a look and you will see that the assorted environmental protests that have long bedeviled politicians are gaining in strength and support. With an awareness of climate change growing and as intensifying floods, fires, droughts, and storms become an inescapable feature of daily life across the planet, more people are joining environmental groups and engaging in increasingly bold protest actions. Sooner or later, government leaders are likely to face multiple eruptions of mass public anger and may, in the end, be forced to make radical adjustments in energy policy or risk being swept aside.
In fact, it is possible to imagine such a green energy revolution erupting in one part of the world and spreading like wildfire to others. Because climate change is going to inflict increasingly severe harm on human populations, the impulse to rebel is only likely to gain in strength across the planet. While circumstances may vary, the ultimate goal of these uprisings will be to terminate the reign of fossil fuels while emphasizing investment in and reliance upon renewable forms of energy. And a success in any one location is bound to invite imitation in others.- Advertisement -
A wave of serial eruptions of this sort would not be without precedent. In the early years of twentieth-first century, for example, one government after another in disparate parts of the former Soviet Union was swept away in what were called the "color revolutions" -- populist upheavals against old-style authoritarian regimes. These included the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia (2003), the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine (2004), and the "Pink" or "Tulip Revolution" in Kyrgyzstan (2005). In 2011, a similar wave of protests erupted in North Africa, culminating in what we call the Arab Spring.
Like these earlier upheavals, a "green revolution" is unlikely to arise from a highly structured political campaign with clearly identified leaders. In all likelihood, it will erupt spontaneously, after a cascade of climate-change induced disasters provokes an outpouring of public fury. Once ignited, however, it will undoubtedly ratchet up the pressure for governments to seek broad-ranging, systemic transformations of their energy and climate policies. In this sense, any such upheaval -- whatever form it takes -- will prove "revolutionary" by seeking policy shifts of such magnitude as to challenge the survival of incumbent governments or force them to enact measures with transformative implications.
Foreshadowings of such a process can already be found around the globe. Take the mass environmental protests that erupted in Turkey this June. Though sparked by a far smaller concern than planetary devastation via climate change, for a time they actually posed a significant threat to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his governing party. Although his forces eventually succeeded in crushing the protests -- leaving four dead, 8,000 injured, and 11 blinded by tear-gas canisters -- his reputation as a moderate Islamist was badly damaged by the episode.