Paying for the Climate Change Pivot


Battleships and fighter jets can’t defeat the threat of a melting ice cap or rising sea levels. (Photo: Wikipedia)

We only have a few decades to deal with climate change. If humanity fails to cut back dramatically on carbon emissions by 2050, according to an alarming new UN report, our planet may warm past the point of our ability to fix the problem.

Given global dependence on oil, gas, and coal, weaning every economy from fossil fuels to save Mother Earth won’t come easy or cheap. Fortunately, there’s a big pot of money available to avert a climate catastrophe.

Accessing that money, however, requires cutting back on a different set of pollutants — the huge cache of weapons the world continues to produce.

Europe has trimmed its military spending and the Pentagon budget is leveling off. Yet other regions are burning through more cash to wage or gear up for war than they used to.

Military outlays are rising the most in Africa and the Middle East. And Asia surpassed Europe last year for the first time in terms of overall military spending.

The United States still faces no competition for its distinction as the world’s military spending champion. The Pentagon’s $640-billion tab amounted to more than a third of the $1.75 trillion in global military spending the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute itemized for 2013.

What does worldwide military excess have to do with today’s reliance on fossil fuels? Instead of investing in ways to slow global warming and adapt to a changing climate, too many nations are pouring money into weapons in an ongoing fight over the dwindling resources we haven’t quite used up yet.

There’s still time to pivot in a new direction. One big step governments, industries, and investors must take is to quadruple the money they’re pumping into sustainable alternatives to oil, gas, and coal.

Those investments now total about $250 billion a year. While that may sound like a lot of solar panels and wind turbines, the United Nations says it’s not enough. It will take a “clean trillion” every year between now and 2050 keep the world livable, the International Energy Agency estimates.

Yes, the private sector needs to play a role in building a fossil-free global economy. So do governments, which possess the power to tax carbon-intensive energy. That’s certainly one good way to generate revenue for meeting the climate challenge while creating incentives to increase efficiency.

But world leaders can’t really fight climate change unless they slash military spending.

As climate writer and activist Bill McKibben says, do the math. Just shrinking the global military-industrial complex by 25 percent would free up $437.5 billion a year. Given the security challenges climate change poses, this makes perfect sense.

The head of the U.S. fleet in the Pacific has identified climate change as the biggest threat facing the region. The Pentagon is devoting considerable resources to studying rising temperatures as ”threat multipliers” bound to stoke competition for resources, make humanitarian disasters more common, and increase political instability.

Battleships and fighter jets can’t defeat the threat of a melting ice cap or rising sea levels. It will take mountains of money to reduce our carbon emissions while maintaining a modern economy.

It may help to think about climate change as “getting embroiled in a war that lasts 100 years” without any obvious exit strategies, as retired Brigadier General Chris King puts it.

“You can see in military history, when they don’t have fixed durations, that’s when you’re most likely to not win,” warns King, the dean of academics at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Unless every nation ramps down military spending, we’ll all lose the next big war over the fate of the Earth without even firing a shot.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus and Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords.

  • serious joe

    Oh, here we go again. There is no rush, no need to panic. Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is still too low, we need more. While we continue burring fossil fuels, we should research and study and test alternative energy thingies, not rush into production and deployment with stuff that is too expensive, doesn’t work, or creates new problems… Keep calm and keep burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, if you want to call it that, but its effects are all petered out by now. CO2 has a significant effect from an atmospheric concentration of none to about 200ppm, after that, 400 ppm, 800ppm, 1600ppm, all the greenhouse-power is long since exhausted. CO2 shares its spectrum-absorbing ability with water vapor, and water vapor is more prevalent. The absorption spectral lines overlap significantly. Here, suppose you had a firing squad and a bunch of wooden targets to shoot. Weapons so powerful that one bullet could penetrate three or four wooden targets before it lost its energy… Well, a few of those wooden targets are CO2 in the atmosphere, and the rest, thousands and thousands of them, are water vapor. Your bullets don’t penetrate very far. Adding twice as many, four times as many CO2-flavor wooden targets won’t change how far the bullets go. That’s a simple analogy for how CO2’s absorption and re-emission of infrared energy is dwarfed by water vapor’s absorption in the same places (and other places, too). Plus, the fact that the earth is actually thermally regulated by dynamic, non-linear emergent weather events, like thunderstorms. Water vapor carries heat energy (called “latent heat”) up through the troposphere, where the CO2 and other greenhouse gases are, and water vapor gets above the bulk of the greenhouse gases, where it condenses and freezes (releasing that latent heat energy, at a lower temperature, so the blackbody radiation from the released latent heat energy falls into longer infrared wavelengths)… Plus the fact that cloud cover regulates the earth by reflecting the sun before it heats the earth, plus many other factors completely ignored by the “radiation imbalance” myopics. CO2 is a plant fertilizer… add more to the atmosphere, then plants grow better and more, which removes CO2 from the atmosphere at a greater rate… The oceans are buffered, well into the alkaline range, and no anthropogenic CO2 is going to make the oceans acidic, not ever… Alarmists have been screaming “peak oil is here” since the mid-sixties, and it is no where in sight…. keep calm, keep burning, and carefully implement alternatives, there is no rush, no hurry, and especially no tipping point.

  • serious joe

    Probably the best example of implemented “green energy” would be Germany.

    Germany just announced that green engery is a failure. Well, sort of…

    They decommissioned their nuclear power plants, and put up solar and wind generation (I call it “weather power”) to an outrageous extent. Installed weather power reached about 13% of generation capacity. The cost of electricity, to the consumer, went up by more than 200% (so much for weather power being from a “free source” of energy… the wind may be free, as the sunshine, but getting it to the electrical outlet in the wall, well, that is expensive.) On the ‘social’ side, this created a whole new class, the “energy poor” … who chose between staying warm, or eating. Weather-power is quite unpredictable, and quite uncontrollable. Here’s a tip: On the electricity “grid”, generation of electricity, must at any moment, at every moment, exactly match the electricity used. If it tips in the direction of excess generation, the grid frequency (for Germany, 50Hz) begins to soar. If it tips towards excess demand, the frequency sags. The act of balancing generation to match demand is called “dispatching” … and some generation sources are more dispatchable than others. In the article, below, from SRSRocco Report, you’ll see the author mention “the balance”… that is “dispatching”…

    Since the introduction of the “Renewable Energy” law (EEG) in 2000 aimed at replacing coal and gas-fired as well as nuclear power generation by so-called renewable energy sources, the household price for electricity has jumped by more than 200 %. German customers now pay the second-highest electricity prices in Europe. At the same time, the task of stabilizing the grid against the massive erratic influx from solar and wind power plants that produce without regard for actual need has pushed the operators to their limits. Now already, with a combined share of just some 13 % of total electricity production, their unreliable input is massively imperiling the stability of the grid.

    Another major problem with Wind & Solar is the balancing of electricity on the grid when wind stops blowing and the sun goes down. You see, when solar power production drops to nothing as the sun goes down, the regional utility companies have to bring online electricity to balance out what was lost.

    This wasn’t much of a problem when solar and wind were only a small part of the electric power generation pie. However, now that the total amount of generated solar and wind power account for 13% of Germany’s electricity, it’s become a BIG PROBLEM…. and will only get worse as more renewable sources are added. [that is the dispatching issue I mentioned]

    In a stunning admission, the German Government recently announced that its transition to Renewable Energy was, “On the Verge of Failure.” This blunt statement was released by Germany’s Economic Minister and Vice Chancellor to Angela Merkel, Sigmar Gabriel at an event at SMA Solar… Germany’s leading manufacturer of Solar technology.

    According to the article, Angela Merkel’s Vice Chancellor Stuns, Declares Germany’s ‘Energiewende’ To Be On The Verge Of Failure:

    In the speech Gabriel tells the audience how the energy transformation is on the verge of failure:

    “The truth is that in all fields we under-estimated the complexity of the Energiewende.”

    Gabriel is not only the national economics minister and vice chancellor to Angela Merkel, he is also head of Germany’s socialist SPD party, which is now the coalition partner in Angela Merkel’s CDU/SPD grand coalition government. Moreover Gabriel was once the country’s environment minister and a devout believer in global warming and in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth.

    “Those who are the engines of the transformation to renewable energies, that’s you, you don’t see how close we are to the failure of the energy transformation.”

    The solar energy audience reacts with dead, stunned silence (3:03). That can’t believe what they just heard.

    The mood at SMA Solar, which has been a huge benefactor of the renewable energy subsidies brought on by Germany’s EEG feed-in act, was somber and shock and Gabriel delivered the reality. Many in attendance seemed unable to fathom what Gabriel was unloading: the heady days at the green energy feeding trough are over – live with it.

    This announcement is a DEATH-BLOW to the advocates of renewable energy such as Wind & Solar. One of the major problems with wind and solar is that the projects aren’t commercially viable without huge Govt subsidies including long-term contracts by energy utilities to pay 2-4 times the going wholesale electric rate for solar and wind generated power.

    These higher costs were ultimately pushed onto the German consumer.

    Hence, the “energy poor”, those who chose, on a daily basis, to eat, or to stay warm…

    So, the dispatching issue:

    Coal power, for example, doesn’t ramp up or down very fast. Can you imagine the giant coal filre inside a megawatt or gigawatt generation facility? Can you imagine trying to lower it’s intensity, rapidly? Nuclear is a bit more able to ramp up or down, but not very. Hydroelectic isn’t fast enough, either, but hydro often has to sing a different song, that of the water needs. In times of drought, hydro is not used to ramp up to meet demand; in times where floods threaten, ramping hydro down might be a really bad idea. So, hydro has to do what hydro has to do. The best, though, is a natural-gas-fired generation facility. Germany doesn’t have much; I think they buy their natural gas from Russia, and now there is all the fuss over Crimea.

    Do you expect reliable electricity, day in, day out, or would you like a third-world-type system, where electricity comes on, some time during the day, for a while, and then quits?

    Reliable electricity – check.

    The “grid” – a network of generators, interconnecting wires, and user’s loads… the grid cannot store electricity. When the sun doesn’t shine when the winds don’t blow, other generators must pick up the slack. Or, cutting some slack, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing and nobody is using electricity at the moment, what happens then? Normally, a “dispatchable” source (like a natural-gas-fired electrical generation facility) would be ramped down, because wind and solar don’t regulate themselves. So, a gas plant has to be on-line to pick up the slack, or to cut some slack as the weather-power fluctuates. Diesel generators do it pretty well, but at great expense. If you have a bunch of conventional (like coal, and hydro) then you can add about ten percent of weather-power to that system. Any more, and the system can’t pick up the slack or cut the slack fast enough, and the grid becomes unstable, resulting in blackouts, power failures, and the whole third-world sorta thing. Costs soar. Coal is most affordable when run at a steady rate – that’s called ‘baseline’… hydro is often at the whims of the weather, the drought, the flood. But the violent, unpredictable variations brought in by solar and wind, they can’t be so easily balanced. To keep things reliable, a natural gas generation facility has to be kept burning all the time, whether it is generating electricity or not. It takes about $10,000 worth of gas, and about eight hours, to take a typical gas plant from cold to hot-n-ready, so you can’t just shut it off and turn it back on as wind and solar demands and supplies change. It is necessary to match the generation capacity of the gas plant to the weather-power, such that, when the weather quits, the gas generation facility is not overloaded, and when the sun shines and the wind blows, the gas generation facility is not completely idle… A gas plant, like your car, gets good economy when a steady foot is pressing on the pedal…. if you floor it, then brake hard, then floor it, then brake hard, your car doesn’t perform in an economical fashion… neither does a natural gas electrical generation facility… so for every megawatt of weather-power you add, you have to have a megawatt of gas, too… because you just can’t count on the weather. So you end up releasing carbon dioxide at about the same rate as if you had NO solar and NO wind, and ran the gas facility at its most economical steady-state…

    So Germany is dumping the green subsidies, and commissioning coal-fired power plants just as fast as it can.

    We haven’t even discussed how weather power takes up too much land, yet, either… A wind farm, or a solar-panel farm, of a size to match a typical fossil fuel plant…. well, the weather sites take thousands of acres, and the fossil fuel plant, dozens of acres. The best comparison is between a natural gas facility, and the weather facility. Coal plants, of course, have the mines… wait, after the coal is taken out, you could put in weather power, right? Ah, but then, you’d hit the dispatching problem… If you don’t keep the grid reliable, your manufacturing companies will leave the country to go to someplace that has better, more reliable power. Cypress Semiconductor, in San Jose (the “silicon valley”) got tired of ruined batches of wafers, due to the foolish power policies of Govenor “Brown Out” Davis, but instead of leaving, TJ Rodgers bought a roof-full of solar panels. That didn’t cut it, so he got some other generation facilities in what look like shipping containers, and mounted them in the parkade. Maybe he’s reached 100% of his facilities’ peak power demands, I don’t know. TJ later bought a whole solar company, one with a very efficient solar panel design, but later he divested from it.

    • serious joe

      I forgot to mention – sometimes Germany’s generation management had excess power that it couldn’t dispatch… like on a springtime saturday morning, the sun shining, the wind blowing, and nobody is using much electricity… those solar panels were online, as were the wind generators, and Germany, in a panic, had to PAY other european countries to take their excess electricity; if they hadn’t dumped it (at a loss!) then the grid would have crashed, and blackouts would have happened. Imagine paying all that money for weather power, and then having to pay someone to take the electricity from you! That’s some return on investment!