Facing the reality of fossil fuel economy and climate change | Guest column

By Chom Greacen

My heart wrenched as I followed the news of the Super Typhoon Haiyan hitting the Philippines. One of the strongest storms on record, Haiyan made Katrina and Sandy look like “weak cousins.”

How many more lives and losses will it take for us to stop our sleepwalking march toward climate change catastrophes? When will we figure out how to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

Yet over 1 billion people in the world are still without access to electricity. The problem is not that we don’t have energy to go around. Rather, the benefits (and costs) of energy production are not shared equally. Ironically, the countries whose citizens are “energy poor” are often the ones whose energy wealth is exported to consumers in richer countries. Myanmar is a case in point. Its energy exports are among the top in the Southeast Asian region. Yet, only 26 percent of its population has access to electricity.

The primary issue is gross inequality. Forty percent of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the top 1 percent while 80 percent of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Is there a better way to equitably meet everyone’s energy needs without hurting the planet and each other? How about “green energy” (energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy)? There is no doubt that green energy opportunities should be exploited to their maximum economic potentials before unsustainable options such as nuclear and fossil fuels are pursued. But there is no magic energy bullet; even in countries where green energy is embraced, CO2 emissions have hardly decreased.

Fossil fuels are not easily replaceable by other energy forms. Having evolved with and turbo-charged capitalism, fossil fuels are key inputs in industrial processes (to make plastics and various other goods) and ingredients (synthetic fertilizers) in food production. They enable creation of a mobile yet dispensable work force; the relocation of production bases to areas where cheap labor can be obtained; the abstraction of geography (resources anywhere are now fair game for multinational corporations). They are time- and labor-savers, conveyors of international trade, yardsticks of progress, supposed guarantors of “national security” (from energy, food and economic perspectives), as well as addictive drugs in the guises of convenience and comfort.

It is difficult to come to grips with how deep the “fossil fuel” hole is that humanity has found itself in. It is even more challenging to grasp the full implications of the changes needed to save humanity from itself. Green energy is a step in the right direction, but is just a small part of the changes needed. Without changing the fundamentals of our capitalist economy, our production, our sense of “security,” our relationship with wealth and inequality, it is difficult to make a real climate difference and meet everyone’s needs.

So what can be done? If you have ideas, do share. Perhaps, I can report more on this in the near future.