Climate crisis: The truth about dirty energy

Nearly every component of our day to day lives, from flipping on the lights to flipping through our phone, is powered by dirty energy.

Rebecca Green, Socialist Alternative (ISA in the United States)

Nearly every component of our day to day lives, from flipping on the lights to flipping through our phone, is powered by dirty energy.

The biggest chunk of greenhouse gas emissions, around 25%, comes from electricity and heat production. 100% of that energy needs to instead come from renewable sources, and it needed to happen yesterday (or, decades ago).

We didn’t always use energy like this. Before the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, our great-great-great-great grandparents went to bed when the sun set and somehow got around without Google Maps. But they also lived through hard, cold winters with just a wood fire for heat, faced constant food scarcity, and had difficulty communicating across distances and traveling.

Things were rough, and across the world innovations were emerging to more effectively produce energy, from new water wheel techniques to, eventually, coal and the steam engine in the late 1800s. All of a sudden, not only could we heat homes better, but coal could be used to make mechanical energy far more effectively and efficiently.

Planes, trains, and automobiles followed, as did nitrogen fertilizers which exponentially grew our food supply. The standard of living improved, more humans could survive, and every aspect of our modern, energy-saturated lives became possible, because of fossil fuels.

But the story, as you and I know all too well, obviously doesn’t end there.

The issue we have now, and that we’ve had basically since we started using fossil fuels, is that we actually can’t rely on them for the energy needs of human civilization without completely destabilizing our climate.

The good news is, through modern science, we have discovered and will continue to discover green alternative ways to power modern society. The bad news is, the fossil fuel companies won’t get out of the damn way.

The great fossil fuel industry cover up

The real and full truth is that when fossil fuels became our main energy source, the industry was controlled by a few wealthy individuals with a ton of power who made a lot of money. Nothing has really changed.

Emerging capitalists at the end of the 1800s needed this exciting new energy source to expand the railroads and build factories and cities, meaning that those who got in on coal got rich, fast.

But while they and their oil and gas counterparts were raking in money over the following decades, the science about the threat of fossil fuels was already emerging. Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish physicist and chemist, said in the late 1800s that burning fossil fuels would raise the global temperature.

And then came others, and others after that, all saying the same thing with what now amounts to boatloads of evidence that burning fossil fuels is completely and utterly unsustainable.

The fossil fuel companies knew about, and literally funded some of this research, finding as early as the 1950s that burning fossil fuels would cause global warming, a rise in sea levels, and “dramatic environmental effects.” In the words of environmentalist Bill McKibben, the fossil fuel industry has pulled off “the most consequential cover-up in U.S. history.”

Now if society operated in a rational manner, this research would have triggered an immediate pivot to exploring and developing renewable energy sources, and a full transition to them immediately. But it doesn’t. Under capitalism, as long as something remains the most profitable option on the block, getting rid of it is enormously difficult.

So instead, the fossil fuel companies actively organized and funded efforts to undermine the science of climate change, exaggerated uncertainties and cherry picked facts, used fake experts, and promoted conspiracy theories.

All this while spending ridiculous amounts of money lobbying the politicians who also either knew about climate change but were winning campaigns with dirty money, or were too busy schmoozing with Shell’s CEO to care to learn the facts. In 1990, oil and gas interests spent over $12 million in campaign contributions, which honestly doesn’t even seem like that much compared to the $140.7 million they spent in 2020.

In 2021, where mega-wildfires, flash floods, and hurricanes are a typical Tuesday, the science is frankly so undeniable that politicians’ rhetoric is catching up and big oil is saying they want to invest in renewables too! But Biden’s administration is approving 78 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for offshore drilling, and fossil fuel production is expected to increase in 2022.

Money isn’t everything

A piece of good news though: nothing truly good for ordinary people and the planet has ever happened due to the whims of politicians or billionaires, so that’s not where we should look. We should look to the steps of city halls, public parks, community center basements, school buildings, and college campuses. In all of these places, working class people and youth are organizing for a better future.

In 1970, 20 million people participated in 12,000 events across the U.S. on the first Earth Day. Many featured educational teach-ins with an estimated 35,000 speakers and many more organizers. By the end of the year, the Environmental Protection Agency was born and the Clean Air Act passed.

The first legislation to protect rivers and lakes, environmental studies programs in universities, and environment sections of newspapers all happened at that time. All of this in the wake of a massive, grassroots organizing effort that politicized tens of thousands who continued fighting for climate protections after the teach-ins ended.

A 2021 report recently showed that indigenous resistance to new pipeline projects, from Keystone XL to Standing Rock, has delayed the equivalent of 25% of current annual U.S. and Canadian emissions from entering the atmosphere through direct action and community mobilization tactics that have delayed, disrupted, and completely blocked various fossil fuel projects.

In an epic showdown in County Mayo, Ireland, local residents, including farmers, fishermen, and school teachers, waged a 13-year battle against Shell. The company tried, and failed, to build a natural gas pipeline that would have displaced residents, but ongoing protest, occupation, and organizing forced Shell to eventually throw in the towel.

The examples go on, and this is why we should have hope.

We have numbers on our side and frankly nothing to lose. All the fossil fuel companies and billionaires have is money, but that doesn’t mean anything if we refuse to run their factories or let them build new pipelines or control our political system.

In November, world leaders are gathering for another climate talk at the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP26. International Socialist Alternative will be among many others in attendance; we’re mobilizing our members from across the world to be on the ground, demanding what we urgently need:

  • An immediate end to any new fossil fuel projects, and an immediate transition to 100% renewable energy in the next decade.
  • Public ownership of the fossil fuel and utility companies — we can’t trust the billionaires who got us into this mess, and can’t afford to operate our energy grid for profit.
  • Emergency aid for those affected by extreme weather, and mass hiring of emergency responders, nurses, and other healthcare staff.
  • Green New Deal jobs program to hire millions to weatherize infrastructure, build the renewable energy grid, overhaul agriculture, reforest the planet, expand public transport, and implement other green measures.
  • A mass movement of young and working class people on every school campus and in every workplace around the globe, which is the only force that can win a sustainable, socialist planet based on human need not corporate greed.