Climate fundamentalists tend to believe in sacrifice and regimentation as the only way to avert a climate apocalypse and atone for man’s crimes against the Earth.
In his campaign, Joe Biden set a very different tone: his climate plan would make building a new zero-emission infrastructure for the US into a vehicle for restoring prosperity and high-wage employment.
That sounds great, but what will President Biden’s “clean energy future” look like? And will it be economically sustainable?
As I argued in the last installment, a policy of attempting to achieve “100% clean electricity” without massive expansion of nuclear energy will inevitably mean subjecting the population to economic austerity – among other things, through exorbitantly high energy prices and taxes resulting in a loss in buying power and, most likely, rationing and regimentation in the use of electricity. Plus blackouts.
To get a bitter taste of that future we have only to look at California – the state that has taken the lead in “clean energy.” California also leads with the highest energy prices outside of the Northeast – more than 50% higher than the national average – and the highest real poverty rate in the US.
California is supposed to be showcase of the Democratic Party’s environmental policies. The state has been solidly in Democratic hands since the election of environmentalist Governor Jerry Brown in 2011. Vice President Kamala Harris and powerful House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are leading California Democrats. California also has vast financial and economic resources. If California were a country, it would be one of the six richest nations in the world, with a nominal GDP of $2.6 trillion.
SO why is this state not able to provide its citizens with reliable and affordable electric power? Throughout October last year, millions of Californians suffered from a constant series of “rolling blackouts” in which electricity supply was cut off to various regions of the state on a rotating basis.
The rolling blackouts were provoked by a severe heat and dry spell, but were made possible by the desolate state of the state’s ancient electric power grid. Sparking from its overland power lines had long been a main trigger of California’s frequent forest fires.
To avert this danger during the heatwave, California’s main supplier company, Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E), simply cut off electricity to entire areas, calling these events “public safety power shutoffs.”
PG&E, the largest power company in the US and greatly concerned to cultivate its image as a pioneer in “clean” energy, had evidently given more priority to investing in solar and wind than maintaining the power grid.
The crisis was also caused by insufficient reserves of generation capacity, including the environmentally-motivated reduction in natural-gas-based power generation and closing of the next-to-last nuclear plant, as well as phasing out of fossil fuel plants in neighboring states, which reduced the amount of electricity that could be imported. (With net imports amounting to 25% of its supplies, California is the largest importer of electricity in the US.)
Then there were the large fluctuations in supply from wind turbines, with swings of up to 1,000 megawatts, and the unavailability of solar power at night. At a certain point, the situation got out of hand.
The latest crisis was no surprise for those familiar with California’s energy system. California already led the country in the number of power outages per year, and the system had already come near collapse in the preceding months.
More important than mere blackouts, California gives a foretaste of the economic austerity that ideologically-driven climate measures threaten to bring to the whole country.
Two years ago, a coalition of civil-rights leaders calling themselves “The Two Hundred” brought a legal suit against the California Air Resources Board (CARB) – the main agency of the California government responsible for implementing climate policies.
These policies, the suit alleged, were systematically violating the rights of minority citizens in the state, particularly those living in poverty. By the US Census Bureau’s “functional poverty” criteria, 18% of Californians are considered “poor.”
California’s environmental measures have been hitting the living standards of the poorer population in multiple ways:
- Rapidly increasing cost of electricity (+ 30% since 2011, compared with a 4% average increase in the rest of the US);
- Growth in the costs of housing arising from obligatory “energy-efficiency” measures in old and new buildings and other environmental regulations;
- Moves toward banning the use of natural gas for heating and cooking, forcing people to turn instead to the use of electricity, which is nearly four times more expensive;
- Increased transportation costs due to environmental taxes on motor fuels and a new “Vehicle Miles Travelled” fee, designed to reduce emissions from car driving but defacto punishing people who move to outer-lying areas in the search of affordable housing.
The list goes on and on. In their lawsuit, The Two Hundred argued:
“California’s climate change policies – and specifically those policies that increase the cost, and delay or reduce the availability, of housing; that increase the cost of transportation fuels, and intentionally worsen highway congestion, to lengthen commute times and further increase electricity costs – have caused and will cause unconstitutional and unlawful disparate impacts to California’s minority populations, which now comprise a plurality of the state’s population.”
They added, in bitter irony:
“With climate change repeatedly described as a ‘catastrophe’ that could destroy civilizations, perhaps it is necessary for CARB to plunge more of California’s minority residents into poverty and homelessness. If so — if climate change requires that the state ignore civil rights, federal and state clean air, fair housing, transportation and consumer protection mandates, and ignore the administrative law checks and balances that require a thorough environmental and economic assessment of regulatory proposals — then this is a conclusion that may only be implemented by the Legislature, to the extent it can do so consistent with the California and federal Constitutions.”
The last sentence hints at a totalitarian tendency lurking behind the climate measures: the “climate apocalypse” provides a blank check for government to do whatever it wants.
Despite golden promises, Biden and his team are well aware of the link between climate policy and austerity. It has been a major issue at the base of the Democratic Party, with an ideologically-driven leftist constituency on one side and traditional Democratic constituencies such as trade unions on the other.
The latter, from experience and common sense, fear they will end up paying for the “clean energy” policies with lower living standards and increased unemployment. For example: what will happen to the millions of persons whose livelihood depends, directly or indirectly, on coal mining, natural gas and oil extraction activities?
One should bear in mind the colossal size of the fossil fuel sector in the US economy.
The US is currently the largest oil producer in the world, the largest natural gas producer and the third-largest hard coal producer. A radical reduction in fossil fuel production would hit not only the 1.1 million people directly employed in these activities but also the economies of entire regions in states such as Wyoming, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, North Dakota, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
Needless to say, most of those regions voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the last election.
Biden knows this, of course. In executive orders he promises that 40% of the “benefits” of the $2 trillion climate plan will go to “disadvantaged communities.”
Biden proposes that large numbers of people in these communities will find employment in the process of shutting down the fossil fuel sector, such as:
- Closing down mines
- Sealing off oil wells;
- Dismantling pipelines;
- Restoring the surrounding, often severely damaged environment;
- Decommissioning fossil fuel plants.
This may be partly true, although the jobs involved have only a marginal effect on the productivity of the US economy. What happens later?
The experiences of the “rust belt” resulting from the deindustrialization of the US Midwest and parts of the Northeast in the 1980s, are not particularly encouraging.
Greater hopes can be placed in a buildup of new, “clean instructure” as a locomotive for increased employment. No doubt this will work, if enough money is provided.
Mere number of jobs is not a sufficient criterion, however.
The expansion of solar and wind energy in the US has already generated a very significant amount of employment. Currently, more people are employed in the renewable energy sector than in fossil energy.
This looks good at first glance but it reflects the fact that solar and wind energy are extremely labor-intensive, and have intrinsically low productivity. This is due among other things to the huge numbers of units that must be installed and maintained in order to reach a given output level.
California, for example, has 6,575 wind turbines, with a total nominal power of 5,842 megawatts and – taking account of intermittency – a realistic average power output of about 2,000 gigawatts. That is less than the constant output of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power station, which PG&E now plans to shut down.
The critical question is whether the US economy, after having spent all the money and resources to reach “100% clean energy,” will be more or less productive. The answer depends crucially on the choices of technology.
Biden emphasized in his campaign: “A key plank of our Build Back Better Recovery Plan is building a modern, resilient climate infrastructure and clean energy future that will create millions of good-paying union jobs — not 7, 8, 10, 12 dollars an hour, but prevailing wage and benefits.”
However, if irrational environmentalist policies collapse the real productivity of the economy, then real wages and real living standards will inevitably collapse, too, at least for the majority of the working population.
Large injections of money might create the opposite impression but, as in the case of every anesthetic, the effect eventually wears off.
Jonathan Tennenbaum received his PhD in mathematics from the University of California in 1973 at age 22. Also a physicist, linguist and pianist, he is a former editor of FUSION magazine. He lives in Berlin and travels frequently to Asia and elsewhere, consulting on economics, science and technology.