Exploring the nature of capitalism

Capitalism, Renewable Energy, Ennui
and the Fabled Ostrich

This is as good as it gets!

Bill Geddes
12th November 2011

For a second year, my neck of the woods seems headed for a La Niña season1 . There was a yellow-billed spoonbill stalking unfortunate frogs and similar wildlife in one of my dams yesterday afternoon - a dam which, two years ago, and for several years before that, was dry.

Yes, I know that the Horn of Africa is suffering famine and drought2 ; that Pakistan and Thailand are awash3 ; and that devastating floods, storms and droughts are occurring elsewhere in the world. But that is all happening somewhere else and makes great television - just like all the other 'Reality' Shows which seem to have become standard entertainment fodder (feeding an apparently insatiable voyeurism) around the world.

Yes, I know that this last Northern summer the arctic has been navigable4 ; that major resource companies are scrambling to cash in on a region fast becoming accessible for exploitation5 ; and that permafrost thawing is now a fact of life6 . But that's all good isn't it?

We have reached the high water mark in our responses to climate change in Western countries.

Bold initiatives, contemplated over the past several years, such as:

  • subsidies to encourage the deployment of solar panels on house roof tops7 ;
  • schemes aimed at making green house gas emissions costly, or at least of building the cost of emissions into production costings;
  • a range of re-forestation, biochar and similar programs to sequester carbon;
  • A range of CO2 'Capture and Storage' projects8

are now in retreat.

In Western countries, politicians who clearly disbelieve and dismiss the reality of climate change; who assume that claims of environmental damage resulting from capitalist activity are 'socialist' conspiracies, are winning political office9 . As they do, the first tentative advances made by their predecessors are being dismantled.

An advertisement sponsored by a business council and currently being run on multiple channels in Australia puts it clearly, if just a little obtusely: "Why should we be disadvantaged when our emissions are fewer than major industrial countries?"

Still, as I put the finishing touches to this missive, it's early on a beautiful, balmy spring morning. The birds are singing. There is a light, misty rain watering the gardens which should clear by breakfast time. My solar panels are already feeding energy into the grid, and I should be sitting under my clear polycarbonate roofed pergola enjoying a cup of coffee.

I truly admire those many stalwarts who, in the face of the apparent lemming-like behaviour of 'world leaders', continue to explain the increasingly obvious consequences of human indifference to the effects of their activities on the planet - and, of course, on each other (whatever has happened to empathy?).

I'm fast coming to the conclusion that there is simply no point in getting one's toga in a knot! Best to find a place on high ground, protected from fire, flood, drought and pestilence (guess that means becoming a self-sufficient hermit!) and watch as it all plays out!

Perhaps next time the mood takes me I'll talk about my dream of melted ice-caps providing me with a boat ramp at the bottom of my property (sea level will have to rise about 60 meters of course).


1 See La Niña re-established in the Pacific and In a broad area across the [U.S.] Southeast and along the southern tier of states, drought is forecast to persist and expand for more on this

2 See "WFP is aiming to feed more than 10.9 million people in the Horn of Africa region. We are currently reaching around 7.4 million drought-affected people " for more on this

3 See Latest government estimates put the number of people affected by the floods in Sindh at 5.3 million, of which 1.7 million are in need of urgent assistance for more on the Pakistan problems; see Thailand is currently facing its worst flooding in 50 years. Flood waters have swamped more than two-thirds of the country for more on the Thai problems

4 See Summer 2011: Arctic sea ice near record lows:

"As in recent years, northern shipping routes opened up this summer. The Northern Sea Route opened by mid August and still appeared to be open as of the end of September. The southern "Amundsen Route" of the Northwest Passage, through the straits of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, opened for the fifth year in a row.…

September 2011 compared to past years
Ice extent for September 2011 was the second lowest in the satellite record for the month. The last five years (2007 to 2011) have had the five lowest September extents in the satellite record.

The linear rate of decline is now -84,700 square kilometers (-32,700 square miles) per year, or -12% per decade relative to the 1979 to 2000 average. In contrast to 2007, when a "perfect storm" of atmospheric and ocean conditions contributed to summer ice loss, this year's conditions were less extreme.

From the beginning of the melt season in March, to the minimum extent on September 9, the Arctic Ocean lost 10.3 million square kilometers (4.0 million square miles) of sea ice. It was the fifth year in a row with more than 10 million square kilometers of ice extent change from maximum to minimum.

In comparison, the average seasonal ice loss during the 1980s was 9.0 million square kilometers (3.5 million square miles)"

5 See Oil & Gas Exploration In the Arctic Region - Research Report

"The report highlights the oil and gas exploration potential of the Arctic region, providing details of the key exploration areas, major companies exploring the Arctic and the drivers and challenges of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.

The report discusses the leasing and exploration activities in the US, Greenland, Canada, Iceland, Norway and Russia, detailing concessions awarded, new licensing rounds, companies involved and the drivers and challenges to development."

6 As a recent summary of research in the Arctic region explains,

For a decade, monitoring systems have detected continuous warming at Arctic sites near the coast, accompanied by a greening of the landscape as reduced snow cover has allowed small shrubs to grow bigger and seeds of trees and other plants to germinate in formerly frozen soils.

This year, new record highs were witnessed at 20 meters depth at every permafrost observatory on the North Slope of Alaska, where measurements began more than three decades ago. The most recent data suggest this warming “has begun to propagate south towards the northern foothills of the Brooks Range, where a noticeable warming in the upper 20 meters of permafrost has become evident since 2008,” the report says.

The wholesale melting has substantially darkened the sea and landscape, making both better absorbers of solar energy and accelerating the region’s warming.

(Janet Raloff, Arctic has taken a turn for the warmer: Scientists see pervasive and permanent changes in the last five years, Science News, Friday, December 2nd, 2011)

7 Recently a newly elected conservative government in my home state has decided to end a two year long subsidy incentive scheme on electricity generated from domestic solar panels. This was aimed at ensuring that the costs of solar panel installation were recouped over 6 to 10 years. It is being replaced by a scheme that effectively requires the installation costs to be borne by the householder (with feed-in-tariff subsidies reduced from 60c to 25 cents per kilowatt hour).

Similar incentive schemes in other states have already been, or are in the process of being reduced.

Without the subsidy, my electricity supplier is offering a mere 8c a kw for electricity fed into the grid (competing suppliers are offering 6c!). They charge 28c per kw for energy supplied by them.

It is clear that for most people, the costs of installing and maintaining solar panels have escalated and many will feel that they are now simply in the business of supplying cheap energy to private companies.

See Friends of the Earth legal action over solar subsidy for a similar move in the UK. As the BBC report (11 November 2011) says,

The new tariff of 21p per kilowatt-hour, down from the current 43p, will take effect from 1 April, but in October the government said it would be paid to anyone who installs their solar panels after 12 December.

8 See Carbon Capture and Storage (from The Guardian) for up to date information on CCS developments around the world. As a Yale Environment 360 summary explains for a project in West Virginia:

The U.S.’s most ambitious project to capture and sequester carbon from a coal-fired power plant has been shelved by a large utility company, which says that the lack of climate legislation and support from state governments has rendered the $668 million project financially untenable. American Electric Power (AEP), which serves 5 million customers in 11 states, will announce today that it is indefinitely suspending its carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) project at its Mountaineer plant in West Virginia. The utility has been running a smaller CCS pilot project at the site for two years, but executives at the utility said that the lack of federal climate legislation had diminished incentives for CCS projects. In addition, AEP said that the refusal of state regulators to allow the utility to pass on the cost of carbon sequestration to its customers had made it impossible to continue the project. “We are placing the project on hold until economic and policy conditions create a viable path forward,” said AEP’s chairman, Michael G. Morris. AEP’s action is a major setback to efforts to slow global warming using CCS technology, which faces numerous logistical and technological challenges.
(e360 digest, 14 Jul 2011: Key CO2 Capture Project Is Suspended by Major U.S. Utility)

9 If believing in conspiracy theories is a form of paranoia then I guess Western people are a remarkably paranoid bunch! As a Wikipedia entry on the subject explains:

A conspiracy theory explains an event as being the result of an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.
(Conspiracy theory accessed 24th Nov. 2011)

UK-Skeptics, in their attempt to hedge their bets on the topic (allowing them to hold on to their own pet conspiracy theories?) put it like this: "Valid conspiracy theories are those that are considered plausible." Of course, since those who believe will, almost by definition, consider their theories plausible, this opens the door to any conspiracy theory which grabs your imagination!

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