Two enemies, one fight: climate disaster and frightful energy bills

May 16, 2022

Two clouds darken the sky. A close-up one: gas and electricity bills have shot up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and millions of families are struggling to pay. And a bigger, darker, higher one: the climate disaster, and politicians’ refusal to tackle it.

Ultimately, both these threats have a single cause: fossil fuels and the systems of wealth and power that depend on them. We need social movements to link the fight to protect families from unaffordable bills with the fight to move beyond fossil fuels, and in that way turn back global warming.

Here I suggest ways to develop such a movement in the UK, starting by demanding action on home heating.

Two linked crises

Since the government lifted the price cap on energy bills on 1 April, the average energy bill for 18 million households on standard tariffs rose to £1971 per year, from £1277. Another 4.5 million households on pre-payment schemes are paying an average of £2017 per year. And in October, bills could well rise above £3000.

There are now 6.3 million UK households (including 2.5 million with children) in fuel poverty, meaning that they are unable to heat their home to an adequate temperature. The End Fuel Poverty Coalition says that could rise to 8.5 million by the end of this year.

The main fuels for UK homes are gas, and electricity produced from gas and nuclear power. Retail prices have been driven up by a rise in gas, oil and coal prices on world markets – which started rising last year, as economies recovered from the pandemic, but shot upwards faster from March, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The war, and sanctions on Russia by western powers, could keep fossil fuel prices high for years. They have also driven global food prices upwards. This is the biggest bout of inflation worldwide since the 1970s.

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The ‘energy security’ strategy that promises more oil and gas

May 16, 2022

In this guest post, PETER SOMERVILLE examines the UK government’s “energy security strategy”

The UK government’s energy security strategy avoids bold measures to decarbonise the economy. Its claimed aims are to “build a British energy system that is much more self-sufficient” (page 6), and specifically to “reduce our dependence on imported oil and gas” (page 5) – but it will not even do that effectively, either.

Broadly, the strategy, published last month, fails in four ways:

Firstly, the strategy provides insufficient support for the development of renewable energy, given the urgency of the climate and energy crisis.

XR Scientists demonstrate at the Shell headquarters in London, 6 April

In comparison, its support for so-called “low carbon” development looks both disproportionate and less certain of achieving the immediate progress that is now required. Taken together with its support for new gas projects, this is difficult to explain except in terms of the power of the nuclear and fossil fuel lobbies, which effectively remains unchallenged. The strategy doesn’t even begin to get to grips with nature-based solutions.

Secondly, the strategy has very little to say about reducing energy demand, e.g. from retrofitting, by reducing car use, by stopping airport expansion, and so on. It doesn’t mention increasing carbon tax on industry as one means to encourage a shift towards using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.

Even that would not be enough, however. More radical ways forward need to be considered, such as new forms of public and community ownership; rapid, binding targets for phasing down and phasing out fossil fuels, cap and share schemes,[1] and much more.

Energy rationing may sound drastic but it would be a clear way forward and may well become necessary in time. In the meantime, a windfall tax on the big energy companies and a wealth tax would be useful for meeting people’s immediate needs.

Thirdly, the strategy has nothing to say about how the impending climate crisis will affect energy security, e.g. droughts and floods affecting energy generation and supply.

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White or Black Power? The choice before Extinction Rebellion

April 30, 2022

This article by ROB CALLENDER of Jubilee Climate has been discussed widely among Extinction Rebellion (XR) members. It starts with a message responding to a facebook post by Roger Hallam, one of the founders of XR. It is published here with Rob’s permission. Answers to the question at the end – “what do you think?” – are welcome.

Download this article as a PDF 

Dear Roger, Just stop using white power narratives and white power tactics with a white power vision of how to tackle a crisis that was made by white power. It will fail. Again. We can’t afford to keep failing. It is likely to make things worse for many many people, if not for you, and that is horrifying to have on your hands. Yes, your hands. We need to do the hard work. You’re distracting and dividing people. Hang up your ego and get involved. Love, Rob

WHITE POWER FORGETS

Many within environmental movements like Extinction Rebellion are unconscious of how white power has characterised these movements’ tactics and strategies. It is why we are failing, and why we will continue to fail unless we learn and evolve.

If oil is stopped, then what? The climate crisis will not have gone away. We are struggling against a monstrous hydra with many many vicious heads, all destroying ecosystems and the liveable climate. We need to strike at the root, the heart of the monster, not at one single element. Greenpeace has had many campaigns, some daring and with success. But Greenpeace is now 50 years old. We don’t have 50 more years. After oil, then what?

Demonstrators in London demanding reparations to the global south for ecocide and genocide (maangamizi) by rich countries. Photo by Andrea Domeniconi/Alamy Live News

After every action, movement and rebellion, some fill the pause with strategising. Every time a single conversation that dominates others has gone something like this: “we haven’t got the narrative right, it’s not appealing to ‘the people’, because we’re using leftist jargon and talking about ‘justice’. We need to have a vision of what the future will look like for ordinary people – a nation they can buy into and want to build – it needs a sense of let’s all come together now to fix the climate for our children and grandchildren”. Sound good?

This is white power. People shaped by white power live in a loop in which they believe that their vision, this time, must succeed, if only everyone got behind it. Their conviction comes from the privileged lived experience of whiteness which brings them closer to the establishment and a reformist mindset (despite what they say and the vehemence of the tactics they employ) and farther from communities outside of the establishment. The powerful conviction coming from the individual person creates obliviousness, forgetfulness – amnesia.

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Russia sacrifices economic goals for military aggression

February 28, 2022

I wrote this last week, and this morning it already looks out of date. Very broad sanctions are being imposed on Russia; Germany and the EU are rushing arms to Ukraine; and Belarus appears to be joining the attack on Ukraine. Nevertheless, the comments about Putinism may be of interest. SP.

Russia’s war in Ukraine will capsize its relations with Europe now, and for the long term. Its valuable trading partnership with Germany has been disrupted; by freezing certification for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, Germany has opened a rift that could widen further.

Whatever the Kremlin’s war aims are – and at time of writing they are unclear – it has decided they are worth the sacrifice of Russian capital’s short-term economic interests.

Young Russians demonstrating in London on Sunday. The poster on the left quotes the Ukrainian sailors who told a Russian warship “fuck you” before being killed

Nord Stream 2, a 1,200-kilometre pipeline running from north-west Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany, alongside the existing Nord Stream 1 line, is completed, but will perhaps never be used. Both pipelines are owned and operated by Gazprom, Russia’s state-backed energy giant.

For years, German politicians defended the new pipeline in the face of calls from Ukraine to sanction it. Indeed, the chair of Nord Stream’s shareholder committee is the former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. In July last year, towards the end of Angela Merkel’s term as chancellor, Germany struck a deal with the US – which had previously imposed some sanctions on the project – that allowed it to go ahead.

But on Tuesday, within hours of Russian president Vladimir Putin recognising the separatist self-proclaimed ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, and approving open military support for them, the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced that his government had withdrawn an impact report on the pipeline, meaning that the German regulatory authority cannot approve it.

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The class struggle inside energy

February 17, 2022

LARRY LOHMANN continues a discussion about energy and social justice, responding to earlier contributions on People & Nature by Simon Pirani and David Schwartzman, both published on 5 January. You can read the whole discussion, which started on People & Nature last year, in a free pamphlet, Roads to an Energy Commons, downloadable here 

Reply to Simon (Disentangling capitalism and physics, energy and electricity, 5 January)

I don’t want to overemphasize any differences Simon and I may turn out to have. From the perspective of capital, the two of us probably look like the same person. On the other hand, developing our mutual (mis)understandings as they play off each other is surely at least one tiny part of our own common project of helping organize for the future.

A Carnot landscape of energy conversion devices. A more complete map of this landscape would have to display the network of borders through which the entropy gradients needed by such devices are maintained, including colonial structures of waste expulsion as well as patriarchal, racial, and class structures of exploitation and appropriation – not to mention other entropy landscapes that this landscape overlays and overlaps

I don’t think that Simon and I differ on the place of the modern energy concept developed during 19th-century industrialism[i] in understanding history. Simon suspects that the concept would not “cover water wheels, windmills, dams and coal-fuelled metalworking in precapitalist societies.” But actually it would and it does. More than that: it’s commonly used even in popular depictions of prehistory (as in the declaration “since humans were humans, we’ve used energy”, from a graphic novel detailing possible low-carbon futures).

There’s nothing wrong with this use of latter-day concepts in examining the past. That’s how the art of history-writing goes forward. Nobody in their right mind would want to talk about another time using only the concepts current among the people who lived in that time. Including, I would argue, those people themselves – if only they had the chance to enter into dialogue with us. My suspicion is that the more curious, open-minded denizens of the 18th century would be challenged, fascinated and perhaps delighted to hear of our (to them) bizarre view that a “horse pulling a treadmill and a coal fire heating a lime kiln [a]re in some sense doing the same thing.” They would want to discuss this more, to find out what the hell we – seemingly reasonable people – were talking about.

The question is the class politics of such translational encounters, hypothetical or actual.

When we in industrialized societies face the 18th-century person, it is not just as people for whom the First Law of Thermodynamics became common sense because we learned it in the science classroom. It is also as inhabitants of a world in which, as a result of two centuries of class struggle, that law is bodied forth in countless ways in which it was not in those earlier times.

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Climate mitigation and adaptation will require incremental energy from renewables

February 17, 2022

As part of a discussion about energy and social justice, DAVID SCHWARTZMAN responds to points made by Larry Lohmann in his article The class struggle inside energy, also published today. And you can read the whole discussion, which started on People & Nature last year, in a free pamphlet, Roads to an Energy Commons, downloadable here.

On the use of metaphor, I said in my post Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science?, that Larry is now responding to:

While entropy as a metaphor has its positive value, in Lohmann’s case highlighting the destruction accompanying the creation of renewable energy supplies, and likewise for Robert Biel’s The Entropy of Capitalism (2011), not going beyond this metaphor with an analysis relying on the science of thermodynamics will not make clear the critical implications of the second law to a renewable energy transition.

Metals recycling is part of the answer

Yes, of course I recognize the essential role of metaphors in the generation of scientific theories, as well as their use in more general discourse (for another example see the section “Other Uses of Entropy”  in my 2009 paper “Ecosocialism or Ecocatastrophe?”).  

I am puzzled by Larry’s claim that I defended by implication an unrestrained capital-driven renewable energy transition.  I clearly advocated that this energy transition should be informed by an ecosocialist agenda, not relying on “green” capital to deliver a just process, rather strongly supporting the goals of decommodification and a global solar commons.

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Fossil fuel systems and how to change them

January 20, 2022

An on-line talk (35 minutes) by Simon Pirani, hosted by Endgames / RS21, on 17 January 2022.

“Most politicians pretend that by (i) substituting renewable electricity generation for coal- and gas-fired generation, (ii) introducing technofixes such as electric cars, and (iii) ‘reducing consumption’ by final users (a little), they are doing something about climate change. These are delusions. To combat delusions, and work out which technologies are compatible with tackling climate change and social injustice, society as a whole needs to develop its understanding of these technological systems and of alternatives.” (The slides for the talk are here.)


COP26 politicians give thumbs up to oil and gas

January 11, 2022

No sooner had politicians signed the Glasgow Climate Pact in November, than the US government paved the way for new oil and gas output, by selling $191 million of new drilling licences.

ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell and 29 other companies bid at an auction for blocks in the Gulf of Mexico, in an area twice the size of Florida.

The sale came after the Joe Biden administration’s moratorium on new drilling was overturned in the courts. Earthjustice said the sale was a “climate bombshell”: if all that production goes ahead, an extra 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere.

On the plus side, the UK’s biggest new oil project, Cambo, suffered a blow, as Shell pulled out, after forceful mobilisation by climate campaigners. Siccar Point Energy, which owns 70% of the project, then said it is pausing work.

Extinction Rebellion in London, September 2020. Photo by Steve Eason

Cambo could still go ahead, though, and if it does, that will be thanks in part to the UK’s lavish tax breaks for North Sea producers. Siccar Point says the project is “not forecasted to pay taxes for many years”.

The company-friendly tax regime means that in 2020 the treasury collected a paltry £255 million from oil and gas producers, while handing rebates of £39 million to BP and £110 million to Shell. 

These tax breaks are just one part of a multi-billion-dollar mountain of subsidies for fossil fuel producers from rich countries’ governments.

And those subsidies form the background to COP26’s failure to tackle global heating, and to the decisions made there, which Climate Action Tracker estimates will lead to 2.1-2.7 degrees of warming, far above the 1.5 degree target.  

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Roads to an energy commons

November 18, 2021

Commodification matters, because it is one of the ways that capitalism shapes the technological and social systems that consume energy. A movement towards post-capitalism would, by destroying the social relations of which commodification is part, put an end to it, and pave the way to an energy commons.  

Such a movement would be by far the most effective way of tackling dangerous global warming, because it would enable society to use energy for need, and not for profit.

These arguments are made in a paper published today by People & Nature.  

To early 21st century city people, gas for a stove, electricity for a factory, or fuel for a vehicle, is presented as “energy”. People often refer to “energy” as something that is, or even must be, bought and sold. Actually, that buying and selling is very recent in historical terms, and even now is not ubiquitous.

London demonstration for climate action, 6 November

Marx’s concept of “commodity fetishism” is useful here. Marx believed that social relations between people, and the fruits of their collective labour, were presented to them in “the fantastic form of a relation between things”. This was truly weird, he thought; it reminded him of the “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”. The contradiction between the commodity’s use value and its exchange value in markets was obscured.

This mystification persists today in energy research: the idea of “energy demand” elides the need for energy services (the need for a use value) with the economist’s concept of demand for a commodity.

For thousands of years, humans accessed types of energy – human or animal labour power, or mechanical energy from windmills or water wheels – directly from nature. Fuels became commodities only in the 18th and 19th centuries. As capitalism rose to dominance, it turned labour power into a commodity, and much else besides, including energy sources such as wood and coal.   

The energy carriers associated with the second industrial revolution – electricity and oil – were treated as commodities from the start.

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