The Climate Blame Game
By: Chandu Visweswariah
Climate change is the existential challenge of our lifetimes. Like me, you are probably frustrated at the lack of real progress. Despite all the headlines and all the environmental events and all the climate pledges, carbon in the atmosphere continues to climb instead of declining. Let me restate that: Carbon in the atmosphere continues to climb instead of declining rapidly. On the surface, it appears there’s plenty of blame to go around.
The Supreme Court has limited the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. Congress has neither the will nor the technical ability to bring about meaningful and rapid change. The filibuster makes experimentation, iteration and progress nearly impossible. Most states are not making progress against climate goals. Utilities should do more. Local municipalities are mostly unconcerned and building codes are stubbornly stuck in a different century. School districts, at least here in Westchester
County, are moving much too slowly. Corporations are too busy chasing the almighty dollar. Despite much talk about “net zero” pledges, this video from the New York Times show how empty some of these promises really are.
Are we truly helpless victims of this nameless, faceless blame game, relegated to face an unlivable planet? The answer is a resounding, “No!” To explain, let’s try a gedanken experiment.
Let’s talk about gasoline, one of the biggest perpetrators of carbon crimes. I have personally lived without gasoline for three years now. And yes, anyone who has a personally owned vehicle and can afford an electric vehicle can kick their gasoline addiction in one fell swoop. Do we need more EV-friendly policies? Do we need more charging stations at highway stops, shopping malls and apartment buildings? Do we need utilities to be more EV-friendly? Yes, yes, and yes, but imagine if enough
people simply made the switch, which is well within the realm of practicality today. “Bye-bye gasoline, we don’t need you any more.” And with it, gas taxes, oil spills, needless wars, and unjust and illogical drilling rights all become irrelevant. Just like that.
Let’s talk about heating oil, another mass-perpetrator of carbon crimes. I have personally lived without heating oil for 13 years. And yes, anyone who owns their own heating system and can afford to switch to heat pumps can kick their heating oil addiction in one fell swoop. With a variety of options like air source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps, central units, creative duct work and ducted mini-splits, almost any home can be retrofitted. Do we
need more education? Do we need more abundant contractors to install and maintain such systems? Are there absurd subsidy policies when it comes to different kinds of heat pumps? Yes, yes and yes, but imagine if enough people simply made the switch, which is well within the realm of practicality today. Bye-bye heating oil, to say nothing of diesel belching trucks to deliver the oil.
Let’s talk about natural gas. Natural gas is mostly comprised of methane. While methane is heralded for burning cleaner than coal or oil, it is a dangerous greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere unburned. Leaks from compressors, well heads, transmission pipelines and distribution pipelines render any clean-burning benefit of natural gas null and void. Natural gas is a grave
and ever-present danger to the climate and has no future in a climate-stabilized society. Contrary to industry claims, it is a bridge to nowhere. I have personally lived without natural gas for 29 years. If you are using natural gas for heating, see the section above about heating oil. If you are using natural gas for drying clothes or cooking, electric alternatives are abundant. Do we need more education about the grave dangers that methane poses? Do we need to stop ecological and water table damage from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”)? Do we need to tell Vladimir Putin what to do with all his gas? Yes, yes and yes, but imagine if enough people simply made the switch, which is well within the realm of practicality today. Bye-bye unnatural gas, and let’s stop debating how to stop leaks, how to regulate fracking, which pipelines to approve and what to do about Russian gas.
Let’s talk about electricity. The cheapest way to generate electricity anywhere in the world is from renewable sources, i.e., wind, solar and hydro. Technical solutions exist to all the naysayers’ protestations: congestion, curtailment, intermittency, transmission shortcomings, cost and general discomfort with change. I have personally committed to 100% clean electricity for 7 years, and in most cases all it takes is a simple phone call to your utility to opt for a 100% clean
Energy Service Company (ESCO). There are other ways to accomplish the same result including rooftop solar, backyard solar, community solar and community choice aggregation. Do we need coal and gas plants to shut down as soon as possible? Do we need rapid build-out of wind and solar farms with fast-tracking of permits? Do we need investments in transmission and smarter grids? Do we need hybrid farms (wind+batteries or solar+batteries) to replace gas peaker plants? Yes, yes, yes, and yes, but imagine if enough people simply made the switch, which is well within the realm of practicality today, even for renters. Bye-bye “brown electricity,” and never mind SCOTUS and the EPA.
If this feels repetitive, you get the idea. From transportation, heating and electricity to diet and consumption of goods and services, we will bring about change by simply eschewing harmful products and embracing climate-stabilizing solutions. This will create a demand for climate-friendly systems and increasingly render the status quo irrelevant, obsolete and without value (see my blog The Incumbent Mirage about this topic). What’s more, the demand for new solutions will create economies of scale for clean solutions, which will lead to positive learning rates and lower prices, increasing affordability and therefore adoption – a veritable virtuous cycle (see my blog From a Vicious Cycle to a Virtuous Cycle for more on this subject). To be leaders in this new-world economy would be a boon!
It requires, however, a deep sense of personal responsibility, something dismally lacking in our politicians, Supreme Court judges, world leaders and corporate titans.
I know what you’re thinking: if I had unlimited money and decision-making authority, I would implement all of these suggestions in a heartbeat. So, I’ll make a purely financial deal with you. Would you be willing to invest $45,000 over the next 3 years for a return of $4,000 per year for the rest of your life? And in the process save our planet? These terms are twice as good as any commercial annuity you can buy.
How does this work? More to come on this topic in future blogs, but real simple math. for now:
Year 0: move to 100% clean electricity (do this now!).
Year 1: invest $15,000 which I estimate is the average incremental cost of upgrading your home to heat pumps.
Year 2: invest an incremental $15,000 to upgrade one vehicle to electric.
Year 3: invest an incremental $15,000 to upgrade the other vehicle.
I’m sure you can argue with me on these amounts and there are all kinds of exceptions, but they are in the ballpark. So, in 3 years, you can drastically cut your greenhouse gas emissions, and completely eliminate your dependence on fossil fuels! Wow!
So how about that annuity of $4,000 per year for life? Again, let’s appeal to simple math. There are numerous benefits from the above investments:
- Anyone filled their gas tank recently? Wouldn’t you like a machine that is 3 to 4 times more efficient at achieving locomotion than an internal combustion engine?
- Ever paid a hefty bill to repair your car? Electric cars are so much more reliable and easier to maintain. No spark plugs, no mufflers, no exhaust system, no exhaust, no carburetors, no cylinders, and on and on. The brakes on electric cars last practically forever without maintenance because they are only used in emergencies. The rest of the time, regenerative braking is used to slow the car, which is a method of recapturing the kinetic energy of the car to charge the battery.
- Anyone paid a big heating bill recently? Heat pumps are 3 to 4 times more efficient than furnaces, and the savings rack up over time!
- Studies have shown that adding heat pumps, solar panels and charging stations increase the resale value of your property.
- Spending a lot of money on health care? Replacing your furnace with heat pumps means cleaner air and lower carbon monoxide levels inside your house, which directly impacts your health.
- Don’t own a vehicle? Live in multi-family housing where someone else makes heating and electricity decisions? You still have agency to transition off from fossil fuel transportation by limiting your service to EVs by using mass transit and e-rideshare applications. You can work with landlords and homeownership associations to decarbonize the heating systems in your home. Be the change you want to see in the world.
- We all pay a health cost for fossil fuel use, primarily because of particulate emissions. If enough people follow the recipe in this blog, we will see reduced rates of asthma, emphysema and cancer, resulting in massive savings to society as a whole, and lower insurance rates for all.
- When we achieve climate stability, the most significant benefits will be reduction of extreme weather events and sea-level rise, making property insurance affordable again.
Rough math. again: I am estimating the above benefits to be worth $4,000 per year, which works out on average to about $100 annually per ton of carbon eliminated.
Here’s the deal again: Assuming you can afford to invest or borrow this amount, invest $15,000 a year for 3 years. Decarbonize your life. Collect $4,000 of benefits annually for the rest of your life. Take your destiny into your own hands. Tune out POTUS, SCOTUS, Putin and every other annoying news item. Improve your health. Save the planet in the process. Enjoy relief from eco-anxiety since you will have done your share for the planet. Any takers?