In April 2022, climate advocacy reached a new level when an international organization of over 1000 scientists from Scientist Rebellion went out on the streets, and engaged in nonviolent protest all around the world. White coated scientists including a Nasa scientist, chained themselves to the doors of oil-financing banks, blocked roadways and occupied government buildings. “The scientists of the world are being ignored and it’s got to stop,” said Peter Kalmus, a California-based father of two and NASA climate scientist. “We’re going to lose everything. We’re not joking. We’re not lying and we’re not exaggerating.”
After nearly 50 years since global warming first entered the political agenda in the early 70s and 26 Conference of the Parties (COP), the world has yet to get serious about acting on climate change. Perhaps, we have reached the watershed moment in the climate action movement. After all, the public trusts scientists. Could this type of protest be the stimulus that causes the governments of the world to take notice and respond? Sadly, I think not.
Nonviolent protest and civil disobedience is a type of activism that forms the backbone of any group advocating for institutional change. Civil disobedience works. The scientists of Scientist Rebellion explicitly express this in their Our Demands Letter: "The most effective means of achieving systemic change in modern history is through non-violent civil resistance." Over the past few decades advocacy groups have succeeded in advocating for environmental causes, scoring admirable victories on deforestation, nuclear testing, whaling, and conservation. So, why is climate change advocacy failing so miserably? And why will nonviolent protest and civil disobedience also fail? Even though this type of protest has succeeded in toppling authoritarian dictators.
Of course, all the usual reasons apply. Most of these reasons have been detailed in the 2019 article Outspent and Outsmarted: Why Climate Advocacy is Failing by Dominic Hofstetter. He does an excellent job explaining the uphill climb that climate advocates face that "have eroded the effectiveness of the standard advocacy repertoire". Please read this illuminating article. He makes many excellent points, but I think the rabbit hole goes far deeper.
The problem is that Scientist Rebellion and most climate change advocates are advocating for a practical impossibility. From their Demands Letter":
Current actions and plans are grossly inadequate, and even these obligations are not being met. The rate of environmental destruction closely tracks economic growth, which leads to us extracting more resources from Earth than are regenerated. Governments and corporations aim to increase growth and profits, inevitably accelerating the destruction of life on Earth.
•To achieve decarbonisation on the required scale demands economic degrowth, at least in the short term. This does not necessarily require a reduction in living standards.
Other groups such as Just Stop Oil, which is affiliated with Extinction Rebellion, are demanding the government stop any new oil and gas projects. Just Stop Oil has been engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience like blockading oil terminals, disrupting football games and gluing their hands to roads and tankers. Climate advocacy groups like Scientist Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion and many others are all advocating for governments to rapidly stop fossil fuel production. This seems very reasonable. Fossil Fuel induced climate change is very likely to lead to the collapse of industrial civilization. In fact, it could possibly lead to human extinction by the end of the century. The situation is that dire. So, why would the governments of the world not act?
I read an amazing paper by Megan K. Seibert and William E. Rees called: Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition. I first heard about it through an interview with Megan Seibert on a Radio Ecoshock episode called: Is “Green” Energy a dangerous Myth? I highly recommend that you listen to this fantastic interview. The paper explains in great detail why transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewables would be a terrible idea. The paper is absolutely worth reading.
From their paper:
RE [renewable energy] cannot deliver the same quantity and quality of energy as FFs, that the espoused technologies are not renewable, that their production—from mining to installation—is fossil-energy-intensive, and that producing them—particularly mining their metals and discarding their waste—entails egregious social injustices and significant ecological degradation.
Energy Return on Investment is the amount of energy expended to produce a certain amount of net energy. For example, in the early days oil had an EROI of up to 100:1. Only one barrel's worth of energy was required to pump 100 barrels of oil. That created a vast surplus of energy that we used to build our modern industrial civilization. Renewable energy such as solar, wind, nuclear, and hydroelectric collectively have a low energy EROI of only 5:1. Since, it is estimated that a ratio of 14:1 is needed to maintain a growing industrial civilization, the reduction of EROI would lead to a vast contraction in the economy.
Energy Source EROI (Energy Return on Investment)
Fossil Fuels (Oil and Gas) 14:1 *Modern civilization was built on ~100:1
Nuclear 7:1 *Green energy collectively is currently ~5:1
Wind (Onshore) 4:1
Wind (Offshore) 3:1
Solar (PV) 2:1
Interestingly, fossil fuel's EROI has plummeted to 14:1 due to the increasing difficulty in extracting these resources. Thus, we currently are at near the minimum of energy production needed to maintain the society that we currently have. There is little excess energy left over to be able to meet the energy demands of transitioning to green energy. If you look around you at the crumbling (past it's sell-by date) infrastructure in major cities, you will now understand why it hasn't yet been replaced. It's not a matter of money. As quantitative easing has shown us, trillions of dollars can be created in a blink of an eye. It's a matter of energy -that's becoming increasingly in short supply. Phillise Todd has some excellent videos on YouTube explaining the problems with green growth. They are well worth you time.
In addition, fossil fuel energy is required in the production of renewable energy. Much of the construction of green energy requires extremely high temperatures -much higher than renewable energy can generate. From the above mentioned paper by Megan K. Seibert and William E. Rees:
Approximately 30% of industrial heating applications require temperatures below 212 ◦F (100 ◦C); 27% can be met with temperatures between 212 ◦F and 750 ◦F (100 ◦C and 400 ◦C); and 43% require temperatures above 750 ◦F (400 ◦C) . Most existing RE heating technologies can supply heat only within the lowest temperature category . This is highly problematic given that solar panel manufacturing requires temperatures ranging from 2700 ◦F to 3600 ◦F (1480 ◦C to 1980 ◦C) and the steel and cement manufacturing for high-tech wind turbines, hydropower plants, and nuclear plants require temperatures ranging from 1800 ◦F to 3100 ◦F (980 ◦C to 1700 ◦C).
My final point relates to game theory. Strong militaries require strong economies. If a country transitions their economy to renewables too early, they leave themselves vulnerable to countries who transition later -or not at all. Kevin Lister, author of The Vortex of Violence: and why we are losing the battle on climate change on Twitter pointed out to me what we see is the playing out of the Nash Equilibrium on the world stage:
The Nash equilibrium is a concept within game theory where the optimal outcome of a game is where there is no incentive to deviate from the initial strategy. More specifically, the Nash equilibrium is a concept of game theory where the optimal outcome of a game is one where no player has an incentive to deviate from their chosen strategy after considering an opponent's choice.
Why would a country choose to weaken itself militarily when another country might use this weakness to take advantage? It seems, the best way to play the game would be to encourage other countries to transition to renewable energy first, with little intention of doing so yourself. This would be a great way to gain a strategic advantage in geopolitics. Isn't this what is actually being played out in international policitics? I hear a lot of world leaders espousing green energy and net zero rhetoric. I see a lot of posturing. But, most countries are doing very little. Since America, Russia, China and all of the other players are aware of this game, no country is willing to take the risk. To do so, would be to make your country weak and vulnerable for exploitation or even attack.
Sadly, this is the real reason why climate advocacy is failing. The world needs to find a way to trust each other. Unfortunately, it is clear that we are headed full speed in the wrong direction.