Confronting Not Only Climate Collapse But Energy Poverty

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Above: Cover of the report, A Solar Transition Is Possible.

David Schwartzman a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biology at Howard University and author of Life, Temperature and the Earth: The Self-Organizing Biosphere (Columbia University Press), obtained a PhD in Geochemistry from Brown University (in 1971). He and his son, Peter Schwartzman who is an Associate Professor (and Chair) in the Department of Environmental Studies at Knox College, have published a report and articles on the transition to a clean energy economy and manage the website Solar Utopia.

A significant part of their analysis is not only about confronting climate change but also confronting energy poverty where much of the world is unable to use enough energy to have a decent and healthy life. Most of these people are living in the developing world or global South. Another group of people, mostly in the global North, consume more than an equitable share of energy. In order to address energy poverty in the global South, as well as under-served people in the global North requires most countries in the global North, especially the United States, to reduce energy consumption, but the overall delivery to the global population needs to increase. As a starting point for their analysis they calculate that the rough minimum to achieve world standard life expectancy is 3.5 kilowatt/person, so for 7 billion this is equivalent to 25 trillion watts, with present consumption being 18 trillion watts. See their report “A Solar Transition Is Possible.

“To achieve these goals of climate and energy justice, the Schwartzman’s require a major focus on ending the waste of energy, especially in the United States. Improving the way we use energy, increasing efficiency and decreasing waste is a key component. Another key component is the need to sequester carbon, see Carbon Sequestration is a Key Ingredient.”

Below is the vision statement of Solar Utopia:

Our Statement

Utopia? Yes, we are seriously proposing a near future solar utopia on planet Earth, in spite of the horrible job humans are now doing. Tens of millions of our species continue to die of preventable causes every year, an annual genocide that dwarfs the record of the 20th century, the age of mechanized mass murder. The majority of humanity lives in misery while a privileged minority, mainly in the global North, enjoys a state of the science quality of life. (No wonder we are not invited to join the Galactic Club!*)

We are faced with two technological threats to the continuance of human civilization and biodiversity as we know it. The first is the continuing threat of nuclear war, not inevitable but deadly even if localized by virtue of climatic impact on agriculture. The second, catastrophic climate change (C3) is inevitable if carbon emissions to the atmosphere are not rapidly and radically reduced and the now unsafe atmospheric level of 400 ppm CO2 is not reduced by sequestration technologies to below 350 ppm.

Our main message: if we succeed in the near future to overcome the obstacles standing in the way of decarbonizing our global energy supplies by solar technologies such as wind power, we open up an unprecedented path to solar utopia.

We will demonstrate that Peak Oil/Coal is not a barrier to global solarization IF rapid solarization begins in the near future, before the supplies of fossil fuels start to rapidly decline and C3 becomes inevitable.

We submit the obstacles are not technological, rather lie in the political economy of real existing 21st Century global Capitalism, specifically in the Dinosaur sitting in the Room, the Moloch called the Military Industrial (Fossil Fuel, Nuclear, State Terror) Complex. Only a transnational movement for peace and justice can put this Dinosaur in the Museum of Prehistory where it belongs.

We argue that there are 3 critical requirements that will make solar utopia a reality: demilitarization of our global economy, agro-ecologies replacing industrial and GMO agriculture, and the creation of a high-efficiency solar power infrastructure replacing unsustainable fossil fuels and nuclear power. Energy poverty in the global South must end to ensure a state-of-the-science quality of life for all humankind. Expanding democratic, bottom-up control of the process of transformation of the global economy is necessary for its success.

Our website invites thoughtful critique and dialogue on the technological, social, political and economic aspects of our scenario. The modern energy paradigm (i.e., ancient sunlight and nuclear fission, in the hands of the powerful few, is an acceptable source of energy for the planet) must be shattered and we need to mobilize a global movement to make this happen.

* Assuming it exists; see David Schwartzman, 2010, SETI Redux: Joining the Galactic Club (link)

Below is an exchange between David Schwartzman, Ph.D and Maggie Zhou, Ph.D., who is a molecular biologist and computational biologist by training and a long-time advocate of climate justice. Their discussion pulls out many of the challenging issues to confronting climate change.

An Initial Exchange

The following exchange originally took place on a listserv….

FROM Maggie Zhou: David, I am sorry but I’ve discussed this with you several times, I really think the model you keep promoting is a self-deceiving fantasy that is dangerous for all of us to believe in.

David Schwartzman’s RESPONSE: Rather than a self-deceiving fantasy we submit this is a realizable transition that can and should be achieved if we have any hope of preventing catastrophic climate change and of providing the minimum energy needed for everyone on this planet getting the state of the science quality of life. Everyone, yes even the majority of humankind now living the global South suffering from energy poverty. And as we emphasize this transition will not happen by business as usual market-driven, rather will require radical changes, including the dissolution of the Military Industrial (Fossil Fuel, Nuclear, State Terror) Complex (“MIC”). (go to our Statement on and our Report, plus several of my own papers in CNS).

The real self-deceiving fantasy is to believe that we should simply promote a radical reduction of energy globally and expect working people and unemployed to support such a future. Rather, fighting for clean energy, green jobs, fighting to eliminate MIC as you have so ably done in your activism, is class struggle that can succeed.

FROM Maggie: In your report you even acknowledge there may be a problem with rare earth metals availability for this huge scale wholesale transition to solar+wind, with no reduction of current global energy production, but instead a doubling of total production! Yet you do not examine this essential problem at all. Extracting for rare earth metals is extremely damaging to the env, and there is limited supply of it, which is why western countries are so annoyed when China announced reduction plans of its imports (partly to keep it for themselves, partly due to closing down of dangerous and highly polluting open-pit mines).

David’s RESPONSE: Your concern is very well taken. Any solarization, including the mining of REE, making PVs, siting wind turbines, must be subject to social management and design, starting with the local going to the global, to address the negative impacts you are referring to, corporate-managed versus people-managed. I looked at the known reserves of REE and they are sufficient to build present-technology wind turbines contributing on the order of 10TW of global power. Further, transition to solar will also reduce energy used for mining by facilitating recycling without the concomitant negative impacts of using fossil fuels to do the same. Similarly, we can plausibly expect technological innovations to phase out the need to use rare metals like Nd (e.g., see
But to demand that solar have zero negative impacts is the real fantasy. Putting passive solar on a roof opens up the risk of falling off and breaking your neck, indeed repairing bridges, expanding decentralized solar power, all neceessary, will result in such accidents. We should fight for full and expanded enforcement by OSHA, just as we protect the workers and community from potentially negative impacts of making PVs etc. ALL of this requires Class Struggle!

FROM Maggie: You also have not examined the NF3 emission associated with solar panels, or SF6 with wind farms. Both are thousands of times more potent than CO2, and lasts thousands of years. At least NF3 is likely unavoidable.

David’s RESPONSE: You point to potentially important greenhouse gas contributors associated with present, too weakly regulated solar production. But a qualitative argument alone means little, show us the studies that demonstrate a comparable greenhouse forcing for even present PV and wind turbine production to fossil fuels for the same power capacity created. Here is one study which shows how these emissions for PV could be significantly reduced: de Wild-Scholten, et al., FLUORINATED GREENHOUSE GASES IN PHOTOVOLTAIC MODULE MANUFACTURING: 22nd European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference, Fiera Milano, Italy, 3-7 September 2007 Version: 30 August 2007

Further, the life-cycle studies cited in our report demonstrate that greenhouse forcing from PV and wind are much lower than fossil fuels. Nevertheless, your point about potential future contributions from these trace gases must be addressed in a solar transition!

FROM Maggie: You assume a minimum of 3.5 kilowatt per capita for high life expectancy for everyone in the world, but even in those countries currently falling on the pivot of the life-expectancy/energy curve, this amount of energy is not all used in ways that strengthens their life expectancy. Some of it is still wasted on productions and consumptions that are harmful. So the real need is far less, and we certainly should not accept it that the planet WILL swell to 9 billion people, if we are a species that thinks it’s any more intelligent than rats or yeast to be able to do something about its uncontrolled multiplication!

David’s RESPONSE: First your last point which sounds like a reprise of neo-Malthusian arguments. Eliminating the worst poverty and disempowerment of women is the proven approach to stabilizing population. The critical material requirement is to also eliminate energy poverty.

As for your first point, to be sure, energy consumption per capita needs to be corrected for the unequal consumption by class in a nation. Nevertheless, given the small percentage of the number of very rich-energy consuming folk, the correction you call for is not significant, especially given the caveats we discuss in our report. For example, if 1% of the population consumes 10 x the energy of the bottom 99%, the required 3.5 kilowatt/person for the bottom 99% goes down to 3.1 kilowatt/person. Neverthess, there is a very strong causal correlation between life expectancy and energy consumption per person which is now recognized by many scholars (Smil, UN, even Richard Heinberg). Our challenge with the global North is fighting for a robust regulation regime to rapidly phase out carbon emissions, including very aggressive energy conservation combined with a maximum of decentralized solar power capacity, but for the global South we must fight for a rapid and substantial increase in solar power to meet the approximately 3.5 kilowatt/person minimum required for the state of the science life expectancy and all that goes with it. Again Cuba is an excellent example of how a society transitioning to ecosocialism is still a society of scarcity and energy poverty (because of the unrelenting campaign of hostility and aggression from US imperialism) look at her life expectancy, now tied with the U.S. and Denmark at 36 in the world.

FROM Maggie: Finally, this talk about being able to grow all the pot we want reveals you are not taking it to heart yourself about the equal sharing per capita of 3.5 kilowatt for everyone on the planet. The US currently far exceeds this consumption level per capita, so we’ll have to reduce dramatically our electricity consumption, even if it’s 100% solar.

The reason why I keep criticizing you on this is because I see this as an example (same goes for the “single-occupant electric SUVs” – excuse me?) of the callous green capitalist mantra of just-convert-everything-to-renewable-and-we’ll-be-fine. Coming from a Green person and an academic it’s especially damaging given the level of trust socially responsible people likely place on you. We must advocate dramatic reductions in consumption as a society, and a complete shift of what to produce and consume, and how to. Renewable energy all come at a cost to the environment as well, so only a small amount of it (at least in the short run) should be used to ensure the most essential needs. Most importantly we have to acknowledge that there is a climate/ecological emergency, and our societies have to make the necessary changes in far shorter time than decades.

David’s RESPONSE: Again, we strongly advocate aggressive energy conservation especially in the global North, like the U.S. with its very wasteful pattern of consumption, far above the minimum needed to achieve the roughly 3 to 3.5 kilowatt/person. Again with such a reduction we can all live better, clean air, clean water, organic food, mass transit instead of SUVs etc.
To be sure we must start now, but If you think we can make the necessary changes in a far shorter time than a few decades, please show us how? Everyone should migrate to the woods and live without electricity in a log cabin? (the die-off school of Peak Oil)

David ADDED:
I misstated a point in my previous message. I meant to say:

Nevertheless, given the small percentage of the number of very rich-energy consuming folk, the correction you call for is not significant, especially given the caveats we discuss in our report. For example, for an overall energy consumption per capita of 3.5 kilowatt/person of a nation, if 1% of the population consumes 10 x the energy of the bottom 99%, the actual consumption for the bottom 99% goes down to 3.1 kilowatt/person. Reducing income/energy consumption gap alone would of course help deliver higher energy to the 99% without increasing the energy consumption by this nation. However, this example shows how energy poverty is still very relevant wrst global requirements, even with the inequality prevailing in most countries in the global South. The Cuban example shows how even a very equal society in the global South still suffers from significant energy poverty.

More comments:

One other consideration regarding the future of PV technology: new thin film PVs are being developed including those that don’t require rare and toxic metals like Cd and In. We can reasonably expect very cheap and efficient thin film PVs using common metals like Ti, Fe becoming available in the near future. Here is a calculation I published in one of my CNS papers (details are available on request): Assuming solar insolation levels available in N. Europe, if 15 percent of present world rooftop area were to be used to site photovoltaics with an assumed conversion efficiency of 20 percent (the current value of Si PVs), the current global electricity power capacity would be created. Of course we should not expect “green” capitalism to automatically drive this energy revolution in time to prevent catastrophic climate change (C3).

One imperative dictated by the physics of climate: to increase the chances of C3 prevention, the challenge we face is to curb C emissions radically and rapidly AND promote effective solar-powered C-sequestration sooner than later to reduce the current 390 ppm (soon to be greater) CO2 level to below the safer 350 ppm level (see Jim Hansen’s papers). I suspect this will require industrial solar-powered sequestration on a massive scale coupled with a rapid shift to agroecologies (permaculture). The longer we leave the CO2 in the atmosphere the greater the chances we will reach the tipping points to C3 because of the response of the ocean coming into thermal equilibrium with the greenhouse forcings. This is an additional argument for building a global solar power level to over 20 TW delivery capacity. We also need extra power to clean up the huge legacy of destruction produced by MIC. See our report for more details.