by Eric Worrall
The Atlantic arguing that progressives are inhibiting the green transition by putting more effort into fighting corporations than helping them build green infrastructure.
What Many Progressives Misunderstand About Fighting Climate Change
Wishful thinking hampers the clean-energy revolution.
By Alec Stapp
SEPTEMBER 25, 2022, 6:30 AM ET
About the author: Alec Stapp is a co-founder of the Institute for Progress.
The good news is that, with reasonable reforms, the energy transition is fully within reach. Private investment in clean-energy technology is skyrocketing, and even Big Oil is starting to realize there is no future in fossil fuels.
But this may not be enough for some environmentalists. Jamie Henn, an environmental activist and the director of Fossil Free Media, recently told Rolling Stone, “Look, I want to get carbon out of the atmosphere, but this is such an opportunity to remake our society. But if we just perpetuate the same harms in a clean-energy economy, and it’s just a world of Exxons and Elon Musks—oh, man, what a nightmare.” Many progressive commentators similarly believe that countering climate change requires a fundamental reordering of the West’s political and economic systems. “The level of disruption required to keep us at a temperature anywhere below ‘absolutely catastrophic’ is fundamentally, on a deep structural level, incompatible with the status quo,” the writer Phil McDuff has argued. The climate crisis, the Green New Deal advocate Naomi Klein has insisted, “could be the best argument progressives have ever had” to roll back corporate influence, tear up free-trade deals, and reinvest in public services and infrastructure.
Such comments raise a question: What is the real goal here—stopping climate change or abolishing capitalism? Taking climate change seriously as a global emergency requires an all-hands-on-deck attitude and a recognition that technological solutions (yes, often built and deployed by private firms) can deliver real progress on decarbonization before the proletariat has seized the means of production. A massive infusion of private investment, made not for charity but in the anticipation of future profits, is precisely what’s needed to accelerate the clean-energy transition—which, like all revolutions, will yield unpredictable results.
The author goes on to argue that paving hundreds of thousands of square miles with solar panels requires relaxing environmental laws which allow people to object to such developments. The author also says nice things about nuclear power.
I give this piece half marks. While it is unusually rational for an Atlantic climate article, the author still misses or glosses over some important points, such as the sheer scale of effort required to transform the energy system.
For an idea of scale, our Willis ran the calculations in 2021. Willis explained in Bright Green Impossibilities, to hit Net Zero by 2050 the USA would need to add a little over 2GW of 24×7 zero carbon generation capacity every day. Think of this as a brand new nuclear reactor commissioned every day until 2050, to replace the 22 terawatts of average power capacity / 193 Petawatt hours of energy per year provided by fossil fuel.
Even using nuclear reactors this is a wildly implausible target. When you translate this magnitude of nuclear capacity build to solar panels or wind turbines, bearing in mind nuclear power runs 24×7, and wind and solar most definitely do not, the numbers soar into absurdity.