Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The big plan

According to Andrew Revkin's New York Times environmental blog, a group of Stanford scientists and energy wonks have come up with a green energy plan for New York State, one which doesn't require nuclear power or natural gas.

I'll have to review this paper carefully, because if they have thought things through as they say they have thought things through, then they must either a) have new ideas and information on the problem of wind and solar power intermittency, or b) have skipped over this knotty problem altogether.

Always the realist-but-optimist, I'll hope for the former. I may even be able to find time to read the paper later today.

For his part, Revkin is, as always, quite skeptical.

This recommendation appears to be in a class of energy proposals we might call "All-in Green, ASAP."

These kinds of proposals, of which I've reviewed several now, including the seminal Zero Carbon Britain from the quite excellent Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, require the reader to imagine a future where some reasonable, responsible state or federal government is willing to take very strong steps to encourage renewables and efficiency, along the way essentially forcing massive asset value reductions on owners of private property in fossil energy.

The value of coal deposits, fracking wells and other oil, gas, and coal infrastructure would be taxed or regulated away, creating, we should mention, a whole new class of political opponents of green policies.

(This reactionary class already exists, de facto. The Koch brothers lead it.)

I'm doubtful anything quite this extensive will actually happen. As I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, while such strong steps might be economically and geophysically rational in the face of climate change, they are very difficult steps for the Anglo-American world to take, given our economic theology.

(I'm choosing the word theology carefully and correctly here -- we don't have a national economic theory in the USA or Britain. It's instead a theology, built more around myths and stories than around empirical evidence and analysis of that evidence.)

The Anglo-American version of society, or economic theology -- the one we get in the USA, Britain, Canada, Australia, and so on -- results in a combination of strong capitalism with weak social order and weak democracy.

The countries that have taken steps to enact an All-in Green energy model -- Germany, Sweden and Denmark are good examples -- have stronger democracies, stronger social order, and weaker capitalism. It's a lot easier for them to abolish value in private property.

This would be a good time to mention that an experiment with strong democracy and weaker capitalism did take place, once upon a time, in one Anglo-American country, the United Kingdom, from 1945 to 1979.

Britain's Welfare State, until it was mortally weakened by Margaret Thatcher, abolished massive quantities of private capital with some-but-minimal compensation using measures that were still legal and constitutional, such as the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, or the various acts that nationalized the British steel and coal industries, or established the National Health Service. The Labour Party architects of the Welfare State even attempted to spread this theory to the many colonies Britain still had at the time. It's hard to imagine the nationalized sugar industry developments in Belize (then British Honduras) or the infamous debacle of the African Groundnut Scheme, but these things existed, and probably should be studied by serious economists looking for ways to evaluate precedent in economic management for climate change.

All this was accompanied by a strong Fabian social order. There was a general scheme of leveling -- aristocrats and plutocrats alike were "soaked" in taxes until they declined in number and power -- or left for greener pastures. One result was the Fabianization of the countryside and the strong measures for countryside protection creating Britain's current very crowded cities and suburbs, while maintaining the green fields and patchwork farms (that I so love to hike over, when I return home).

Of course, Welfare State Britain was also uncompetitive and eventually fell behind in productivity and innovation. Much as I detested the Thatcher policies at the time, eventually they led to a more vibrant and more economically viable state.

Will climate change require an economic revolution in the USA, similar to that in Britain after World War Two?

Or will we find a way to continue with strong American capitalism and weak American democracy and social order, and still enact a serious climate-and-energy plan?

The jury is still out. But serious climate wonks will have to think it all through.

(Which, by the way, requires a very different education than we currently require for climate wonks.)

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