“Why governments are blind to fossil fuel energy risk.”

Jeremy Leggett in REnew Economy: “Humans are capable of mass collective blindness to risk. In modern times, the financial crisis of 2008 shows us that clearly. A whole industry pushed a delusional narrative.” “Regulators bought it. Auditors, ratings agencies and every other segment of the financial chain bought it. We the citizens bought it, bar a few admirable whistleblowers who nobody listened to. The end result was a near collapse of the global economy.
None of this surprises neuroscientists and psychologists. They are well versed in the human tendency to suppress rational thought, individually and collectively, and to favour comforting narrativesover uncomfortable ones. None of it surprises anthropologists, who know from history how failed civilisations believed their delusional narratives all the way to the point of collapse and beyond.
So a question arises. Having courted economic Armageddon in the financial sector, might we be capable of repeating the trick in the energy sector?
My answer is a resounding yes. We are doing so. On multiple fronts.
The following statements are all held as comforting core beliefs across much of society today.
Oil supply can keep growing for decades. Climate change is not that big a threat. Fossil-fuels count as assets at zero risk of being devalued by policy action on climate. Fracking shale is a sustainableroute to new mass prosperity in the US and beyond.
Each one of these assertions is false, so I and others like me believe. Each one entails a belief system that threatens society with disaster of some kind.
The reasons we believe this are complex and difficult to communicate. This difficulty is compounded because the energy incumbency threatened by our uncomfortable counter narratives pushes a blizzard of hype out into the media, with awesome effectiveness, in defence of its comforting mantras.
America will need to be renamed “Saudi America”, they tell us. Climate change is an invention of anti-growth agitators. Fossil fuels are attractive investments. Fracking is a risk-freeroute to much-needed jobs.
In 2012, watching capital continue to flow into coal and tar sands, and the new story of shale riches emerging, I wondered how best I could make a personal contribution to sounding the multiple alarms needed. I zeroed in on another lesson of neuroscience and psychology: the one that shows people prefer stories to textbooks.
So, I thought, I have a story to tell. A true one. I have seen these threats to society build over the years, frequently close to, often behind supposedly closed doors. Why don’t I tell that story? As the drama unfolds, hopefully it will show people how brains work in the energy incumbency that is stoking such catastrophe for the world.
I thought hard about the wisdom of this. I would be irritating a lot of very powerful people in industry and government. Some would accuse me of breaking confidences, of talking about meetings that were implicitly private.
But then I reflected, who cares: the stakes in this drama are just too big for that to matter.
And so I wrote The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance, published the same week as this column. In it, I tell the story of the energy and financial markets from 2004, the year the oil price began its inexorable rise. I follow all the main subsequent events chronologically, through to April 2013.
I have continued to follow them since in this monthly column, and on my website www.jeremyleggett.net. In the book, I intercut the factual narrative with diary extracts, to show my own experience of the events and of key incumbency figures in industry and government.
These are the bits that will cause the irritation. They were crawled over by libel lawyers sniffing for defamation. I have sailed as close a course to the wind as I have dared in this respect. Necessarily so. Often the tales of dysfunctional human behaviour I have witnessed behind closed doors are stranger than fiction. People need to know this, I figure.
I have also tried, along the way, to paint a vision of a possible road to renaissance. The renewables industries are leading characters in this part of the drama, readers will be unsurprised to hear.
I conclude that a possible road because renaissance is not a given outcome. Advocates of clean energy are in the midst of a complex civil war, as things stand. Our opponents are entrenched rightacross much of the energy sector, the financial sector, government and the supporting institutions. We could yet lose.
I hope my book will help encourage defectors from the failed belief systems in and around energy markets that so imperil our future. As for fellow revolutionaries in the renewables industries, I hope you will draw encouragement from my narrative. I invite your help inspreading my story of our opponents, and my thoughts about our road to eventual victory.
Jeremy Leggett is founder and Chairman of Solarcentury and SolarAid, and Chairman of Carbon Tracker. His book The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road To Renaissance is published 26th September. Reviews, first chapter and how to order can be found here.

 

Posted in Change for Good, Chronicle, Clean Energy, Climate, Coal, Commentaries, Finance, Gas, Nuclear, Oil

Scenes from The Winning of the Carbon War

New York, 21-26 September 21st – 26th, 2014

The NYPD find a novel way to deflate the carbon bubble on Wall Street
The NYPD find a novel way to deflate the carbon bubble on Wall Street

“I am often tempted to write ‘life, stranger than art’, in the pages of this chronicle. I can only get away with that cliché maybe once. Let it be here. The NYPD has found a way to deflate the carbon bubble. I mean the one twenty feet across, carried by protestors above their heads as they poured into Wall Street. The police popped it on one of the horns of the Merrill Lynch bull.”


Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 18th, 2014

Riyadh at night. By day, no solar panel-plus-storage to be seen. Yet.
Riyadh at night. By day, no solar panel-plus-storage to be seen. Yet.

“I arrive at night, and am driven from the airport into a city lit up like a fireworks display. Six million people live here. They are burning oil in power plants to provide electricity with few constraints on waste. It is akin to shovelling their national income into a furnace, at an accelerating rate every day.”


Somewhere in London, September 15th, 2014

An EV charged by leftover solar from a fully solar-powered home in cloudy Britain
An EV charged by leftover solar from a fully solar-powered home in cloudy Britain

“The world’s largest private bank predicts that by 2020 it will be possible to have a solar roof, an electric vehicle and a domestic battery bank, powering everything you need in a home, with mouth-watering economics. That energy-trio purchase will be able to pay for itself within six to eight years, while giving a 7% pre-tax annual return on investment. Such household economics, UBS concludes, will change the face of the energy industry.”


Online somewhere, July 10th, 2014

Some of the most strident warnings have been in the Conservative party's favourite paper
Some of the most strident warnings have been in the Conservative party's favourite paper

“A momentous article has appeared in the Telegraph. It argues that fossil fuels are the new subprime threat to the global economy ….(and that) a solar revolution is rushing up on society under the radar, the standard bearer of a transformative green industrial revolution that can no longer be avoided.” Some wag, unknown to me, has written on Twitter: “What world are we living in when the Telegraph starts sounding like Jeremy Leggett?”


No 10 Downing Street, London, July 7th, 2014

Delivering a letter from 150 companies to the UK PM
Delivering a letter from 150 companies to the UK PM

“Obama took personal charge of the pushback. ‘Science is science’, he said in an interview with the New York Times. ‘And there is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire’.”


The Houses of Parliament, London, July 2nd, 2014

Juliet Davenport, Good Energy CEO: "solar is a fantastic technology"
Juliet Davenport, Good Energy CEO: "solar is a fantastic technology"

“A journalist from the Wall Street Journal seems impatient with all the British reserve on offer, and the morass of technical detail on subsidies that masks what is clearly the most fundamental of disputes. What is it, exactly, that you are worried about, she asks me. A repeat of 2011, I tell her. The government launched an ambush on the solar industry back then: a savage subsidy cut with only 6 weeks notice, aiming to decimate us. The gas industry was behind it.”


Mayfair, London, June 12th, 2014

Shell strands an asset on rocks en route to explore for Arctic oil
Shell strands an asset on rocks en route to explore for Arctic oil

“The whole concept (of the carbon bubble and stranded assets) is ‘fundamentally flawed’, Shell concludes. And worse, ‘there is a danger that some interest groups use it to trivialize the important societal issue of rising levels of C02 in the atmosphere’. …. I have been accused of many things by the incumbency over the years. Trivializing global warming is a first.”


Stockholm, May 13th, 2014

Larson ice shelf collapse, 2002: lots more to come
Larson ice shelf collapse, 2002: lots more to come

“Two teams of scientists have concluded that the melting of the vast West Antarctic ice sheet appears now to be unstoppable: that it will collapse piece by piece until the entire sheet has slid off the continent into the ocean. This would cause global sea-level to rise ten feet over the next few centuries. The generations to come will need an awful lot of zeroes when they count the cost of that.”


Norton Rose Fulbright, City of London, May 8th, 2014

Kashagan, Kazakhstan: $40 bn overbudget, 11 years behind schedule
Kashagan, Kazakhstan: $40 bn overbudget, 11 years behind schedule

“A question from the audience. So will Morgan Stanley be incorporating Carbon Tracker’s analysis in its advice? I am here in learning mode, frankly, Martijn Rats replies. What we don’t say so far is that this or that project should be cancelled. But you will, I think. You will have to.”


Soho, London, April 24th, 2014

Apple ad on back pages of papers: what are they thinking?
Apple ad on back pages of papers: what are they thinking?

“Apple are set on supplying 100% renewable power to their data centres. But why would they take out such advertisements? It crosses my mind that they must have some ulterior motive of a business kind: some venture that would require enormous amounts of solar power to be routinely deployed around the world. Electric vehicles, I think, and then dismiss the idea immediately. Too much of a departure for a computer company, surely.”