Stop Promoting False Solutions For Climate Change

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

I've spent a lot of time outside the mainstream environmental movement as a climate justice activist fighting false solutions, calling for “system change, not climate change.” But what does that mean?

Climate change has been used as an opportunity to profit. Politicians tell us that addressing climate change is only worthwhile if it provides jobs, grows the economy and does not interfere with our American way of life, so the primary approaches have been market based: carbon markets and offsets along with an endless parade of potentially profitable “technofixes.” Growing the economy is viewed as central, essential, paramount — even to the act of saving the planet. 

But profit motives are not just or ethical, nor are they necessarily effective for solving problems. In many cases, just the opposite. That’s why we have to be ultra vigilant to avoid the trap of “false solutions.” We need to free ourselves to think critically and holistically and trust our own common sense in order to find real solutions.  

Industrial scale biofuels and biomass electricity and the entire bioeconomy, which would have us using living plant biomass (as well as risky genetically engineered crops and trees and synthetic biology) to manufacture virtually anything now made from fossil fuels, are a poster child for “false solutions.” The vast new demand for so much biomass — and the land and water to grow it — has devastating consequences for food, forests, soils, biodiversity and human rights, only contributing to make climate change worse.

As codirector of Biofuelwatch, I’ve faced each new climate and energy policy (including President Obama’s recent speech at Georgetown) not by celebrating “action on climate” (whatever that might mean), but with dread, because I know that those policies will translate into new supports for industrial corn and soy, wood pellets, palm oil and more. In Europe and the U.S., about half of renewable energy is from bioenergy. Huge coal burning utilities are converting to burning millions of tons of wood pellets and chips in place of coal. Coal is a problem, absolutely, but cutting down trees and burning them as a substitute is obviously not the solution.

With over 40% of the U.S/ corn crop going into ethanol refineries, the impact of biofuels on food prices is evident. Growing food to run cars and planes and military activities is not only a dangerous false solution. It is a tragedy that has been referred to as a "crime against humanity,” forcing more people into chronic hunger and setting the context for more and more land grabs as wealthy investors and corporations seek to profit from growing and selling bioenergy crops.  

There is a terrible irony to this: We know destructive agriculture practices and deforestation have been a major contributor to greenhouse gases, and that restoring and regenerating ecosystems and soils would not only store carbon, but have many other important benefits. Yet instead of moving to halt deforestation and improve agriculture, we have created vast new demands for biomass, taking us in exactly the wrong direction.

Obama finally spoke about addressing climate change, but his proposals were far from encouraging or realistic. He proposed using CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) on new “clean coal” (or biomass) utilities, but CCS is largely nonexistent, unproven, costly, requires more energy, and depends on the dangerous assumption that we can permanently store vast amounts of CO2 inside cavities in the earth.

Many environmental groups call for more renewable energy as the centerpiece of their approach, but this is a dangerous distraction. Indeed, burning fossil fuels is a problem. But renewable energy cannot solve it. Renewables now provide only a fraction of our total, and virtually all technologies available entail massive problems. Even the manufacture of solar panels takes a lot of energy and materials, releasing toxins and dangerous greenhouse gases. Furthermore, wind and solar are annoyingly intermittent whereas burning biomass can provide “baseload” energy, one reason it has been so favored.

We have been misled into thinking that we can just "plug in" some alternative sources of energy and then just keep on with the same old business as usual, same endless economic growth, same gross overconsumption by some, while others struggle in their same old poverty, same destruction of our ecosystems, same military operations, same culture of surveillance and mistrust, same old system. Is that really what we want?

Obama had the audacity to talk about America "leading the world" on climate. We have indeed been the leading cause of the problem, and the rest of the world is now suffering the consequences.

The U.S. has played a major role in obstructing progress in the international negotiations, first demanding China and India agree take more responsibility, then using that demand as an excuse for our own inaction. That is not leadership. It is arrogance and irresponsibility.

People everywhere seek and deserve to have decent lives. Who are we to say that they should not have their basic human needs — clean water and air, food, shelter, education and health care — met, or to say that they should not seek similar levels of luxury as some of us in the U.S. enjoy? China and India and the rest of the world must be allowed to determine their own path. We need to first take responsibility for our own mess. 

We owe an ecological debt for our prosperity. Many simply cannot cope with heat waves, floods, droughts, food price spikes. We are obliged, morally and politically, to provide the assistance and support needed for those suffering the consequences of our mess. And there must be no strings attached, no "loans" to be repaid, and no expectation that we are purchasing political capital, access to overseas markets or any other influence. 

System change will require that we transform our relationship to energy, to consumption, to power, and to economics. It will require that we place human rights and ecosystem protections, not endless economic growth and expanding GDP, at the core of our decisions. We need to relearn the art of compassion, community, fairness and diplomacy, to train and educate our children not for warfare, conflict, consumerism and cataclysm, but to work and live together cooperatively, with respect for one another and the natural world.

The changes we make will be difficult. People will lose jobs, and there will be much upheaval. That’s why we need right now to put into place the social structures and institutions that will ensure that everyone has their basic needs met. 

The concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1% is preventing progress. Wealthy corporations have taken ownership of our government and now decide which wars our children will be sent off to fight and die in, who will be targeted by drones and who among us will be labeled a "terrorist." They determine whether or not people are realistically apprised of what climate change is, and how threatening it is. They determine what is on the news. They are purchasing and privatizing the land, water and air right out from under and around us. They are even privatizing genes, seeds, and our children’s education.

We cannot sit idle. We need to organize in our communities and do the hard work of building a united movement, one that will not whimper halfheartedly for more renewable energy, but will demand system change. 

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Rachel Smolker

Rachel Smolker is a codirector of Biofuelwatch, and an organizer with Energy Justice Network. She works to expose and oppose the harmful impacts of commercial/industrial bioenergy on land use, forests, biodiversity, food, people and the climate. She participates in various national and international climate justice networks to oppose false solutions to climate change. Rachel has a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Michigan. Prior to her current position, she worked as a field biologist in various countries around the world, where she gained first hand experience with the complexities of conserving biodiversity and addressing poverty. She is author of numerous articles, reports and also of a book ("To Touch A Wild Dolphin", Doubleday 2001) and lives in Vermont.

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