Solnit Dares to Hope, while NM Guv & Sierra Club Offer a Dangerous Fantasy: The Truth About Net Zero

Today we launch a three-post series by examining Rebecca Solnit’s take on why she has hope for mankind despite the snail’s pace progress in implementing needed changes. The second post will then then shift focus to NM, examining what must be learned from the Energy Transition Act (ETA) and how an entirely uncritical process that refused examination or amendment created a law with terrible consequences. In part three we will examine “net zero,” the latest climate policy initiative offered up by the Governor and her coterie of environmental cheerleaders. Here we go again, a stampede to pass “net zero” legislation without examining the consequences of the act. ETA Redux. Have we learned nothing?

Before we hear from Rebecca Solnit and before we lay out our concerns about MLG’s net zero proposaI, I want to contextualize our concerns by acknowledging that there are no simple solutions out there for NM. We rely on gas and oil revenues to such an extent that shutting down the Permian Basin would cause significant loss of revenue to fund our early childhood programs, K-12 school systems, colleges and universities. Nonetheless, with the current volume of Permian Basin barrels produced and exported and the amount of methane emitted 24-7, we simply do not have the right to ignore the option of shutting down the Permian Basin ASAP, especially because we actually do have options for replacing a significant proportion of lost revenue. For more on the impact of the Permian Basin drilling, click here: the Permian Climate Bomb – describes how the Permian Basin could produce more oil, gas, and gas liquids in the next 30 years than it has in the past century. 

So, the first step in developing a meaningful environmental policy should be to examine the implications of shutting the Permian down, as this would have far and away the biggest impact on greenhouse gas emissions of any strategy available to NM. Since revenue loss is the primary objection to shutting down the Permian, policy makers and advocates should explore revenue-generating strategies such as those proposed by NM Voices for Children that could replace a very significant proportion. of lost G&O revenue.

We can’t continue to claim “this is not the time to increase taxes on the rich” and close gaping holes in our corporate tax system while bemoaning our reliance on gas and oil revenue. Opponents of these tax changes are partly right about this not being the best time to reform the tax and revenue systems. The best time was ten or twenty years ago. The next best time is now. We can no longer be held hostage by gas and oil while viable options exist for replacing lost G&O revenue. We can’t buy into the false choice of continuing to drill the Permian or destroying our children’s services and education systems. This is akin to stating that in order to prepare our children for the future, we must destroy that future. And make no mistake about it, as you look at the chart below, note how the U.S. stands 4th in the world in per person emissions and, as such, we have no choice but to begin to make painful decisions. No state in the nation is better able to contribute to that effort than NM, as we will discuss a bit further on in this analysis. But for now, note that to achieve any global emissions reduction goals, the U.S. and NM need to reduce extraction and export of gas and oil.

Now that we have framed the challenge in NM economic realities, we turn to Rebecca Solnit, who explains why she is able to maintain hope for our future despite so many policy disappointments on the international scene. There is much in her analysis that can guide our discussion.

Three things matter for climate chaos and our response to it – the science reporting on current and potential conditions, the technology offering solutions, and the organizing which is shifting perspectives and policy. Each is advancing rapidly. The science mostly gives us terrifying news of more melting, more storms, more droughts, more fires, more famines. But the technological solutions and the success of the organizing to address this largest of all crises have likewise grown by leaps and bounds. For example, ideas put forth in the Green New Deal in 2019, seen as radical at the time, are now the kind of stuff President Biden routinely proposes in his infrastructure and jobs plans.

It’s not easy to see all the changes – you have to be a wonk to follow the details on new battery storage solutions or the growth of solar power in cheapness, proliferation, efficiency and possibility, or new understanding about agriculture and soil management to enhance carbon sequestration. You have to be a policy nerd to keep track of the countless new initiatives around the world. They include, recently, the UK committing to end overseas fossil fuel finance in December, the EU in January deciding to “discourage all further investments into fossil-fuel-based energy infrastructure projects in third countries”, and the US making a less comprehensive but meaningful effort this spring to curtail funding for overseas extraction. In April, oil-rich California made a commitment to end fossil fuel extraction altogether – if by a too-generous deadline. A lot of these policies have been deemed both good and not good enough. They do not get us to where we need to be, but they lay the foundation for further shifts, and like the Green New Deal many of them seemed unlikely a few years ago.

We have crossed barriers that seemed insurmountable at the end of the last millennium.

From The Guardian: “Dare we hope? Here’s my cautious case for climate optimism by Rebecca Solnit

Interestingly, each of the advances touted by Solnit involves countries or states making changes that required substantive sacrifice — something that, to date, NM has refused to do.

  • The UK committed to end overseas fossil fuel finance in December.
  • The EU in January decided to “discourage all further investments into fossil-fuel-based energy infrastructure projects in third countries.”
  • The US is making a less comprehensive but meaningful effort this spring to curtail funding for overseas extraction.
  • In April, oil-rich California made a commitment to end fossil fuel extraction altogether.

California’s commitment is akin to MLG announcing that part of her net zero plan is to cease all NM G&O extraction by a specified date in the not too distant future. That does not appear to be part of her plan.

It is also worth noting the cautionary warning embedded in Solnit’s expression of hope: the degree to which it is becoming more and more difficult to tease out the merit of each of the dizzying number of new climate crisis initiatives, which of them can achieve their projected benefits and which may be destined to fall short. Or worse, which initiatives may be disingenuous policies framed as miracle solutions that cleverly allow business as usual while promising long-term salvation from unproven technological solutions. This challenge of distinguishing real transformative change from quixotic, false promises is one of the central themes of today’s post. But first, more from Solnit, who is not the only one expressing long-term optimism. She cites the usually dour, skeptical Carbon Tracker:

The organization Carbon Tracker, whose reports are usually somber reading, just put out a report so stunning the word encouraging is hardly adequate. In sum, current technology could produce a hundred times as much electricity from solar and wind as current global demand; prices on solar continue to drop rapidly and dramatically; and the land required to produce all this energy would take less than is currently given over to fossil fuels. It is a vision of a completely different planet, because if you change how we produce energy you change our geopolitics – for the better – and clean our air and renew our future. The report concludes: “The technical and economic barriers have been crossed and the only impediment to change is political.” Those barriers seemed insurmountable at the end of the last millennium.

From The Guardian: “Dare we hope? Here’s my cautious case for climate optimism,” by Rebecca Solnit

While Carbon Tracker reports that “the only impediment to change is political,” to appreciate just how formidable the political impediment is, one only needs to examine the degree to which Sen. Manchin can edit out of existence any and all elements of Build Back Better that foster a transition from fossil fuels to renewables, despite the technological and economic advances that make this transition possible. And last time I checked, the Green New Deal was still being tagged as ‘socialism’ by a significant part of the US Congress. So politics is not just an afterthought, politics has been the primary barrier to progress on climate action for 30+ years.

Last week at the NM Climate Summit, policymakers spent two days high-fiving and patting themselves on the back, as if in passing the ETA and embracing net zero we had discovered the Holy Grail and solved climate change. In the second post in our series, we will address the limitations of the ETA and its remarkably uncritical path to becoming law and then follow that up with a third post devoted to the risks of relying on the net zero policy framework as the structure to frame climate action. But now, more from Solnit.

Despite the daunting difficulty posed by political obstacles, Solnit goes on to cite Christiana Figueres, chief author of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, who points out how, “this decade is a moment unlike any we have ever lived” because we are poised to meet those political challenges and that, given the stakes and the opportunity, “none of us has the right to give up.” Forgive me if I’ve read too many times before that this is our time, that this is not the time to give up. But clearly, we are approaching a decade where we can no longer afford to be lulled into inaction by promises of future technological miracles or accounting sleights of hand (net zero). We must begin taking seriously the sacrifice that is needed if we are to honestly respond to the looming crisis.

Christiana Figueres, who as executive secretary of the United Nations framework convention on climate change negotiated the Paris climate accords in 2015. As she recently declared: “This decade is a moment of choice unlike any we have ever lived. All of us alive right now share that responsibility and that opportunity… Many now believe it is impossible to cut global emissions in half in this decade. I say, we don’t have the right to give up or let up.” She speaks of how impossible a treaty like the one she negotiated seemed after the shambles at the end of the 2009 Copenhagen meeting.

From The Guardian: “Dare we hope? Here’s my cautious case for climate optimism,” by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit then goes on to cite adrienne maree brown, who believes organizing is science fiction, as we shape the future in what she calls “an imagination battle.” Maree brown asserts that while we may not be able to see the future clearly, we can nonetheless forge that future, one step after another, without seeing the end point. We do not have to have imagined the full package of steps that will ultimately need to be taken, but in moving forward with positive actions, each action will make it easier to imagine and then implement what must come next.

The visionary organizer adrienne maree brown wrote not long ago: “I believe that all organizing is science fiction – that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced. I believe that we are in an imagination battle …..
That we cannot see all the way to the transformed society we need does not mean it is impossible. We will reach it by not one great leap but a long journey, step by step. If we see how impossible our current reality might have seemed 20 years ago – that solar would be so cheap, that Scotland would get 97% of its electricity from renewables, that fossil fuel corporations would be in freefall – we can trust that we could be moving toward an even more transformed and transformative future, and that it is not a set destination but, for better or worse, what we are making up as we go. Each shift makes more shifts possible. But only if we go actively toward the possibilities rather than passively into the collapse.

From The Guardian: “Dare we hope? Here’s my cautious case for climate optimism,” by Rebecca Solnit

Her optimism that we will create the needed transformed future step by step presumes we will not be led down false paths to pursue disingenuous initiatives that sap our energy, waste valuable time, and worst of all, reduce our sense of urgency by creating the false impression we are making great progress. Again, we may have the technical capacity to create a transformed future, but that future seems ever barred by political obstacles like Manchin and our Governor who choose to advance policies that protect the fossil fuel industry, with grasstop environmental leaders serving as uncritical cheerleaders for whatever leadership proposes, rather than using their relationship to leadership to influence them to move in the right direction.

While there is much hope contained in Solnit’s article, I keep coming back to her cautionary tale. The complexity of the technologies and policies are difficult to comprehend and leadership, both political and environmental, can easily be misled and then mislead us to trust policies that are dressed in green ribbons that offer disingenuous promises. So while we must not give up, we must be very cautious about who we trust and which policies we support.

Stay tuned for parts II and III to come as we tease out what is wrong with the ETA and the process used to deliver it and then try to understand what can be learned from that process as we consider net zero, the next miraculous climate plan on NM’s horizon.

In solidarity and hope,

Paul & Roxanne

Categories: Climate Justice

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7 replies

  1. Thanks, as usual, for these thoughts! Just a quick note: the units on the per-capita emissions chart should be metric tons, not millions of metric tons.

  2. Great article and analysis. The most powerful point and example of devastating policy: if we continue to argue that we need to drill in the Permian Basin to educate our NM children today, we are robbing them of their chance to have a future. Thank you, Paul and Roxanne.
    Elizabeth Dwyer

  3. Yes, there is hope. The solution is there for the taking. Why doesn’t MLG join all oil dependent states in a coalition to demand that the federal govt subsidize state budgets proportionally to their reduction in downstream emissions and provide direct payments for retraining and renewable energy jobs for oil and gas? I recall that Heinrich was proposing a bill somewhere along those lines. Let’s dust that off and put political weight behind it. False solutions like net zero, hydrogen, biomass and carbon credits will get us nowhere.

  4. Can’t we finally say humankind instead of mankind?

  5. Hi Paul, I read the whole thing, looking for anything to support your headline claim, “NM Guv & Sierra Club Offer a Dangerous Fantasy: The Truth About Net Zero”. But there is nothing there. Beyond the Governor’s statement about wanting to pass a bill to make NM net zero by 2050, we know pretty much nothing. If that’s all it is, yes, pretty meaningless, since near term emissions cuts, like this decade, are everything in our race to stay between 1.5C and 2C warming. But the Sierra Club offering a dangerous fantasy? Where?

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