Richard Heinberg on the Only Real Solution to the Looming Climate Catastrophe – 100% Renewables Won’t Get It Done

Richard Heinberg in his mind-blowing book, The End of Growth, was the first person to help me see how economic growth — the grand prize in capitalism — is the most important enemy of our climate. Simply put, we have finite resources and sustained growth requires endless resource consumption. Heinberg hammered home the point that electric vehicles, bullet trains, and other advances are all fine, but as long as growth is part of the equation, it will not end well. Today, we focus on this with commentary and video from Richard Heinberg and scientist Vaclav Smil before closing with a brief discussion of the implications of what we have laid out.

Odds and ends — A few reminders before we dive in…

Advocacy Huddle via Zoom, Weds, May 4, 6 – 7:30 pm

Please join us for our monthly Huddle to discuss advocacy strategy for the coming months. All are welcome. We want to hear from you! The May Huddle will focus on the Primary Election, coming up on June 7. (Absentee voting begins May 10!) There are lots of important races, and we need to fight the well coordinated effort to replace progressive incumbents in the NM House! The best way to achieve social, economic, and environmental justice in our state is to get the right people representing us. Let’s talk about how best to do this. We will first hear from Bill Jordan, Voices for Children, who will outline the consequences if Rep. Patty Lundstrom gets her way and NM abolishes the State personal income tax. Once Bill has laid out the importance of a vibrant, progressive tax system to create a sustainable state government, we will then discuss the implications of the primary and how we need big wins in House districts throughout the state to prevent this neoliberal coup.

We will also squeeze in a brief introduction to a new strategy outlined in “An Alternative to the End of the World,” our April 28 post. In brief, we want to discuss if Retake, with your help, can conduct research on models of local resilience operating elsewhere and organize local efforts to press for adoption of those practices and policies in NM. Join the conversation.

Click this link to register for this Huddle. You must register to participate.

Inspiring Indivisible Statewide Conference

On Saturday, Roxanne and I were lucky to have been asked to close a statewide Indivisible Conference and moderate a panel of NM legislators to discuss how the legislative process might be transformed and how advocates can be more effective with their legislators. While many important insights were offered by our panel and the audience, it was far from the highlight of the conference.

Hats off to Indivisible, who pulled off a first-class conference from beginning to end, with very informative breakouts on topics like public power, the false promise of hydrogen development, water management, just transition, effective messaging CD2 going blue, and other hot topics. Plus, the conference was kicked off by a very effective speech from the Governor — who wisely stayed away from references to hydrogen. She ticked off a litany of legitimate accomplishments, not the least of which was protecting New Mexicans from COVID, but also talking of teacher raises, early childhood investments, abortion decriminalization, child tax credits, free college, and other policy wins. She left to a rousing standing ovation. I have to say, I was impressed. And Retake readers will appreciate how infrequently I find praise for the Gov. To underscore the importance of re-electing MLG, have you seen any of those Ronchetti or Dow ads, each trying to out-Trump the other? Yikes!

But for me the highlight of the day was a series of talks from three inspiring Democratic women, led off by Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury, who ticked off a series of U.S. House accomplishments that were mostly stalled in the Senate, with her refrain being the importance of the midterms. She was followed by Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez, who waxed poetically about her love of NM and her sadness over the fires that are just devastating our state. The series ended with another rousing, and very funny, speech by our Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who outlined her accomplishments in protecting our state’s voting process and laid out clearly the GOP threats to our Democracy in NM and the nation.

By the time they were done, you felt good about being a Democrat, an all too foreign feeling for me. If Indivisible’s goal was to pump up the 200 folks in attendance, mission accomplished. The impression I got was that there were dozens of folks ready to walk for Dems in their district. Great, great event.

Youth v Gov: An Extraordinary Documentary, Free on Netflix

Youth v Gov an independent feature-length, award-winning documentary about Juliana v. United States began streaming globally, on Netflix on April 29.

The film is made by Our Children’s Trust — the excellent organization that is also co-counseling a youth-driven constitutional case in New Mexico. Click here for info, and then scroll down to June 27, 2017 to read about the NM case. The film is about their constitutional case against the federal government — Juliana v. United States — for not addressing the climate crisis.

Its premiere on Netflix also offers a rare opportunity for audiences worldwide to see a film about an active, historically significant lawsuit that is moving through the U.S. court system right now. It tells the story of the groundbreaking constitutional climate case brought by 21 young plaintiffs – a story whose conclusion is still unwritten – and their quest to secure children’s legal rights to a safe climate.

Roxanne and I viewed it on Saturday night and found it both informative and inspiring, reminding us that many strategies need to be employed to move the powers that be and it is tremendous that this strategy is being employed and led by youth. The film tells the story of how the suit unfolded and its ultimate arrival at the 9th District Court.

One of my takeaways is that at least for now and according to this one case and the District Court decision, there is no unambiguous constitutional right to a clean environment and no court mechanism to force government to force climate action. It seems to me, and I am no Perry Mason, that adopting the Green Amendment here in NM would afford New Mexicans clear constitutional standing to force state action. We’ve got lots of lawyers out there. Would one or more of you care to comment on this paragraph and whether the Green Amendment would create the necessary standing to force state action? Or would the federal court decision provide precedent blocking a state court from taking action?

In any case, Juliana v United States is well worth your time and is available to stream on Netflix for free.

If Transition to 100% Renewables Isn’t Enough, What Then?
Richard Heinberg Offers a Path

Richard Heinberg has long recognized that our thirst for unrestrained economic growth is the core issue and root cause fueling climate change, with fossil fuel extraction being merely a logical consequence of that thirst for growth, as growth requires power and fossil fuel has been the power of choice for over a century.

In his essay, “The Only Long-Range Solution to Climate Change,” Heinberg lays out clearly what the correct and far more difficult path requires. His essay begins by neatly framing the issue (emphasis mine):

Climate change is often incorrectly described as an isolated pollution issue. In this flawed framing, humanity has simply made a mistake in its choice of energy sources; the solution entails switching sources and building enough carbon-sucking machines to clear the atmosphere of polluting CO2. Only the political power of the fossil fuel companies prevents us from adopting this solution and ending our existential environmental crisis.

But techno-fixes (that is, technological solutions that circumvent the need for personal or cultural change) aren’t working so far, and likely won’t work in the future. That’s because fossil fuels will be difficult to replace, and energy usage is central to our collective economic power.

In other words, power is the key to solving climate change—but not necessarily in the way that many pundits claim. Solutions will not come just from defeating fossil fuel interests and empowering green entrepreneurs; real climate progress will require the willingness of large swathes of the populace, especially in wealthy countries, to forgo forms of power they currently enjoy: comfort and convenience, the ability to travel far and fast, and the option to easily obtain a wide range of consumer products whose manufacture entails large inputs of energy and natural resources.

But the real show-stopper came much more recently. The adoption of fossil fuels gave humans the biggest jolt of empowerment ever: in just the last two centuries, our global population has grown eight-fold, and so has per capita energy consumption. Our modern way of life—with cars, planes, supermarkets, tractors, trucks, electricity grids, and internet shopping—is the result.

Climate change is the shadow of this recent cavalcade of industriousness, since it results from the burning of fossil fuels, the main enablers of modern civilization. Nevertheless, rapidly increasing population and consumption levels are inherently unsustainable and are bringing about catastrophic environmental impacts on their own, even if we disregard the effects of carbon emissions. The accelerating depletion of resources, increasing loads of chemical pollution, and the hastening loss of wild nature are trends leading us toward ecological collapse, with economic and social collapse no doubt trailing close behind. Ditching fossil fuels will turn these trends around only if we also deal with the issues of population and consumption.

This is not a feel-good message, but the longer we postpone grappling with power in this larger sense, the less successful we’re likely to be in coming to terms with the climate threat.

Heinberg goes on to outline how solar panels, wind turbines, and technology fixes like Carbon Sequestration won’t address the fundamental problem outlined in the quote above. The second half of his article outlines the science and economics behind his assertions. To read Heinberg’s entire piece, click here. Well worth your time. To whet your appetite:

Many folks nurture the happy illusion that we can do it all—continue to grow the economy while also funding the energy transition—by assuming that the problem is only money (if we find a way to pay for it, then the transition can be undertaken with no sacrifice). This illusion can be maintained only by refusing to acknowledge the stubborn fact that all activity, including building alternative energy generators and carbon capture machinery, requires energy.

We citizens of industrialized nations will have to change our consumption patterns. We will have to use less overall and adapt our use of energy. Our growth-based, globalized economy will require significant overhaul.

Of course if we change our consumption patterns, that will trigger a reduction in production, revenue, growth, jobs, etc. And we will have to learn a different, more sustainable, and resilient way to live and to thrive. The rest of this post will explore what that resilience could look like. To hear more from Heinberg, you will find first a two-minute YouTube snippet introducing his core theory, or you can take a deeper dive and view his interview with Tikkun founder Michael Lerner, also below. Again, to read Heinberg’s entire piece, click here.

I want to extend Heinberg’s analysis by focusing on the Sunday NYT’s Magazine‘s interview with Vaclav Smil. Smil is a distinguished emeritus professor at the University of Manitoba and has published more than 40 books on an impressively broad array of topics. They include Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities; Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years; and The Earth’s Biosphere Evolution, Dynamics, and Change. If you can access the NY Times on line, I recommend this interview highly, but I’ll try to give those without access a sense of his sobering views. The interview began with this question:

One of the fundamental arguments in your new book is that in order to have a serious discussion about an energy transition that gets us away from burning fossil carbon, we need a shared acknowledgment of the material realities of the world. Which is to say, an acknowledgment that our current way of life is dependent on burning that fossil carbon. But do you believe decarbonization should be the goal? And if rapid decarbonization isn’t feasible, then what’s the best way to stop heating the planet?

In the interview, Smil answers those questions and articulates the implications for mankind. In a post that is already too long, I can’t possibly capture the breadth and scope of his thinking. But I will offer this telling reality check:

This is where we are in terms of global civilization: This transition has to happen on a billion and trillion scales. Now, according to COP26, we should reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 as compared with 2010 levels. This is undoable because there’s just eight years left, and emissions are still rising. People don’t appreciate the magnitude of the task and are setting up artificial deadlines which are unrealistic. Now, to answer your question. If you assume that carbon dioxide is our deadliest problem, then of course we should decarbonize totally. But people say by 2050 — they call it “net” carbon emissions. The I.P.C.C., they don’t say zero, they say “net zero.” Leaving that cushion — one billion, five billion, 10 billion tons of CO2 we will still be emitting but taking care of by carbon sequestration. But, is it realistic that we’ll be sequestering on such a scale? 

People toss out these deadlines without any reflection on the scale and the complexity of the problem. Decarbonization by 2030? Really?

We live in this world of exaggerated promises and delusional pop science. I’m trying to bring it onto some modest track of reality and common sense. The official goal in the U.S. is complete decarbonization of electricity generation by 2035. That’s Biden’s program: zero-carbon electricity in 2035. The country doesn’t have a national grid! How will you decarbonize and run the country by wind and solar without a national grid? 

Even if NM stops all drilling tomorrow, and even if the US is shamed by NM to follow suit, Smil offers another sobering dose of reality as he turns his attention to the elephant in the room.

Check the China statistics. The country is adding, every year, gigawatts of new coal-fired power. Have you noticed that the whole world is now trying to get hands on as much natural gas as possible? This world is not yet done with fossil fuels. Germany, after nearly half a trillion dollars, in 20 years they went from getting 84 percent of their primary energy from fossil fuels to 76 percent. In 2000, Germany began its Energiewende policy, an attempt to decarbonize the country’s primary energy supply. At the time, fossil fuels accounted for nearly 84 percent of that supply. By 2020, that share had decreased by only about 8 percent. Can you tell me how you’d go from 76 percent fossil to zero by 2030, 2035? I’m sorry, the reality is what it is.

You don’t have to have 200 countries to sign on the dotted line to reduce emissions. But you have to have at least all the big emitters: China, the United States, India, Russia. What are the chances today of Russia, China and the U.S. signing on the dotted line as to the actual reduction of emissions by 2030? Also please notice that the Paris agreement has no legally binding language. In an ideal world, we could cut our emissions 

Also please notice that Russia and China are not exactly sounding like they are looking to join the international community in just about anything. So do we start petitioning Putin and Xi Jinping? Or do we follow Smil’s advice? Throughout the interview, Smil calls for realistic goals that we can actually achieve. To set goals you can achieve you need to have enough power to force the changes needed to achieve those goals. Sadly, we do not have that power on an international level or even, it would seem on a national and perhaps not even on a state level. But we do on local levels.

This is where we return to our theme from our April 28 post, “An Alternative to the End of the World,” where we posited that a path forward might be to research and develop models of local resilience that will better prepare us to adapt to what is inevitably headed our way. To do this work, we will need to research models of local resilience related to water and food systems, housing, energy, transportation and commerce.

If you are interested in exploring this framework for local activism, please plan to attend our Huddle tomorrow night, May 3, from 6-7:30. Click this link to register for this Huddle. you must register to participate. While local energy systems or public power is but one aspect of local resilience, during one segment of this Wednesday’s Huddle we will discuss what communities might be ripe for embracing public power and/or other aspects of local resilience and how Retake can play a role in advancing these efforts. If you are interested, but can’t make it Wednesday, please write us at and let us know you want to get involved with the work. But do try to join our Huddle.

And don’t forget the YouTube clips below.

In solidarity & hope,

Paul & Roxanne

Heinberg’s 2-Minute Intro

A 2-minute clip from Heinberg on how grasstops environmental groups are oversimplifying the climate crisis.

Full Heinberg Interview

Categories: Climate Justice, Uncategorized

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8 replies

  1. Re: Local Resilience
    I highly recommend former State Senator Dede Feldman’s 2017 book
    “Another Way Forward” which describes NM grassroots organizing to create successful solutions to local problems. Very inspiring!

  2. Back in the ’70s the Club of Rome put out a report examining the prospects for humanity, considering unlimited growth (not just economic but that was a large part of it) on a finite planet: “The Limits to Growth”. This for has been updated and modified every decade or so since, with the latest being, “Come On”, as in, come on we cannot keep denying this and, come on, it is time to act, and come on, we CAN do this and these are the things we can and must do. And yes, short term capitalism and new-liberal economic policies are totally unsustainable and will drive us into environmental and social collapse. “Come On” is worthwhile read to understand the complexity of factors projected in our existential crisis, and what we can do to avert it.

  3. I agree that Capitalism’s need for GROWTH is a huge part of the problem, and that local organizing is very important. This article from 2019 lays out that what is needed is a nationwide movement for systemic change in government and in the corporate industries (oil and gas) responsible for the devastation. Everyone should read this article.

  4. Then we each need to eschew children and try to eschew grand children (try telling that to your kids!). “I don’t want grandchildren and you shouldn’t want children”. Easy for me to say as we have neither. My older brother is scion to 13 younger generation humans. Did he think about the impact? No, because Gawd takes care of all that. So no kids, long distant (or short) luxury vacations via air travel, extravagant lifestyles (expensive) and thinking about the global impact of everything you buy and interact with. A friend’s bumper sticker says, “Every time you buy anything you’re voting for what you believe in”.
    We “up here” have the luxury of cogitating such things but tell that to the poor here and in other countries; the ones that have 4, 6,10 children and cannot even live hand to mouth. Do we help them with the caveat of no more kids? Many would think us insane.

  5. Remember ZPG? Every time I mention overpopulation as a root cause of many of our problems, I am accused of being a racist. And now the “pro-lifers” are going to go after contraception next. Stupid species.

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