Fracking and Community resilience, a discussion with Richard Heinberg
“Since government and the economics profession are largely abdicating leadership, civil society must step forward to lead.”
A Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and educator specialized in energy, economic, and ecological issues. Heinberg also serves on the advisory board of The Climate Mobilization, a grassroots advocacy group calling for a national economic mobilization against climate change with the goal of 100% clean energy and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
Hello Richard Heinberg and thank you so much for taking the time to answer to us today. You are considered today as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. Where does your commitment for renewable energy and sustainability come from?
I realized when I was a child that industrialization and urbanization were crowding out wild nature, and I thought that was a terrible tragedy. So I have always been skeptical of industrial growth, and concerned for the fate of other species. But it was not until the 1990s that I began to realize the pivotal role of fossil fuels in climate change, and also in the rapid economic growth that has occurred especially since 1945. It was also then that I first came to understand the problem of fossil fuel depletion. We have built our economy on non-renewable energy resources that are finite in quantity and depleting rapidly; these fuels also undermine climate stability, pollute air and water, and therefore help drive countless animals and plants toward extinction. If we want future generations to exist, and to inhabit a planet that has clean air, clean water, and a diversity of wild species, then we must profoundly change what we are doing.
What is the main mission of the Post Carbon Institute and its influence on the world leaders decision towards the shift to renewable energy?
My organization freely provides analysis and information to the general public and policy makers, mostly on the subjects of energy and climate. We have produced books and reports on U.S. oil and gas production, world coal supplies, and the transition to renewable energy. We’ve arrived at three conclusions:
(1) that fossil fuel supply limits are closer than most policy makers assume,
(2) that the transition to renewable energy must occur at roughly ten times the current speed if we are going to avert catastrophic climate change and an economic crisis resulting from fossil fuel depletion,
(3) the period of rapid economic growth that began after World War II is ending, partly as a result of shifts in the energy sector, and therefore we must adapt.
One candidate to the French presidential election, Benoît Hamon (Socialist Party), is raising doubts about our constant need of economic growth. Hamon’s idea is not to prevent stagnation from happening, but rather for the country to adapt now instead of trying to resolve the problem once it’s here. What are your thoughts about this? How do we adapt to a world without economic growth? How is this beneficial for the climate?
If the economy continues to grow, if energy usage continues to grow, and if human population continues to increase, this makes all environmental problems much harder to solve. For example, if our energy usage were only half or one-quarter its current level, then we would not be impacting the climate system as recklessly. Also, the transition to renewable energy would be much easier, because the required investment for solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, new grid infrastructure, and new energy-using machinery (electric cars and so on) would be more manageable and it would be easier to build the required infrastructure. Continuous growth of any parameter within any finite system eventually leads to a systemic crisis. We must learn to live without growth — and at a lower level of consumption than is currently the case in the wealthy industrialized countries. Also, we must stabilize world population and gradually reduce it until population and consumption are at levels that can be sustained over the long term. We don’t know exactly what those levels might be, but humanity is clearly beyond sustainability limits now, so it is vital to change course.
You wrote a book about fracking. Can you explain to us what is it exactly and why is it so controversial today?
Hydrofracturing, or fracking, is a technology used in oil and natural gas production. In the U.S., it is used in combination with horizontal drilling to extract “tight oil” and shale gas. These are hydrocarbons trapped in rocks with very low permeability, so the oil or gas does not flow easily. Fracking entails higher production costs and worse environmental risks than conventional fossil fuel production. Tight oil is very light (low density) and highly explosive; transport by rail has resulted in several serious explosions, while transport by pipeline risks spills. Fracking for oil or gas can foul groundwater and release air pollution that impacts humans, wildlife, and livestock. Over half of U.S. oil and gas is now produced by fracking. As the fossil fuel industry exhausts conventional resources and turns increasingly to unconventional resources like tight oil, shale gas, oil sands, deep-water oil, and polar oil, economic and environmental problems will proliferate.
One of the topics covered by the Post Carbon Institute is Community resilience. What does this concept mean?
Given the risks to society from climate change, resource depletion, and financial instability, and the fact that most nations are failing to adequately address these risks, we believe that the best response is for communities to build resilience — which is the ability to maintain basic functions in the face of stress and change. Building community resilience means assessing food, water, energy, health care, banking, and other essential systems from a local perspective to see how they can be made more redundant, and how they can be brought more under local control. This often means shortening supply chains and strengthening local participatory institutions, including cooperatives.
For what I understand, the idea is for a community to have the ability to respond to and to recover from disasters such as water crisis, flooding, extreme heat, etc. Is it something encouraged by governmental actions or implemented by the people?
Many governments are starting to think in terms of resilience in the face of climate change. However, this can sometimes lead just to programs designed to protect existing living patterns (building sea walls around cities, for example), rather than efforts to rethink living patterns so as to reduce future climate impacts. Building community resilience often requires us to transform aspects of our town, city, or region that are unsustainable — including economic and even political processes. Community resilience building is best undertaken by members of the community working together with political leaders; if government leads the effort without widespread citizen involvement, the assessment and implementation processes are less likely to succeed and the ultimate results may be disappointing.
What do you think is the role of the civil society in this race to a zero carbon economy?
Since government and the economics profession are largely abdicating leadership, civil society must step forward to lead. We see this, for example, with the Transition Towns movement.
As populism in spreading all over Europe, and more and more candidates being openly skeptical about climate change, how do we convince the people who vote for them that climate change is actually the most important topic today?
Public rejection of climate science is not driving the success of right-wing populism. Instead, the far-right populists are riding a wave of public anxiety about slowing economic growth, globalization (job competition from overseas), and immigration (job competition at home). The incumbent centrist politicians have opened the door to this kind of challenge by refusing to acknowledge the end of growth and by not suggesting sensible policies for adapting to it. The far-right populists promise to return nations to the good old days — the days of greater job security, easy economic growth, and more cultural homogeneity — and they understand that fossil fuels were key to economic expansion during the growth era. Therefore they tend to deny climate science so that they can promote more fossil fuel use and promise more growth. But it’s all a cynical ruse that is bound to fail spectacularly. The days of easy conventional fossil fuels and rapid economic growth are over, regardless of government policies. Here in the U.S., most people still believe the climate scientists, even if those same people voted for Donald Trump. The problem is that people are increasingly desperate and they sense that the centrist politicians have lied to them. They want a significant change of direction, and the far-right populists at least promise to shake things up.
What will your next book about?
My next book will be a very short overview of what every thinking person needs to understand in order to survive and navigate the remainder of the twenty-first century.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Don’t despair! We need thinking, caring people to work together as never before! But it is important that everyone understand that our common enemy is actually the fossil fuel-centered, growthist, consumerist way of life that we created in the twentieth century. If we agree on that, then there are lots of things we can begin to do to change the situation for the better. But without that core understanding, a lot of otherwise well-intended effort can be spent in ways that actually just make us worse off in the long run.
Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou