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The Hidden Costs of Climate Progress

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WALDEN – Renewables don’t change anything fundamental. They are just the latest business-as-usual scheme to keep the destructive economic party going for a few more years.

In a recent VTDigger commentary, Sen. Becca White and Rep. Gabrielle Stebbins touted the “progress on climate” accomplished by the state Legislature. They claim, for example, that bill H.278, requiring all Vermont utilities to provide 100% renewable electricity to their customers by 2035, will “dramatically cut climate pollution.”

Vermont’s grid currently contributes such a small fraction of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of one marble in a pile of 30,000, that it amounts to little more than noise. For the entire world, it’s one marble in 270,000. It’s not clear how this bill will do anything “dramatic” at all, except raise utility bills.

Another effort the legislators praise is S.259, a bill to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the damage caused by climate change. White and Stebbins point out that, “For decades, the fossil fuel industry has known the catastrophic consequences of their activities. They hid that knowledge from the public.”

Though true, the statement reeks of hypocrisy: Renewable energy industry insiders like White and Stebbins continue to ignore the environmental damage caused by their favored technologies, including renewables, EVs, battery storage and “smart” everything.

Have they informed their constituents about the cost of cobalt mining in Congo, where children as young as seven work in hazardous conditions so Tesla drivers can feel good about their carbon footprint? 

Have they shared photos of the toxic lake in Baotou, China, described by BBC News as “the worst place on earth”, filled with sludge from refining the rare earth metals needed for the “green transition”? 

Have they told the public that the rapid growth of “clean energy” technologies is leading to a mining boom in Africa that threatens not only wildlife populations like the great apes, but also whole ecosystems?” 

Of course they haven’t.

The only concession renewable advocates have made is to shift from calling these technologies “clean” to calling them “cleaner.”

Meanwhile, White and Stebbins offer the public the same kind of hubristic “technology-is-the-answer” thinking that got us into the climate crisis to begin with. 

Perhaps they should heed the words of Dr. Jessica Junker, lead researcher of the study describing how the renewable boom threatens Africa’s great apes and their habitat: “A shift away from fossil fuels is good for the climate but must be done in a way that does not jeopardize biodiversity. In its current iteration it may be going against the very environmental goals we are aiming for.”

Instead of blindly rushing ahead with renewables, she added, “it is crucial for everyone to adopt a mindset of reduced consumption.”

Where was “reduced consumption” on the list of steps the Legislature proposed as a way to address climate change? Nowhere, I’m afraid.

But serious reductions in consumption, including energy use, are essential. We could start by abandoning plans for an additional terminal at the Burlington airport, which is already among the largest generators of carbon emissions in Vermont (and no doubt contributes to the housing crisis by helping make short-term rentals so profitable.)

We could also live with less by not ordering so much garbage from Amazon, by growing some of our own food and by not flying to the Caribbean during the legislative break (as some legislators do). Consider that Vermont’s per capita consumption just 20 years ago was about half what it is today. Is life twice as good?

As the vast and growing body of research on degrowth reveals, scaling back the economy would not only reduce our environmental impact, it could actually enrich our lives. 

What we need from the Legislature are active initiatives to reconfigure our economy in ways that shrink our overall environmental footprint. What we don’t need is a regurgitation of the self-serving platitudes of Renewable Energy Vermont, Energy Action Network, VPIRG and other industry cheerleaders. 

Do Stebbins and White really want us to live in a world in which we continue to destroy other species and entire ecosystems, all in the name of convenience, progress and consumerism?  

The voracious appetite of industrial civilization devours life no matter what it is powered by. It’s time to rethink the way we live. Renewables don’t change anything fundamental. They are just the latest business-as-usual scheme to keep the destructive economic party going for a few more years.

This commentary is by Suzanna Jones of Walden and first appeared at VTDigger.org on April 19, 2024

Suzanna Jones

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