Review by Heather Wilson
In his New Yorker article, In a World on Fire, Stop Burning Things, Bill McKibben states that “the era of large-scale combustion has to come to a rapid close.” The twin crises of climate change and the war in Ukraine have made the buying and selling of fossil fuels even more untenable than before. By continuing to burn fuel, we are, as UN Secretary General António Guterres said, committing arson against our own home. The selling of oil and gas also dangerously finances Putin’s war in Ukraine. We must find a better way, and for this, McKibben offers us a glimmer of hope.
Advances in clean technology, as well as the reduction in their costs, have made the transition away from fossil fuels far more feasible and far less costly than previously imagined. For example, recent analysis conducted by Stanford University, estimates that 95% of the clean technology needed to supply all of America’s power grid by 2035 already exists. McKibben also cites research from Oxford which shows that supplanting existing coal plants with renewables will be far cheaper than the cost of maintaining the existing infrastructure. Instead of spending more, transitioning to renewable energy will provide a “green discount.”
And what about Canada? Can we afford to leave our fossil fuel resources, seen as so important to the Canadian economy, untouched? Yes, says McKibben – Canada’s potential for solar and wind energy is 71-petawatt hours a year – more than enough to supplant the 166-petawatt hours in total represented by Canada’s fossil fuel reserves.
Obviously, there are still many challenges to making this vision a reality. McKibben notes that fossil fuel companies are still being financed by commercial banks despite commitments by lenders to meet net-zero targets. Some politicians, beneficiaries of fossil-fuel company campaign donations, are intent on stalling the energy transition as long as possible.
McKibben challenges us to rethink some of our assumptions. The concept of what an ideal landscape looks like may need to change to accommodate the apparatuses we need to produce renewable energy. In other words, the sight and sounds of windmills and solar panels will need to be accepted and not blocked on aesthetic grounds.
Another assumption that may need to be sidelined is that people will need to fundamentally change the way they live. If the cost of renewable energy does decline rapidly, the need to live simpler, energy-restricted lives may not be required to achieve our climate goals. Although using less energy is a laudable achievement, McKibben argues that, in the short time we have to make the needed changes, it would be almost impossible to “rewire social expectations, consumer preferences and settlement patterns” within the next decade. I’m not sure McKibben is right about this – building an energy system that is better for the planet but doesn’t address consumption seems to be a missed opportunity. In addition, changing our habits is an opportunity to improve our personal well being.
McKibben also discusses the need for equity in building new green energy infrastructure so that investments happen first in underserved communities. Building on the knowledge of Indigenous communities will also help heal the planet.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed to the point of inaction by the news about the changing climate and the war in Ukraine. McKibben provides a carefully reasoned and fact-filled roadmap for overcoming that paralysis. Reading through his arguments gives one reason not to despair but to work toward a brighter, green-powered, future.
Note: Also check out McKibben’s interview with Dorothy Wickenden on the New Yorker podcast, Politics and More. McKibben discusses renewable energy, describes some of the people he spoke with for the article and provides further insight into some of the political barriers impeding the progress of green energy.