The relationship between oil companies and oil consumers has always been volatile. The mistakes and failures of oil companies are well known around the world; oil spills, executive misconduct, corruption, pollution, alleged murder. But these companies and the services they provide are generally regarded as a necessary evil. We condemn their actions, but we just can’t live without them. Their product is the lifeblood of the global economy. This dysfunctional relationship, and its cycle of harm, outrage, apologies, forgiving, and forgetting, will continue until something breaks.
The most unfortunate part of this relationship is that citizens and consumers have assumed the role of powerless victim. We feel trapped in the claws of big oil, addicted to and dependent on fossil fuels. We feel helpless to change policies or transform the US energy infrastructure.
This type of mentality allows for excuses and justifications for the situation we find ourselves in. We feel like we can’t change anything and so many don’t really try. We’ve examined the rationale behind Exxon’s climate change scandal. It’s also worth looking at our actions as citizens and consumers.
Despite overwhelming evidence that most US residents have been in favor of transitioning to renewable energy for years, there has not been a serious push for alternative energy. Right now, renewable energy accounts for just 10% of the country’s energy supply. Electric and hybrid vehicles make up fewer than 1% of the vehicles on the road in the US. President Obama’s plan to get 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 was interrupted by super cheap oil prices. We love our big, gas thirsty behemoths.
The public’s actions belie our apparent commitment to renewable energy. If we really want to transition to renewable energy, we have to do more. This is not a problem of inadequate technology. Environment America Research and Policy Center released a report just a few weeks ago that confirmed that the United States could feasibly transition to renewable energy and in the long run save the country $70 trillion by 2050. This figure calculates direct savings as well as anticipated expenses resulting from pledges made for the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Economists predict that we can build a 100 percent renewable energy system at costs comparable to or less than what we would have to spend to continue our reliance on dirty energy.” – Environment America Research and Policy Center
Just recently we have seen promising developments for renewable energy for homes and vehicles, and even entire states. The technology is available. And yet, we are moving at a glacial pace. It makes sense that the oil industry chose fossil fuels in the 1980s and that they have maintained energy market dominance given the guaranteed profits, federal subsidies, every administration since Carter backing the oil industry, and consumer demand for cheap energy. But had there been a greater push from voters and consumers then, before Exxon chose to cover up their research, the oil industry and government may have done much more to support nascent renewable technology. That failure is on us.
As much as it can seem like consumers have no choice in a market dominated by a few corporations and utility monopolies, we do have power. It is time to stop making excuses, not only for ourselves but for the fossil fuel industry and government.
We as consumers and voters have many conduits through which we can support renewable energy. As consumers, we can communicate to fossil fuel companies and utilities that we prefer renewables through fossil fuel divestment, shareholder resolutions, choosing the renewable options that many utilities offer, we can invest in renewable companies directly, and some can purchase low emission vehicles and products. As voters, we can demand that the government – state and federal – support renewables through state-level renewable energy credit policies and a national minimum renewable production goal, end subsidies to fossil fuels, and invest in research and development of new renewable projects.
Of course, neither the market nor the government are perfect conduits for expressing the public will. The oil industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars seeking to manipulate public will and opinion. Fossil fuel companies receive enormous subsidies and bribe the government to shape policy. To overcome this obstacle, we must forge strong, well-organized communities of dedicated activists to fight back and exert our will.
Meanwhile, the government is more likely to legislate on behalf of elite interests than the will of voters. It is very easy to become disheartened when our representatives fail to honor the democratic process, and when our government cannot function because of bipartisan gridlock. One particularly damning example of this was the Supreme Court ruling against enforcing the Clean Power Plan, a law that about 60% of Americans support. But despite these setbacks, it is vital that we organize into cohesive movements capable of exerting force on elected officials, withholding or granting political support, and investing our money consistent with our values.
If Americans genuinely wish to transition the country to renewable energy, we are capable of making that change happen. But it will require that we abandon the identity of passive consumers. We must demand from corporations and the government greater access to cheap renewable technology and we must work, as communities and movements, to utilize non-carbon forms of energy. We cannot sit back and take what they sell us.
Most Americans say they are willing to pay more for renewables, but in many cases fail to do so. Most Americans say they want to see renewables expanded, but fail to vote for the people working toward that goal, nor do they often work to support the necessary policies. Much like climate change, it seems that renewably energy has broad but shallow support.
If we are to see a clean energy future, this has to change. Americans must be willing to invest their time and efforts into making renewables the dominant source of energy in the nation’s economy. This will not always be easy, and in the beginning it may sometimes require financial investments and higher energy prices. But some states already offer renewable energy at competitive prices. Increased investments into renewables will only lead to better, more efficient technology which will drive the prices even lower. Eventually, renewable energy will be more cost-effective than fossil fuels across the nation, especially once a price on carbon is implemented in response to the country’s emissions reduction obligations.
As Exxon chose fossil fuels over renewables in the 80s, enthralled to self-interest, many Americans remain captive to the idea that they need only look out for themselves and their families. Many seem to feel that renewables will put a financial burden on their families. It’s not their responsibility, they reason, so they resist paying more for safe energy. We cannot achieve energy transformation with this selfish mindset. The only way we will succeed in building a renewable and sustainable future is by shedding this toxic belief system and investing our time and money into a rapid energy transformation, even if we individually have to take a financial hit for the greater good. Even if some of us won’t see the result of that labor, we still must work for the well-being of our neighbors, our children and theirs.
For this, we can look to Germany for inspiration. Much like the US government, the German government was not moving particularly quickly or decisively towards renewable energy. In fact, despite fierce opposition from citizens, the government and utility companies were expanding nuclear power instead of renewables.
But German citizens resisted nuclear power for decades and succeeded in shutting a number of plants down while stopping the construction of new ones. “There’s a certain rebelliousness that’s a result of the Second World War. You don’t blindly accept authority,” as Robert Kunzig quotes Josef Pesch.
Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Chancellor Merkel finally relented on nuclear and ordered all plants to be deactivated by 2022.
But what the German citizens did for renewable energy is the real lesson here. With a government hell-bent on nuclear energy, citizens took matters into their own hands. Citizens funded half of the country’s investment into renewable energy. Individual citizens and local associations worked together and got the renewable energy industry on its feet. Over a million Germans are now selling electricity back to the grid. What is even more humbling is that 90% of Germany’s citizens are in favor of this system even though electricity prices are higher. These actions have reverberated throughout the world essentially creating the market for solar energy that has brought prices down globally.
The U.S. can take many lessons from Germany’s energy adventure not least of which is the reminder that citizens don’t need approval from the government or corporations to make this choice. We don’t have to wait for our elected officials to agree with one another. We don’t have to wait for the fossil fuel industry to lead the way forward. We can do this with or without their help. We just have to choose to do it.