There is one action that can make major strides in many of the world’s greatest challenges. It is generally overlooked, undersold, and ignored.
It’s this: transitioning the economy to a distributed, non-carbon energy system.
Building an infrastructure of interconnected micro-grids powered by solar, wind, and onsite storage powering electric transport is the single most important action the world’s governments can take, of any action. Doing so would promote paradigmatic leaps forward in areas like public health; national security and geopolitical stability; economic justice and dynamism; government integrity; climate change; environmental sustainability; and even civic and community renewal. It would not singlehandedly fix all of the problems encapsulated in these fields, but it would certainly play a significant role in improving all of them. It is the single most important action we can take in addressing many of them.
Let’s take a look at each:
Air pollution from carbon energy is the single greatest environmental health risk. It kills seven million people per year. Further, coal, oil, and gas jobs are dangerous for workers and increasingly for people who live near extraction. Researchers find chronic illness significantly higher for people living near coalmines, and instances of cancer, neurological illness, and heart conditions in people who live near gas drilling. According to a report in Nature Climate Change, a world two degrees warmer threatens the lives of 150 million people from air pollution alone. David Wallace-Wells puts that into perspective at New York Magazine: that’s equivalent to the death toll of twenty-five holocausts. Climate change threatens lives far beyond the risks associated with air pollution; it is the greatest public health threat in the 21st century. Four hundred thousand people died in 2010 due to various climate change impacts, like heat waves and expanded infectious disease. This number will inevitably grow as the world warms. Energy transition to renewables could rapidly begin to save the lives of the more than seven million people per year who die from carbon air pollution and fossil fuel extraction, as well as those increasing numbers who will die from climate disruption.
The electricity grid is vulnerable to cyber and terrorist attacks. Recent reports have suggested a Russian cyber attack affected the American grid system. A well-coordinated attack could cause power outages lasting for weeks. According to reporting in The Hill, “A prolonged outage across 15 states and Washington, D.C., according to the University of Cambridge and insurer Lloyd’s of London, would leave 93 million people in darkness, cost the economy hundreds of millions of dollars and cause a surge in fatalities at hospitals.”
Energy transition to distributed renewables would, by definition, make the grid more resilient and far safer from terrorist attacks. With a distributed grid system, it would be virtually impossible for any hostile entity to cause large, long-term power outages.
Beyond grid resilience, geopolitical conflicts are largely mediated and motivated by access to energy resources. Russia maintains outsize influence over European politics because of how dependent many European countries are on Russian natural gas. The proxy war brewing in Syria between NATO and Russia is largely driven by control over oil pipelines in central Asia. The United States’ and Europe’s fraught involvement in the Middle East is and has been largely motivated by strategic control of energy flow. Petrostates are 250% more likely to engage in war than other countries, according to one study by Jeff Colgan for the Wilson Center. At least twelve major conflicts have been considered “oil wars” since 1932—that is, conflicts largely driven by petroleum access—including World War II and Russia’s recent intervention in Ukraine. Transition to renewable energy economies would likely put a halt to oil wars and significantly reduce conflict throughout the world.
The solar industry already employs more Americans than the coal, gas, and oil industries combined. Energy transition would create millions more jobs. These jobs cannot be outsourced, they are long-term, they are well-paid, they are unionizable, they are generally safe and pleasant (working outdoors vs. a coal mine or oil rig), and can be done by many distributed small businesses rather than giant, consolidated corporations.
The oil economy is destined to end as fossil fuels are finite and are currently destabilizing the global climate system. Fossil fuels will inevitably decline—whether by policy or nature—and any economy still dependent on them will decline with them. The oil and gas industry are already seeing historic declines in investments because smart investors know to jump ship when it’s going down. Oil industry representatives have for the first time formally recognized climate change in court, further signaling the industry’s vulnerability to climate instability.
A renewable economy can serve people stably and safely, indefinitely. A renewable economy also helps facilitate more distributed capital. Because capital based on fossil fuels can be so easily hoarded and concentrated, oil economies tend to naturally consolidate, regardless of the economic policy or ideology guiding them. A distributed energy system could mitigate this and help foster a more egalitarian, distributed economy, discouraging the rapid consolidation of wealth associated with oil economies. Distributed energy generation allows the communities and cities producing the energy to keep revenues and profits in the community.
The oil, gas, and coal industries are among the more corrosive impediments to democratic government. They have played an enormous role in funding the corruption of the governments around the world. More than perhaps any other industry, they have funneled money, favors, and sympathetic individuals into top positions to gain influence over policy.
The “oil curse,” a well-understood concept in political science, refers to the corruption that follows oil money into a nation. When states find oil and become petrostates—that is, when oil becomes a major part of the economy—a majority of them see declines in democracy, a rise in authoritarianism and wealth concentration, and a rise in civil wars. Of the top ten oil producing countries in the world, nine of them are significantly oligarchic with money pooling among the wealthiest citizens and power consolidated in a tiny elite. The global oil economy has yielded a situation in which eight billionaires command wealth equivalent to half the human population. Transitioning to distributed non-carbon energy sources, while supplanting oil, would immediately resolve the oil curse haunting the US and many other of the most powerful countries. This would constitute a huge leap forward in making governments more democratic and less vulnerable to authoritarian power concentration.
The single greatest challenge humans have ever faced is global climate change. And the single greatest action we can take to avoid climate-induced human extinction is transitioning our energy system to drastically cut carbon emissions. Electricity—and energy more broadly—accounts for the single greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions; by transitioning energy systems, we can remove the largest share of emissions.
But current market-based energy transitions are occurring far too slowly to prevent human extinction. In fact, MIT Technology Review reports that at our current rate of transition, it would take 400 years to reach the extent of decarbonization necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. By then, it will of course be far too late to mitigate climate change. While it will cost trillions of dollars to fund an energy transition sufficient to mitigate climate change in the time we have, that cost will be orders of magnitude less than the costs of not committing to energy transition. Some estimates put the cost of energy transition to mitigate climate change at a few percentage points of global GDP. Not mitigating climate change will contribute to, at minimum, a 20% decline in global GDP, and likely far more. (Not to mention the possibility of mass death, war, and collapse.)
In addition to mitigating climate change, energy transition to distributed renewables may also be one of the most important measures we can take to adapt to the impacts of climate change. As Naomi Klein has detailed in The Intercept, the most resilient parts of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria were those powered by solar. Most existing grid systems are vulnerable to climate impacts like hurricanes, floods, and overtaxing from powering air conditioning during heat waves. A smart, flexible, micro-grid system powered by distributed renewables like wind and solar would provide stable, consistent power through climate disasters that the existing grid cannot.
We can only prevent the collapse of organized civilization and possibly humanity itself—and most other species on earth—by ceasing the use of carbon energy. The harsh and inescapable reality of climate change is that we have a few years to transition to non-carbon energy if we wish to see our children thrive in old age in a world still suitable for complex economies. Adopting solar and wind while drawing down oil and gas is the single most important act we can take in achieving this.
By their nature, coal extraction flattens mountains, oil extraction floods waterways with petroleum, and gas extraction fractures the land, inevitably, causing earthquakes and poisoned air and water. Coal, oil, and gas destroy habitats and are helping to drive the mass extinction we are suffering.
As oil, gas, and coal become less abundant, these industries are finding ever more complex and dangerous means of extracting difficult-to-reach sources of fossil fuels. Off-shore drilling escapades are sending drills ever deeper into the ocean, fracking gas ever deeper and into more precarious wells. These ventures are growing riskier with every new technique, threatening coastlines with oil spills, coral reefs with despoliation, and overland pipeline routes with toxic inundation from leaking pipes. Transitioning to renewables would immediately save myriad habitats over countless hectares from destruction.
Loneliness & Social Cohesion
Finally, there is emerging evidence that grassroots energy transition campaigns can combat loneliness and isolation by promoting greater social cohesion. Of course energy transition would not inevitably lead to declines in loneliness, but there is good reason to believe that community energy can contribute to fostering greater community participation, renewal, and solidarity among populations otherwise riven.
While conducting research in Scotland, I have been talking with people who are involved in community energy projects. In one community, an organization funded in part by revenue generated from a nearby wind farm provides outreach and companionship to lonely, isolated individuals. Another community, with grants from the same wind farm, has purchased a community hall in which townspeople are able to congregate and organize. Other towns I’ve been visiting have built greater interdependence between community members through mutual ownership and governance of their energy production. There is further evidence to believe that energy transition could coevolve with political transition, providing concrete projects for community members to work together on, build solidarity, and increase civic, democratic participation.
Of all the actions governments of the world can take, all the infinite policies and programs they could institute, energy transition to renewables is by far the most important, reasonable, and worthwhile: it is the one action that could prove existentially beneficial to all people and most living things on the planet, and to all future generations. It is one positive act that we can know with certainty is absolutely necessary to maintain a habitable planet and prevent human extinction. As a bonus, it can have tremendously valuable impacts on national and global security, the economy and government, and the environment. No cost is too high to undertake this heroic, historic endeavor.