Hidden Power

The forces and fluxes that influence our world are so often invisible to human eyes. Our majestic Sun, with all its blinding brightness, actually provides less power to the Earth’s surface than invisible rays that emanate from the atmosphere. Invisible infrared rays, on average, warm the land and ocean twice as much as sunlight. Heat-trapping gases, becoming ever thicker due to industrial activity, emit infrared rays that bathe the Earth with radiant energy during day and night, in all seasons, with no visual signature.

Many other harmful pollutants are almost undetectable. It is the tiniest of air pollution particles, just a fraction of the size of a human hair, that can penetrate most deeply into our lungs and bloodstream, stealing our strength and our breath. A clear stream of apparently fresh water might contain heavy metals, pathogens, or any one of the thousands of chemicals created by industry but still not fully tested for safety to humans and animals.

Electricity flows through high voltage power lines without a visual indication of the strength of its current, or of the pollution created to generate it. Products show little signature of the plight of the workers whose hands help to sew, fabricate, or assemble them. Grocery stores try to eliminate any sign that a cut of meat was recently part of a living thing.

Transmission lines in Texas, painting by Virginia Wright-Frierson

Political and social realms are characterized by hidden controls as well. Corruption thrives when governments and corporations make decisions outside of public view. The unseen weights of history means that a newborn baby has vastly different opportunities depending solely on where they are born.

The climate crisis is often discussed as coming in future decades, but much of the world is already experiencing the consequences. We hear reports of weather disasters around the world when they occur, but very little about the aftermath, the years of rebuilding and migration that follow the loss of homes and ways of life. It is those who are least responsible that are bearing the most severe impacts of the climate crisis, and we seldom hear their stories.

There are also looming disasters due to invisible burdens. Seas will continue to rise for centuries, as abyssal ocean waters and thousand-year-old snowfalls are exposed to polluted air for the first time. Lands will be inundated and fires will burn. Communities that have been promised security are not even prepared for weather disasters of prior decades, much less the amplified extremes that characterize today’s hotter Earth. Many of those with the power to prepare are not even paying attention, or willfully averting their eyes.

Pollution sources are overhanging as well, from fossil fuels in the ground that are not yet burned, and planned but not yet productive industrial activity. These take the form of assets on some deep-in-debt company’s balance sheet, whose desperate attempts at profitability have created a pernicious sense of entitlement, that the human costs of its plans don’t matter if the bottom line is satisfied, and that it must poison its surroundings to succeed. This doesn’t have to happen.

There is a tremendous amount of latent energy among the people of the world, desperate to change the careening trajectory of humanity and to establish a more just and resilient world. What can we accomplish if we could work together with a common vision? What if those who are most vulnerable are at the forefront of decision making? What if the youth, those who will experience the consequences of the decisions of today for much longer, are given the power to carve their own paths?

This book is about climate action, both what we must do to stop the planet from heating up, and what can be done to prepare for the locked-in consequences. When more closely examined, potential for radical change is everywhere, often hidden behind limiting societal depictions of “the way things must be.” These are fables that are told about everything from the nature of money, to the ability of communities to provide for themselves, to the definition of “living well.”

Hidden truths include:

  • That one of the most effective climate actions is simply to work less, and ensure that those around us can work less,
  • That construction jobs like installing solar panels or insulating houses are not the only green jobs; so are care work, education, and the arts,
  • That a major step towards equitable climate action in the Global South is to drop the debt and end ongoing extraction that primarily benefits the Global North,
  • That governments can dedicate large fractions of their countries’ resources to climate action, and that scarcity of real resources should be prioritized in solutions rather than cost,
  • That disproportionate pollution burdens are some of the most clear and devastating evidence of systemic racism, and any just climate action should have a racial equity lens,
  • That the Sun and wind can provide ample power for all, especially if energy usage within a variety of sectors that have no material benefit is curtailed,
  • That an effective strategy for resilience towards future climate disasters is to assure that there is locally generated power, like rooftop solar connected in microgrids,
  • That many “climate solution” and technofix projects supported by billionaires are often self-serving and ineffective, and
  • That the need for technological innovation in the energy transition is largely overstated, while there is tremendous need for sensitivity to justice and real human needs.

Before diving into the possibilities of different radical solution paths, we must first understand the depth of the climate crisis. In the first section of this book, called “Pollution and People: Sources and Scales,” we will delve into the basic physics of climate, and causes of the planetary heating we’re currently experiencing. We will not dwell on details of the science unless they help explain what needs to be done and what to expect. We will not recount climate-induced traumas of the past except to help prepare for the future, and to acknowledge past injustices.

We will, however, tell the stories of the people who are most responsible for the situation that we’re in, those throughout history who authorized harm to water, air, and soil, and those who depend on them. In addition to determining accountability for climate damages, this will serve as a warning about those who push false solutions that repeat the injustices of the past.

In the second half of the book, “Clean Power to the People,” we will examine climate action strategies. In technological terms, climate action amounts to electrifying everything, and generating all electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind. But knowledge of clean power production is only a part of the path to solutions. Climate action must address the growing inequality induced by the fact that benefits of high-consuming lifestyles have been accrued by a small elite group, while climate impacts are primarily affecting those that are least responsible. There are a variety of exciting possibilities to “take the power back,” both in the sense of more democratic access to the benefits of energy use, and building a better, more equitable world.

Throughout the book we’ll highlight the voices of environmental justice advocates across the world, whose struggles against polluting industries and visions for a better future provide a moral lens to re-evaluate the science and engineering content. All of these advocates are involved in ongoing climate justice work, and links are provided so you can follow and potentially participate in their leading-edge activism campaigns.

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The Climate Justice Alliance is a coalition of over 70 grassroots and frontline organizations, focusing on issues like energy democracy, food sovereignty, and a just transition.

 

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