Since we can already fly on sunshine, why can't we drive on it? Chinese company Hanenergy, the world's largest thin-film solar panel maker, has launched four concept cars that are fully powered by sunlight.
Hanenergy's cars are basically electric vehicles (EV) covered with solar panels. According to Dr. Gao Weimin, Hanergy vice president and CEO of its Solar Vehicle Business Division, the vehicles are covered with the company's gallium arsenide thin-film solar cells that claim an impressive conversion rate of 31.6 percent (most commercial panels have a conversion rate hovering around 15-20 percent).
Gao said that with five to six hours of sunlight, the panels can generate eight to 10 kilowatt-hours of power a day, allowing the prototype cars to travel about 80 kilometers, the equivalent of more than 20,000 kilometers annually.
Since the panels are directly mounted on the cars, the idea is that you can charge while driving and would not have to stop for juice at a charging station like with traditional EVs. If the concept proves successful, it would eliminate range anxiety—or the fear that your car might run out of power before reaching your destination. Range anxiety, after all, is one of the most frequently cited drawbacks to EVs. The company said that these "zero charge" cars are ideal for short and medium length journeys in cities under normal weather conditions.
"Breaking the bottleneck of poor practicality of previous solar-powered vehicles, the four launched by Hanergy are the first full thin-film solar power vehicles that can be commercialized, redefining new energy vehicles," the company said in a statement. The company has also partnered with China-based Foton Motor to help develop clean energy buses.
The cars debuted at the company's Disruptive Innovations Drive the Future event at its Beijing headquarters on July 2. Hanergy board chairman and CEO Li Hejun drove the sports car series Hanergy Solar R around the venue.
If the cars actually do what the company says, these cars must be much more aerodynamic and lighter than your average two-ton American car sedan. Car News China described that the weight of the Hanergy Solar L, a MPV-like model with gull wing doors and a six-meter solar panel, is estimated at just 700 kilo (0.8 tons).
Car News China has shed light on how they work. For the Hanergy Solar R, the energy generated from the roof goes to the rear wheels and the panel on the hood goes to the front wheels. The door panels power the car's other electrical systems.
Hanergy Uveils 4 #Solar Powered Cars In China https://t.co/D0q2zM2JjB https://t.co/VRN1405mh8— InSunWeTrust (@InSunWeTrust)1467695342.0
In a speech in front of 4,000 attendees, Hejun boasted about the potential of thin-film solar cells and how the light-weight and flexible material allows the cells to be integrated onto a range of products in addition to cars such as unmanned aerial vehicles, mobiles, backpacks and clothes.
While the technology sounds promising, Stephen Engle of Bloomberg News expressed some doubts about the car. Instead of range anxiety, Engle said the driver might experience "cloud anxiety" since the car cannot charge if the sun is not out or if it is a particularly hazy day—a likely occurrence especially in China's smog-choked cities. He did, however, point out that the cars are equipped with lithium batteries that enable travel of up to 350 kilometers per charge. Additionally, a smart managing system allows the driver to choose between different charging modes when traveling in varied weather conditions.
Engle also brought up Hanergy's uncertain future in the market, as the troubled company's shares have been frozen for months as it undergoes investigation over possible stock price manipulation.
That said, while a 100 percent solar-powered car might be more science fiction than reality at this point, the concept has enormous potential. According to Car News China, Hanergy said solar-range will expand dramatically in the future due to improvements in solar panel technology. And Forbes reported that the company expects their panels to increase efficiency to 38 percent in 2020 and 42 percent in 2025, meaning a future of fuel-free transportation might be closer than we might think.
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If you've been tracking Solar Impulse 2, the solar airplane circumnavigating the globe, then you will be excited to hear this news: the Cochin International Airport in the southern state of Kerala, India is officially the world’s first airport thats runs exclusively on solar power. The entire facility is "absolutely power neutral"—meaning it creates just as much energy as it consumes, according to a statement from the airport.
— CECHR (@CECHR_UoD) August 20, 2015
The airport just launched a 12 megawatt solar power plant earlier this week made up of more than 46,000 solar panels laid across 45 acres. This capacity should allow the airport to generate 50,000 to 60,000 thousand units of electricity per day, which is just over what the airport consumes in a typical day. That is no small feat for India's fourth largest international airport in terms of passenger traffic. It's terminal space—1.5 million square feet—is about the same size as Denver International Airport.
But they didn't go 100 percent solar overnight. The project began in 2013 with a small solar panel array on the rooftops of its terminals. Over the next couple years, the airport relied on a mixture of solar and power from the grid. However, the airport is still connected to the grid, should the normally sun-soaked area experience an extended period of overcast days. As for its impact, the airport claims the array will cut an estimated 300,000 tons of carbon emissions over the next 25 years, the equivalent to planting 3 million trees.
The news comes on the heels of a report from the International Energy Agency which found that renewables are now the world's second largest source of electricity. The evidence of that transition is everywhere. Another airport in India, Kolkata’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport, has laid out plans to go solar too. The Times of India reports that solar projects are popular at airports in the U.S., Canada and Germany. The Indian government plans to invest $100 billion in solar power in the next seven years to boost its capacity from the existing four gigawatt to 100 gigawatt by 2022.
Many high profile companies in the U.S. have invested heavily in renewable energy in recent months as well. Last month, Facebook announced it would power a new data center in Texas with 100 percent wind energy. Amazon announced earlier this summer that it will build an 80 megawatt solar farm in Accomack County on the eastern shore of Virginia. And in a real coup de grâce for dirty energy, Google announced it plans to build a data center powered by 100 percent renewables at a soon-to-be closed coal-fired plant in Alabama.
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It's official. Solar Impulse has landed in Hawaii breaking the world records for the longest distance and duration for solar aviation, and the world record for the longest solo flight ever.
"On June 28, Si2 took off at 18:03 UTC from Nagoya, with André Borschberg at the controls, for a historic flight over the Pacific ocean to Hawaii. By remaining airborne for five consecutive days and nights, producing its own power with solar energy, Solar Impulse 2 has proven that Bertrand Piccard's vision of reaching unlimited endurance without fuel was not a crazy dream," according to a Solar Impulse press statement.
Watch live here:
"We are demonstrating that human commitment and clean technologies can achieve the impossible: flying across an ocean on solar power only," says the Solar Impulse team.
— SOLAR IMPULSE (@solarimpulse) July 3, 2015
On May 30, poor weather conditions forced Solar Impulse to land in Nagoya after attempting the flight across the Pacific. The first leg of the journey took place in early March, taking off from from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and landing in the Omani capital, Muscat.
The launch of the project was announced in November 2003, almost exactly a century after the Wright brothers’ historic flight. The team began work soon after that. The plane went on its first test flights in 2010, and in July of that year, it made the first night flight in the history of solar aviation, lasting more than 26 hours. It took progressively longer flights, leading up to this historic day.
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[Editor's note: Poor weather conditions are forcing Solar Impulse pilot André Borschberg to land in Nagoya, Japan at approximately 23:00 local time (14:00 GMT). Borschberg will wait for better weather conditions to continue his flight across the Pacific.]
Solar Impulse 2, the first solar airplane able to sustain flight at night with a pilot on board has been making its way around the world over the past few months. The plane took off today a little after 2 a.m. on Sunday in Nanjing, China. The flight from Nanjing to Honolulu, Hawaii is the seventh and longest leg of the first round-the-world solar flight. It will take an estimated six days to complete the roughly 5,000-mile journey. The first leg of the journey took place in early March, taking off from from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and landing in the Omani capital, Muscat.
— Bertrand PICCARD (@bertrandpiccard) May 30, 2015
If the flight is successful, it will be the longest ever flight on solar power, both in terms of distance and time.
"Flying across oceans without fuel means taking renewable energy to the ultimate level," says the Solar Impulse team. The plane, which has been piloted by both André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, has a wingspan bigger than that of a Boeing 747 but it weights only one percent of that—about the weight of a large passenger car. Built into the wing are 17,000 solar cells that feed four electric motors and recharge lithium batteries for night flight.
— SOLAR IMPULSE (@solarimpulse) May 30, 2015
The flight from Nanjing has been delayed for weeks due to weather conditions over the Pacific, which has made the build up to today's takeoff even more exciting. "A cold front over the ocean created 'a wall of clouds and thunderstorms stretching from Taiwan to above the east coast of Japan,'" the team told CNN. But when the team found a break in the weather, they decided to go for it. You can watch live coverage of the event here:
And you can even track the flight in real-time on their website. You can track the plane's altitude, its distance, its energy use, the air temperature and even what the pilot is doing at the current moment (piloting, interview, yoga, self-hypnosis, resting, eating or using the bathroom).
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At the beginning of last week, environmentalists celebrated when the largest energy infrastructure company in North America, Kinder Morgan, pulled the plug on its controversial natural gas pipeline which had been proposed through parts of Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire, called NorthEast Energy Direct.
But the energy giant is pushing ahead with other contentious pipelines, not least its Trans Mountain pipeline that connects the dirty tar sands in Alberta to an oil terminal in Burnaby, in British Colombia.
From here the tar sands is transported by tanker via the ecologically sensitive Salish Sea, which is a crucial habitat for endangered killer whales.
And now a new report by Friends of the Earth, Tar Sands/Dilbit Crude Oil Movements Within the Salish Sea, focuses on these movements of tar sands, which have been diluted with lighter volatile products to enable it to be shipped as “dilbit” or diluted bitumen.
The report focuses on the poorly publicized proposal to triple the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would result in an increased capacity to ship dilbit crude from Burnaby in British Colombia via the Salish Sea from 300,000 bbls/day to 890,000 bbls/day.
In turn this would result in a 7-fold increase in tanker traffic transiting through the Salish Sea, which is not just an important habitat for endangered killer whales, but is also home to 37 species of mammals, 172 species of birds, 247 species of fish and more than 3,000 species of invertebrates—approximately 113 of which are either listed as threatened or endangered in Canada and the U.S.
The report concludes the number of dilbit carrying oil tankers would increase from approximately one per week to one per day, significantly increasing the amount of oil being transported through the sea.
Friends of the Earth northwest consultant Fred Felleman said: “Trans Mountain is the one of the biggest threats to U.S. waters that few people have ever heard of.”
He says the proposed dilbit shipments are “a recipe for disaster.”
Friends of the Earth is now calling for improvements to the region’s oil spill response regulations, warning against “the biggest underlying threat of an oil spill—complacency.”
According to Felleman: “The expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline poses the greatest risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Salish Sea,” before adding: “This project would be the final harpoon in the population of endangered southern resident killer whales.”
And that is before you factor in how the dirty tar sands flowing down Trans Mountain will undermine Canada’s climate goals.
With the signing of the historic Paris agreement, Canada has committed to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees C and aspire to keep it to less than 1.5 degrees C.
In either scenario, there is simply no room for tar sands expansion.
Alberta’s Premier Notley’s most recent plea for new pipelines to access more markets has been thoroughly debunked in a recent Oil Change International briefing note here.
New pipelines are about one thing only: locking in dangerous expansion of the world’s third largest oil reserve. This would also mean harnessing a fragile economy to decades’ more worth of boom and bust.
Alberta has massive potential to become a renewable energy superpower and new pipelines would do nothing but undermine this opportunity.
It looks like the opposition to this pipeline will only grow.
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Solar power is lighting up the world, and not just on rooftops. Forward-thinking minds are discovering ways to harness the sun's energy in many exciting ways, from the ground beneath our feet to the shirt off our back. The following innovations are shining beacons in a renewable energy future.
1. Strides in solar efficiency
Most solar generators can convert up to 23 percent of sunlight into electricity. However, Swedish company Ripasso Energy claims they can covert 34 percent of the sun's energy into power with their contraption (see photo above), making it the world's most efficient solar electricity system. According to The Guardian, independent tests found that a single Ripasso dish can generate 75 to 85 zero-emission megawatt hours of electricity a year, or enough to power 24 typical homes in the UK. To compare, to create the same amount of electricity by burning coal would release roughly 81 metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, the newspaper reported.
2. Battery technology and shared solar untether us from Big Power
Elon Musk really is Tony Stark. The billionaire entrepreneur recently unveiled a revolutionary suite of Tesla batteries that he says could "fundamentally change the way the world uses energy" and get us off dirty fossil fuels. Musk's sister company SolarCity is now offering Tesla batteries at a price point that’s more than 60 percent less than previous solar power storage products, paving the way for more people to peel themselves off the grid.
For people who don't have the funds or the right roof for photovoltaic panels, peer-to-peer solar startup Yeloha is offering a genius solution: solar sharing. The company allows customers to "go solar" without owning a single panel by essentially feeding off their neighbors who do (and at a price that’s less than what they’d normally pay to their utility).
3. Portable solar brings light to developing world
For places recovering from disaster or communities lacking access to electricity, solar systems provide an alternative or a complement to traditional power sources such as fossil fuel generators (diesel or gasoline is not only expensive, it emits noxious fumes and can cause fires). For example, after the first of two devastating earthquakes struck Nepal, solar company Gham Power deployed solar power systems to help power lights and mobile charging stations for relief workers and the displaced. And in Haiti, the nonprofit organization Field Ready is trying to use a solar powered 3D-printer to make a whole range of simple, life-saving medical supplies at a fraction of the cost.
4. Solar desalination: solution to drought?
Scientists are solving the planet’s fresh water worries with a little help from the sun. Recently, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jain Irrigation Systems have come up with a method of turning brackish water into drinking water with a solar-powered machine that can pull salt out of water. It then further disinfects the water with ultraviolet rays. With parts of the planet running perilously low on fresh water, realization of this technology can’t come soon enough.
5. Solar transportation
In the air and on the road, solar technology is going the distance. Currently, the Solar Impulse 2, the first solar airplane able to sustain flight at night with a pilot on board, is making its historic round-the-world trip powered only by the sun.
Over in the Netherlands, SolaRoad, the world’s first “solar road,” has defied expectations and has generated about 3,000 kWh of power, enough to provide a single-person household with electricity for a year. Considering it's only a 230-feet bike path, the potential for this technology could be big, kind of like photovoltaic technology itself.
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As the Solar Impulse 2 makes its historic round-the-world trip powered only by the energy of the sun, it's not so crazy to think that sometime in the future, commercial flying will abandon dirty fossil fuels.
Photo credit: Behance
Well, the future of air travel might come sooner than we think, as Spanish graphic designer Oscar Vinals believes his conceptual zero-emission plane dubbed the "AWWA-QG Progress Eagle" could take off within the next 15 years.
According to CNN, the plane is powered by six hydrogen engines including a rear engine that doubles as a wind turbine. Solar panels on the roof and wings would also provide the ultralight plane with juice as it flies.
"The best aspect of the Progress Eagle would be its capacity to generate its own energy," Vinals told CNN, adding that the flight would be "noiseless."
Vinals' triple-decker aircraft could carry up to 800 passengers. The cockpit is located on the second floor, offering the pilots with panoramic views and a room with beds, coffee and workspace for the crew members. Because there's much more space than the standard commercial plane, there could be space for private rooms, shops and restaurants.
Photo credit: Behance
"Twelve hours in an airplane could feel more like a select hotel," Vinals said. "It would reduce the stress of a long flight."
With a 96-meter wingspan (about 314 feet), the plane is about as large as two Olympic swimming pools. But Vinals envisions that the wings could fold in order to reduce its size and meet international airport regulations. To compare a Boeing 777 has the wingspan of about 60 meters (197 ft).
Vinals described on the website Behance that the lightweight Progress Eagle is designed with “smart and self-repairing wings, composed by carbon nanotube and carbon fibers,” and a “hollow endoskeleton in an ultra-lightweight beehive-shape of titanium and graphene.”
Ever the aviation visionary, Vinals came up with a similar AWWA Sky Whale last year that could carry 755 passengers.
Photo credit: Behance
Vinals admitted that modern technology is a little off from allowing his dream machine to take flight. However, he contended that "today we have about 40 percent of the technology needed to build it."
"Quantum solar cells, nanowires to kinetic power, micro radio wave harvesters—these technologies only exist in a limited scale at the best laboratories around the world," he said to CNN. "But in a few years, we could overcome our limits and build anything imaginable."
Whatever your thoughts are on the feasibility of a plane like this, the whole idea of carbon-free flying is something that could revolutionize the aviation industry.
Check out the video below to see Vinals' designs of Progress Eagle:
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When Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first sustained, powered, heavier-than-air flight at the turn of the 20th century, few people who weren't science fiction enthusiasts envisioned that their small craft was the precursor of a major mode of international transportation.
So it's probably best not to scoff at Solar Impulse and Solar Impulse 2 (Si2), a solar-powered airplane, the first solar airplane able to sustain flight at night with a pilot on board. The plane has already taken test flights in Europe, travelled from Switzerland to Morocco and flown across the U.S., and now the company is about to launch it on a round-the-world flight to demonstrate its capacity and draw attention to the potential of solar-powered flight.
"Solar Impulse is the only airplane of perpetual endurance, able to fly day and night on solar power, without a drop of fuel," says the company.
Solar Impulse was the brainchild of Swiss psychiatrist and adventurer Bertrand Piccard, a man descended from a long line of dreamers who made their dreams a reality: his father and grandfather were inventors and explorers who broke ground in both stratospheric and deep-sea exploration. Yes—THOSE Piccards.
The launch of the project was announced in November 2003, almost exactly a century after the Wright brothers' historic flight. The team began work soon after that. The plane went on its first test flights in 2010, and in July of that year, it made the first night flight in the history of solar aviation, lasting more than 26 hours. It took progressively longer flights, leading up to its upcoming circumnavigation of the Earth this year.
The hot Arabian sun today reminded me how much energy we can capture with solar power around the world pic.twitter.com/TjSpvLIvIU
— Bertrand PICCARD (@bertrandpiccard) March 2, 2015
"One could easily imagine oneself in a Jules Verne novel: a team wanting to promote renewable energies sets off round the world in a solar airplane, aiming to fly without fuel or pollution," said Piccard. "The revenge of Icarus, in a way. A new Utopia? A beautiful scene from science fiction? No, a cutting-edge technological challenge! A sufficiently eccentric project to appeal to one's emotions and get one's adrenalin pumping: to harness a clean and renewable form of energy, and use it to fly night and day without limit."
The round-the-world flight is scheduled to take off from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates in early March and return there by late July or early—taking far longer than the 80 days of the famous 1873 Jules Verne novel whose protagonists traveled the globe by rail and steamer. It will make numerous stops along the way, including Muscat, Oman; Ahmedabad and Varanasi, India; Mandalay, Myanmar; Chongqing and Nanjing, China; and Phoenix and New York City. It may also make a stop in the midwest U.S. depending on weather conditions. After crossing the Atlantic, it will make a final stop in southern Europe or northern Africa before returning to Abu Dhabi.
A single-seater made of carbon fibre, the astonishing Si2 has a wingspan bigger than that of a Boeing 747 but it weights only one percent of that—about the weight of a large passenger car. Built into the wing are 17,000 solar cells that feed four electric motors and recharge lithium batteries for night flight.
The Si2 still has drawbacks. As is clear from the five months allocated for the global trip, its flight speed is slow, ranging from 30-60 mph. It can only carry the pilot in an unheated, unpressurized cabin. (Piccard himself will be piloting the global flight, along with André Borschberg, in five- to six-day legs). Special pilot training was needed, since flying the craft is so different from piloting other airplanes. Passengers won't be flying solar from New York to Paris any time soon. But in the future, who knows? Ten years ago, the ability to make sustained solar-powered flights at night didn't exist either.
As Piccard says, "By writing the next pages in aviation history with solar energy, and voyaging around the world without fuel or pollution, Solar Impulse's ambition is for the world of exploration and innovation to contribute to the cause of renewable energies, to demonstrate the importance of clean technologies for sustainable development; and to place dreams and emotions back at the heart of scientific adventure."
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Solar Impulse 2, the first solar airplane able to sustain flight at night with a pilot on board, took off today from Abu Dhabi, heading east to the Omani capital, Muscat. Over the next five months, if all goes to plan, the plane will go from continent to continent, crossing both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. The plane will stop to receive maintenance and, during that time, the project's backers, which include Richard Branson and Robert Swan, will spread awareness about renewable technologies.
The launch of the project was announced in November 2003, almost exactly a century after the Wright brothers’ historic flight. The team began work soon after that. The plane went on its first test flights in 2010, and in July of that year, it made the first night flight in the history of solar aviation, lasting more than 26 hours. It took progressively longer flights, including a trip across the U.S., leading up to this trip.
Before taking off, pilot Andre Borschberg told BBC News: "I am confident we have a very special aeroplane, and it will have to be to get us across the big oceans." Monday's leg to Oman will cover about 250 miles and take an estimated 12 hours, according to the BBC. Its average speed will only be about 43 miles per hour, hence the long flight time. It may not be breaking any records for speed, but it has already broken many records (basically, anytime it does anything it sets a record), and if it's successful, it will be the first solar powered plane to circumnavigate the globe.
It is not at all certain Solar Impulse will be a success. The plane's team is worried about ocean crossings, which will be very weather-dependent. The 21,747-mile trip, which is expected to take about four months, will be split into 12 legs. The trips across the ocean will take almost six days, putting quite a mental and physical strain on the pilots. The cockpit is only 3.8 cubic meters in size and the pilots are only allowed to take 20-minute naps.
Nevertheless, this is a very exciting moment for solar, which could be the largest source of electricity by 2050, according to a report from last fall by the International Energy Agency. It's a dream come true for the plane's other pilot, Bertrand Piccard, who will rotate with Borschberg. "I had this dream 16 years ago of flying around the world without fuel, just on solar power," Piccard told BBC News. "Now, we're about to do it. The passion is there and I look forward so much to being in the cockpit."
The Solar Impulse team hopes the projects can be "implemented in daily life, for cars or for heating systems or for the construction of houses," Piccard told National Geographic. "All the technology exists; we should use it much more in our daily life.”
Watch the plane take off in Abu Dhabi:
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At this year's Waterkeeper Alliance conference in Boulder, Colorado, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. delivered a provocative unscripted keynote that lambasted the carbon lobby for undermining democracy and subverting the common right to a healthy environment.
Speaking to a group of activists, including more than 200 Waterkeepers from 30 nations, Kennedy declared, “We are engaged, as Abraham Lincoln said, 'in a great Civil War.'" This time, he said, "the conflict involves all the Earth’s peoples. It’s not just a battle to protect our waterways, our livelihoods, our property and our backyards. It’s a struggle for our sovereignty, our values, our health and our lives. It’s a battle for dignified humane and wholesome communities. It’s a defensive war against toxic and economic aggression by Big Oil and King Coal. It’s a struggle to break free of the 'soft colonialism' of carbon’s corporate tyranny and create an economic and energy system that is fair, rooted in justice, economic independence and freedom.”
He started by talking about the disproportionate impact of pollution on the poor and minorities. “Polluters,” he explained, “assault soft targets first—and that means the poor.” He recounted how the majority of toxic industrial sites and noxious facilities are in lower income communities where residents lack political power or connections to protect themselves. He gave examples of these environmental injustices including, Emelle, Alabama, which is home to the largest toxic waste dump in America—one of the country's most impoverished regions where one-third of the residents live below the poverty line and more than 65 percent of the residents are black—Chicago’s south side, which has more toxic waste sites than any other American community and East Los Angeles, a primarily black and Hispanic community, which is the most contaminated zip code in America.
“In these communities,” he said, “Not just the land and water, but the people have been commoditized—and everything becomes expendable in the drive for corporate profits.”
But he added, “It’s not just the poor who are under assault. The corporate hunger for profit is threatening all people with loss of their natural world and the other assets of their patrimony."
Kennedy said that corporate efforts to privatize the commons are occurring in all parts of the world and that “environmental injury correlates almost perfectly with political tyranny.”
"In China, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, environmental destruction went hand in hand with political despotism and corruption," he continued. "Thanks to the Pinochet regime, the forests and waters of Chile are no longer owned by the Chilean people. Every single river in Chile is now owned by a Spanish company, Endessa which plans to dam all of them for private profit. So the people of that nation no longer own their rivers, they don’t own their forests. Even the highways, railroads, utilities, airports, stadiums and prisons—all the public spaces that once formed our civic lives are being occupied by private and corporate wealth."
Kennedy recalled that during the 1994 campaign to save the iconic BioBio river from Endesa’s dam builders, the Chilean human rights lawyer, Juan Pablo Ortega had lamented, "Supposedly we have a democracy after Pinochet left, but it’s folly to call a system a 'democracy' when the people have no control over their resources. We Chileans are no longer the sovereigns of our lands.”
Kennedy assured the crowd that "This is what the battle is about. It’s about losing control of the commons. The air, the water, the wildlife, the fisheries and public lands, the shared resources of our society: The commonwealth assets that provide the gravities around which communities coalesce.”
To give context to the history, Kennedy talked about the many environmental insults in the 1960’s that spurred the modern-day environmental movement, including the 1963 extinction of the Eastern Peregrine Falcon from DDT poisoning, the burning of the Cuyahoga River, the Santa Barbara oil spill and the declaration that Lake Erie was dead, which all occurred in 1969. The Santa Barbara spill held the record for the largest oil spill until Exxon Valdez and the BP Deepwater Horizon. In those three examples, polluters had effectively privatized a major American river, one of the Great Lakes and all the beaches in Southern California.
In response to such insults, in 1970, 20 million Americans, 10 percent of our population, came out on the streets for the first Earth Day in "a democratic reassertion of popular sovereignty over the common’s, those crowds demanded that our political leaders return to the American people the ancient environmental rights that had been stolen from our citizens since the Industrial Revolution,” Kennedy said.
In response to this massive public outpouring, Republicans and Democrats working together passed, over the next 10 years, 28 major environmental statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, RCRA, TSCA, FIFRA, The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act and Superfund. All of these statutes were intended to restore our rights to the public commons. What happened next? "These new prohibitions against corporate pollution hurt the industry’s bottom line. So the polluters fought back," he declared.
Throughout the next three decades, polluters funded politicians including Presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan, their appointed judges and various Republican Congresses chipped away at the new environmental laws. But then, according to Kennedy, the industry achieved its most brazen and stunning victory. Kennedy said, "In the year of the millennium, the most corporate friendly Supreme Court since 1933 stopped the 2000 election vote count in Florida and stole the presidency from Senator Al Gore, the greenest presidential candidate in our history. That decision turned the White House over to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, two Texas oilmen."
Seventeen of the top 21 people in the new administration were from the oil or allied industries. Bush’s Vice President, Dick Cheney, was the CEO of oil service company Halliburton and the owner of millions of dollars of Halliburton stock, which would appreciate enormously during Cheney’s administration. Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice was on the board of Chevron, which named an oil tanker after her. Cheney immediately convened 90 days of secret meetings with carbon and nuclear industry CEO’s.
“For the first three months of the Bush administration, Cheney presided over clandestine convocations during which he invited the nation’s worst polluters to rewrite environmental laws to make it easy to drill, to burn, to extract, to ship, to distribute carbon fuel," said Kennedy. "It was an all-out victory for the carbon industry and an unconditional defeat for humanity.”
The 2005 Bush/Cheney Energy Bill was the product of those secret meetings, including the “Halliburton Loophole” to the Safe Drinking Water Act, which exempted natural gas companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. This change in the law allowed a new industry known as shale gas fracking to grow without regard to its widespread environmental costs, including drinking water contamination, a cascade of global warming fugitive methane emissions, earthquakes, road destruction and human health impacts.
Even as they dismantled America’s environmental laws by statute, Bush and Cheney stocked the regulatory agencies with industry lackeys and profiteering cronies who weakened and auctioned off America’s public lands and forests to the campaign contributors at fire sale prices, according to Kennedy.
But George W. Bush wasn’t done. He next appointed two ultra-corporatist U.S. Supreme Court Justices—John G. Roberts in 2005 and Samuel Alito in 2006. Kennedy said that it is wrong to think of these judges as traditional conservatives. “They are not. They are corporatists. If you analyze their decisions, there is no coherent conservative political philosophy. They have taken the 'conserve' out of conservatism. The only predictable outcome of their rulings is that 'the corporation always wins.'"
The apogee of their unctuous worship of unsheathed corporate power was the Supreme Court’s 2010 5 to 4 decision in favor of Citizens United, which, as Kennedy proclaimed, “turned American democracy over to large corporations.”
The so called “Citizens United” decision is the "most sweeping expansion of corporate power this century. In an acrimonious split decision, the five 'conservative' justices declared that, in the eyes of the Constitution, corporations were people and money is speech," continued Kennedy.
Corporate campaign donations, in other words, are protected by the First Amendment making most restrictions on corporate donations to political candidates unconstitutional. That case effectively overruled a century of corporate campaign finance restrictions that limited a corporation's ability to purchase political candidates.
The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission unleashed a tsunami of corporate cash in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. It helped create super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from corporate and union treasuries, as well as from individuals, and it triggered a boom in political activity by tax-exempt "dark money" organizations that don't have to disclose their donors.
“And today it’s hard to argue that we still have a democracy in this country when you have the Koch brothers, the two richest people in America, who have pledged already to put nearly $900 million into this presidential election, which is comparable to the amount spent by either political party," said Kennedy. "This year’s presidential election is going to cost $10 billion with half of that coming from 100 wealthy families. Nearly $1 billion is coming from two brothers."
And, said Kennedy, “You will hear no criticism from the press, the supposed guardians of our democracy. And that’s because most of that money will go to media advertising—the 4th estate has been bought off.”
And the data shows that 91 percent of the time, the candidate with the most money wins the election. "So democracy is for sale and the Congress that we have today is the best one that money can buy, which by definition, is oligarchy not democracy," said Kennedy. "Predictably, the rich are now buying themselves politicians and then deploying to reduce taxes on their class and to rid themselves of pesky regulations that protect public health. Our politicians are no longer public servants. They are indentured servants of the Koch brothers and their ilk. They are no longer engaged in public service, but in the mercenary enterprise of ransacking on behalf of Big Oil."
So Kennedy asks, "What happens to a country when moneyed interests run its political system?" First, he says, “The political character of a nation tends to reflect its economic organization. As the economy slides towards monopoly in leading sectors like energy, agriculture and media, the political system will lean toward oligarchy.” In addition, he says, “Oil and coal by nature are autocratic and authoritarian. Nations controlled by those industries customarily list toward autocracy and away from democracy. It’s a phenomenon known as the 'resource curse.' So with democracy for sale and the carbon cronies winning the auction, we have the perfect storm for corporate tyranny."
Then Kennedy asks, “What do you think accounts for the Koch Brothers’ generosity to our political system?” He answers his question with a battery of new questions. “Do you think that Charles and David Koch are putting nearly $900 million into the election because of some patriotic impulse? Do you think they are putting nearly $900 million into this election because they love America? Do you think that they are putting nearly $900 million into the election because they love humanity? Our environment? Or our purple mountain’s majesty? Our democracy? Or free market capitalism?”
To each question, the crowd enthusiastically said, "No."
“Do you think they have a moral compass?" Kennedy replied, and when the crowd answered “No” he corrected them. "Well they do have a moral compass. It’s pointed straight at Hell.”
The crowd roared. But Kennedy wasn't finished yet.
"These are the apocalyptical forces of ignorance and greed. These are the four horsemen from the book of Revelations herding humanity toward a dystopian nightmare of their creation. Koch Industries is not a benign corporation. It’s a suicide pact for creation. It’s the archetype of 'disaster capitalism.' It’s the command center of an organized scheme to undermine democracy and impose a corporate kleptocracy that will allow these greedy men to cash in on mass extinction and the end of civilization."
Kennedy went on to explain, "These men claim in their rhetoric to embrace a theology of free market capitalism. But if you look at their feet instead of listening to the seductive noises that issue from their mouths and their phony think tanks, the truth is clear. These men hate free markets. They want a system of cushy socialism for the rich and a savage, merciless capitalism for the poor. The real purpose of their 'think tanks' they created and fund—like the Heritage Foundation and the CATO Institute—is not to promote free market capitalism, but to gin up the philosophical underpinnings for a scheme of uncontrolled corporate profit taking. And the press, consolidated as it is into private monopolies, and relieved of social obligation are on the carbon and pharma pay role and in full cahoots with the scheme. They don’t love markets—they despise them. The Koch Brothers’ purpose in purchasing our political system is to engineer monumental subsidies and market failure, which are their formulae for profit. And the winds, the storms, the floods, the heatwaves, the fires and the melting continents that they cause, the cities that they drown, the refugees they drive from their lands all provide new opportunities for profit and authoritarian control."
Kennedy shared a story about the commercial fisheries on the Hudson River, among the oldest commercial fisheries in North America. He began his career as an environmental lawyer representing these fishing families. He explained how the fisheries regulated themselves as a sustainable industry for more than three centuries.
"The fishermen had a business model that worked," he said. But then General Electric "used its political clout to cheat the free market and to arrange vast subsidies for itself by externalizing its costs and dumping its toxins into the river. In this way, GE privatized the fish in the Hudson River. New York’s constitution says that we, the people of New York State, own the waterways of the state and we own the fish in the Hudson. But we don't own them anymore. The General Electric Company owns every fish in the river because they privatized them. They put their toxins in our fish and our cash in their pockets.
"While we own to fish legally, we can’t use them. GE has liquidated a public asset for cash and profit. All those men and women who made their living on the river and lived decent lives—they are all out of work and out of luck and General Electric has liquidated their assets and their livelihoods for corporate profit."
He went on to explain; “Now the coal industry has done the exact same thing to every freshwater fish in America.” The National Academy of Science found dangerous levels of mercury in every American freshwater fish. The mercury is mainly coming from coal fired power plants. Since there is no known safe level for mercury consumption, the fish are no longer suitable for public consumption and are effectively privatized. “King Coal has privatized every fish in America by putting toxic mercury in every filet," he said.
"Whether we recognize it or not, we are all locked in a life and death struggle with these corporations over control of our landscapes and political sovereignty," Kennedy said. “If a foreign nation did to our country what the coal and oil barons do every day, we would consider it an act of war! They poison our rivers and aquifers, steal our fish, flood our cities and trample our democracy. They are pilfering our values, robbing our culture, impoverishing our lives, sickening our children and stupefying our minds with pollution. They subvert our heritage by privatizing our patrimony. They are turning America into a colonial economy.
"Under the colonial model multinational corporations exploit weak political systems to commoditize and privatize a nation’s resources. A robust democracy would never allow a foreign company to plunder the nation’s natural resources, poison her landscapes and subjugate her people. So colonialism requires the multinationals to weaken and capture the indigenous political system of the target nation. They do so by making alliances with local oligarchs with military and intelligence apparatus and conservative religious organizations and buying off the media. All these indigenous elites get a share of the profits in exchange for allowing the theft of their country’s resources. Pollution is not just theft—it is treason. The Koch brothers are not just America’s biggest polluters—they are thieves and they are traitors to our country and their crimes against America and humanity have made them the richest men on Earth.
"The colonial model results in the evolution of an upper class with massive wealth and political power, the elimination of the middle class and the exponential increase of an impoverished class who eke a declining meagre living from the barren polluted moonscapes left behind by greed and pollution. And, when you have a wealthy class and a poor class and no middle class, you get extreme political division. The role of one political party devolves into a single minded mission of protecting the perks and power of the wealthy class and the rights of corporations to rape the land and enslave the people."
This is why, as Kennedy explained, we have another precedented divide between Democratic and Republican parties in this country. Since tax breaks for billionaires and unregulated pollution are not potent vessels for populism, the corporate kleptocracy must steal elections, eliminate poor voters from the rolls, lie about the issues and employ propaganda and all the lowest alchemies of demagoguery, including appeals to religious and patriotic symbols and dividing the electorate using bigotry, greed, and racial and religious prejudices—the “wedge” or “cultural war issue," according to Kennedy.
Even using these techniques, as Kennedy says, the policies they advocate are so viscerally unpopular that their hold on the voting public is always remaining tenuous. “Politics,” Kennedy explained “Is driven by both money and political intensity. Since they don’t have reliable ground troops, they must overwhelm the system with their money.” For this reason, “The hostile takeover of our democracy by polluting corporations and our country’s transition into a colonial economy is completely reliant on the financial floodgates opened by Citizens United."
To further make his point, Kennedy said, "So you have the Koch's who have deployed their front group ALEC—American Legislative Exchange Council—in every state working with local legislators in the anti-American enterprise of impeding the transition to new energy by bribing and blackmailing politicians to weaken support for wind and solar and foster a hostile environment toward renewables.
"The Koch brothers understand that renewables are good for the economy, good for our security and good for democracy. They create high paying jobs, promote small businesses, create wealth, democratize our energy sector, give us local, resilient power and reduce dependence on foreign carbon that makes them for the country, but bad for the Koch brothers.
"Renewables fill the Koch brothers with fear. In order to compete, they have to rig the rules that govern energy in this country to favor the dirtiest, filthiest, most destructive, most poisonous and addictive fuels from hell over the cheap, clean, green, local and patriotic fuels from heaven. But even with market and utility rules against them, new renewable technologies are so efficient that the allow wind and solar to beat the carbon industry even in their rigged markets and slanted playing fields—the only way for carbon to survive is by massive subsidies. The Koch brothers cannot compete against renewables in a free market without their subsidies."
A recent report by the International Monetary Fund said, global energy subsidies amounts to $5 trillion annually, with the U.S. providing $700 billion in subsidizes to big oil "the richest industry in the history of the planet," remarks Kennedy.
"Why would we be doing that?" he asks. "The only reason we'd give subsidies to a century old industry with the biggest profits in human history is because the oil barons own our government. There is no economic reason. Carbon’s economic model is looking at the same bleak future as the horse and buggy industry faced in 1903. So what do you do when your profits rely on a fading economic model? You use your money and use the campaign finance system that consists of legalized bribery to get your hooks into a public official who allows you to privatize the commons, dismantle the market place and rig the rules to give you monopoly control," Kennedy explained.
Free market capitalism is the most powerful economic engine ever devised. But, according to Kennedy, it must be harnessed to a social purpose, as it will drag us down the path of political oligarchy and environmental destruction. Free market rules should allow people to make themselves rich by doing good things for humanity. But under the Koch’s scheme, oilmen get rich by dong bad things to humanity, he said.
Corporations are a useful economic tool. However, "corporations should not be running our government because they don't want the same thing for America as Americans want," he continued. "They don't want democracy. They want profits. They want no competition. They are corrupting our democracy. They are stealing everything that we care about in this country.
"I believe in a true free market where you can't make yourself rich without making your neighbors rich and without enriching your community, where we properly value our national resources and where we reward efficiency. But polluters make themselves rich by making everybody else poor. They raise standards of living for themselves while lowering quality of life for everybody else. They undervalue natural resources or take them for free. And they do it all by escaping the discipline of the free market. Polluters externalize their costs to artificially lower the price of their product. The 28 environmental laws that we passed after the first Earth Day in 1970 were intended to restore true free market capitalism by forcing actors in the marketplace to pay the true cost to bring their product to market. There is a huge difference between true free market capitalism—which makes a nation more efficient, more prosperous and more democratic—and the kind of corporate crony capitalism which we have today."
After 45-minutes of some of the most powerful comments about the reality of the world today, Kennedy finished by telling the crowd, “But we are not going quietly. We’ve heard the summons to the barricades and we are filling the streets. We are the soldiers in a revolution against carbon. And this is an industry that no longer has a justifiable economic model.”
Pointing at the roaring crowd, he said, “Every single person here is willing to die with their boots on. That commitment is what brought you the Waterkeeper movement. We are going to keep fighting for these landscapes, for these rights, for these rivers and for all the values that we care for as a people and as a society."
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How far can an airplane expect to travel without fuel?
Around the world, if you're talking about the Solar Impulse 2.
Leaders of Swiss firm Solar Impulse unveiled a new solar plane Wednesday and also discussed an ambition nobody has ever accomplished—to fly around the world in a solar plane in 2015.
The Solar Impulse has a 236-foot-wide wingspan, with more than 17,000 solar cells covering those wings. The cells collect solar energy and store it in lithium polymer batteries that power the plane's four engines.
Co-founders and pilots André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard don't appear too daunted by the goal they have established, and not just because they won't need to refuel. They have already broken eight world records for solar flights. Their solar planes achieved success in recent years, including the first night flight for a solar plane in 2010; a European flight in 2011; a flight across the Mediterranean Sea to Morocco in 2012; and a U.S. tour last year, flying over San Francisco, CA, Phoenix, AZ, Dallas, TX, St. Louis, MO, Washington D.C. and New York City.
The trip around the world, or #RTW, as the company has dubbed it for the Twittersphere, is expected to take a total of 500 hours of flight time. They'll bring at least six oxygen bottles and have no pressurization system.
To the founders, that type of experience is worth potentially changing the face of flight.
"I've been educated at (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and this time spent in Boston led me to found startup companies," Borschberg said in a company video. "I know that dreams fuel innovation.
"I also know that human commitment and new technologies can really change the world."
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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
A week after the most powerful “super typhoon” ever recorded pummeled the Philippines, killing thousands in a single province, and three weeks after the northern Chinese city of Harbin suffered a devastating “airpocalypse,” suffocating the city with coal-plant pollution, government leaders beware!
Although individual events like these cannot be attributed with absolute certainty to increased fossil fuel use and climate change, they are the type of disasters that, scientists tell us, will become a pervasive part of life on a planet being transformed by the massive consumption of carbon-based fuels. If, as is now the case, governments across the planet back an extension of the carbon age and ever increasing reliance on “unconventional” fossil fuels like tar sands and shale gas, we should all expect trouble. In fact, we should expect mass upheavals leading to a green energy revolution.
None of us can predict the future, but when it comes to a mass rebellion against the perpetrators of global destruction, we can see a glimmer of the coming upheaval in events of the present moment. Take a look and you will see that the assorted environmental protests that have long bedeviled politicians are gaining in strength and support. With an awareness of climate change growing and as intensifying floods, fires, droughts and storms become an inescapable feature of daily life across the planet, more people are joining environmental groups and engaging in increasingly bold protest actions. Sooner or later, government leaders are likely to face multiple eruptions of mass public anger and may, in the end, be forced to make radical adjustments in energy policy or risk being swept aside.
In fact, it is possible to imagine such a green energy revolution erupting in one part of the world and spreading like wildfire to others. Because climate change is going to inflict increasingly severe harm on human populations, the impulse to rebel is only likely to gain in strength across the planet. While circumstances may vary, the ultimate goal of these uprisings will be to terminate the reign of fossil fuels while emphasizing investment in and reliance upon renewable forms of energy. And a success in any one location is bound to invite imitation in others.
A wave of serial eruptions of this sort would not be without precedent. In the early years of twentieth-first century, for example, one government after another in disparate parts of the former Soviet Union was swept away in what were called the “color revolutions”—populist upheavals against old-style authoritarian regimes. These included the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia (2003), the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine (2004) and the “Pink” or “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan (2005). In 2011, a similar wave of protests erupted in North Africa, culminating in what we call the Arab Spring.
Like these earlier upheavals, a “green revolution” is unlikely to arise from a highly structured political campaign with clearly identified leaders. In all likelihood, it will erupt spontaneously, after a cascade of climate-change induced disasters provokes an outpouring of public fury. Once ignited, however, it will undoubtedly ratchet up the pressure for governments to seek broad-ranging, systemic transformations of their energy and climate policies. In this sense, any such upheaval—whatever form it takes—will prove “revolutionary” by seeking policy shifts of such magnitude as to challenge the survival of incumbent governments or force them to enact measures with transformative implications.
Foreshadowings of such a process can already be found around the globe. Take the mass environmental protests that erupted in Turkey this June. Though sparked by a far smaller concern than planetary devastation via climate change, for a time they actually posed a significant threat to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his governing party. Although his forces eventually succeeded in crushing the protests—leaving four dead, 8,000 injured and 11 blinded by tear-gas canisters—his reputation as a moderate Islamist was badly damaged by the episode.
Like so many surprising upheavals on this planet, the Turkish uprising had the most modest of beginnings: on May 27, a handful of environmental activists blocked bulldozers sent by the government to level Gezi Park, a tiny oasis of greenery in the heart of Istanbul, and prepare the way for the construction of an upscale mall. The government responded to this small-scale, non-violent action by sending in riot police and clearing the area, a move that enraged many Turks and prompted tens of thousands of them to occupy nearby Taksim Square. This move, in turn, led to an even more brutal police crackdown and then to huge demonstrations in Istanbul and around the country. In the end, mass protests erupted in 70 cities, the largest display of anti-government sentiment since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002.
This was, in the most literal sense possible, a “green” revolution, ignited by the government’s assault on the last piece of greenery in central Istanbul. But once the police intervened in full strength, it became a wide-ranging rebuke to Erdogan’s authoritarian impulses and his drive to remake the city as a neo-Ottoman showplace—replete with fancy malls and high-priced condominiums—while eliminating poor neighborhoods and freewheeling public spaces like Taksim Square. “It’s all about superiority, and ruling over the people like sultans,” declared one protestor. It’s not just about the trees in Gezi Park, said another: “We are here to stand up against those who are trying to make a profit from our land.”
The Ningbo Rebellion
The same trajectory of events—a small-scale environmental protest evolving into a full-scale challenge to governmental authority—can be seen in other mass protests of recent years.
Take a Chinese example: in October 2012, students and middle class people joined with poor farmers to protest the construction of an $8.8 billion petrochemical facility in Ningbo, a city of 3.4 million people south of Shanghai. In a country where environmental pollution has reached nearly unprecedented levels, these protests were touched off by fears that the plant, to be built by the state-owned energy company Sinopec with local government support, would produce paraxylene, a toxic substance used in plastics, paints and cleaning solvents.
Here, too, the initial spark that led to the protests was small-scale. On Oct. 22, some 200 farmers obstructed a road near the district government’s office in an attempt to block the plant’s construction. After the police were called in to clear the blockade, students from nearby Ningbo University joined the protests. Using social media, the protestors quickly enlisted support from middle-class residents of the city who converged in their thousands on downtown Ningbo. When riot police moved in to break up the crowds, the protestors fought back, attacking police cars and throwing bricks and water bottles. While the police eventually gained the upper hand after several days of pitched battles, the Chinese government concluded that mass action of this sort, occurring in the heart of a major city and featuring an alliance of students, farmers, and young professionals, was too great a threat. After five days of fighting, the government gave in, announcing the cancellation of the petrochemical project.
The Ningbo demonstrations were hardly the first such upheavals to erupt in China. They did, however, highlight a growing governmental vulnerability to mass environmental protest. For decades, the reigning Chinese Communist Party has justified its monopolistic hold on power by citing its success in generating rapid economic growth. But that growth means the use of ever more fossil fuels and petrochemicals, which, in turn, means increased carbon emissions and disastrous atmospheric pollution, including one “airpocalypse” after another.
Until recently, most Chinese seemed to accept such conditions as the inevitable consequences of growth, but it seems that tolerance of environmental degradation is rapidly diminishing. As a result, the party finds itself in a terrible bind: it can slow development as a step toward cleaning up the environment, incurring a risk of growing economic discontent, or it can continue its growth-at-all-costs policy, and find itself embroiled in a firestorm of Ningbo-style environmental protests.
This dilemma—the environment versus the economy—has proven to be at the heart of similar mass eruptions elsewhere on the planet.
Two of the largest protests of this sort were sparked by the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants on March 11, 2011, after a massive tsunami struck northern Japan. In both of these actions—the first in Germany, the second in Japan—the future of nuclear power and the survival of governments were placed in doubt.
The biggest protests occurred in Germany. On March 26, 15 days after the Fukushima explosions, an estimated 250,000 people participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations across the country—100,000 in Berlin, and up to 40,000 each in Hamburg, Munich and Cologne. “Today’s demonstrations are just the prelude to a new, strong, anti-nuclear movement,” declared Jochen Stay, a protest leader. “We’re not going to let up until the plants are finally mothballed.”
At issue was the fate of Germany’s remaining nuclear power plants. Although touted as an attractive alternative to fossil fuels, nuclear power is seen by most Germans as a dangerous and unwelcome energy option. Several months prior to Fukushima, German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that Germany would keep its 17 operating reactors until 2040, allowing a smooth transition from the country’s historic reliance on coal to renewable energy for generating electricity. Immediately after Fukushima, she ordered a temporary shutdown of Germany’s seven oldest reactors for safety inspections but refused to close the others, provoking an outpouring of protest.
Witnessing the scale of the demonstrations, and after suffering an electoral defeat in the key state of Baden-Württemberg, Merkel evidently came to the conclusion that clinging to her position would be the equivalent of political suicide. On May 30, she announced that the seven reactors undergoing inspections would be closed permanently and the remaining 10 would be phased out by 2022, almost 20 years earlier than in her original plan.
By all accounts, the decision to phase out nuclear power almost two decades early will have significant repercussions for the German economy. Shutting down the reactors and replacing them with wind and solar energy will cost an estimated $735 billion and take several decades, producing soaring electricity bills and periodic energy shortages. However, such is the strength of anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany that Merkel felt she had no choice but to close the reactors anyway.
The anti-nuclear protests in Japan occurred considerably later, but were no less momentous. On July 16, 2012, 16 months after the Fukushima disaster, an estimated 170,000 people assembled in Tokyo to protest a government plan to restart the country’s nuclear reactors, idled after the disaster. This was not only Japan's largest antinuclear demonstration in many years, but the largest of any sort to occur in recent memory.
For the government, the July 16 action was particularly significant. Prior to Fukushima, most Japanese had embraced the country’s growing reliance on nuclear power, putting their trust in the government to ensure its safety. After Fukushima and the disastrous attempts of the reactors’ owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), to deal with the situation, public support for nuclear power plummeted. As it became increasingly evident that the government had mishandled the crisis, people lost faith in its ability to exercise effective control over the nuclear industry. Repeated promises that nuclear reactors could be made safe lost all credibility when it became known that government officials had long collaborated with TEPCO executives incovering up safety concerns at Fukushima and, once the meltdowns occurred, in concealing information about the true scale of the disaster and its medical implications.
The July 16 protest and others like it should be seen as a public vote against the government’s energy policy and oversight capabilities. “Japanese have not spoken out against the national government,” said one protestor, a 29-year-old homemaker who brought her one-year-old son. “Now, we have to speak out, or the government will endanger us all.”
Skepticism about the government, rare for twenty-first-century Japan, has proved a major obstacle to its desire to restart the country’s 50 idled reactors. While most Japanese oppose nuclear power, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains determined to get the rectors running again in order to reduce Japan’s heavy reliance on imported energy and promote economic growth. “I think it is impossible to promise zero [nuclear power plants] at this stage,” he declared this October. “From the government’s standpoint, [nuclear plants] are extremely important for a stable energy supply and economic activities.”
Despite such sentiments, Abe is finding it extremely difficult to garner support for his plans, and it is doubtful that significant numbers of those reactors will be coming online anytime soon.
The Explosions Ahead
What these episodes tell us is that people around the world are becoming ever more concerned about energy policy as it affects their lives and are prepared—often on short notice—to engage in mass protests. At the same time, governments globally, with rare exceptions, are deeply wedded to existing energy policies. These almost invariably turn them into targets, no matter what the original spark for mass opposition. As the results of climate change become ever more disruptive, government officials will find themselves repeatedly choosing between long-held energy plans and the possibility of losing their grip on power.
Because few governments are as yet prepared to launch the sorts of efforts that might even begin to effectively address the peril of climate change, they will increasingly be seen as obstacles to essential action and so as entities that need to be removed. In short, climate rebellion—spontaneous protests that may at any moment evolve into unquenchable mass movements—is on the horizon. Faced with such rebellions, recalcitrant governments will respond with some combination of accommodation to popular demands and harsh repression.
Many governments will be at risk from such developments, but the Chinese leadership appears to be especially vulnerable. The ruling party has staked its future viability on an endless carbon-fueled growth agenda that is steadily destroying the country’s environment. It has already faced half-a-dozen environmental upheavals like the one in Ningbo, and has responded to them by agreeing to protestors’ demands or by employing brute force. The question is: How long can this go on?
Environmental conditions are bound to worsen, especially as China continues to rely on coal for home heating and electrical power, and yet there is no indication that the ruling Communist Party is prepared to take the radical steps required to significantly reduce domestic coal consumption. This translates into the possibility of mass protests erupting at any time and on a potentially unprecedented scale. And these, in turn, could bring the Party’s very survival into question—a scenario guaranteed to produce immense anxiety among the country’s top leaders.
And what about the U.S.? At this point, it would be ludicrous to say that, as a result of popular disturbances, the nation’s political leadership is at any risk of being swept away or even forced to take serious steps to scale back reliance on fossil fuels. There are, however, certainly signs of a growing nationwide campaign against aspects of fossil fuel reliance, including vigorous protests against hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
For environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben, all this adds up to an incipient mass movement against the continued consumption of fossil fuels. “In the last few years,” he has written, this movement “has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas.” It may not have achieved the success of the drive for gay marriage, he observed, but it “continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some victories.”
If it’s still too early to gauge the future of this anti-carbon movement, it does seem, at least, to be gaining momentum. In the 2013 elections, for example, three cities in energy-rich Colorado—Boulder, Fort Collins, and Lafayette—voted to ban or place moratoriums on fracking within their boundaries, while protests against Keystone XL and similar projects are on the rise.
Nobody can say that a green energy revolution is a sure thing, but who can deny that energy-oriented environmental protests in the U.S. and elsewhere have the potential to expand into something far greater? Like China, the U.S. will experience genuine damage from climate change and its unwavering commitment to fossil fuels in the years ahead. Americans are not, for the most part, passive people. Expect them, like the Chinese, to respond to these perils with increased ire and a determination to alter government policy.
So don’t be surprised if that green energy revolution erupts in your neighborhood as part of humanity’s response to the greatest danger we’ve ever faced. If governments won’t take the lead on an imperiled planet, someone will.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.