Editor’s Note: In episode #27 of Cleantech Talk, Matthew and I enjoyed highlighting that the fastest growing job in the USA is now a cleantech job — wind turbine technician. We probably didn’t have quite as much fun talking about global warming–induced or global warming–exacerbated forest fires, drought, and pine-beetle infestation, and the ways in which those things make it harder to stop global warming.
You can listen to the show via the embedded player below, on iTunes, or on SoundCloud. Or you can download it. Below the embedded player, you can read Matthew’s helpful show notes. And you can check out our Cleantech Talk archives for previous shows if you haven’t listened to them yet.
Given that we’ve been a bit electric vehicle-heavy in recent weeks, your podcast co-hosts decided to make this week’s Cleantech Talk an EV-free edition… only to see Tesla raise $1.4 billion in a secondary stock offering about 18 hours before we recorded the show! Well, at least when we get around to discussing it next episode, most of the background questions will have been answered…!
Fires in Fort McMurray
Matthew being Canadian, it seemed appropriate to briefly touch on the forest fires still raging near Fort McMurray in Alberta. There was a rueful symbolism in the evacuation of the town (population 90,000), in that Fort McMurray is where the people who work on the Canadian oil sands live.
The immediate cause of the fire may never be known (a flicked cigarette butt? sparks from an all-terrain vehicle?) but it’s universally agreed that this year’s El Nino is a contributing factor, as it caused warmer weather and reduced precipitation, drying the forests out and making them more fire-prone. That said, climate models agree that climate change is going to make the region warmer and drier, so we can still see the “invisible hand” of global warming behind the fires.
A timeline of the fires is available here, and to the credit of Canada’s mainline media, it hasn’t hesitated to acknowledge the global-warming elephant in the room (this example is typical). While not blaming the victims — Canadians outside Fort McMurray consume far more fossil fuels than those in Fort McMurray, after all — the reporting has generally acknowledged the role climate change has played in making such a disaster far more likely.
At roughly 2000 square miles (500,000 hectares) the Fort McMurray fire is now the 9th biggest forest fire on record in North American history. (Admittedly, decent records only go back a couple hundred years!) It’s still a lot smaller than the biggest fires were, but it’s a bit ominous that 4 of the 9 biggest fires have happened in the last decade.
That in turn brings us to the question of whether we can rely on forests to soak up as much annual CO2 in the future, as they’ve done for us historically. If forests burn and/or are gradually replaced by ecosystems that store less carbon (e.g. prairie or brush), then the earth’s natural systems will absorb a bit less carbon dioxide each year, meaning that we’ll need to reduce our CO2 emissions that much more, to stabilize atmospheric concentrations. (This is where Zachary also brought in the point that hydropower production has been diminishing in the face of extreme droughts, which makes it that much harder to increase the share of electricity production coming from renewables.)
Matthew’s home province of British Columbia is probably the textbook example of this forest-loss phenomenon, not as a result of climate change-induced forest fires, but as a result of climate change–induced mountain pine beetle infestations that have killed about 16 million hectares (60,000 square miles) of forests in the province, or an area a bit bigger than Nepal (57,000 square miles).
As a ballpark estimate, a mature tree can absorb roughly 50 pounds of CO2, net, per year. When mature trees burn, they generally get replaced in the ecosystem by young saplings, but those are small, and can’t absorb nearly as much carbon dioxide. It can take decades for those to reach the point where they too are drawing 50 lbs of CO2 per year from the atmosphere.
And this means that, where trees die off (whether burnt, killed by pests, or logged), less CO2 gets sequestered biologically. Back to British Columbia, the province has succeeded in reducing its direct human CO2 emissions by perhaps 10 million tonnes per year in the new millennium (from 75 million tonnes to 65 million tonnes) … but its forests are themselves absorbing an estimated 50 million tonnes less of CO2. Which means that, taking human + “natural” emissions together, overall emissions have gone up 40 million tonnes. Argh…!
The Fastest Growing Job Type in the United States
Earlier this year, the American Wind Energy Association posted a blog entry celebrating the fact that “wind turbine technician” was the fastest growing job category in the United States.
This is a really big deal, because for cleantech to truly stand toe to toe with the fossil fuel sector, we need a broad, deep base of support. It’s not enough to have support in California, Vermont, and Massachusetts; you need support in Utah, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
Podcast listeners may be familiar with that famous phrase by Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Substitute in “re-election” and you’ve got the political corollary. If/once the cleantech community can out-employ the fossil fuel sector in a county or Congressional district, we’ll be much better able to push back against the fossil lobby.
As noted on the podcast, this kind of “spreading the benefits” approach has been used to great effect by the defense industry, which is worth studying even if one is uncomfortable with its influence or products. Perhaps the textbook example is the B-2 bomber, whose contracts were spread between 383 of the 425 congressional districts in existence at the time!
If we can create clean energy jobs in every congressional district (and every voting district of every country in the world) then we’ll be able to coalesce the kind of political support to permanently outflank our cousins in the fossil fuel sector.
Finally — just to add some gratuitous Tesla content 🙂 — we even have a case where one of the company’s most vitriolic critics on Twitter, a die-hard political conservative who shorts the stock, nonetheless finds time to occasionally tweet about a company he owns a position in, which provides components to wind turbine manufacturers.
This fellow might never agree with us on anything else — there’s probably zero overlap in the “Venn diagram” of common interests — but I’d like to think that if the Koch Brothers try to make moves against wind energy, hurting his investment returns, he’d turn some of his outrage against them.
And that kind of crystallizes the idea behind the “big tent” approach to advocacy — if we can figure out how to make sure enough people benefit enough from cleantech, we’ll be in a position where we find unlikely allies on the inside pissing out, than on the outside pissing in! 🙂