Astonishing Things You Never Knew About Fossil Fuels From Bill McKibben

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Bill McKibben is a god-like figure here at CleanTechnica’s Net Zero global headquarters. He has been arrested on multiple occasions for the sin of speaking the truth about global heating, founded the influential climate advocacy group 350.org, and been slandered by more publications than you can shake a stick at.

Yet through it all, McKibben has put on a brave face and maintained his cheerful demeanor despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that come his way on a daily basis. In a blog post on January 7, he celebrates a new bit of knowledge he discovered recently while surfing the internet — “Forty percent of the world’s shipping consists of just sending fossil fuels around the world to be burned.”

“That can’t be right, I thought — what about all the other things we have to ship. There’s grain, and lumber, and iron ore, and cars, and a zillion containers loaded with tennis rackets and dog toys and 70-inch TVs. But no — a little research makes clear that in fact if you add up all the tonnage, something very close to forty percent of all the shipping on earth is just devoted to getting oil and coal and gas (and now some wood pellets) back and forth across the ocean.

“That’s a remarkable snapshot: almost half of what we move around the seas is not finished products (cars) nor even the raw materials to make them (steel), but simply the stuff that we burn to power those transformations, and to keep ourselves warmed, cooled, and lit.”

You might find that statistic depressing. What a colossal waste of energy! Think of the billions of tons of carbon dioxide, fine particulates, methane, and other pollutants that have been spewed into the atmosphere over the past century or so just so we can burn fossil fuels that put even more carbon dioxide, fine particulates, methane, and other pollutants into our already overburdened atmosphere. This is insanity on a cosmic scale. But McKibben looks at those statistics and finds reason to be encouraged. In fact, he thinks it is great news.

“Because it means that if and when we make the transition to solar power and wind power, we will not just stop pouring carbon into the atmosphere, and not just save money — we will also reduce the number of ships sailing back and forth by almost half. So if you’re worried about almost anything at all that’s going wrong on the high seas — piracy, say, or the hideous sonic effects of all those ships on whales — then you can cut that in half as well.

“Here’s what people don’t always get about fossil fuel: it’s utterly wasteful. You burn it, and then you have to go get some more and burn it again, ad infinitum. That’s why Exxon likes the business model so much; you need to buy more every month. Renewable energy is different: yes, you have to mine some lithium and cobalt to build your solar panel or your wind turbine or your battery, and yes we have to make sure we do that as humanely and with as much environmental rigor as we can — but once you’ve built that panel and shipped it off across the ocean to wherever it’s needed, that’s it. For a quarter century it stands there, and the sun delivers the energy simply by rising across the horizon. It dramatically dematerializes the world.

“You can do the same experiment over and over again. There are a hundred thousand oil tanker trucks circling the U.S.—in an EV world, which is where we’re headed, they won’t be taking up space, crashing, polluting the air. There’s an endless network of pipelines, regularly spilling and exploding. Yes, you’ll need transmission lines to move electrons around, but they are far less dangerous and intrusive. Hell, eleven percent of the energy that America currently uses, according to Saul Griffith’s excellent book Electrify, simply goes to finding more energy.”

Nothing is for free, of course. McKibben acknowledges that “people who drove oil trucks will need to find other jobs, and we should help them make the transition. But the bonus — a world where we’re not devoting vast parts of the economy to the now-make work task of digging up more stuff to burn — is something we think about too rarely.”

In the final analysis, complacency may be our most dangerous human characteristic. The only constant in life is change but change creates fear in most people. We don’t want to learn new stuff. We want things to work the same today as they did yesterday. Learning new stuff is scary and the fossil fuel industry leverages that to fill our heads with fears about freezing to death on snow clogged highways, frozen wind turbines in Texas, the horror of EV batteries being discarded willy-nilly in festering landfills, the shame of little children working their fingers to the bone in the Democratic Republic of Congo to mine cobalt for wealthy Tesla drivers, and the heartbreak of being stranded on a dark road at midnight when our EV battery suddenly dies.

And yet few ever stop to consider the consequences of drilling for oil and gas and mining coal to run our generating stations and power our furnaces. We hear about the scourge of plastics made from petroleum but still buy bottled water by the case rather than carry a refillable water bottle. We are perfectly willing to sacrifice our planet on the altar of convenience rather than adjust our lifestyle in any significant way. It’s just too hard to move away from the comfortable, the familiar, and the commonplace.

The world has made burning fossil fuels the basis of the global economy. Fossil fuel companies donate heavily to elected officials so they will pass laws that benefit them. No one speaks for the Earth, as the machinations of the despicable Joe Manchin recently will attest.

The Takeaway

Everything is connected. Burning fossil fuels cause climate killing emissions but, as it turns out, extracting and transporting them causes even more emissions. The majority of modern economies are utterly dependent on burning fossil fuels, so transitioning away from them will cause severe dislocations in employment, which makes people fearful. We see this in eastern Kentucky where coal miners want nothing more than to go back to work in the mines.

They cannot conceive of the boundless possibilities that renewable energy offers. They are only capable of mourning the past. Yet if Bill McKibben is correct, the renewable revolution is coming and it will greatly disrupt the fossil fuel economy. There is no going back, not if the Earth is to remain habitable for humans. As terrifying as the future may be, it is nothing compared to the horror of continuing to do what we have always done.

Humans have sown the seeds of their own destruction. They are about to reap a bitter harvest indeed if they cannot embrace a future that promises an abundance of affordable, non-polling energy. The sun will provide the Earth with unlimited energy at no cost for billions of years. All we have to do is harvest it and put it to work. Why is that so scary?


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

Steve Hanley has 5404 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley