- “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” James Baldwin
One of the ironies for the socially concerned citizen is the uneven burden imposed on the poor by high minded programs attempting to address other compelling challenges – call it unintended (or unheedful) consequences or collateral damage. The ‘climate change’ agenda as typified by the Paris Agreement is one such dilemma. Irrespective of whose interpretation of the discredited hockey stick curve of global warming[i] for which you’ve signed up, that our abused planet will benefit from a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions bears no argument. The open questions, it seems to me, are what solutions are created, how much they cost and who pays? One answer to the last question in the short term is undoubtedly the “energy poor.”
Whether income is limited by low wages, no work, the fixed income of seniors or disability, the energy poor are defined as those for whom more than ten percent of their income is needed to cover energy costs. Since those folks many times also are housing poor (more than thirty percent of their income goes to basic housing costs), the effects grind hard on their ability to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Some live on a constant edge, a couple of missed paychecks away from sleeping under a bridge alone or with their families. During this current brutal winter in the northern United States, such a load means cold houses with thermostats set well below comfort and pipes at regular risk. Life lived wrapped in a blanket.
If Al Gore or Bill Gates (or Donald Trump for that matter) doubles his electric bill, it’s not even a petty inconvenience. More than likely since someone else probably does the mundane work of paying their bills, they wouldn’t even be aware of it. For someone energy poor, such a disaster could be the difference between fresh vegetables and cheap boxed mac and cheese, straight or crooked teeth for Johnny or a ten-year-old car that takes you to work and one that is busted or needs gas and is parked on the street outside the apartment house where the rent already strains the budget.
Just a few statistics and facts, I promise:
- Thirty million Americans live in energy poor households. Among the population in the world’s “rich countries,” two hundred million are so burdened.
- In Europe where renewable subsidies (and costs from emissions caps and targets) exceed the United States, thirty percent of Germans are energy poor; in Greece the toll approaches fifty percent.
- In the United Kingdom, since 2006 while trying to hit coercive renewable targets, energy costs have risen 36% in real terms, while income has grown 4%. A poll in 2014 found one third of British elderly leave at least part of their house cold; two thirds bundle up with extra clothes in their homes. 15,000 died in the tough winter of 2014-2015 because they couldn’t afford to heat their homes properly.
And so it goes.
“The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.” Willem de Kooning
There is good news[ii] regarding carbon emissions with a milestone in 2016: natural gas passed coal as a source of electrical generation for the first time. Admittedly, a short-term solution, because while gas emits about half the carbon as coal per megawatt generated, the fracking techniques and drilling that freed new sources of plentiful natural gas also emitted significant amounts of methane, an even more efficient greenhouse effect gas than carbon dioxide.
Coal use has steadily declined for the last three years after peaking ten years ago. Nuclear power generation and renewables with hydro-electric leading the pack, have grown as a percentage of power production, but they are more expensive, especially solar and wind. We’ve already noted who gets hurt with that. Who benefits? Those of means and higher income can take advantage of disproportionate government support for expensive electric cars and solar panels on their roofs. The poor and working poor will not be getting energy star tax credits; they’ll be struggling to keep the heat and lights turned on.
Directives imposing or releasing coal from restrictions in the long run will make little difference. Efforts to strangle or to revive the coal industry with Presidents Obama and Trump swapping executive orders are akin to squabbling over saving fax machine manufacturing. Well, maybe not quite that depth of obsolescence. Coal is dying of its own infirmities as an energy source and will expire as quickly as alternate fuel source electrical generation can be brought on line. Xcel Energy is typical. One of the largest Midwest utilities, it has shuttered twenty five percent of its coal fired plants since 2005. Xcel has a goal of reducing their carbon emissions by sixty percent by 2030 with or without the Paris Agreement. “I’m not going to build new coal plants in today’s environment,” Xcel CEO Ben Fowke told Reuters. “And if I’m not going to build new ones, eventually there won’t be any.” [iii]
A modest, and to me, humane suggestion: avoid the “Inconvenient Untruth” histrionics and cease the ham handed, ideologically and politically motivated, big government (or worse international) draconian intervention on carbon emissions or swaps. Instead focus efforts on research and development of affordable and sustainable energy solutions that do not punish those least able to pay the bills.
“But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” William Butler Yeats
[i] See attached critique of climate modeling that was done several years ago by a friend of mine who has taught at a large university for many years. Since it is a compilation of his remarks in email exchanges with others, and I didn’t ask his permission to share this, I have taken efforts to remove his name, but he’s one of the smartest people I know, brilliantly adept in math, energy and engineering and in interpreting data. Has multiple patents and published papers. If you object, B, I’ll take this link down. Climate Modeling