With the news that this past July was the hottest month on earth since record keeping 140 years ago, satellite images of the Amazon and State of California burning, the most powerful hurricane ever measured in the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida, carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere rising again to near record levels after a brief leveling, and Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s stirring call to action while staring down both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, climate change has been a hot topic in 2019. While the scientific community remains nearly 100% aligned that global warming is driven by the burning of fossil fuels, a relatively small, yet powerful, group of naysayers fights the science. Who are these very powerful people, and why do they fight? One common characteristic – they are mostly baby boomers = the generation of Americans with an insatiable appetite for consumption and a strong resistance to change.
First a disclosure – I am a boomer. Baby boomers are defined as the generation of individuals born just after the end of World War II, from 1946 through 1964. That would put us between 55 and 73 years old this year. As of 2016, this generation has over 74 million members and makes up 22.9% of the population of the United States. (Note that President Trump at 73 years old falls into this generation.). Further, I am a conservative white male, and while I don’t feel excessively wealthy, I am certainly better off than most. I own a nice home, my wife and I go on far too many vacations, we own two new cars, and we spend an inordinate amount of money on cafe lattes at Starbucks. I am a registered Republican, and, until recently, believed strongly that the fiscal conservatism and pro-market focus of the Republican Party outweighed their anachronistic social beliefs. Worse yet, I owe my standard of living to fossil fuels, having spent over 40 years working in oil and gas and power generation. I would likely not be as well off as I am today without this country’s, and this world’s, need for fossil fuel.
I do not feel guilty for where I am or how I got here. Fossil fuels have been critical for economic growth and improving the life of the average American. However, I am ready to admit that the world is changing. The damage to the planet from the burning of fossil fuels is irrefutable. Fortunately, renewable sources of energy are now viable and cost effective alternatives with new onshore wind and solar developments less expensive than running existing coal plants. How quickly America adopts these alternatives will be critical to how the world looks in the future. But change inevitably generates resistance, and the larger the change, the larger the resistance. Let’s take a look at the baby boomer generation, the group that has, or believes it has, the most to lose from this change.
Baby Boomers possess about 54% of all US household wealth and 57% of affluent household wealth (see Fig. 1), account for 42% of consumer spending, buy more cars than any other age demographic, account for 80% of all spending on luxury travel, and earn 47% of all income in the United States (see MarketingCharts,com and WiseBread.com). Basically, baby boomers control about two times the wealth in this country as compared to their percentage of the population. On the flip side, 45% of baby boomers have no retirement savings, and of the 55% who have some retirement savings 28% have less than $100,000. The bottom line – baby boomers have made and continue to make a lot of money, but spend it. And what do they like? Big cars, big houses, expensive vacations, cruises, beef, single-use packaging, etc., all of which generate a large carbon footprint. In a very interesting analogy, physicist Geoffery West points out that the average lifestyle in America (counting food, transportation, computers, air conditioning, etc) requires more watts to support than what is required by a blue whale. If baby boomers require about twice the average, we’re talking about 150 million blue whale equivalents in the US.
Demographically, baby boomers are 72% white, compared with 50% of all births last year. Politically, they are quite conservative with the difference in percentage between those identifying themselves as conservative vs liberal at approximately 23% (see Fig. 2). And Republicans are much more likely to be the naysayers mentioned above than Democrats.
Although not a one-to-one relationship, there is certainly a correlation between “old white Republicans” who spend lots of money and deny climate change and baby boomers.
Mea culpa. What have I done to impact climate change? Not as much as I could, but I’m moving in the right direction. In addition to trying to inform the public with my OWOE website and blogs, I am professionally involved in some cutting edge technology developments to reduce the cost of renewable energy, I have traded in one gas powered vehicle for a Tesla (please see my blog), and I am contemplating installing rooftop solar panels on my house.
Now the good news. Baby boomers have a built-in sunset provision. The Paris Agreement of 2015 attempts to control greenhouse gas emissions to achieve a balance by 2050 and limit the average temperature increase to 1.5 deg Celsius. Of course, by 2050 the baby boomers will lie between 86 and 104 years old. That means that the vast majority of us will be either dead or in a rest home, both of which result in a very low carbon footprint (and one of which will eventually result in some carbon returned to the earth). In fact, if you do some simple math and assume that each baby boomer will be replaced by one average next-gen consumer when he/she dies, even with no other reductions in average carbon dioxide emissions due to technology improvements or behavior, and ignore population increase, US carbon dioxide emissions will drop approximately 20% and be at about the 1970s level by 2050 (see Fig. 3). Which means that one strategy that could be very effective is simply to wait us out. OK, boomer. Couple this with a continuation of the rapid improvement in renewable energy technology and the tendency of younger generations to adopt new technologies more quickly and, maybe, humanity has a chance.
Guest Blog by S. A. Shelley: In the matter of the transition to renewable energy, there are some nations and governments which do it quite well, e.g., Denmark, some that don’t appear to care, e.g. the US, and then there’s Canada. Canada claims to be very concerned about the environment and about the need to dramatically cut carbon emissions and transition quickly to a fossil-fuel-free economy. However, it has failed on a number of fronts and will most likely continue to fail.(more…)
Every week seems to bring another attack by the Trump Administration against laws and regulations that have been instituted by prior administrations to protect the environment and fight climate change. The most recent is the campaign to deny California the right to set stricter automobile emissions standards than federal limits. It has caused yet another uproar among environmentalists and liberals and glee among climate change deniers and conservatives and will undoubtedly lead to many years of legal battles. But what is reality? In fact, this move, and all the others, are just meaningless actions that do little more than pander to the Administration’s fossil fuel campaign contributors and excite the hardcore Republican base ahead of the upcoming elections. The reality is that technology and market forces are driving the world inexorably and at an increasing pace toward a renewable energy future, despite the last-ditch efforts of the President and his supporters. Let’s look at some of the higher profile actions.(more…)
Guest blog by SA Shelley: No doubt about it, the world runs on energy (and money). Nearly 80% of all the world’s energy is still provided by coal, oil and gas though this fossil fuel proportion of the energy mix is now shrinking and in just under 10 years, the world’s energy mix will look markedly different. I hope that in addition to coal, oil and gas the OWOE reader is familiar with some of the other large energy sources such as nuclear, wind, solar, hydro and wave. Here at OWOE we try to bring useful and relevant knowledge and ideas about energy to the reader, and one big potential and virtually zero carbon energy source that has been overlooked by a lot of people including the OWOE bloggers is geothermal energy. Well no more. After a bit of research this OWOE blogger has gone gung-ho for geo for good reason.(more…)
Guest blog by SA Shelley: The amount of energy consumed to light our modern civilization would surprise most people. In the not too distant past, residential and commercial lighting consumed about 20% of all electricity produced. Basically, every fifth coal, nuclear or gas turbine power plant built was used to just to light cities, factories and homes. However, since the advent of the LED, there has been a remarkable drop in the amount of electrical power required to light our modern world. Depending upon where you live and work, recent data suggests that residential and commercial lighting now consumes only between 7% to 12.5% of all the electricity produced. That’s a drop in energy consumption for lighting by almost 1% per year over the last 10 years. The good news is that the energy for lighting continues to decline and will only get better as more LED lighting replaces inefficient technologies (see Fig. 1 and Fig. 2).(more…)
Guest blog by SA Shelley: I try to avoid writing about oil too often for three reasons: 1) the oil markets are well observed by more than enough highly paid analysts, 2) the changes in energy technology and distribution are more interesting (and still largely misunderstood by highly paid analysts) and 3) I try to build anticipation for my oil industry supply and demand blog in January of each year. But because of some recent peculiarities that have arisen in the oil markets, a short blog about oil now seems warranted.(more…)
SA Shelley, WH Luyties: OWOE is a small site, with just a few dedicated and experienced staff who follow energy technologies, economics and policies. Occasionally, OWOE bloggers dare to forecast energy developments that tend to be contrarian, and, much to everyone’s surprise, they have been very good at forecasting trends correctly and ahead of much larger analytical organizations. Are we that good at more quickly analyzing publicly available information along with some insight and soft analysis? Or do we have access to the dark arts such as whiskey and voodoo?(more…)
Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: In the past few months, a lot of people around the world have probably wondered about why oil prices have again quickly and significantly fallen. I’ve argued in a prior blog at the beginning of this year that the world is awash in oil supply. Even though oil production is collapsing in places like Venezuela, Iran and Mexico, is in danger of collapsing in more places like Angola and Libya, and is politically constrained in places like North Venezuela (Canada), there still is plenty of oil to supply most global markets. The plentiful supply of course comes from surging production in the U.S., ample production in Russia and new offshore fields coming on stream in places like Guyana and Brazil. If you couple increasing supply with softening global demand for oil, you get such downward pressure on oil prices. So what’s with this nonsensical sport of shooting tankers in the Gulf of Oman?(more…)
I live in California. That gives me a front seat to virtually every new initiative and trend related to saving the planet, whether it is about turtles and plastic straws, banning single-use plastic bags, electric vehicles, or green energy. Although not the first state to adopt a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), California has been one of the most aggressive in its timetable for replacing fossil fuel based electricity with carbon-free. In 2018, California updated its RPS to the requirement to achieve 60% of electricity sales from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2045. Of course, California’s aggressive push toward renewables has triggered a wide range of reactions. For example, Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress has been pushing the idea that California’s electricity rates are significantly higher than the rest of the US (see Figure 1) and rising significantly faster because of its dependence on renewables. His culprit is renewable energy and his solution is to keep nuclear plants open. In contrast, Roger Sowell, who blogs about renewable energy issues, argues that California’s unique climate, geography, and large population make such differences to be expected.(more…)
Guest blog by S. A. Shelley In the first blog of this series, I summarized the huge energy resources of Canada. In the second blog, I showed how most of those resources have been or are being squandered and how governments with good intentions, at times more often than naught, deliver bad outcomes. While statistically bad outcomes can be unintentional, in Canada a lot of bad outcomes are actually the deterministic result of government strategy. Coupled with the breakdown of the rule of law at the highest levels, Canada is in bad shape. That unfortunately is the very big ugly in Canada. Other factors resulting in Canada’s bad energy situation are the focused actions by small groups of well-funded opponents and the apathy by the populace who have been habituated to the sweet lucre of government largesse. Canadians are generally kind and polite people, but at the governing level, the plotting and duplicities surpass a Shakespearean tragedy. The Russians probably learn by watching what happens in Ottawa.
The biggest warning that I have is that the path that Canada is on will more likely lead to Canada becoming the next Venezuela – corrupt, ineffective and when in trouble, doubling down on failed collectivist ideas, instead of returning to integrity, order and prosperity.(more…)