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Change is coming in our collective energy future. But what will that change look like? And who will decide?
 
In democracies, the answers to these questions are largely up to voters – to you.

 
A recent article in a scholarly scientific journal about energy tees up the dilemma that countries, and by implication voters, will soon face: the coming competition for public resources between energy transformation and climate impact mitigation.
 
The article, about the “
Energy Pillars of Society,” [1] by systems ecologists John Day and Charles Hall (with others) lays out the dilemma we face. On the one hand is the perfect storm of fossil fuel depletion and, simultaneously, climate change with its damaging impacts on people and ecosystems. On the other hand, and driven by both of these factors, societies will need to transition to alternative sources of energy and ultimately forge a new energy future. But the authors are not optimistic about the ability of our societies to face down the horns of this dilemma. Their pessimism stems from the realities of thermodynamics, the predilections of human behavior and their concern that public leaders are not sufficiently awake to the dilemma or the extent of the difficulties ahead.

 


What has all this got to do with “public goods?”  And why is it your “choice?”
 
Public goods are the products, services, benefits and standards that governments produce. And – in a democracy – governments only produce what voters vote for. (Of course, if you don’t vote, you don’t get to participate in choosing.) Here’s how voters’ choice of public goods applies to our energy future.

 

 
Competition for Resources
A competition is brewing, and will escalate, between two courses of action. This is a competition for resources (money, talent, energy) between the need for mitigation of climate change and its impacts and, on the other hand, transformation to a new energy future. 

These are two paths. They are not really alternatives; both challenges will have to be taken up to one extent or another. The real question is about the relative amounts of money, talent, effort and energy to put into each.

Mitigation   
           
“Mitigation” has two meanings. One is about dealing with already-locked-in climate change impacts: physical destruction and social upheaval. Dealing with these types of issues is reactive – reacting to what’s already “baked in.”

The other type of mitigation is proactive – reducing human-caused biosphere damage.

Reactive mitigation examples: building sea walls and raising road beds as coastal communities get flooded; relocating whole communities away from flooding coastal areas; providing emergency relief to populations devastated by severe weather or fires; responding to social upheavals, which some are predicting will arise in the wake of severe climate change impacts.
 
Examples of proactive mitigation are “restoration” and “regeneration.” Restoration refers to restoring natural ecosystems such as forests and grasslands. The concept of regeneration encompasses a suite of approaches for re-aligning human activities -- including agriculture, land development and transportation -- with biophysical realities and processes. One approach that is getting increasing attention [2] is “regenerative farming” which can aid in “decarbonizing” the atmosphere. 
 


Transformation
 
“Transformation” takes multiple forms:
 

Develop alternate energy sources and infrastructure. Invent, develop and deploy new power generation sources and systems, such as distributed energy generation and mini-grids. Improve the “Energy Return on Investment” of renewables. (We’ll discuss “EROI” in the next Post).
 
Reduce human contributions to climate change. Use less and waste less. 
 
Repair and reuse. Ensure our “right to repair” the devices and appliances we own – a right that has been taken away from us by corporations that design non-repairable products and foster a throw-away culture. Note: see our Public Goods Post on this
Power Struggles
Demands for mitigation and calls for transformation will escalate as the impacts of climate change become more dramatic and as fossil fuel extraction becomes more expensive and untenable. The costs will run into the trillions. Relocations that could be required due to sea level rise alone have been estimated at $14 trillion [3]. (For comparison, U.S. GDP in 2017 was $19.7 trillion, and $16 trillion is the amount the US Federal Reserve used to bail out banks and corporations due to the 2008 financial meltdown.)    
 
Where will the money come from?  Much of the money will come from the “government” – which is us. Wall Street financiers, technology companies and multinational corporations are already signaling that government – we – will have to step in and pay.
 
Who will get to choose which course to prioritize – mitigation or transformation -- and how to accomplish both?
 
It’s your choice. Voters choose. It’s about collective choice. The people we elect will pass legislation to take one course or another, and will decide how to allocate the moneys from our public purse.  We voters determine who those legislators will be.
 
So the question about public goods leads directly, doubly and literally to “power struggles:” a struggle over what kind of energy systems we want in the future, a struggle over whose power will control the decisions. Will it be profit-power or “polity” power?
In the next Public Goods Post we will discuss some of the questions with which government – we – will be confronted.
[1] “Energy Pillars of Society; Perverse Interactions of Human Resource Use, the Economy, and Environmental Degradation,” BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality (2018) 3:2

[2] “Can Dirt Save the Earth?” Moises Velasquez-Manoff, New York Times, April 18, 2018

[3] “Rising sea Levels May Disrupt Lives of Millions,” Tatiana Scholssberg, New York Times, March 14, 2016
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The Public Goods Post has been created by June Sekera, 
Founder and Director of the Public Goods Institute; and Research Fellow at the 
Global Development And Environment Institute, Tufts University.

The Public Goods Post is produced by Daniel Agostino.

To contact us: Editors@publicgoodspost.org

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