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What if Climate Change is Not an Energy Problem?
Alex Steffen, 29 Dec 08

Here's a thought I've been kicking around, and I'd like your ideas. What if, contrary to conventional wisdom, climate change is not actually primarily an energy problem, and by thinking of it as an energy problem, we risk making huge mistakes in the coming years?

What do I mean by energy problem? A problem caused by our choice of energy sources.

Given that a large percentage of greenhouse gasses comes from the burning of fossil fuels, it seems odd to contend that climate change is not a problem created by our energy choices. Certainly, no one with any credibility denies that coal, oil and gas use is changing the climate, and I don't mean to suggest that at all (though it is also worth not losing sight of the considerable emissions that come from farming, forestry, the chemical industries and other sources).

What I mean is that when we look to address the central challenge presented by climate change -- creating widespread prosperity while lowering, and then eliminating, emissions -- changing energy sources might play a much less important role than we've been trained to think. The kind of energy we use, in other words, while important, may not be anywhere near as important as three other considerations: whether we use the energy we create at all; how we use it; and how we live.

Whether we use the energy we generate: much of the energy we generate is wasted in the process of generation or transmission (56.2%, here in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration). As I understand it, by wasted we don't mean that it's used, but not used effectively. We mean that it is not used at all. It is the current dumped into the ground by power plants whose generation exceeds demand and other generated energy that accomplishes no task.

Based on what I've been told and read, much of that systemic waste is an attribute of badly-designed big systems, and could be eliminated through a variety of different new approaches, from smart grids to more efficient turbines to the harvesting of waste heat in industrial processes. As I understand it, no system can be perfectly effective at eliminating wasted energy, but if we managed to slash energy waste in half -- all other things being equal -- it'd be like eliminating roughly 25% of our energy-related emissions.

How we use energy -- what I've heard described as energy efficiency at end use -- is equally important. Amory Lovins has consistently pointed out the myriad ways in which our current uses of energy are extremely inefficient. We all know about the energy savings of a compact fluorescent lightbulb over an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb. Well, on a metaphorical level, our society (especially here in the U.S.) is nothing but old-fashioned light bulbs, nothing but opportunities for improvement. As has been pointed out again and again, not only are large energy savings immediately possible, but many of these energy savings pay for themselves or already profitable, while many others would become profitable with even moderate carbon pricing and/or green tax shifting.

How we live may be the biggest nut to crack. As we've discussed before, where we live has more to do with the amount of energy we use -- and the amount of energy we could save -- than almost any other factor. We can save huge amounts of energy by stopping sprawl; encouraging smart growth, good design and transit; using density to promote green building and green infrastructure; and emphasizing a prosperity based on experiences rather than stuff and product-services rather than products. These are steps that eliminate the need to use energy in the first place, while delivering the same or better quality of life. To extend our light bulb metaphor, it's like not needing to turn on a light in the first place, because you have a window through which sunlight is streaming.

In fact, if what we're committed to is prosperity, rather than a particular suburban SUV-and-McMansion vision of wealth (I, at least, am convinced that vision is a doomed project over the medium-term no matter what path we take), then a big shift towards bright green living might be possible even with only modest shifts in the sources of energy -- if the shifts in the uses of energy were large enough. A radically more-efficient society of compact communities with a variety of transportation choices, green buildings and smart infrastructure, run off an only slightly-improved mix of energy sources might be more sustainable than a society that continues on our current path of increasing sprawl and waste but uses twice the proportion of clean energy that it does today.

Obviously, we want both. We want renewable, low-carbon energy fueling a compact and efficient society. But attempting to meet the increasing energy demands of an essentially unchanged (and rapidly spreading) vision of suburban prosperity (whether in suburban Atlanta, suburban London or suburban Shanghai) through the provision of more and more and more clean energy seems pretty much guaranteed to fail. And in a society with limited resources and attention, pushing a strategy based primarily on clean energy may in fact reduce our ability to go after other, more important systemic solutions. (For instance, here in America, I would rather see a national smart growth agenda than a national clean energy subsidy.)

So maybe it's time to stop calling climate change an energy problem?

What do you think?

(Image: K2D2vaca, Creative Commons.)

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Alex - an interesting post, because when all we focus on is addressing climate change, the focus shifts away from sustainable development as a solution.

Essentially - what you describe - prosperity, greener cities, smarter decisions, better choices, etc - are all reflections of sustainability, in as much as they are PART of addressing the challenge of climate change through changing the way in which we generate and consume energy.

I think sometimes this important point gets lost by policy and decision makers who are desperately trying to be seen to be acting on climate change, without actually requiring anyone to change the way they do anything.

Posted by: Michael O'Brien on 29 Dec 08

Greenhouse gases are an emissions problem not really an energy problem. We should be thinking about how to build a zero emissions culture the way W. Edwards Deming and others thought about building zero defect production lines in factories by using statistical quality control methods.

Secondarily, we should spend more time thinking about managing methane releases than carbon dioxide. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas and a useful fuel. Natural gas is essentially methane. Natural methane deposits in permafrost or undersea clathrates may be susceptible to sudden release and it would be very wise to have some ideas about how to scrub methane out of the atmosphere as well as managing our own methane releases before they reach threshold temperatures.

We need to relearn ecological design principles:
waste equals food
use only available solar income
respect diversity
love all the children

I believe we will live in a low energy future, low energy because we will be using energy and resources with much greater efficiency, with elegant frugality and systematically within a circle of continuing and continuous useful work (exergy exergy exergy).

Posted by: gmoke on 29 Dec 08

Tim O'Reilly recently discussed a similar view in his blog post ( about Wendell Berry. He said,

"The essence of Berry's argument is that we as a culture need to get away from single-issue movements to fix this or that, and instead embrace holistic thinking about how society as a whole should be organized to achieve our goals."

Your re-framing the climate change question as a "national smart growth agenda" rather than a national clean energy problem echoes this discussion.

Thanks for the thought provoking post.

Posted by: scottra on 29 Dec 08

Yes, we should focus our national climate debate and actions on smart growth more than on clean energy. Federal clean energy dollars will mostly be spent by people who run big utilities and big businesses, the very same people who have bankrupted our resource stocks and eaten our souls.

Renewable energy is bubbling all around us on this planet if we just open our eyes. And it is all local. Tides roll in, storms rage, sunlight falls, rivers flow, and the core of the earth boils.

We’re ready to change course. What we need is a bit of grace and time to make a clean transition to local energy sources. It’s all about the local economy, stupid.

Posted by: Cathy Tuttle on 29 Dec 08

This is smart.
The one and only thing I've always appreciated about climate change is how big it is, conceptually. You can really come at it from any angle--which means that wonky engineers and bike-crazy kids and frugal conservatives and, well, anyone who's interested in almost anything can play.
But there's one caveat--given the speed with which it now appears to be breaking over our heads, we have to figure out quickly how to make a truly effective response that gets the most change in the shortest time possible. Hence, for us, is based on the understanding that at this point, much of our "practical" work (lightbulbs) is fairly symbolic until we get the "symbolic" (political) framework that we need in place.
So help us on Oct. 24, and so many thanks for keeping thinking about all this in useful and creative ways

Posted by: bill mckibben on 29 Dec 08

Hey all. The problem with climate change is that it is not really a problem at all; it is a symptom of a much larger and more fundamental problem. The essence of the real problem is that humanity sees itself as apart from, not a part of nature. We look at things in the flat-earth linear way, not the whole-earth systemic way.

I work with students in middle and high school and explain the difference between organism and whole-earth perspectives. As an organism, there are things that humans eat, and things they don't. From a total ecology perspective, there is no such thing as 'waste.' As gmoke points out, everything is eaten by something else.

We need to transcend our individual organismic perspective and adopt the whole-earth perspective. It is not growth or emissions that are the problem. The problem is the imbalance. You never see a rainforest or coral reef that is too dense if it is in balance.

I try to take the kids way deeper than policy people can go at the moment. I question the very concept of 'waste' and expose it as a human construct that does not exist in nature. I've gotten great reactions from students discussing natural burials, even overhearing young girls sharing what plants they want to have as their place markers. The other is still too funny to discuss with high schoolers, but adults understand the implications once they get past the initial idea. More here:

We need to reintegrate human and natural systems to solve the climate crisis and just about every other "problem" we have.


Posted by: Daniel N Smith Jr on 29 Dec 08


I'm guessing you don't have children. Most people don't want to raise their kids in apartment building or shuttle the kids to playdates on public transporation. Your evil suburbia is a parent's nirvana, and most of those SUVs are bought for a good reason: to move lots of children around. Solutions that require people to significantly reduce their quality of life are going to be a tough sell, and it's important to understand that many of our spread-out communities are there for a good reason.

Posted by: Chris Anderson on 29 Dec 08

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone (and keep 'em coming!).

Bill, I agree and like the point about being able to come at climate change from a number of different angles.

Chris, I think it's worth noting two things: one, even without a radical lifestyle change, the difference in energy use between an extremely-low-density suburb with large homes and big cars, and a mid-density suburb (like the kind built in the 1950s and 1960s) with a walkable core is pretty huge; and two, families with children are a small and shrinking minority of households in most of the developed world.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 29 Dec 08

I like the article, but dispute the premise of terminology. The narrow definition of "energy problem" to just generation/sources doesn't work for me and won't carry forward into any common language usage.

It's still an "energy problem" when the solutions you go on to discuss after this opening (vital and good as they are) are about energy efficiency and energy consumption. Arguably, adding these broader-scope energy-related solutions into the discussion makes it look like even more of an "energy problem".

I certainly agree that "energy sustainability" needs to be about much more than just energy generation/sources, but can't agree that this makes it not an energy issue. If you try the same for "emissions" rather than "energy", focusing on emission causes broader than just the source, the argument works a little better - but not by enough.

Even with the more common-language definition of "energy problem", I also think that climate change is about more than just energy, but your examples about energy don't show this; in fact you pass over other significant emissions sources, acknowledging them while excluding them from your point, and don't mention (de/re)forestation and other potential biological, non-energy-related solution components at all.

So I'm struggling to connect your premise with either the points you made, or the points you didn't make.

Posted by: Daniel Carosone on 29 Dec 08

We can transform matter, space, time and meaning. Of these, time and meaning are the most ephemeral, the most human. Basic science teaches us that matter can not be created or destroyed, only transformed. Perhaps instead of matter, we need to explore how to transform us.

The built world is a manifestation of our knowledge, needs, aspirations and values. How it is powered will matter. Just how much it matters is open to conjecture. However in transforming ourselves, we have an opportunity to reappraise our relationship to knowledge, needs, aspirations and values.

I would hope that as human civilization progresses, the assessment of value on transformed matter will evolve to an assessment of value on transformed humanity.

Posted by: John Jakaboski on 29 Dec 08

Without disagreeing with anything above, I’d like to point out that getting “smart growth” right is an incredibly complex challenge. We all understand how density can reduce energy use for heating and cooling, and provide the critical mass needed to support investment in public transit. But in terms of outcomes, using the broad (and appropriate) definitions of sustainability that some people here have outlined, density on its own guarantees nothing. The success of density depends entirely on how it is designed and inserted into the existing urban fabric. Among other things, this means adding density without throwing away useful existing building stock and the local economy that it sustains. Old buildings provide economic opportunity, cultural amenity and a sense of history and continuity; they are a large part of the character that makes people want to live in urban neighborhoods. No American city that I know of has yet successfully tackled the tensions between density and preservation. These conflicts are not just environmental (the benefits of maximum density vs the embodied energy spent in demolition and replacement) but also economic and cultural (developer profits vs the costs of dislocation and the eradication of history and local economy), and they challenge our very definition of sustainability. I am a huge pro-density advocate who has worked for years on promoting the concept of “urban villages”, and yet I still think the hardest problems – how to design density well and how to insert it without sacrificing economic and cultural assets that are also at the core of sustainability – are yet to be tackled.

Posted by: Liz Dunn on 29 Dec 08

Really interesting thought direction.

Most of my own work targets "how we live" and it's great to see that get equal billing with cleantech (which usually gets all the investment and policy attention).

There is another pure energy perspective of course which is Peak Oil and the 'descent' view (championed by Howard Odum, David Holmgren, the transition towners and other 'peakists' such as Thomas Homer Dixon) that what we should envisage is a necessary and inevitable collapse in terms of energy use, population, complexity/scale of society and infrastructure.

I'm not saying I totally buy all this neo mathusian pessimism. Just to say that 'smart growth' isn't the only endgame in town and even 'steady state' may not be that achievable if we really are ending the time of fossil energy as (only) apparently unlimited steroids for human societies.

Even the 'descent' view is all true, that doesn't have to mean a collapse in quality of life, human development, culture. I like to imagine a 'new athens' where democratic empowerment, the arts, philosophy or whatever modern equivalents like lifelong learning and spirituality can flourish under assumptions (that ancient athenians shared) that 1. the golden age is passed, 2. when the outer world collapses there is more room for the inner world to flourish, 3. it's okay to suffer (it's actually cathartic and stimulating to our development to let it be okay).

If you follow that 'early peakist' train of thought back to your question then there might be a fourth implication (beyond "whether we use the energy we create at all; how we use it; and how we live") which is Earth Restoration being the key future industry or even something all existing industries are judged against. A key suggestion from the permaculturalists being to invest in healthy soil. David Holmgren pointed to an Australian study - sorry I cant locate the exact reference, but it's in his book (Permaculture, 2002) - suggesting that apart from the obvious benefits restoring soil fertility globally could create a massive carbon sink - if I recall correctly he wrote this would be the equivalent of half the world's transport emissions? There is also all the stuff about biochar, reforesting the world & etc.

A fifth implication would be redesigning economics. What if work that was done to create real (wellbeing) value for future generations (like healthy soil) was also a source of wealth or economic value?

That's been a key theme of discussions this year. I'm not talking about the credit crunch/recession/panic or carbon markets/greed/new frontiers for speculators! But rather work like Pavan Sukhdev's TEEB (valuing biodiversity now being adopted by the EU If we can create economic incentives, or better a eco-economy that correctly valued nature's services and nature as the only true capital we have to hand on...

An example would be how it is possible for insurance companies to justify investing in restorative work around the Panama canal: paying for reforestation to prevent it getting further silted to prevent the mother of all insurance claims when ships could no longer get through it. Something World Changing has covered in the past

There's probably a sixth implication... thanks to Alex for starting us off looking at everything from some different angles next year (and 56.2% is a killer stat, I had no idea it was that much, now I can start to understand the fuss about smart grids) :J

Posted by: John Grant on 30 Dec 08

Very insightful article, Alex. Thanks. I've been trying to broaden out what I'm covering on the Global Warming blog at while still maintaining some defining focus -- advocating and highlighting trends in sustainability is the clearest path I've found.

On your point about families with children: Whatever the trends in the developing world as a whole, in America -- where we use the greatest amount of global resources per capita than any other citizenry on Earth -- the population is growing. A full fifth of US households have children (per the US Census Bureau).

So the needs and desires of American families with children need to be factored in to any plan for achieving sustainability. That said, Chris: your pov seems quite subjective. An equally valid and subjective perspective is mine: I know several parents of youngsters, in cities like NYC, Boston, and Portland, who are eager to raise their kids in the city.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 30 Dec 08

Of course I think that climate change is NOT an “energy problem,” but a “culture problem” or “life style problem”, mainly caused by the American dream.

For so many years we have abused everything, we have over-developed, we have over-grown, over-expanded, over-populated, over-wasted, over-exploited the Earth system, without little consideration for the future.

We never learnt the meaning of the word "enough." Never accepted the idea of limits of growth. Never understood the meaning of sustainable living. And thanks to globalization, we have poisoned other countries with the same mistaken dream.

Now, we are starting to see the consequences of our foolishness. One of these consequences is climate change.

We are now at the edge of a cliff and the optimists are still saying, "don’t worry, we will build a bridge across the abyss with our wonderful technology, keep marching on! "

Being a rationalist, I say: "Stop! it is time for a general withdrawing! "

Maybe 2009 will be the Year of Withdrawing?

Posted by: norberto on 30 Dec 08

Many good and interesting points!

On quibble. Emily, you say "in America -- where we use the greatest amount of global resources per capita than any other citizenry on Earth -- the population is growing. A full fifth of US households have children (per the US Census Bureau)."

The population is growing. There will be 70 million more Americans living in 32 million more households by 2030 (according to urban demographer Arthur Nelson), which allows us to imagine using that population growth to reshape our cities.

But the population is also aging rapidly and seeing a leveling off of the birth rate. That means the share of households with kids has been dropping fast (it's 18% now), and 88% of the 2030 growth in households will be childless households. By 2030, only roughly one in ten homes will have children, not all of those will have two parents or more than one child, and *not all of those will be parents who want to live in large-lot homes*.

In addition, housing preferences have already changed. Only about 25% of Americans now even say they want to live in large-lot drivable suburbia. Over 40% say they want to live in compact communities.

The cultural and demographic shifts that could make practical a dramatic change in land use and way of life are happening.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 30 Dec 08

Hey Alex~
Provocative post. I know very few people in the trenches of global climate change abatement (that is the stage we are undoubtedly in) that consider Global Warming simply an energy issue. Some of the broadest thinkers and writers to approach the issue of global climate change highlight many of the mandatory first steps, such as equal access to clean water, food, education, and medicine. Granted, food is energy, and many of the basic 'needs' humanity has require energy, and responsible energy generation as well as responsible energy consumption are intelligent. I feel strongly, that abatement is an extremely multi-faceted issue. For species survival (our species), we are going to have to change our relationship with Earth entirely.
I don't feel that anyone with an appreciation for the complexities of global climate change would feel that an energy revolution (in both production and consumption) is the most important step. Energy renovation and revolution is accessible and far less offensive to our culture than for instance, banning meat (which would do wonders to farming and greenhouse gas emissions!). But used as an economic tool and a long term investment, an energy revolution may not only reduce our carbon emissions, but it might just get us, MORE of us, thinking differently about our place on the planet. I agree that a 'national smart growth agenda' could be beneficial, long term. We cannot create momentum if we don't start moving.


Posted by: matt on 30 Dec 08

Somehow I don't think "withdrawal" is an option for our species. We hammer away at limits on every possible front - atomic, genetic, biotic, noetic.... The minute a natural area is protected by law, someone starts working on changing the law to allow some form of exploitation. And as McGibben pointed out a while ago, since there is no such thing as "pristine Nature" unaffected by humans anymore, we are already well into the moral relativism of the Anthropocene where billions of people at risk will sooner pray for clever technological solutions than for cultural or ethical restraint. Why? We simply cannot accept limits, let alone retreat, and cannot change our hardwired human nature quick enough. Just ask yourself what Hope and Change means, as Obama surfs in Hawaii while innocents in Gaza get bombed with depleted uranium munitions.

The climate is changing because the whole surface of Gaia has been suddenly remodelled in ten thousand ways by a very meddlesome and hungry bunch of monkeys. The grey goo we worried about as a consequence of nanotechnology running amok is already eating up the planet at the macroscopic scale. It's called concrete.

Apologies for not being very optimistic...

Posted by: David on 30 Dec 08

And then there are diseases like diabetes and heart disease which are at nearly epidemic levels. They are being fueled by insane agriculture policies that promote highly processed corn and wheat grown on petroleum dependent mega farms as our primary food sources. As Michael Pollan recently put it,

"The food system is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gases. It is responsible for the catastrophic American diet that is leading 50 percent of us to suffer from chronic disease, and that drives up health care costs."

So, yes, it's not merely an energy problem it's also problem with our entire food system. We have to get back to eating whole foods grown locally and to do that we have to change this country's agricultural/food policies that prop up big agriculture/food at the expense of small local agriculture/food systems.

One could devote one's efforts or marshall and support the efforts of those who are concerned with the food system and if one fixed that one would by default reduce a huge amount of emissions without even having to talk explicitly about energy or emissions. In other words, we should fix our food system because it is literally killing us and what a important bonus that it helps with emissions.

Or as Pollan put it,

"Obama will not make progress on climate change or energy independence — or health care, for that matter — unless America's food system is included in the plan."

Posted by: Tavita on 30 Dec 08

The dangerous devotion of so many leaders to a "business as usual" status quo as well as to unbridled global economic growth and outrageous per capita overconsumption could prove to be lethal for our children also to worship because these forms of idolatry could soon become patently unsustainable on a relatively small, evidently finite and noticeably frangible planet like the planetary home which God has blessed us to inhabit......and not to ravage as the leading elders in my "Not So GREAT GREED GRAB Generation" have been advocating so religiously and doing so recklessly in these early years of Century XXI.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 30 Dec 08

climate change is a con. warming and cooling are not related to man's activity. calm down. look for ways to help the poor. ignore pseudo science.

Posted by: JAY on 31 Dec 08

Three cheers and a Happy New Year to scientists who will not be silenced by the chance at great wealth, power, privileges and status that are sure to be derived from saying loudly and clearly only what is politically convenient and economically expedient.

Why not lay blame for the current economic catastrophe, and the looming environmental calamity, where it belongs: at the feet of the economic powerbrokers who organize and manage a colossal pyramid scheme, a modern representation of the ancient Tower of Babel? Is the pernicious denial of anthropogenic global warming and the human-driven destabilization of Earth's climate not primarily for the purpose of preserving the selfish material interests of a few wealthy and powerful people, and their minions?

Let's look a bit more closely at the scandulous 'business' of Bernie Madoff, confidence games, Ponzi schemes and other financial vehicles for funneling, accumulating and concentrating billions of dollars in unearned wealth into the hands of a tiny minority of people who comprise the top of the global economy.

There are many minions of the wealthy and their bought-and-paid-for politicians who "spread the word" of these schemes. Con men operate pyramid schemes. They assure "plausible deniability" and "legal cover" for all that is said and done.

Only a telling of the truth about what they are doing is forbidden. That is the one and only thing that is verboten. Do not break their vow of silence by telling what is true about the perpetration of the schemes {ie, the only games in town, so they say}, because the "houses of cards" out of which a modern Tower of Babel is constructed immediately is exposed as fraudulent and patently unsustainable. These pyramidal constructions can withstand any force except that which is presented by speaking out loudly and clearly about what is happening in these enterprises. As soon as light of what is true was shed on Bernie's scheme, the house of cards he had constructed fell.

Bernard Madoff may be the first of my "Not So GREAT GREED GRAB Generation's" kingpins to find that his "house of cards" has collapsed; but I dare say, Bernie will not be the last. There are other kingpins and many too many minions ready, willing and able to play along in what looks like the greatest self-enrichment scam in human history.

Why not say that greed is not good and mean it? Why not assign value to personal honesty, accountability and transparency?

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 31 Dec 08

to Jay: I would ask myself if burning up nearly ALL of the stored carbon from the entire multi-billion year process of evolution of life on Earth, in only 200 short years, would cause any sudden "blip" in the climate of Gaia.

If you still say no, I pity your inebriation. Party on dude, at our expense. We still tend to think we are monkeys - small ineffective creatures at the mercy of natural forces. Ha! We left that world about 50 years ago, and it's been pedal to the metal ever since. Soon our robots will be "smarter" than we are...

Climate change is just one unfortunate symptom of a colossal high-speed overshoot. We're past the edge of the cliff already, and still in denial of the gravity of the situation. So it's easy to see how further reliance on technology, most of it regrettably brutal, desolate and ugly, not to mention prone to rampant abuse, is our only parachute of hope in a soft landing for what passes for "civilization" now.

Mind you, better birth control and less "expand beyond your limits" indoctrination would do wonders as well over the next 50 years. Humanity better get good at eating humble pie.

Posted by: burningman on 31 Dec 08

Although I never considered climate change and "energy problem", I can see why others might consider it one. The largest corporations sell "energy" (oil companies, car companies dependent on them, semi-public utilities, etc). How do they sell us more, if we're trying to use/buy/consume/need less? This, for them, is the "energy problem."

If those same corporations were in the business of, say, planting forests then we'd probably see towns and cities being destroyed in the name of progress.

Posted by: ScooterX on 31 Dec 08

You're on a winner. I liken it to writing code: currently people are figuring out how to shave a nanosecond from a statement's execution time (switching energy sources) rather than ensuring that the energy is used in the first place (using a simpler algorithm). It's a case of premature optimisation.

Posted by: Victor Escobar on 31 Dec 08

Alex, You're right, of course, that "changing energy sources might play a much less important role than we've been trained to think". But that's because its energy regime is just one aspect of an industrial culture whose inner logic is ecocidal.

The problem is not that our industrial system is inefficient, but that it is based on the illusion that infinite resource-intensive growth is feasible within a system - the biosphere- whose carrying capacity is finite.

In this context, "slashing" waste in energy supply and distribution is simply to tinker with the system, not to replace it.

This is why I can't buy the notion of "smart growth": I know you don't mean it that way, but I've observed that most people latch onto the concept with relief because they believe it leaves the door open to the perpetuation of their resource-intensive ways of life.

"Smart change" works better for me as a rallying cry.


Posted by: john thackara on 1 Jan 09

Basic second law of thermodynamics says you can't win. No matter what type of every source you use there will always be waste heat generated.

So what we, as a species, need to do is find that level of energy use that the planet can tolerate and then stay below it.

Posted by: Douglas G Danforth on 1 Jan 09

I don't think that anything said is really new. Lynn White Jr already mentioned the link between religion and our culturally defined image of "self" in relation to "nature". Max Weber wrote in his work on the protestant ethic and capitalism on how materialism had grown out of too difficult definitions of religious concepts on salvation. The energy-intensive world we have created, is in the end purely a consequence of how we think about ourselves. Economic growth seems our psychological way of uncertainty avoidance. The fundamental question behind all this ecological decline is very simple, though has an infinite amount of answers: "who are we?" If we see ourselves as sheppards of God's creation, than that is how we behave: we put ourselves above nature.

Posted by: Bart Hoevenaars on 2 Jan 09

If we need an example of why this is going to be such a tough nut to crack we don't need to look any further than Chris Anderson's comment.

There are huge numbers of people who do not see their way of life as the problem and haven't even the foggiest idea of how folks in other parts of their world live.

It used to be called the 'I'm alright Jack' philosophy. I think it's just called selfishness now.

If you really care about the future of all those kids you're shunting around in the SUV Chris you need to wake up.

Posted by: Wayne on 2 Jan 09

"creating widespread prosperity while lowering, and then eliminating, emissions" - this is a great summary of what we need to be doing. This may inspire me a little, as I'm thinking about better ways to describe what we're doing at Appropedia, which is very much about this dual challenge - creating abundance while reducing the size of our footprint, is the way I normally describe it to people. "Abundance and a small footprint" - that may be a slogan right there.

Posted by: Chriswaterguy on 2 Jan 09

A long time ago, Bucky Fuller talked about "dematerization," and "ephemeralization" -- essentially doing more with less. And this is, I think, what you and Lovins wisely suggest. I agree. It's an important form of mastery. And…

As well as shift from material to mastery, we need a deeper shift in focus from material to meaning. To ask ourselves "what really matters?" What do we mean by "prosperity"? What would real wealth look like in an ecological aware world. And then to design and build our future from that point of view.

I mean REALLY matters, the why beneath the surface whys such as "it's comfortable" or "it's easier". We need to really dig down to figure out what matters for us, our kids and our kid's kid -- and then design from there.

Posted by: Bruce Elkin on 2 Jan 09

Correct & Of COurse! since nothing new. Ernst Ulrich v Weizsaecker (Wuppertal Institute, chair of german sustainablity council to the government) published Factor 4 (book) long ago, showing how we can cut to 25% of current energy use simply by applying available solutions. Others speak of Factor 10.

This is a matter of poltiical and economical will.

I quote E.U.v.W.: "In Germany, (despite his government counsel position) industry laughs at me. But I am invited to hold the keynote at China's bi-annual economic development summit."

Still, the matter of shifting from centralised to de-centralised (as you mention) means EXACTLY shifting away from Nuclear and Energy. They know that, and this is why they fight to the death "Big Energy's Last Stand". See Hermann Scheer (Eurosolar, co-father of the "renewable energy law" circling the planet) at

Posted by: Eric Schneider on 2 Jan 09

Yes, sustainability is much more than an energy problem, but the energy part does need attention pretty badly. Amory Lovins book, "Small is Profitable" points out that we don't need big coal or big nuclear plants if only because they're the WRONG SCALE. We need a multitude of small, clean power sources located close to the end-user. The recent book, "Perfect Power" promotes much the same idea. If we could generate what is needed, when it's needed and where it's needed, that would go a long way towards eliminating waste and cutting emissions.

Posted by: JayT on 2 Jan 09

You present a bit of a straw man here.

One: Investments in clean technologies don't represent a limited focus on energy, they run across the varieties of human interaction with resources. I would suspect that the investment focus of the new administration would be clean technologies as opposed to simply clean energy.

Two: While I am in agreement that the scope of the environmental equation needs to be expanded past energy issues. I suspect that current framing is intended to follow on issues of security that centrists and those further to the right would prioritize. How better to create a unified front in this terribly divided country?

Third: As mentioned earlier, the consumer preferences of the American public, sadly enough, are at large still waste oriented. While it adheres to my lifestyle choices it is a tough sell to much of the public.

Four: Integrating smart growth strategies into the built environment on a national scale is unlikely to produce the efficiencies that we need in a cost and time effective manner. Sadly again, the built environment is very much in place. It will need to be adapted. The vested costs in the present American McMansions, infrastructure, and sprawl are absolutely massive.

You present a good strategy for new communities, and slowly adapting old ones. Reorganization of the current built environment is nonetheless, long term pay out. Forcing smart growth on the public agenda also comes off as a bit statist, and centralized, where it should be an organic process.

Stimulating venture spending into clean technologies, where in many cases we are at an inflection point, remains integral. It also suits the more market-oriented amongst us.

Posted by: Stelios Theoharidis on 2 Jan 09

Many helpful and insightful posters responding to the core question "what if climate change is not an energy problem?" The diversity in thought surrounding this topic certainly proves that there is not one answer to the complexity in problems we face.

It seems that we could point our finger at overpopulation, but I believe we do have enough to sustain the people who call Earth home. But at what level? We clearly cannot survive if SUVs and McMansions are our society's MO.

There needs to be movement on all fronts. The systems that support core necessities (food, healthcare) are inefficient and wasteful and must be transformed. If we wish to survive through the climate crisis and the destruction we have wielded upon our planet, it is going to take the work of us all to move in that direction.

I am a proponent of not taking more than we need and maintaining an awareness about the impact of purchases and actions. Bring mindfulness to actions and see how people change their behavior.

Posted by: Justine Pattantyus on 2 Jan 09

Fifty years of thinking, living and acting while inspired by Bucky Fuller and the need to be less wasteful has told me that First: "Sustainable growth" is probably not possible or even desirable. The "Growth" so often referred to in economic discussions is really the same growth needed by all Ponzi schemes to continue. We don't need t grow, just get more efficient and less wasteful.
Second: It is always ignorant to waste anything, even renewable materials and energy. Amory Lovins and Bucky arrived at about the same number for wasting energy in our USA society: That is, the overall efficiency of all rotating mechanical devices is ten percent or less. We can do a LOT better than that, without involving any new fancy technology.
Third: Bucky said (in 1927) that we need to design in a way that is comprehensive (that is, considering whole systems), anticipatory (thinking way ahead) and scientific. We mostly don't. Now, we must.
Fourth: We really do have to learn to live off Earth's energy income. That is, solar and solar-based energy, especially wind energy.
How to pay for that? Bucky Fuller noted that "You can't run out of money any more than you can run out of inches. Both are entirely imaginary." Note that we are supposedly in a depression, yet there are apparently many billions of dollars available for bailouts and warmaking. Recall that on Dec 6th, 1941, we were still in a deep depression. On Dec 7th, was Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 8, the USA suddenly had enough money to build and give away (not even sell!) thousands of aircraft, ships and tanks and millions of bullets and bombs etc. Despite claims that there was not enough money for decent jobs, charity, roads, schools etc. the money was there all along! Still true! Amazing, huge changes were made in ere months. For instance, Ford switched completely from car making to bomber making in just six months!
Think of what changes we could make for the better while being fairly paid to do so.

Posted by: Jay Baldwin on 2 Jan 09

Pune (India)

Although climate change cannot be equated with the energy problem in totality, effectively solving the later will contribute towards improving situation in the former. The solution must include energy generation as well as the utilisation.

Posted by: Dr J D Bapat on 2 Jan 09

Cool! This is one of the climate wedges defined in 2004:
by Pacala and Socolow.
The increase in atmospheric carbon is accelerating:
and methane is on the rise again:
I recommend: reducing what you can, offset the rest, work on national solutions, and plan an adaptive strategy for sudden climate change:
With Speed and Violence by Pearce.

Posted by: Curt McNamara on 2 Jan 09

This is very simple. We all die.

If we don't frame Climate Change as an energy problem, no one will care enough to fix it until it is too late.

Posted by: MNPundit on 3 Jan 09

Sounds right to me, but like all things in today's society it's TOO smart. Americans this includes our legislators, are so used to being dumbed down they reject anything that upsets thier accepted two or three word slogan.

Posted by: eddieB on 3 Jan 09

By minimizing energy loss and maximizing passive energy gains, homes built to Passive House standards use 90% less energy for space heating and cooling than a conventionally constructed house. The challenge is to retrofit the 120 million existing homes to this standard. Google's Dan Reicher recently suggested to the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee that the federal government fund weatherization of 1 million homes per year over the next 10 years, which could part of a national green jobs agenda. They'd just need to add another zero to the number of homes!

Posted by: Tom White on 3 Jan 09

Let's try a little thought experiment. So here's the question - what would happen if human society discovered a free, unlimited, nonpolluting source of energy?

Let's just call this free energy. Free energy is probably not possible, but perhaps free energy is one ideal of this movement, something that is being worked on by many people because it is believed to be the solution to climate change and sustainable prosperity, at least as I understand the zeitgeist.

So just work through the through the experiment in your head. One question you might ask is, "would human society expand or contract as a result of having free energy?"

When I asked myself this question, there was only one answer. Human society would radically expand. An enduring constraint would be removed. The global population, the scale and scope of human activity would expand. We would be, in a material rather than a spiritual or political sense, liberated, right?

But this leads to an obvious question - is it possible to radically expand human society and not do even more damage to the planet?

I don't know.

Instead of trying to answer the questions, I want to find out what this board thinks.

So what do you think? Would free energy lead to a sustainable human society? Or would it lead to an even more efficient geocide?

Posted by: Neal Gorenflo on 3 Jan 09

To your free energy question, I offer this opinion. Currently amoung the number one causes of strife is caused not by old grudges or religious bigotry, but more immediate concerns like lack of resources. The U.S. and China and other such countries are meddling extensively in the affairs of oil producing countries. In effect wasting resources in order to save them. Now having done research on potential sources of inextinguishable energy I think I can say that there are more possibilities than dead ends. Such power sources include geo-thermal, tidal, ocean-thermal, solar, and wind. To name a few that work. But many other radical ideas exist as well, such as nuclear fusion, lightning harnessing, and even man made tornadoes. Throughout the world people are starting to see the error of the old ways. No one wants to live by a polluted river, or see their homes dissapear under flood water. So I think that it would make the earth much more sustainable. With unlimited energy comes thousands of ways to recycle, reuse, and restore resources. Mankind has entered a journey into self awareness and prosperity. Many mistakes were made along the way. But workng with rather than against nature, we will prosper.

And personally, I put my faith largely to geothermal. With the right equipment it is theorectically accessible anywhere and generates a constant source of heat and if done properly can be done with minimal damage to the surrounding earth.

Posted by: Cullen Kappel on 3 Jan 09

"How we live may be the biggest nut to crack. As we've discussed before, where we live has more to do with the amount of energy we use -- and the amount of energy we could save -- than almost any other factor."

Earlier this year I came across this elegant concept of the pyramid city ( that has a chance to crack the nut. It is a pyramid shaped city design by Dutch architect Aad Breed, that can house 100.000 people at one square kilometer. There is enough space for offices, shops, schools, and any other utility a city requires. Everything is within walking distance, so no SUVs needed. What's more, because of the design anyone lives on a square measuring 80 x 80 meters and has free sight at the horizon.

"When properly spread out throughout the globe the entire world population would need no more than 250 square kilometres of the earth's surface", Aad Breed states. Leaving lots of land for farming and nature. Food crises solved as well.

So indeed, changing the way we live could be much more effective than anything else.

Posted by: Bas van Lier on 3 Jan 09

Your article stopped short of the deeper question: what world-view allows us to see the earth as expendable, in general, here for our pleasure and its resources, and separate from us as human beings? Until we understand that energy, climate change, business, money, ownership, and technology all arise from the belief that we are separate from and masters of the earth, we will not arrive at the balance needed for true change. Energy and climate change are two problems in a whole range of issues that are not only an intellectual and technological problem, but a spiritual problem. The solutions to how we should live arise from asking what is important, what is valuable, what has meaning, what is "enough", and what makes sense for us as a part of a whole ecosystem. Until we see ourselves as one part of the earth, the esoteric question of whether we are talking about climate change or energy use will only take us a short distance toward a healthy planet.

Posted by: ruth on 3 Jan 09

Coming in late to this one. There are clearly a lot of thoughtful responses that I haven't time to look at in detail. A few jotted thoughts:

Alex presents an interesting and useful breakdown of the energy problem (which I think it still is, but one needing to be solved by how well we use energy sources)

Unused energy generated from carbon sources is much more of a problem than unused energy from renewable sources.

Yes methane is more potent greenhouse gas, but nowhere near as persistent as CO2 (pardon my clathrates, however!)

As a parent with a (small) SUV, I still challenge Chris to think his rationale through... you need the SUV *because* of the urban sprawl! (A sprawl which is exacerbated by the infrastructure needed to support the use and storage of that SUV.. or Prius)
(BTW I've been cycling to work on average 3 times/week over the six months... perfectly feasible *if* you live within 10 km of your workplace.. my contract has just ended, so I am now thinking: is this a luxury or a requirement?)

Finally, a simple but potent little bit of reframing that has been pointed out on other occasions:

Is this about sustainable, or *viable* solutions?

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 4 Jan 09

The title is misframed. Something can be "an energy problem" but not an energy *supply* or *generating* problem. Certainly the North American power grid, which presently is incapable of storing power that is generated off-peak and using it on-peak, or even of moving it effectively across the continent, is part of the "energy problem". What you mean is that one cannot solve this problem, and may be creating a very dangerous distraction and delusion, by building solar or wind or even geothermal plants (the wisest long term investment) instead of upgrading the power grid.

Psychologically, the phenomena you are questioning is called "productivism" or "supply-side" thinking, in which the distribution and consumption is taken for granted as an absolute, and only the production and supply aspects of a whole system are taken as being amenable to manipulation. This of course was one of the mantras we heard over and over again from Reagan and the Bushes, and it played to consumer vanity - the consumer couldn't be wrong, consuming more is a sign of wealth and power, "our lifestyle is not negotiable", etc..

Of course, the problem is that if one's lifestyle is both not negotiable and also simultaneously putting a tremendous risk and burden on others across the globe, then, the only solutions would look something like boycotts, embargoes, disinvestment and war - none of which involve negotiation at least until the party that has ruled out negotiation changes their position.

This month that ideology should not only be put out to pasture, but butchered and fed to its carnivorous adherents. Even the implication of "supply side" or productivist ideology should disqualify anyone from high office and certainly from policy making positions in the USA. The pendulum must now shift.

What's required from leadership is quite the opposite - an awareness that one of the main jobs of leaders is to ask the public for help and act as good example, and actually change consumption patterns and distribution patterns.

Accordingly, it is perhaps more important than Obama plant a food garden on the White House grounds than it is to make any specific policy decision. Leaders affect us symbolically more than they do materially.

Not to say there is nothing to do materially, but it is the difficult-to-assess always-problematic change to distribution systems that is the biggest challenge. At risk of another ideological statement, one could argue that the task requires permanently disenfranchising the middlemen who keep dysfunctional systems as they are: in health care, in electricity, in patent law, in financial "securitization". Supply side ideology is how they have long kept their parasitic role out of scrutiny and convinced the public that they have no right nor interest to know.

Sadly, to assume that "an energy problem" means "an energy supply or generation problem" is just another symptom that this ideology presides even over some of the activists, not just those conflicted by holdings or career interests in the "renewable energy" sector.

Posted by: Craig Hubley on 4 Jan 09

Free energy is essentially what we've had for the past century with cheap oil and look where that got us.

Which brings us back to Alex Steffen's initial proposal: What if Climate Change is not an Energy Problem? It certainly isn't about looking for a new energy source. Until we change how we use energy and how we live, all new sources of energy (free or not) will only provide a more efficient genocide.

Posted by: Meenal Raval on 4 Jan 09

The big problem with this idea is that the current generation of climate models is indicating that to keep global warming below 2 degrees C, which is the point at which Greenland gets dangerously close to melting, we need to reduce CO2 emissions to 0. Even at 10% of 1990 CO2 emission levels the simulations still break 2 degrees by 2300. So it fundamentally is an energy problem--we need to move to completely carbon neutral energy technologies by 2100, and preferably sooner than that.

Posted by: Jordan Dawe on 4 Jan 09

Climate change is a man problem....

In any case, even if consider that climate change is natural process, then it is up to the man to find proper solutions to face a changing environment.

On the other hand, if you consider climate change as a consequence of man activities, then, the man is still compelled to react and to find solutions. In a way, since we are part of the problem, we are part of the solutions.

We know that some industries are big emitters. If these industries are efficient and innovative, then, they must use their intelligence to reduce their emissions and our emissions (see Otherwise, why should we keep such industries?

Posted by: Luke on 5 Jan 09

Great article, and some really great posts!

I spent my Christmas vacation reading through a couple of "classics": Smith's "Wealth of Nations" and Darwin's "Origin of the Species". It's been fascinating. Both books articulated the same sort of paradigm shift which we are struggling with here, but they arrived at their conclusions in a very different way than we seem to be proceeding.

Many of these posts, and indeed many of the other books that I have been reading recently, discuss how things _should_ be. We should build compact cities, we should not drive SUV's in the suburbs, we should switch from a growth economy to a community-based dividend economy, etc. Such discussions often describe the benefits of doing what we should. But few come at the problem by describing why we do what we do.

Smith and Darwin, on the other hand, looked around at their worlds and derived explanations of WHY things were the way they were.

We need to understand the "why of the present" if we have any chance of influencing the "what of the future".

I'm toying in my spare time with these concepts. Principles of evolution and emergence are recurring themes. I'm also convinced that a big part of the problem is the availability of TOO much money and cheap energy, and that this distorts people's behavior in very environmentally-destructive ways. We've been riding on a party cruise ship of seemingly unlimited free food and alcohol, debating how best to stay thin and sober.

However, I could really use the assistance of a couple hundred economists. I prefer the economists to come organized as a vibrant open-source community and backed by significant quantities of supercomputer resources. Anyone up for that?

Posted by: Geoffrey Mantel on 6 Jan 09

Thanks for the article. I spend my days making homes and businesses more efficient (mostly thermal work in VT). People always ask me what type of heat they should install. Propane, oil, wood, pellet, coal, forced hot air, boiler, outdoor green wood boiler, solar, ground source heat pump, etc. And I always tell them it doesn't much matter. Investing in a new heating system very, very rarely makes any sense. However reducing the need for heating is almost always a 15%-30% ROI.

Call it a carbon problem, or an energy problem, whatever. Its like icecream or cheddar, the amount consumed is the problem not the flavor.

Posted by: thomas on 6 Jan 09


An excellent post, and as a two decade fan of Rocky Mountain Institute and Lovins I agree with the premise of eliminating the waste. I am profitably doing that in my home and I like the change that I pocket. It ain't small potatoes, amounting to four figures over a year. And that's before the real shock from peak oil hits.

However, I don't think this is an either-or situation. I'm also a fan of Jim Hansen, Wally Broeker, Stan Jacobs, James Lovelock, and Nobel Laureate, Melanie Fitzpatrick, whose research and conclusions inescapably point to climate change as a sequelae to human GHG emissions.

This is a both-and problem. And the "ands" are many. A big "and" is our reductionist way of thinking that has lead us into the climate trap. It's time to learn "a substantially new way of thinking" if we hope to reverse "humanity's drift toward catastrophe", as Einstein put it.

It's also a problem of the "Sibling Society" of America, emotionally immature while possessing extraordinarily dangerous technologies, like nukes, like coal fired electric power plants, like mountaintop removal, like a gluttonous appetite for other fossil fuels and precious natural resources like water.

And, being imbedded in nature we act and do in the profligate manner of nature, although that can be judged as wasteful. We also breed in much a similar manner and we are become like a cancer on the face of the Earth. There's something very natural about the way humans act; lemminglike?

Only in our seeming mindless actions, while ostensibly possessing reason, logic, and a masterful frontal cortex, are we really odd as a species, or seem to be so. It raises the question of whether we are as smart as we think we are, or are we just very clever. And it "begs the question" of humans as being the superior species on the planet.

If we leave survivors to speculate on this in the 21st century, they will likely be more humble and perhaps wiser about how to manage the precious resources that we squandered. Perhaps wiser, too, about how we spread our precious bodily fluids without regard to the issue (children) created, and, like our fluids, squander as well.

I believe that it's not too late to learn, and to grow, and to find a way to manage the unmanageable. Our survivors will truly be special, extremely clever and masterful... and very lucky.

Posted by: Larry Menkes on 7 Jan 09

Thoughtful piece. My short answer to your question is that we should "call" the climate change problem by all of its causes, so we can address all the appropriate angles.

But look at the underlying "enabler" to all of the major contributions to climate change, and it is underpriced energy. And there's nothing like getting people to rethink their next home, vehicle, or television purchase like increasing the cost of poor choices. (And by "increasing the cost," I'm of course meaning "capturing the true cost" of these options -- economists will tell you that gasoline should really cost much more than $5/gallon when you factor in the costs of cleaning up its pollution, fixing roads, occupying countries, etc. These "extras" are all costs currently borne by other areas, like public education.)

And there's nothing like educating millions of Americans -- via more accurate prices -- to then in turn persuade a critical mass of the thousands of local municipalities around the country to reform their land use practices and transportation options. I don't think "hard" economists get it right all of the time, but making sure the price of things reflect their true cost is something we cannot afford to ignore when it comes to energy and its impact on consumer choice (and therefore climate change). Just my $0.02.

Posted by: Kirk on 8 Jan 09

Cheap energy made possible the rampant and destructive pattern of industrial and urban development that has driven up greenhouse gas emissions. The political reality is that only higher costs for energy -- both electricity and liquid fuels -- will reverse it. So it is an energy problem. Coal plants must be penalized for environmental costs at a level that makes them either infeasible or highly expensive. Same with petroleum products. When energy prices rise, industry has to re-think its business models and consumers adjust their choices. Will this hurt poor people? Absolutely. But that's a whole other reform agenda, related to tax structure and economic design.

To bring down greenhouse gas emissions, you take the free ride away from polluting energy providers. There will be no significant changes made in the name of "saving the planet."

Posted by: Kevin on 9 Jan 09

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