The Curse of Climate Deception

Fossil fuel companies have long deceived politicians, shareholders, and the public. We must now hold them accountable for their irreparable environmental damages and develop a strategy towards a just energy transition.

Photo by  Sam Bark .

Photo by Sam Bark.

In 1908, a farmer from West Iceland hoped to offer his family and livestock heat at a lower cost. Living in a valley with natural hot springs, he channeled the steam from a hot spring that ran below his farm through a concrete pipe and into his house several meters above. This farmer, who worked solely for the comfort of his family, became the father of geothermal harnessing in Iceland.

Today, Iceland is largely powered by green energy from hydroelectric and geothermal sources. Meanwhile, the United States receives 81 percent of its total energy from oil, coal and natural gas. For Iceland, however, this was not always the case. Until the early 1970s, Iceland’s largest share of energy consumption came from fossil fuels. So, what changed this small nation’s mind to shift to renewables?

Initially, Iceland’s switch to clean energy began as an economic decision. When the world’s first Global Oil Crisis struck in 1973 (fueled by the Arab-Israeli War), the world market price for crude oil rose by 70 percent. As an effort to reduce the effects of oil prices, Iceland began to subsidize those who used oil for space heating. Both the oil crisis of 1973 and the oil crisis in 1979 led Iceland to change its energy policy. According to the UN Chronicle, “Iceland could not sustain oil price fluctuations occurring due to a number of crises affecting world energy markets. It required a stable and economically feasible domestic energy resource for its isolated location on the edge of the Arctic Circle.” Leadership in Iceland needed to act fast to avoid catastrophe following the crisis.

Like the farmer in 1908, local entrepreneurs took the first challenging steps towards Iceland’s renewable development. In the 1930s, building on the success of these local entrepreneurs, municipalities and local authorities explored the multiple possibilities of geothermal resources. Geothermal resources were used as a heat source for greenhouses; drilling technology allowed deeper drilling for hotter water to heat more homes; and larger projects were developed with the implementation of geothermal district heating systems on a commercial scale.

In the 1930s, local authorities began harnessing Iceland’s hydropower, too. These hydro projects, which were similar to geothermal projects, were initially created by farmers in Iceland to provide electricity to their farms. Continuing the growth of Iceland’s renewable energy model, 530 hydropower plants were built in the 1950s.

During a speech in 2016, Iceland’s former president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson said, “The capital, Reykjavik, about the time I was born, was every day under a black cloud from the smoke from the coal fires. This transformation into the leading example in the world in a clean energy economy came from a country which, perhaps, had the greatest odds against it.” Iceland’s experience transitioning to renewable energy provides a model to current and future “transition makers” as to how to overcome barriers in renewable energy implementation.

Throughout the transition towards a renewable energy model, Iceland collaborated with municipalities, the government, and the public. This allowed Iceland to establish trust between all people, and foster a solution-based mindset and dialogue in overcoming the issues following the oil crisis. Additionally, Iceland’s engagement with the public allowed for municipalities to learn from entrepreneurs who had helped the geothermal and hydro concept take-off. Politicians used strategies such as using “before and after” photos which attracted voters’ attention to the cleaner air, which resulted in public support of using geothermal resources rather than fossil fuels. Iceland gives the United States an example to transition in a way where both the government and the public are heavily involved.

The United States should transition to a renewable energy model. Not only will this have positive impacts towards global climate neutrality, but it will benefit public health and economy as well. Air and water pollution emitted by fossil fuel emissions has been linked to breathing problems, premature deaths, cancer, and a host of other serious issues. According to a study published by MIT, air pollution from power generation causes 52,000 premature deaths per year, and research from  NYU revealed that health costs associated with premature births from fossil fuel emissions add up to nearly $5 billion. However, wind and solar energy require almost no water to operate, and thus do not pollute scarce water resources by competing with agriculture, drinking water, or other important needs. Additionally, a transition towards a renewable energy model is beneficial to the economy, as the renewable energy system is more labor intensive. On average, more jobs are created for each unit of electricity generated by renewable sources than fossil fuels.

This may seem implausible to many, but it has been tested and proven in the almost one-hundred percent renewable country of Iceland. Fossil fuel companies continue to deceive politicians, shareholders, and even the public. They have known about the risks of climate change for years, and their own scientists told them so. As early as 1962, Shell’s Chief Geologist discovered that the rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels was seriously contaminating the earth’s atmosphere, and again in Shell’s 1991 film Climate of Concern, Shell “acknowledged both the scale and scope of potential climate harms to human society, ecosystems, and the environment, and warned of potential impacts to food security and the rise of ‘global warming refugees.’” Yet our federal government continues to support Shell and other fossil fuel companies.

What we are supporting, rather, is climate deception. We must ensure that these fossil fuel companies pay for the irreversible damage that they have caused to the environment, and, our health.

The United States is more than capable of adapting to a renewable energy model, and so are others. We have never been more prepared to undertake the challenges of energy transition. The curse can be broken, but we need strong leaders at every level of government to accomplish the energy transition ahead. The best solution to our rapidly escalating energy challenges is best stated by the Union of Concerned Scientists: “No single solution can meet our society’s future energy needs. The solution instead will come from a family of diverse energy technologies that share a common thread — they do not deplete our natural resources or destroy our environment.”

Danielle Fossett is an environmentalist based in Long Island, NY. She is a public advocate for youth involvement and youth empowerment, having setup organizations that have impacted the local political sphere.

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