Nobody is building a better lump of coal. But solar cells, thin film technologies, super capacitors and battery packs are evolving in accelerating feedback loops that might yet disrupt the self-reenforcing cycles of climate change. Employment in the renewable energy sector grew 18% globally last year, even as it collapsed in Australia, beaten down by a government of dangerous idiots and trolls for the coal industry. The number of jobs for Americans in clean energy keeps growing and dwarfing the shrinking numbers employed in digging up black lumps of carbonised plant matter and burning it for heat and light, even as Trump, the oversized novelty pumpkin-in-chief, rots in the sun, splits open and spills thousands of screeching fright bats into the air over the White House to celebrate withdrawing from the Paris Accords.
Give him this at least. He kept to his word; perhaps the first time in his whole life that decomposing boiled ham hasn’t broken his promise to a working stiff. Trump told coal miners he’d leave the Paris deal.
Or rather, he’ll start negotiating the exit, which takes a set amount of time and which, in one of those delicious ironies by which the Gods do mock us, would see him sign the final divorce papers the day after the next US presidential election. Except of course, there’s a half-decent chance that he’ll be in jail by then, probably sharing a cell with Steve Bannon, who’ll look even more creepily like a giant soggy hash brown of deep fried sadness and rejection than he does now.
Trump also told coal miners the fat days were coming back. They’re not. By taking the US out of Paris he walked out of the room where the energy deals of the next decade will be fought out. The fate of the fifty thousand or so black rock miners still working coal seams in the US will be settled in that room. But no Americans will be there when, say, the EU decides to tax or simply end imports of coal from West Virginia to the Netherlands.
Paris was a bitch to negotiate after the failure of Copenhagen in 2009 — the one where “the Chinese ratfucked us” according to Kevin Rudd — because the developing world, led by China and India demanded a reach-around for taking it in the chocolate pocket. If they were to give up the cheap, but dirty energy on which we built our civilisation, they wanted some sugar. They got it in the form of aid to embiggen and speedify their own renewable investments.
The loss of the two billion dollars America had promised to that end will hurt. For about three minutes. Until China swoops in to enjoy their moment of geo-strategic roflpwnage when they replace Washington as the developing world’s sugar daddy of choice. Increasingly, Beijing will lever itself into the role of preferred partner for richer, less busted-arse countries too.
While I’m writing this, diplomats from the EU and China are working on a joint statement in Brussels declaring “their intention to accelerate joint efforts to reduce global carbon emissions”.
France’s shiny new President Macron, fresh from his bone-crushing win over Trump in the Handshake Wars, is openly trolling him, inviting scientists and researchers to flee the US for safe haven in Paris.
And Elon Musk is building batteries.
In the end, Musk, who rage-quit Trump’s presidential business council within minutes of the Paris announcement, will probably have more sway over energy futures than this morning’s jolly tyre fire on the White House lawn. Unlike Trump, he’s an actual businessman, an entrepreneur, not just a twitchy orange mass of florid symptoms from the darker chapters of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual.
Musk isn’t just building electric cars. He’s bootstrapping a paradigm shift in energy markets, using electric cars and battery technology to create potential mega-profits not just for his company, but for global capital as a whole. He’s trying to light a fire that ignites a whole industry.
It’s weird that conservatives have lost sight of how much more powerful market forces are than government. But they have in this case. The profits to be had from clean energy will make the dwindling fortunes of the coal mining sector look like a rounding error.
But then, Donald Trump never was much of a businessman.
The former Fairfax columnist has made a number of significant contributions to The Quarterly Essay, including A Time For War and Appeasing Jakarta.
He publishes regularly on Medium and on his website, Cheeseburger Gothic.
How do you spend your days?
I’d like to say I write, but realistically I spend a lot more time running around after kids and an ageing Labrador than I do at my keyboard. This is probably why I can’t afford that business jet I always wanted. Damned kids, ruining everything for me.
What drove you to focus on journalism and fiction writing? Was there a particular moment you can remember that led you to this field?
I always wanted to write, but initially I wanted to write fiction. Specifically horror fiction. I was a huge fanboy of Stephen King and as a teenager I filled my exercise books for school with really awful sub-King horror stories. Stephen King once made the point that horror and humour are two of the most difficult writing forms.
Done poorly, horror turns unintentionally funny. And badly written humour is just creepy. I never did find a way to make a living from ripping off Stephen King stories, but writing ten dollar features for student newspapers I did discover I could crank out jokes like a sausage machine. The first time I trousered ten bucks for doing that I knew I’d found my calling.
What drives you professionally?
Did I mention those kids? They’re really expensive.
In your opinion what are the three biggest problems facing the developed and developing world?
I really hope climate change isn’t real, because otherwise we’re all gonna die screaming. But I suspect it really is the problem 99% of the relevant pointy heads say it is.
And because its a problem, and we often solve our problems through violence, I suspect the inability of national states to deal rationally with climate change will feed into state on state conflict for decades to come.
Or until we all die screaming.
Number three? That’s easy. The trillions of dollars in tax that corporations and the super wealthy refuse to pay.
If you hadn’t become a writer what would you have done?
I trained for a while as a spy catcher. That was fun, except for all the public service rules.
If I could have been a spy catcher but without having to fill in all those forms, that would have been sweet.
What led us to this moment in history?
What are the lessons we failed to learn during and since the 2008 crisis?
The Australian banks complained for years that they weren’t allowed to get into the derivatives hot tub with all the other cool kids. And then the spa filled up with exploding piranhas and they went a little quiet.
But now, both here and in the US, there is a powerful lobby which wants to fill the hot tub again. With piranhas.
Can you list some ‘baby steps’ out of the current economic mess?
The Australian government’s recent win over Chevron is actually a very big step towards getting multinational corporations to actually carry some of the tax burden which has increasingly fallen on individual taxpayers.
Other revenue authorities in other jurisdictions will be examining it closely.
If you were a President or Prime Minister what would your first three pieces of policy be?
I think we all know who’d be paying more tax. I’d be using that revenue to fund basic education services, and then ramping up spending at a tertiary level down the track.
After that I’d be looking very closely at subsidies built into the fossil fuel economy and preferencing renewables by all means possible.
Tell us something you have been wrong about?
WMD in Iraq. Who knew? Besides all those stupid peace protesters.
You are stuck in a ski lift for twenty four hours - you can have one person (living or dead) with you who will it be?
As long as they bring a bucket, anyone will do. But I probably the blues legend B.B. King.
Name the book that changed you.
Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I could feel it reprogramming the language centres of my brain as I read it.
What would you do differently if you were to start all over again?
I’d get out of traditional publishing five years earlier.
Give our readers, members and subscribers a piece of advice that has served you well.
The story you most want to believe is the story you should question the hardest.
Anything you would like to plug?
I run a subscription newsletter, Alien Side Boob, which is delivered directly to your inbox, twice a week, for $4 a month. My attempt to find a new business model before the media apocalypse hits. Coz clearly the old ways aren’t working.
Latest posts by John Birmingham (see all)
- The Quiet Catastrophe: The Reinvention Of Book Publishing - July 24, 2017
- Partisan Media Bubbles - June 1, 2017
- We’ll always have Paris - May 30, 2017