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The cleantech conspiracy


This, if you squint and adjust your tinfoil hat in just the right way, is the real story of the US election: the Russian candidate defeated the Saudi Arabian candidate. Why them? Because they’re more desperate than anyone else. Both are failed, fragile petrostates propped up only by oil money; so both see cleantech, and climate-change concern — ie Elon Musk — as the real enemy…

It’s a conspiracy just-so story, but it serves to illustrate at least one important point. I don’t mean to imply that Hillary Clinton was especially in the pocket of Saudi Arabia; just that the rest of the Western establishment has been so for decades. Nor do I mean to imply that Donald Trump is a puppet of Russia; just that Russia worked hard to support his campaign and are delighted at its victory.

I do mean to point out, however, that Saudi influence — and now Russian influence — in the West serves to illustrate the strength and self-preservation powers of the world’s legacy fossil-fuel infrastructure. The world’s most valuable company is not Apple; it is Saudi Aramco. For many millions of people, along with trillions of invested capital, the economic incentives to minimize the dangers of carbon dioxide and climate change, to deter solar, wind, and nuclear power, and to extend the era of oil as long as possible, are enormous.

For Russia and Saudi Arabia, especially, cleantech arguably threatens to become an existential threat. Nassim Taleb, who predicted the Syrian civil war years before it happened, also predicts that Saudi Arabia’s brittle regime will sooner or later suffer a similar fate. Plummeting oil prices would only accelerate that process. And if you don’t think of Russia as a petrostate, think again: Russia “relies on oil and natural gas for almost half its fiscal revenue,” to quote Bloomberg.

Imagine the world of 2026: most cars on Western roads are electric and self-driving; they, and the homes they park at, are charged mostly by solar, wind, and maybe even a new generation of nuclear power power plants. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

…Unless you’re an oil producer. Bloomberg has also predicted that electric cars could replace 2 million barrels/day of oil as soon as 2023 — and that’ll just be the beginning. Solar plants in the American desert, combined with a new high-voltage direct current energy grid, could power most of the nation. Similar plants in North Africa and the Middle East could light up Europe. Hence this nugget in the ReCode report from the Trump Tech Summit:

Here’s an outlier that I personally liked, which Alphabet CEO Page brought up about infrastructure spending: The need to rejigger the electrical grids (something about AC current versus DC current, but everyone I spoke to was a little confused by this).

Pushing for a HVDC grid is a really smart way to fight climate change / global warming without actually inducing the irrational frothing rage that those words induce in so many oil executives, petrostate functionaries, and Western populists.

Why are populists anti-environment? They just are; there’s no coherent or rational reason for it. The greatest trick the petrostates ever pulled, advertently or not, was to get the populist parties of Western nations to somehow line up with the (literal) dinosaur fossil-fuel industry. The consequences may be dire.

Just because electric cars and solar powers are clearly a good idea, a win for everyone who doesn’t directly benefit from our legacy fossil-fuel infrastructure, doesn’t mean they won’t be fought tooth and nail, by the Western oil industry, by petrostates, and — bafflingly — by conservative populists. The first two groups probably cannot be convinced otherwise. Convincing that last group, however, whether we like it or not, may be our best hope for the future.


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