His Future and Ours

Salon interviewed George Conway, a Republican lawyer married to the infamous Kellyanne Conway (press secretary in the former administration) and who became known as an ex-Republican critic of the ex-president. I had a reaction to his closing comments.

How do we balance political expediency versus legal necessity? The law takes time, but [the former president] is an imminent danger to American society right now. Something needs to be done, and we are running out of time. 

At the end of the day, we have to follow the legal system and apply it evenhandedly — but that should be done as expeditiously as possible. The Justice Department has clearly come around to that understanding. They are now expanding their investigations of Jan. 6, [his] other alleged crimes and related matters at the highest levels. I don’t think it’s going to take them very long to put together a case on the classified documents. And I don’t think they have a choice, even if they wanted to resist prosecuting him. It’s going to be sooner rather than later. [He] could easily be under both federal and state indictment at some point between Election Day [Nov. 8] and New Year’s Day.

What do you think is going to happen with these criminal cases? Does he take a plea bargain? There’s this fantasy among some liberal folks that [he] does a perp walk and goes to prison. I don’t see that happening. If anything, [he] pays fines and takes a plea deal. Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice will not put a former president in prison. 

I don’t believe that [he] is going to plea bargain. I think he could go to prison, but it is more likely that he will serve home confinement. In all likelihood, he will be convicted of multiple felonies. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a perp walk, but I don’t think it’s a fantasy either. There’s a good chance that [he] will end up with a felony conviction. I know he has cut deals in civil cases, but that’s just writing checks. To reiterate, I do not believe that [he] will plead out. This all goes so much to the core of [his] identity that he will try to tear the country apart before he settles one of these criminal cases.

That is a powerful statement. 

[He] will incite violence on his behalf. He will try to pretend it is something spontaneous. Does [he] have enough power and influence over his followers to threaten the republic? I don’t think so. But I do think it’s enough to be dangerous.

What are you most concerned about? And what, if anything, are you hopeful about, regarding the country’s future?

What keeps me up at night is the violence that [he] could potentially cause. The danger of violence will increase as the 2024 election approaches. What gives me hope is that the legal reckoning is coming…. I am hopeful that the American people will be so exhausted by this whole saga that they will be drawn toward all the things that tie us together as a nation and people. Of course we may disagree with one another, and do so passionately. But in the end we are all Americans, and we have more in common than divides us. I hope we can get back to that and heal….

First, nothing keeps me up at night except the desire to stay up.

More importantly, when the former president is finally indicted somewhere, the authorities will let him show up with his lawyers and hear the charges. He won’t ever be in handcuffs or a cell. If he accepts a deal or is convicted, he’ll get house arrest, not prison, and then may leave the country.

Right-wing violence is always a threat (much more than left-wing or Islamic violence) but my biggest short-term concern is that Republicans will do well-enough in upcoming elections, either legally or illegally (by ignoring the results), that — with the help of radical reactionaries on the Supreme Court — they’ll consolidate minority rule. They’ll change the laws in enough states to make it very hard for them to lose (and the laws to be changed back). Add that to their built-in advantages in the Senate and Electoral College and elections won’t matter much.

The only hope I have is that once enough members of my generation die off, fewer voters will watch network or cable TV and be misled by right-wing and corporate propaganda or local news that “leads with what bleeds”.

My longer-term concern (although it becomes shorter all the time) is the climate crisis and the many ways a warmer climate will affect life on Earth. But it doesn’t keep me up at night.

On that subject, however, here’s an article from the MIT Press called “How to Fix Climate Change (A Sneaky Policy Guide)”:

We may already have a “miracle” fix for climate change. [It’s] a planetary emergency. We have to do something now — but what? Saul Griffith, an inventor and renewable electricity advocate (and a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant), has a plan. In his book “Electrify,” Griffith lays out a detailed blueprint for fighting climate change while creating millions of new jobs and a healthier environment. Griffith’s plan can be summed up simply: Electrify everything. He explains exactly what it would take to transform our infrastructure, update our grid, and adapt our households to make this possible. Billionaires may contemplate escaping our worn-out planet on a private rocket ship to Mars, but the rest of us, Griffith says, will stay and fight for the future….
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Will the Future Be Electric?

Should anybody be optimistic about the climate crisis? Noted environmentalist Bill McKibben reviews a new book, Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future by Saul Griffith, an engineer and inventor. The title of the review is “The Future Is Electric”. Here’s McKibben’s summary of Griffith’s playbook: 

Electrification is to climate change as the vaccine is to Covid-19—perhaps not a total solution, but an essential one. [Griffith] begins by pointing out that in the United States, combustion of fossil fuels accounts for 75 percent of our contribution to climate change, with agriculture accounting for much of the rest. . . . The US uses about 101 quadrillion BTUs (or “quads”) of energy a year. . . .

Our homes use about a fifth of all energy [or 20 quads]; half of that is for heating and cooling, and another quarter for heating water. “The pride of the suburbs, the single-family detached home, dominates energy use, with large apartments in a distant second place,” Griffith writes.

The industrial sector uses more energy—about 30 quads—but a surprisingly large percentage of that is spent “finding, mining, and refining fossil fuels.” A much smaller amount is spent running the data centers that store most of the Internet’s data . . .

Transportation uses even larger amounts of energy [40 quads?] —and for all the focus on air travel, passenger cars and trucks use ten times as much.

The commercial sector—everything from office buildings and schools to the “cold chain” that keeps our perishables from perishing—accounts for the rest of our energy use [10 quads?].

If we are to cut emissions in half this decade—an imperative—we’ve got to cut fossil fuel use in big chunks, not small ones. For Griffith, this means leaving behind “1970s thinking” about efficiency: don’t waste time telling people to turn down the thermostat a degree or two, or buy somewhat smaller cars, or drive less. Such measures, he says, can slow the growth rate of our energy consumption, but “you can’t ‘efficiency’ your way to zero”:

Let’s stop imagining that we can buy enough sustainably harvested fish, use enough public transportation, and purchase enough stainless steel water bottles to improve the climate situation. Let’s release ourselves from purchasing paralysis and constant guilt at every small decision we make so that we can make the big decisions well.

“A lot of Americans,” he insists, “won’t agree to anything if they believe it will make them uncomfortable or take away their stuff,” so instead you have to let them keep that stuff, just powered by technology that does less damage.

By “big decisions” he means mandates for electric vehicles (EVs), which could save 15 percent of our energy use. Or electrifying the heat used in houses and buildings: the electric heat pump is the EV of the basement and would cut total energy use 5 to 7 percent if implemented nationwide. LED lighting gets us another 1 or 2 percent. Because electricity is so much more efficient than combustion, totally electrifying our country would cut primary energy use about in half. (And simply not having to find, mine, and refine fossil fuels would reduce energy use by 11 percent.)

Of course, replacing all those gas-powered pickups and oil-fired furnaces with electric vehicles and appliances would mean dramatically increasing the amount of electricity we need to produce overall—in fact, we’d have to more than triple it. We’ve already dammed most of the rivers that can produce hydropower (about 7 percent of our current electric supply); if we’re going to replace coal and natural gas and simultaneously ramp up our supply of electricity, we have three main options: solar, wind, and nuclear power, and according to Griffith “solar and wind will do the heavy lifting.”

That’s primarily because renewable energy sources have become so inexpensive over the past decade. They are now the cheapest ways to generate power, an advantage that will grow as we install more panels and turbines. (By contrast, the price of fossil fuel can only grow: we’ve already dug up all the coal and oil that’s cheap to get at.) According to Griffith’s math, nuclear power is more expensive than renewables, and new plants “take decades to plan and build,” decades we don’t have.

It’s a mistake to shut down existing nuclear plants that are running safely—or as safely as current technology allows—and it’s possible that new designs now on the drawing board will produce smaller, cheaper reactors that eat waste instead of producing it. But for the most part Griffith sides with Mark Jacobson, the environmental engineering professor at Stanford whose team showed a decade ago that the future lay with cheap renewables, an estimation that, though highly controversial at the time, has been borne out by the steady fall in the price of solar and wind power, as well as by the increasing efficiency of batteries to store it.

Griffith devotes more attention to batteries than almost any other topic in this book, and that’s wise: people’s fear of the “intermittency” of renewables (the fact that the sun goes down and the wind can drop) remains a major stumbling block to conceiving of a clean-energy future. Contrary to these fears, each month brings new advances in battery technology. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the super-cheap batteries being developed that use iron instead of pricey lithium and can store energy for days at a time, making them workhorses for utilities, which will need them to replace backup plants that run on natural gas.

Griffith is good at analogies: we’d need the equivalent of 60 billion batteries a year roughly the size of the AAs in your flashlight. That sounds like a lot, but actually it’s “similar to the 90 billion bullets manufactured globally today. We need batteries, not bullets.”

This renewable economy, as Griffith demonstrates, will save money, both for the nation as a whole and for households—and that’s before any calculation of how much runaway global warming would cost. Already the lifetime costs of an electric vehicle are lower than those of gas-powered cars: Consumer Reports estimates they’ll save the average driver $6,000 to $10,000 over the life of a vehicle. Though they cost a little more up front, at least for now, the difference could be overcome with a reasonably small subsidy. And since most people buy a new car every six to seven years, the transition should be relatively smooth, which is why in August President Biden and the Big Three automakers announced their plans for 40 to 50 percent of new sales to be electric by 2030.

That’s still not fast enough—as Griffith makes clear, we’re already at the point where we need every new replacement of any equipment to be electric—but it’s likely to happen much quicker with cars than anything else. A gas furnace lasts twice as long as a car, for instance. And putting solar panels on your roof remains an expensive initial investment, partly because of regulations and paperwork. (Griffith notes that in his native Australia such “soft costs” are less than half of what they are in the US.)

Happily, he provides the formula for success. The federal government needs to do for home and business energy retrofits in this decade what Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae did for homeownership in the last century, except this time accessible to all applicants, not just white ones: provide government-backed mortgages that make it affordable for everyone to acquire this money-saving and hence wealth-building capacity, and in the process jump-start an economy that would create vast numbers of good jobs. “A mortgage is really a time machine that lets you have the tomorrow you want, today,” Griffith writes. “We want a clean energy future and a livable planet, so let’s borrow the money.”

In short, Griffith has drawn a road map for what seems like the only serious chance at rapid progress. His plan won’t please everyone: he has no patience at all with NIMBY opposition to wind turbines and transmission lines. But I don’t think anyone else has quite so credibly laid out a realistic plan for swift action in the face of an existential crisis.