How Much and What Kind of Energy Does Humanity Need?

By David Schwartzman

“Communism and Science Inseparable!”
— 1962 Soviet postcard, commemorating the Sputnik 1 launch of 1957

Having any remaining chance to keep warming below 2°C, better 1.5°, by 2100 will require rapid and radical cuts in global carbon emissions, starting with the highest carbon footprint fossil fuels, as well as the creation of a global wind/solar power infrastructure. A significantly greater energy capacity than present will be required to eliminate energy poverty now affecting most of humanity as well as to have the capacity for climate adaptation and the sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere transferring it into the soil/crust, bringing and keeping the atmospheric carbon dioxide level below 350 parts per million (ppm). The present global primary energy consumption is equivalent to 18 trillion watts. Meeting the desired goals as well as taking into account population growth will likely require approximately 25 to 30 trillion watts by 2050, with significant reduction in average energy consumption per person in the global North and increase in the global South. The dissolution of the military-industrial complex is imperative to make this energy transition possible in a timeframe for the prevention of catastrophic climate change (C3), simultaneously removing a major blockage to an ecosocialist path out of global capitalism.

Do I dare, as one person out of 7.35 billion now on our planet, prescribe how much and what kind of energy humanity needs? The question posed in the title of this article must of course be answered from humanity’s collective wisdom. Here I will humbly present my vision, from my perspective as an ecosocialist and environmental scientist, that will hopefully lead to serious consideration particularly from those most affected by climate change and energy poverty. I will start with the challenges posed by the appalling weakness of the COP21 Paris Agreement, and will then consider how global energy poverty can be eliminated in the context of a transition to a global wind/solar energy infrastructure that can prevent C3 while there is still a window of opportunity. Finally, I will examine the political-economic obstacles to realizing this prevention program and how seizing this opportunity is simultaneously a path to the “other world that is possible,” the end of the rule of capital on our planet with global ecosocialist transition, and the emergence of solar communist civilization.

The climate and energy challenge since COP21

COP 21 concluded its Paris meeting on December 12, 2015. COP 21 was the 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, a process started in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. Climate justice activists generally have a very critical analysis of its outcome, which I share. However, it should be pointed out that this COP meeting was the first at which virtually all countries have at least submitted their national plans with regard to climate change, subject to periodic review. And in addition, the Paris Agreement is nearly universal, and as such is a symbolic step towards global cooperation and a more peaceful world, despite all its weakness in confronting the ever closer tipping points to C3.

The introduction to the Paris Agreement has strong, even inspiring language:

Recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions;

Also recognizing that deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention and emphasizing the need for urgency in addressing climate change;

Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind,

Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.

Before getting into the provisions of the Paris Agreement, the greenhouse gas emissions and their sources should be identified. Roughly 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil-fuel use, with coal, natural gas (due to methane leakage into the atmosphere), and tar sands oil having the highest carbon footprint. Conventional liquid oil has the lowest carbon footprint, about three-fourths that of coal. The other greenhouse gases derived from human activity include nitrous oxide (the breakdown product of nitrate fertilizer), with carbon dioxide and methane also coming from agriculture, particularly from cattle. This contribution to global warming makes a transition to ecologically-based agriculture imperative.

The Paris Agreement, despite its goal of limiting global temperature increase, sets no penalties for failing to achieve the Intended National Determined Contributions (INDCs) to curb greenhouse gas emissions over a projected time period. The agreement involved 176 nations including the biggest greenhouse gas polluters, China, US and EU, which made specific commitments to eventually curb their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to peak them as soon as possible. The agreement requires a transparent review of progress every five years (COP 21, 2015: 22).

Significance of the 1.5°C target

“The fact that the accord prominently mentions the 1.5°C target is a huge victory for vulnerable countries,” says Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “Coming into Paris, we had all of the rich countries and all of the big developing countries not on our side,” says Huq, an adviser to a coalition of least-developed nations. “In the 14 days that we were here, we managed to get all of them on our side” (Tollfeson and Weiss 2015). However, Climate Interactive, a major monitor of climate change based on the INDCs from the top carbon emitting countries, projected warming of 3.5°C (6.3°F) by 2100 ( The UN gives a somewhat lower projected warming of 2.7°C (4.9°F), still almost 1°C higher than the 2°C limit.1

Several leading climate scientists think that the 2°C limit is too high. For example, NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen said “aiming for the 2°C pathway would be foolhardy,” because of projected impacts such as sea-level rise and acidification of the ocean (Hansen et al. 2013). His assessment is reinforced by a newly published study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Drijfhout et al. 2015). This evidence strongly backs the long-term demand of many poor countries for a 1.5°C limit, recognizing that the severe weaknesses in the Paris Agreement make this goal a huge challenge.

China is the world’s leading carbon emitter, almost double that of the second-place US. The big three, China, US, and the European Union, produce 55 percent of global total carbon dioxide emissions. China has committed to leveling off its emissions by 2030 (using carbon emission trading), while the U.S. promises to reduce its greenhouse emissions 26-28% by 2025 relative to 2005 emissions. As Naomi Klein has recently pointed out (2014), citing the assessment of the Tyndall Centre on Climate Research, the US goal falls far short of what is required for even the 2°C goal, which would require reductions of at least 8 to 10 percent per year.

Projected warming in combination with lackluster efforts to cut emissions has created an imminent crisis. This is the reality check for serious activists. Any remaining possibility of keeping warming below a dangerous level will require rapid and radical cuts in global carbon emissions—starting with the highest carbon footprint fossil fuels—and the simultaneous creation of a viable global wind/solar power infrastructure.

The Agreement also included a commitment to $100 billion a year in climate finance for developing countries no later than 2025, and to further finance in the future, requiring  “a new collective quantified goal from a floor of USD 100 billion per year, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries” (COP 21, 2015: 8). Climate scientist Jim Hansen commented, “It’s a fraud really, a fake… It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2°C-warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned” (quoted, Milman 2015).

Since 2009, US State Department chief negotiator Todd Stern successfully steered the negotiations away from four essential principles: 1) ensuring that emissions-cut commitments would be sufficient to halt runaway climate change; 2) making the cuts legally binding with accountability mechanisms; 3) distributing the burden of cuts fairly based on responsibility for causing the crisis; and 4) making financial transfers to repair weather-related loss and damage following directly from that historic liability. Washington elites always prefer ‘market mechanisms’ like carbon trading instead of paying their climate debt even though the US national carbon market fatally crashed in 2010 (Bond 2015).

“According to the IPCC holding warming to 2°C will probably require emissions to be cut by 40–70% by 2050 compared with 2010 levels. Achieving the 1.5°C target would require substantially larger emissions cuts – of the order of 70–95% by 2050…” (Reyes 2015). There is still a window of opportunity to keep warming below 1.5°, but it is vanishing fast (Rogelj et al. 2013). A rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, starting with those with the highest carbon footprint, coupled with a full transition to a wind/solar power infrastructure should be a global objective. This approach even has the potential to keep overall warming below 1.5°C, in a roughly 25-year transition, if it begins robustly in the near future and is combined with carbon sequestration from the atmosphere.

What is the way forward for Climate Justice?

COP21’s shortfalls, far from immobilizing the climate-justice movement, appear to be reenergizing it. Building on recent victories such as the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline by President Obama, the movement is continuing its struggles around energy projects with high environmental/ecological footprints. Moreover, cities around the world are taking more aggressive steps to curb their greenhouse gas emissions and transition to renewable-energy supplies. But the problem is larger than COP21; unless the climate-justice movement rapidly broadens its scope by first identifying the biggest obstacles to implementing a prevention program, humanity will face a very bleak future.

Energy Poverty and its Elimination

Primary energy consumption, now equivalent to a global value of 18 trillion watts, is the total energy produced, including waste heat, by society. Watt is a unit of power which equals energy supply divided by the time it is received. Hence the global primary energy consumption in one year is now 18 trillion watt-years. The consumption per person in a nation is the total consumed divided by its population and captures how much energy is being used for health and education. Reaching a minimum 3.5 kilowatt/person in primary energy consumption is necessary but not sufficient for acquiring the highest life expectancy, noting that several petroleum-exporting countries in the Mid-East as well as Russia fall well below this value (see Fig. 1). Life expectancy for the United States is likewise below most industrial countries of the global North, now tied with Cuba, ranking 34 in the world. Income inequality is robustly correlated with bad health and must be reduced to achieve the world standard life expectancy and quality of life (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009; Kawachi and Kennedy 2006). The standard measure of income inequality is the Gini coefficient (named after its designer), which ranges from 0 (lowest level of inequality) to 1 (highest level).

Energy poverty in Africa is widespread, for example, with Nigeria, Mozambique consuming 0.9 and 0.3 kilowatt/person respectively, and having corresponding life expectancies of 54 and 53 years. Two exceptions are Libya (pre-2011 regime change) and South Africa with 4.3 and 3.1 kilowatt/person, respectively, and corresponding life expectancies of 75 and 59 years. Significantly South Africa has very high and Libya under Gaddafi had very low income inequality, as measured by their Gini index.

*; World Health Organization, data from 2013, published 2015)
^Libya: pre-2009; Other countries: 2012-2014
# income_equality; year of most recent data available, except for Libya and Cuba: posted November 2012.

Supplying the minimum 3.5 kilowatt/person for the present world population of 7.35 billion people would require a delivery equivalent to 26 trillion watts compared to the present level of 18 trillion.

Ted Trainer (2014), a prominent advocate for a global reduction in energy consumption, is skeptical of the 3.5 kilowatt/person minimum, arguing that a “satisfactory quality of life does not require 3.5 kW [per capita].” But “satisfactory” means what? A lower life expectancy than the highest now achievable, with the implication that most of humanity must settle for less while the privileged elites in the global North get the best health care? In contrast, I have rested my case on the following imperative: every child born on our planet has the right to the state-of-the- science life expectancy now shared by a few countries in the global North, not simply a “satisfactory” quality of life (Schwartzman 2014).

The 3.5 kilowatt/person minimum is approximate, but I think is a very plausible value for a first-order global estimate. Life expectancy is a more robust measure of quality of life than the Human Development Index (HDI), which includes gross domestic product per capita in its calculation. Note that Cuba, a country that does remarkably well in health and education has a life expectancy now equal to the United States, while Cuba’s energy consumption per capita is 1.2 kilowatt/ person, and the US 9.6. Cuba, a country on the ecosocialist path with respect to agroecologies and renewable-energy development in rural areas (Murphy and Morgan 2013), suffers from energy poverty and its associated scarcities! Judging from the graph of life expectancy versus energy consumption per capita by nation (Fig. 1), the minimum necessary for the present world-highest life expectancy is now plausibly between 2.8 and 3.5 kilowatt per capita but closer to the higher value for a global average, with the highly urbanized Hong Kong near the lower value (Schwartzman and Schwartzman 2013). A value closer to 3.5 kilowatt per capita for a global average better captures the impact of regional climate on energy consumption, both for air conditioning in very warm climates and heating in very cold. Note, for example that Iceland (Arctic climate) ranking 9 in the world with respect to life expectancy, consumed 22 kilowatts per capita. As the global climate warms, the energy demand for the global South, where most of humanity lives, is expected to increase, out-weighing a decrease from lower heating needs in high latitudes of the global North.

While the US and several other countries, with wasteful excess per capita consumption, surely need to reduce their energy consumption, recognizing that pockets of energy poverty exist even in the global North, most of the global South requires a significant increase to achieve “state of the art/science” quality of life.

A shift to wind- and solar-generated electricity as energy sources should ultimately reduce the required power level by roughly 30% once a global system is created, given the greater 2nd-law efficiency of solar versus fossil fuels, i.e., the fact that solar requires less energy than fossil fuels to do the same work (Jacobson and Delucchi 2009; Jacobson et al. 2014). For example, an electric car charged by solar-produced electricity requires less energy to move than does a gasoline-powered vehicle, in which a large fraction of the energy that is generated merely heats the engine.

Why Wind/Solar Energy should be used to eliminate energy poverty

Fossil fuel combustion and the lack of clean energy are killing millions of people across the globe every year, especially in Asia. Recent estimates point to 3 to 7 million people dying each year from air pollution (UNEP 2014; Lelieveld et al. 2015), with 1.6 million of them from China alone (Rodhe and Muller 2015). In the US, numerous epidemiological studies have found a strong linkage between air pollution and childhood asthma, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Indeed, even climate change deniers can appreciate the shortening of life from air pollution, though one should not underestimate the depth of delusion driven by the rightwing corporate sector regarding both climate change and environmental health. The fierce attack on the EPA’s ozone standard is a prime example. Regardless, connecting the dots between fossil-fuel consumption and adverse health impacts from air pollution is a fertile strategy for highlighting environmental injustice and strengthening the movement against climate change both in the US and especially in the global South.

Mark Jacobson’s group at Stanford University has demonstrated the technical feasibility of a rapid global transition to renewable energy (Jacobson and Delucchi 2011; Delucchi and Jacobson 2011). Together with Peter Schwartman, I have modeled a global solar transition with simulations that included values for the energy return over energy invested (“EROEI”) for state-of-the-science wind/solar technologies, i.e., the amount of energy that a technology such as a photovoltaic array or wind turbine generates in its usable lifetime divided by the energy needed to construct it and maintain it (Schwartzman and Schwartzman 2011). State-of-the-science EROEI values of current technologies for wind turbines range from 20 to 75, for photovoltaics greater than 10, and for concentrated solar power (CSP) 7 to 40. Ours was apparently the first study which computed the necessary non-renewable energy (mainly fossil fuel) needed to create the renewable capacity in a solar transition scenario. The critical factor that leads to exponential growth of this renewable-energy supply is the feedback of energy from the growing renewable capacity back into the physical economy to create more of itself.

In our modeling study, assuming a composite EROEI of 20-25, we demonstrate that with only 1 to 2% of the current annual consumption of energy (85% derived from fossil fuels) being used for wind/solar power creation per year, we can achieve a global-scale transition in no more than 30 years, with the complete elimination of anthropogenic carbon emissions derived from energy consumption to the atmosphere and the provision of the minimum per capita energy consumption level required for state-of-the-science life expectancy level for all. In a follow-up study we show that this solar transition has the capacity to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide level below 350 ppm in this century (Schwartzman and Schwartzman 2013).

The material resources and land area needed for global solarization are already within reach:

1. If 15 percent of present world rooftop area were to be used to site photovoltaics with an assumed conversion efficiency of 20 percent, the current global electricity consumption would be matched. This calculation conservatively assumes a solar radiation flux corresponding to that of the UK. An estimate of global rooftop area is 3.8 × 1011 m2 (Akbari et al. 2009).

2. A global wind turbine infrastructure could deliver several times the present global energy consumption while not closing off most of the land where it is sited to other uses (e.g., farming), and having small impacts on regional climate, besides replacing fossil fuels (Lu et al. 2009; Marvel et al. 2013; Grassi et al. 2015; Kleidon et al. 2015). Consider the following example, suppose 5 MW-capacity wind turbines supply all this energy, with a 35% capacity factor, i.e., the delivered power is 35% of the “nameplate” capacity of 5-million watts (MW) because of variation in actual wind speed. Then 25 trillion watts (TW) would require 15 million wind turbines produced in 25 years, assuming that the lifespan of this technology exceeds this time-span. In comparison, 51,473 MW of wind turbine capacity was installed globally in 2014, equivalent to 10,300 turbines with 5MW ( Nevertheless, production of 15 million wind turbines (5 MW each) is plausibly within the technical capacity of the global economy, noting that 90 million cars and commercial vehicles were globally produced in 2014 alone (International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers 2014)! It should be noted that state-of-the-technology capacity factors now commonly reach 40 to 50%, requiring proportionately fewer turbines to supply the same energy (IRENA 2015: Figure 4.12). Of course a wind/solar transition usingthe three main technologies listed here wind turbines, photovoltaics and concentrated solar power – would require even fewer turbines. We will revisit the issue of just how much energy humanity will need in the coming decades, taking into account other challenges besides energy poverty.

3. Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) in the Sahara could supply the current global electricity consumption on less than 6 percent of the Saharan land area (TREC 2015), not that CSP should be only sited in the Sahara of course.

Critics of the neoliberal worldview commonly call for an end to economic growth as a necessary condition for ecological sustainability and for any chance to prevent C3 (e.g., Trainer 2011; Anderson 2015). To be sure business as usual” growth will lead humanity to C3. But the qualitative aspects of economic growth are critical in confronting the immediate challenges posed by the threat of C3 as well as the undeniable lack of material consumption enjoyed by the majority of humanity living in the global South – the lack of adequate nutrition, housing, education and provision for health services, but most critically, their state of energy poverty (Schwartzman 2014). One important qualitative aspect of economic growth is the thermodynamic implications of the energy supply to society. The energy base of the global physical economy is critical: global wind/solar power will pay its “entropic debt” to space as non-incremental waste heat, unlike its unsustainable alternatives (Schwartzman 1996, 2008).

The concept of economic growth should be especially deconstructed with respect to ecological and health impacts. It is a composite concept lumping together heterogeneous “products”: weapons of mass destruction, unnecessary commodities, SUVs, bicycles, culture, information, pollution, pornography, or simply more hot air. Advocates of global degrowth with their goal of reaching a zero growth economy, commonly lump all growth into a homogenous outcome of the physical and political economy (Schwartzman 2009, 2012).

Mainly because of its lower carbon-emission footprint compared to coal, the preferred fossil fuel to make a solar transition is petroleum, but only conventional oil, excluding the higher carbon footprint tar sands and natural gas (Howarth 2014), as well as dangerous drilling on deep-water continental shelves and other problematic locations such as rainforests. We estimate that if a robust solar transition begins in the near future, it can be completed in 20 to 30 years using less than 20% of the proven conventional reserves of petroleum, with a potential to limit warming to 1.5°C ( The latter requirement of petroleum and this timescale will be reduced as higher EROEI wind/solar technologies are developed and put in place in this transition. At the culmination of this solar transition, a global increase in energy would be delivered to the world, not a decrease, with many countries in the global North such as the US decreasing their wasteful consumption, while most of humanity, living in the global South would receive a significant increase, reaching the rough minimum required for state-of-the-science life expectancy levels.

Further, with solarization and decarbonation of global energy supplies, recycling and industrial ecologies powered by wind/solar power should greatly reduce the need for mining. For example, recycling rates of the rare earth metals, including neodymium used in wind turbines, is currently very low, less than 1% (Reck and Graedel 2012). Increasing these rates, as well as implementing alternative technologies, could greatly reduce mining for these and other metals used in modern technologies. A growing renewable-energy capacity should be dedicated to the cleanup and repair of the biosphere after many years of assault by the Military Industrial Complex (MIC), as well as the imperative need to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reach the safe limit of less than 350 ppm. In other words a global solar power infrastructure can increase material production and consumption as needed without the negative impacts now witnessed by unsustainable capital reproduction powered by fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Can this transition provide energy on demand to global society?

“Baseload” is the backup supply of energy when a particular energy technology is not operating at full capacity. Commonly, supporters of continued reliance on fossil fuels and/or nuclear power raise the objection that wind/solar power cannot meet the challenge of baseload. But this claim is misleading. Already available reliable and relatively cheap storage technologies, along with tapping into geothermal energy, will facilitate the expansion of these renewables. New advances in battery storage point to the use of common rather than rare elements (e.g. Science Daily 2015). However, a big enough array of turbines, especially offshore, can likely generate a baseload supply without the need to supplement it with separate storage systems. Further, the progressive expansion of a combined system of wind, photovoltaics, and concentrated solar power in deserts will generate a baseload, simply because the wind is blowing and the sun is shining somewhere in the system linked to one grid. Meanwhile, baseload would be backed up by petroleum (with the highest carbon-footprint fuels phasing out first), on the way to a completely wind/solar global energy infrastructure (Schwartzman and Schwartzman 2013).

Is Nuclear energy a carbon-free alternative?

Expansion of nuclear energy, including a reincarnation of fission-powered reactors with new technology, is not the best option to mitigate global warming, nor will it plausibly avoid the well-known negative environmental and health impacts of this energy source. It has often been argued that nuclear power has no effect on climate change because it does not produce global warming gases. But this assertion is not correct since the existing energy infrastructure (mainly fossil fuels) powers all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, including the mining and enrichment of uranium, the decommissioning obsolete reactors, and the construction of new reactors (Smith 2012; Van Leeuwen 2013). Hence, carbon-dioxide emissions result, even though virtually none occur during the actual production of electricity from nuclear power plants themselves. The time necessary to create nuclear power replacing existing energy is on the order of decades, significantly longer than wind/solar with equivalent capacity to supply energy. An example is the Hinkley Point nuclear power reactor, Somerset UK, now under construction with a projected time to completion on the order of a decade, and a minimum cost of 24.5 billion British Pounds. Studies have shown that for the same investment at least six times the power generation capacity could be created with wind turbines, and in a much shorter time (Landberg 2015). Aggressive reduction of greenhouse gas emission with a chance of avoiding C3 requires as rapid replacement of fossil fuels as possible.

Political-economic obstacles to C3 prevention

Within the climate-justice movement, especially for leaders such as Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, there is an ongoing lack of serious confrontation with the critical obstacles posed by militarism and imperialism, both of which are integral to real existing capitalism in the twenty-first century. Aside from the “No War, No Warming” initiative of 2007 during the Iraq war, the climate-justice movement has not spoken to the critical role of militarism and imperialism in both contributing to climate change and blocking the implementation of a prevention program. The major culprit in climate change is not only the fossil-fuel industry but its home, the MIC, which sits at the center of capital reproduction on the planet. With the increasing awareness of the actual practices of the National Security State, Eisenhower’s MIC, now a hundred times bigger, should be reconceived as the “Military Industrial (Fossil Fuel, Nuclear, State Terror and Surveillance) Complex.” The MIC is not simply a lobby as Eisenhower conceived, but an integrated system of production, powered largely by fossil fuels, even as the actual military goes “green,” e.g., uses solar power in its bases around the world.

While Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2014) is a very valuable contribution, especially as a critique of neoliberal capitalism, it fails to identify and map out a plan to overcome the MIC and its imperial agenda, which prevents the establishment of a global cooperative regime to facilitate a rapid curb in carbon emissions and the creation of a wind/solar power infrastructure. Klein briefly alludes to the imperial obstacle in TCE when she identifies the US military as the biggest consumer of petroleum on the planet and points to the US military budget as a potential source of revenue for a prevention program to avoid catastrophic climate change. But most critically, TCE fails to confront why the MIC, at the core of twenty-first century capitalism, is such a huge roadblock to implementing a prevention program. Since global corporations include the main fossil-fuel producers, in a world deriving 85 percent of its energy from this source, their carbon footprint is far greater than that of direct military use. According the figures TCE cites for 2011, the total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of the Department of Defense is less than 0.2% of the global total for that year (data from the International Energy Agency).  The MIC is responsible for a colossal waste of energy and material resources that should be going to meet the needs of humans and ecosystems around the world. Nearly $2 trillion is spent annually on global military expenditures, with the US spending about half the total amount. Even larger are the huge subsidies going to fossil fuels, with indirect costs including health impacts from air pollution already noted (Coady et al. 2015: $5 trillion/year).Furthermore, the nuclear industry is integrated into the MIC, and the threat of nuclear attack is a long-standing instrument of imperial policy. The possibility of a nuclear war continues, with nuclear weapons now being possessed by nine nations, including notable hotspots such as the Mid-East, with Israel possessing several hundred deliverable nuclear warheads. Fulfilling Eisenhower’s 1961 warning, the MIC plays the dominant role in setting the domestic/foreign policy agenda of the big capitalist powers, in particular the United States. But most relevant to the threat of catastrophic climate change is the role of the Pentagon as the “global oil-protection service” of the MIC. The US’s imperial agenda actively blocks the global cooperation and equity required for a successful prevention program on climate change.

The MIC is a continuing block to achieving a global curb on greenhouse gas emissions and a full transition to wind/solar power.  The Pentagon/NATO is the instrumental arm of the Imperial foreign policy of the MIC, so the Pentagon going “green” with respect to energy conservation and use of renewables is simply “greenwashing” its Imperial role. The Pentagon’s recognition of the growing security threat from climate change reinforces the Imperial Agenda and military spending. This is the critical obstacle posed by the MIC, not the sizable, but widely exaggerated greenhouse gas emissions of the Pentagon itself (Schwartzman 2015a). Critical contradictions within capital regarding energy policy should be recognized, and the Green New Deal strategy must capture the “solar” faction of capital into a multi-class alliance to force demilitarization and termination of the perpetual war dynamic.

Does any socialist believe that such a prevention program can be realized as long as the State Terror apparatus is locked in the vicious cycle of violence with its useful enemy, its terrorist antagonist? The relevant strategy — to  build a transnational movement for a Global Green New Deal (GGND) – does not rely on the capitalist market driving “green” capitalist investment; rather it opens the way to a concrete C3 prevention program and a more favorable terrain for global ecosocialist class struggle (Schwartzman 2011). Critical objectives of a GGND include early nationalization of the energy industry in every country, coupled with the decentralization of clean energy supplies with community management and ownership.2

Paradoxically, the vast expansion of the MIC over the past half-century offers new opportunities for its dissolution, because humanity itself is now threatened on multiple fronts by its existence. There is a real possibility that continuing improvements in wind and solar technologies, resulting in dramatic increases in efficiency of capture and conversion, will undermine any remaining perception of legitimacy of the MIC, thereby creating an ecosocialist upsurge of sufficient power to finally put this Moloch back into hell, locking its gates of entry for eternity. The peace and climate-justice movements must be integrally linked; a shift to global demilitarization is a necessary condition for both robust cuts in carbon emissions and a transition to renewable energy on an adequate time scale. And of course demilitarization will open up the possibility of a vast reconversion of global production and consumption.

What is most relevant to a global wind/solar transition is the vast resources, both material and human that would be freed up in demilitarizing the global economy. What about the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)? The BRICS nations are emerging as a potential economic and military counterforce to the Imperial Axis of the US/NATO, but with very contradictory aspects (Bond and Garcia 2015). The BRICS global infrastructure program is in some respects even worse than that of its competitor (Alexander, 2014), particularly in its energy sector with its climatic impacts (note e.g., China’s plan to build more nuclear power plants and its role in helping to finance the South Africa’s Hinkley Point nuclear plant).3  Nevertheless, I will make the following prediction, as crazy as it may sound: as both the highest carbon emitter and biggest investor in wind/solar technologies, China will emerge as the leader of an ecosocialist path for the rest of the world, driven by class struggle of sufficient power growing out of both the huge negative impacts of its industrial infrastructure on its population and the paradox of its capitalist development under the banner of “communist” ideology, with remnants of 20th century socialism still in place.

C3 Prevention as the opportunity to end the rule of capital

How much energy will humanity need to confront energy poverty and prevent C3? More attention should be focused on the message of the climate-justice movement. For example, key players in the present climate-justice movement offer misleading prescriptions for change like the slogan “Keep the oil in the ground” (even worse taken literally is “Keep the oil in the soil”). This prescription ignores energy poverty, and presents an unrealistic framework for change.  Instead the movement should argue first for a rapid phase-out of the highest carbon-footprint fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and tar sands oil), the actual agenda of, using the minimum necessary amount of conventional liquid oil reserves to replace all fossil-fuel consumption with a sufficient global wind/solar power infrastructure. Very welcome is the initiative to create Annex 0, coupled with COP 21, to protect indigenous people from the extraction of hydrocarbons, but it too glosses over this issue.4

What will be sufficient wind/solar power to address humanity and nature’s needs? Short answer: a supply that is capable of terminating the energy poverty that now affects the majority of the world’s people, while simultaneously facilitating climate adaptation, the sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere into the soil/crust, and bringing (and keeping) the atmospheric carbon dioxide level below 350 ppm. Within the near-future context for energy transition, given the present global consumption baseline of 18 trillion watts, the following challenges point to the need for a significantly higher global energy supply than now, even taking into account greater efficiencies possible in a wind/solar energy transition: 1) carbon sequestration from the atmosphere into the soil and crust to bring down the atmospheric carbon dioxide level below the safe level of 350 ppm and maintaining it below this level (the atmospheric carbon dioxide level is now over 400 ppm); 2) clean-up of the biosphere, notably toxic metals and other chemical and radioactive waste from the nuclear weapons, energy, and chemical industries—a heritage of its long-term assault from the MIC; 3) adaptation to ongoing climate change, especially in the global South with its disproportionate impacts.

All three imperatives will require very significant energy supplies from future wind/solar power, incremental to present uses. The actual level of this increment needs study but some preliminary estimates are now available. For example, if 100 billion metric tons of carbon, equivalent to 47 ppm of atmospheric CO2, were industrially sequestered from the atmosphere it would require 5.9 to 18 years of the present global energy delivery (18 TW), assuming an energy requirement of 400 to 1200 KJ/mole CO2 utilizing a solar-powered, high-efficiency source of energy (House et al. 2011; Zeman 2007). This requirement would of course be reduced by the use of agriculturally-driven carbon sequestration into the soil (see Schwartzman and Schwartzman 2011, 2013).

Carbon sequestration from the atmosphere will require a very ambitious program involving a combination of technologies, including the transformation of agriculture to agroecologies, as well reacting carbon dioxide and water with mafic rocks and crust to produce carbonates; this is not “clean coal,” i.e., carbon capture and storage (CCS) (Schwartzman 2016a). The following recent finding is very relevant: “We conclude that CDR [Carbon Dioxide Removal] can be a game changer for climate policy in the sense that it significantly improves feasibility and cost considerations for achieving stringent climate stabilization. It is, however, a complement, not a substitute to the traditional approach of mitigating emissions at their source” (Kriegler et al. 2013: 55; emphasis added). This sequestration program will be imperative for the rest of this century and beyond because approximately half of the anthropogenic (caused by humans) carbon dioxide emissions go into the ocean and biota, which continuously re-equilibrate with the atmosphere (Cao and Caldeira 2010; Gasser et al. 2015).

Efforts to boost sustainable agriculture, specifically with agroecologies and permaculture, are imperative to replace industrial/GMO agriculture, both to confront the challenge of climate change and to eliminate big negatives of the present system of unsustainable agriculture. These alternatives will be very useful in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, burying it in the soil. But some even claim that a transition to sustainable agriculture alone can “reverse global warming” without the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel sources (e.g., Biodiversity for a Livable Climate,, says “We can return to pre-industrial atmospheric carbon levels in a few decades or less, and cool the biosphere even faster than that”). The critical issue is the potential global sequestration flux assuming a complete transition to sustainable agriculture.5 The maximum flux is far too small to achieve what is claimed, even if fossil-fuel emissions cease immediately (see Schwartzman 2015c).

With respect to the need for climatic adaptation, note that a recent study finds “abrupt changes in sea ice, oceanic flows, land ice, and terrestrial ecosystem response, although with little consistency among the models. A particularly large number is projected for warming levels below 2°[C]” (Drijfhout et al. 2015: E5777). The costs of climate adaption are already near $50 billion per year and are expected to rise exponentially with ongoing climate change, especially in the developing countries (Dougherty-Choux 2015).

A greater energy capacity than present will likely be required to realize these objectives. Even with a complete transition to a global wind/solar power infrastructure by 2050, including its roughly 30% gain in efficiency, at least 22 trillion watts will be required to guarantee the minimum energy per person necessary for a state-of-the-science quality of life (3.5 kilowatt/person x 0.7 x 9 billion people; note that the latest United Nations (2015) projection for 2050 is 9.7 billion people). Additional capacity will be necessary especially for ongoing carbon-sequestration from the atmosphere and climatic adaptation, with the total required likely approaching 25 to 30 trillion watts. This approach is imperative because these applications will require extra capacity being created as early as possible, given the physics of greenhouse gas forcing (Matthews and Caldeira 2008).6

Some climate-justice activists accept the collapse of civilization and call for a radical reduction in global energy consumption regardless of its impact on humanity. For example, Derrick Jensen (2012), an extreme anti-extractionist, calls for an immediate shut-down of all oil wells (taking “keep the oil in the ground” literally). This strategy is extremely problematic. Its implementation would prevent a solar transition with the capacity to both eliminate energy poverty and work through the climate crisis. Only a global clean-energy infrastructure supplying more energy than is now produced has the capacity needed for ongoing climate adaptation and the sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere as components of a C3 prevention program.

A global wind/solar transition replacing present unsustainable energy supplies must be parasitic on these supplies, just as the industrial fossil-fuel revolution was parasitic on biomass (plant) energy, until it replaced the former supply with sufficient capacity. Liquid oil, with the lowest carbon footprint of the fossil fuels, is the preferred energy source to make this renewable-energy transition. With the creation of a cooperative global regime on climate change, each nation will have an opportunity to fully benefit from this transition, while contributing resources compatible with their naturally existing oil, wind, or solar resources. Thus, oil-rich countries (e.g. Venezuela [Schwartzman and Saul 2015], and countries in the Middle East) will be valuable partners in this transition, only possible by creating a cooperative global regime, with the dissolution of Military Industrial Complex (“MIC”) and its imperial agenda at the core of 21st Century Capitalism. The struggle to create this regime must begin in our world dominated by capital. To simply say capitalism must be replaced by socialism is to express a goal, not a strategy. To claim that capitalism must be first replaced by socialism to prevent catastrophic climate change is a cowardly rejection of responsibility to living and future generations.

However, to simply rely on green capitalism to implement a prevention program using the usual market-driven mechanisms is a recipe for disaster. Global greenhouse emissions continue to climb because market-led renewable-energy growth is much too slow to replace fossil fuels in the short window of time remaining, and fierce corporate resistance continues to block the replacement of industrial/GMO agriculture by agroecologies.

In TCE, Klein outlines the radical reforms necessary to avoid climate catastrophe, including components of a Global Green New Deal, a UN proposal from 2009. This is a good start. But she fails to name a real alternative to unsustainable capitalism — ecosocialism, the only viable socialism of the twenty-first century. Nor does TCE provide a concrete vision of the “other world that is possible” after capitalism is eliminated on our planet; neither ecosocialism nor its leading thinkers are even listed in the index. Perhaps Klein’s omission is strategic — that she’s fearful of stepping too far ahead of popular consciousness, even within the broad climate-justice movement. Klein vividly describes the myriad climate-justice movements whose struggles constitute class struggle even if the global political Subject they encompass is not yet fully conscious of itself. Only when this consciousness emerges will we have a chance to avoid climate catastrophe. But there are very encouraging signs that this Subject is being born, e.g., the Leap Manifesto from Canada (

Peter Frase (2015) conceptualizes class power in relation to the workplace, arguing that “the strengthening of the working class both inside and outside the workplace becomes the force that pushes us toward the utopian ideal of a post-scarcity society and the abolition of wage labor.” Meanwhile, in an essay on Marx’s “Fragment on Machines,” Jim Davis (2000) discusses capitalism as it evolves into a production system that largely eschews human labor, as the productivity of technology overwhelms the production process.[7] He says, “The end of Value is not automatic, but a conscious act by class forces born out of the new conditions…. This is how Value will end — as a political act, the exercise of class power.”

Jeremy Rifkin (2014) and Paul Mason (2015) both see the ongoing increase in productivity growing out of both high efficiency, renewable-energy and information technologies as a serious potential basis for the system beyond capitalism. But only global class struggle has the capacity to realize this potential for all of humanity and not simply a privileged elite living in gated communities. Jodi Dean (2012) reasserts the vision of radical materialist utopia that has been buried, reburied, yet never extinguished.

But the communist horizon in the twenty-first century, if indeed there is one, will be solar communist (Schwartzman 2009: 31). Why solar communism? Solar is by far the most abundant source of energy and the technologies to harness it are already in use. And, given a robust social management process during its lifecycle, solar also has very low negative health and ecological impacts. Moreover, a global transition to solar is actually achievable in a time frame to avoid C3, and under real existing capitalism solar is the energy source most compatible with decentralized, democratic management and control, relatively free of the dictates of the MIC compared to fossil fuels and nuclear power. Solar Communism is thus a viable vision of a global civilization realizing Marx’s aphoristic definition of communism for the 21st century: “from each according to her ability, to each according to her needs,” referring to both humans and ecosystems (Schwartzman, 1996). This vision has nothing in common with the stereotype of one-party dictatorships; it is the realization of bottom-up struggles for ecosocialist transition, a profoundly democratic process.

Socialist theory has long lacked a full conceptualization of the technological basis of an ecosocialist transition to a future global society. An historical materialist theorization of this transition and a vision of this future global society should encompass its full materiality, in both the technological and social senses of that term. Socialist or Marxist political economy cannot theorize this transition by itself. The natural, physical and informational sciences — in particular, climatology, ecology, biogeochemistry, and thermodynamics — must be fully engaged. These sciences will inform the technologies of renewable energy, green production, and agroecologies, whose infrastructure are to replace the present unsustainable mode.

The dissolution of the military-industrial complex and its conversion to a sustainable physical and political economy is simultaneously a requirement for preventing catastrophic climate change and removing a major blockage to an ecosocialist path and the end of capitalism. Let us dare to make this a reality while there is an ever-diminishing window of opportunity.


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Figure 1: Life expectancy at birth (years) versus Energy use per capita.

Source of data: (data from 2009); List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy (posted 2012)



2. Trade Unions for Energy Democracy: See also Schwartzman 2015b, 2016b.

3. South Africa also hosts the world’s two largest coal-fired power stations now under construction, with no objection by Pretoria’s environment minister, Edna Molewa. She regularly approves increased (highly-subsidized) coal burning and exports, vast fracking, offshore-oil drilling, exemptions from pollution regulation, emissions-intensive corporate farming and fast-worsening suburban sprawl” (Bond, 2015).

4. the-oil-in-the-soil/679-it-is-time-to-create-annex-0

5. Carbon flux is the ratio of carbon absorbed by plants relative to that respired by various organisms in that ecosystem.

6. Greenhouse forcings have their origins in the levels of gases that have two properties in common – transparency to visible light, absorption of infrared light (heat).

7. See Marx ([1857-61], 2015) The Grundrisse, 612ff.

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