Energy Is A Dynamic System We Cannot Just Paint Green

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Allison I. Villegas Roman, C+S ’17

Source: Department of Energy

Hi, my name is Allison, and I am a millennial. And in case you haven’t heard, millennials are always either on their phone or their computer, and I’ll admit I am. Between work, school, and just wanting to keep up with the world, I easily spend more than 12 hours online. And living in Manhattan it is relatively easy for me because I am surrounded by an energy rich infrastructure.

Energy has always been a hot topic and with good reason. Historically, access and production of energy has been vital for economic development. But with the increasing threat of climate change, our relationship with energy has been changing. It is important that we focus on our relationship with energy and the symbolic value we have placed on certain types of energy in order to move forward.

I was at my internship at the Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) at Columbia University when President Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris Accord. I realized at that moment how lucky I was to be surrounded by so many different energy experts because of the plethora of information and opinions being spouted everywhere. It is easy to be overwhelmed and not want to engage. And that is the danger, people thinking that energy is this narrow scope that only impacts one group of people.

Energy is a topic so broad that I had to look beyond my lenses and see how deeply woven it is in international relations and decision making. When you look deeper at the complexities of global economics and development, you start to see that energy — especially more traditional sources such as oil and new sources such as shale gas — shape the politics of people’s lives. While being a strong proponent of renewable energy — and I believe their capability will only continue to grow — I cannot turn a blind eye on the role that fossil fuels have in the global energy system.

Exploring the dynamics of international and domestic energy markets and trends has helped me better understand some of the energy problems around the world. That said, it’s still a small slice of the bigger issues at hand.

Russia wants to build a new pipeline to Europe called Nord Stream 2, but it’s not a cut and dry done deal. Some European countries view it as a beneficial means of transporting energy, while others see it as a political strategy for Russia to shift the transport of oil from Ukraine into the European market. Venezuela has been experiencing months of escalating protests. The country’s oil output of has decreased from 3.3 million barrels per day in 2006 to 2.4 million in 2016. Oil exports have plummeted by 40 percent in the last three years alone. Venezuela has one of the largest oil reserves in the world and oil has been a foundational component of the nation’s economy. The country has been experiencing a severe shortage of food, medical supplies, and resources.

Qatar has found itself boxed in by its neighbors after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt enacted diplomatic and economic sanctions. The conflict between these Gulf States is mounting, and the future of the region remains uncertain. A couple of miles west, Gaza is experiencing a severe energy crisis. Residents often have less than five hours of electricity each day making normal life nearly impossible. The U.S. has experienced a shale oil boom since the mid-2000s leading the U.S. to become a major exporter of liquid natural gas. Also, The U.S. is working to move forward in establishing a more secure interconnected electricity grid system with Canada and Mexico. In President Trump’s speech on the Paris Accord, he said:

“…by 2040, compliance with the commitments put into place by the previous administration, would cut production … [of] Coal … down 86 percent.”

This is a crucial portion of his speech because it demonstrates not only a diversion from current factual evidence but the power in evoking a symbolic past. Published research from CGEP and other agencies have debunked the claim that the Paris Agreement is a primary driver in reducing coal production. Natural gas production and market prices are largely responsible for the decrease in coal.

But President Trump is not looking at science. He is looking at symbolism. It is the system of values around coal that matters to him. Coal has not only been elevated as a symbol of traditional energy in the U.S., but in an ever-changing world, it has become symbolic of an oversimplified connection to energy, identity, and development. But symbolism will not bring back lost jobs or aid in securing a sustainable energy infrastructure.

Here is a riddle:

I come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes you can touch me, other times you can’t even see me. I can shine through the day or be shipped on a boat. But you always need me and you always use me. What am I?

 I’ll give you a couple of seconds to think of the answer. It’s energy. And it shouldn’t be overlooked.

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