The Old Switcheroo

It was as a member of the Jackson School for Geosciences that I was invited to see an early screening of the documentary movie Switch (along with a Q&A with its narrator and guiding spirit, Dr. Scott Tinker).

But it was as a sustainability journalist that I attended.

The short version of my review is that this is a movie not to be missed (*), but also a movie not to be believed.

(The asterisk is about the cringeworthy appearance of Richard Muller among the interviewed experts, about which more below.)

What to expect is the energy sector standing up for itself. Not the CEOs or the shareholders, not the lawyers or the accountants, but the engineers, the ones who see not only the inescapable necessity for an uninterrupted energy supply but also the enormous scope, scale and competence of the enterprise that pulls it together every day. The film does a good job of conveying the heroic aspects of the technical problem of producing enough energy, every day, without fail, for modern civilization to proceed as it has.

We got a good tour of most of the viable alternatives. (Promising blue-sky alternatives like algae and thorium reactors were not discussed.) But solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind, hydro, hybrid engines, oil, gas, coal, nuclear, and conservation all had their turn at bat. And in each case we got treated to some stunning visuals of state-of-the-art facilities (well, for conservation we got glimpses of Tinker’s none-too-shabby Austin homestead) and a cogent introduction to the main technical challenges in each domain.

The Texas Railroad Commissioner (who, to the amusement of all concerned, is the cabinet member in charge of mining safety and has no railroad-related duties to speak of) appeared on screen to double down on his claim (which I reported a couple of years back) that there have been precisely zero instances of fracking (or its precursor technologies, which have been used in Texas for a long time) polluting ground water at all, whatsoever, ever.

I still have my doubts on that. Still, I can report from the conversation after the movie that the energy community has very similar feelings toward the movie Gasland and its promoters as regular readers here will have toward the producers, say, of the Great Global Warming Swindle movie. This fact was an eye-opener for me.

To be fair, the global carbon problem was not exactly given short shrift. In every segment, the carbon impact of the given technology was mentioned. Carbon dioxide accumulation was acknowledged to be a problem. If this film, rather than Heratland Institute lies, is used in public education, at least the whole idea of a “hoax” or a “scam” will not be reinforced. But…

But it was quite disturbing to hear the old tales about natural gas being so much less carbon intensive that coal, ignoring the leaks in the production and distribution process.

And it was demoralizing in the extreme to see Richard Muller pop up on the screen as the closest thing to a climate expert. Muller, presented as a physicist and author of “Physics for Presidents” simply asserted that alternatives to fossil fuels are “too expensive” and that we have to adapt to “a few degrees” of global warming.

And after all the interesting and inspiring views of the enormous scale of the energy enterprise, the film gets to its bottom line: If we consider nuclear power and natural gas along with renewables as “alternative” fuels, we will probably see “alternatives” overtake coal and oil (i.e., produce 50% of all power) by 2060 or so.

Anybody besides me see a problem with that?

This was presented on a graph with a percentage axis, which neatly hides the growth in total energy use as the rest of the world advances to twentieth-century industrialized nation levels of prosperity. To the casual viewer, then, it seems like a gradual decline in fossil fuel use is indicated, but in fact, the graph of ┬áthe “switch” indicates a growth in absolute carbon emissions for a very long time to come.

This is the energy industry’s “reasonable” position. It’s presented with slickness and polish. And it’s wrong.

If you get a chance, do watch this movie. It tells you a lot about engineering, and production, and about all the hard workers on whom you rely every day with little thanks sent their way. It gives you an idea of the scale of the system that needs changing. It even admits that it needs changing. And to its credit, it argues for openness and informed debate.

So watch it, but don’t believe it.

“The correct target for carbon emissions is the same as the correct target for beating little old ladies” as Caldeira says. Net carbon should be at zero or below by 2060 or so, NOT right where it is or higher. More is at stake than our economy.

The Switch movie comes with bait.



  1. "We got a good tour of most of the viable alternatives. ... solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind, hydro, hybrid engines, oil, gas, coal, nuclear, and conservation all had their turn at bat."

    What you're really saying is that the film is one whole generation out of date. This is the sort of thing we should have been seeing from the time those solar panels went onto the White House roof. Some of the technology now on display would have been just a gleam in an over-excited engineer's eye at the time, but the message would have been much the same.

    And if we'd started properly then, gradual, steady and expanding would have been the way to go. Not any more.

    The fact that one of those historic panels is now displayed in the foyer of a Chinese solar panel manufacturing facility tells us a lot more than we really want to know. About ourselves, and about the pickle we've got ourselves into.

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