Will the Energiewende succeed?

The energy transition not only needs to reduce carbon emissions, but also strengthen communities. The gap between social sciences and natural sciences must be breached. Craig Morris explains why.

group of ten people of different ages holding solar panels up in the sunlight in a community garden

Renewable energy can help bring people together (Photo by 1010, CC BY 2.0)

When I am asked whether Germany will reach its goals for the share of renewables and/or carbon emissions, I never know how to answer the question. It could; it’s technically possible. But it won’t unless we expand our concern beyond coal power and start focusing on mobility and buildings today. Cars sold this year will affect the outcome in 2030; new buildings and renovations, the outcomes in 2040 and 2050. I see little effort being made to ensure that all construction and renovation today are carbon-neutral. A focus on behavioral change would help.

Over the past two years, I have worked at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), which brings the social sciences into the discussion. A book I co-authored with Arne Jungjohann (submitted in early 2016) is entitled Energy Democracy because we embed the energy sector in society, specifically investigating political-science findings about what makes Germany different, how its democracy functions comparably well, how the prevailing German philosophy of economics differs from the one in the English-speaking world, and why German conservatives are so often conservationists.

For instance, the recent rise of populism (such as Donald Trump’s election) took many by surprise, but not me and not sociologists. They have been pointing out the disparity between facts and feelings for decades. The American Republican Party increasingly listened to the sociologists – but worked to exploit that disparity, not close it, as the sociologists doubtlessly would have preferred.

Does populism show that democracy can’t be trusted to mitigate climate change? We increasingly hear calls for an “eco-dictatorship.” In calling for immediate, far-reaching action against climate change, James Lovelock said in 2010:

“Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”

In his frightening book Climate crisis and the Democratic prospect, political scientist Frank Fischer provides a wonderful overview (viewable here at Google Books) summing up such prominent voices who have claimed over the past few decades that the crisis of the day – now the climate but previously resources – require that we (temporarily) shut down democracy, which doesn’t move fast enough.

China may be evolving into such an eco-dictatorship. The Chinese are stepping away from coal, building more wind and solar than any other country by far, buying more electric vehicles than anyone else, and Chinese leaders take climate change seriously. They do not coordinate policies with the public. Is that path better?

Technocracy is no answer

Fischer says no, and I concur. No group of experts can speak for everyone, which is why democracy will always be needed.

Take this podcast between Vox’s Ezra Klein and Harvard’s Steven Pinker. They present opponents of nuclear power as being unscientific and irrational. Of course, the country with the most experience integrating solar and wind in a nuclear-rich power supply is Germany, and the Germans have reached a different conclusion about nuclear as part of a mitigation toolbox. As I document in my recent IASS discussion paper entitled Can reactors react? (PDF), the debate in English sounds uninformed today compared to what the Germans were openly discussing a decade ago. Most importantly, calling opponents of nuclear unscientific and irrational does not address the actual issues hampering nuclear power. Klein and Pinker should explain why the French, who are genuinely concerned about climate change, are switching from nuclear to wind and solar – are they really just misinformed?

I’m glad people like Klein and Pinker, though I hold both in very high esteem, don’t make decisions for me. In the spirit of science, maybe we can agree that experiments are needed; some countries can try to keep or add nuclear, maybe even trying to mix it in with wind and solar (which will not work, as they will discover – see my discussion paper). Other countries can go with renewables and leave out nuclear, and we’ll meet in 2050 and see who has fared better.

If there is a golden path to climate change mitigation, experiments will waste time; several degrees of warming may occur. But we don’t agree on what that golden path is, and rather than work out our differences, we agree to disagree (which is not scientific).

Most of all, global action is needed, and there is no global government – not a democratic one nor a dictatorship. The discussion about the need to temporarily bench democracy is therefore beside the point.

So what really matters?

I recently reviewed the novel Unterleuten on the IASS blog. That book really made me realize that that our transition to low-carbon economies is a one-time, fundamental change from the public’s viewpoint. We are currently redesigning our world. That’s exciting, but it’s also not the way we talk about it.

We could ask people: how would you like to improve your community?

Instead, the discussion roughly breaks down into three camps:

  • more technology is needed to save us from our current technology, and renewable energy alone will not suffice;
  • renewables will help us live within planetary boundaries at a high enough living standard; and
  • civilization is on a path to destruction because we will fail to do either of the above.

I roughly fall into the second category. While I don’t deny that we can screw this transition up, I like to remind people where happiness comes from: friendships and community. It specifically does not come from material well-being, at least not once a certain basic level of comfort has been attained (such as clean water, electricity, good housing, and personal safety). So the transition not only needs to reduce carbon emissions, but also strengthen communities and overcome the isolation that people increasingly suffer from (the British Minister for Loneliness could be a step in the right direction).

For instance, moving away from privately owned cars will not only help protect the climate, but also bring people together. Road rage will become a thing of the past. People help those needing assistance hoisting luggage onto a rack on a train. When I bump into someone on a train or bus, we look at each other, and I apologize. We may even start talking to each other. If a small lady needs help hoisting her bag into the overhead rack, of course I help. But you cut me off on a road at your peril. Long commutes, especially alone in cars, make us unhealthy and unhappy.

The need to bring people together is one reason I am skeptical of nuclear power. Up to now, the technology has required too much secrecy, thereby undermining good governance – and hence democracy. It creates a small group of powerful corporations, increasing market barriers for new players and alternative technologies. Communities and citizens have never made their own nuclear power. And nuclear continues to divide public opinion, not rally a population behind an idea the way the Energiewende has in Germany. For decades, France tried to make nuclear power part of a grand vision for the country. Today, the French remain divided over nuclear, and the past two governments have begun efforts to switch from nuclear to renewables. If the French cannot identify with nuclear after all of their experience, why do we think anyone else would?

Finally, I have met numerous people in the past few years who helped negotiate the Paris Accord. They are good folks doing good work. But the Paris Accord mainly reveals how far we have to go, not that we are going faster.

What’s more, the wording of the agreement itself shows how marginalized my focus on social benefits – the need for the transition to create community – still is. Novelist Amitav Ghosh put it best in his book The great derangement when he compared the Paris Accord with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.

So there I stand, a boy from the Bible Belt with a Catholic upbringing and two degrees in English and German literature, siding with a novelist and the Pope in the midst of a climate debate I find too technocratic.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.


  1. heinbloed says
  2. It is just as well that the transition can be carried out both by authoritarian political systems (China, the Gulf states) and democratic ones like Germany, Denmark and Costa Rica.

    Beijing has been pushing distributed solar generation for years, for a purely technical reason: to reduce the transmission bottleneck that comes from building hundreds of big solar and wind farms in remote western provinces. The drive has had limited success, perhaps because rooftop solar requires treating subjects as citizens.

    The British Minister for Loneliness is as yet by herself.

  3. Vivi says

    Here in Eastern Germany, the most likely way for a young adult to die is in a car, on the way home from a party with a group of friends distracting the designated driver. That’s what all those little crosses and shrines are about that you might have seen alongside the rural roads around Berlin. My parents, who generally saw no need to give me any strict rules about things like time to be home and who started pressuring me to try alcoholic drinks under supervision when I was only 14, actually forbade me to ever get in a car with my school friends for the purpose of getting home from cinema or birthday parties, no matter the hour of night or the weather – even though my group of friends was basically teetotal.

    There are many reasons why carpooling makes sense (though my social anxiety plagued self is glad that my living situation means I don’t have to drive at all, as most things of everyday need are reachable by bicycle or walking in this suburb, and we’re connected to Berlin by train), but safer driving is just not one of those reasons.

    Also, I highly doubt that finding about people being happier and healthier in cities. (Aside from the fact that city living is inherently unsustainable – all those “zero emmission” city goal conveniently fail to tally the emmissions caused by transporting food and other goods into the city and wastes out.)
    I still remember vividly the first day when I travelled into the inner city of Berlin after years away in a small college town by the sea. It was several degrees hotter than in my suburb surrounded by forest and waterways, the air was so bad it made my eyes burn, and I found myself distinctly missing greenery just from a visual standpoint. I got used to it eventually, over the course of several years of daily trips into the city, but at first it was a shock. And my elderly uncle’s health improved markedly when he moved in with us after living alone in Berlin, even despite his hayfever. Plus, I certainly would be in even worse shape mentally and emotionally if I had to worry about paying rent, had to argue with a landlord about repairs and renovations, didn’t have access to the therapeutic effects of gardening (without having to abide by constricting, order-obsessed allotment garden rulebooks), or if I was still forced to use the unsafe-for-women city train system late at night. (In contrast, I’ve never felt unsafe cycling home from the cinema around midnight from the next town over, or even taking a lonely stroll around the well-lit nearby streets at 4 o’clock in the morning. Even the fear I felt daring myself to enter the edge of the forest at such a nightly hour was just an instinctual monkey reaction and some minor worry that I might trip over a root in the pitch dark, not the reasonable fear of getting assaulted by someone using the high population density and trap-like built environment of a city – e.g. the 5 minutes in a moving, almost empty train compartment between stations – to hunt for likely victims.)

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