Stuck at home with corona, I decided to try my hand at writing science fiction to pass the time. The result was not science fiction at all, but I think it’s still fun to read, so I’m posting it here.
Trevor Norquist, the world’s first trillionaire, died in a fiery explosion. His private jet was hit by a Stinger missile when it was taking off the Köln/Bonn airport. Panic was immediate and widespread: the entire EU closed its airspace in fear of another terrorist attack. Germany erected roadblocks in the area around the airport, searching every single car, and generating monstrous traffic jams.
Videos from the attack made it easy to pinpoint where the missile was fired from: a hunter’s watchtower in the nearby Königsforst. The police was there half an hour after the attack, but the assassin was long gone. He had abandoned the missile launcher there, and nothing else. Forensics went over it with zeal, but couldn’t find anything. No fingerprints, not even a drop of sweat. Clearly they were dealing with a professional.
“How the fuck these fucking eco-terrorists got their hands on a fucking Stinger missile?!” – exclaimed Ernst Dieter, investigator of the Bundeskriminalamt. He was in a terrible mood. Just a week before the eco-terrorists had dynamited the iconic Bagger 288. He was already working overtime to coordinate security for Norquist’s visit. With the threat escalation, the work started cutting his sleep time. He had to get reinforcements from the nearby Hessen. Did anybody know how many forms did he need to sign to get police from another Bundesland to come? And all that because the stubborn prick wouldn’t accept postponing his visit. Norquist’s only concession to reality was giving up on visiting the mines themselves. Still, that left him with the problem of escorting him from the airport to the hotel through thousands of protesters. When he saw the jet taking off he finally relaxed a bit, and dared to dream that he would take the rest of the day off and sleep. “Norquist is not my problem anymore!”, he celebrated, only to have his stomach drop when he saw a bloody Stinger missile hitting the jet.
“We shouldn’t jump to conclusions” – said Robert Weil, his partner – “It doesn’t fit the style of Vergeltung der Klimaopfer, that you insist on calling eco-terrorists. They have never killed anyone before. They insist they are saboteurs, not terrorists”.
“And do you believe their propaganda now? Get serious. They hated the guy more than anything!” – countered Dieter angrily.
“Then why destroy Bagger 288 just before? This only served to increase security” – Weil pointed out.
“Distraction manoeuvre.” – answered Dieter – “It focused our attention on the ground, on the mines, when they knew that the real danger was in the air”
“You are really overestimating their competence.” – dismissed Weil – “We caught the clowns responsible for Bagger 288 in less than 2 days. Both by tracing the explosives they used and the IP address from which they posted the manifest.”
“They are several people, Rob.” – replied Dieter – “They let the idiots handle Bagger 288, and got the real pros to get Norquist, which was the target that actually mattered.”
“I’m just asking you to keep an open mind, Ernst, plenty of people wanted Norquist dead. It could also be the Montenegrins.” – conjectured Weil.
At this moment, both their phones vibrated at the same time. This could only mean something from work, and indeed, it was an email from forensics about the Stinger launcher. It had been tracked to a batch of Stingers that Italy had provided to Ukraine as military help against Russia.
“I knew it!” – Dieter allowed half a smile to flicker through his face – “The fucking Russians gave them the missile.”
“The Russians? Not the Ukrainians?” – asked Weil.
“All the Stingers we gave the Ukrainians are accounted for.” – replied Dieter – “Either safely in storage, used in the war, or captured by the Russians. Guess which ones could end up here?”
“Fair enough, but I doubt the Russians would deal directly with Vergeltung der Klimaopfer” – countered Weil – “Doesn’t fit their ideology, and besides, why not just put the Stingers in the black market? They make a neat profit and don’t get involved in any messy affair.”
“They are involved, and they will pay for this! Selling Stingers to terrorists puts the blood on their hands!” – raged Dieter.
“I’m not sure how we could make them pay. There’s nothing left to sanction.” – replied Weil – “In any case, how many Stingers did they capture in Ukraine?”
After pausing a bit to think, Dieter answered slowly – “Fourteen.”
After a week of interrogating Vergeltung der Klimaopfer members, Ernst Dieter had to admit they probably had nothing to do with the death of Trevor Norquist. His interrogations were tough and produced results, or so he would say. Others would say that he was nothing but a torturer.
“Nonsense,” – he thought – “Torture is illegal, and I’m strictly following the new counter-terrorism law, that allows for enhanced interrogation of terrorism suspects.”
But all the enhancement was for nothing, he still could get no information out of them. “Maybe they really don’t know anything.” – he thought as he released another traumatised student.
“Maybe they are indeed the poorly-organised students that can barely afford legal explosives that they claim to be.” – he thought – “A black-market Stinger must cost millions of euros. And they aren’t point-and-click as an automatic camera, one needs training to handle one. No, we are after a wealthy, well-organised terrorist group with military background.”
Reluctantly, he turned to the other suspects Robert Weil had mentioned, the Montenegrins. That was harder work, as their criminal background was clean, so he had to restrict himself to “gentle” interrogations. Still, they were even worse fits for the terrorists behind Norquist’s assassination than Vergeltung der Klimaopfer. To start with, there weren’t many of them. Even in Montenegro itself, there were less than a million Montenegrins. In Köln he managed to find 10 that joined the anti-Norquist protests. Some of them knew each other, but they were not an organisation in any way, shape, or form, just families making a living. Most had come to Köln a long time ago, during the Yugoslav wars, and a couple more had arrived after Norquist’s rise to power. Besides being elated by Norquist’s death, the only thing they had in common was a lack of money. The rich Montenegrins were those that stayed in Montenegro and profited from Norquist’s regime.
“No,” – he thought – “I have to look at the wealthy people that wanted Norquist dead.” There was no lack of those either. In fact, it was hard to find someone who didn’t want Norquist dead. Even he himself couldn’t shed a tear for Norquist, he was only angry at the assassination because it had been his job to keep him alive. “Maybe his ex-wives and children?” – he considered. Norquist had 9 children by 4 different women, that had already started an epic fight for the inheritance. – “Plenty of people would kill for hundreds of billions of euros, but kill their own father? Just to get the inheritance a bit sooner? No, that’s too absurd. Besides, his family could just poison or stab him. Using a Stinger indicates an external enemy.”
Dieter started considering Norquist’s trajectory from the start. He had been a mostly unknown investor, mainly busy with multiplying the couple of billions he had inherited, until he saw a golden opportunity in fossil fuel divestment. As the planet warmed, more and more big banks decided that the damage to their reputation was not worth the profit, and so cut off financing to fossil fuel projects. To Norquist this meant he could charge them higher interest rates, as they didn’t have much of a choice. He had the capital to spare and no use for a reputation, so he slowly specialized in financing coal power plants and oil drilling in Africa and Asia. The more polluting the better; not because Norquist wanted to pollute the planet per se, it’s just that the specially dirty projects had the most trouble in finding financing, and thus he could charge the highest interest rates.
This worked for about a decade, until the demand for his finance started to dry up. The demand for oil was falling too much, nobody was interested in new drilling. As for coal, the international pressure was getting extreme. Any country that wanted to receive foreign aid had to do the bare minimum about global warming, and so African countries stopped building new coal power plants. Only proudly pariah states such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea were still interested in Norquist’s loans. That was not enough. To compound Norquist’s problems, the price of coal, gas, and oil was hitting rock bottom due to the low demand. This threatened to bankrupt the very projects he had financed, and still hadn’t finished repaying, causing him major losses. This is when he decided he had to create his own demand for fossil fuels. It wasn’t enough to start businesses based on burning fossil fuels, as those were getting banned everywhere. He had to make sure that the law would stay on his side. He had to buy a country.
And so it started his hostile takeover of Montenegro. The country’s GDP was only 15 billion euros, or about 5% of his wealth. Money was therefore not a problem. The difficulty lay in that Montenegro was not for sale, and Norquist had the curious idiosyncrasy that he always respected the letter of the law. He started by buying the aluminium smelter in Podgorica and making a major expansion. The investment didn’t seem to make much sense as electricity in Montenegro was not particularly cheap or reliable, but the government of Montenegro was anyway overjoyed with the huge investment. So much that it didn’t think twice about allowing Norquist to build a massive extension of the port of Bar, under his private ownership, necessary to export the increased production of aluminium. Or about allowing Norquist to buy the Podgorica-Bar railway, in exchange for a renovation. At this point Norquist was in a position similar to Nokia in Finland: he was so important for the economy of the country that when he asked for something, the government listened. And what he asked for was so little: a mere reform of the campaign finance laws, so that anybody could donate as much they want to any politician, without having to make the donation public. In other words, legalized bribery.
After this law went through, things went much quicker. The media market was completely deregulated, and Norquist promptly acquired all the major newspapers, radio stations, and television channels. This ensured his portrayal as the saviour of Montenegro, the man that had doubled the country’s GDP overnight, and the silencing of his critics. The next step was privatising the whole electricity generation system of the country, coupled with complete deregulation, allowing Norquist to deny power to whoever he wanted for any reason. Legalized extortion. This was followed by abrogating the international treaties Montenegro had entered to fight global warming, allowing fossil fuel power plants to be built again. Norquist then built massive coal and oil power plants to power his aluminium smelter. With the price of coal and oil so low, he managed to produced aluminium at a price that even Iceland couldn’t beat. He didn’t stop there: Bitcoin mining, hydrogen electrolysing, Norquist started any energy-intensive industry that he could think of, and built more fossil power plants for them.
By the time the Montenegrins realised that they were losing their country, it was too late. Anybody that dared to oppose Norquist’s plans found themselves subject to a barrage of negative media coverage, highlighting real or imaginary corruption affairs. The recalcitrant ones were forced into economic ruin by strategically timed power cuts. Social media became tightly controlled, and protest was criminalised. Montenegro became a Singapore-style “democracy”: elections were still held, and votes were still counted with strict correctness. It’s just that the government openly retaliated against those that voted against it, ensuring that it always won with huge majorities. Norquist had no taste for fake elections or murdering the opposition like in Russia. No, it was vital to him that the rule of law was strictly respected.
The final touch was a radical reform of the tax code. Norquist had an almost religious opposition to income or property taxes, and changed the state to rely only on consumption taxes, effectively eliminating his own tax burden. This proved wildly popular with the global super-rich, who parked their wealth in Montenegro en masse. The country quickly overtook Switzerland as the country of choice for tax avoidance, and thus became a massive financial centre, rivalling London, New York, and Tokyo. This sudden influx of cash would easily wreck the currency of such a small country, but Montenegro had the unique advantage of using the euro without being a member of the European Union. It thus enjoyed the stability of the currency without having to obey any of the European Union’s regulations.
And thus it came to pass that Montenegro rose from poverty and stagnation to be one of the most wealthy and dynamic nations in the world. It also achieved such an astounding air pollution that one often couldn’t even see the Sun, a feat that had only been achieved before by China in 2012. Internationally, it was a scandal. The brazen disregard for international norms caused it to be hit with sanctions after sanctions after sanctions. It was slowly becoming as isolated as Russia. There was even talk of war. Norquist didn’t care, he had already made his profit. Après moi, le déluge.
He had been yet another billionaire asshole, and now became the most hated person in the entire world. He wore his infamy with relish. He always bragged about being a self-made trillionaire, having started as a mere billionaire. To those that accused him of being unethical, he always replied that he had never broke any law. Deep down he believed that making money was the only measure of morality that mattered. Since he was so rich he must have been doing it right. It seemed to be working, until Norquist flew to Germany to make a deal to buy their brown coal at negative prices, and got hit by a Stinger.
Dieter shook his head. It was going to be hard to find out who killed a man with so many enemies. His primary suspects were still environmental organisations, as he assumed that Norquist’s secret police would neutralise any threat from the Montenegrins themselves. Which organisation, though? So many had been popping up since the climate shit had hit the fan. In Italy there was the Partigiani Padani, a particularly violent one, made from farmers that became destitute as the river Po dried up. In Spain there was Rebel·lió Unida, an unlikely union of Catalans that had been losing Barcelona to the rising sea and Spaniards from the interior, that were spooked as heatwaves claimed ever more, ever younger, and ever healthier lives. In Austria the Österreichische Alpenverein had morphed from a leisure organisation into a terrorist one as the Alps became too hot to climb in the summer and had too little snow to be skied in the winter. In Britain there was one of the oldest, Extinction Rebellion, that had already started as a radical protest group, and turned into bombing campaigns as the collapse of the Gulf Stream made Britain as dry as Spain. And so on, and so on, and so on…
He was proven wrong when another Stinger hit a private jet. This time the victim was Zhang Shaopeng, a Chinese electric vehicles tycoon, that was landing in Warsaw to close a deal to convert its bus fleet from diesel to electric ones. Now Zhang wasn’t a nice person – the reason his vehicles were consistently cheaper than the competition was his passion for using Uyghur forced labour – but he was hardly a prime target for environmentalists. His electric buses alone were responsible for cutting oil demand significantly, and he was the first manufacturer of electric cars that managed to produced them at lower cost than comparable fossil cars. This was a critical point in the transition away from oil: fossil cars became rich people’s toys, and electric cars the financially sensible choice.
“Scheiße!” – exclaimed Dieter – “Not again!”
“It was bound to happen” – said Weil sombrely – “I told the Kanzler that we couldn’t reopen the airspace before we recovered the thirteen Stingers on the loose, or caught the terrorists. But no, the planes must keep flying! Everybody believed that Norquist was the only target. That was just wishful thinking.”
“Fools!” – concurred Dieter – “There’s nothing we can do to defend civilian aircraft, the whole idea is that there will be nobody shooting at them!”
“Indeed.” – added Weil – “Civilian aircraft are sitting ducks. They broadcast their position, don’t have flares, can’t do high-g manoeuvres…”
“Yeah no shit Sherlock.” – interrupted Dieter – “Instead of blathering about military tactics, tell me what the Polish found out.”
Impervious to Dieter’s rudeness after long years of working together, Weil answered calmly – “As you know, everybody has been watching like crazy the forests near airports, and Las Kabacki was no exception. The Stinger was not fired from there, but from a communal garden, Kępa Służewiecka, right next to the Chopin airport. As before, the launcher was abandoned on the spot, but this time somebody saw the assassin.”
“Aha!” – exclaimed Dieter – “So watching the forests was not in vain!”
“Indeed it wasn’t” – agreed Weil – “A Polish pensioner was trimming his hedge when he saw somebody climbing on the roof of a shed a few blocks away. He was a bit surprised, people in the communal garden are usually too old for that. He was even more surprised when the guy put something on his shoulder and stared directly at the airport. He thought it was a TV camera. Then the “TV camera” spit a Stinger and he saw the private jet exploding. Then he got really scared and hid inside the hedge. Got a few scratches from that.”
“I don’t care about his scratches!” – interrupted Dieter – “Do we have a description of the assassin?”
“I was getting there” – complained Weil – “White, tall, strong, short dark hair. The Polish couldn’t get more out of the pensioner, he wasn’t very close and his eyesight isn’t particularly good.”
“That describes half of Europe” – grumbled Dieter – “Doesn’t help much”.
“It does exclude the other half” – Weil pointed out – “You know how Bild has been making noises about Zombie ISIS being behind it.”
“Bild can write whatever nonsense they want” – Dieter replied curtly – “We’re in charge of the investigation, not them”.
“There’s more” – Weil closed his eyes and breathed deeply, his patience wearing thin – “While among the bushes, the pensioner heard a petrol engine starting up and going away.”
“That does make things easier, petrol engines are getting quite uncommon” – Dieter got a tiny bit happier.
“This is Poland we’re talking about, Ernst.” – countered Weil – “Petrol engines are still the majority there. But it allows us to exclude the environmentalists as the culprits.”
“You’ve got to be joking. You think some eco-terrorists would go as far as requiring their assassinations to be carbon-free?” – replied Dieter incredulously.
“I’m dead serious.” – replied Weil – “They are downright religious about being carbon-free. Have you forgotten that time when Partigiani Padani tried to hijack a cruise ship, but were quickly turned into minced meat by the police? It turns out that they were using a carbon-free alternative to gunpowder, which meant that their guns failed more often than not.
“Meh. It’s not as if the eco-terrorists would be after Zhang anyway.” – replied Dieter – “I’m still struggling to see any connection between him and Norquist. Do they have any enemies in common at all? Why would anyone want both of them dead?”
At this point an assistant barged in: “Ernst, Robert, you’ve got to see this. They posted a manifesto.”
“Where? How?” – asked Dieter.
“They uploaded a torrent to ThePirateBay, and have been posting links to it all over social media: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit… it’s spreading like wildfire. Here is the file” – the assistant showed in his tablet.
“For fuck’s sake, it’s 200 pages! And it’s written in German, French, English, and Spanish! Self-important lunatics.” – exclaimed Dieter.
A while later, Weil started summarising:
“They’re promising to “eradicate billionairism” in Europe. They’ve started with the “worst offenders”, but they emphasize that nobody with more than a billion euros is safe. They write that they don’t want to kill anybody, just redistribute wealth, so anyone can stop being a target by giving money away. Then there’s some blah blah about class war, media brainwashing people, democracy being a tool of oppression, and taking direct action. Lots of pages lamenting the death of the staff in the private jets, praising their “heroic sacrifice”, and warning anybody working for billionaires to get away.”
“Communists!” – cursed Dieter – “We’re in 2041 and have to deal with communist terrorists?! What is this, a 20th century revival?”
“It does give a hint to our next target: the richest man in Europe is now Jules Hermet, a French banker.” – replied Weil. He turned to the assistant: “Call Mr. Hermet. His security is not our responsibility, but we can help with intelligence.”
“Come on, the target will certainly not be Hermet!” – interjected Dieter – “Norquist and Zhang were caught by surprise, but how could they possible get Hermet when everybody is expecting them?”
“They could have started with no-name billionaires instead of Norquist and Zhang. It would have been easier, but they went for the spectacle instead.” – countered Weil – “For terrorists it’s only the spectacle that matters. And what would be more spectacular then getting Hermet now?”
“Maybe.” – grumbled Dieter – “But they must also hit the poorest billionaires at some point. If only the richest one is in danger there is no terror. And without terror they have nothing, there’s no way they’ll manage to kill hundreds of billionaires.”
“Maybe.” – concurred Weil – “I wonder what are they hoping to achieve. Do they seriously expect billionaires to give money away?”
Dieter laughed – “Not even these lunatics can believe that. They did specify that they’ll only kill in Europe, so they probably expecting them to flee to the Caribbean or their bunkers in New Zealand or whatever.”
“That makes sense.” – said Weil pensively – “As the number of billionaires here dwindles, the terror increases among the remaining ones, so they might really believe they can make Europe free of billionaires.”
The assistant chimed in again – “Just got a message from the linguistics analyst. She says that the German version of the manifesto has some grammatical mistakes that are typical of native French speakers. She is now trying to find experts in English in Spanish to see if the pattern repeats”.
“French communists, hä!” – exclaimed Dieter – “We are after a French communist soldier. Someone that probably has experience with Stingers, and is no longer active in the military.”
“There can’t be so many.” – concurred Weil – “Let’s ask the French military for a list. Emphasis on those that are working on private security after leaving the military, it’s the perfect cover for a terrorist.”
“Ah these loudmouths. They couldn’t resist posting the damn manifesto.” – thought Pierre Barère annoyed – “at least they agreed to wait until I got the second target down. Otherwise the mission would certainly be a failure. Now it will just probably be a failure.”
His thoughts were interrupted by the train announcing the stop at the station of Lille.
“Argh how I hate trains. Stuck here with all this noise all these peasants. With an airplane at least the torture is over quickly. But no, the airspace is closed. Motherfuckers.” – he chuckled as he realise the non-sequitur – “Ok, no, that’s my own fault.” – he laughed out loud. The feeling of power was good. His good mood quickly evaporated as his thoughts turned to the mission ahead.
“It had to be this fucking country! I had to show my real passport to board the train, and can’t even bring any weapons.” – cursed Barère mentally – “Knives! I have to terminate the target using bloody knives like a street thug. And I don’t even get a car. My “getaway car” is the bloody metro. Argh. Just want to get this over with and move on to the next target, that will be a proper operation with glamour.”
“Two days! Two days to get us the damn list! The bloody French are as stubborn and cranky as always. They act as if they’re doing us a big favour, when we’re the ones trying to save their asses!” – complained Dieter.
Weil ignored the whining and read the report from the IT specialist:
“It’s very promising. There are less than a hundred former soldiers employed in private security, we can tail them all. Most have social media accounts, and of these the vast majority have expressed right-wing opinions. Excluding these, we’re left with 27 suspects. One of them is employed as a bodyguard by the French Communist Party!”
“The French Communist Party?!” – snorted Dieter – “Do they still exist? I thought La France Insoumise had taken over the French far-left completely.”
“Not completely.” – answered Weil – “The communists refused to join. Maybe they still dream about the power they had back in the 20th century.”
“Let’s interrogate this… ” – Dieter looked at the file – “Pierre Barère then.”
“He took the Eurostar to London a couple of days ago.” – replied Weil – “and Jules Hermet is in France. We should focus on the other suspects now. We can always get Barère when he comes back to Schengen.”
“Doesn’t this freak ever leave his house!?” – thought Barère more annoyed than ever. He had installed a microcamera across the street from Frederic Hoyle, to establish his routine. It turned out, there wasn’t one. He saw a man coming every morning and leaving every evening, presumably his butler, but that was it. No sign of Hoyle. Lots of packages being delivered, though.
“I’d never seen such a low-key billionaire.” – thought Barère. “He owns a detached house in London, so he obviously has millions, but there’s nothing else! Where are the armies of servants, the fancy cars, the women, the parties? Is he trying hard to pretend to be poor, or is he just a freak?”
From the satellite pictures he could see a pool in the backyard, but that was pretty much it, no hidden helipad or similar extravagances. The roof was mildly interesting: it consisted entirely of solar panels. Such a large roof must generate a serious amount of power. Barère didn’t think much of it, and assumed that Hoyle was just a clean energy freak.
“This guy is supposed to be richest man in Europe, the secret identity of Satoshi Nakamoto.” – thought Barère dismissively – “At least that’s what the Party says. Not my problem. They gave me a job, I’ll dispatch it, and go back to having fun. The first two targets were a lot of fun, I can’t complain.” – he basked in the memories of firing Stingers for a while, and slowly let his mood sour again as he came back to the reality of being holed up in a hotel in London with no end in sight.
“Am I going to have to break in his house?” – he thought with a tinge of desperation – “The Party couldn’t get the blueprints, or any information about the security system. That would be just foolish. Maybe I’ll catch the butler and beat some info out of him? That’s still dangerous, I’ll just have one night before Hoyle discovers that something is up and vanishes.”
At this moment, his camera showed what he had almost given up on seeing, Hoyle leaving the house.
“That’s my lucky break!” – Barère thought – “He’s alone, I might even manage to end this tonight.”
He ran out of his room, and calmly walked out of his hotel, that was strategically situated between Hoyle’s house and the nearest underground station.
“He’s walking straight towards me!” – Barère couldn’t believe his luck, and tightened the grip on the knife in his pocket.
“This is going to be so easy! Nobody on the street either, even the escape will be easy” – Barère could almost sing, until he noticed that Hoyle noticed him. First Hoyle slowed, then stopped, and then started walking back to his house.
“What a paranoid freak! Who turns around just because they saw someone looking at them on the street?!” – cursed Barère. He kept walking towards Hoyle with the same pace. Until Hoyle looked back discretely, and tightened his pace. Barère also tightened his pace. Hoyle looked back again, and started running at full speed.
“Merde! It’s now or never!” – exclaimed Barère, and started running at full speed as well.
Hoyle was no match for Barère’s fitness, but he had a dozen metres of advantage, with the result that both reached Hoyle’s house at the same time. Barère had jumped with his knife out, aiming for Hoyle’s heart through his back, when the scene became visible to Hoyle’s security cameras. In less than a millisecond Hoyle’s AI correctly deduced that Hoyle was in mortal danger, and fired the house’s weapons.
Those were laser effectors that Rheinmetall had developed for the German Navy, but never used in combat. It turned out that atmospheric dispersion limited their range too much, and the power supply for a 60 kW pulse was too bulky. Neither were problems for a house. Laser effectors also had the critical advantage that they were unknown, and their components passed for research lasers to untrained eyes. As such Hoyle had no problem smuggling them through the British customs, that were extremely effective at blocking explosives and firearms.
The lasers instantly vaporised Barère’s head, while making Hoyle’s skin only slightly warmer. In this respect they were completely successful. The fatal problem was completely unforeseen. While photons do carry momentum, despite being massless, the momentum of even a 60 kW laser pulse was still too small to make any measurable difference for Barère’s headless body, that drove the knife into Hoyle’s heart purely out of inertia.
I’m still going to complain about the misunderstanding of what fossil fuels mean to humanity in the story of Montenegro. This link does the best job of explaining:
Though… I really enjoyed the story. By the end of it, I was thinking about letting go of the complaint and just leaving words of encouragement. In the end, I think the complaint adds to the credibility of the praise. I’m probably as random a person could get reading this blog. I’ve been lurking here from time to time after I found a list of quantum interpretations, I think. I’m too lazy to deal with the math, but I’ve been testing my understanding of the world with some conclusions I found here.
I hope there are more chapters coming.
Thank you for your nice words. I did read your blog post, but I still don’t see what is this misunderstanding.
It’s not my blog, I just think it has a sane view on the fossil fuel story. The story of fictional Montenegro seems to imply that there would be no demand for coal and people will self-limit their emission (Europe contributing 2% of the total) to deal with environmental changes locally. It is inconceivable to me that people would not value the most valuable commodity there is — energy.
The post I linked has links to other posts from that blog. In my estimation, the blog presents proper understanding of the choice architecture here. We are not really at the steering wheel here, evolution is. As for the prices, with falling energy return on energy invested I expect increasing spread and price jumps caused by unprofitable extraction causing unreliable supply.
This part of my story is not fiction. What you find inconceivable has already been happening for years. Coal consumption has been falling for years, and prices have been dropping due to lack of demand. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_phase-out
Coal use has been dropping and that’s partly political. Lots of voters insist that carbon use has to go down, and coal is the worst at that — the burnable part is all carbon. Leaving only about 10% carcinogenic ash contaminated with heavy metals. So if something must be sacrificed to please those voters, coal is an obvious choice. Also, coal miners are concentrated in a few places so their votes matter to a few politicians, while anti-coal votes are spread all over.
Also, coal use is concentrated, primarily for electric power plants and a few other things. So using less coal doesn’t have as may unexpected consequences compared to things that are woven tighter into the whole economic web.
So taxes and pollution controls etc can drive up the price of using coal, and demand is reduced, and coal companies have to sell at lower prices to sell at any volume.
What about the poor coal miners? Don’t they deserve to keep the dirty dangerous jobs that give them black lung? No, nobody much cares about them. They can get some money to learn computer programming or something.
But some places coal is all they have, so they must use it. There’s some tendency to grind up US forests into pellets for Germans to burn in place of coal, but they can only supply so much at a reasonable price, and it just isn’t enough. Germany has to burn coal.
The other choice is to use less energy. Inevitably that means poor people will use less energy, and they will be poorer. That is being done, but it can only go so far before it affects a significant number of people who vote
So it’s important that the energy shortage not get blamed on politicians. The obvious choice is to blame it on foreigners. Russia and Ukraine are having a war which reduces fuel supply. You can blame Ukraine or blame Russia, and either way it isn’t your politicians getting blamed. Blame Saudi Arabia. Blame Venezuela. Blame China. Blame people who believe in climate change, who you think are causing an entirely artificial energy shortage because they are fooled by energy companies that want to make more money. (Or fooled by socialists who want to destroy capitalism. Or fooled by Bill Gates who wants to create a more centrally-controlled big-business economy. It doesn’t matter who’s fooling them as long as you don’t blame the politicians.)
Anyway, I agree with dhill that we are not in control, that probably nobody is at the steering wheel, and evolution will proceed. If the mass extinction continues for another 50,000 years, afterward there will be adaptive radiation over maybe 10 million years and we’ll get lots of new species filling in the ecological niches that wait for them.
I agree that coal is being replaced by natural gas, but I don’t buy the cause. I don’t entirely trust the source here (it seems politically motivated), but I accept “non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies” concept as a working hypothesis and it explains the coal to gas transition very well:
In the end, I think what triggered me is:
1. the narration about banking institutions as moral agents and somebody finding a way to be more “game theoretically” evil,
2. the idea that we can financially control energy industry, which is the foundation of financial system as I see it (GDP growth is almost entirely driven by energy use)
Thanks for engaging, it helps me think clearer about it.
I find it strange to say that coal has been going the way of the dodo for political reasons and simultaneously assert that we are not in control, there’s nothing we can do about it, we’re all going to die.
No, come on, of course we can do something about it, and we are. The demise of coal, the massive expansion of renewables, the replacement of fossil cars with electric vehicles, all that is result of political action because we don’t want to destroy our planet. Granted, it’s much less than what should be done, but to claim that we can do nothing is just denying reality.
As for banking institutions being moral agents, when I wrote “damage to their reputation was not worth the profit” I meant worth literally in the financial sense, that the profit they would make from financing fossil fuel projects would be less than the profits they would lose from a damaged reputation. Perhaps I should have been more clear on that. I’d like to emphasize that divestment from fossil fuels is actually happening, and has increased their cost of capital. Granted, it’s mostly governments and universities that have been divesting, but surprisingly even Goldman Sachs announced some limited divestment.
Subsequent comments from Jonah Thomas have been removed for global warming denial.
I found another link, that resolves the current paradox:
tldr; Energy Cost of Energy is indeed better for “renewables” than for new oil rigs and coal, but… It is *still* a *derivative* of fossil fuels and may change with ECoE raising for fossil fuels. I don’t buy “reputation” as an explanation for Goldman Sachs behaviour. It’s way to too cheap to fake that, not so with 2nd law of thermodynamics.
A measure I’ve found useful is EPBT, Energy Pay Back Time. If you build, say, a solar panel, how long does it take to return the energy used to build, emplace, and maintain it?
These number are unfortunately easy to falsify.
EPBT for solar depends critically on sunlight — the more sunlight they get the more power they produce. In general, they do better the closer they are to the equator. An optimistic view would put average EPBT at about a year in the USA. And an optimistic view would put their lifespan at 30 years. That would give an acceptable ECOE, except for the problem of discounting future energy. A watt thirty years from now is not as valuable to us as a watt today.
In theory we needn’t depend much on fossil fuels to make renewables. In 2021 the USA produced about 1.5% of energy from solar, and more than 3% from wind.
If we could put 2% of our energy into building renewables — less than we get from renewables today — once it was built and paid back the energy in a year, we could keep building more renewable using the energy we get from renewables. Build your solar panel factories in places that get good sunlight, and surround them with solar panels. Etc. If we could double the number of solar panels each year, we could produce as much energy as we’re using now all from solar in 6 years. (1.5 * 2^6) It would be more plausible to feed half the energy into the grid for other purposes, and half to build more solar. Then it’s 12 years.
That assumes we could double every year without running into problems that slowed us down or stopped us. On the other hand, we keep getting better technology. On the third hand, we’d have to adapt to intermittent power. “Make hay while the sun shines.” The USA on average gets about double the sunlight in summer versus winter. So increase the solar capacity by about a third to have enough in winter and twice as much in summer. Increase some more because northern solar panels aren’t as efficient and even less efficient in winter. Move more power usage south….
It might be possible. Maybe the numbers are too optimistic. Maybe climate change will give us a lot more cloudy days. Maybe climate change will give us a lot of great big hailstorms that destroy solar panels. Hailstones the size of grapefruits. Super-hurricanes near the coasts, super-tornadoes inland. There are lots of things that can go wrong. But it could possibly go right.
It looks a lot better than not trying, and I don’t see any other possibly-viable choice than nuclear.
I think, I failed to get my point through. I’m not a coal advocate and it’s not that I hate renewables (as in the title of the post I linked to). I’m all for making it work. All the estimates about solar do not take into account that the mining equipment does not exist in a world without fossil fuels.
Forward discounting is another thing we differ about, it assumes a growing economy (hence growing energy surplus). Right now I’m finishing my house as fast as I can on credit, because I assume the opposite.
The optimism baffles me. I found more great sources on my way for the answer, you might enjoy: https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/ and https://www.notechmagazine.com/
I see fission nuclear with molten salts with lower grades of uranium and then thorium, heavy deployment of heat pumps and some carbon sequestering as the only way that we can avoid a collapse in the next century with the current mindset. Or we would have to change the mindset fast and not be conquered by anybody that hasn’t (the argument about evolution being at the steering wheel).
Mining COULD exist in a world without fossil fuels. We could use electric headlights instead of oil lamps. We could use electric lifts, electric trucks, electric air circulation, etc. We could heat ore with electric arcs. (And some mining did get done before we had fossil fuels.)
People don’t discount the future only on the assumption that we will be richer then. It’s also less immediate. Do you eat the loaf of bread now or do you save it for your grandchildren? It might not last. If you try to hoard it, the government might take it away from you. Your grandchildren might not even live to eat it. And if you’re hungry now and they’re hungry then, maybe you’ll figure you should take care of your problem and they can take care of their problem. Sometimes I wonder if the elites’ refusal to take any meaningful action about climate change is because they don’t see any hope. If you’re drinking the last bottle of wine and there isn’t going to be any more, then you just drink it. No point doing without when you’ve still got a bottle left.
We might benefit from nuclear. I figure we probably don’t have what it takes to build a whole lot of giant new nuclear plants. We inevitably build them slow and expensive, and we’ll have had our crisis and survived or failed before they’re ready to help much. But I could be wrong. It’s hard to be sure what’s inevitable. There’s the problem there could be a big accident. There has never been a big nuclear accident yet, but Chernobyl and Fukushima were moderate-size accidents that caused a whole lot of ruckus. If we get another moderate-size accident it will slow down the program a lot, and if we ever get a big accident then nuclear power will be over. We’ll lose the existing and planned benefits and have to clean up without those resources. That would be bad.
I personally believe that to get a truly workable nuclear program we will need small reactors that can be build on assembly lines in factories. Get a design that works and build them like UAVs or tanks. We would probably need and would probably get automated reactors that did not need superbly-competent operators. Make sure the programming is OK. With small reactors we could test a few hundred of them to destruction before we truly go into production. Find out ahead of time what the worst accident would be like, and how easily and cheaply we could clean up after it.
We can’t really test big nuclear power plants. They’re too expensive, if something went wrong we’d lose too much. And the damage could be too big. With small reactors we could afford to test them and fix whatever problems we have.
But again, I don’t know what’s inevitable. Maybe we could have a great big accident and go along like nothing happened. Maybe by the time it happens people will be ready for that.
I feel the optimism of desperation. I have children and I want them to have a chance to survive. I have nothing to gain by pessimism. If my only hope is that a miracle happens then I will hope for a miracle.
Agree, “small” is a key when it comes to reactors. Agree, nothing to gain from pessimism. Godspeed!