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From Environmentalism to Climate Catastrophism: A Democratic Story (Part 3)
The Triumph of Climate Catastrophism and the Challenge for Today’s Left
The election of Donald Trump threw the climate movement for a loop, as it did all movements on the left. Trump quickly repealed Obama’s Climate Power Plan and withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement. As the planet, they believed, was burning, the country was now being run by a “climate denier”.
Rhetoric from climate activists became increasingly heated over the course of Trump’s term. Organizations emerged to harness the increasingly radical energy around the issue, particularly among the young. In 2017, the Sunrise Movement was formed, whose tagline is “We are the climate revolution”. The intent was to promote a rapid transition to renewables via a Green New Deal that would simultaneously accomplish this transition and turn the US into a social democratic paradise with great jobs and health care for everybody. They focused their energy on allying with politicians who would support that approach and pressuring others to do so. Famously, newly elected House representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined the organization in a sit-in at Congressional offices, greatly elevating its profile.
Also in 2017, David Wallace-Wells’ highly influential New York magazine article, “The Uninhabitable Earth” (later a best-selling book) came out. Its title is clear enough but the subhead said:
Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.
No one in liberal Democratic circles seemed even slightly fazed by the level of rhetoric.
While a number of climate scientists pointed out that Wallace-Wells departed in many places from established findings and deceptively focused on only the worst possible outcomes, the general effect of his work was to raise the profile of climate catastrophism among the general public. As Wallace-Wells repeatedly noted, no matter how much you think you know, it’s “worse than you think”. It was time to contemplate “the prospect of our own annihilation”.
In 2018, a young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg (age 15), came to the attention of the world’s media. She stood outside the Swedish parliament every Friday with a sign demanding climate action (“school strike for climate”). The general tenor of her intervention and her many, many subsequent speeches and interviews as she became a media star was climate change needs massive action now and our political leaders are failing us. The hour is late and we’re on the verge of the apocalypse. In 2019 she gave a widely covered scolding to politicians at the UN that encapsulated her catastrophist stance, increasingly the conventional wisdom of the climate movement.
My message is that we'll be watching you. This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you're doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight…..
How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just 'business as usual' and some technical solutions? With today's emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.
This Vogtian jeremiad was greeted rapturously by the world’s press. But Thunberg was largely pushing on an open door. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had already been talking regularly talking about a “climate crisis” and “climate emergency”. The mainstream media were under pressure by organizations like Al Gore's Climate Reality project, Greenpeace, and the Sunrise Movement to formally adopt the use of such language and align their perspective with that of the activists. Protests led by Extinction Rebellion took place outside the New York Times building to press the point resulting in 70 arrests.
The UK Guardian formally updated its style guide that year to favor "climate emergency, crisis or breakdown". Guardian Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner noted: “The phrase ‘climate change’… sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity." The Guardian became a lead partner of, and 500+ other news organizations eventually joined, Covering Climate Now, an initiative founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and left wing magazine The Nation to promote more and more aggressive coverage of the climate story because humanity has “just 12 years to slash heat-trapping emissions in half or else face catastrophic temperature rise and the record-breaking extreme weather it unleashes.”
This was really quite a significant development and helped shift the entire left of the political spectrum, including the Democratic party, toward the catastrophist view of climate change already held by activists. This view got reinforced endlessly since any unusual weather event was now ascribed by the media to climate change, any new study that suggested dire outcomes from climate change was uncritically covered and even the relatively restrained assessments of the IPCC reports were cherry-picked for the most alarming findings and scenarios. This was typically linked by commentators to the need to radically reduce the use of fossil fuels and immediately ramp up renewables.
The Democratic evolution on climate change could be seen in the change from the Obama-era 2012 Democratic platform and the Biden-era Democratic platform. In 2012, the platform said this:
We can move towards a sustainable energy-independent future if we harness all of America’s great natural resources. That means an all-of-the-above approach to developing America’s many energy resources, including wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, hydropower, nuclear, oil, clean coal, and natural gas. President Obama has encouraged innovation to reach his goal of generating 80 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2035…We can further cut our reliance on oil with increased energy efficiency in buildings, industry, and homes, and through the promotion of advanced vehicles, fuel economy standards, and the greater use of natural gas in transportation.
By 2020, this reformist all-of-the-above approach had evolved to more strongly resemble the catastrophist views of the climate movement. The Democrats were promising to hit 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, make the building sector carbon-neutral and have the whole country hit net-zero by 2050. Fossil fuels were not mentioned at all except for holding oil and coal companies responsible for their environmental damage. Democrats also promised to ban “new oil and gas permitting on public lands.”
This helps put the climate movement’s evolving theory of the case—and the Democratic party’s—into focus
1. Climate change is not just happening, it’s a crisis. We see it all around us in extreme weather events. Catastrophe will result unless immediate, drastic action is taken.
2. Fossil fuels are evil and we must go as fast as we can to eliminate them. It is almost impossible to go too fast.
3. Any resistance to the rapid elimination of fossil fuels is either because people are misinformed about how serious the climate crisis is or because of fossil fuels’ lobbying and political contributions.
4. Fossil fuels must be replaced by renewables, basically wind and solar They are clean, natural and are now so cheap, there is no reason not to ramp them up fast.
5. Other clean technologies like nuclear (unsafe, expensive) and CCS (a ploy by fossil fuel companies), etc., should be phased out or, at best, should play distant second fiddles to wind and solar which are now ready for prime time. Clean energy from non-renewables technologies are being pushed by venal economic interests that are trying to stop the renewables revolution.
6. There are no downsides to the renewables revolution. It will actually make energy cheaper. Any intermittency/reliability problems are in the process of being solved. The rapid transition to renewables will create many millions of high-wage jobs for workers. This means that as we use more renewables and cut out fossil fuels, political support for the transition to clean energy should go up because of the benefits to consumers and workers.
That’s the current position of climate activists, which has basically hegemonized the Democratic party infrastructure, supporting activist groups and associated cultural elites. College-educated Democrats, regardless of their main issue focus, subscribe to this general outlook. It has become an integral part of their cultural identity and goes hand in hand with the various social justice orientations that now dominate postindustrial metros. Reflecting this shift in the party, top Democratic leaders like President Biden, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi now repeatedly and unreservedly refer to climate change as an existential threat or crisis. The reformist perspective of the Obama years, which was attentive to standard Democratic concerns about jobs and prices, has been left in the rear view mirror.
But there is much to recommend that reformist perspective and the general spirit of the early environmental movement which achieved so many successes. The climate activists’ view of the issue, which now thoroughly dominates the Democratic party, is neither particularly accurate nor practical. There is an alternative, and much sounder, view of climate change and energy production that lends itself to reformism and would help heal the Great Divide between postindustrial metros and working class middle America.
First, take the basic fact of global warming. It is definitely happening due to human causes—about 1.1 degrees centigrade since pre-industrial times—and it is likely to go up further this century. The more it goes up, the higher the probability of large negative effects on human society. Therefore, it is important how high we expect that rise to be on our current course.
Prior to most recent IPCC report, the most widely-used scenario for future climate change was fairly extreme, technically referred to as RCP 8.5, and projected warming of 4-5 degrees centigrade by the end of the century. This was regarded as the “business as usual” scenario, despite fanciful assumptions like global use of coal would go up six times by 2100. Catastrophic projections of climate change effects generally used this scenario. But the latest IPCC report, based on recent changes in energy use and energy policy, no longer does this, judging RCP 8.5 to have low likelihood. More moderate scenarios are judged to be much more likely, projecting warming of between 2-3 degrees C, with a best guess of around 2.6 degrees.
This would appear to qualify as good news. Climatologists Zeke Hausfather and Glen Peters noted in Nature that the worst-case climate scenario grows “increasingly implausible with every passing year.” David Wallace-Wells of “Uninhabitable Earth” fame admitted in the New York Times that “we have cut expected warming almost in half in just five years.”
Of course, further progress is necessary. The less warming, the less negative effects. But some optimism is warranted.
Then there is the question of extreme weather, which is the single most important driver of the catastrophist perspective. The media and climate advocates are uniform in attributing extreme weather—all of it—to climate change. But the IPCC is not. In the IPCC report’s chapter on “Weather and Climate Extreme Events in a Changing Climate” they have high confidence that heat waves, heavy precipitation and fire weather have increased due to climate change. But they do not endorse the commonly held views that hurricanes, flooding, winter storms, tornadoes, extreme winds and droughts with prolonged dry weather and low water supply have increased.
Even where one can reasonably attribute part of a weather event to climate change that event is not really attributable to climate change in the way people think of causality. Take the 2021 Northwest summer heat wave. The heat wave was not caused by climate change; a lot of meteorological factors came together to produce the heat wave which didn’t have anything to do with climate change. However, the peak temperature of the wave was perhaps 1-2 degrees F higher than it otherwise would have been during such a heat wave. But the wave’s high temperatures were 30-40 degrees F over normal. So the climate change effect here is not the same thing as the heat wave itself.
Finally, there is the toll that extreme weather has on human society and lives. In economic terms, increasing damages are largely accounted for by how much richer and denser human societies are; there is simply more exposure to any given disaster. In human terms, deaths from natural disasters are down, way down. A century ago, it was not uncommon for natural disasters to kill more than a million people annually. The average in the 2020’s so far is about 13,000 per year. This is because richer societies are more resilient and far better at coping with disasters.
None of this is consistent with the catastrophist perspective. It suggests instead a fair amount of progress and a continuing problem susceptible to further reform. This is particularly the case when one considers the sheer practical difficulties of attaining “net zero” in a world overwhelmingly based on fossil fuels.
You simply cannot get rid of fossil fuels as fast as climate activists and their supporters in the Democratic party want. About 84 percent of world energy consumption is from fossil fuels and that is only a point lower in the United States. This global figure is down only 2 percentage points in the last 20 years. The percent of fossil fuel usage is lower in the electricity sector—62 percent, world; 61 percent, US. But, and this is widely underappreciated, only 20 percent of world energy consumption is from electricity and it’s only barely higher in the US (22 percent).
[W]e are a fossil-fueled civilization whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon, and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determinant of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind years. Complete decarbonization of the global economy by 2050 is now conceivable only at the cost of unthinkable global economic retreat…
Setting formal goals and deadlines that contravene these realties just makes it harder to achieve the progress that can be made. As Smil pointed out in an interview with the New York Times: “People toss out these deadlines without any reflection on the scale and the complexity of the problem… What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional.”
Therefore, patience is called for. The point should be to do what works and do lots of it but not to expect a sudden and complete transformation of the fossil fuel economy. Instead fossil fuels will be with us for quite some time—in fact, have a role to play in reducing emissions—while a build out of clean energy sources and infrastructure continues. In short, all-of-the-above was, and continues to be, the best energy policy both for the country and for a long term clean energy transition. As Smil puts it: “we need to favor a multitude of approaches rather than relying on any single (and purportedly perfect) solution.”
Consider the role of natural gas, demonized as a fossil fuel. While not widely-acknowledged, the significant decline in emissions in electricity production has primarily been driven by the substitution of natural gas for coal rather than the use of renewables. According to the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), natural gas is responsible for about two-thirds of the emissions decline between 2005 to 2019 compared to 30 percent for renewables. This underscores the role natural gas will play in the future, not just in the everyday economy, but serving as bridge fuel in a clean energy transition. Reflecting this, the EU recently recognized gas, along with nuclear, as “green” energy sources.
Renewables will also need to be backed up for the forseeable future by other types of energy. Renewable energy sources, due to the intermittency problem, always have to be backstopped by “firm” power that can be switched on when necessary. That means coal, nuclear, and most commonly these days natural gas. Having to keep these firm sources around and always ready to be turned on is a hidden cost of renewables; the larger the share of renewables in the energy mix, the higher these costs are and the higher the potential of unreliability, blackouts, price spikes, and other symptoms of “energy crises” when the requisite firm power has not been provided for or is cut off due to exogenous events. That is one reason why increased use of renewables has not produced lower energy prices for consumers so far; quite the opposite, especially in heavy renewables-dependent places like Germany and California. This does not sit well with consumers, particularly working class consumers. And those consumers vote.
This creates a huge political problem. What people want—and need—is abundant, cheap, reliable energy. Therefore if what you are advocating appears to call that goal into question, no amount of rhetoric about a roasting planet and no amount of effort to tie every natural disaster to climate change is likely to generate the support needed for what is sure to be a lengthy energy transition.
To add to the political problems, this radical hostility to fossil fuels and price-insensitive approach to energy policy is all being done in the name of fighting climate change, which is not a high-salience issue for most voters. That is, climate change, while having very, very high salience among Democratic elites, has low salience for ordinary voters, particularly working class voters. Surveys have also shown that, while voters mostly acknowledge climate change is ongoing and they are at least somewhat concerned about it, the issue is not so salient that they are willing to sacrifice much to combat it (less than half of working class voters would be willing to pay even an extra dollar on their electricity bills to combat climate change).
What voters overwhelmingly do want is an all of the above strategy that pushes forward renewables while continuing to use a mix of energy sources including fossil fuels. In this case, what voters want corresponds to the most practical course in pursuing a clean energy transition while assuring a reliable and secure supply of cheap energy. To go against this approach, as urged by climate activists, is to accentuate the Great Divide between postindustrial metros and middle America, between Democratic elites and the working class.
Thus, it is interesting and telling that when the Biden administration came into office, on the very first day Biden signed two executive orders on U.S. oil and gas production. The first said that America would rejoin the Paris climate accords. But the other blocked oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as well as drilling in large parts of Utah. And critically, it canceled the Keystone XL pipeline between the United States and Canada. A week later, Biden stopped issuing new oil and gas leases on public lands. Not exactly all-of-the-above but completely in line with what climate activists wanted.
As the energy situation became more dire in Europe and began to bite in the US, reflected in rising energy prices, the administration was willing to beg for more oil from domestic and international producers. But it was still doing little to assure long-term supplies of oil and gas in the country which, like it or not, will continue to be necessary for the economy’s smooth functioning and to backstop a renewables rollout.
The Biden administration managed to pass $1.5 trillion in new spending (they wanted $4.4 trillion), aside from the American Rescue Plan. Of that $1.5 trillion, half a trillion is on climate—mostly in the Inflation Reduction Act. Commendably the bill made a modest step back in the direction of an all-of-the-above approach. However, that half a trillion is still centered on promotion of renewables and related infrastructure, despite some support for nuclear, geothermal, CCS, and even a little bit for oil and gas. The imbalance of support between renewables and alternatives like nuclear and CCS undercuts what could have been a decisive move back toward practical climate policy.
The bill could not have passed with Senator Manchin’s support and the price for that support was a side deal with Senator Manchin on permitting reform, which would have enabled completion of the natural gas Mountain Valley Pipeline in his home state. Permitting reform would have helped other energy projects move forward as well, not just oil and gas but also renewables. But the deal was killed by a combination of Republican and progressive Democratic opposition.
The latter opposition is remarkable. As has been widely noted, if the Inflation Reduction Act’s investments are to actually reduce carbon emissions to the extent the administration and advocates claim, it would depend on an absolutely massive build-out of infrastructure, especially interregional high voltage transmission lines, which will be quite difficult. It is very hard to build such things fast in the United States, given permitting and regulatory obstacles. Even with the permitting reform bill, the pace at which this infrastructure could plausibly have been built was likely far below what would be needed to hit administration timetables. Without permitting reform, the pace will be truly glacial.
And it’s not just green energy infrastructure that will suffer. There is now a renaissance in nuclear energy throughout the world, as country after country reverses course and embraces the necessity of a nuclear buildout: the Czech Republic, Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, the UK and even Japan, which had anathematized nuclear after the 2011 Fukushima incident. But the US will be hard-pressed to participate in this renaissance without regulatory changes that would facilitate the building of new reactors. Instead, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a draft of new rules in September, 2022 that would make it harder, not easier, to build them.
So without adequate infrastructure and firm power supply from nuclear or fossil fuels, the rapid build-out of wind and solar the Biden administration and climate advocates want is highly unlikely to work the way they envision. But it will stress the grid and likely anger consumers and industry through rising prices and declining reliability.
The current approach of the Democrats is ill-conceived and too skewed toward the views of climate activists and their supporting organizations and cultural elites. Climate change is a serious problem, but a solvable one that will take decades and massive technological innovation—and not just in wind and solar—rather than a quixotic attempt to remake the global economy around renewables in a short span of time. In the meantime, adaptations to negative effects of climate change will be necessary, but the record so far suggests that today’s richer world is capable of such adaptations.
A Democratic party that had a more practical approach to this issue would say something like this:
Climate change is a serious problem but it won’t be solved overnight. As we move toward a clean energy economy with an “all-of-the-above” strategy, energy must continue to be cheap, reliable and abundant. That means fossil fuels, especially natural gas, will continue to be an important part of the mix.
But the Democrats, influenced by the cultural evolution of the party, do not have a practical approach to the issue. What started as a reasonable attempt to deal with a genuine problem, in the spirit of reformist environmentalism, has been hijacked by a millenarian, quasi-religious commitment to rapidly zeroing out fossil fuels and creating a renewables-based economy. This hasn’t worked and will not work. It will inevitably widen the gap between Democratic elites and ordinary working class voters. It is time to trade in climate catastrophism for climate pragmatism.