The Case for Climate Pragmatism
Democrats Should Reject Climate Catastrophism and Embrace Energy Abundance.
This post collects all three parts of my series, From Environmentalism to Climate Catastrophism: A Democratic Story
The beginnings of the environment as an issue can be traced to the conservation movement of the late 19th and early 20th century associated with figures like Gifford Pinchot, head of the Forest Service under Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. They were Republicans but many Democrats also embraced the movement; Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service in 1916. And the New Deal in the 1930’s had a prominent place for conservation activities, most famously in the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) where young men were employed to improve forests and national parks. Trail systems and lodges from that era are still widely used today.
With varying degrees of strictness the conservation movement’s guiding principle was to insulate unspoiled parts of nature from development by market forces, thereby preserving them for healthy leisure and recreation. The movement, like all future iterations of the environmental movement, assumed an unending conflict between man and nature that required good people to take the side of nature.
As development proceeded over the course of the 20th century, the stresses on nature became ever larger and more obvious, leading to the emergence after World War II of an apocalyptic strain in the conservation movement. The argument gained traction that economic and population growth would, if unchecked, destroy the environment and lead to civilizational collapse. Accompanying that strain was a milder version of the idea that directly challenged the old conservation ethos: simply conserving what was left of nature was not enough. The reality of the interdependent natural world meant that man’s activities were having dire effects everywhere on the planet—where people lived and where they didn’t. These activities were upsetting a finely balanced system, resulting in the degradation of both nature, as conventionally understood, and people’s lives. Restoring and preserving that balance was what it meant to be an environmentalist.
This reformist environmentalism gained purchase during the 1950’s, associated with figures like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith who were trying to expand the remit of contemporary liberalism. Galbraith’s best-selling book, The Affluent Society, dwelt on the ways the mass consumer capitalism was good at meeting basic needs but very poor at producing a healthy society for its citizens. One of the symptoms of the latter failure was the increasing degradation of the environment through pollution of the air and water.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, picked up on Galbraith’s concern and vastly amplified it, posing the environmental problem in dire, life-threatening terms. It caught the popular imagination and created a national debate about the environment almost overnight. This was the birth of the modern environmental movement and its instantiation as a movement of the educated middle class, leaving behind the conservation movement’s upper class base.
The movement proved enormously effective as a reform movement. Carson’s book veered toward the apocalyptic, but the movement she inspired was laser-focused on practical reforms that would immediately reduce pollution and safeguard the environment. A raft of legislation in the Johnson administration followed like the Clean Air and Water Quality Acts and, in the Nixon administration, the creation of the Environmental Protection Act and the promulgation of the NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) standards. This legislation and subsequent action was directly responsible for a radical reduction in pollution of all kinds in the next decades.
But the apocalyptic strain of environmentalism, which saw industrial society as an imminent threat to human life and to the planet, was not eliminated by these reform successes. Instead a closer relationship evolved between mainstream environmentalism and a radical view of the fundamental dangers of industrial society. The first manifestation of this was the anti-nuclear power movement which arose in the 1970’s and was turbo-charged by the 1979 Three Mile Island incident, Building on public fears of nuclear meltdowns and radiation poisoning, the movement was successful in stopping the build-out of nuclear power in the United States.
In the 1990’s, as a scientific consensus emerged that greenhouse gases were steadily warming the earth, this movement was superseded by the climate movement. Here was clear proof that industrial society and human civilization were counterposed. Initially meliorist in orientation, the movement has become more radical as it has gathered strength. The quest to eliminate the possibility of dire scenarios has met the reality that industrial societies built on fossil fuels are likely to change only slowly, for both political and technical reasons.
This has promoted a sense that radical action to transform industrial society must be taken as fast as possible. That view has gained hegemony within the Democratic party infrastructure, supporting activist groups and associated cultural elites. Practical objections about the speed with which a “clean energy transition” can be pursued and concerns about effects on jobs and prices are now outweighed for most Democrats by the perceived urgency of the mission. That has set the Democrats apart from the working class voters they aspire to represent for whom these practical objections and concerns loom large. It has become a significant factor in the Great Divide that has opened between postindustrial metros and the rural areas, towns and small cities of middle America.
William Vogt and the Environmental Apocalypse
The original conservation movement of Pinchot and Muir was a fairly decorous affair, with a distinct note of noblesse oblige to it. It was the job of responsible elites to see to it that some parts of nature were preserved for leisure and recreation so that everyone, including the working masses, could enjoy them.
After World War II however, the movement took a different turn. The devastation of the war, combined with the breakneck pace of economic development, fed a sense that industrial civilization was out of control and threatened the entire planet. The key figures promulgating this view were Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr. (Our Plundered Planet, 1948) and especially William Vogt, whose Road to Survival was also published in 1948. Vogt was an ornithologist and ecologist whose experiences in the developing world had convinced him that economic growth and overpopulation would inevitably lead to civilizational collapse unless both growth and population were radically curtailed.
Vogt’s book had an enormous impact. It was a main selection of the Book of the Month Club, condensed by Reader’s Digest for its 13 million subscribers, translated into nine languages and immediately adopted as a textbook by dozens of colleges and universities. It became the best-selling book of all-time on environmental themes until the 1960’s and the publication of Silent Spring.
One reason why Vogt’s book was more popular than Osborn’s, despite their similarity in themes, was its hard-hitting, uncompromising tone. Osborn was more restrained, reflecting his background as the scion of a noblesse oblige, conservationist New York family. Vogt argued that humans were worse than parasites, who lacked enough intelligence to be truly destructive. But humans had used their brains to rip up nature and compromised their own survival to become richer. Only drastic measures could prevent worldwide environmental disaster.
Vogt argued that beliefs in progress were weighing humanity down and were actually “idiotic in an overpeopled, atomic age, with much of the world a shambles.” He concluded that the road to survival could only lie in maximizing use of renewable resources and accepting lower living standards or reduced population.
In his language and outlook, one can see all the strands of apocalyptic environmentalism (now focused on climate change) that we see today. This especially applies to his description of the United States and its economic system. He said:
Our forefathers [were] one of the most destructive groups of human beings that have ever raped the earth. They moved into one of the richest treasure houses ever opened to man, and in a few decades turned millions of acres of it into a shambles.
’Free enterprise has made the country what it is!’ To this an ecologist might sardonically assent, ‘Exactly.’ For free enterprise must bear a large share of the responsibility for devastated forests, vanishing wildlife, crippled ranges, a gullied continent, and roaring flood crests. Free enterprise—divorced from biophysical understanding and social responsibility.
Vogt’s outlook was enormously influential. Historian Allan Chase observed:
Every argument, every concept, every recommendation made in Road to Survival would become integral to the conventional wisdom of the post-Hiroshima generation of educated Americans…[They] would for decades to come be repeated, and restated, and incorporated again and again into streams of books, articles, television commentaries, speeches, propaganda tracts, posters and even lapel buttons.
More benignly, Vogt’s (and Osborn’s) books marked the evolution of conservationism into environmentalism. Stripped of the apocalyptic verbiage, they were arguing that conservation of nature was not enough. The interdependence of man and nature meant that human activities could not be isolated and instead were having negative effects on the entire planet—wilderness, settled areas, oceans, everywhere. The balance of nature was being destroyed, dragging down the natural world and humanity with it. Restoring that balance, not merely conserving parts of the ecosystem, was the new meaning of being an environmentalist.
Also key to Vogt’s analysis was the concept of “carrying capacity”—how much the environment/planet could sustainably bear of a species’ imprint before disaster ensued. This was not precisely defined but it is easy to see the relationship of this idea to how climate change is conventionally thought of today.
Silent Spring and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism
The modern environmentalist movement—and its tight relationship to the Democratic party—kicks off in the early 1960’s with the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (as with Vogt’s book, a Book of the Month Club selection). Carson was directly inspired by Vogt and in fact was a friend of his. Her book was primarily focused on the impact of synthetic chemicals, especially DDT and other pesticides, on the natural environment. Her prognosis was dire; not only were these chemicals destroying the balance of nature by disrupting ecosystems but they were also destroying the ecosystem of the human body. These chemicals have “immense power not merely to poison but to enter into the most vital processes of the body and change them in sinister and often deadly ways.” Moreover, these chemicals would “bioaccumlate” and have enhanced effects over time. Perhaps eventually even the birds would not sing (producing a “silent spring”).
The serialization of the book in The New Yorker took the middlebrow educated audience by storm. The chemical industry fought back, which only raised the profile of the book. The public furor led to a report on pesticides by President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee which, in 1963 issued a report largely sympathetic to Carson’s analysis. The general issue of pollution of the natural environment by commercial processes and chemicals received a huge boost from the intense and prolonged public discussion and from this the modern environmental movement was born. Protecting the environment and natural systems now had a truly mass base.
That movement continued to grow during the 1960’s as awareness of environmental problems increased. Tom Lehrer’s 1965 song, Pollution, neatly captures the sense among the educated middle class that human activities were ruining the environment and the very air and water people needed to live:
If you visit American city,
You will find it very pretty.
Just two things of which you must beware:
Don't drink the water and don't breathe the air!
They got smog and sewage and mud.
Turn on your tap
And get hot and cold running crud!
See the halibuts and the sturgeons
Being wiped out by detergeons.
Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly,
But they don't last long if they try.
You can use the latest toothpaste,
And then rinse your mouth
With industrial waste.
Just go out for a breath of air
And you'll be ready for Medicare.
The city streets are really quite a thrill -
If the hoods don't get you, the monoxide will.
Wear a gas mask and a veil.
Then you can breathe,
Long as you don't inhale!
Lots of things there that you can drink
But stay away from the kitchen sink!
The breakfast garbage that you throw into the Bay
They drink at lunch in San Jose.
So go to the city,
See the crazy people there.
Like lambs to the slaughter,
They're drinking the water
And breathing [cough] the air!
The burgeoning strength of the environmental movement started what became a blizzard of legislative action to protect the environment and roll back pollution. That began under LBJ with the Clean Air Act, Solid Waste Disposal Act, Water Quality Act and Air Quality Act. Then under Nixon there was the National Environmental Policy Act, proximate to the Santa Barbara oil spill and widely-publicized Cayahoga River fire, establishing the (NEPA) environmental standards and reviews that are still with us today. Also under Nixon, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts passed and the Clean Air act strengthened. The first Earth Day was on April 22, 1970, clearly marking the environmental issue as a mass cause for those on the left of the political spectrum.
An interesting aspect of all this activity is that it was meliorist and profoundly reformist. That is, despite its origins in the Vogtian Silent Spring, with its apocalyptic overtones, the drive to clean up the environment was pursued through a steady accumulation of legislation and consciousness-raising about the issue. There was a sense that the problem was solvable through such activities and did not require the massive changes in economic activity and human behavior that an advocate like Vogt would have called for. Of course, there was always a radical fringe of the environmental movement, typified by Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, and the Earth First! group, formed in 1980, but they were a small and not particularly influential part of the overall movement.
Not only was environmentalism of this era reformist but it was very successful reformism. Consider: Because we are now so used to having a fairly clean environment in terms of air and water quality, it is easy to forget just how far we have come since the early 1960’s. Rivers and lakes back then were far more likely to be polluted and essentially unsafe for human activity than not; the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland famously caught fire in 1969. But since that era, water quality has improved dramatically; the number of water bodies meeting standard quality criteria has roughly doubled. Such icons of pollution as Boston Harbor have been cleaned up. And everywhere towns and cities are investing in waterfront leisure developments that would have been a tasteless joke a generation ago.
Air quality has increased dramatically as well. Between 1970 and 2021, emissions of the six key air pollutants that impact public health—ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and lead—were cut by 78 percent, even as GNP has increased by nearly 400 percent. Acid rain has declined by two-thirds and smog is down by about a third. These trends are truly amazing and would have been considered scarcely believable back in 1970. They underscore the tremendous success of modern reformist environmentalism.
The Return of the Apocalypse
Despite the astounding early successes of modern environmentalism, the apocalyptic strain of the movement was simply lying dormant. Given the fundamental contradiction between man and nature, between human economic activity and ecological balance that is assumed by environmentalism and its intellectual origins, it was only a matter of time before an issue or issues arose that rekindled that strain.
The first such issue was nuclear power. From the beginning, opposition to nuclear power was closely linked to opposition to nuclear weapons. The same things that led people to demonstrate against nuclear bombs—deadly radiation and catastrophic explosions—drove people to oppose nuclear power. Surely those plants, since they relied on the same technology that produced nuclear explosions, could easily pollute the environment with radiation and potentially destroy surrounding communities.
The issue was a natural fit to the burgeoning environmentalist consciousness. The first activist group dedicated to the issue was the Citizens Energy Council, founded in 1966, which argued that nuclear power plants were intrinsically unsafe and a health hazard. As the sixties moved into the seventies and nuclear power plants were being rapidly rolled out, opposition grew and was seamlessly blended into the general environmentalist portfolio. If you considered yourself an environmentalist, you also likely opposed nuclear power.
An additional spark for the movement was provided by the early 1970’s energy crisis. This brought home to Americans the need to ramp up the domestic energy supply. This development helped popularize the thinking of environmentalists like anti-nuclear, anti-fossil fuel economist EF Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful) and, particularly, Amory Lovins, whose influential Foreign Affairs article, “The Road Not Taken”, built directly on the chaos of the energy crisis to argue that America faced a choice between two paths, the “hard” path, relying on nuclear and fossil fuels (the policy at the time) and the “soft” path that would twin the “benign” energy sources of wind and solar with energy conservation and efficiency. That would both solve the energy crisis, he claimed, and lead to a much better eco-conscious society.
Lovins’ arguments had wide purchase within the environmental movement and the allied and frequently coterminous anti-nuclear power movement (environmentalist organizations like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and others had already declared their opposition to nuclear power). His analysis brought together environmentalism, anti-nuclear power and reverence for wind and solar in one big package that quickly became conventional wisdom in activist circles and the wider public they were preaching to.
The apocalyptic strain already visible in the anti-nuclear power movement was turbo-charged by the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. No one died in the incident and the safety systems held, but it is fair to say the event scared the hell out of many people and, of course, the anti-nuclear power movement had a field day. The movie, The China Syndrome, had been released right before the incident and the eerie coincidence further amplified the effect of Three Mile Island on the popular imagination. Nuclear power was cast as a matter of life and death, with the Big Explosion and radiation poisoning always, and inevitably, right around the corner.
Then, of course, there was Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. From 1978 to 2012, no new nuclear power plants were authorized in the United States. The build-out of nuclear power in the country essentially stopped. The anti-nuclear power movement could not eliminate nuclear power entirely (though they’re still trying) but they did largely succeed in the goal of preventing the expansion of nuclear power (already plagued by cost overrun problems) through political obstacles and a super-stringent regulatory process.
The Rise of the Climate Change Issue
That was one apocalypse averted. But there was another one incoming: climate change. Unlike the nuclear power problem, which was dubious scientifically (it is easy to show that nuclear as a power source has an outstanding safety record over time) and owed its place in the public imagination to its association with nuclear weapons and a technology that people were terrified of, the climate change problem had a sound scientific basis. The earth really was warming and that really did have a lot to do with the activities of humankind, specifically the release of greenhouse gases (primarily CO2).
The understanding that human activity could affect the climate goes back a long way, including the potential effects of CO2. Work of Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle and Hans Suess had established by the late 1950’s that CO2 emissions could and were affecting the climate, making it warmer over time. But at the time, this was not regarded as particularly alarming. The New York Times reported on p. 112 of a Sunday edition in 1959: “The world is getting slightly warmer” but most scientists believe the “warming trend” is not “alarming or steep”.
Confusingly, however, the CO2 emissions-warming relationship was put forward in the context of research looking at other emissions (aerosols) whose atmospheric effects raised the possibility not of warming, but of sudden cooling that would overwhelm any warming trend. That was actually the original climate apocalypse—a new Ice Age, not today’s image of a burning globe. Newsweek published “A Cooling World” in 1975 and columnist George Will warned that “There will be megadeaths” due to a global drop of “two or three degrees by the end of the century”. As late as 2004, a popular movie, The Day After Tomorrow, portrayed a sudden, disastrous cooling of the earth producing a frozen globe.
But the science eventually converged on the gradual warming assessment and the central role of CO2. The real impact though didn’t come until 1988 when NASA’s James Hansen testified before the Senate on June 23rd, during a US heat wave and a worldwide pattern of extreme weather, “Earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements…With 99 percent confidence we can state that the warming during this time period is a real warming trend….Carbon dioxide is changing our climate now.”
Extensive coverage of Hansen’s testimony began the process of cementing the association in the public mind between climate change and the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events and, eventually, the possibility of a dystopian future. Fortuitously, the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto was held just four days after Hansen’s testimony and attracted reporters primed by Hansen’s testimony and on the hunt for newsworthy predictions. They were duly provided. The conference called for immediate action to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2005. It was averred that climate change could be nearly as serious as nuclear war.
Also in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the United Nations providing a mechanism for synthesizing the exploding scientific research on the issue and establishing it as a area of worldwide concern. In tandem with this outpouring of scientific research was the beginnings of what has become a tsunami of popular treatments of the issue. This key work here is Bill McKibben’s 1989 book, The End of Nature.
The core concept that was being established by these testimonies, conferences, research syntheses and books was that the “greenhouse effect” was real, was caused by emissions of human origin and was, in fact, changing the climate of the planet. Specifically, it was making the planet warmer over time. If the greenhouse effect was allowed to go unchecked, it therefore followed that the climate could get warm enough to have very serious adverse effects on human societies, from rising sea levels to extreme temperatures and weather. Thus, a real problem with a real scientific basis presented itself and called for action.
As the late 1980’s moved into the 1990’s, action on climate change did make its way onto the agenda. It is interesting to note that at the very beginning, concern about climate change was not totally Democratic-coded. George H.W. Bush made a point of calling for action on the problem in his 1988 Presidential campaign. Bush in office did, in fact, take some action including helping establish the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change. But in short order the issue became heavily partisanized as fossil fuel companies mounted PR campaigns around the issue designed to cast doubt on the reality of global warming and hence for any need cut down on fossil fuels. Republicans fell into line.
Over the course of the 1990’s, the issue increasingly became the central issue of the environmental movement and ever more strongly associated with the Democrats. Democrats sought to advance both cooperative international action and a domestic plan to move away from greenhouse gases. The idea was that America and the world could continue to grow but that, over time, it was necessary to replace fossil fuels with clean energy to keep global temperatures under control and avoid disastrous outcomes. Given political will, that could be achieved by gradual reform.
In 1993, the Clinton administration commissioned a Climate Change Action Plan, though it had little muscle behind it and was mostly a set of voluntary recommendations for businesses. In 1997, the international Kyoto Protocol, which had countries commit to setting targets for emissions reduction, was promulgated. This was an extension of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change, which President George HW Bush had helped develop. However, while President Clinton signed the Protocol, it did not have enough support to be ratified by the Senate.
When Al Gore, who was a staunch environmentalist, advocate of the Kyoto Protocol and strong proponent of reducing greenhouse gases ran for President in 2000 against George W. Bush, he leaned into these issues. Environmental protection, he declared, should be “the central organizing principle of civilization”. Bush disagreed on all counts. The increased salience of the issue hurt Gore in some states linked to fossil fuels with, notably, formerly deep blue West Virginia (Clinton carried it by 15 points) flipping to the GOP (Bush carried it by 5 points).
In office, President Bush withdrew from the Protocol entirely. However, the Bush administration did set a goal of an 18 percent reduction in emissions over then next ten years. That was not particularly satisfying for the burgeoning climate movement, who spent the Bush years getting more and more frustrated about lack of action on climate and vowing that once the Democrats got back into office they would press for massive efforts to combat global warming.
The Temperature Rises within the Climate Change Movement
In the interregnum, the climate movement, reflecting that perception and their view of the scale of the problem, became increasingly apocalyptic in their pronouncements. In a sense, they were getting back to the environmental movement’s Vogtian roots. Action to stop global warming must be very large-scale and very fast; otherwise, that could be it for Planet Earth and even humanity itself. Along those lines, Al Gore’s 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and his famous slide show, which did not hold back in its assessment of the direness of the situation and the lateness of the hour, had a huge influence on the public discussion.
In 2008, 350.org was founded by Bill McKibben and some college graduates who had been working with him. Its tone was explicitly Vogtian. The goal was to address the climate “crisis” by creating an international movement that could end the use of fossil fuels and hasten the transition to renewables (essentially, wind and solar). As the group states in the history on its website:
When we started organizing in 2008, we saw climate change as the most important issue facing humanity — but climate action was mired in politics and all but stalled. We didn’t know how to fix things, but we knew that one missing ingredient was a climate movement that reflected the scale of the crisis.
Naturally, expectations were high among climate activists when the Obama administration took office in 2009. Initially, some hope was vested in the American Clean Energy and Security Act (aka the Waxman-Markey bill), which would have set up an emissions trading system. However, while the bill passed the House it predictably died in the Senate. More promising was the very substantial amount of money devoted to clean energy in the Obama administration stimulus bill (the ARRA, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).
This bill’s commitment to clean energy was a notable advance in magnitude over prior Democratic commitments. In 1999, President Clinton proposed a $6.3 billion clean energy bill that died a very quick legislative death. The stimulus bill poured $90 billion into clean energy, more than 14 times what Clinton proposed.
As summarized by one booster of the bill, the bill provided:
…unprecedented government investments in a smarter grid, cleaner coal, energy efficiency in every imaginable form, “green-collar” job training, electric vehicles and the infrastructure to support them, advanced biofuels and the refineries to brew them, renewable power from the sun, the wind, and the heat below the earth, and factories to manufacture all that green stuff in the United States.
One of the chief purposes of the bill was to jolt the flagging US clean energy industry to life. The provision of loans and cash grants to renewable energy and related firms did have considerable success along these lines. One goal was to double renewable power generation within Obama’s first term, which it did achieve.
Nevertheless, climate advocates were still quite unsatisfied with what the Obama administration initially accomplished. Many felt that the administration had not spent sufficient political capital on Waxman-Markey, focusing instead on the health care issue. Given advocates’ rising millenarian commitment to rapid social transformation through a clean energy transition, the failure to give fighting climate change a higher priority was viewed as a sellout to fossil fuel interests.
Even the Obama administration’s further actions on climate change, including the 2013 Climate Action Plan and the followup Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut 32 percent of emissions from electrical power plants, and adhering to the 2015 international Paris Agreement, failed to satisfy advocates who wanted more action and faster. After all, went the thinking, the earth was burning and this was all Obama was doing?
Climate advocates had been dismayed by Obama’s embrace in March 2012, in the run-up to the 2012 election, of an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy policy and the clean energy transition. He said, “We need an energy strategy for the future—an all-of-the-above strategy for the 21st century that develops every source of American-made energy.” He boasted that his administration had “quadrupled the number of operating oilrigs to a record high” and “opened up millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration.”
They were even more dismayed by the further development of Obama’s strategy in 2014. In July of that year a 43-page White House report formally outlined “The All-Of-The-Above Energy Strategy as a Path to Sustainable Economic Growth”. The report began:
The U.S. energy sector is undergoing a profound transformation. The United States is producing more oil and natural gas, is generating more electricity from renewables such as wind and solar, and is consuming less petroleum while holding electricity consumption constant. These developments have had substantial economic and energy security benefits, and they are helping to reduce carbon emissions in the energy sector and thereby tackle the challenge posed by climate change…. The All-of-the-Above energy strategy has three key elements: to support economic growth and job creation, to enhance energy security, and to deploy low-carbon energy technologies and lay the foundation for a clean energy future.
The report and the strategy it outlined recognized, implicitly or explicitly, several key realities of a clean energy transition: (1) fossil fuels would continue to play a big role in the American energy mix for a long time to come; (2) energy policy has to be considered in the context of energy security; (3) energy policy has to be about economic growth and jobs not just clean energy; and (4) wind and solar, while important, are just one part of an all-of-the-above strategy.
The climate movement was appalled. A letter was sent to Obama by 18 environmental organizations, including Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, League of Conservation Voters, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They characterized the policy as “a compromise that future generations can’t afford. It…locks in the extraction of fossil fuels that will inevitably lead to a catastrophic climate future.”
Bill McKibben and 350.org duly upped the ante with a “A Call to Arms” for a massive climate march, which wound up getting 1500 organizational cosponsors. On September 21, 2014, 400,000 people marched in New York for the People’s Climate March, easily the biggest climate demonstration yet. By 2015, fossil fuel divestment had become the fastest growing divestment movement in history. The table was set for the next stage of the movement.
The Climate Change Movement Fully Embraces Climate Catastrophism
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 Democrats Sign On to Climate Catastrophism
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.
The Problems with Climate Catastrophism
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.
Climate Pragmatism: There Is No Alternative
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.
The Centrality of Energy Abundance
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 and energy abundance.