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The Democrats’ Climate Problem
How Trying to Solve a Real Problem Turned into Political Kryptonite
As the Democrats’ stare down the barrel of the 2022 election, things are…not looking great. Besides general inflation, one of their biggest problems has been the rise in energy prices, particularly gasoline, during the last two years. Voters clearly are losing faith in Democrats’ ability to keep energy prices under control—and even their commitment to doing so.
Perhaps this has all been bad luck and the shock of events. But perhaps not. There is a plausible case that Democrats’ energy woes have a lot to do with how they have chosen to approach the very real problem of climate change. And like many poor Democratic choices, it goes back to the election of Donald Trump and the reaction that generated among their activist faithful.
The Obama administration made significant progress on the climate change issue though climate activists wanted more of course. But the election of Donald Trump really 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 Trump quickly repealed Obama’s Climate Power Plan and withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement.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, climate activists 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 respresentative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes 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. The article’s 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.
In liberal Democratic circles, no one seemed even slightly fazed by the level of rhetoric.
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. Her widely covered scolding of politicians at the UN is worth quoting at some length because it encapsulates her catastrophist stance, a stance which has gone on to become 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 unhinged jeremiad was greeted rapturously by the world’s press. But Thunberg was largely pushing on an open door. The mainstream, left-leaning media were already on board with the idea that climate change was the existential crisis portrayed by activists and increasingly became an echo chamber for any talk or presumed indicator of the climate “crisis”. Here is a summary of this development:
2019 appeared to be a shifting point for the linguistics of climate, correlating with more emphatic language used by U.N. Secretary General's address at the Climate Action Summit; petitioning of news organizations to alter their language by Al Gore's Climate Reality project, Greenpeace and the Sunrise Movement; protests outside The New York Times building to force the change; and a May 2019 change in the style guide of The Guardian.
Following a September 2018 usage of "climate crisis" by U.N. secretary general António Guterres, on May 17, 2019 The Guardian formally updated its style guide to favor "climate emergency, crisis or breakdown" and "global heating". Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner explained, "We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue. The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity." The Guardian became a lead partner in Covering Climate Now, an initiative of news organizations founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to address the need for stronger climate coverage.
This was really quite a significant development and has 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 gets reinforced endlessly since any unusual weather event is now ascribed by the media to climate change, any new study that suggests dire outcomes from climate change is uncritically covered and even the relatively restrained assessments of the IPCC reports are cherry-picked for the most alarming findings and scenarios. This is 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 can 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. Democrats support making America the world’s leader in building a clean energy economy by extending clean energy incentives that support American businesses and American jobs in communities across the country. It’s not enough to invent clean energy technologies here; we want to make them here and sell them around the world. 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 fairly reasonable, all-of-the-above approach has evolved to more strongly resemble the views of the climate movement. The Democrats are promising to hit 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, make the building sector carbon-neutral by 2030 and achieve net-zero country-wide by 2050. Fossil fuels are 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. Non-renewable clean energy technologies are being pushed by venal economic interests that are trying to stop the renewables revolution.
6. The renewables revolution will actually make energy cheaper and any intermittency/reliability problems are in the process of being solved. 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.
That’s the current position of climate activists, which has basically hegemonized the Democratic party. Indeed, one can earn the sobriquet of “climate denier”—formerly reserved for those who literally denied the reality of climate change—simply for disagreeing with any one of these six points. Instead, one is encouraged to believe that climate change is a trend that will roast the planet and wipe out human civilization unless drastic action is taken very, very soon. For most on the left of the Democratic party, the apocalyptic pronouncements of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are entirely plausible. It is assumed that we are headed for, in David Wallace-Wells’ phrase, “the uninhabitable Earth.” When green activists claim we have five or, at most, ten years to solve the problem by achieving net-zero carbon emissions, most Democratic activists nod in agreement.
But there is an alternative, much less histrionic—and more accurate—view of climate change and energy production. One can believe climate change is happening but that it’s not yet a crisis nor is it likely to become one anytime soon. Take extreme weather. While every extreme weather event is now attributed to climate change, the latest IPCC report does not, in fact, make such an attribution—it is much more circumspect about how much and where this relationship exists than one would glean from press coverage.
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.
In terms of the future, a radically-undercovered part of the most recent IPCC report is that it assigned a much lower probability to the extreme scenario (RCP8.5) featured in previous reports and deemed the most probable, “business as usual” outcome in those reports. Put another way, the new report was surer that global warming is caused by humans, but much less sure that it would produce an extreme outcome. That would seem to qualify as good news, but the reception of the report still tended toward the apocalyptic. The UN Secretary General characterized the report’s message as a “code red for humanity,” where only immediate, drastic action could prevent “catastrophe.” Countless stories in mainstream media took a similar tack, which was amplified by environmental activists and echoed by most Democratic politicians.
So clearly, the discourse about a climate “emergency” is overwrought. But that discourse has enabled climate activists and Democrats to ignore a stubborn fact: you cannot get rid of fossil fuels very fast. About 83 percent of world energy consumption is from fossil fuels and it is about the same 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).
Another underappreciated fact is that biggest effect on carbon emissions in the United States has not been from renewables but from the substitution of natural gas, due to the fracking revolution, for coal. Michael Shellenberger has noted: [Don’t believe Shellenberger? Check this out from the US Energy Information Administration.]
Between 2005 and 2020, U.S. carbon emissions declined by 21.5 percent, which is 4.5 percentage points more than what the U.S. promised as part of its United Nations Paris Climate Change commitments. Emissions also declined by 4.5 percentage points more than what was promised had Congress passed Waxman-Markey “cap and trade” legislation, which died in the U.S. Senate, back in 2010. Of that emissions reduction, 61 percent was due to the shift from coal to natural gas and electricity production, and the 39 percent reduction that came from intermittent renewables back-stopped by natural gas, which is required in most situations to provide power when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.
The latter point is key. 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.
This is exactly what is happening right now. The intermittency problems intrinsic to wind and solar have led to energy price spikes and shortages in unfavorable conditions for these technologies. And, critically, 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 a reasonably quick energy transition.
To add to the political problems, this misguided 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 for Democratic elites, has low salience for ordinary voters, particularly working class voters. Surveys have also showed that, while voters mostly acknowledge climate change is ongoing, are at least somewhat concerned about it and think there should be more climate-oriented action, the issue is not so salient that they are willing to sacrifice much to support such action.
The fact is that the median voter isn’t terribly interested in a Green New Deal, if that means getting rid of fossil fuels entirely and fast and replacing them with renewables. The median voter’s view is more an “all of the above” approach as captured by a recent Pew question. Pew asked the public which energy supply approach it preferred “Phase out the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely, relying instead on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power only” or “Use a mix of energy sources including oil, coal and natural gas along with renewable energy sources”. The all of the above approach was favored by an overwhelming 67 percent to 31 percent margin.
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 put a stop to oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, drilling in large parts of Utah and, critically, the Keystone XL pipeline between the United States and Canada. Then a week later the issuance of new oil and gas leases on public lands was paused. Not exactly all of the above but completely in line with what climate activists wanted.
As the energy situation has become more dire in Europe and begun to bite in the US, reflected in rising energy prices, the administration is still pursuing an aggressive climate change program oriented toward renewables. In the short term, the administration is willing to beg for more oil from domestic and international producers, but it is doing little to assure long-term supplies of oil and gas in the country.
The Biden administration has 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 and that half a trillion is still centered on promotion of renewables and related infrastructure, despite some support for nuclear, geothermal, CCS, etc. The Inflation Reduction Act, which contained most of the climate spending, also provided an opportunity for some offshore leasing to oil and gas companies, but the side deal with Senator Manchin on permitting reform has yet to pass.
As has been widely noted, if the so-called Inflation Reduction Act is 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 long-distance, high voltage transmission lines, which is…..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 unlikely to hit administration timetables. Without permitting reform, the pace will be truly glacial.
So without adequate infrastructure and firm power supply from nuclear or fossil fuels, the rapid build-out of wind and solar the administration wants is highly unlikely to work the way they want. But it will stress the grid and inevitably anger consumers and industry through rising prices and declining reliability. The Democrats are making a very unwise bet to pursue this course, however laudable their original motivations may have been.
In short, the current approach of the Democrats is based on a fantasy. Climate change is a problem, but a solvable one that will take decades and massive technological innovation rather than a quixotic attempt to remake the global economy around renewables in just a few years. In the meantime, adaptations to unavoidable rises in temperature will be necessary, but these do not require turning the world upside down nor will they condemn billions of people to mass migration and death. This is also a fantasy, albeit a dark one.
A Democratic party that had a rational 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 do not have a rational 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 subvert the Democrats as a electoral and governing force for as long as this dogma persists.