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The Presidential Politics of Climate and Energy

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I know it shouldn't surprise me anymore, but the amount of disinformation about climate and energy that is blasted at us all the time still manages to inspire shock and awe. I'm old enough to have first read Orwell's 1984 when it was still a date in the future, and I find today's barrage of propaganda bringing to mind Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith, and his struggle to distinguish fact from propaganda. The idea that climate science is continuing to be challenged by the fossil-fuel industry and its political beneficiaries is no longer news, but the credence given to these fringe views is scary.

It is an indication of how far we have travelled from reality to fantasy that when President Barack Obama mentioned the importance of the climate issue during his recent convention speech, it was hailed as a profile in courage. Perhaps he will soon tell us that water is wet and ice is cold. It is true that some of the proposed solutions to the climate problem are controversial and some are not feasible. Some climate scientists and environmental advocates have developed policy prescriptions that are based on predictions of the future that may not come to pass. While that's unfortunate, denying the science of global warming is far worse. The climate problem is very real and is worthy of political dialogue and value-driven discussion. The scientific fact of the problem needs to be accepted by both political parties -- the sooner the better. Unfortunately, the fossil-fuel industry is not going to go quietly into the dark night.

This past week, New York Times reporters Eric Lipton and Clifford Krauss provided an insightful report on the funding spent by the fossil-fuel industry to promote their views. Lipton and Krauss observed that:

This year's campaign on behalf of fossil fuels includes a surge in political contributions to Mitt Romney, attack ads questioning Mr. Obama's clean-energy agenda, and television spots that are not overtly partisan but criticize administration actions like new air pollution rules and the delay of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.

While I know the barrage of misinformation has a political impact, my hope is that people can recognize special-interest defined reality when they see and hear it. It's like those ads for Indian Point's nuclear power plant that plague the radio broadcasts of the New York Yankee games. Anyone who keeps telling me over and over again that something is economically essential, safe and reliable, simply makes me question the economics, safety and reliability of whatever they are pitching. Or perhaps you've seen all those BP ads about the wonders of the Gulf of Mexico. Whenever they come on I think of that video feed of the oil spill that CNN ran for months and months. While I assume these folks wouldn't run ads if they didn't work, I also assume that common sense remains common.

The world will remain reliant on fossil fuels for decades to come, but not for centuries to come. We will be leaving our children a legacy of climate change that they will be adapting to for many years. But the fossil-fuel industry and all of the industries that extract resources from the earth for one-time use will come to be seen as our industrial past rather than our economic future. Simple math tells you that this will happen. The resources they mine are finite. Long before the resources run out they'll get more expensive to extract and more expensive to use. The drive to find substitutes will intensify.

When I was a kid the world's population was three billion. Today it is seven billion and if we are fortunate we will peak at ten billion. All those teenagers in 2050 will need smartphones (the iPhone 75). All those people will need food, air and water. All those families will need homes with lights, refrigeration, stoves and climate control. The resource base of the high throughput economy we require must change from one-time use to renewable.

Despite the "drill baby drill" mantra of the oil industry, the renewable energy technology of the future will come. The fossil fuel companies would be better off if they went back to telling their investors that they are hedging their bets by investing in renewable energy technologies. Imagine if the phone company, so heavily invested in land lines, had lobbied against cell phones. The wireless revolution is here, and it happened with breathtaking speed. There are over five billion cellphones in the world. When I ask my students to indicate how many of them have land lines in their dorm rooms very few raise their hands. But AT&T and its spin-offs didn't fight cell phones, they got into the wireless business. They built cellular networks and are making tons of money from all of us. Fossil-fuel companies that fight policies promoting renewable energy technology are wasting their time and money.

If you examine household spending, more and more of it is devoted to computer, smartphone, video, cable and internet equipment and service. All of us have added the costs of these technologies to our monthly budgets and a variety of lucrative businesses have been generated by mass public demand for these new technologies. One characteristic of communication technologies is that they all require energy. In fact, modern homes are loaded with all sorts of equipment that require energy to operate. The demand for energy will continue to increase. When you add the developing world to the mix, the energy business looks better and better.

Today, most people understand that fossil fuels damage the environment and most people understand that the world has a ferocious thirst for more and more energy. These trends fuel the intellectual and financial momentum behind new energy technology development. I do not know where and when the technological breakthroughs will come, but given the number of people working on the problem, I believe that renewable energy technologies will grow and eventually replace fossil fuels.

Given these obvious trends, how do we explain and understand the propaganda push against green energy? First, I assume some of it is simply short-term thinking by the fuel companies. Second, I assume that some of the motivation for these ads is pure mindless anti-Obama ideology. Third, I assume some of the push is the result of political consultants who think that the public no longer cares about sustainability. (Obviously, I think this is a misread of polling data.) Fourth, while fuel companies are spending a lot of money on these ads, it is quite small when compared to their total revenues. Finally, it looks like only a tiny minority of the fossil fuel industry is behind this propaganda. Most of them are making too much money to get deeply involved in this type of overt political campaign. Some of them are working hard to get into the renewable energy business. They see themselves as energy companies rather than fuel companies. They didn't succeed in business by being stupid.

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