Shellenberger and Nordhaus go after Obama by recycling GOP talking points
They’re back! I’ve been bombarded by people wanting a comment on the new S&N L.A. Times piece, “The green bubble bursts.” How about “naive and dangerous”?
Shellenberger and Nordhaus get coverage in the media because they are green(ish) recyclers of rubbish. They take piles of garbage (i.e. Republican talking points) and repackage them with some green-sounding lingo and then put their green credentials behind them. I have been ignoring them for a while now, but this piece is high profile and even more outrageous than their typical attacks on the environmental community and Al Gore.
The recycling begins in the first paragraph:
Republicans stole the energy issue from Democrats by proposing expanded drilling — particularly lifting bans on offshore oil drilling — to bring down gasoline prices. Whereas Barack Obama told Americans to properly inflate their tires, Republicans at their convention gleefully chanted “Drill, baby, drill!” Obama’s point on conservation and efficiency was lost on an electorate eager for a solution to what they perceive as a supply crisis.
No, that wasn’t written by Karl Rove, although it sounds like it.
“Barack Obama told Americans to properly inflate their tires.” You must be kidding. That is precisely the GOP talking point — heck, the GOP even handed out tire gauges to mock Obama on this.
Why would anybody claiming to care about progressive politics or clean energy repeat such a lie? In fact, Obama was asked by a voter what individuals can do to conserve. And Obama stated correctly that measures like proper tire inflation and tuning up your car can save more oil than coast drilling would provide.
To ignore Obama’s entire energy plan and suggest that somehow it can be summed up by “Obama told Americans to properly inflate their tires” is to be nothing more than a cynical GOP shill.
Obama has the most comprehensive energy plan ever offered by a Presidential candidate and a terrific climate plan. In fact, his climate plan has so much clean energy in it that, to my great surprise, S&N took up my challenge from last year and endorsed it. But you’d never know anything about Obama’s plan from reading this piece.
Let’s continue with a stunning series of paragraphs, in which Shellenberger and Nordhaus reveal their policies to be all but indistinguishable from those of global warming delayers:
Democrats and greens ended up in this predicament because they believed their own press clippings — or, perhaps more accurately, Al Gore’s. After the release of the documentary film and book An Inconvenient Truth, greens convinced themselves that U.S. public opinion on climate change had shifted dramatically, despite having no empirical evidence that was the case. In fact, public concern about global warming was about the same before the movie — 65% told a Gallup poll in 2007 that global warming was a somewhat or very important concern in comparison to 63% in 1989. Global warming remains a low-priority issue, hovering near the bottom of the Pew Center for People and the Press’ top 20 priorities.
S&N have never liked Al Gore’s message because he talked about real global warming impacts, and S&N thinks that the public will only buy happy, happy, happy talk about clean energy and green jobs and lollipops (okay, I added the lollipops).
Here they recycle the standard GOP talking points that nobody really cares about global warming. In fact, even though S&N are pollsters themselves, they seem completely unaware of the fact that the overall Gallup poll numbers mask a sharp break between the views of Democrats and the views of Republicans. It is primarily the GOP that doesn’t care about human-caused global warming — and that of course is not the fault of “greens.”
The Democrat-Republican gulf on warming is the direct result of a major disinformation campaign launched by conservatives that is inherently more credible to conservatives. S&N devote very little effort to detailing and debunking this disinformation campaign because then they would have to assign a large part of the blame for the mess that we’re in to the fossil fuel companies, conservative think tanks, conservative pundits, GOP leaders, and the like.
But how could greenish people like S&N get any media coverage from attacking conservatives and polluters? That would be a dog bites man story. S&N need to attack the people who are desperately trying to save the planet from catastrophe to get attention.
This summer, elite opinion ran headlong into American popular opinion. The train wreck happened in the Senate and went by the name of the Climate Security Act. That bill to cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would have, by all accounts (even the authors’), increased gasoline and energy prices. Despite clear evidence that energy-price anxiety was rising, Democrats brought the bill to the Senate floor in June when gas prices were well over $4 a gallon in most of the country. Republicans were all too happy to join that fight.
So what exactly are S&N saying — that we can’t pursue a cap-and-trade when energy prices are high? That’s the same thing as saying we can pretty much never have a cap, since energy prices are surely headed higher in coming years.
Of course a climate bill raises energy prices. It is inconceivable that we could possibly get anywhere near the needed CO2 emissions reductions fast enough (1990 levels or lower by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050) without much higher prices for coal — gasoline is quite a separate issue, as I have discussed many times — and/or tough emissions standards for coal plants. Energy efficiency is, of course, the key to keeping energy bills flat while energy prices go up — and the Climate Security Act certainly had a variety of measures to promote efficiency.
Indeed, they so relished the opportunity to accuse Democrats of raising gasoline prices in the midst of an energy crisis, they insisted that the 500-page bill be read into the Senate record in its entirety in order to prolong the debate. Within days, Senate Democrats started jumping ship. Democratic leaders finally killed the debate to avert an embarrassing defeat, but by then they had handed Republicans a powerful political club.
Contrary to S&N’s minority view, the forced reading of the bill was widely viewed as a blunder by the GOP, an embarrassing over-reach. It is true that many Democrats weren’t thrilled with the bill — I certainly wasn’t. But the bill was long dead before the Congressional Republicans got to it because we have a Luddite president, another fact conveniently omitted by S&N.
In any case, what killed the bill in the Senate was that despite the overwhelming evidence climate change is coming faster and harder than anyone imaged, the vast majority of GOP senators have refused to budge on the issue. And the way Republicans are operating in the Senate these days, if you don’t have 60 votes you don’t have a bill.
S&N’s analysis is absurd. If conservatives were willing to join with moderates and progressives to tackle this issue, we would have a climate bill. Moreover, S&N simply refuse to accept a crucial point that undercuts their entire argument and their entire approach, no matter how many times I and others point this out to them: Conservatives don’t universally oppose climate bills like the Climate Security Act just because they don’t believe in global warming. Conservatives also hate spending significant government resources on investment in clean energy. Conservatives hate S&N’s entire strategy as much as they hate climate action. I will come back to this key point.
On June 9, three days after the emissions cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate, Obama led McCain by eight points, according to Gallup. By June 24, the race was in a dead heat, a shift owed in no small part to Republicans battering Democrats on energy. Seeing the writing on the wall, Obama reversed his opposition to drilling in August, and congressional Democrats quickly followed suit.
But the damage has largely been done. In following greens, Democrats allowed McCain and Republicans to cast them as the party out of touch with the pocketbook concerns of middle-class Americans and captive to special interests that prioritize remote wilderness over economic prosperity.
S&N’s analysis is nonsense. First off, it is not true that “Congressional Democrats quickly followed suit.” Congressional Democrats went off in about three different directions. Had they quickly followed suit and embraced the Senate Gang of 10 compromise, then we would’ve ended up with some serious money for clean energy (which S&N presumably would have endorsed) and far more restrictions on offshore drilling than we ended up with, since, of course, we didn’t end up with any.
Second, given that S&N are pollsters, they really should know better than trying to make their case with a couple of outdated polls done at a time of relatively low voter interest. In fact, Obama has made a priority of articulating his energy independence and clean energy message in his speeches, the debate, and his advertising. Obama is now winning on this issue, as I recently noted. Perhaps it bears repeating that during the first Presidential debate, pollster Stan Greenberg ran a dial group of 45 undecided voters in St. Louis: “These voters had an unmistakably Republican tilt, voting for President Bush by a 2-to-1 margin in 2004 and self-identifying as 33 percent Republican and 27 percent Democrat.” What did they say?
“On one of the most important issues to these voters — who will do a better job achieving energy independence — Obama … more than doubl[ed] an already impressive 20-point lead on the issue to 44 points. Obama scored some of his highest marks on our dials when talking about the need to make America energy independent. Even those who felt [Obama lost] the debate agreed in our follow-up focus groups that Obama was the more persuasive candidate on energy independence.”
And, of course, Obama is currently leading in the four major tracking national polls by about 5 or 6 points. If I were S&N, I suppose I would attribute that solely to Obama’s terrific energy plan and growing voter awareness of his positions. But that would be equally unjustifiable. That said, Obama and the Democrats are also leading all major polls I have seen on issues of pocketbook, middle-class, and economic prosperity. So again, S&N’s entire blame-Democrats-and-greens-first analysis falls apart.
Finally, we get to the conclusion and the heart of S&N’s dangerous thesis:
But with an economic recession likely, and energy prices sure to remain high for years to come thanks to expanding demand in China and other developing countries, any strategy predicated centrally on making fossil fuels more expensive is doomed to failure.
A better approach is to make clean energy cheap through technology innovation funded directly by the federal government. In contrast to raising energy prices, investing somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion annually in technology R&D, infrastructure and transmission lines to bring power from windy and sunny places to cities is overwhelmingly popular with voters. Instead of embracing this big investment, greens and Democrats push instead for tiny tax credits for renewable energy — nothing approaching the national commitment that’s needed.
With just six weeks before the election, the bursting of the green bubble is a wake-up call for Democrats. Environmental groups, perpetually certain that a new ecological age is about to dawn in America, have serially overestimated their strength and misread public opinion. Democrats must break once and for all from green orthodoxy that focuses primarily on making dirty energy more expensive and instead embrace a strategy to make clean energy cheap.
By continuing to hew to the green agenda, Democrats have not only put in jeopardy their chance of taking back the White House and growing their majority in Congress, they also have set back the prospects of establishing policies that might effectively address the climate and energy crises.
No, no, no, and no.
First off, S&N simply can’t guarantee to anyone that their strategy would ever make clean energy cheaper than existing coal, let alone that this would happen fast enough to avert catastrophe. Why can’t they do that? Probably because it’s almost inconceivable. The entire world needs to cut fossil fuel-based emissions by at least 50 percent in four decades — rich countries like ours need an 80 percent cut by 2050. That means shutting down at least half of the existing coal plants worldwide and virtually all of the coal plants in this country by mid-century. After all, the electricity sector is certainly a much easier sector to make deep emissions cuts in than the transportation sector (and, within the electricity sector, cutting coal use sharply makes more sense than, say, cutting coal only as much as cutting natural gas, which burns more cleanly and efficiently).
I have analyzed and advocated climate solutions like efficiency, wind, solar PV, and solar baseload as much as anybody — but even I would never assert that the scalable clean energy technologies (other than efficiency) could possibly be cheaper than electricity from coal plants that have already been bought and paid for. That will be even more true once we start reducing coal consumption and demand for coal starts dropping. And remember, if we embrace S&N’s policies and reject regulations as a core strategy, then it isn’t enough for clean energy to be as cheap as existing coal.
For S&N’s strategy to work, new clean energy will have to be so much cheaper than existing coal that people actually voluntarily shut down existing coal plants in order to build new wind or solar plants. The chances of that happening are so small that this
wishful thinking approach simply cannot possibly be the basis of any rational or responsible climate policy.
In short, to save the planet, we must have strong carbon regulations no matter what else we do.
Second, S&N assert that $30 billion to $50 billion annually in federal clean tech spending is overwhelmingly popular with voters. I’d love to see some evidence to back up that statement. Yes, “energy independence” is overwhelmingly popular with voters. But the spending S&N propose won’t achieve energy independence. You simply can’t do that without regulations like tougher fuel economy standards and mandates for plug-ins. Certainly no other country in the world has ever successfully introduced a mass-market alternative fuel vehicle without standards and mandates.
But more importantly, the voters who have elected conservative Congressmen and women have elected representatives who overwhelmingly oppose clean tech spending. S&N keep suggesting that environmentalists and progressives are somehow politically naive if not downright stupid for pushing legislation to directly address our climate, based on their assumption that it would be infinitely easier politically to pass legislation doling out $30 billion to $50 billion annually for clean tech. In my mind, that is both a naive and dangerous view.
It is naive because conservatives have consistently opposed funded for clean energy at even one tenth that level. S&N mock Democrats for failing to embrace their massive program of government spending: “Instead of embracing this big investment, greens and Democrats push instead for tiny tax credits for renewable energy.” Why don’t S&N point out that the vast majority of Republicans consistently oppose even the tiny tax credits. Does S&N really mean to suggest that the Democrats would be more successful asking for 10 times as much money as they can’t get now?
Do S&N understand the huge budget deficit we’re operating under and understand why even many Democrats insist that all new major government spending programs be paid for by spending cuts elsewhere or tax increases? That, of course, is why Obama and many other Democrats who support large funding programs for clean energy do so under the auspices of the very program that S&N oppose — a big cap-and-trade bill where the revenue for the clean energy comes from the auctioning of the permits.
I view S&N’s position as dangerous for three reasons.
- It gives false hope to those who want to avoid climate catastrophe, by creating the misimpression that this can all be done without tough regulations if we just spend enough money on technology.
- It plays into the technology, technology, technology, blah, blah, blah strategy of delayers like Bush and Luntz and Gingrich and Lomborg.
- By taking the Naderesque approach and attacking Obama and the Democrats, rather than their opponents, S&N simply make it more likely we will be led by conservatives in November who have a very long track record of opposing all clean energy subsidies and incentives.
The bottom line is that there is little or no chance of saving humankind from catastrophic climate change if we don’t make dirty energy much more expensive fast and/or simply pass some major mandates that first stop the construction of new dirty energy plants and then gradually shut down existing plants and replace them with clean ones. I suspect it is “and” — we will need a hard and declining cap on emissions in the utility and industrial sector along with strong regulations on coal plants and cars and the rest of the transportation sector.
Making clean energy less expensive has been my primary activity for nearly two decades. It is an important and worthwhile goal. By itself it has no realistic chance of saving the health and well-being of future generations — but it can make the necessary deep cuts in fossil fuel consumption more affordable and hence more politically palatable.
A strong push on clean tech — with 10 times as much money spent on deploying existing technology as opposed to R&D into new technology — deserves strong support as part of the overall plan. But it should never be sold as an alternative to the plan.
I end with a challenge to Shellenberger and Nordhaus to back up their strong words with real money. They write: “By continuing to hew to the green agenda, Democrats have not only put in jeopardy their chance of taking back the White House and growing their majority in Congress …”
I say the reverse is true. I say that Obama’s green agenda has been quite shrewd politically (and also good from a policy perspective). So I challenge S&N to a $1,000 bet on the outcome of the Presidential election and/or on the Democrats growing their majority in Congress. If S&N actually believe what they write, this should be easy money for them.