Yesterday I wrote a response to Andy Revkin’s recent New York Times post on Keystone. As vexing as I often find him (and him me!), Revkin is curious about how the world works, open to feedback and new information, and proceeding from a place of humanitarian concern on climate change. It’s fun and fruitful to engage with him.

Joe Nocera

Doc SearlsNew York Times columnist Joe Nocera.

And then there’s his colleague, Joe Nocera.

Nocera’s latest New York Times column in favor of Keystone — his third — is mostly about how he didn’t meet with climate scientist James Hansen, because Hansen was off getting arrested. In it, Nocera selectively quotes from a bit of private email that makes Hansen appear critical of Bill McKibben, which can only be described as a spectacular dick move. But Nocera makes no mention of the supporting material Hansen sent him. Nor does he engage Hansen’s arguments. He just says Keystone opposition is “boneheaded.”

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Nocera has been inveighing on behalf of Keystone XL for a while now. Here’s his argument:

Like it or not, fossil fuels are going to remain the world’s dominant energy source for the foreseeable future, and we are far better off getting our oil from Canada than, say, Venezuela. And the climate change effects of tar sands oil are, all in all, pretty small.

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That’s really it — you can go back to the previous two columns and you won’t find much more.

The basic idea is that, as long as there’s demand for fossil fuels, there’s going to be supply, so we might as well get the good oil from Canada (even though it’s dirtier) than the bad oil from Venezuela. Neither Nocera nor the dozens of other Very Serious People who repeat this argument explain why Venezuelan oil is worse for us than Canadian oil, despite its lower carbon footprint. Perhaps it has Chavez cooties in it? Fans of basic economics will recall that oil is a fungible commodity sold on a world market; if Venezuela does something extra-socialist that raises the price of oil, we’ll be paying more, even if the oil we’re burning comes from Alberta. The whole construct of “independence” from “foreign oil” (oddly, we don’t count Canada as foreign any more) is goofy. But like Joe Scarborough with the deficit, Nocera knows it’s a problem because, well, everybody knows it’s a problem.

But Nocera doesn’t seem to be a fan of basic economics, as he proceeds to misunderstand Hansen’s policy proposal and offer the laughably wrong argument that a price on carbon would increase the market viability of the dirtiest oil with the highest production costs.

Pro tip: Raising the price of a commodity does not improve its market position. In fact, raising the price of a commodity reduces demand for that commodity. This principle is known in economics as “supply and demand.”

The same exotic principle explains why raising the production and transportation costs of a fuel — say, by blocking the pipelines through which it could be exported to more high-paying international markets — also reduces demand for that fuel. Supply and demand are not unrelated levers between which climate hawks must choose. They are of a piece.

Nocera doesn’t engage that argument at all. Nor does he engage the argument that the fight over the pipeline, while it will not single-handedly “change our behavior and help usher in the age of renewable energy,” will help empower and crystallize the kind of social movement that is a necessary precursor to the ambitious demand-side energy legislation Nocera purports to seek. Nor does he engage the argument that Keystone will raise the price of gasoline in the U.S. Nor does he engage the argument that Keystone would provide temporary jobs and environmental damage to the U.S. while funneling long-term benefits to Canada.

He doesn’t really seem all that interested in engaging the arguments of Keystone opponents at all, except to caricature them. He doesn’t seem to have learned anything or had a new thought about this since he first wrote on it. His motivation appears to consist largely of a desire to dump on environmental activists.

This, of course, is the essence of the VSP approach to climate change. First you acknowledge the basic science, because you don’t want to be seen as one of those crude deniers. Then you pick apart whatever specific response to climate change is on offer, criticizing its proponents as naive ideologues. You wave your hands at grand alternative solutions while offering nothing by way of political strategy to achieve them. Doing this makes you, thanks to the demented syntax of U.S. politics, a “moderate.” (See also: Washington Post editorial page, “only a carbon tax will do” edition.)

It’s a Serious approach, but it’s not a serious approach. That is to say, it does not take climate change seriously. It does not view climate change as a problem of sufficient urgency to warrant revising the tired strictures of the Washington Consensus. It treats climate change not primarily as an imminent threat to Americans’ well-being, a call to mobilize a society-wide response, but as a chance to posture and polish one’s “centrist” bona fides.

Joe Nocera used to be an ace business reporter. I don’t know what happens to people when they take up residence on the editorial pages of major U.S. newspapers. But it leaves their brains a mush and makes their advice, not to mention their judgment of what is and isn’t “boneheaded,” highly suspect.


Editor’s note: Bill McKibben serves on Grist’s board of directors.