Current Energy Commentary
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Climate Change: a symbolic battle against an unpleasant, toxic way of life
I suspect most readers of my column do not religiously read The Atlantic. I don’t either. But I have people—readers who alert me to news and information I might not see otherwise. Though the Atlantic has gained recent notoriety for the interview with Hilary Clinton, in which she says: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” there is more to it. With so much focus on the Clinton quote, it would be easy to overlook an article within the September issue: How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen.
While I don’t think the author of the nine-page article, Charles C. Mann, ever really offers the answers the title posits, and is seven pages in before he even attempts to advise the reader on the premise, he does offer some noteworthy insights.
Mann is obviously a believer in anthropogenic (or man-made) climate change. Much of his essay is spent deriding the left for its unrestrained rhetoric that it uses to “scare Americans into action.” He says: “the chatter itself, I would argue, has done its share to stall progress.”
Within his argument is some history and context that is illustrative for those who see climate change as cyclical—something natural that has happened before and will happen again, rather than something that is new, scary, and human-caused. Those of us who believe the climate changes, but that human activity is, certainly, not the primary driver, struggle to understand the cult-like following of alarmists like Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org (“A group that seeks to create a mass movement against climate change”)—who Mann spends several paragraphs criticizing.
While I doubt that this is Mann’s intent, a careful reader will realize that today’s climate hysteria has less to do with the climate and more to do with control and economic change.
Mann starts his history lesson with Paul Erlich, author of The Population Bomb—whom I wrote about in June. Mann calls Erlich’s book “a foundational text in the environmental movement”—yet, he points out that Erlich’s “predictions didn’t pan out.” Instead of discrediting Erlich, his work, somehow, gave birth to what Mann calls “environmental politics.” Continuing, Mann asserts that Earth Day “became an opportunity to denounce capitalist greed.”
Using acid rain as an example, Mann points out: “environmentalists meanwhile found out the problems were less dire than they had claimed” and that “Today, most scientists have concluded that the effects of acid rain were overstated to begin with.”
Because I follow the politics of energy policy, I found this point Mann makes most interesting: “Environmental issues became ways for politicians to signal their clan identity to supporters.” He observes: “As symbols, the ideas couldn’t be compromised.” And, he states: “climate change is perfect for symbolic battle.” He calls carbon dioxide “a side effect of modernity.”
Addressing the charts and graphs that so frequently accompany the climate change hyperbole, Mann says: “In the history of our species, has any human heart ever been profoundly stirred by a graph? Some other approach, proselytizers have recognized, is needed.”
When he gets to McKibben, Mann accuses him of stoking concern “Erlich-style.” Mann explains: “The only solution to our ecological woes, McKibben argues, is to live simpler, more local, less resource-intensive existences”—which McKibben believes “will have the happy side effect of turning a lot of unpleasant multinational corporations to ash.” He concludes his section on McKibben with this: “McKibbenites see carbon dioxide as an emblem of a toxic way of life.”
In response to McKibben’s model, Mann cites French philosopher Pascal Bruckner, who argues: “people react with suspicion, skepticism, and sighing apathy—the opposite of the reaction McKibbenites hope to evoke.” Bruckner, according to Mann, likens ecologism to “moral blackmail” as it attempts to “force humanity into a puritanical straitjacket of rural simplicity.” “Ecologism” according to Mann/Bruckner, “employs …bludgeons to compel people to accept modes of existence they would otherwise reject.”
Elsewhere, Mann acknowledges: “Nobody seems to have much appetite for giving up the perks of an industrial civilization” that Mann calls a “boon to humankind,” for which he credits “cheap energy from fossil fuels.” He says: “an unprecedented three-century wave of prosperity” was “driven by the explosive energy of coal, oil and natural gas.”
“True,” says Dan Sutter, professor of economics with the Manuel Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University, and who has taught environmental economics and energy economics and done extensive research on extreme weather, as well as the political economy of environmental policy. Sutter told me: “The underlying change that enabled the industrial revolution was the emergence of economic freedom and a market economy. The essence of the market economy is decentralized decision making, and this has led to the harnessing of energy to the benefit of humankind.”
Sutter continued: “Stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide at something close to current levels (or lower) will require centralized control over the allocation of energy, meaning centralized control over the economy. Thinking about the distant future is difficult, but energy central planning will bring a halt to the market forces that have produced the first significant improvement in human standards of living in thousands of years.”
So, while Mann concedes that cheap energy from fossil fuels “has been an extraordinary boon to humankind;” and that previous crises—Erlich and acid rain, for example—“didn’t pan out,” “have been less dire,” or have been “overstated;” and that environmental issues have become political; and that today’s climate crusaders are clinging to a “symbolic battle” with the ultimate goal of “asking nations to revamp the base of their own prosperity,” though “nobody seems to have much appetite for giving up the perks of industrial civilization,” Mann is still searching for a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal.
The answer, Mann posits, is “retrofitting 7,000 industrial facilities”—coal-fueled power plants. For what? For a crisis that is “overstated” like those before it and turns out to be “less dire,” we should allow the “symbolic battle” of the climate crusaders to remove that which has been “an extraordinary boon to humankind?”
Toward the end of his tome, Mann states: “the environment has become a proxy for a tribal battle.” He doesn’t state what the tribes are, but from the preceding pages, it is clear that he means the left and the right; the Democrats and the Republicans; those who want to turn corporations to ash, denounce capitalist greed, and force humanity into a straitjacket of rural simplicity and those who understand that the industrial revolution, the market economy, and “cheap energy from fossil fuels” have been “an extraordinary boon to humankind.”
Yes, Mann is correct. “The environment has become a proxy for a tribal battle.” But, as Mann points out, the climate alarmists scare tactics aren’t working—only 20% of likely U.S. voters believe the scientific debate about global warming is over. He believes it is because they “don’t know how to talk about climate change.” I believe people are smarter than he gives them credit for. They have heard the “chatter.” They’ve seen, that like Erlich, the “predictions didn’t pan out.”
The “political back-and-forth has become less productive,” which is why we see a switching of sides. Democrats, like Senator Joe Manchin (D-VA), are defending coal. “Full-throated green-energy champions,” like Mark Udall, are supporting fracking. At risk of alienating environmental groups, those who just two years ago voted to restrict oil-and-gas exports, like Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), are now voting to speed up the government’s reviews of applications to export natural gas, which the Wall Street Journal calls: “a move long sought by energy companies.”
What would cause this shift in the tribal battle? The answer, I believe, is simple: no one wants to be in the losing tribe. As Mann unwittingly makes the case for, alarmist claims are met with “suspicion, skepticism, and sighing apathy”—and those are not the battle cries of a winner.
The author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). Together they work to educate the public and influence policy makers regarding energy, its role in freedom, and the American way of life. Combining energy, news, politics, and, the environment through public events, speaking engagements, and media, the organizations’ combined efforts serve as America’s voice for energy.