Here’s a good article by Robert Rapier, an extremely senior journalist in the energy industry. He and I had a nice chat on cellulosic ethanol a few years ago, and I have a great deal of respect for him. Having said that, I think he’s on the wrong side of a few issues here.
Robert takes exception to the concept that, regarding climate change, “The science is settled.” He writes: (It) is just not a statement that I am comfortable with, and I am uncomfortable labeling those who question climate change with something that evokes comparisons with Holocaust denial….. Not all skeptics are idiots. But not all proponents are well-informed…”
I agree in principle. I don’t have a problem with good, honest skepticism. But that’s not the way this is playing itself out in the real world, where we have the fossil fuel industry spending fortunes to make it appear that the jury is still out on the validity of human-caused climate change, a theory that is accepted by 97+% of climate scientists.
Robert goes on to point out that environmentalists are often naïve. “The ‘environmental movement’ has often come to represent something I do not wish to associate myself with, because it often appears to me to be synonymous with willful ignorance….Far too often their actions are based upon misinformation….(For example,) climate and anti-poverty activists have launched a 24-hour ‘Twitter storm’ against the hundreds of billions of dollars of government subsidies paid each year to the petroleum and coal industry.” He goes on to point out that the fossil fuel subsidy numbers are full of misinformation.
Again, this latter point is perfectly true. Most of the numbers we see for federal subsidies for fossil fuels are erroneous, as I learned in spades in preparation for my last book, “Is Renewable Really Doable?” In particular, I spent a couple of hours at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington D.C., interviewing the authors of a report that tore this subject apart in great detail. According to the way they do the accounting (and I think it’s quite fair) the subsidies for fossil fuels are about three times those for renewable energy.
The question I would ask isn’t “How big are they?” but “Why do they exist at all?” Robert has an issue with environmentalist Bill McKibben’s claim that we’re paying people to poison the environment. I don’t share Robert’s position. There is no reason on earth that the taxpayer should be supporting the wealthiest industry on the planet, whose product is aggressively attacking the health and safety of all seven billion of us. If we are inclined to dole out subsidies, why not focus them on renewable energy, accelerating the rate at which we replace a social evil with a social good? When McKibben refers to this as “the ultimate no-brainer,” he’s nailed it.
Robert continues, pointing out that the environmental movement is a for-profit industry. He writes, “I am not so cynical to believe that this is all about money, but I do question how money influences some of the environmental organizations.”
I’m sure that our viewpoints are distorted by money, along with our wish to confirm what we already believe. I listen to NPR; my mother, a conservative Republican, watches Fox News. It’s self-delusional to think that any of us approaches the world without some sort of lens with which to filter what we see and how we see it.
So let’s accept the fact that money is among a range of forces that distort our objectivity and ask the obvious question: Which group has more at stake, and is therefore more susceptible to this effect? The climate scientists and the presidents of large environmentalist groups, or the people trying to suck the last molecule of crude oil out of the ground?
Robert then presents a graphic that shows how India and China represent a far greater threat in terms of climate change than the US. Again, this is completely true — but it hardly justifies inaction on our part. The fact that slobs throw their trash out of their car windows does not grant me the authority to do the same. Robert’s argument in terms of the environment is really not much better.
I’ll close with this summary: If this civilization is still here in 50 years in a form that is even remotely recognizable in terms of quality of life, it will be because the people who have the capacity to make a change in terms of sustainable practices in energy, water, and food actually made a difference. I’m proud to count myself among the many millions of people who are trying to make this happen, and I hope you are too.