How Politics Obscures Environmental, Energy Gains
Striding to the podium on Nov. 30 in Le Bourget, France, President Obama kicked off the U.N.-sponsored talks on climate change at a fraught historical moment.
The terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 137 innocents and wounded many more had occurred only 17 days before. As a result, Obama spent the first part of his speech paying tribute to victims of the violence before transitioning to a different threat, one he described in apocalyptic terms.
“This summer, I saw the effects of climate change firsthand in our northernmost state, Alaska, where the sea is already swallowing villages and eroding shorelines,” the president said.
“It was a preview of one possible future—a glimpse of our children’s fate if the climate keeps changing faster than our efforts to address it,” he added. “Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields that no longer grow. Political disruptions that trigger new conflict, and even more floods of desperate peoples seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own.”
For Obama, the rhetorical mixing of future climate threats with current terrorism victims was an unfortunate necessity; explaining the threat of climate change to national electorates has become entwined with both partisan politics and unrelated geopolitical realities, here in the United States and elsewhere. Climate change threats operate in terms of generations, while voters’ concerns are always more immediate—especially the dangers of terrorist attacks. Added to the mix is a fever of serious doubt within the U.S. electorate about the truthfulness of politicians, the power exerted by special interests, and the ability of government to solve problems instead of making them worse.
As we have seen in the two previous articles series concerning U.S. national security, fear and anger are the two defining characteristics of the American electorate in 2016. These fears can be physical, in terms of the threat of violence through terrorism, or economic, as measured by the flat household income growth since 2001.
Yet when looking at how much the environmental and energy landscape has changed in the last eight years, this anger and insecurity seems misplaced. If anything, these trends are more positive than they have been in decades. So on the 46th anniversary the original Earth Day celebration, it may be worth considering the changes in the U.S. environmental and energy spheres and how they are, or are not, being portrayed in the public arena.
- Since Obama took office in January 2009, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen to their lowest levels in two decades, down 10 percent from a record high of 6,001 megatons of carbon in 2007. Tens of billions of dollars of federal money has flowed to support renewable energy sources, especially wind and solar, helping renewables increase their market share of U.S. energy production from 2 to 4 percent. Also, a $7,500 per-car tax credit has enabled electric-powered automobiles to gain a growing share of the U.S. car market.
- Meanwhile, through aggressive rule-making by the Environmental Protection Agency, the administration has limited coal ash and mercury emissions to such a degree that construction of coal-fired power plants has been curtailed. These efforts have been followed by publication of a state-by-state Clean Power Plan, which could lower the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions permanently if the rule passes judicial review.
- The hydraulic fracturing revolution of the past decade has changed the equation in terms of domestic energy production. From the end of 2008 through the April 2015, the production of crude oil nearly doubled to 9.6 million barrels a day before the collapse in the oil price began to undermine capital investment. Natural gas production—a main replacement of more carbon-intensive coal-fired generation—is at record levels and moving higher.
The upshot is that the environment is getting cleaner while economic growth has decoupled from greenhouse gas emissions. But partisan politics has obscured what appears to be a developing success story for both environmentalists and an energy-dependent engine of economic growth.
“The problem is that climate science and energy policy have been thoroughly politicized from top to bottom, and so what you get is two tribes of people arguing past each other,” science correspondent Ronald Bailey, author of “The End of Doom,” said in an interview with RealClearEnergy. “It’s really hard to discern the real data, which is that most of the trends are positive.”
The political elements of this rift can be seen in public opinion polls measuring environmental sentiment. According to Gallup, the percentage of Republicans concerned about the state of the environment has fallen steadily. Across six environmental issues measured from 2000-2015, the percentage of Republicans who worry “a great deal” is down an average of 20 points. Looking at just one of those issues, climate change, 29 percent of Republicans considered it a big deal in 2000, while in 2015, just 13 percent felt the same. Meanwhile, Democrats are more worried now than they were 15 years ago, making the differences over environmental policy even harder to reconcile as the general election approaches.
These stark differences have been muted during the primary season, largely because there is little disagreement within each party over the policy. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, for instance, support continuing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to final implementation.
On the Republican side, neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz considers climate change much of a threat to the global ecosystem—and both have questioned the climate science underlying the administration’s entire climate strategy. Cruz has gone so far as to call climate change “the perfect pseudoscientific theory because it can never, ever, ever be disproven.”
As so, the culture wars have infected the national conversation over energy and the environment beyond its initial recognition. And with the likely general election opponents unlikely to agree even over the terms of the debate, we should expect each side to dismiss its rival’s arguments, even when both sides have good news to share—news that is essentially true.