Confronting climate change is an urgent challenge. But it’s not clear if keep-it-in-the-ground activism or all-of-the-above-energy moderation is the best way forward
Earlier this week I attended the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) Annual Conference. The focus of the conference was understanding and quantifying the current and projected state of the energy system, so for the most part discussions at the conference were removed from energy politics.
But on the second day of the conference, energy politics interjected in a serious way. During remarks by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, two different attendees stood up and interrupted his remarks to ask why he denies the connection between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. The crowd at the conference booed and jeered the activists with shouts of “sit down.” No doubt using his 14 years of experience as the Governor of Texas, Perry handled the protestors rather gracefully. He politely asked the “young lady” to sit down so he could finish his remarks, and closed his speech by praising the first amendment and noting that the protestors made for a morning “a lot more interesting than just hearing me talk.”
Almost immediately after the protest completed, Perry continued with his prepared remarks, which praised the enormous growth in Texas wind energy that occurred during his tenure as governor.
I found the contrast between the protest and Perry’s praise for wind energy very interesting. I think it demonstrates the contrast between different political tactics: high-profile activism that drives media and public attention, or more moderate reasoning and deal making to slowly bring your opponents over to your side.
In the energy world, a good example of the activist side of the coin is 350.org, which is named after the safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of 350 parts per million. 350.org made a name for itself building the protest movement against the Keystone XL pipeline. Since then, it has gone on to mount campaigns opposing coal plants and oil pipelines, and pushing universities to divest their endowments from fossil fuel stocks.
A good example of the more moderate side of the coin is Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which strives to hasten the clean energy economy by promoting fair market signals for clean energy, and reduce methane emissions from natural gas production (but not halt gas production entirely). EDF seeks to affect change by working with allies across the political spectrum and promoting environmental solutions firmly rooted in strong science and economics.
For the most part, I identify with the more-moderate side of energy and climate politics. (Full disclosure, I previously worked for Environmental Defense Fund). I find it hard to support political movements against building pipelines because the facts show they are the safest way to move oil. Likewise, I’m against banning fracking because studies have shown no widespread impact on water resources, and I believe cheap natural gas can help reduce energy sector emissions. I’m generally a supporter of “all of the above” energy policies — as long as they limit carbon dioxide emissions and other environmental impacts appropriately.
But sometimes a small part of me says that it’s stupid to adhere so strongly to moderation in a political debate where one side is pushing outright lies about the science of climate change and the merits of renewable energy — and winning. Why deflate grassroots environmental activists with needless fact checks? Perhaps we need to win the issue politically, and worry about the facts later once we’re in a position to actually make policy.
Vox writer David Roberts articulated a good case against political moderation in the realm of climate change and clean energy on Twitter. I’ve paraphrased part of his tweet storm below:
Right now, the Republicans are rejecting climate change and clean energy (driven by donors, not mass opinion), leaving it there for the Democrats to claim. And what do you hear Democrats saying? “This isn’t a partisan issue.” You hear them trying, endlessly, to persuade Republicans. You see them trying to make it safe for Republicans, to blur the contrast, to “bring everyone together.” This is fruitless. And stupid as hell. It’s not how things work in two-party, zero-sum politics. It will not motivate a single Republican.
Part of me definitely agrees with Roberts. But at the same time, I can’t stop thinking about how climate-change-skeptic Rick Perry went from fending off a heckler one moment to praising Texas wind energy the next. It’s hard not to take away that it is more effective to work with those you disagree with and make them believers than publicly shame them. After all, if we ever want to fully decarbonize we’ll need to win over conservatives like Perry, right?
I’ll close with an apt Abraham Lincoln quote featured in this great and relevant Atlantic article about the current woes of the American left.
If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause.