The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Nothing to Complain About

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So, President Obama has announced his latest climate-change response plan and certain conservatives have already begun trying to make said plan go away. Neither fact is really a surprise. Mr. Obama is doing a good job of framing climate action in terms of various quality-of-life issues (health care, energy costs), as he should, and while the plan will not do more than make a small dent in the problem, it’s the biggest dent we’ve made yet–so that’s a big deal.

There are three main issues here–the plan itself, what it does and does not do; the connection between the plan and the upcoming 2016 election; and what the conservatives are doing to try to undermine the plan. I’m starting with that third option.

It’s obvious why the fossil fuel industry, especially the coal industry, is up in arms right now; the objectives of any serious climate action plan must include putting fossil fuel out of business. That doesn’t have to include the people of the industry going out of business–they can and should shift their investments elsewhere–but we can’t really expect most of them to be happy about it. More interesting is the argument the resistors are raising, that shutting down the fossil fuel industry is bad for the economy as a whole, and specifically a bad financial deal for ordinary Americans.

There are all sorts of reasons why people like Scot Walker are wrong, but the most interesting is that they’re pulling off a neat trick–presenting the personal financial concerns of industry leaders as if they were the concerns of ordinary Americans. The standard line is that stressing an environmentally irresponsible industry, such as fossil fuels, is bad for the economy as a whole–prices will go up, jobs will be shed, etc. But jobs are shed anytime there is a major shift in the structure of the market–but the change is not always framed as a problem.

Changes in international trade resulted in America losing most of its manufacturing sector, a horrible, horrible thing for America’s working class, its labor unions, and the local economies of many cities and towns. The rise of the Internet (and the rather inexplicable assumption that online content ought to be free) has largely gutted professional print journalism in this country and forced major changes on both book and music publishing.  The conservative leaders expressing such concern for the little guy now when the fossil fuel industry is threatened didn’t make much of a peep when those other industries took a hit.

I’m not saying the collapse of a major industry isn’t something to talk about, since some economic changes really do have disastrous results. My point is that not all of them do–the collapse of buggy-whip manufacturing in the face of automobile use is an oft-cited example (I have no idea how accurate that example is). Maybe a better example is that electric light supplanted both kerosene and coal gas, without actually doing the oil and gas industries as a whole much harm. The people who made and sold those fuels simply moved on to other products. Modern workers and investors can and will do the same–there’s plenty of money to me made in renewables. The economy as a whole is going to be fine.

But Joe Sixpack is a more empathetic figure than the Brothers Koch, if we’re going to talk about somebody’s financial woes.

Some may argue that climate action is different, because this time the government is weighing in on which industries should survive and which fade away. That, too, is disingenuous at best. The US government always has a hand in the economy–ours is not a purely free-market economy. Even law enforcement may be seen, in some cases, as a form of economic meddling–as when, in the early Labor Movement, industrialists were allowed to use force to enact their will, but when workers used their own power to protest, law enforcement attacked them. Defining “the peace” so as to frame one side of a conflict as “disturbers of the peace” is a well-established tactic for picking sides without appearing to do so.

And in any case, we do heavily subsidize the fossil fuel industry–by some estimates, US residents pay over two thousand dollars per capita per year, in order to keep that industry going,

How big those subsidies are, and how they compare to the subsidization of renewables, is a little hazy. For example, should “subsidy” mean only direct payments and tax breaks, or should it also include instances of the tax-payer having to clean up the industry’s messes? Also, when comparing subsidies for renewables to those for fossil fuels, should we look at absolute dollar amounts (by which measure fossil fuels get more money) or should we look at dollars invested per BTU of energy realized (by which measure renewables get more money)?

But the important point is we are subsidizing fossil fuels, and if we stopped doing that, we could easily meet our current emissions reductions targets simply by letting market forces take their course.

As long we keep paying those subsidies, I really don’t think the Kochs et al. have anything to complain about.




Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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