Power Player

50 shades of climate opposition

The signing of the Paris Agreement last month, and the subsequent announcement out of Beijing of a national moratorium on new coal plant permits, represent a triumph for the societal forces that have aligned and coalesced over the past decade to fight climate change.

With China having embraced climate action — piled on top of the defection of ExxonMobil from the opposition, Pope Francis underlining climate science with his moral authority and the U.S. military and intelligence communities adding the global stability and national security angle — I am left in slack-jawed wonderment there is anyone left to oppose.

But there is, and while the Climate Opposition, as I will call them, continues to shrink inexorably, they remain a potent force in Congress and the Republican Party (witness the desultory nature of the Republican primary debates on this issue). The party has been remarkably resolute in maintaining its opposition, even as its natural allies have abandoned them. And all of their "principled" arguments for opposition — one after another — have been thoroughly debunked.

And this is the remarkable thing: The parties that form the remaining core of the Opposition have remained constant even as they have had to constantly shift the base rationale for their opposition.

First, of course, there were the Climate Deniers, who break down into two subsets: Mainstream Deniers deny the Earth is getting warmer. Until recently, they hinged this rationale on the thin reed of a single data point: average annual weather has not gotten warmer in 18 years.

Why pick an awkward number like 18? Because they were choosing their data selectively.

You see, 1998 was a severe El Niño year and, as such, was aberrationally hot. Sort of a Bob Beamon long-jump record for weather (we’ll see who gets that now-obscure sports metaphor). But as 2015 and 2016 blow through the 1998 record, Mainstream Deniers find themselves in search of a new data point to support their thesis.

There is also the small but hardy subset of deniers who acknowledge the weather is changing but deny it is caused by humans (anthropomorphic emissions, just in case my children ever read this, always trying to expand their vocabulary). This group, which for want of a better name I will call Alternative Causation Theorists, is so small, it is almost endangered.

I mean, if you are going to ignore the science, the scientists, the catastrophe at the Poles, the warm winters at home, the strange weather patterns, the bleaching coral, the historic droughts, the receding glaciers, corn being grown in Canada, etc., why not go all out and be a Mainstream Denier?

Alternative Causation Theorists are so scarce that spotting one has become something of a sport. I didn't hear it myself but there was audience buzz at the WSJ ECO:nomics conference a few weeks back when a fossil fuel industry CEO was heard disclaiming, "It's sunspots, I am telling you!"

The China syndrome

An alternative economic school of climate opposition emerged during the George W. Bush administration, whose position on climate evolved over its eight years in office. Once climate change was acknowledged as a scientific reality, reluctance to do anything too disruptive about it became the Bush mantra.

The Economic Catastrophe Awaits school, as I will call it, maintained that it would be economically ruinous for the United States, with an economy already on the brink of disaster, to do a full-on press against global warming. China, Bush officials repeatedly pointed out, was already well on its way to surpassing the United States as the world's largest GHG emitter. And the ECA school fervently believed that China would never, ever do anything about its own skyrocketing emissions.

There is no doubt in my mind that the economic concerns expressed by the Bush folks were genuinely and deeply felt. At the meetings I attended (as part of USCAP) at the White House in 2007 to 2008 with President Bush's chief of staff and environmental brain trust, I can say that the Bush people really wanted to do something about climate (Vice President Cheney's representatives excepted, of course) but they equally genuinely felt that U.S. action would be the final nail in the coffin of U.S. industrial competitiveness vis-à-vis China.

But of course the Economic Catastrophe Awaits school turned out to be wrong about China.

The idea that China itself, within eight years, would become the world's largest renewable investor, curb its own coal production and consumption and sign on to an international climate accord? Not a snowball’s chance, the Bush folks would have thought.

But then again none of us on our side of the table would have thought so, either. Even in the climate wars, sometimes there are pleasant surprises.

But the Economic Catastrophe Awaits school turned out to be wrong about the so-called prohibitive cost of embracing clean energy. And that reflected a lack of faith in the dynamism of the private sector and its capacity for both disruptive innovation and relentless improvement.

The price of inaction

Whatever the truth was during the Bush years, or during the consideration by Congress of Waxman-Markey about the availability and cost of decarbonizing technologies, it certainly is no longer the case that "going green" is something only rich people can afford to do.

Indeed, in some cases, in some places, going green is quickly becoming something that middle class homeowners can't afford not to do. This is good for consumers but bad for the Climate Opposition, who had to respond to the rapidly declining cost of renewables and the dramatic domestic job creation in clean energy by shifting to a new basis of opposition.

This is what led to the recent short-lived but much lamented Climate Know Nothingism movement. Particularly popular among members of the Climate Opposition running for office, this movement is based on answering every question about climate with some version of the sentence, "I am not a scientist so I can't comment, but…"

Never mind, of course, that politicians regularly opine (and legislate) on matters in which they personally lack expertise. This was undoubtedly the silliest of the various schools of Climate Opposition. And mercifully (for them), I think it ended when they tried to extend Climate Know Nothingism to others. Particularly when candidate Rick Santorum tried to scold the pope, after his Encyclical, back to climate silence by admonishing His Holiness to stick to things he knows — namely, spirituality.

When it was pointed out to the former senator from Pennsylvania that Pope Francis actually earned an advanced degree in science while Santorum had not, you could practically feel the hot air escape from the Know Nothingism balloon.

Which brings me to my point: It seems abundantly clear now that no matter how many central tenets of the Climate Opposition we dispel, they will not allow themselves to be persuaded. They are going to keep coming up with and promulgating new arguments until we discredit them.

It's like Whack-A-Mole, albeit without the mallet. It's damn tedious, but we have no choice but to keep pointing out the failure of their rationalizations.

Even as you read this, I am sensing a new basis for opposition emerging in the wake of the demise of Climate Know Nothingism. Let’s call it Climate Fatalism. As I already have tested your patience with the length of this piece, responding to Climate Fatalism will be the subject of my next column. 

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