Over the last decade, progressives have successfully painted conservative climate skepticism as the major stumbling block to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon and the Koch brothers, the story goes, fund conservative think tanks to sow doubt about climate change and block legislative action. As evidence mounts that anthropogenic global warming is underway, conservatives’ flight from reason is putting us all at risk.
This week's release of a new United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report opens another front in the climate wars. But beneath the bellowing, name-calling, and cherry-picking of data that have become the hallmark of contemporary climate politics lies a paradox: the energy technologies favored by the climate-skeptical Right are doing far more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the ones favored by the climate-apocalyptic Left.
How much more? Max Luke of Breakthrough Institute ran the numbers and found that, since 1950, natural gas and nuclear prevented 36 times more carbon emissions than wind, solar, and geothermal. Nuclear avoided the creation of 28 billion tons of carbon dioxide, natural gas 26 billion, and geothermal, wind, and solar just 1.5 billion.
Environmental leaders who blame "global warming deniers" for preventing emissions reductions point to Germany's move away from nuclear and to renewables. "Germany is the one big country that’s taken this crisis seriously," wrote Bill McKibben. Other progressive and green leaders, including Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Bobby Kennedy, Jr., have held up Germany's "energy turn," the Energiewende, as a model for the world.
But for the second year in a row, Germany has seen its coal use and carbon emissions rise — a fact that climate skeptical conservatives have been quick to point out, and liberal environmental advocates have attempted to obfuscate. "Last year, Germany’s solar panels produced about 18 terawatt-hours (that’s 18 trillion watt-hours) of electricity," noted Robert Bryce from the conservative Manhattan Institute. "And yet, [utility] RWE’s new coal plant, which has less than a 10th as much capacity as Germany’s solar sector, will, by itself, produce about 16 terawatt-hours of electricity.
Reagan historian Steven Hayward, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, noted in the conservative Weekly Standard earlier this week, "Coal consumption went up 3.9 percent in Germany last year. Likewise, German greenhouse gas emissions — the chief object of Energiewende — rose in Germany last year, while they fell in the United States."
Emissions fell in the United States thanks largely to a technology loathed by the Left: fracking. From 2007 to 2012, electricity from natural gas increased from 21.6 to 30.4 percent, while electricity from coal declined from 50 to 38 percent — that's light speed in a notoriously slow-changing sector. And yet the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and most other green groups are working to oppose the expansion of natural gas.
Hayward and Bryce are two of the most respected writers on energy and the environment on the Right. Both are highly skeptical that global warming poses a major threat. Both regularly criticize climate scientists and climate models. Both men are regularly attacked by liberal organizations like Media Matters for working for organizations, the American Enterprise Institute and Manhattan Institute, respectively, that have taken money from both Exxon and the Koch brothers. And yet both men are full-throated advocates for what Bryce calls "N2N" — accelerating the transition from coal to natural gas and then to nuclear.
Arguably, the climate-energy paradox is a bigger problem for the Left than the Right. One cannot logically claim that carbon emissions pose a catastrophic threat to human civilization and then oppose the only two technologies capable of immediately and significantly reducing them. And yet this is precisely the position of Al Gore, Bill McKibben, the Sierra Club, NRDC, and the bulk of the environmental movement.
By contrast, there are plenty of good reasons for climate skeptics to support N2N. A diverse portfolio of energy sources that are cheap, abundant, reliable, and increasingly clean is good for the economy and strengthens national security - all the more so in a world where energy demand will likely quadruple by the end of the century.
Why then is there so much climate skepticism on the Right? One obvious reason is that climate science has long been deployed by liberals and environmentalists to argue not only for their preferred energy technologies but also for sweeping new regulatory powers for the federal government and the United Nations.
But here as well, the green agenda hasn’t fared well. Those nations that most rapidly reduced the carbon intensity of their economies over the last 40 years did so neither through regulations nor international agreements. Nations like France and Sweden, which President Obama rightly singled out for praise earlier this month, did so by directly deploying nuclear and hydroelectric power. Now the United States is the global climate leader, despite having neither a carbon price nor emissions trading, thanks to 35 years of public-private investment leading to the shale gas revolution. Meanwhile, there is little evidence that caps and carbon taxes have had much impact on emissions anywhere.
In the end, both Left and Right reject a more pragmatic approach to the climate issue out of fear that doing so might conflict with their idealized visions for the future. Conservatives embrace N2N as a laissez-faire outcome of the free market in the face of overwhelming evidence that neither nuclear nor gas would be viable today had it not been for substantial taxpayer support. Progressives seized on global warming as an existential threat to human civilization because they believed it justified a transition to the energy technologies – decentralized renewables – that they have wanted since the sixties.
The Left, in these ways, has been every bit as guilty as the Right of engaging in "post-truth" climate politics. Consider New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza's glowing profile of Tom Steyer, the billionaire bankrolling the anti-Keystone campaign. After Lizza suggested that Steyer and his brother Tom might be the Koch brothers of environmentalism, Steyer objects. The difference, he insists, is that while the Koch brothers are after profit, he is trying to save the world.
It is telling that neither Lizza nor his editors felt it necessary to point out that Steyer is a major investor in renewables and stands to profit from his political advocacy as well. Clearly, Steyer is also motivated by green ideology. But it is hard to argue that the Koch brothers haven’t been equally motivated by their libertarian ideology. The two have funded libertarian causes since the 1970s and, notably, were among the minority of major energy interests who opposed cap and trade. Fossil energy interests concerned about protecting their profits, including the country's two largest coal utilities, mostly chose to game the proposed emissions trading system rather than oppose it as the Koch brothers did.
As Kathleen Higgins argues in a new essay for Breakthrough Journal, it's high time for progressives to get back in touch with the liberal tradition of tolerance, and pluralism. "Progressives seeking to govern and change society," she writes, should attempt to "see the world from the standpoint of their fiercest opponents. Taking multiple perspectives into account might alert us to more sites of possible intervention and prime us for creative formulations of alternative possibilities for concerted responses to our problems."
As Left and Right spend the next week slugging it out over what the climate science does or does not tell us, we would do well to remember that science cannot tell us what to do. Making decisions in a democracy requires understanding and tolerating, not attacking and demonizing, values and viewpoints different from our own.
Conservatives have important things to say when it comes to energy, whether or not they think of it as climate policy. Liberals would do well to start listening.