Flipping the Script on Fossil Fuels

Middle-class climate deniers may think they’re running with the predators. But they’re really prey.

Last Monday, Paul Krugman’s column “Earth, Wind, and Liars” took an interesting tack in talking about climate change and fossil fuels. Up until recently, a typical anti-fossil-fuels argument has been moral: We should stop burning coal and oil because the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere is wrecking the climate for future generations.

To the extent environmental defenders have made an economic argument, it usually has been based on comparing long-term interests to short-term interests: We should ignore the artificial cheapness of, say, burning coal in power plants, because the future damage done will have long-term costs that the current price doesn’t account for. People who make this argument talk about externalities (real costs of a transaction that get pushed off on someone other than the buyer or seller), and advocate policies like a carbon tax to re-insert those externalized costs back into the market. Again, though, the argument is fundamentally moral: Shoving the costs of your present-day consumption off onto future refugees and hurricane victims is a nasty thing to do.

The pro-fossil-fuels interests, though, are well defended against moral arguments. They’ve done their best to undermine public confidence that we can predict the future at all — science being part of the global socialist conspiracy, after all — so all those suffering people in the future (or in distant countries or in social classes the media ignores) can be dismissed as imaginary. And even if their reality is admitted, today’s conservatism has a bad-boy aesthetic that glories in its own hard-heartedness: We live in a dog-eat-dog world where you’re either the predator or the prey. Bleeding-heart liberals are weak, and would let Those People (foreign, non-white, non-Christian) take advantage of People Like Us.

But Krugman’s column makes a different argument. He’s far from the first one to do so, but his point has not yet broken through to the general public.

Not that long ago, calls for a move to wind and solar power were widely perceived as impractical if not hippie-dippy silly. Some of that contempt lingers; my sense is that many politicians and some businesspeople still think of renewable energy as marginal, still imagine that real men burn stuff and serious people focus on good old-fashioned fossil fuels.

But the truth is nearly the opposite, certainly when it comes to electricity generation. Believers in the primacy of fossil fuels, coal in particular, are now technological dead-enders; they, not foolish leftists, are our modern Luddites. … [T]here is no longer any reason to believe that it would be hard to drastically “decarbonize” the economy. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that doing so would impose any significant economic cost.

… The fossil fuel sector may represent a technological dead end, but it still has a lot of money and power. Lately it has been putting almost all of that money and power behind Republicans. … What the industry got in return for that money wasn’t just a president who talks nonsense about bringing back coal jobs and an administration that rejects the science of climate change. It got an Environmental Protection Agency head who’s trying to suppress evidence on the damage pollution causes, and a secretary of energy who tried, unsuccessfully so far, to force natural gas and renewables to subsidize coal and nuclear plants.

In the long run, these tactics probably won’t stop the transition to renewable energy, and even the villains of this story probably realize that. Their goal is, instead, to slow things down, so they can extract as much profit as possible from their existing investments.

In other words, non-plutocrat Republicans (the vast majority, in other words) are kidding themselves when they imagine they’re running with the predators. They’re the prey. The predators are the coal and oil barons who have bought their party and who fund the propaganda they listen to. The prey will be stuck not just with the damage from hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires (that they can argue might have happened anyway), and not just with diminished prospects for their children and grandchildren (which — with ever increasing difficulty — they can still deny for a few more years), but with higher bills and an antiquated electrical system. That’s going to happen not decades hence, and not just according to some computer model built by those nefarious scientists, but in the fairly near future.

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