Don't believe the fossil-fuel lies

Joining oil companies and conservatives, the Breakthrough Institute says we can reduce emissions without raising the cost of carbon pollution. It's a fantasy.

Published April 22, 2009 10:35AM (EDT)

The most effective and despicable disinformation campaign in U.S. history is ramping up again, trying to stop President Obama and Congress from passing a serious bill aimed at reversing our dangerous dependence on oil and polluting energy sources.

This campaign rests on three big lies:

• The threat posed by human-cause global warming has been significantly exaggerated.

• Making carbon polluters pay to emit or regulating greenhouse gas pollution would hurt the economy.

• The only viable solution to global warming and oil dependence is to eschew a price for carbon and regulations in favor of government spending on breakthrough technologies.

This disinformation campaign is almost entirely driven by fossil fuel companies and conservative media, politicians and think tanks. It is also advanced by the Breakthrough Institute and its president, Michael Shellenberger. His central myth -- a science fiction fantasy, really -- is that it would be possible to sharply reduce emissions without raising the cost of carbon pollution.

On the Breakthrough Institute Web site, Shellenberger claims Rep. Waxman and Thomas Friedman "keep insisting" to large audiences that "the key to developing clean energy is raising fossil fuel prices -- a claim that has been contradicted by large evaluations of the evidence by the International Energy Agency, McKinsey, Stern and others."

False, false and false.

The entire IEA report, "Energy Technology Perspectives, 2008," is built around making the case for both technology investment and a high price for fossil fuels. To keep total planetary warming below 2.4°C, as the vast majority of scientists and governments recommend, you must cut global emissions in half by 2050 (IEA's "BLUE" scenario, 450 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentrations). As its fact sheet states, "emissions halving in BLUE requires options with a cost up to $200/ton."

The McKinsey report, "The Carbon Productivity Challenge," concludes that "the world can achieve the 27 gigatons per year of abatement required in 2030 to stay below 500 ppm for a marginal cost" of about $50/ton. It states "there is a growing consensus that a carbon price is fundamental to driving increased carbon productivity."

The "Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change" concludes, "Establishing a carbon price, through tax, trading or regulation, is an essential foundation for climate-change policy."

Other than anti-science conservatives and the Breakthrough Institute, I don't know any independent group who thinks we could possibly stabilize atmospheric concentrations of global warming pollution at safe levels without raising prices for dirty energy.

Waxman and Friedman don't insist "the key to developing clean energy is raising fossil fuel prices." They insist that one key strategy for reducing global warming pollution while stimulating innovation and green job creation is making polluters pay for the harm they do.

McKinsey and IEA argue that by aggressively pushing energy efficiency, which Waxman and Obama do in their proposed climate legislation, the net cost to taxpayers is about one-tenth of a cent on the dollar. Even better, Obama plans to return most of the money raised by cap-and-trade to the poor and middle class. That means most taxpayers will be not be harmed by the plan -- and can actually cut their combined energy and tax bill if they choose.

Conservatives have been demagoguing any carbon price as an energy tax because they believe the global warming threat has been exaggerated and want to defeat efforts by Obama and Congress to take strong action. By repeating their talking points, the Breakthrough Institute has rendered itself indistinguishable from those disinformers, like the pigs and the men at the end of Orwell's "Animal Farm."

And like them, the Breakthrough Institute doesn't just oppose a carbon price -- it opposes EPA regulations. Shellenberger quotes Institute fellow Roger Pielke Jr. that "Republicans must be drooling over the possibility that EPA will take extensive regulatory action on climate change" because Obama and the Democrats will be blamed for any "actual or perceived downsides."

Again, besides the Breakthrough Institute, the only other major groups who oppose EPA action on climate change -- which was essentially mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court -- are anti-climate conservatives.

In the Breakthrough Institute's world, America would be forbidden from using the only two strategies that have ever successfully reduced pollution levels -- making polluters pay and EPA regulations. Somehow, saving humanity from self-destruction is committing political suicide even if there are only "perceived downsides." Just imagine the pollution we'd be breathing and drinking if they'd been running the EPA all these years.

To the Breakthrough Institute, the only viable strategy is to entrust the future of humanity to miraculous breakthrough innovation. Its entire strategy just happens to be identical to the one GOP message guru Frank Luntz invented in his infamous 2002 strategy memo on how conservatives could pretend to care about global warming without actually doing anything: "We need to emphasize how voluntary innovation and experimentation are preferable to bureaucratic or international intervention and regulation."

This is the road to ruin. The latest science warns that on our current emissions path, we are projected to warm most of the inland United States 10 to 15°F by century's end, with sea levels 3 to 7 feet higher, rising perhaps an inch or two a year. The Southwest from Kansas to California would be a permanent dust bowl, and much of the ocean a hot, acidic dead zone. If we don't reverse emissions soon, these impacts could be irreversible for 1,000 years.

The majority of Americans have no idea what the climate science now says we're facing. Yet enablers like Shellenberger don't blame the lack of knowledge on the conservative-led disinformation campaign but on the efforts of Al Gore, Tom Friedman, myself and the climate experts who try to tell the public the truth.

Shellenberger could not be more wrong. As James Randerson, an environmental editor and science reporter at the U.K.'s Guardian, recently wrote, "Far from over-playing their hand to swell their research coffers, scientists have been toning down their message in an attempt to avoid public despair and inaction."

Shellenberger claims that I attribute "the increase in voters telling Gallup that they believe that news of global warming is being exaggerated to the media." Wrong again. Sure, the media coverage is flawed, as a leading journalist Eric Pooley concluded in a recent Harvard analysis of the 2006 Senate cap-and-trade debate: "The U.S. media's decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress." But Pooley is mostly concerned that the media repeats the disinformation from conservative opponents of action. So am I.

In 1998, 23 percent of Democrats agreed "news of global warming is exaggerated." In 2009, it was 22 percent. In 1998, 34 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement. By 2009, it was 66 percent! The blame for this obviously resides primarily with the disinformers and the conservative media who push the big lie on their GOP audience.

Shellenberger's writings are now indistinguishable from those of right-wing deniers like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is probably why CEI quotes them both at length in a recent piece, writing, "As Roger Pielke, Jr. and Michael Shellenberger astutely observe ..." If it walks like a denier, quacks like a denier and is praised by a denier, we should all just duck.

Shellenberger’s entire analysis attacks a straw man, as he implies the only strategy being pursued is a price for pollution. Most of the Waxman-Markey Bill is an aggressive push on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Moreover, Congress and Obama already jump-started the clean energy and green jobs transition with nearly $100 billion in targeted spending and incentives. And Obama has committed to follow through on his campaign’s energy plan and use $15 billion of the cap and trade revenues for clean tech development and deployment.

But what is most astounding about Shellenberger is his hypocrisy. Just 18 months ago, in an online debate, I got him and Ted Nordhaus to admit: "Romm asks if we embrace Obama's plan. Not only do we embrace it, we've been advocating such a plan since 2002 ... Obama's energy plan, like the plan that we outline below, recognizes the need for regulatory standards and a cap on emissions."

Mind-boggling. Just 18 months ago, Shellenberger and Nordhaus endorsed a plan -- heck, they said it was their plan all along -- that they now label political suicide.

The Waxman-Markey Bill is almost identical to what Obama campaigned on. Turns out Shellenberger was for it before he was against it.

The great New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert ended her three-part series "The Climate of Man": "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."

Making polluters pay for global warming emissions and having the EPA regulate carbon isn't political suicide. Failing to do so is just plain suicide. Shellenberger and Pielke aren't part of the solution, they are part of the disinformation campaign.

By Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees He is the author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and the Politics." Romm served as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

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