Failing to convince on the science, climate activists have been in PR mode with their anti-industrial cause. Yesterday was Greta and protests, today a new front is “cli-fi,” a bet that “climate fiction” will help wake up people to a threat previously seen as just an abstraction.
But the alarmists are failing here too.
In a recent New York Times op-ed on how to defeat President Trump come November, Thomas Friedman advocated “broad, inclusive electoral strategies that pragmatically address the economic and social concerns of voters,” one being “the environment, but not focusing just on ‘climate change,’ which is an abstraction for most people.”
Climate change in quotation marks? Climate change as “an abstraction for most people”?
Is this the Thomas Friedman who five months ago in It’s the Environment, Stupid” opined that “a winning campaign theme that progressives can use against Trump” was the “Earth Race” to save the planet from climate catastrophe?
“In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy energized the country behind a ‘space race,’” Friedman wrote last September. “Democrats need to run against Trump on the Earth Race: to make America the leader in all policies and technologies that help men and women everywhere live sustainably here on Earth.”
With Trump revising more than 80 environmental rules and standards, Friedman declared, Mother Nature was on the ballot. The win-win outlined in his op-ed was to “join the Earth Race and make Donald Trump’s presidency an extinct species while saving Mother Nature’s endangered species.”
But that was then ….
Friedman did admit in his September op-ed: “Yes, I know, mitigating climate change and saving the environment never poll well. But times change, and it depends how you frame the issue.”
Polling by the Pew Research Center a year ago showed that climate ranked 17th out of 18 priorities, a result that continued the next-to-last trend from 2018, 2017, 2015, and 2014. (In 2016, climate ranked third from last.) “Climate is always a low priority,” concluded Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise.
A brand new Pew poll shows a very partisan divide with climate rising from 17th to 11th. (The environment in general ranked #5.) But this is an election year when Democrats are running on climate, while Republicans are running on the economy. “Some of this effect may reflect President Trump’s broad rejection of climate policy and embrace of fossil fuels,” one interpretation cautioned. “It is common for public polling to swing in the opposite direction of the incumbent president’s policy views, a phenomenon that political scientists call ‘thermostatic public opinion’.”
And with the economy strong, second-tier issues such as climate bubble upward. (“The public’s concerns about jobs and the economy have decreased as perceptions of the national economy have improved,” Pew states.) And there is a negative relationship between proactive climate policy and jobs on the one hand and global trade on the other. To the extent that climate policy costs jobs and introduces tariffs and quotas, climate concern could fall back to previous lower status.
The political problem of energy/climate activism goes deeper. A Politico article “Climate Change Could Be a Problem in 2020 … for Democrats” identified the Green New Deal (GND) as a liability. The article explained:
It’s not a coincidence that Trump has vowed to run for reelection against the Green New Deal, or that Senate Republicans gleefully forced a vote on it, or that no Senate Democrats dared to vote yes. Even liberal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while supporting deep emissions cuts and denouncing Trump’s efforts to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, has declined to endorse “the green dream or whatever.”
Small wonder that top Democratic Party operatives rejected a climate debate for its Presidential candidates that would have been a GND love-fest. Keep-it-in-the-ground advocates are in a civil war against moderate Democrats who favor, at a minimum, natural gas and pipeline infrastructure as a better alternative to coal and to truck-and-train transportation, respectively.
Carbon Tax Politics
Bipartisan opposition to a carbon tax is part of the headwinds against climate activism. “We have done extensive polling on carbon tax,” John Podesta emailed Hillary Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan back in January 2015. “It all sucks.”
With here-and-now price increases, no discernible impact on global climate, and vague promises about a monetary rebate (“dividend”), a CO2 levy has not been politically salable. Here’s why.
Assuming a $40-per-metric-ton tax (about what the Obama administration’s social cost of carbon calculated), gasoline prices would increase 18 percent or $0.36/gallon, and natural gas prices would jump 50 percent. Coal would be priced out of the market, and home heating oil would increase almost one-fourth. (A carbon tax calculator can be found here.)
Will the Democratic presidential ticket push a carbon tax this year? The Clinton campaign steered clear of proposing a carbon tax in 2016, and any attempt this year will be advertised as a free lunch (such as a “carbon dividend”) rather than a sacrifice. Joe Biden’s 10,000-word Climate Plan, for example, does not mention a carbon tax, or cap-and-trade, while hinting strongly for proactive policies to reduce CO2 emissions.
Green New Deal?
Democrat moderates are treading lightly with the Green New Deal. Remember the past.
In March 2012, facing public unrest over high oil prices, President Obama went to Cushing, Oklahoma, to brag “we are drilling all over the place.” And remember in 2000 when Presidential candidate Al Gore, author of Earth in the Balance, promised not to raise gasoline taxes?
Michael Bloomberg, the dark horse Democrat savior to Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism, has been sour on the “pie in the sky” GND, as well as fracking bans and pipeline obstruction. But wanting to have his cake and eat it too, the Presidential candidate has lofty goals of a 50 percent emissions cut by 2030 and “100 percent clean energy” by 2050. But be surprised if he pushes higher energy prices on the campaign trail as the beginning of a new climate policy.
In 2003, John McCain proposed to regulate CO2 emissions—and McCain supported a federal cap-and-trade plan during his Presidential run similar to that of Barack Obama. The next year, Republican Bob Inglis of South Carolina introduced the “Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act” (H.R. 2380) only to be resoundingly voted out of office on this issue.
And who can forget former GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich and Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi sitting on a sofa agreeing that climate action was a bipartisan necessity. The 2008 Al Gore moment, regretted by Gingrich as “the dumbest single thing I’ve done in years,” turned out to be a fleeting watermark for bipartisan climate activism.
The climate crusade has proved less-than-compelling in the daily lives of most Americans. Weather is weather, a given. Real here-and-now problems dominate. The climate impasse is good news for consumers and for taxpayers who stand to benefit from a free market in energy. It is also fair warning to crony energy capitalists who want to bank on government policy to make the uneconomic appear economic.