Climate denial is not the issue with renewables

Photo courtesy of Joseph Long

There is a persistent myth that exists among the environmental movement in this country that claims that climate change denialism is the primary reason for opposition to their energy policies. It argues that the people who fail to see eye-to-eye with them are doing so either out of ignorance of science or self-interest.

The implication that someone can only disagree with a certain perspective because they’re either uninformed or somehow nefarious is entirely incorrect and is a major part of the problem with our current political discourse. The reality is that most Americans understand that human activity impacts earth’s climate in a meaningful way. The disagreement comes on what policies should be enacted regarding climate change.

In last week’s Roundtable editorial piece, two authors both provided their answer to the question “what can be done to defeat climate change denial?”, in which they immediately fell into the trap of confounding climate change denial with opposition to the energy policies of the political left. Ultimately, both writers succumb to the false narrative that accepting a scientific consensus and agreeing with a specific policy prescription are one and the same.

It’s unfortunate, but this has become the prevailing attitude within much of the environmental movement. Opposition to their agenda — independent of any counter-arguments one might provide — is usually viewed as either uninformed or unethical.

The authors delve further into the ethicality trope, suggesting that the fossil fuels industry has funneled money towards politicians and slanted research aimed at diminishing concerns over the effects of climate change. While this is likely true to some degree, they provide no examples of such activity. They also fail to acknowledge the reality that if the oil or coal industry has an incentive to try and dampen concerns over carbon emissions, then the solar and wind industries have an equally strong incentive to drum up fears over emissions. The implication that clean energy is somehow immune to the corruption that’s claimed to be pervasive within the fossil fuels industry is naïve and intellectually dishonest.

In fact, a cursory glance at the clean energy sector reveals the extent of the cronyism that’s necessary to sustain the industry. While the sector is growing — the job market has indeed experienced “boom times” as one of the articles claims — this growth isn’t driven by consumer demand as much as by billions of dollars in government subsidies and the overregulation of the industry’s competition.

Programs such as the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit, for example, grant wind and solar energy producers $23 per megawatt hour of electricity generated. To put that into perspective, the Department of Energy estimates the average cost of electricity in the state of Georgia at $92.30 per megawatt hour. It isn’t difficult for an industry to experience “boom times” when it’s receiving twenty-five cents in taxpayer money for every
dollar of sales.

Even so, the second article advocates that the government should do more to pull the energy industry towards clean power with so-called “financial incentives,” since expecting conservatives and oil and gas companies to “take the moral high ground and cut their profits” would be unrealistic. It should first be pointed out that what “financial incentives” amounts to is subsidies and tax exemptions for companies hand-picked by bureaucrats at the expense of taxpayers, inevitably leading to a brand of corruption comparable to that of fossil fuel.

Secondly, such programs already exist to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, yet clean energy remains economically inviable. Take solar power for example; according to the Department of Energy, electricity generated by the most advanced photovoltaic and thermal solar plants being built today will cost $144 and $262 per megawatt hour, respectively. The newest natural gas plants in contrast, cost only $66 per megawatt hour. Couple this with the pitifully low capacity factors and geographic limitations of solar power, and the infeasibility of solar as a major energy source — despite years of government “investment” — becomes painfully clear.

Finally, and most importantly in my view, is the absurdity of implying that the policies of the environmental movement own the moral high ground in the energy debate. The affordability and scalability of fossil fuels is what made possible the industrial revolution, and the resulting wealth and commerce has raised literally billions of people from poverty, and this still rings true today. In developed countries which have embraced clean energy, we find higher prices and fewer opportunities.

Germany — which had been pursuing an aggressive campaign to promote clean energy — reversed course earlier this year, and is now limiting renewables as a percentage of total energy production through at least 2025 due to high electricity prices and inconsistent output. Wind farm developments in the country’s north — the centerpiece of German green energy policies — have been plagued with difficulties adjusting to fluctuations in demand, and the costs associated with wind energy have led to some of the highest electricity prices in Europe, costing three-times the nationwide average in the United States and more than double that of neighboring Poland according to data from the European Union.

Hikes in energy prices and the resulting effect that they have on the costs of basic goods and services such as transportation and food are regressive by nature, and disproportionately impact the poorer members of society.

Likewise, the artificial disruption in the energy sector caused by government policies favoring renewables at the expense of fossil fuels harms the communities based around
their production.

One of last week’s responses made the case that workers such as coal miners could easily transition to new jobs being created in the solar industry. I’d wager that the bulk of the tens of thousands of unemployed or underemployed former coal workers and those in their communities — most of whom live in areas where geography and weather make large-scale solar power infeasible — would disagree.

The disconnect between environmentalists and the people whom their policies will impact is a key shortcoming of the environmental movement. This sort of armchair activism has become endemic to today’s environmentalism, and is a much more significant contributor to opposition to environmental causes than climate change denial.

It affords its practitioners a sense that they’re doing the right thing, despite ultimately harming the most vulnerable in our society. In the final paragraphs of one of the articles, An Inconvenient Truth — Al Gore’s Documentary on Climate Change — is praised, and the case is made that the “inconveniences” caused by addressing climate change cannot serve as a stumbling block to the proper course of action.

Indeed, it is easy to ask for a society to make sacrifices when the heaviest burdens can be expected to fall on someone else’s shoulders.