The Purposely Confusing World of Energy Politics

By Richard Heinberg

Life often presents us with paradoxes, but seldom so blatant or consequential as the following. Read this sentence slowly: Today it is especially difficult for most people to understand our perilous global energy situation, precisely because it has never been more important to do so. Got that? No? Okay, let me explain. I must begin by briefly retracing developments in a seemingly unrelated field—climate science.

Once upon a time, the idea that Earth’s climate could be changing due to human-caused carbon dioxide emissions was just a lonely, unpopular scientific hypothesis. Through years that stretched to decades, researchers patiently gathered troves of evidence to test that hypothesis. The great majority of evidence collected tended to confirm the notion that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gas) levels raise average global temperatures and provoke an increase in extreme weather events. Nearly all climate scientists were gradually persuaded of the correctness of the global warming hypothesis.

But a funny thing happened along the way. Clearly, if the climate is changing rapidly and dramatically as a result of human action, and if climate change (of the scale and speed that’s anticipated) is likely to undermine ecosystems and economies, then it stands to reason that humans should stop emitting so much CO2. In practical effect, this would mean dramatically reducing our burning of fossil fuels—the main drivers of economic growth since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Some business-friendly folks with political connections soon became alarmed at both the policy implications of—and the likely short-term economic fallout from—the way climate science was developing, and decided to do everything they could to question, denigrate, and deny the climate change hypothesis. Their effort succeeded: belief in climate change now aligns fairly closely with political affiliation. Most Democratic elected officials agree that the issue is real and important, and most of their Republican counterparts are skeptical. Lacking bipartisan support, legislative climate policy languished.

Political Positioning Leads to Obscured Issues

From a policy standpoint, climate change is effectively an energy issue, since reducing carbon emissions will require a nearly complete revamping of our energy systems. Energy is, by definition, humanity’s most basic source of power, and since politics is a contest over power (albeit social power), it should not be surprising that energy is politically contested. A politician’s most basic tools are power and persuasion, and the ability to frame issues. And the tactics of political argument inevitably range well beyond logic and critical thinking. Therefore politicians can and often do make it harder for people to understand energy issues than would be the case if accurate, unbiased information were freely available.

So here is the reason for the paradox stated in the first paragraph: As energy issues become more critically important to society’s economic and ecological survival, they become more politically contested; and as a result, they tend to become obscured by a fog of exaggeration, half-truth, omission, and outright prevarication.

How does one cut through this fog to gain a more accurate view of what’s happening in our society’s vital energy supply-and-support systems? It’s helpful to start by understanding the positions and motives of the political actors. For the sake of argument, I will caricature two political positions. Let’s personify them as Politician A and Politician B.

Positions and Motives of Political Actors

Politician A has for many years sided with big business, and specifically with the fossil fuel industry in all energy disputes. She sees coal, oil, and natural gas as gifts of nature to be used by humanity to produce as much wealth as possible, as quickly as possible. She asserts there are sufficient supplies of these fuels to meet the needs of future generations, even if we use them at rapidly increasing rates. When coal, oil, and gas do eventually start to run out, Politician A says we can always turn to nuclear energy. In her view, the harvesting and burning of fossil fuels can be accomplished with few incidental environmental problems, and fossil fuel companies can be trusted to use the safest methods available. And if Earth’s climate is indeed changing, she says, this is not due to the burning of fossil fuels; therefore, policies meant to cut fossil fuel consumption are unnecessary and economically damaging. Finally, she says renewable energy sources should not be subsidized by government, but should stand or fall according to their own economic merits.

Politician B regards oil, coal, and natural gas as polluting substances, and society’s addiction to them is shameful. He thinks oil prices are high because petroleum companies gouge their customers; nuclear energy is too dangerous to contemplate; and renewable energy sources are benign (with supplies of sunlight and wind vastly exceeding our energy needs). To hear him tell it, the only reason solar and wind still supply such a small percentage of our total energy is that fossil fuel companies are politically powerful, benefiting from generous, often hidden, government subsidies. Government should cut those subsidies and support renewable energy instead. He believes climate change is a serious problem, and to mitigate it we should put a price on carbon emissions. If we do, Politician B says, renewable energy industries will grow rapidly, creating jobs and boosting the economy.

Politicized Research Too

Who is right? Well, this should be easy to determine. Just ignore the foaming rhetoric and focus on research findings. But in reality that’s not easy at all, because research is itself often politicized. Studies can be designed from the outset to give results that are friendly to the preconceptions and prejudices of one partisan group or another.

For example, there are studies that appear to show that the oil and natural gas production technique known as hydrofracturing (or “fracking”) is safe for the environment. With research in hand, industry representatives calmly inform us that there have been no confirmed instances of fracking fluids contaminating water tables. The implication: environmentalists who complain about the dangers of fracking simply don’t know what they’re talking about. However, there are indeed many documented instances of water pollution associated with fracking, though technically most of these have resulted from the improper disposal of wastewater produced once fracking per se is finished, rather than from the hydrofracturing process itself. Further, industry-funded studies of fracking typically focus on sites where best practices are in place and equipment is working as designed—the ideal scenario. In the messy real world, well casings sometimes fail, operators cut corners, and equipment occasionally malfunctions.

For their part, environmentalists point to peer-reviewed studies showing air, water, and human health problems associated with actual (far from ideal) fracking operations.

So, depending on your prior beliefs, you can often choose research findings to support them—even if the studies you are citing are actually highly misleading.

Renewable Energy Suffers Same Fate

Renewable energy is just as contentious. Mark Jacobson, professor of environmental engineering at Stanford University, has co-authored a series of reports and scientific papers arguing that solar, wind, and hydropower could provide 100 percent of world energy by 2030. Clearly, Jacobson’s work supports Politician B’s political narrative by showing that the climate problem can be solved with little or no economic sacrifice. If Jacobson is right, then it is only the fossil fuel companies and their supporters that stand in the way of a solution to our environmental (and economic) problems. The Sierra Club and prominent Hollywood stars have latched onto Jacobson’s work and promote it enthusiastically.

However, Jacobson’s publications have provoked thoughtful criticism, some of it from supporters of renewable energy, who argue that his “100 percent renewables by 2030” scenario ignores hidden costs, land use and environmental problems, and grid limits (see herehere, and