Tag Archives: fossil fuels

The Suicidal Human Race

I used to think I understood at least some aspects of human behavior. In college, I learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and that made a lot of sense; as I aged (and boy, have I aged!), I came to understand the complexities created by our individual, still poorly-understood combinations of nature and nurture.

But reactions to the combination of a global pandemic and the existential threat of climate change have left me gobsmacked. What explains the evident preference of so many people for obviously suicidal behaviors? How do people manage to construct a “reality” contrary to science and logic, let alone personal safety?

The politicization of responses to Covid has been widely described, although that phenomenon is still not well explained. Denial of the severity of the threat, fear of lifesaving vaccines and ingestion of dangerous “cures” (for a disease that doesn’t exist??) are largely  Republican behaviors–and suicidal at both the individual and group levels. Research confirms that rural folks and members of the GOP are dying in far greater numbers than Democrats and city dwellers.

Equally suicidal is the maddening, continuing, blithe refusal to address climate change seriously, despite years of warnings. Denying the threat, and/or continuing to postpone any serious effort to combat it, should no longer be possible–at least, by sane humans–because the effects of a warming planet are already manifesting. And yet, headlines like this one from the Guardian, remind us that governments–ours and others around the globe–continue to prefer the bottom line of fossil fuel companies over the ability of the only planet we currently inhabit to sustain human life and civilization.

The fossil fuel industry benefits from subsidies of $11m every minute, according to analysis by the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF found the production and burning of coal, oil and gas was subsidised by $5.9tn in 2020, with not a single country pricing all its fuels sufficiently to reflect their full supply and environmental costs. Experts said the subsidies were “adding fuel to the fire” of the climate crisis, at a time when rapid reductions in carbon emissions were urgently needed.

If fossil fuel prices reflected their true cost, the IMF calculates we would cut global CO2 emissions by over a third.

The G20 agreed in 2009 to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies and in 2016, the G7 set a deadline of 2025, but little progress has been made. In July, a report showed that the G20 countries had subsidised fossil fuels by trillions of dollars since 2015, the year the Paris climate deal was reached.

There’s a fair amount of data available on individual suicides: my very superficial research suggests that people who try to kill themselves may suffer from depression, substance abuse or other mental disorders. (More understandably, suicides are more prevalent in people who suffer from chronic pain.) None of these reasons–with the possible exception of mental disorder–explains either the rejection of science and logic leading to refusal to be vaccinated, or the social phenomenon of lawmakers preferring the bottom line of fossil fuel companies to the survival of civilization as we know it.

I’m at a loss.

Money And The Planet

We’re at a time of the year and election cycle when news about the political campaigns tends to drown out other important or newsworthy developments. Policy arguments, particularly, take a back seat to “breaking news” about the latest evidence or eruption of Trump’s mental illness and general despicableness–like the taped confession that he knew in February how contagious and dangerous the COVID-19 virus was.

So I’ve seen very little about an important effort to counter climate change being made by the Democrats in the House of Representatives. Late last month, The Guardian reported on a three-part plan that aims to expose and counter the fossil fuel industry’s well-funded efforts to conceal the scale of the climate crisis.

Senate Democrats are set to release a 200-page plan arguing that significant US climate action will require stripping the fossil fuel industry of its influence over the government and the public’s understanding of the crisis.

“It’s important for the public to understand that this is not a failure of American democracy that’s causing this,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, a Senate Democrat from Rhode Island. “It is a very specific and successful attack on American democracy by an industry with truly massive financial motivation to corrupt democratic institutions.

A report titled Dark Money has laid out in detail just how “giant fossil fuel corporations have spent billions – much of it anonymized through scores of front groups – during a decades-long campaign to attack climate science and obstruct climate action”.

It isn’t as though the media hasn’t reported on this web of disinformation. Environmental groups have brought lawsuits that have exposed the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to conceal the scale of the problem and its use of dark money groups to slow a shift away from fossil fuels. But as Whitehouse points out, the story has yet to reach the American public.

In an indication of how interrelated our current problems are, and the extent to which campaign finance permissiveness has affected policymaking, the report blames the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed industries to spend virtually unlimited sums of money to sway elections.

The elements of the three-part plan are:

“Expose the role of the fossil fuel billionaires, executives and corporations in funding and organizing the groups trafficking in climate denial and obstruction.”

“Reform federal laws and regulations to require greater transparency and reduce the influence of money, particularly dark money, in politics.”

“Alert industries that support climate action to the depth, nature and success of the covert fossil fuel political scheme.”

The article points out that climate change–like so much else in our polarized political world–has become a defining feature of partisanship.

Republicans meanwhile are split on the climate issue, with some outright denying the science, many questioning the severity of the crisis, and a growing minority pitching technologies for capturing emissions from fossil fuels so they can continue to be used. Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax and rescinded essentially all of the federal government’s biggest climate efforts.

The article noted that fossil fuel companies knew the severity of the climate crisis as early as the late 1970s, and are only now–reluctantly–confronting it. Whitehouse pins the success of their intervening efforts to mislead and misdirect directly on Ciitizens United.

Whitehouse was elected to the Senate in 2006, and he said everything changed immediately after the supreme court issued the Citizens United ruling in 2010. “There’s a very clear before and after,” he said.

“I don’t think Americans understand enough the extent to which the fossil fuel industry has weaponized a whole variety of systems and laws that now competes with the government itself for dominance,” Whitehouse said.

A final note: The United States is scheduled to exit the Paris Climate Agreement on November 4th.

 

 

Picking Winners And Losers

One of the most common–and persuasive– arguments posed by so-called “conservatives” against government regulation is that government should not be “picking winners and losers,” that the market should make those determinations.

So what about the enormous subsidies government provides to fossil fuel interests–subsidies that those same “conservatives” defend?

Paul Krugman had a recent column in which he discussed both the subsidies and the discredited economic theories offered to justify them.The column was prompted by the arrogant response of Stephen Mnuchin to Greta Thunberg’s speech at Davos. Thunberg  had called for an end to investments in fossil fuels; Mnuchin suggested that she go “study economics” before making what he implied were uninformed and childish recommendations.

(Krugman also noted that Mnuchin “doubled down” on his claim that Trump’s 2017 tax cut will pay for itself — despite the fact that, just a few days before, his own department had confirmed that the budget deficit in 2019 was 75 percent higher than it was in 2016.)

Krugman explained why “Mnuchin was talking nonsense and that Thunberg almost certainly has it right.” He began with basic economics:

One can only surmise that Mnuchin slept through his undergraduate economics classes. Otherwise he would know that every, and I mean every, major Econ 101 textbook argues for government regulation or taxation of activities that pollute the environment, because otherwise neither producers nor consumers have an incentive to take the damage inflicted by this pollution into account.

But what about those subsidies?

The International Monetary Fund makes regular estimates of worldwide subsidies to fossil fuels — subsidies that partly take the form of tax breaks and outright cash grants, but mainly involve not holding the industry accountable for the indirect costs it imposes. In 2017 it put these subsidies at $5.2 trillion; yes, that’s trillion with a “T.” For the U.S., the subsidies amounted to $649 billion, which is about $3 million for every worker employed in the extraction of coal, oil and gas. Without these subsidies, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would still be investing in fossil fuels.

Krugman points out that, while Thunberg may be young, her views come “much closer to the consensus of the economics profession than those of the guy clinging to the zombie idea that tax cuts pay for themselves.” And he then concludes:

But could the economics consensus be wrong? Yes, but probably because it isn’t hard enough on fossil fuels.

On one side, a number of experts argue that standard models underestimate the risks of climate change, both because they don’t account for its disruptive effects and because they don’t put enough weight on the possibility of total catastrophe.

On the other side, estimates of the cost of reducing emissions tend to understate the role of innovation. Even modest incentives for expanded use of renewable energy led to a spectacular fall in prices over the past decade.

I still often find people — both right-wingers and climate activists — asserting that sharply reducing emissions would require a big decline in G.D.P. Everything we know, however, says that this is wrong, that we can decarbonize while continuing to achieve robust growth.

Given all this, however, why are people like Mnuchin and his boss Trump so adamantly pro-fossil fuel and anti-environmentalist?

Part of the answer, I believe, is that conservatives don’t want to admit that government action is ever justified. Once you concede that the government can do good by protecting the environment, people might start thinking that it can guarantee affordable health care, too.

Given the scale of subsidies we give to fossil fuels, the industry as a whole should be regarded as a gigantic grift. It makes money by ripping off everyone else, to some extent through direct taxpayer subsidies, to a greater extent by shunting the true costs of its operations off onto innocent bystanders.

And let’s be clear: Many of those “costs” take the form of sickness and death, because that’s what local air pollution causes. Other costs take the form of “natural” disasters like the burning of Australia, which increasingly bear the signature of climate change.

In a sane world we’d be trying to shut this grift down. But the grifters — which overwhelmingly means corporations and investors, since little of that $3-million-per-worker subsidy trickles down to the workers themselves — have bought themselves a lot of political influence.

And so people like Mnuchin claim not to see anything wrong with industries whose profits depend almost entirely on hurting people. Maybe he should take a course in economics — and another one in ethics.

Krugman’s being silly. No one in this administration can even spell ethics.

 

Ideology And Climate Change

Most of Australia appears to be on fire. The extent of the devastation is hard to comprehend–as this is written, 24 people have been killed, 15.6 million acres burned (so far), hundreds if not thousands of homes destroyed, and an estimated billion animals killed.

Yet, as Vox reports, government officials in Australia continue to downplay the link between climate change and the wildfires– Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists that the country doesn’t need to do more to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. The government is apparently willing to shirk its duty to protect the population and the environment in order to protect the country’s powerful mining sector.

There’s a strong scientific consensus that links climate change to the number and severity of the wildfires.In its 2018 “State of the Climate” report,  the Australian Bureau of Meteorology warned that climate change had already ushered in a long-term warming trend and was also responsible for changes in rainfall that increase the risks of wildfires.

It isn’t only Australia. The effects of climate change are appearing everywhere. In Indonesia, the capital city of Jakarta is sinking so quickly that officials are working to move it to another island. Pictures of Venice are heartbreaking. Other examples abound.

Here in the United States, the Trump administration is responding by rolling back numerous environmental measures that had been put in place both to combat pollution and address climate change. It sometimes seems as if the administration is trying to poison the air and water and actually accelerate climate change.

Sane people faced with an existential threat don’t behave this way. What explains it?

The Roosevelt Institute attributes this inexplicably destructive behavior to neoliberal ideology.

In Transcending Neoliberalism: How the Free-Market Myth Has Prevented Climate Action, Roosevelt Fellow Mark Paul and Anders Fremstad of Colorado State University present a coherent account of how neoliberalism has contributed to inaction. To do so, they explore three tenets of neoliberal ideology that have stymied action to address the climate crisis:

Decentralize democracy: A feature of the neoliberal order in the US has been the systematic decentralization of government. Neoliberals have promoted federalism to address “government failure” and subject the state to market forces, exacerbating the race to the bottom in climate policy.

Defund public investment: Neoliberals dismantled the Keynesian consensus that the state has a major role to play in providing public goods, stabilizing the macroeconomy, and solving coordination problems. In the neoliberal order, government investments are rejected as expensive and wasteful, crowding out productive private investments.

Deregulate the economy: Neoliberalism has launched a concentrated attack on government’s ability to regulate the economy. Ignoring the ability of regulations to positively shape markets, neoliberals dismiss government intervention as “red tape” that merely increases the cost of doing business.

Those tenets of neoliberalism have been mainstays of Republican policy at least since Reagan. To them, however, you have to add the rabid anti-intellectualism of the Trump administration–an anti-intellectualism married to an obsessive determination to undo anything Barack Obama accomplished. Trump has persistently worked to drive scientists out of government agencies, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that those agencies’ effectiveness depend upon sound scientific evidence.

As the New York Times, among others, has reported,

In just three years, the Trump administration has diminished the role of science in federal policymaking while halting or disrupting research projects nationwide, marking a transformation of the federal government whose effects, experts say, could reverberate for years.

Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The administration has particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal mining. It has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, which President Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.

What is it that Neil DeGrasse Tyson always says? Reality doesn’t care whether you believe it or not.

If climate change makes the Earth uninhabitable–a result that is looking more and more likely– the cause will be stubborn ignorance and the willful elevation of ideology over evidence.

Follow The Money

Want to know what America’s real priorities are? Easy; just follow the money.

Some of what we find when we examine federal spending isn’t a surprise. We’ve all watched as the Trump Administration has eviscerated the EPA, for example, so cuts and rollbacks there may infuriate but not surprise us. After all, Trump has dismissed climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” eliminated subsidies for clean energy, and slapped tariffs on solar panels.

Given this administration’s well-known bias against science, evidence and clean energy–not to mention Trump’s fondness for the dying coal industry–I shouldn’t have been surprised by the general thrust of a recent study of America’s federal subsidies for fossil fuels  by the International Monetary Fund.

But I was.

Because the amount of the subsidy was staggering.

The United States has spent more subsidizing fossil fuelsin recent years than it has on defense spending, according to a new report from the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF found that direct and indirect subsidies for coal, oil and gas in the U.S. reached $649 billion in 2015. Pentagon spending that same year was $599 billion.

The study defines “subsidy” very broadly, as many economists do. It accounts for the “differences between actual consumer fuel prices and how much consumers would pay if prices fully reflected supply costs plus the taxes needed to reflect environmental costs” and other damage, including premature deaths from air pollution.

Since most observers consider the U.S. defense budget to be hopelessly bloated, the fact that fossil fuel subsidies exceed that budget is absolutely mind-blowing.

The study concluded that if fossil fuels had been fairly priced in 2015–i.e., priced without those direct and indirect subsidies by the federal government– global carbon emissions would have been reduced by 28 percent, and deaths from fossil fuel-linked air pollution would have been cut in half.

People (like me) concerned about the environment may not have recognized the enormity of the fossil fuel subsidies, but most of us were pretty sure that a lot more federal dollars go to support fossil fuels than are directed to programs incentivizing the development of clean, alternative energy. The IMF study confirmed that suspicion.

And then there’s the extent to which our financial support of fossil fuels exceeds our investment in education. Seeing those numbers was another gut punch. After all, Americans give lots of lip service to education; we’ve had “education Presidents,” and it is the rare politician who doesn’t make education a prominent part of his or her platform.

Nevertheless, according to Forbes Magazine, that same IMF study determined that the U.S. spends ten times more money propping up the fossil fuels that drive climate change than we spend on education.

Globally, fossil fuels receive 85% of all government subsidies. What if we diverted just a portion of the U.S. subsidies and used that money to improve public education?

Virtually every candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination has expressed concern about climate change, and an intention to combat it. Voters can determine just how committed they are to the environment by asking whether the candidate plans to continue the obscene subsidies that waste our tax dollars, pad the bottom lines of immensely profitable oil and gas interests, and prevent us from effectively addressing an existential threat to the planet.

Just think what we could do if we redirected a substantial portion of the defense budget (as, interestingly, the Department of Defense itself has advocated) and entirely terminated the unnecessary, wasteful and arguably immoral subsidies for fossil fuels.