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America’s carbon clash

US voters and the US elite have each reached a settled view on climate change. Unfortunately, it’s not the same view

10 November 2012

9:00 AM

10 November 2012

9:00 AM

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? In US energy issues today, the irresistible force is broad public support for more energy consumption; the immovable object, on the other hand, is elite opposition to that energy consumption, specifically hydrocarbons.

Four-fifths of American energy comes from fossil fuels, and so that accounts for a huge force of folks accustomed to driving their cars, heating their homes, and powering their workplaces by burning oil, natural gas or coal. Yet all that energy consumption — and the 5.2 billion or so metric tons of CO2 that it emits annually — is generating immovable opposition among green-influenced elites.

US public opinion is clear enough — it wants more energy, and more consumption. Last autumn, Gallup asked an open-ended question: ‘What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?’ A full 72 per cent cited economic problems, including 2 per cent who lamented high fuel prices. By contrast, an unmeasurably small number of Americans mentioned the environment, pollution, or scarcity of resources.

So why have energy concerns rated so low with the general public? The answer is simple: the public has concluded that energy is no longer a problem. Yes, for decades Americans have been schooled by their betters in ‘energy crisis’, ‘era of limits’, and ‘peak oil’. And yet in the past few years, a new wave of post-scarcity reality has washed over the nation. For example, Americans have recently been inundated with news of the potential of fracking and shale, and so now they are at least vaguely aware that they possess fossil-fuel reserves to match the rest of the world.

Thus Americans are presented with the pleasing prospect of energy independence — and also of independence from the noxious petro-autocracies in Latin America and Asia. Over the past four years, some 600,000 jobs have been created in the US fracking industry; in particular, North Dakota has become a snowy-but-happy postcard from the future America that could be: an energy-rich land blessed with minimal -unemployment.

Yet there’s just one thing: power is still divided in Washington. Democrats still control the Senate, and Republicans still control the House. That means that Democratic friends of the Earth will be in continued opposition to Republican friends of the economy. Or we could say, in deference to this shout-it-loud era, Democratic Luddites will be fighting Republican stooges of the Koch Brothers.


Meanwhile, every member of Congress, in either party, is eager to point out that the legislative branch is the constitutional equal of the executive branch. As the Washington saying goes, ‘The President proposes, the Congress disposes.’ And beyond Congress, America is still a land of lawsuits, nimbys and sit-down protests. We can fairly say that in a time of hyper-partisanship, hyper-polarisation and hyper-pluralism, it’s no easy matter for anyone’s grand plan to be implemented.

In other words, the real fight over energy and environmental policy is about to begin. And the immediate flashpoint is Hurricane Sandy. For significant chunks of the policy elite, Sandy was a bugle-call to wake up on climate change — that is, a summons once again to fight the green good fight.

Indeed, Sandy inspired New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg — once a Republican, now an independent, but still a pro-business stalwart — to endorse Barack Obama just five days before the election; as Bloomberg put it, the changing climate ‘should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action’. And in the mayor’s mind, that same injunction applies to media barons and philanthropists as well. Bloomberg, who will presumably be leaving office in 2014, has said he wants to dedicate a considerable portion of his philanthropic efforts to fighting coal — and his net worth is estimated at $25 billion.

The average American was equally horrified by Sandy, of course, and yet there’s little evidence that such horror will translate into greater national support for carbon-crimping policies, such as the ‘cap and trade’ bill that failed to pass even a Democratic Senate in 2009.

So America can look forward to an epic fight between mass opinion and elite opinion. The masses lack established media portals and an articulate policy voice, but, well, they have numbers. Meanwhile, the elites have their experts and their money — and yes, perhaps, their incontrovertible science. So as the energy-climate battle gains force, we can expect pro-energy forces to win popular elections, while pro-climate forces win victories in the bureaucracy and the judiciary. As the Eurocrats in Brussels demonstrate every day, it’s possible to lose a struggle in the home country and yet ultimately triumph in the labyrinth of a distant capital.

Back to energy politics in America: popular irresistible force vs elite immovable object. America will never go without energy; the public will make sure of that. But neither will energy become easily available; the elites will make sure of that. The result could be the American political equivalent of Flanders-style trench warfare. And that could go on for a long bloody time.

What’s missing from the debate, so far at least, is the environmental equivalent of the aeroplane or the tank — that is, the battlefield game-changer that turns the static into the dynamic. Could that game-changer be renewable energy? Perhaps, but even the Obama Energy Department saw non-hydro renewables as amounting to only 9 per cent of total US consumption by 2035. Could it be nuclear power? Maybe. But just don’t build that nuke in my backyard.

Or perhaps someone will come up with a cool new approach to carbon sequestration, so that carbon dioxide never enters the atmosphere. A US company called Novomer knows how to turn CO2 into usable plastic, albeit so far only on a limited scale. Could that technology be scaled up? And if so, for how much? Or how about, as another possibility, giant trees? After all, wood is a carbon sink. Could we bioengineer monster trees, as seen in the movie Avatar? Could we make trees that could perhaps double as the ultimate eco-tourist attraction?

Such possible solutions might seem far-fetched, even laughable. Yet the current conundrum — force vs object — is not funny, either. So for this grim square-off to be resolved, somebody is going to have to come up with an answer that allows for economic growth but not CO2 growth.

If that answer is not found, Americans will face a new conundrum: abundance and scarcity coexisting on a see-saw, as the climate change issue grows ever more pointed and problematic.

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