What climate hawks can learn from the ‘Meet the Press’ debacle

meet the press climate change debate
meet the press climate change debate

Source: NBC News

Ah, the Sunday morning political talk show, a throwback to a simpler time when old, well-connected white guys could get together in a safe space to tell everyone what they’re supposed to think. “Meet the Press” has long been the paragon of this model, sitting at the center of the debate over conventional Beltway wisdom and providing an outlet for John McCain to speak on any and all issues, forever. I’m pretty Senator McCain has his mail delivered to the MTP studio when Congress is in recess.

It is in these hallowed studios where the Very Serious People sit around tables together and decide what issues matter. I’m not sure if these wise oracles read tea leaves or sort through chicken entrails to divine which topics are of import, but they have clearly sent the message that climate change does not fall into that category. In 2013, Sunday talk shows covered the topic for a combined 27 minutes; “Meet the Press” did not spend a single second on it.

So imagine my surprise and excitement when each of the Sunday shows, including MTP, announced that they would devote a portion of shows last weekend to climate change and extreme weather. Maybe they would provide a platform for climate scientists to set the record straight about this incredibly important issue.

And then I saw what Meet the Press was planning to do:

meet the press climate debate

Face palm (source: NBCNews.com)

No. No. No no no no no no no. There is no “climate change debate,” and you should definitely not be hosting one, particularly involving a children’s television host and a climate denying Congresswoman. As Alex Pareene wrote at Salon:

What’s insulting (and insane) is that there is to be a “debate” at all, on one of America’s supposed premier news talk shows. What’s scary is that the side of this debate that is wrong, and that is wrong in a way that will very probably lead to worldwide disaster in a few generations, is taken seriously because it is the side taken by one of America’s two dominant political parties.

Providing equal status to climate deniers constitutes journalistic malpractice. While nonpartisan news outlets and journalists may have a desire to demonstrate their objective bona fides, this decision has real consequences.

In a recent paper, Jesse Shapiro from the University of Chicago examines the relationship between media treatment of climate change and the public’s understanding of the issue. He argues that American journalists often go to great lengths to prove that they are unbiased, which leads them to cover the “debate” around climate change and misinform viewers.

He finds a strong correlation in OECD countries between the percentage of journalists who make it clear that there is strong evidence for the manmade global warming and the likelihood that the general public accepts this consensus view. Accordingly, because American journalists are twice as likely to cling to their objectivity as German journalists, Americans are less informed on climate change than citizens of any other OECD state.

journalist norms and climate change belief

The correlation between journalists covering the “debate” and public acceptance of climate change in the OECD

Predictably, this debate quickly devolved into – for the lack of a better term – a total shit show. I loved “Bill Nye the Science Guy” as a kid, but he was completely out of it. Maybe he was tired, as Philip Bump suggested.

Representative Blackburn, on the other hand, was prepared for the segment. She deployed a number of denier tactics, including the single most effective tool that a person defending the wrong side can utilize – rattling off a series of inaccurate statements.

To David Gregory’s credit, he did push back on the Congresswoman, but the entire structure of this faux debate guaranteed that a number of Rep. Blackburn’s lies sat out there without being refuted. As Jay Rosen argued:

Finally, in his self-awareness David Gregory overlooked one big thing. Creating confusion works just fine as a mode of resistance to the scientific consensus he thought he was advancing. (See this study.) Because his Advance the Debate segment required that denialism make an appearance, so that it could be visibly gotten beyond, and because no one on Meet the Press had any intention to stick with the topic long enough to sort out the confusing things Blackburn injected (like the benefits of more carbon) the actual result was an informational mess.

But I was also impressed by the skill with which Rep. Blackburn was able to wield the latest iteration of climate denier arguments. Nathan Young and Aline Coutinho outlined these tactics (paywalled, unfortunately) in the journal Global Environmental Politics last May. In this great article, Young and Coutinho explore how conservative governments in Australia and Canada have utilized “anti-reflexivity” to obfuscate and sow seeds of doubt among the public on climate change.

marsha blackburn

Rep. Marsha Blackburn did an excellent job of demonstrating the “acceptance-rejection approach” of climate denial (courtesy of NBC News).

Anti-reflexivity is the effort “to protect the industrial capitalist order of simple modernization” from threats, primarily through “the dissemination, manipulation, and suppression of knowledge claims.” In other words, those individuals who cling to the fossil fuel-driven status quo attempt to hijack and dictate the research on and public conversation of climate change.

According to Young and Coutinho, however, simply denying the science is not the best way to control the discourse around climate change. They explain that ignorance is not the opposite of knowledge, but an intrinsic part of how “knowing” is formed. Interestingly, people are comfortable remaining largely ignorant on important issues, provided they believe that the institutions responsible for those issues are doing so in a trustworthy manner. As a result,

[R]hetorical acceptance of climate change opens up room for the construction of the “trust bridge” that allows people to be comfortable with non-knowledge.

Paying lip service to the climate consensus makes it easier for deniers to manipulate the public and further the status quo. The authors outline six different “affirmation techniques” that the Howard and Harper administrations have deployed. Impressively, Rep. Blackburn managed to squeeze five of these into the 13-minute debate. Let’s explore them below.

Compliance claims

Both the Howard and Harper governments have emphasized the steps they have taken to tackle climate change. In essence, they attempted to co-op environmental arguments. Here’s Rep. Blackburn:

And what we need to be looking at is the way to achieve efficiencies. Carbon emissions are at the lowest they’ve been since 1994. The reason for that is efficiencies.

Competing priorities (economy vs. environment)

Climate deniers frequently argue that there exists an inherent conflict between addressing climate change and promoting economic strength. Rep. Blackburn did this over and over and over again. Whether it was her saying that we need to run all environmental regulations through a “cost-benefit analysis” no fewer than five times or dropping this line

Now, you know, when you look at the social cost of carbon, and there is a lot of ambiguity around that, what you also need to be doing is looking at the benefits of carbon and what that has on increased agriculture production. Lot of good study out there about that, lot of good scientists and biologists who have done that study.

She just kept hammering this point home.

Exporting the problem

Climate deniers love arguing that it doesn’t make sense for the US to act, because doing so won’t reduce carbon emissions from developing countries. They look to export the problem to any number of bogeymen, most often China and India. Cue Marsha Blackburn:

Let’s say everything that Bill says is wrong is wrong. Let’s just say that. Then you say what are you going to do about it? What would the policy be? And will that policy have an impact? Now, even Director McCarthy from the EPA in answering questions from Congressman Pompeo before our committee, said reaching all of the 26 U.S. goals is not going to have an impact globally.

Controlling the research message

Young and Coutinho emphasize that the Howard and Harper governments have worked aggressively to control what research is done on climate change and how it is communicated. In a similar vein, Rep. Blackburn prefaced her comments by trying to dictate who can and cannot speak on the issue:

And we all know– and I think that Bill would probably agree with this, neither he nor I are a climate scientist. He is an engineer and actor. I am a member of Congress. And what we have to do is look at the information that we get from climate scientists. As you said, there is not agreement around the fact of exactly what is causing this.

She also name dropped two popular contrarian scientists, Richard Lindzen and Judith Curry.

Shifting numerical targets

According to Young and Coutinho, the Harper and Howard governments have set a variety of numerical targets for climate change in order to establish credibility on the topic publicly. But these numbers often clash, change behind the scenes, or prove to be extremely hollow. Again, Rep. Blackburn used a similar tactic by attempting to mislead with numbers:

And when you look at the fact that we have gone from 320 parts per million 0.032, to 0.040 four hundred parts per million, what you do is realize it’s very slight.

Interestingly, it was actually Bill Nye who employed the sixth tactic, appealing to nationalism:

We want to do more with less, and for me, as a guy who grew up in the U.S., I want the U.S. to lead the world in this rather than wait– while you made reference to the United Kingdom, what China is doing with energy production…

Ultimately, this debacle of a debate can hopefully teach climate hawks two important lessons. First, don’t go on television and debate climate change with a denier. The deck is inherently stacked against you, and it will only serve to further misinform the public. Secondly, deniers have begun to subtly shift their tactics, and we need to be ready to counter.

Using these tactics, what Young and Coutinho have dubbed the “acceptance-rejection approach” may prove to be an effective way to forestall action if we’re unprepared. As the researchers conclude:

This, we suggest, is the particular genius of the anti-reflexive stance…If, as this research suggests, many people are willing to be ignorant of certain aspects of the climate change issue as a means of self-protection, then the acceptance-rejection approach provides enough rhetorical comfort to soothe those who are concerned about climate change but unwilling to get deeply involved in the issue.

Just as deniers continue to work to craft new arguments and shift the debate in their favor, so too must climate hawks be vigilant. We’re running out of time to stave off a catastrophe, and we can’t waste it arguing semantics.

January is the vanguard of climate change in the US

map mean temperature anomalies january 2014
map mean temperature anomalies january 2014

Mean temperature anomalies for the continental US from January 1-26 (courtesy of the National Weather Service).

It’s been freaking cold in the Eastern half of the US, and it’s only gotten colder in the past 12 hours or so.

Another section of the dreaded Polar Vortex has broken off and is hovering over the Midwest. This morning, temperatures hovered around -9°F in Cleveland, just shy of the record low for the date. Further inland, however, temperatures plummeted to -14°F or lower.

There’s no question that this January has been abnormally cold and snowy for the region. Through yesterday, the average temperature this month was 22.6°F, which is 5.4°F below the long-term average of 28.1°F. The only way for the monthly temperature to reach that mark would be if the next 5 days were, on average, 63°F. Given that it’s currently 5°F and tomorrow’s high will be 12°F, that isn’t going to happen.

Yet, by most regards, this January has been far from record-breaking in Northeast Ohio. To date, it is only the 16th coldest January since 1964, and the temperature anomaly is not statistically significant (for fellow nerds, the z score is -0.723). Furthermore, just 5 years ago in 2009, the average monthly temperature for January was 19.4°F, the third coldest on record.

But, as we know, one cold month or even winter does not a trend make; the world is warming steadily. And, in the US, January has warmed at a faster rate than any other month. It has been the vanguard of warming.

From 1970-2013, January warmed by a rate of 1.14°C per decade, nearly twice as fast as any other month. [Interestingly, this trend does not hold worldwide. October, which has the lowest rate of warming in the continental US, has warmed at the greatest rate (0.33°C per decade) globally. This result is likely due to the fact that global temperatures include data from both sides of the equator.]

monthly average temperature anomalies

Monthly average temperature anomalies for the United States for 1970-2013 (Data from NOAA National Climatic Data Center).

Cleveland has followed a similar trend. Over the last 50 years, January has demonstrated the greatest rate of warming, with average monthly temperatures increasing by 1.371°F per decade. This number is nearly two-thirds larger than second-place February, which has warmed at a rate 0.826°F.

cleveland monthly temperature anomalies

Monthly average temperature anomalies for Cleveland from 1970-2013 (data from Northeast Ohio Media Group).

Moreover, the number of days on which temperatures dip below 10°F has fallen steadily during this period, decreasing by 2.31 days per decade. This winter has clearly bucked that trend, as there have already been 12 days below 10°F since the beginning of December. That’s the most since we had 15 such days in 2009, and we aren’t even into February yet.

number of frigid nights in cleveland

The number of frigid nights in Cleveland per year, 1970-2013 (courtesy of Climate Central).

Interestingly, for as far below average as temperatures have been in the Midwest, they’ve been even higher than average throughout the West. While mean temperatures have been 4-5°F below average throughout much of the country, nearly all of California, Montana, and Nevada have seen temperatures upwards of 8-9°F higher than normal. This disparity doesn’t even account for Alaska’s abnormally warm winter weather. Fairbanks, for instance, has been three times warmer than normal this January.

Climate change deniers have consistently tried to use the cold snap blanketing most of the eastern US as evidence that, as noted climatologist Donald Trump put it, global warming is “bulls#*t.” Cold weather in January doesn’t disprove climate change. In fact, January has been the proverbial canary in the coal mine for global warming, and that trend hasn’t changed in the last 28 days.

The next time the Plain Dealer writes about climate change, maybe it should interview an actual scientist

On July 23, Plain Dealer reporter and editor Cliff Pinckard published an article titled “A ‘pause’ in global warming keeps the climate-change debate in play.” As you can probably guess from the title, the post – which purported to report on recent research regarding the so-called “warming plateau” – ended up turning into a flawed, irresponsible piece that misrepresented climate science and gave climate deniers disproportionate footing and credibility.

The piece begins with a brief discussion of a recent series of three reports released by the Met Office Hadley Centre on the recent “pause” in global warming during the last 15 years. It is accurate to say that global surface temperatures have not increased at as rapid a rate since 1998 as they did in the previous 30 years. As the first of the three Met Office reports (PDF) notes, “Global mean surface temperatures rose rapidly from the 1970s, but have been relatively flat over the most recent 15 years to 2013.”

Climate deniers routinely use 1998 as the year to begin making their patently absurd claim that the Earth has been cooling over the past 15 years. This decision is strategic, as an abnormally active El Niño event that year led to a massive transfer of heat from the Pacific Ocean to the atmosphere. Since this point, the Pacific Ocean has largely remained in a neutral state, though a moderate La Niña period in the past few years has contributed to a moderate cooling trend in the region. Additionally, 1998 is no longer the warmest year on record. According to the World Meteorological Organization (PDF), 9 of the years from 2000-2010 were among the 10 warmest in recorded history, with 2010 and 2005 ranking first and second, respectively.

Decadal global average surface air temperatures for each 10-year period since 1891. As the chart illustrates, the period from 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record, with a temperature anomaly of 0.84°C above the mean (courtesy of the WMO).

Decadal global average surface air temperatures for each 10-year period since 1891. As the chart illustrates, the period from 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record, with a temperature anomaly of 0.84°C above the mean (courtesy of the WMO).

It is important to note, as Mr. Pinckard does briefly, that the Met Office and other climate scientists have attributed this purported “pause” in warming to a variety of potential causes, particularly the trapping of heat in the deep oceans. The first report continues:

Careful processing of the available deep ocean records shows that the heat content of the upper 2,000m increased by 24 x 1022J over the 1955–2010 period (Levitus, 2012), equivalent to 0.09°C warming of this layer. To put this into context, if the same energy had warmed the lower 10km of the atmosphere, it would have warmed by 36°C! While this will not happen, it does illustrate the importance of the ocean as a heat store.

The vast majority of global warming is stored in the oceans, particularly below 700 meters, due to sheer size of the oceans, compared to land area, and the ability of water to trap and store heat (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

The vast majority of global warming is stored in the oceans, particularly below 700 meters, due to sheer size of the oceans, compared to land area, and the ability of water to trap and store heat (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Had Mr. Pinckard stopped there, his article would have been relatively accurate and innocuous. But instead, he ventured into false equivalence land, feeling the irrepressible need to provide “balance” by quoting climate deniers. James Fallows, who has spent far too much of his outstanding career at The Atlantic reporting on the media’s penchant for false equivalence, has settled on its definition:

False equivalence, the definition (courtesy of James Fallows & @natpkguy).

False equivalence, the definition (courtesy of James Fallows & @natpkguy).

Mr. Pinckard devotes the next 329 words of his article – 36.4% of the whole piece! – to quoting at length from professional climate denier/right wing columnist Rupert Darwall (who has no background in climate science) and someone named Nirav Kothari writing on a random Indian financial site. I’m not sure how these two gentlemen warrant mentioning or quoting at length, but actual climate scientists are shut out of the piece. Perhaps Mr. Picknard can elaborate.

Even more disturbingly, Mr. Pinckard grants equal footing to the claims of these deniers. He argues in both the piece’s headline and the caption under its sole picture that the Met Office’s work means the “the climate-change debate is in play” and that “some people [are] wondering if man-made emissions really have an impact on the environment.”

Mr. Pinckard’s decision to use a complex debate within the climate science community as a reason to launch these patently false and absurd claims is highly irresponsible, if not journalistic malpractice.

There is no debate within the scientific community as whether or not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions “have an impact on the environment.” Svante Arrenhius first discovered that greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, could alter the heat budget of the atmosphere and lead to global warming in 1895.

We know for a fact that  greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are increasing the heat-trapping potential of the atmosphere. Based on evidence from tree rings and ice cores, we know that the average concentrate of CO2 in the atmosphere during the Holocene, the mild and fair geological age in which human civilization has developed, stood at a fairly stead 280ppm. This changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and C02 concentrations have spiked by more than 40%, reaching 400ppm in May for the first time in at least 3,000,000 years.

Historical concentrations of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere, as measured over the last 800,000 years. As the chart suggests, the historical measure stayed at or below 280ppm throughout this period, but the number spiked rapidly after 1850 (courtesy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

Historical concentrations of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as measured over the last 800,000 years. As the chart suggests, the historical measure stayed at or below 280ppm throughout this period, but the number spiked rapidly within the last 200 years (courtesy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

During this period, the atmosphere has begun trapping an additional 1.6 watts per square meter of heat every second, equivalent to the amount of energy stored in four Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

We know that the warming has primarily been caused by increasing concentrations of CO2 and, to a lesser extent, other heat-trapping gases like methane and nitrous oxide. Scientists are able to determine this by measuring the wavelengths of long-wave infrared radiation as it reaches the ground and as it leaves the Earth. Sure enough, the mass spectrometers show spikes in radiation levels grouped around CO2 and other known greenhouse gases.

Spectrum measurements of the various wavelengths of greenhouse gas radiation at the surface of the Earth, drawn from Evans (2006). As the chart shows, the overwhelming majority of radiation falls within the spectrum of CO2, with significant contributions from CH4 (methane), O3 (ozone), and N2O (nitrous oxide), all of which are known greenhouse gases (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Spectrum measurements of the various wavelengths of greenhouse gas radiation at the surface of the Earth. The overwhelming majority of radiation falls within the spectrum of CO2, with significant contributions from methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide, all of which are known greenhouse gases (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Moreover, had Mr. Pinckard bothered to actually read the reports from the Met Office, he might have discovered that a decade or two of relatively flat temperatures has been predicted by climate models.

[T]he results show that a pause of 10 years’ duration is likely to occur due to internal fluctuations about twice every century.

The third Met Office report (PDF) also notes that the recent pause will not continue for long and will have almost no impact on the long-term trends in warming. The authors conclude first that “the physical basis of climate models and the projections they produce have not been invalidated by the recent pause.” Additionally, they argue “the recent pause in global surface temperature rise does not materially alter the risks of dangerous climate change.”

Mr. Pinckard fails to provide this important context to his readers or offer the additional evidence, besides average land surface temperatures, that global warming has continued apace. It is called global warming, not land warming, for a reason.

The next time that The Plain Dealer wants to cover an issue involving our global climate, which is easily one of the most complex and misunderstood topics in the world, I would suggest their reporter(s) do the following:

    • Go to Google and type the following: site:skepticalscience.com climate-related search term.
    • Watch the following video from NASA for further proof that, yes, the planet is warming

PD editorial on Obama’s climate plan is lazy, wrong & shortsighted

President Obama wipes his brow while delivering his climate speech at Georgetown University on June 25 (courtesy of The Atlantic Wire).

President Obama wipes his brow while delivering his climate speech at Georgetown University on June 25 (courtesy of The Atlantic Wire).

Last Sunday (June 30), the editorial board of The Plain Dealer published an editorial titled “Don’t bypass Congress on climate-change policy,” which criticized President Obama’s climate policy speech at Georgetown on June 25. In the piece, the board argued that the President is acting inappropriately by taking executive action to tackle the US’s greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency. They note that the proposed regulations on GHG emissions from existing coal-fired power plants would “drive many of them out of business.” They continued:

Such plant closures would disproportionately hurt coal-dependent states such as Ohio. It is unfair to expect one region or small group of states to shoulder the chief economic impacts of a radical policy shift without subsidies or offsets.

An extreme U.S. policy aimed at divesting the nation from coal-fired energy should not be decided by the White House alone.

Unfortunately for the PD editorial board (and the public in Northeast Ohio it’s supposed to inform), this argument is a house of cards that one can easily dissect. So allow me to do so.

First, the board refers to the proposal as one of the “mandates that need no congressional approval” of which Americans must be “wary.” Nowhere in the piece does the board mention the fact that in Massachusetts et al. v. EPA (2007, PDF) the US Supreme Court ordered the EPA to determine if carbon dioxide constitutes a danger to public health in the country, the so-called “endangerment finding”. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, noted that:

Because greenhouse gases fit well within the [Clean Air] Act’s capacious definition of “air pollutant,” EPA has statutory authority to regulate emission of such gases…

On December 7, 2009, the EPA issued the results of its endangerment finding, noting that

the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases…in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.

Yet, despite this judicial ruling that EPA regulate GHGs, the editorial board makes no reference to the jurisprudence or the endangerment finding. It treats the President’s actions as if they were capricious and unexpected, rather than mandated by the highest court of the land.

Bipartisanship & consensus are to the PD editorial board as the ring was to Gollum (courtesy of Wikicommons).

Bipartisanship & consensus are to the PD editorial board as the ring was to Gollum (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Secondly, the editorial board criticized the President for not working towards the consensus it reveres so highly. “Consensus” and “bipartisanship” are the buzzwords of the day for the Very Serious Persons who sit on editorial boards around the country. Yes, if only President Obama could reach out to Congressional Republicans and bring them to the table on climate action.

Of course, this belief completely belies reality. The modern Republican Party is the only opposition party in the world that steadfastly denies climate science. Moreover, the party remains completely obsequious to the fossil fuel industry. According to a recent study from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, 411 elected officials around the country have signed a pledge to the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity promising to avoid taking action on climate change.

Furthermore, while VSPs at the PD and The Washington Post continue to write ballads about their fantasy carbon tax, recent evidence suggests that the EPA route may be the better alternative. A report from Resources for the Future suggests that, depending on the details, EPA regulation would likely be more effective at reducing GHG emissions than a carbon tax. This is particularly true, given the carbon tax that would likely come out of the current Congress – none.

Thirdly, the PD editorial board asserts, without providing any evidence, that the President’s climate plan will necessitate “sweeping economic sacrifice” and will change the “lifestyles and energy sources” of Ohioans.  Once again, the board refused to let fact get in the way of a [not so] good argument.

For decades, industry shills and their supporters have cried out against EPA regulations, claiming they would destroy the American economy. Yet, in case after case, the benefits of these regulations have far exceeded estimates, while the costs have been vastly lower than projected. The Edison Electric Institute claimed (PDF) that the 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA) amendments would carry $4-5 billion in annual compliance costs. The actual annual cost? $836 million. They were only off by 81.4%. According to a 2010 study, the benefits of the CAA and the 1990 amendments outweighed the costs by a ratio of 32.1 to 1 ($23.42 trillion in benefits to $730 billion in costs).

The monetized costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act and its 1990 amendments. As the table shows, the benefits of the CAA have vastly outweighed its costs (courtesy of Small Business Majority).

The monetized costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act and its 1990 amendments. As the table shows, the benefits of the CAA have vastly outweighed its costs (courtesy of Small Business Majority).

A recent study from the Natural Resources Defense Council suggest that EPA regulations on GHG emissions will once again provide a significant net benefit. In December, NRDC put together a proposed set of regulations for EPA to implement. This plan would set state-by-state emissions reductions standards, allowing coal-dependent states like Ohio to make a more gradual shift to more renewable energy sources. According to their assessment, the plan would reduce GHG emissions by 26% by 2020; its benefits would be roughly 6 to 15 times greater (PDF) than its associated costs.

NRDC recently had a respected firm run an economic assessment of this plan (PDF). The firm, Synapse Energy Economics, found that, contrary to the warnings of the naysayers at the PD, this plan would create 210,000 jobs and reduce electric bills by $0.90 per month through 2020.

Graph from Synapse Energy Economic's report on the NRDC policy proposal. As the graph shows, Ohio is projected to gain the second most jobs from EPA action (courtesy of Synapse Energy Economics).

Graph from Synapse Energy Economic’s report on the NRDC policy proposal. As the graph shows, Ohio is projected to gain the second most jobs from EPA action (courtesy of Synapse Energy Economics).

Ohio, one of the 14 states included in the analysis, would particularly benefit. The state would gain an additional 12,000 jobs – second only to Florida – and households would pay $1.03 less per month for electricity. Moreover, these regulations would simply speed up the transition away from coal that the state is already making. Under SB 221, Ohio is already obligated (PDF) to improve its energy efficiency by 22.2% and get 12.5% of its energy from renewable energy sources. Rather than increasing prices or killing jobs, a study from Ohio State has concluded that the policy saved ratepayers $170 million on their electric bills from 2008-2012 and created 3,200 jobs in the state.

Lastly – and unsurprisingly, given Ohio’s fealty to the coal industry – the editorial fails to mention any of the serious consequences of the state’s dependence on coal. A myriad of studies shows that coal carries significant costs for public health and well-being. According to a 2011 research article (PDF),

the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are
costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.

If we were to internalize these externalities, the authors estimate that the price of coal-fired electricity would double or triple, making it noncompetitive with renewables. The Clean Air Task Force has concluded (PDF) that coal plants are responsible for 13,200 premature deaths, 20,400 heart attacks, and 217,600 asthma attacks annually in the US. Given Ohio’s dependence on this filthy fuel, the state ranked 2nd in 2010 for in coal-related mortality risk, hospital admissions, and heart attacks. The Cleveland metro area ranked 8th for mortality. All in all, evidence suggests that, for every $1 in economic benefits from coal, it carries $2 in costs to the public.

Mortality per 100,000 people from coal-fired power plants. As the map illustrates, coal-dependent states and their neighbors, including Ohio, suffer substantially from its effects (courtesy of the Clean Air Task Force).

Mortality per 100,000 people from coal-fired power plants. As the map illustrates, coal-dependent states and their neighbors, including Ohio, suffer substantially from its effects (courtesy of the Clean Air Task Force).

The Plain Dealer‘s editorial is just the latest in a series of inaccurate claims that EPA regulations will doom the American economy. They have proven wrong, time and again, and the PD will almost certainly be wrong here. The editorial is inaccurate, shortsighted, and – to be frank – an extremely lazy argument. As President Obama said in his climate speech,

[T]he problem with all these tired excuses for inaction is that it suggests a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity. These critics seem to think that when we ask our businesses to innovate and reduce pollution and lead, they can’t or they won’t do it. They’ll just kind of give up and quit. But in America, we know that’s not true.

The next time the PD wants to write about climate policy, I suggest the editorial board actually does its homework, rather than relying on a tired set of easily disproved talking points.

Concern trolls at the Washington Post bash environmentalists

The Washington Post editorial board habitually tries to cast itself as constituting the reasonable middle in major policy debates, including climate change. Over the past several months, the Post has made it clear that the only acceptable tactic to mitigate the carbon emissions driving global warming is a carbon tax. Sticking to this script, the board published a new editorial bashing the environmentalists fighting the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to the Post:

The [State Department’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement] underscores the extent to which activists have trumped up a relatively mundane infrastructure issue into the premier environmental fight of this decade, leading to big marches and acts of civil disobedience to advance a cause that is worthy of neither. The activists ought to pick more important fights. Until they do, the president should ignore their pressure.

As I explained in a previous post, it’s certainly fair to claim that the Keystone XL pipeline is far from the central battle in the fight climate change. Instead, I argued that Keystone was a smart fight, because it was “a tangible target,” and a fight in which we stand “at least a decent chance of winning.” But I digress. In its conclusion, the editorial board argues:

Instead of indulging in distractions, Mr. Obama and his friends in the environmental movement should push for policies that could make a significant difference by cutting demand for carbon-intensive fuels. As we argued Sunday, a carbon tax is a cause that really is worth fighting for.

WaPo claims that a carbon tax is the only cause worth fighting for. Yet, like other pieces attacking Keystone opponents, the editors cram their policy prescription into one sentence, providing no explanation on how we are supposed to secure their mythical carbon tax. If WaPo has a secret strategy that no one else has proposed on how to get to this point, I think that I can speak for the environmental movement by saying, “we’re all ears.”

But the editors have nothing to contribute on this front. They ignore the fact that increasing partisanship in recent years has largely been one sided. Rather than acknowledging the clear evidence for this asymmetrical polarization – which shows that the GOP has become vastly more conservative than Democrats have become liberal – WaPo opts to lob cheap shots at environmentalists. Rather than making reference to conservatives like Norman Ornstein, who have noted on the op-ed page of the Washington Post no less, that “the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party,” the editorial board publishes this piece.

I could reference the fact that the Washington Post continues to publish the wanton climate denialism of George Will. Rather than acknowledging Will’s continued falsehoods and inaccuracies, the Post‘s editors have defended him, claiming they have “a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible,” and that they “have plenty of references that support” Will’s claims.

Additionally, I could note – as Mike Grunwald at TIME has already pointed out – that the Post trumpets the carbon tax while heralding Virginia’s terrible new transportation plan as a “signal achievement” that will make Bob McDonnell’s term as governor “a long-term success.”

But, even more than that, I want to point out the fact that the Post chides silly environmentalists for not supporting its beloved carbon tax, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the Post could run a Google search to confirm that fact that the vast majority of environmentalists concerned about climate change do in fact support putting a price on carbon. Take Bill McKibben, the head of 350.org and a leader of the fight against Keystone, for instance. I managed to pull the following articles in which McKibben expressed support for a carbon tax and/or placing a price on carbon:

  • From the San Francisco Gate: “A version of the “fee and dividend” idea is a favorite of NASA climate scientist James Hansen and climate activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org.”
  • From Oilprice.com“Oilprice.com: You say no-one is strong enough – what policies would you like to see put in place – what could the politicians do? Bill McKibben: A price on carbon sufficient to keep 80% of current reserves underground, rebated directly to citizens.”
  • From Yale E360: “The only way that it works fast enough to make a difference is if the carbon carries a cost. That’s been the problem all along. Carbon didn’t carry a cost, hence we are in the trouble we are in. The question is how do you do that in a way that doesn’t bankrupt everybody and that lets you do it politically…So the soundest proposal, probably, is to take that money, and write a check to everybody in the country every six months.”
  • From Orion Magazine: “But if 10 percent of people, once they’ve changed the light bulbs, work all-out to change the system? That’s enough. That’s more than enough. It would be enough to match the power of the fossil fuel industry, enough to convince our legislators to put a price on carbon.”
  • From The New Republic: “Or, we could limit government’s role to simply imposing a price on fossil fuel that reflects the damage it does. This wouldn’t even need to be a traditional tax: One proposal gaining ground is to take every dollar produced by such a levy and rebate it to each citizen, using government as a kind of pass-through.”

The whole exercise above took me about five minutes to piece together. Yes, Washington Post editorial board, a carbon tax (in some form) is, in fact, a good idea. It’s an idea that enjoys nearly universal support among environmentalists. But those of us fighting the pipeline also understand that we can’t just wave a magic wand to place a price on carbon. Cap-and-trade failed in the Senate because the conservative opposition to the bill was far more organized, vocal, and aggressive than the environmentalist movement on its behalf.  The movement against the Keystone XL pipeline is an effort to counter this, to level the playing field. If the Washington Post’s editorial board really wants to see a carbon tax enacted, it would be far better off getting out of the way of the activists trying to make it happen.