Energy Blog: What Does Earth Day Mean?

By Andy Silber

What does Earth Day mean?

Pardon my rambling; I just have some thoughts on the environmental movement on the 41st anniversary of Earth Day that I want to share with you. There’s a homework assignment at the end. Don’t worry, only the fate of our civilization depends on the answers. You will be graded.

In many ways the movement has come a long way: rivers don’t catch on fire; the manufacture of ozone depleting chemicals have been stopped; coal plants are often required to use the “Best available control technology” to reduce air pollution; CAFE standards were implemented to improve gas millage. Most companies at least pretend to be “Green” and some actually take it seriously. Google is investing in renewable energy and GM and Nissan are building electric powered cars. Teaching about the environment is now part of most schools’ curriculum and recycling is common in many places. So we have accomplished much. Give yourselves a pat on the back.

The early days were about collective action such as the Clean Water Act (passed in 1972) and the Clean Air Act (passed in 1970). The last major new law passed was ratification of the Montreal Protocol to deal with Ozone depleting gases, which was negotiated and signed by George Herbert Walker Bush. There have been updates to the Clean Air and Water Acts and tightening of CAFE standards and other tweaks, but no new major initiatives. This would be acceptable if there were no big environmental challenges remaining. Obviously that is not the case. So far Congress has taken no action to deal with climate change. To the contrary, the moderate first steps the Obama administration is taking under the authority of the Clean Air Act are under constant threat by Congress.

The environmental movement is now all about choice:

  • I chose to buy green tags that support renewable energy.
  • I chose to buy local, organic produce.
  • I chose to buy an efficient car.
  • I chose to take the bus.

When the government gets involved, it’s about creating incentives for positive choices:

At the local level there are occasionally good signs, like passing tighter energy codes or renewable portfolio standards, but sometimes even those get rolled back.

There have been efforts at collective action to address climate change in the US, but they have all died in Congress. So, might individual and industrial action work with the federal government playing little or no role? That’s what Amory Lovins thinks. As I wrote in my previous post, I think he’s right in the transportation sector, since oil is getting scarcer and more expensive without any government action. But I think he’s only partially right in the electricity sector. As long as burning coal is cheaper than wind farms and solar panels, that’s what the utilities will do. Even if half of us are willing to buy green tags to support renewable energy, not a single coal plant will shut down. We’ll change the mix of new plants to be more wind and less natural gas.

So why do we seem unable to get anything done on climate change? I believe that it was Ronald Reagan’s “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” meme. In the past we looked to government to play a role in solving big problems: the depression, fascism, rivers catching on fire and toxic air. Both Republicans and Democrats saw protecting our environment as a proper role of government. Everyone understood the tragedy of the commons. The two presidents who accomplished the most in protecting the environment were both Republicans: Teddy Roosevelt (started the National Parks) and Richard Nixon (EPA, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act). But once you start to believe that “Government is the problem”, then how do you protect the environment. As economists understood in 1832, the market won’t do it. Individuals tend to be good stewards of their own land, but that doesn’t stop the dumping of pollution into rivers and the air.

Once you have accepted that your political philosophy has no tools to solve a problem, you have two choices: live with a paradox or deny there’s a problem. There are certainly lots of examples of both on the right. My favorite “living with a paradox” example is a Tea Party activist saying “Keep your government hands off my Medicare”. Who did she think ran Medicare? An insurance company that never asked for her to pay any premiums? The examples of “deny there’s a problem” are too numerous to list. When someone thinks the findings of the National Academies of Science are rigged by vested interests, but a single scientist funded by Exxon is an important authority to quote, you know there isn’t a lot of deep thinking going on. Someone once said that you can’t use logic to convince someone to change their mind, if they didn’t reach that place through logic.

The US now has a huge number of people who trust the Koch Brothers and Exxon more than NASA and the National Academies on climate change. Without logic and science tying them to reality, they are easily manipulated. They wander the countryside like zombies looking for brains to eat, muttering under their breath one phrase, “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” They say this while breathing clean air, paying their bills with unemployment insurance payments, their kids going to public schools, their parents are protected from abject poverty by Social Security and Medicare, and they drive to Grandma’s house on the Federal Interstate Highway System. They use the internet (invented as part of a government project) to find a job funded by the stimulus project, and complain that Obama isn’t releasing oil from the strategic reserves since gas has gotten so expensive.

Remember that this is not about protecting the Earth. It will do fine with or without us. This is about maintaining an ecosystem on Earth that is the kind of place where humanity can thrive.

How do we wake up these zombies and once again work together as a country on protecting the world we leave to our children? That is your Earth Day assignment. Please put any ideas in the comments section. Your grandchildren will be grading your response.