Images from: National Resources Defense Council blog
Guest essay by Taylor Smith
Last week I attended an Environmental Protection Agency “Public Listening Session” held here in Chicago. I had only been to one other such hearing in the past as a college student, when my professor took myself and the rest of the International Studies class to see a public hearing on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s famous Act 10 legislation.
Public hearings I would soon learn (before I would ironically go on to land my first job in government relations), are not the most thrilling experiences in the world. But in fairness, it’s not like I was expecting much: For basically a whole day, one speaker after another testifies to a panel of government officials about why they support or oppose a certain policy. Usually the speakers are an eclectic mix of industry representatives, activists, academics, students, and even religious leaders.
Although the EPA hearing yielded the same mix of speakers, this time I noticed they were all wearing green Sierra Club “Climate Action Now” shirts.
The reason for this, I would later learn, was that the Sierra Club had mobilized hundreds of activists, transported them via bus (I presume of the fossil-fuel powered kind), prepped their testimonies the night before, and completely dominated the morning speaker slots. (There were several coal industry representatives in the morning, and a few other dissenters, including Heartland Policy Adviser Paul Driessen, who covered his experience here). By the afternoon, the Sierra Club had completely monopolized the speaking time (at least in the room I was in).
After the hearing, everyone was invited to a “Climate Social” held at the Sierra Club’s office with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, and Illinois state Sen. Michael Frerichs.
Now maybe it’s just me, but I felt a slight level of discomfort when I saw a single organization dominate a “public” hearing in the way that they did. I don’t care what the organization is or what they say they stand for, because if their 2011 listed revenue is over $97 million, then you know not all of it could have fallen in their laps from heaven.
Left: NRDC Chicago Staff: David Weiskopf, Blake Korb, Sylvia Garcia-Sadowski. Images from: National Resources Defense Council blog
For example, we know Chesapeake Energy, a large natural gas producer, contributed more than $25 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign— the same campaign whose organizers were at the hearing and bused several people down from around the Midwest and prepped their testimonies.
But going back to the policy discussion, two things struck me about the speeches I heard — from both the climate activists, and the few coal-affiliated dissenters:
1) Lots of talk about reducing carbon dioxide, hardly any on reducing temperature. As I wrote to the Baltimore Sun once, the question shouldn’t so much be “How much carbon dioxide can we possibly reduce?” But rather, “How much temperature can we realistically save?” The latter question provides a much clearer picture when assessing exactly how much CO2 reduction would be worth its economic cost. The former doesn’t attach any long-term value to CO2 reduction, as if any CO2 reduction were worth its economic cost. Handy for political expediency — which as anyone who works in government relations knows, is half the political battle.
So why is temperature discussion always ignored? One reason might have to do with Dr. Pat Michaels’ research, which found if U.S. CO2 emissions were to be reduced to zero, the resulting temperature decrease would not be scientifically detectable.
So it should be obvious why many climate activists don’t like discussing temperature reduction relative to reducing CO2. But many speakers from the coal industry also didn’t like discussing temperature, instead discussing how electricity prices will go up or how jobs will be lost. Those points are important. But unless a more concrete value is ascribed to the amount of CO2 that activists say needs to be reduced, it’s always going to be perceived as outweighing any economic cost.
2) China and India. According to Diana Furchtgott-Roth:
Other countries are increasing emissions. China, India, and Germany are expanding coal consumption, according to the International Energy Agency. Global coal use will rise by 1.2 billion tons in five years. “By 2017,” according to a December 2012 IEA report, “coal will come close to surpassing oil as the world’s top energy source.”2 Mr. Obama’s reductions in U.S. emissions, with their associated costs, will just be a drop in the global bucket.
Which leads to two additional key quotes:
Even if rising greenhouse gas emissions are affecting the climate, actions by the United States will not be helpful in the absence of changes by China and India.
To reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in a less costly manner, America could assist China and India develop shale gas from hydrofracturing and build natural-gas fired plants to reduce their reliance on coal. Or, America could ship coal to China, because U.S. coal burns cleaner than Chinese coal. The majority of China’s coal (54 percent) is bituminous, which has a carbon content ranging from 45 to 86 percent. On the other hand, 47 percent of the U.S.’s coal, a plurality, is subbituminous, which contains a carbon content of only 35 to 45 percent.
But many of the Sierra Club activists opposed both hydrofracturing and nuclear. So what exactly would they support? Short of a blackout?