17 May 2012

Why "clean energy" is not post-partisan politics

Introductory note: The article below is from Grist's David Roberts, and it really struck a chord given my recent analysis on this site about the strategic error of bright-siding climate, and the emphasis on "clean energy" divorced from climate change as a narrative for the bright-siders, including the Australian Government. As Roberts concludes:
Those who think they can lift energy up out of the scrum, free it from culture-war baggage, are deluding themselves. The only way past the culture war is through it.
If we look at what conservative premiers Baillieu in Victoria, and O'Farrell in NSW, are doing to climate and clean energy programmes, and the federal coalition intends to do if it wins government –  abolish the carbon and mining taxes, abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and abolish the climate change department), it's hard not to conclude that the same analysis applies to Australia. – David

Clean energy as culture war

By David Roberts, Grist
Not that long ago, some folks were arguing that clean energy — unlike climate change, which had been irredeemably stained by partisanship (eww!) — would bring people together across ideological lines. Persuaded by the irrefutable wisdom of wonks, we would join hands across the aisle to promote common-sense solutions. It wouldn’t be partisan, it would be … post-partisan.
     Some day, I will stop mocking the people who said that. But not today. The error is an important one and it is still made regularly, especially by hyper-educated U.S. elites. They think clean energy is different from climate change, that it won’t get sucked into the same culture war. They are wrong.
     On clean energy, the material/financial aspects of the conflict are the easiest to understand. Wind, solar, and the rest threaten the financial dominance and political influence of dirty energy. Last week, the Guardian broke the story of a confidential memo laying out a plan to demonize and discredit clean energy, meant to coordinate the plans/messages of several big right-wing super PACs funded by dirty-energy money.
     At the bottom of that same piece, though, is one of the best expressions I’ve ever seen of the cultural and psychological aspects of the conflict. Witness:
Opposing Obama’s energy policies was a natural fit for conservatives, said Marita Noon, a conservative activist from New Mexico who was at the meeting. “The American way, what made CostCo and Walmart a success, is to use more and pay less. That’s the American way.” The president’s green policies however were the reverse, she said. “President Obama wants us to pay more and use less.”
Not for the first time, it strikes me that conservatives understand the stakes of this struggle much better than liberals and centrists do, especially at a gut level. They’re on the wrong side of it, but at least they get it.
      Noon is more or less correct: The American Way has been to carelessly consume high quantities of cheap energy, much of it embedded in disposable plastic crap at Walmart. Conservative leaders are telling their flock that there are endless deposits of fossil fuels all around them, if only those pesky Democrats and their regulations would get out of the way. The message is that the American way of life can continue forever, indeed that it is our patriotic birthright, but that Democrats want to take it from them. That goes deeper than energy. It’s about home and hearth.      And Noon is right that the alternative — barely hinted at by Obama’s policies, but sure to come into sharper relief in coming years — is to use much less, and more expensive, energy. You and I know that even if the per-unit price of energy goes up, consumer bills can go down, through efficiency. You and I know that it’s possible to use less energy while still enjoying the same high quality of life. You and I know that there’s no other choice, that cheap, abundant fossil fuels are a thing of the past.
     But Noon and her ideological cohort are hearing otherwise. They’re hearing that American abundance, the bounty available to even the poorest Americans at Walmart, is under threat. They’re hearing that Democrats want to make America, the land of plenty, into Europe, the (imagined) land of tiny cars, cramped apartments, and high prices. Again, that’s about more than prices or watts. It’s about cultural identity.
      Clean energy supporters can try, if they want, to convince people like Noon that clean energy can offer the same abundance — “use more and pay less” — that fossil fuels offered, through the magic of technology or innovation or whatever. But it’s dishonest. Reducing emissions enough to substantially slow climate change will inevitably involve being more judicious and intelligent in our energy use. Profligate, heedless consumption of disposable crap is going to have to be reined in. That will mean changing habits and land-use patterns. Insofar as those habits and land-use patterns are viewed as constitutive of a “way of life,” many will view that as a threat.
     Remember, unlike wonks, average folk don’t think in terms of discrete political “issues.” They think in terms of broad cultural associations and identities. For the conservative base — about which I’ve written many times, see especially here — the issue of energy is wrapped up in a way of life that they view as under threat from multiple directions.
     As I’ve said before, it’s unlikely that such people can be persuaded with evidence and reason. What they will eventually do is die off. In the meantime, the job is to define a new American way of life for young people, so when they take over they won’t view Walmart as akin to church.

More on clean energy and the culture war

By David Roberts, Grist
David Frum was once a member in good standing of the Republican establishment — he was the guy who coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” for George W. Bush. Since Obama took office, however, he’s been questioning the wisdom of the GOP’s hard-line oppositionalism and extremism. For his efforts, he’s been booted from his think-tank sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute and scorned by Republican true believers.
     Anyway, Frum is uniquely positioned to diagnose the modern right. Today he’s got a sharp review of the new book from long-time scholars of U.S. government Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. Mann and Ornstein made a bit of a splash in April with an op-ed in the Washington Post, which concluded that “Republicans are the problem.” Mann and Ornstein are no one’s idea of partisan bomb-throwers. They’ve been studying Washington for decades are are widely respected and quoted on both sides of the aisle. But they can’t deny the obvious reality. (Unsurprisingly, the Sunday cable talk shows have shown no interest in this — it would, after all, explode their entire business model.)
     Frum’s contribution is to note that recent GOP extremism can be traced not only to the internal dynamics of DC, but to the economy more broadly:

Human beings will typically fight much more ferociously to keep what they possess than to gain something new. And the constituencies that vote Republican happen to possess the most and thus to be exposed to the worst risks of loss.
The Republican voting base includes not only the wealthy with the most to fear from tax increases, but also the elderly and the rural, the two constituencies that benefit the most from federal spending and thus have the most to lose from spending cuts.
Now, I don’t necessarily agree with Frum that we face a future of dreary disappointment and budget cuts. We could, oh, raise taxes for instance! Then we could have nice things again.
But I do agree that the surge in right-wing extremism is an outgrowth of fear, and in particular, the well-grounded fear of a powerful demographic (roughly, middle-aged and older conservative white men) that its time is past. I said as much in this post, and this one.
     As I said earlier today, it’s important to understand that this same dynamic extends to energy. Working-class whites — a core conservative demographic — have been battered for years by the exodus of skilled jobs and the stagnation of wages. The one thing they’ve been able to count on is the availability of cheap energy and its fruits. They can drive big cars, live in remote suburbs, and buy copious consumer goods at Walmart. They can “use more and pay less,” in the immortal words of one conservative activist. Cheap energy provided a kind of facsimile of prosperity in the absence of the real thing.
     Now progressives want to take that away to. They’re telling us that cheap energy is running out and that we’ll have to shift to a more efficient, less consumption-based economy. That is just one more bit of the American Way of Life that is being yanked out from under conservative constituencies. And they are reacting out of fear, with denial and rage.
     Those who think they can lift energy up out of the scrum, free it from culture-war baggage, are deluding themselves. The only way past the culture war is through it.