On January 24, 2014, the The Society of Environmental Journalists and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program presented a panel discussion titled The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy.
I found out about it via this tweet from Andy Revkin:
— Andy Revkin (@Revkin) January 25, 2014
Because I know that many of you don’t have the time nor the patience to watch an hour long Q&A session, I toughed it out for you. There is a fascinating exchange featuring Coral Davenport of the New York Times and Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian.
Danny Richter: Hello. My name is Danny Richter. I’m with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and I’m curious about the intersection between business and climate. There were a couple of stories by Coral in December about 29 businesses that are using an internal carbon price and today, about Coke, and the impact of drought on their business.
It seems to me, if it’s not new for businesses, it’s new for the rest of the world, especially congressmen. And there dose seem to be an emphasis on a carbon tax, which of course our group likes, but I’m curious about your thoughts. How might this new emphasis or awareness of businesses caring about climate affect the psychology of your average Republican congressman.
Coral Davenport: That will be really interesting to see. One business that I’m going to be keeping a close eye on is Monsanto, which is another one of these companies that is
seeing volatility, that is in a lot of red districts and has also talked about seeing volatility. Anyone who works with agriculture in any way is pretty open about experiencing volatility, unpredictability, changes in weather.
A lot of these companies are very closely affiliated with the Republican Party, are major donors. ExxonMobil is another really interesting one. They are very open about acknowledging carbon emissions cause climate change; they’re on the same page as the IPCC with the science. They’re incorporating a price on carbon; they’ve proposed a possible carbon price tax swap, should the day ever come. They’re always clear to say they’re not lobbying for it now, but should the day ever come and it looks like a carbon tax will be on the table, ExxonMobil has their own proposal.
You know, they’re a major contributor to Republican lawmakers and they’ve been comfortable saying “we’re going to be in a different place from these lawmakers. I think that’s where, if there is going to be a shift in the Republican Party, I think it’s going to be when their corporate friends and donors say, well, this is where we are on this.
Suzanne Goldenberg: But it’s interesting, isn’t it that ExxonMobil, until 2007-2008 was one of the big funders of the climate change denial movement.
Coral Davenport: (Interrupting) Yeah, until they bought XTO. No, it wasn’t under pressure, it was when they bought XTO and became the largest natural gas producer in the US and then became poised to profit.
Suzanne Goldenberg: But they now no longer contribute to that, and yet Republican beliefs on climate change continue to oppose the science, so…?
Coral Davenport: Well, I think that there…
Suzanne Goldenberg: We did see a clear break here between corporations and the Republicans in congress and it seems that there are a lot of ideological forces that come into play as well, not just business groups…
The Coral Davenport article that Mr. Richter mentioned was published by the New York Times on December 5, 2013. The web version of the article appears under the headline of Large Companies Prepared to Pay Price on Carbon.
The article describes how different businesses have a different opinion on the relationship between CO2 emissions and climate change, and that, contrary to what Ms. Goldenberg implies, it has nothing to do with science or ideology. Most for-profit companies have no ideology; their job is to make money for shareholders. If the business thinks they can implement a strategy that enables them to see an overall increase in profit from carbon taxes and actions to control emissions, they will lobby for those changes.
Businesses that calculate their businesses will be harmed by carbon taxes or actions to restrict CO2 emissions will lobby against those types of initiatives. Here is an important quote from Ms. Davenport’s December 5th article:
Robert Murphy, senior economist at the American Energy Alliance, said his group was not concerned that it had taken a different position from the major oil companies. “We’re not taking marching orders from Big Oil,” he said.
In fact, Koch has a longtime resentment of the biggest oil companies.
According to company history, Koch’s founder, Fred Koch, the father of Charles and David, invented a chemical process to more efficiently refine oil but was blocked from bringing it to the market by the nation’s largest oil companies, including Standard Oil of New Jersey, which today is known as Exxon Mobil.
People at Koch say sore feelings remain to this day.
My goal here is to stimulate critical thinking about why you hear what you hear about the risk of climate change. I believe it helps to explain why the public perception has undergone noticeable cycles during the period since 1992, when the first major world wide conference of the parties (COP) on climate change took place in Kyoto, Japan.
In the mid to late 1990s, when natural gas seemed abundant enough to be cheap and it’s suppliers want to build market share, they promoted its lower CO2 emissions. People in the media started caring a lot about climate change because their advertisers seemed concerned. Major environmental groups joined in the chorus and often received substantial foundation or individual donor grants for doing so.
When natural gas prices rose high enough in the period from 2004-2008 to make a nuclear renaissance, even with its high start up costs, seem like an economically viable course of action, there was strong support for the movement that denied the value of action to reduce CO2 emissions. Compared to coal, natural gas may seem clean, but compared to nuclear energy’s 10-20 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour (lifecycle), natural gas’s 400-600 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour are staggeringly high.
After the Great Recession destroyed natural gas demand and the technological combination of hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling provided a surge in supply, prices fell to lows that were less than 1/6th of the monthly highs in 2008. That price collapse hurt some gas producers, but its main effect was to make the revival of nuclear equipment and construction infrastructure looks dauntingly expensive.
Now that the US nuclear renaissance seems like a distant future dream, the sine wave of public interest in CO2 driven climate change has bottomed out and seems poised to increase again. That rise will be another demonstration of the power of propaganda to mold public opinion for profit.
Aside: On the advice of an Atomic Insights reader, I recently started studying the work of a man named Edward Bernays. My first step was to read his 1928 classic titled Propaganda. If you are interested in how business marketing departments think and strategize, that’s a decent place to start. End Aside.
The petroleum industry’s marketing machinery has had about 165 years to develop its skills. It can be compared to Major League Baseball or the NFL; they are masters of marketing. On the same scale, nuclear industry marketers are still playing tee-ball or flag football.
Aside: To be fair, there were NEI signs behind the goal at Washington Capital National Hockey League games in 2009. End Aside.
There is no doubt that it is a bad idea, for a number of reasons, to continue dumping 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. It’s also not such a great idea to engage in extreme measures to dig stored hydrocarbons out of the ground every year to supply a growing, more prosperous world population.
Investing an enormous amount of capital to shift to another hydrocarbon fuel source that is only half as dirty as coal seems analogous to building a bridge halfway across a gorge; it results in a precarious position with no easy escape.
That is especially true since we know that we have at least three available superfuels (uranium, thorium and plutonium) that can provide inexhaustible sources of nearly CO2-free power. I’m positive that the smart folks at ExxonMobil know about nuclear energy and are making plans to position themselves to prosper in a fission fueled economy.
It’s time to take action to encourage them to feel the need to implement their strategies more quickly than planned.