The Second Energy Revolution

Today, the federal government is considering a second revolution in energy. The concerns today are threats to our future well-being: climate change and dependence on foreign sources of fuel.
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In the 1930s, a great many Southerners had no access to electricity. The Roosevelt administration perceived an enormous opportunity to restructure the region's economy. By building facilities to bring power to the rural South, jobs would be created from thin air to mitigate the unemployment of the Great Depression. More importantly for the long run, commercially vibrant communities would replace subsistence farms. For the people directly affected, lives of toil and sweat would be a thing of the past; for the nation, large populations would be integrated into the economy for the first time, helping to assure sustainable and diverse growth in the post-depression era.

The political effects were dramatic. Robert Caro, in his epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, described the brutal life of West Texas before the creation of the Lower Colorado River Authority. He pointed out that the dramatic life-changing effect of rural electrification spawned a fierce loyalty to New Dealers like Johnson. This persisted throughout the South for three decades until, ironically, Johnson's Civil Rights legislation snuffed it out.

For those 30 years, electrification and other tangible benefits of the New Deal drove political discourse in this country. For the next three decades (and still), the Civil Rights legislation animated politics. The issue morphed from overt racism to resentment of the federal government telling people what to do. We must remember to thank Rand Paul for reminding us of the connection between race and the radical right.

Today, the federal government is considering a second revolution in energy. The issues are more abstract than those of the 1930s. We no longer have insufficient energy infrastructure. We have the wrong infrastructure. Instead of a backwards region dragging on an economy already in dire straits, the concerns today are threats to our future well-being: climate change and dependence on foreign sources of fuel. A comparison of the 30s and today is like the difference between treatment of a bleeding artery and a wellness program. Both will save your life, but the wellness program can be started next week.

It will be necessary to overcome both parochial regional opposition and ideological opposition by the Republican right. The right has a general aversion to federal expenditures to secure a promised benefit in the future. The aversion is strongest in regions whose economies depend disproportionately on coal. Their upfront cost is disproportionately large and the anticipated benefits are spread over the whole society.

The key to success is to articulate an urgency to act on concerns that are somewhat intangible. Energy reform addresses two distinct concerns. Climate change constitutes a catastrophic threat while energy independence is a national security matter, a defense against economic tactics in the conflict with Islamic extremism. A portion of the public is susceptible to both concerns. However, on the extremes, representing the most politically active people, there is much less overlap. In particular, the people who are most attached to the national security rationale are unlikely to be motivated by environmental risks. For example, despite the tragedy of the BP oil spill, many on the right are resistant to a drilling moratorium. The winning strategy is to keep as many individuals from these two groups together as possible. This is a treacherous endeavor.

The task of the proponents for a new energy revolution can be framed by an analysis of the opponents' strategy. The most direct strategy, obfuscation, was signaled by Lamar Alexander in his response to the President's Oval Office speech on energy and the oil spill. He characterized the proposed Climate Change legislation as an "energy tax." He proposed as an alternative simply replacing half of our vehicles with electric powered cars, trucks and buses.

For those who thought that the legislation was about the environment, this alternative proposal sounds like nonsense. The new vehicles will still require energy, just not gasoline as fuel. Transportation represents about 33% of total carbon emissions in the US. Power generation accounts for about 42%. Simple logic suggests that the 16.5% reduction in transportation sources would be transferred to power generation which would then constitute 58.5%. Almost certainly this is imprecise, but, as they say in Tennessee where Senator Alexander and I grew up, "it's close enough for gov'ment work."

Alexander's proposal is not about the environment. It is designed to separate the national security advocates from the environmentalists. It is unlikely that Republicans view it as a realistic alternative. It echoes the tactics employed in the health care debate. In health care, they attempted to carve back the scope of the bill by advocating an incremental approach, knowing full well that the only way to benefit poorer people was comprehensive legislation. Their purpose was to separate middle income people interested in insurance reform from those also interested in the plight of the poor. The Democrats were tentative about advocating benefits of helping poor people and the opponents achieved significant success. If the same tentativeness is used regarding the environmental benefits of the Climate Change legislation, we can expect the same type of result or much worse.

The second strategy of the opponents is de-legitimization. The far right has turned this into a socio-political movement, encompassing everything from the Birthers to the Tea Party enthusiasts dressed in Revolutionary War costumes. They embrace the position that scientific proof of climate change caused by human activity is untrue. To explain these beliefs in the face of concrete evidence they resort to pseudo science and preposterous conspiracy theories. (This is a remarkable echo of the religious right's reliance on literal readings of the Bible to counter scientific facts like evolution.)

Republican leaders have seized on this anti-intellectual movement. It is hard to believe that politicians who are able to ascend to positions of leadership and commentators able to construct and manage media empires are unpersuaded by the scientific consensus on climate change. The only alternative is that they are driven by cynical opportunism and venality. Their motives are known only to them. The practical problem is that the movement is a useful weapon for ideological opponents of Climate Change legislation.

Of the two opposition strategies, obfuscation will only be successful if de-legitimization works to undercut the threat of climate change. The message of de-legitimization is particularly powerful in America today. The American public is insecure and feels as if leadership of all kinds has failed it. Being normal humans, they are unlikely to blame themselves for bad decisions. It is easier to de-legitimize the people and institutions in which they formerly chose to believe. The President and other leaders must not allow themselves to be ridiculed and bullied by know-nothings.

If the climate debate becomes an argument over competing beliefs through de-legitimization of proponents, the cause is lost. Opponents would not advertise their real intent to kill the whole effort. They would offer easier incremental options designed to appeal to those most interested in national security, hoping to smother the environmental elements of the legislation.

The proponents cannot succeed by relying on compellingly logical proofs. The problem is not that people doubt the data and the algorithms; it's that they doubt the messengers. The first step in bolstering legitimacy is to demonstrate sincerity of the messengers. Sincere people are more legitimate. The President is the dominant messenger in our system so it must start with him.

Climate change threatens future generations. It would be powerful if the President conveyed with sincerity that addressing climate change now is important to him because of concern for his family and that he shares this concern with all American parents. The threat to the future must make concrete and personal and that means families. Political agendas must be secondary to sincere and shared concern for future generations. If the public believes that the single leader elected by all of us sincerely is concerned for their children's well-being, de-legitimization will lose its bite. Science can then make the case for prompt action.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

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