A Deus ex Machina for the Climate Change Problem
What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?
On the subject of global warming, or climate change, we seem destined to find out.
On one side are the Republicans, who mostly seem unworried about climate change—or perhaps downright hostile to the very concept. On the other side are the Democrats, who do worry about climate change. A lot.
So which side will win? Which side will lose? If present trends continue, it’s possible that they both could lose. That is, the coming political collision could cripple economic growth, jeopardize national security—and still not address the climate issue.
So what to do? The solution will likely involve something altogether new. That is, it will take the technological equivalent of a deus ex machina. Our own history tells us that we’ve had plenty of those—and now we need another one.
The battle lines are clearly drawn. Back in 2012, Donald Trump tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” He has also referred to climate change as a “con” and derided regulatory agreements as “a bad deal.”
The Republican Party as a whole hasn’t been much kinder; the 2016 platform pledged that the GOP would “forbid the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide” and “oppose any carbon tax.” It further promised to cancel the Obama administration’s 2015 anti-greenhouse gas (GHG) initiative, the so-called Clean Power Plan.
During last fall’s campaign, Trump told an audience of energy executives in Pittsburgh, “The shale energy revolution will unleash massive wealth for America. And we will end the war on coal and the war on miners.” Trump carried Pennsylvania.
For their part, the Democrats have been just as entrenched. In 2015, Barack Obama agreed to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the so-called Paris Agreement, thus committing the U.S. to reduce its GHG emissions by 26–28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025 (although, since the Obama administration never sought a ratifying vote in the Senate, the legal status of the accord is unclear).
In the meantime, Hillary Clinton embraced the Paris agreement. She said of climate change in 2015,
Sea levels are rising, ice caps are melting, storms, wildfires and extreme weather are wreaking havoc. This is one of the most urgent threats of our time, and we have no choice but to rise and meet it.
And the 2016 Democratic platform was just as emphatic: “Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.”
Today, of course, the Republicans have most of the formal political power in the country. Most obviously, the GOP possesses the White House, and it also controls both chambers of Congress—although its margin in the Senate is narrow. In addition, Republicans control 33 governorships and 66 of 99 state legislative chambers. In fact, not since the 1920s have Republicans had so many seats.
Yet even so, the Democrats still have plenty of punch. They have most of the media, pop culture, high culture, the foundations, and other chatterers. In addition, they have solid support among big-city mayors, activist lawyers, and protesters.
Moreover, the Democrats have overwhelming support in the Deep State—that is, the complex of bureaucrats and technocrats who form the permanent federal government. According to John DiIulio of the Brookings Institution, the federal edifice, including contractors and grantees, numbers at least 10 million people. And while not all federal employees are activist liberals or Democrats, it sure seems that everyone connected with the Environmental Protection Agency is one, if not both. For example, amidst the battle over the Senate confirmation of Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration’s choice to run the environment agency, we saw this brazen February 16 headline in the New York Times: “In a show of defiance, EPA workers fight to stop Pruitt’s confirmation.” (Pruitt was confirmed by a vote of 52–46.)
Meanwhile, signs of Deep State power keep sprouting up. On February 24, Washington Post readers saw this headline: “The US Geological Survey hails an early spring—and ties it to climate change.” The USGS, we might note, is a unit within the Department of Interior; that is, it’s a part of President Trump’s executive branch. And yet the report from the National Phenology Network, a USGS grantee, is, to put it mildly, off Trump’s message. The report was a mere pinprick that drew little if any blood. But the Deep State will keep trying.
And oh yes, 97 percent of climate scientists say that climate change is happening, and that means something—although, as with just about every factual assertion in the climate-change arena, there are some who dispute this figure.
Okay, so what about the American people themselves? What do they think, all 320 million of them? The polls consistently indicate that Americans care most about jobs and economic growth, and yet the polls also reveal that they are concerned about climate change.
A 2016 Gallup poll, for example, found that concern about climate has reached 64 percent, the highest level in eight years. We might surmise that this number is “soft,” in the sense that it’s easy to be concerned about an abstraction; what’s harder is to make a choice that costs money or jobs. And in fact, another Gallup poll, asking Americans what they thought was the most important problem facing the country, found that environmental matters rated at just 2 percent, behind 14 other topics.
Thus, the debate over public opinion can go on for a long time, with no resolution.
So this might be an opportune moment to add in some indisputable facts. For instance, the U.S. is in the strongest position, energy-wise, that it has been in many decades. Since the early 1970s, we’ve been racked by fears of an “energy crisis,” based on scarcity at home and dependence from abroad. Yet now, thanks mostly to fracking—with, yes, an assist from energy conservation—that’s all out the window. Within a few short years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), we will be a net energy exporter.
It’s also indisputable that this energy abundance is mostly in the form of fossil fuels. Indeed, per DOE, fossil fuels account for 81 percent of U.S. energy consumption. (Renewables account for 11 percent, and nuclear power accounts for the rest.) So we can immediately conclude that any energy transition, if there is to be one at all, will likely be a long time coming; it will be hard to uproot the embedded architecture of fossil fuels.
In the meantime, we shouldn’t forget that the fossil-fuel industry employs nine million Americans. Moreover, the “unconventional” oil and gas sector—that is, mostly, fracking—has created nearly two million jobs, and it is on track to creating another million-and-a-half jobs in the next two decades.
Of course, these energy jobs are no more evenly distributed across the country than is political opinion. We might note, for example, that in Scott Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma, smack-dab in the middle of the Oil Patch, Trump won 69 percent of the vote last year; meanwhile, Trump garnered just 9 percent of the vote in San Francisco and a little less than 10 percent in Manhattan.
So once again, it’s blue bi-coastal America vs. red-swathed middle America—with little sapphire dots scattered all over.
As Americans—whomever we voted for, and however we feel about energy and environmental issues—it’s hard not to view this political and cultural divide without a feeling of queasiness. As in, down that disharmonious road lies disunity, perhaps even civil strife.
And unfortunately, if present trends continue, energy and environmental topics are likely to make the United States even more deeply divided.
To get a sense of how feuds over energy and the environment are further splitting the country, we might recall a provocative 2014 essay in The Nation, written by Chris Hayes, the MSNBC primetime anchor. Hayes’s piece communicated its hard-edged essence in its headline: “The New Abolitionism: Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth.”
Yes, Hayes went there: in bringing up “abolitionism,” he equated the ownership of oil today with the ownership of slaves before the Civil War. And then he argued that just as slave-owners weren’t compensated for their economic losses after Emancipation, neither should fossil-fuel owners be compensated for their losses (Hayes hopes) in the future.
In the meantime, others have joined this latest green crusade. On the website of the organization 350.org, led by the influential activist Bill McKibben, the first item on the to-do list reads, bluntly, “Keep carbon in the ground.” McKibben has quantified that goal as leaving 80 percent of fossil fuels untouched. Others go further; the Union of Concerned Scientists declares that the U.S. “should reduce its emissions at least 80 percent below 2000 levels by 2050.” And it’s not hard to find activists who would go even further than that. Thus we can see that the “leave it in the ground movement” is gaining momentum. It even has its own mnemonic, LINGO.
Okay, so that’s what green activists think. But what about the politics of their quest? It’s easy to see how greens can wish to see fossil-fuel owners lose their $10 trillion; the left has never felt fondly toward Big Oil. And yet it’s harder to see how progressives can justify doing away with nine million jobs. To be sure, greens talk about new jobs using new technologies, but red-staters don’t appear to trust such pledges.
We can further illustrate this political dichotomy by looking at the website of Bloomberg Beyond Coal. That’s a joint collaboration between the Sierra Club and the philanthropic venture of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
On the site, if we go to a graphic headlined “Moving America Beyond Coal,” we learn that green activists and litigators have succeeded in shutting down a total of 226 coal plants; there’s a map detailing each shutdown. And we also learn that the effort has reduced carbon-dioxide emissions by 398 million metric tons.
Yet revealingly, we learn nothing about jobs lost or economic growth stunted—evidently, that’s someone else’s problem.
Green crusaders have a right to put whatever they wish on their websites, and, more to the point, to do as they wish with their money. But people in the affected areas—mostly in the Midwest and Appalachia—have their rights, too. In particular, they have a right to look out for their own well-being, and to vote accordingly. And so in Kentucky, for example, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a nearly two-to-one margin.
In fact, the Sierra/Bloomberg map of shut-down coal plants lines up closely with the 2016 map of the Electoral College. That is, show me a green smackdown of coal, and I’ll show you a red political victory in retaliation. In Kentucky, not so long ago a Democratic state, Republicans now control the governorship, both Senate seats, both houses of the state legislature, and five of six House seats.
So we might step back and ask: Is this the legacy that the greens want to leave behind? That through their actions they inadvertently instantiated the Republican Party in the heartland? Does Bloomberg, who once harbored national political ambitions, really wish to be seen as an enemy of jobs in flyover country? Is no better way possible?
To be sure, the fight is nationwide. In California on February 23, Democratic state legislators introduced their “Preserve California” package, aimed at maintaining the state’s environmental standards as they are now, in defiance of whatever changes the Trump administration might make. In the words of California Senate Leader Kevin de Leon, “The goals and objectives of these measures … [are] to do everything within our power to make sure the federal government doesn’t encroach on our far-reaching progressive policies.”
Since Democratic lawmakers enjoy a better-than-two-to-one majority in both chambers in Sacramento and have a close ally down the street in the person of Gov. Jerry Brown, it seems a cinch that the legislation will pass. After all, polls show that 68 percent of Californians support stronger efforts on climate change—stronger, even, than the steps the Golden State has already taken.
Of course, the enactment of such an ambitious agenda will almost certainly ignite legal challenges. And California is ready for that, too: it has hired former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder as its legal representative. In other words, green Democrats are ready for a rumble.
Meanwhile, Team Trump is ready, too. In February, the administration indicated that it would be seeking a 25 percent budget cut at EPA, with climate-change programs specifically targeted for even deeper cuts. And other regulatory actions, including executive orders, are anticipated.
Yet not every administration proposal makes it into law. As they say, “The president proposes, and Congress disposes.” All we know for sure is that there will be more rumbling.
Today, Republicans are feeling mostly victorious, while Democrats are feeling, well, furious. The elephants have the formal power of a confident majority, while the donkeys have the informal power of a juiced-up minority. And so again, the powerful force meets the powerful object. It’s easy to see that neither side will win big victories; the more likely outcome is political attrition.
Right now, the pro-fossil-fuel forces might think they have the upper hand. After all, the Trump administration has endorsed both the Dakota Pipeline and the Keystone Pipeline. That’s great news for U.S. energy and jobs, but the greens haven’t given up; at a minimum, the forecast is more attrition, including legal action and guerrilla theater.
We might add: from attrition comes regression. That’s not a value judgment, but rather a statistical-political judgment, as in regression to the mean. In other words: it’s unlikely that the maximalists on either side of the climate-change fight will get what they want. A year from now, it’s more than likely that the greens and anti-greens will still be in the trenches, slogging it out.
Yet after enough difficult slogging, both sides are often inclined to start looking for a negotiated settlement—a deal. And we have, after all, a deal-making president.
Thus there could even be a deal on climate change. On December 5, former Vice President Al Gore, perhaps the world’s most prominent climate-change activist, met with the president-elect and Ivanka Trump for some 90 minutes. Afterwards, Gore said,
I had a lengthy and very productive session with the president-elect. It was a sincere search for areas of common ground. I had a meeting beforehand with Ivanka Trump. … I found it an extremely interesting conversation, and to be continued, and I’m just going to leave it at that.
So how should one read those tea leaves?
Later, on January 11, appearing at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rex Tillerson, now secretary of state, was asked about the Paris Agreement. Tillerson, who had backed the agreement when he was CEO of Exxon, responded,
I think it’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table on the conversations around how to address the threats of climate change, which do require a global response. No one country is going to solve this alone.
So now, six weeks into the Trump presidency, do we know if the administration will withdraw from the Paris Agreement? Nobody knows. Elements within the administration have been sending mixed signals, yes and no. And in his address to Congress on February 28, Trump didn’t say a word about climate change or the Paris Agreement.
But what about all those proposed budget cuts in climate-change programs? And those other regulatory actions? Once again, we’ll have to see.
So yes, without any inside information, it’s possible to conclude that a climate compromise is possible. That is, the Trump policy on climate change could end up as being somewhere in between what the greens want and what the anti-greens want.
Admittedly, in politics today, “compromise” is often deemed to be a dirty word, and yet, as we have seen, after enough attrition, combatants tend to think about compromise, much as they might hate to do so. Yes, exhaustion has a way of creating a new perspective.
So here we might offer one thought: make it a good compromise.
After all, from a Republican point of view, a compromise is not so good if it means that only half the remaining coal miners lose their jobs. And from a Democratic point of view, it’s not so great if greenhouse-gas emissions go up only half as much. A soggy solution is not much of a solution.
That has been the problem with proposed GHG compromises in the past, such as “cap and trade” and a carbon tax: nobody’s really in favor of either idea, because nobody really thinks either one will work, let alone be popular or politically sustainable.
So we come to the idea of new ideas, in particular, new technological ideas. If it’s difficult to see how reshuffling the existing policy choices can lead to a satisfactory outcome, it’s easy to see how a new invention could change everything.
Technology is the closest thing to a free lunch most of us will ever see. That is, from the invention of the wheel—the hot new thing in 3500 BC—to the smallpox vaccine, to the railroad, to the internet, most of the good things we have today have come from innovation. Civilization itself is mostly the happy result of cumulative discovery. And yet at the same time, of course, it takes culture and politics to hold it all together.
So with all that in mind, let’s think about climate change. We might start with the presumption that the real goal isn’t stopping fossil fuels; instead, the real goal is stopping atmospheric CO2. By this reckoning, hydrocarbons, by themselves, are not the problem: the problem, instead, is the unwanted by-product, carbon dioxide.
Admittedly, for some greens, the goal probably is, in fact, to eliminate fossil fuels, even if the CO2 concern could be addressed. That is, if one’s mission is to radically transform industrial civilization—perhaps to the point that it’s not industrial anymore—then energy-rich fossil fuels are an obvious first target. However, we might remind such radicals that the end-state of such an effort will likely not be the pastoralization of America, but, rather, the conquest of America, by Russia or China—unless Mexico gets here first. After that, it would be up to our new overlords to determine carbon policy.
Meanwhile, we can assume that if most people believe that too much CO2 in the atmosphere is a problem, then most people will be happy with an answer that puts less CO2 into the atmosphere. Some will say, of course, that we can do this only with renewable energy. Others will say, “no way.” And yet even if the renewable people are correct, there’s still the problem of what to do with the many millions working in the fossil-fuel industry. Do the Democrats really wish to stake their political future on the promise that they can provide well-paying solar-panel jobs to the workforces of Kentucky, Texas, and other hydrocarbon states? Do they really think that they can win future elections on such a platform?
Thus we come to the idea of continuing to burn hydrocarbons, but only as we solve the problem of removing CO2. This process goes by the name of carbon capture, or carbon sequestration. (It’s also known as CCS, for carbon capture and storage, or CCUS, for carbon capture, utilization, and storage.)
Carbon capture is an idea that’s been around for a long time—in fact, for a really long time. Green plants and trees, after all, have been using photosynthesis to convert CO2 into a non-atmospheric solid for billions of years. Yes, long ago, our leafy friends achieved the holy grail of climate-change believers: negative CO2 emissions.
Yet among humans, carbon capture mostly involves injecting CO2, in one form another, into the ground. Interestingly, the Obama administration supported the idea of industrial carbon capture. It was during the Obama years, for example, that a new carbon-capturing power plant was built in Kemper County, Miss. Critics say that the Kemper plant suffered cost overruns and will be costly to operate. All that is true. And yet at the same time, we can note that the prototype of anything is expensive; it takes a while to get the kinks out. It’s only when the economies of scale associated with mass production kick in that costs come crashing down.
In the meantime, indisputably, what we are mostly seeing is mass spending. According to Jack Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute, just from 2000 to 2014, his industry spent $90 billion on carbon-capture programs, and all other industries and governments spent another $213 billion. That’s a total of $303 billion—in other words, a lot of money. Has it been worth it? We don’t yet know, because it’s a long and costly journey from idea to prototype to mass production.
Yet some environmentalists are hopeful. “It’s not just a bridge, it’s a destination,” said John Thompson, director of the carbon-capture program at the Clean Air Task Force, about this emerging technology.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs have been working on the same problem from different directions. A company called Novomer seeks to turn CO2 into plastic. Another company, Calera, seeks to turn it into concrete. And others have other ideas: researchers at the University of Washington, for instance, believe that they have found a way to use bacteria to turn carbon dioxide into methane fuel.
Others think that it might even be possible to suck the CO2 right out of the atmosphere. A company called Carbon Engineering, based in British Columbia, promises “industrial-scale capture of CO2 from ambient air”; Bill Gates is an investor. Other companies, such as 8 Rivers, based in Durham, N.C., have the same idea, as do scientists at Arizona State University.
Perhaps most breathtakingly, the World Economic Forum suggests that it might be possible to turn carbon and smog into diamonds. Once again, the idea is direct-air capture; that is, pull in the pollutants, rendering them harmless—or maybe even priceless.
Another category is bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS). And thus the green wheel turns, all the way back to the humble organic plant. Such plants, whether they knew it or not, have always been what scientists call “carbon sinks.”
One problem with BECCS is the amount of land needed; to achieve the necessary carbon-capture effect, we would have to cover much of the earth’s land area, including arid zones, with carbon-sinking trees. To which some might say, “Is that so bad?” Indeed, along the path to this arboreal destination, we might get serious about desalinating sea water, thus making the earth perpetually verdant. Another possibility: why not giant trees, even bigger than sequoias, as in the 2009 movie Avatar? After all, the more wood, the more carbon-sinking.
One way or another, we can solve this problem. If we can put a man on the moon, or edit the human genome, or pack all the world’s knowledge into a single computer chip, we can keep the humble CO2 molecule under control.
Some will note that not all fossil fuels are equal; some fuels are “dirtier” than others. Most obviously, coal can contain heavy toxins, such as mercury, chromium, and cadmium. Without a doubt, coal poses the greater eco-challenge. But maybe that’s actually a political opportunity; after all, it’s in the solving of big challenges, mutually, that citizens of a country bind themselves more closely to one another.
Such carbon-capturing would be expensive, but then, again, nationhood is not cheap. We are supposed to make sacrifices for each other. A body politic is just that: one body. So if we have to spend money, for example, to “buy down” the price of carbon-cleaned energy, well, then, perhaps that’s what we should do.
Okay, exhortation aside, what are the actual numbers? How much will it cost? According to one estimate, the price of converting the entire world to renewable energy—such as solar and wind—would be around $36.5 trillion. And since the U.S. accounts for about 18 percent of world energy consumption, that suggests that America’s share would be $6.5 trillion. If that number is accurate, then we might think about fossil fuels this way: if the goal is to reduce CO2, then we now see that the cost-ceiling on fossil fuel is $6.5 trillion. That is, if we spend anything less than that 13-digit sum on cleaning up carbon, we are still coming out ahead.
So if all these possibilities are out there, we might ask: Why haven’t people heard of them? Why haven’t they been part of the political discourse? As we have seen, there’s plenty of new thinking on carbon capture, but not much in the way of political leadership. Everyone knows there are two sides in the climate-change fight, and yet few know that there’s a technological fix in the middle, waiting to be applied.
So why this lack of awareness? Here’s my hunch: the intellectual leaders of the two sides, green and anti-green, would rather fight each other than work together to resolve the issue. That is, both sides rather enjoy the polarity; to many, especially in Washington, DC, the political equivalent of gladiatorial blood-combat is more fun than actually finding an acceptable solution.
And speaking of gladiator fights, let’s not let the media off the hook: in this environment, nobody gets eyeballs or clicks with stories such as, “Let’s work together to solve a problem.”
Still, we Americans have a republic to keep, and that requires effort, no matter how unheralded. And so we might start looking for common ground—more precisely, higher common ground. And so we come, again, to carbon capture.
A few years back, the 2008 Republican platform conceded that human activity might be a factor in climate change, and yet it also insisted on preserving jobs:
Common sense dictates that the United States should take measured and reasonable steps today to reduce any impact on the environment. … Republicans support technology-driven, market-based solutions that will decrease emissions.
Such language and such thinking is, indeed, the stuff of commonality—and, ultimately, community.
The Democrats, too, have had similar thoughts. In 2016, the Clinton campaign spoke hopefully of making America “the clean energy superpower of the 21st century.” Not much mention was made of carbon capture, and yet it’s possible to imagine that a President Hillary Clinton would have continued the carbon-capture efforts of the Obama administration.
More recently, on February 15, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, argued for a redoubled effort by our national laboratories to work on the hard science of carbon capture, with an eye toward new breakthroughs. As Smith put it, “Through its national labs, DOE has an exemplary track record on basic research.”
Still, despite all this policy ferment, it’s safe to say that not many Americans know that there’s a viable middle ground between “leave it in the ground” and “drill, baby, drill.” And that’s unfortunate.
Yet even so, we can still identify the public interest—and the commonweal is best served by policies that promote jobs and protect the environment. That’s where leadership comes in—maybe even bipartisan leadership:
Leaders step up to say that we need a national action for carbon capture, utilizing the best available technology, as well as the best attainable technology—that is, the carbon-capture tech that beckons to us from the future. Yes, such a plan might displease purists and maximalists on both sides, but would be what the vital center needs—something positive, plausible, and, in a fashion, progressive.
With that in mind, those who are sworn to protect—or who otherwise claim to uphold—the public interest have a duty to help develop energy sources that are both abundant and clean. And for all the reasons we have seen, effective carbon capture will almost certainly be a part of any such agenda.
Such an ambitious plan might take a few years, or it might take a hundred years—the point is to chart a course, now, for moving forward. After all, much is at stake.
To be sure, such positive policies, no matter how boldly states, still might not gain all that much visibility, and yet all who are involved in a grand, technologically enlightened carbon compromise should be confident that, in the end, good policy will prove to be good politics.
James P. Pinkerton, a Fox News contributor for 20 years, served as a domestic-policy aide in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.