Politics & Policy

The Environmentalists’ Civil War

It’s a manifesto smackdown, a fight among the members of the green Left for the intellectual and moral high ground. It’s also a fight that reflects the growing schism within American environmentalism.

On one side are the pro-energy, pro-density humanists. They call themselves ecomodernists and are led by the Breakthrough Institute, a centrist, Oakland-based environmental group. On Wednesday, it released what it describes as an “ecomodernist manifesto,” a document that, at root, states the obvious: Economic development is essential for environmental protection. 

On the opposite side are the anti-energy, pro-sprawl absolutists. Their views are evident in the ongoing protests this week in Harvard Yard. A group called Divest Harvard is pushing the Harvard Corporation, the school’s governing body, to divest the school’s $36 billion endowment of any investments in companies that provide coal, oil, and natural gas to consumers. This group’s manifesto, issued in February, demonizes energy use.  

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The absolutists like to use the squishy term “climate justice.” They believe that the threat of climate change trumps all other concerns, including the welfare of people living in energy poverty. For the absolutists, the only path to salvation is through the exclusive use of renewable energy. And in that regard, Divest Harvard falls smack in the middle of mainstream liberal-left environmentalism in America.

The anti-energy, pro-sprawl absolutists — a designation that, in my view, fits the Sierra Club, 350.org, Greenpeace, and Natural Resources Defense Council — are anti-nuclear, anti-hydrocarbon, and anti–hydraulic fracturing. They routinely peddle slogans such as “fossil-free” and continually claim that we can rely solely on increased efficiency and renewable energy. They push these claims despite overwhelming evidence from Germany and Japan that shuttering nuclear power plants and relying too much on renewables results in higher electricity prices and decreased reliability. (For more on that, see this April 13 Reuters piece about the potential shuttering of dozens of conventional power plants in Germany.)

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The absolutists are anti-energy. In a Divest Harvard video posted on YouTube, the group stated that its goal is to “stigmatize the fossil fuel industry.” The absolutists try to do that all the time. Just last week, the Sierra Club announced the expansion of its “beyond coal” campaign. The group’s backers — who include former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg — have pledged some $60 million in funding for the effort, which aims to shutter half of U.S. coal plants by 2017. Celebrating the fundraising effort, the group’s executive director, Michael Brune, declared, “Dirty, outdated, deadly coal is a thing of the past.”

Never mind that coal remains the world’s fastest-growing source of energy and that it has been the fastest-growing source of energy since 1973. Never mind that countries from Germany to Bangladesh are building hundreds of gigawatts of coal-fired power plants. Never mind that the United States has more coal reserves than any other country does. Coal must be stigmatized.

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Based on the logic that the Sierra Club and Divest Harvard put forward, companies such as Coal India Limited must be stigmatized. Coal India is deemed untouchable because it provides coal to generation stations in a poverty-stricken country that gets about 70 percent of its power from coal. Coal India provides fuel to 82 of India’s 86 coal-fired generators. Therefore, it must be stigmatized. Never mind that more than 300 million Indians — a group approximately equal to the entire population of the United States — lack access to electricity.

To be clear, the absolutists at Divest Harvard don’t mention Coal India in their manifesto. But the open letter published in mid-February and signed by about three dozen Harvard graduates — including 350.org founder Bill McKibben, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., author Susan Faludi, former U.S. senator Tim Wirth, and actress Natalie Portman — condemns investment in what it calls the “dirtiest energy companies on the planet.”

#related#The manifesto lays bare Divest Harvard’s anti-human outlook. They write: “Global warming is the greatest threat the planet faces. . . . This issue demands we all make changes to business as usual — especially those of us who have prospered from the systems driving climate change.”

Who might be included in “those of us who have prospered” from the use of coal, oil, and natural gas — fuels that, when burned, emit carbon dioxide and therefore contribute to climate change? My back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that it would include nearly every person in America, (approximately 319 million), as well as anyone who has ever made money by taking a car, bus, plane, or ship to work, baked a loaf of bread, or delivered a piano. In all, the number of who’ve prospered thanks to the availability of hydrocarbons probably totals 3 billion to 4 billion people.

Despite energy poverty that afflicts hundreds of millions of people in countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia (all of which, by the way, are in the process of adding huge amounts of new coal-fired generation capacity), the absolutists equate energy use with evil. In their February manifesto, the absolutists claim that selling the Harvard’s investments in hydrocarbon producers will make the school “accountable for the future” and that the school should divest because “Harvard eventually divested from apartheid, from tobacco, and from the genocide in Darfur.”

By comparing energy producers (and therefore, energy consumers) with the people involved in racist repression and mass murder, the absolutists are, in effect, saying that consumers who use gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, or coal-fired electricity are as morally bankrupt as those who aided racial repression and mass murder. This is nonsense on stilts.

Even if the divestment push at Harvard were to succeed — and dozens of other institutions were to follow suit — it wouldn’t halt the consumption of any hydrocarbons. It won’t give us a “safe climate.” The investments that Harvard sells will simply be purchased by another entity. To argue that divestment of companies that produce coal, oil, and natural gas will make a difference on climate change is akin to arguing that if investors sell their equity in a McDonalds or Burger King franchise, hungry people will quit buying cheeseburgers.

The divestment movement is predicated on the fantastical assumption that we humans can, as the organizers of 350.org have repeatedly claimed, live “fossil free.” And they continue to claim, wrongly, that the world can be run on nothing more than solar panels and wind turbines. The absolutists claim that we only need to “do the math” to understand their position.

Okay. Let’s do some math. And by doing so, we will show how the absolutists favor sprawl and therefore the destruction of the very environment they say they want to protect. To make it easy on the Harvard grads, let’s focus solely on Massachusetts, which consumes about 56 terawatt-hours (1 terawatt-hour is equal to 1 trillion watt-hours) of electricity per year. To create that much electricity solely with wind energy would require, in rough terms, about 31 gigawatts of wind-energy capacity. (The annual productivity of wind energy, based on the BP Statistical Review 2014, is 1.8 terawatt-hours per gigawatt of capacity. That’s the average over nine years, from 2005 to 2013.) The power density of wind energy — as I have repeatedly proven — is 1 watt per square meter. Therefore, the land area needed to produce that much renewable electricity would total about 31 billion square meters or 31,000 square kilometers, which is about 12,000 square miles.

Put another way, just to meet electricity demand in Massachusetts with wind energy would require an area larger than the state itself, which, including water area, covers about 27,000 square kilometers, or 10,500 square miles. And remember, these calculations ignore the essentiality of oil for transportation and home heating. The latter is important because about 30 percent of all Bay State residents rely on heating oil to stay warm in the winter. Staying warm can be a challenge in the Boston area, which got about 100 inches of snow this past winter.

The absolutist, pro-sprawl outlook touted by McKibben and his allies provides a stark contrast to the pro-human outlook the ecomodernists support. Perhaps the key line of their manifesto is in the concluding sentence, which says they want to “achieve universal human dignity on a biodiverse and thriving planet.”

Toward that end, the 18 signers of the manifesto — a group that includes Breakthrough Institute founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, as well as Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, and the University of Tasmania’s Barry Brook — support increased energy use. They note, rightly: “Climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world’s people. Nor should they be. A new coal-fired power station in Bangladesh may bring air pollution and rising carbon dioxide emissions but will also save lives.”

That’s it exactly. While the absolutists want one of America’s most prestigious universities to sell some of its investments — with the only goal being to stigmatize the world’s biggest and single most important business — the ecomodernists are arguing not only that greater global energy consumption is inevitable, but that it’s good, that more energy use will allow more people in the developing world to live fuller, freer lives. As part of that, they are adding, rightly, that nuclear energy must be a central element of climate policy if we are going to reduce the rate of growth in global carbon dioxide emissions.

The ecomodernists oppose sprawl. Their manifesto talks of the need to intensify “many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world.” Increasing density, they continue, “is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts.”

The absolutists don’t have any credible plans for producing the vast quantities of energy the world demands. They not only ignore energy poverty in the developing world, they also have worked to block the American government from providing any financing for coal-fired power plants in developing counties. (See my 2013 piece on that issue here.) At the same time, they promote landscape- and wildlife-destroying schemes such as wind energy that will result in unprecedented sprawl. That’s the very same energy sprawl that property owners all over the world are objecting to. (Among the property owners who don’t want wind turbines near their property, of course, is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The Divest Harvard proponent vociferously objected to the Cape Wind project, the now-dead proposal to install more than a hundred 440-foot-high turbines in Nantucket Sound, near the Kennedy family’s vacation compound at Hyannisport.)

The manifesto smackdown exposes our need to rethink what it means to be an environmentalist. The ecomodernists have laid out a thoughtful position paper that dares the absolutists to go beyond sloganeering and stigmatizing. I will be pleasantly surprised if Divest Harvard, 350.org, Sierra Club, and their allies respond to that dare. But I’m not holding my breath.

— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His most recent book is Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong.


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