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June 02, 2006

Petropolitics,, and The Politics of Decarbonization

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Energy Policy

Thomas Friedman is brilliant at capturing large-scale dynamics of the international scene. In the current issue of Foreign Policy he has an excellent article on the relationship of oil prices and the “pace of freedom” which he argues always move in opposite directions. His article provides a compelling justification for reducing reliance on fossil fuels:

Let me stress again that I know that the correlations suggested by these graphs are not perfect and, no doubt, there are exceptions that readers will surely point out. But I do believe they illustrate a general trend that one can see reflected in the news every day: The rising price of oil clearly has a negative impact on the pace of freedom in many countries, and when you get enough countries with enough negative impacts, you start to poison global politics.

Although we cannot affect the supply of oil in any country, we can affect the global price of oil by altering the amounts and types of energy we consume. When I say “we,” I mean the United States in particular, which consumes about 25 percent of the world’s energy, and the oil-importing countries in general. Thinking about how to alter our energy consumption patterns to bring down the price of oil is no longer simply a hobby for high-minded environmentalists or some personal virtue. It is now a national security imperative.

Therefore, any American democracy-promotion strategy that does not also include a credible and sustainable strategy for finding alternatives to oil and bringing down the price of crude is utterly meaningless and doomed to fail. Today, no matter where you are on the foreign-policy spectrum, you have to think like a Geo-Green. You cannot be either an effective foreign-policy realist or an effective democracy-promoting idealist without also being an effective energy environmentalist.

Reframing the greenhouse emissions issue beyond global warming is important if effective action is going to take place. Support for this assertion comes from a poll taken by participants in nationwide "house parties" organized by a liberal advocacy group. From an email in my inbox here are the results of this poll:

Health care for all 65091

Sustainable energy independence 61030

Restored constitutional rights 35675

Guaranteed accurate elections 35133

Diplomacy over militarism 28912

High quality education for all 27874

Solutions to global warming 26306

A guaranteed living wage 25527

Publicly funded elections 21096

A balanced federal budget 20945

Look at that -- global warming is #7 while sustainable energy independence is #2. If global warming doesn’t rank higher with participants, why would anyone expect that it will it ever rank higher among the general public?

There are good reasons to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Leading with global warming as a promotional strategy may seem like the right thing to do, but as a matter of political expediency, why not go where the policy arguments and political salience are strongest?

Posted on June 2, 2006 05:54 AM



While I share Friedman’s concern about the free world’s energy dependency on Islamo-fascist theocrats and neo-Marxist autocrats, I consider one of his key arguments as fatally flawed:

His assumption that a deliberate reduction in oil (and gas) imports and consumption will inevitably lead to “effective energy environmentalism” is, in my view, grossly misguided.

I have always despised Arab dictators and their employment of the oil weapon against Israel in particular and the Western world in general. Surely, without our enslavement to Middle Eastern oil, the world would be a freer and safer place!

Europe and a number of former Soviet republics now faces similar problems with political intimidation and outright blackmail over Russian energy supplies.

As a result of security concerns and rising oil and gas prices, both Europe and the USA are indeed trying to reduce their foreign energy dependency. However, Friedman’s apparent confidence that a cutback in foreign fossil fuel imports will result in an corresponding reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is rather short-sighted. Has he never heard of the law of unintended consequences?

Indeed, the substitution of oil and gas by major power companies, rather than decreasing CO2 emissions, has actually led to a substantial increase!

As I have indicated on CCNet in recent days, the persistent rise of oil and gas prices together with political instability in many oil-exporting countries has resulted in a dramatic comeback of coal consumption around the world. You just need to look at Kyoto-devoted Britain to realise where the world is heading:

“The amount of coal consumed by UK power stations increased last year to the highest level since 1996, as record gas prices forced electricity suppliers to find other sources of power. This pushed up Britain's carbon dioxide emissions to their highest in 10 years, figures from the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) show. They also help explain why ministers tried to lower targets for cuts to carbon emissions.”

China is building one new coal-fired power station per week on average, while the USA is experiencing what observers have called a “coal rush,” with US energy companies submitting plans fore 120 new coal-fired power plants.

Europe, too, is increasingly turning to coal again, which is not surprising given huge reserves

In view of this resurgence of carbon-intensive coal industries around the world, anyone genuinely concerned about “dangerous climate change” should consider backing the development of effective clean coal technologies

Given the total opposition to nuclear energy, I remain doubtful, however, that green fundamentalists are prepared grasp the nettle on CO2-reducing technologies:

"As global energy demands increase, the need for clean sources of power has become crucial. On Monday in eastern Germany, ground was broken on a coal-fired plant that will emit no greenhouse gases... Protestors from the environmental group BUND blew whistles and shouted slogans to stop using coal all together....",2144,2035398,00.html

Posted by: Benny Peiser at June 2, 2006 09:11 AM

Roger, lots of people argue that we could gain energy independence by relying more on coal (which the U.S. has a great deal of) -- for electricity and, via CTL technology, for liquid fuels.

That road gets you to energy independence but doesn't address CO2 emissions, which we all know are horrendous with coal.

You spend a lot of time knocking down arguments for GHG emissions reductions that you consider unsound. And you always gesture at the fact that there are other, better reasons to reduce emissions. Yet you're curiously vague about what those other reasons are.

Is this one of those reasons? If so, I don't think it's a very strong one.

Posted by: David Roberts at June 2, 2006 10:13 AM

Damn your principles, you mean? Sneak carbon controls in through the back door, before the electorate works out the real reasoning? The problem (apart from the obvious) is that the solutions are not the same. e.g. a clear way to reduce US dependence on oil is to generate hydrogen from coal.

Far preferable, I think, is to be honest about what you think the problems and solutions are. If you don't manage to convice others, then so be it. What that poll demonstrates is that (in case anyone wasn't already aware), AGW is a very low priority in the US. If you want to get elected in the current climate, it won't be on the back of AGW.

Posted by: Tom Rees [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 2, 2006 11:00 AM

Roger, you should know better than to take a "poll" like that at face value.'s active membership is heavily tilted toward people who identify as Demicratic Party activists. It would be an interesting to consider why Democratic Party activists rank AGW so low (or at least appear to), but that's not what you're doing here. One thing I would want to know is exactly what the process was by which that priority list was generated. Knowing (and I mean that literally; the leadership is local for me), I suspect something was done to tilt the process.

Remember that polling info I linked to the other day that showed what might be called the hard core of support for action on AGW as growing from about 8% to 17% since 1998 even while the public stance on the broad question of AGW has remained at about 80%? I think it would be a much better use of your time and skill to try to figure out what the former means. BTW, you may be interested to know that polling in California appears to show the AGW hard core at more like 30%. (I say "appears" because the questions aren't identical, but see the 7/05 PPIC environment poll for the details.) Looking e.g. at what's going with the AGW issue at all levels of government here, and in particular with the rhetoric about AGW in the current governor's race, I suspect there may be some sort of correlation to be found.

I know that such a correlation would imply that the AGW educational efforts you disparage are not a waste of time after all, but sometimes in the science biz one is required to abandon preconceptions if the evidence seems to be headed in some other direction.

Posted by: Steve Bloom [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 2, 2006 11:35 AM

I wasn't really old enough for this to be true, but I feel a strong sense of deja vu in this particular line of argument. In the 1970s, the US did experience an actual threat to our energy supply from geopolitical actors, we experienced shortages at the pump, and, correspondingly, as a nation we embarked on many energy policies designed to do exactly as Friedman says, reduce our use of energy and make us less dependent on volatile international energy sources. Such polices included CAFE standards, appliance efficiency standards, energy labelling, building codes, incentives for solar, and the like. Of course some particular sectors of our energy use have become much more efficient. And yet, here we are in 2006, 30 years later, still vulnerable to the same thing. There are at least three possible reasons for this: a) the politics of the 1980s and 1990s dampened how effective the policies of the 70s could be; b) the policies of the 1970s were not well-designed policies in themselves; or c) the American population has still not yet fully absorbed that these are real tradeoffs-- energy use and national security. I think there are some lessons to be learned from history and from examining whether these reasons are true or not that will hopefully result in effective, long-lasting policies. Perhaps we can avoid having our children write the same type of op-ed in 2036...

Posted by: LDilling [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 2, 2006 01:02 PM

"Thomas Friedman is brilliant at capturing large-scale dynamics of the international scene. In the current issue of Foreign Policy he has an excellent article on the relationship of oil prices and the “pace of freedom” which he argues always move in opposite directions."

But does he have actual data that support his claim?

There are two good non-partisan sources of assessments of freedom in the world:

1) Freedom House has separate rankings of political freedom and civil liberties freedom in every country in the world, and

2) The Heritage Foundation, Frasier Institute and others collaborate to rank economic freedom in every country in the world.

My guess is that Thomas Friedman would have to do some serious data torture until the data told the story he wants to tell.

My guess is that both types of freedom--or three types, depending if you count Freedom House as two types of freedom--have increased since ~1980. That is, my guess is that you won't see freedom increasing as oil prices decreased, and then decreasing as oil prices increased.

But that's just a guess. (I'm too lazy to do the actual analysis...even though it wouldn't be very difficult.)

Posted by: Mark Bahner [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 2, 2006 05:11 PM

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