Global Warming: The Environmentalists Who Won't Talk Straight

by Lorna Salzman

Energy Quiz

In your opinion, which of these should bear the prime responsibility for curbing global warming? (number in order of priority).

  • Government
  • Industry and business
  • Energy producers and distributors
  • Consumers

You will not be surprised to learn that most of the leading American environmental groups involved in the global warming issue have targeted only the first three of these. American consumers - the biggest most mindless consumers in the world - are neatly left off the hook.

Only a few groups have called for ending fossil and nuclear subsidies and tax breaks, an inexplicable void especially since the public thinks that energy producers are gouging the public and making huge profits. And only three (besides the US Green Party EcoAction committee) are explicitly calling for taxes on carbon-emitting fuels. The major national groups are pulling their punches at best (NRDC, Sierra Club), and have essentially abandoned the fight at worst (Environmental Defense).

We shouldn't be surprised, given the tendency to blame corporations for everything, the state of denial about global warming impacts, the resistance to even a small increase in the price of energy (using the impact on the poor as an excuse) and the naive hope that science, technology and business can keep the raft afloat indefinitely.

Some reasons for this:

  • the anti-oil company campaign being conducted by some groups, onto which some opportunistic (but uninformed) congressmen have latched in order to look busy and show the public that they care about high energy prices;

  • the resistance of most of the environmental community to levelling with the public about the future of oil supplies and oil prices, and the full truth about the cataclysmic economic, social and environmental impacts from global warming;

In this respect, the environmental community is emulating the mass media, who are reluctant to broadcast the full picture of global warming and the inevitable escalation of oil prices, as production diminishes and demand from China and India increases. China is now importing more oil than the U.S. and building new coal-fired power plants non-stop.

The anti-Big Oil Groups are not deceiving us about the future of oil, but they are complicit with some other groups in pretending that the answer is simply to tax the profits of Big Oil. Even Ralph Nader has joined the "Bash Big Oil" effort. And it appears that the Democrats will propose a renewable energy fund based on oil company profit taxation rather than on a carbon tax on gasoline and fossil-fueled electricity. Taxation of oil company profits could in fact spell doom for a sound energy policy and a curbing of global warming because it neatly avoids the central problem of energy: the continuing failure to price it at its full cost by internalizing the externalities (global warming, pollution, public health, depletion, etc.) in order to radically reduce demand.

By failing to properly price energy, American policy misleads the public away from conservation and efficiency and into thinking that energy prices are increasing only because of oil company greed. Consumers do not understand that oil companies benefit from keeping oil prices moderately low so as to ENCOURAGE consumption and industrial production, as well as to prevent competition from cheap renewable sources like wind power.

Untaxed airline fuel that allows us to fly to Europe for under $200 dollars is responsible for about 4% of present greenhouse gas emissions and at the present level of use will reach 15% by 2050 if unchecked. This untaxed fuel also allows us to consume a dollar-a-pound fruit flown in from South America.This is sheer insanity.

Americans have long enjoyed cheap energy, cheap food and cheap goods, on the backs of the undeveloped world and its resources and cheap labor, and at the price of environmental destruction. Very shortly, as oil production continues to drop, the oil-consuming sectors such as automotive transportation and agriculture will be forced to raise their prices. There is no way that new liquid or gaseous fuels can be brought on line in time to avert the crisis in agriculture; it takes fifty years to bring an entirely new energy system on line. Biofuels cannot replace oil in less than twenty or thirty years even if we started converting to them today.

The other deception pertains to the time frame available to us to curb global warming. Until now the benchmark for the tipping point - the onset of irreversible damage from global warming - was 450 ppm of CO2 in the global atmosphere. Below this point, some scientists and research institutions (including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) formerly believed the tipping point (a 2 degree Celsius increase in average global temperature) could be avoided.

This figure has now been reduced by some scientists to 400 ppm, only 20 ppm higher than today. At today's 3 ppm annual increase, this leaves us less than ten years before we reach the tipping point. The drastic increase in demand for fossil fuel - over 12% since 1991- must be halted immediately.

A study, reinforced by others around the world, by the Institute for Public Policy, Center for American Progress and the Australian Institute, states that present average global temperature is about 0.8 degrees Celsius above that of 1750. Scientific studies conducted around the world and in Antarctica have shown that climtic upheavals in the past occurred quite abruptly. When the earth's temperature rose 13,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Ag, to nearly what it is today, this shut down the Atlantic Ocean conveyor belt that we call the Gulf Stream, which transfers heat from the tropical Atlantic to the north Atlantic, and ushered in another Ice age that lasted for 1300 years.

In other words, we need to stabilize fossil fuel use at its present level RIGHT NOW, and start reducing it, given the fact that CO2 from the past remains in the atmosphere for at least one hundred years. Nonetheless, the energy proposals of most environmental groups, as well as federal legislation, still use the years 2030 and 2050 as their target years to achieve substantial fossil fuel reductions. All of this clearly reveals that the time for the Kyoto Protocol is long gone.

Clearly, the only way to take action commensurate with the threat is to reduce the demand for oil through efficiency in construction and transportation, while we accelerate the development and application of all renewable energy technologies. No one argues about these two solutions. Efficiency and renewables are now almost cliches in the environmental world.

The problem is that both of these are long term technological solutions that are NOT commensurate with the threat. Even with a worldwide commitment to the Kyoto levels, the increase in CO2 emissions would continue. The 80% emissions reduction is IMPOSSIBLE under all the energy scenarios being proposed, including those of most environmental organizations.

Therefore, we need a quick-fix, jump-start solution that will radically reduce energy demand in EVERY SECTOR quickly, especially in electric power generation and automotive vehicles. The NY Times of Dec. 30th had an article comparing relative CO2 reductions; significantly greater reductions are possible through use of public transportation and fuel-efficient vehicles than from things like switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs and other minor consumer and home energy practices, proving that small changes in BIG user sectors count for much more than big changes in SMALL user sectors.Unfortunately the re-tooling of the car industry will take many years even if started today.

There are only two such immediate solutions with any meaningful impact: MANDATORY reductions in energy use (rationing, limiting supplies, severe restrictions on cars, restrictions on power plant operation and emissions), or an economic solution: raising the price of energy through CARBON TAXES on fossil fuels. Both may be needed. There is no way we can succeed without consumers bearing their share of the burden. Accompanying carbon taxes must be termination of federal tax breaks and subsidies to the fossil fuel sector, which would be an important first step in full-cost pricing of energy.

But looking at the policies and proposals of the major environmental groups on solving the global warming/energy crises, we see that consumers are not expected to be more than a minor part of the solution. All the groups support efficiency and renewable energy; few of them propose actual MECHANISMS to accomplish their goals.And the importance of reducing consumer demand is not acknowledged.

The following are extracted from the groups' web sites; not all groups' web sites had detailed information on their policy recommendations, and not all groups were reachable at this time, so an update will be necessary.

What is disappointing and vexing is the uniformly unaggressive stances of the larger groups, given the seriousness of the climate change situation, and the lack of any unified policy or action. This stands in stark contrast to the period of the original Earth Day in 1970, when every single national organization united behind two major issues: stopping the Concorde SST, and stopping the proposed trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The former was ultimately successful, the latter not, but the environmental movement earned kudos and public respect, which conferred on it clout and status in Washington for many years. Today, with respect to global warming, it seems like we are back in the pre-Earth Day years.

Proposed mechanisms for curbing global warming and reforming energy policy:

Sierra Club

Tougher power plant, vehicle, building and appliance efficiency standards

Tax incentives to industry for new equipment and buildings

Maximizing production from existing oil and gas wells, including Prudhoe Bay

Improving transmission lines

(does not yet support carbon taxes despite internal Club debate, and has not yet called for an end to fossil or nuclear energy tax breaks).

Apollo Alliance

AA has a Ten Point plan for "clean energy and good jobs" that includes supporting existing legislation, reviving the auto industry through hybrid cars and advanced technologies, developing hydrogen fuel cells, "smart" urban growth, multimodal transport networks, etc. It offers only two specific mechanisms:

Tax incentives for more efficient factories, green buildings and appliances

Regulatory reforms to ensure energy diversity, system reliability and protection of workers and the environment and rewards;

(does not yet support carbon taxes and does not discuss ending fossil fuel tax breaks or subsidies).

Environmental Defense (ED)

The only apparent strategy of ED to address global warming is their on-line petition campaign to support the McCain-Lieberman Act, which they assert is the"most significant step we can take to undo global warming today". (McCain and Lieberman are probably the only ones who agree with this assessment).Regarding SUVs, ED's "Dr. Bill" says: "You don't have to stop driving them". Conclusion: ED is no longer a major environmental player.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

NRDC gets high marks for specific proposals, and should be commended for its blunt assessment of what a "Business as Usual" (BAU) scenario will look like, and it isnt pretty: by 2030 it would include 1400 gigawatts of new coal plants; over 2000 GW of natural gas plants; over 200 GW of oil plants; growth in primary energy consumption by 6088 million tons oil-equivalent consumption - from 9179 in 2000 to 15 267 in 2030, with 91% of this increase from fossil fuels. BAU means we will rapidly exceed the 450 ppm "limit" of CO2 sought for this century.

BAU will push us into a purely defensive mode to minimize the damage from sea level rise, Gulf Stream reversal, loss of wetlands and estuaries, contamination of fresh water aquifers, loss of crucial infrastructure (subways, rail lines, reservoirs, underground phone and electric lines and coastal development, influx of tropical disease-bearing vectors, crop failures, and loss of biodiversity. Given these dire and certain consequences - some of which are already visible in the Arctic communities - one marvels at our collective failure to take actions commensurate with the threat.

(Cautionary note from NRDC: In order to remain below the 450 ppm threshhold, new energy technologies would have to be deployed, starting in 2030, at a rate OVER FOUR TIMES the deployment rate of conventional resources during the past three decades. They say that if we don't start now, global warming will be "unmanageable" by 2050, even with all the new technologies available.)

NRDC assumes human growth in "numbers and wealth" and states that new technologies cannot meet our needs within the next twenty or thirty years.Nonetheless they strive for "carbon-less" energy systems.

NRDC mechanisms:

Carbon capture
Cap and trade on power plant emissions
Financial investment for a "carbon-less" RD&D program
(Note: they discuss carbon taxes but note that if they are set too low, a likely
scenario to minimize public opposition, this will undercut renewable energy technologies).
Location-efficient mortgages (to encourage home construction near public transportation)
Climate Stewardship Act (McCain-Lieberman)
Caps in the electric power sector
Financial incentives for biofuels and vehicle efficiency standards
Mandatory minimum renewable energy portfolios
Stronger Clean Air Act
Tax credits to re-tool factories, and to consumers and car makers for hybrids and more efficient cars
Dedicated fund for cellulosic biofuels ($3 billion over 5-10 years);
Adoption by government of commitment to save 2.5 million barrels of oil yearly by 2015;
(carbon taxes are mentioned but not yet supported; no call to end federal tax breaks/subsidies for fossil or nuclear energy).

Climate Crisis Coalition:


Circulating a "Peoples' Kyoto and Beyond petition, to meet the Kyoto treaty goals of reducing CO2 levels by 8% below the 1990 level, and by 80% by 2012;

CCC mechanisms:

Ratification of Kyoto Treaty preliminary to a new framework in 2012;

Proposes transfer of fossil and nuclear subsidies to renewable energy, including major corporations like Exxon;

Supports ending existing fossil fuel tax breaks and subsidies;

Supports McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act and related legislation in
the US House of Representatives;
(despite complaints of some CCC supporters, CCC does not yet support carbon taxes, or what some prefer to call "tax shifting").

Sustainable Energy Network

A loose network of individuals and activists, SEN urges a no-nuclear, low-carbon, highly efficient, sustainable energy future to reduce CO2 by 60-80% by 2050. It gets highest marks for explicitly urging CARBON TAXES but so far has not called for ending federal subsidies and tax breaks to fossil fuels.

SEN mechanisms:

Phase out nuclear power plants.

Create a dedicated carbon tax fund and tax on fuel imports and fossil fuel leases, with revenues going to renewable energy and helping low income families;

Mandatory efficiency standards for cars, buildings, industry, appliances;

Institute net metering

Tax incentives to industry to move to renewable technologies

Expand by a factor of five federal RD&D for renewables by the year 2025

Climate Action Network International

CAN has US affiliates and its activities are worldwide, including protests at the major international conferences. Its proposed strategies include

Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol

Legislate mandatory CO2 emissions reduction targets

Carbon emissions trading;

Reduced deforestation

Technology transfer to undeveloped countries

Eventual CO2 sequestration

Friends of the Earth USA:

FOE is a participant in litigation on behalf of victims of global warming, against the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Development Corp., which make risky loans abroad to projects that emit CO2. It also works to reform policy in extractive industries such as mining and drilling, and is circulating a CO2 reduction petition (no emission limits specified). FOE supports:

Broad-based carbon tax

Terminating subsidies to Big Oil, all fossil fuels, nuclear industry, SUVs and Hummers

Favors national renewable energy portfolio (mandatory percentage of total energy from renewables)

U.S. Green Party -EcoAction Committee

The EcoAction Committee issued these recommendations in its last Earth Day statement, but they have not yet been officially adopted into the national party platform:

Carbon taxes

Full-cost pricing of energy

End to all fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies and tax breaks

Tax incentives for renewable energy


Export of renewable energy technologies

Rejection of nuclear and coal power and of biofuels from food crops

Stringent global CO2 emissions limits based on preventing any rise in average global temperature

Reduction of CO2 emissions by 80% within ten years

Sustainable Energy & Economy Network (an independent project of the Institute for Policy Studies)

SEEN has arguably the most comprehensive and socially responsible proposals for a national energy policy. It proposes:

Carbon tax on all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with revenues used for jobs, investment in energy efficient technologies, renewable energy and ecosystem restoration

Terminating tax breaks and subsidies to fossil fuels

Putting absolute limits on all GHG emissions

Ending subsidies on forest clearing projects, including projects funded or supported by the World Bank and other agencies

Tariff on imports and services whose production produces pollutants and GHG

Low-interest loans to exporters of renewable energy technologies

Tariffs on unsustainably harvested wood

Ban on illegally harvested wood

Boost CAFE standards to at least 33 mpg in four years

Transfer tax breaks from SUVS and transfer to hybrids and efficient vehicles

Low-interest loans and tax breaks for retrofitting closed auto plants to build plug-in electric vehicles and others, including public transportation vehicles

Increase federal dollars for mass transit, inter-city rail, traffic planning, including clean diesel and biodiesel and electric motors

Incentives for efficient power generators, co-generation and green buildings

A 5 to 10 year Renewables Production Tax Credit

Mandatory federal renewable energy portfolio standard

Upgrade regional traffic and electric grids and build DC high-voltage lines to connect them to wind and solar-generated electricity

Favorable net metering rates and access for renewable electric producers

Accelerate collection of royalties and fines from mining companies that owe them to federal and native American governments

Lifeline and conservation utility rates

Industry and utilities make a big public show of supporting what they call "market-based" strategies for moving to renewable energy. Unfortunately their proposals are nothing of the kind, for many reasons, including the fact that the phrase "market-based" does not mean "free market". "Market-based" means maintaining reasonably low energy prices so as not to discourage consumption.

There is no real free market as long as tax breaks and subsidies exist;

The prized "cap and trade" mechanism is not only unenforceable but easily manipulated since each utility, both domestic and foreign, provides its own information on CO2 emissions; utilities routinely deliberately inflate the amount of their CO2 emissions in order to be eligible for higher trade credits;

The stated objective of both government and energy producers is to stabilize energy prices so as to not choke off demand which would force reduction in production. Energy price increases are felt down the line in things like food, transportation,foreign travel and tourism, hard goods manufacture, and construction, all of which would suffer slow-downs and eventual recessions (of course these will happen anyway as oil production drops) without a war-time effort to shift to renewables as fast as possible.

A truly free market in energy - ending subsidies and tax breaks and properly pricing energy - would penalize fossil fuel energy producers and greatly stimulate renewable energy development and installation, which in turn would continue to reduce demand for fossil fuels.Unless the existing fossil fuel industry controls or substantially owns renewable energy (an impossibility actually, given the existence of wind generators and photovoltaic cells, and free wind and sun), they will resist a REAL free market, carbon taxes, and full-cost pricing, in a peculiar alliance with consumers to promote "low" oil prices.

Free markets are undercut by monopoly, price fixing, collusion, corruption, and manipulation, all made possible by a lack of oversight and regulation, as witness the Wall St. scandals. Even the loudly touted deregulation of the electric sector that was intended to spur competition and lower prices has failed due to collusion and deliberate withholding of electric supply in order to elevate prices.

The expansion of fossil fuel consumption in China and India will mean not only competition for oil and gas supplies but higher prices due to such competition. This will stimulate industry demand for more oil drilling in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, but in turn this will accelerate depletion and bring on "peak oil" with even higher prices as known reserves are depleted. The inevitable increase in oil and gas prices will force fossil fuel companies to demand continued tax breaks and subsidies for exploration and enhanced production, in order to stabilize prices and maintain consumer demand.

Free markets are favored for horizontal international trade (between countries), because they can be influenced and controlled by the richer and more powerful nations and institutions. But they are not favored for vertical commerce, that is, producing and supplying domestic needs because domestic consumption depends upon disposable income and consumer wealth. An increase in price in one part of the economy is immediately felt in other sectors, and conversely, a drop in price in one is felt in the others; the diminution of the housing industry, especially new housing, is now being felt by suppliers, contractors, and skilled laborers. Higher energy prices - unless compensated by distribution of carbon tax revenues or tax shifting - will reduce consumer consumption elsewhere in the economy.

The real subject, not yet addressed even by environmental and consumer groups, is the impossibility of continued economic growth as traditionally defined. Amazingly, few people are familiar with either the original 1972 Club of Rome report "The Limits to Growth", or its recent update "Beyond the Limits". All the experts agree that growth cannot continue. The only question is how to prepare for it. Dennis Meadows, a co-author of "Beyond the Limits", says there are only two choices: biting the bullet now and accepting interim hardship so we have time to move to a steady-state economy safely and equitably; or choosing to continue on our present path (Business As Usual) and waiting for the ultimate and destructive collapse that will force us into emergency mode and possible authoritarianism, not to mention widespread suffering.

This is the choice that even progressives and the environmental community refuse to face. While government and industry whistle in the dark, the rest of us prefer to put the blame and responsibility for action elsewhere rather than take charge of the debate and the fight.

As long as citizens and organizations stay out of this fight, the policy decisions will continue be made by those who are unaccountable to us or who remain in denial, or by opportunistic politicians who will write legislation to curb global warming but only insofar as it does not increase consumer prices, inconvenience industry or curb growth. We will be left to hold our fist-shaking demonstrations in the streets and write our angry Op-Ed pieces, and occasionally to shake up local political races. Meanwhile, in the halls of the American Congress, BAU will continue until the final collapse: Nature Bats Last.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.