Ken Salazar and the Environmental Middle

by Benjamin Domenech on 1:57 am April 8, 2009

Twenty years ago, Czech dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel, who saw environmental destruction as another consequence of the socialist state, wrote that mankind was experiencing a “crisis of human integrity” toward the environment, one in which we bear witness to “the desolation of things torn from their context, the arrogance of conquerors who expect that the captives and the vanquished will clean up after them, the despair of those who do not relate to eternity, but only to the present day.”

In the heated debates over America’s path on energy, the environment, and the economy, we see how little has changed in the world of conservation policy in two decades since the Velvet Revolution. By some measures a better writer than a politician, while Havel diagnosed the tug of war between the short and the long term views of mankind and nature accurately — the need for a transcendent view of man’s relationship with the world is an ever-present theme of his work — he did not anticipate the pragmatic response that the situation demanded. With only the short term view of economic necessity on one side and the long term view of shielding nature from humanity on the other, the political clash over the environment becomes a morality play, the black hats and the green hats fighting over a stretch of sea. This is the way things are, but not the way they should be.

President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar unintentionally illustrated the policy fissures running through these complex debates just yesterday. Speaking at the first of a series of environmental town halls — fast becoming this Administration’s chosen method for feigning interest in the opinions of the citizenry (a relatively inexpensive method suitable for Bailout USA, requiring only a lukewarm carafe of burnt coffee, a stack of powdered donuts, creaky metal-backed chairs just uncomfortable enough to end the questioning after 90 minutes or less, and a Mr. Microphone) — in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Salazar was faced with an angry crowd of environmentalists. Brian Baskin describes the hearing as “contentious,” featuring a laundry list of complaints:

Opponents of offshore drilling dominated the hearing, convened by the White House to gauge public opinion on whether the government should expand oil and natural-gas production in federal waters … Salazar got an earful about medical waste, “tar balls” from industrial spills and other detritus that has washed up over the years on the Jersey Shore, a popular tourist destination. The message from the majority of the roughly 200 attendees, who identified themselves as White House supporters, was that drilling off the Atlantic Coast would create new risks for the environment and the tourism industry.

Many of President Barack Obama’s supporters, particularly in the Northeast, strongly object to new drilling off their shores. The oil and gas industry, however, is playing up its safety record and pointing to the benefits that increased domestic production could bring in the form of billions of dollars in new government royalty collections, money that could prove tempting amid soaring government budget deficits.

The bright, bespectacled Salazar — a Spanish American who developed a reputation in his short time in the Senate for possessing a churchgoing Catholic’s appreciation for history — gives off the air of being a wonkish insider despite his lawyer-rancher background. But perhaps in an attempt to silence the complaints of the masses, who were unreceptive to his contention that offshore drilling would only be part of a “comprehensive energy program,” displayed the tendency of many politicians to exaggerate the potential for a scientific method to bail them out of a difficult choice. With the Administration’s delayed decision on offshore drilling evidently not being enough for those in attendance, in this case, the MacGuffin of choice was power of offshore wind, touting it as having the potential power of 3,000 coal plants. As Keith Johnson describes the difficulties this method entails:

[Secretary Salazar] raised eyebrows when he said offshore wind farms could replace 3,000 coal-fired plants. He contends that the offshore wind potential just in the Atlantic—the easiest region to develop–totals about 1,000 gigawatts.

Let’s put that in context. The entire electricity-generation capacity of the U.S., including coal, gas, nuclear, hydropower and other renewables, is just over 1,000 gigawatts. There are only about 1,400 coal plants in operation in the U.S., accounting for about 336 gigawatts of power. So that would indeed be a lot of wind.

But of that nominal 1,000 gigawatts of Atlantic wind potential, 770 gigawatts are in deep waters (that is, 200 feet or more). There are currently no deep-water wind farms anywhere in the world. Even shallow-water wind farms are far from a slam-dunk: Of the world’s 120 gigawatts of wind power, less than 1% are installed offshore. A single landlocked project, T. Boone Pickens’ planned wind farm in Texas, would be three times bigger than the world’s stock of offshore wind farms.

This gives new meaning to politicians being full of hot air. The truth, as demonstrated by the most recent DOI Survey of OCS Resources, is that wind power is a resource worth pursuing, and pursuing seriously, as part of a comprehensive energy strategy. But offshore wind power in particular comes with a heavy package of uncertainty and risk, with serious technological challenges to capturing energy in an efficient and consistent manner. Wind is a supplementary resource, not a basis for fundamental change — and declaring that it could replace 3,000 coal plants is simply inaccurate without massive leaps forward in technology. Pinning your hopes to wind in the short term is just not a practical solution.

It’s understandable, to a degree: much like John Ashcroft in the first years of the Bush presidency, Salazar is a Cabinet secretary tasked with the challenging and unforgiving role of policy lightning rod for the chief executive. With every decision, Salazar must draw the heat away from President Obama on green matters in every way he can, shielding him from complaint — and if this hearing was an indication, he may do so by overpromising on what this administration can deliver (a consistent trait, and not just on the environment, regardless of partisan allegiance). Unlike Ashcroft, however, Salazar may find that the lightning comes more heavily from his own party’s base.

Yet this is just the latest example of a more fundamental problem facing the environmental movement as a whole:

The modern environmental movement is having an identity crisis. Staring down its biggest enemy yet, it’s fiercely divided over how to beat it.

The global challenge of climate change is tougher than the localized problems the green movement has spent decades fighting. To some environmentalists, it requires chucking old orthodoxies and getting practical. To others, it demands an old-style moral crusade.

The pragmatists have the upper hand. One sign is that the movement is moving beyond small-scale backyard wind turbines and rooftop solar panels. It’s calling for technological change at industrial speed and scale — sometimes to the detriment of local ecologies.

Yet green policy pragmatists may not have the upper hand in Washington. While Salazar certainly qualifies as one, he received massive criticism from the environmentalist left for, from their perspective, his less-than-perfect voting record on energy, CAFE standards, and other matters. Many prominent environmentalist groups quietly expressed frustration at the choice of Salazar (the League of Conservation Voters being one of the few that cheered him on unreservedly), and there is a significant possibility that he will join someone like Patrick Moore as an “Eco-Judas” if these activist organizations are displeased. President Obama attracted enormous support from the green community, many of whose leaders view these debates solely in black and white terms, and more than a few of whom believe the worldwide economic downturn is a blessing in disguise. That we should reach a point where economic freedom and prosperity is viewed as an opponent of the environment — in opposition to the lessons of history, the facts of today, and a basic understanding of what type of citizen will be able to have the luxury of restraining themselves from overuse — says something about the political dominance of opposition to moderation on environmental policy.

For those on the left, it’s worth considering the state of things in the Czech Republic when it comes to the dangers of extremism on this point. Vaclav Havel’s rival and eventual replacement, Vaclav Klaus, is today a fierce global warming skeptic whose words on the subject have overwhelmingly convinced the people of the Czech Republic that man-made global warming is nothing more than a dangerous myth, the old scourge of socialism returning disguised as science. In a Gallup Poll released last month, 41% of Americans believe that the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated — a record high after 11 years of polling; at a recent New York conference gathering deniers of global warming, Klaus reported poll data showing that a mere 11% of Czech citizens believe in it. Staking everything as a movement on climate change policy has consequences that are far-reaching, and if the American people come to believe that they must pit difficult, uncertain, and expensive steps to lessen global warming against cheap, efficient sources of energy, no amount of rebranding cap and trade will alter their choice.

It’s time to restore the long range view. Pragmatic conservationists, regardless of political stripe, must recognize their responsibility to build consensus in favor of moderate, pro-environment, pro-efficiency policies that balance the energy needs of humanity with the duty to preserve and protect the gifts of nature for future generations. Principled stewardship starts with finding this balance, recognizing that it may leave both business and the environmentalists displeased — and it doesn’t overpromise, but focuses on the real and achieveable. And it doesn’t claim that the solution to America’s energy problems are carried on the winds.

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