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Fossil fuels are shredding our democracy

Posted on 12 June 2024 by Guest Author

This is a re-post of an article from the Climate Brink by Andrew Dessler published on June 3, 2024.

I have an oped in the New York Times (gift link) about this. For a long time, a common refrain about the energy transition was that renewable energy needed to become cheaper before it could replace fossil fuels. That milestone has now been reached, with solar and wind power often costing less than oil, gas, and coal.

This is especially true if you add in the external costs of fossil fuels, such as the costs of air pollution that kills millions of people each year and the costs of fossil fuels contributing to geopolitical instability.

However, instead of the market naturally transitioning to these cheaper and cleaner energy sources, fossil fuel companies are leveraging their enormous political influence to hinder this shift. They employ tactics such as lobbying, spreading disinformation, and funding politicians who support fossil fuels, all in an effort to maintain their dominance and profits in the energy market.

Opinion Title

My NYT piece focused on disinformation, but this is just a small piece of the picture — there is a lot more going on than I could fit into a 1,000-word op-ed.

For example, Texas Monthly published a fantastic article that talked about the Texas GOP’s war on renewable energy. It turns out that, at this point, the Texas legislature is basically legislating on behalf of fossil fuels rather than the citizens of Texas:

Such rhetoric, however, is undercut by the agenda relentlessly pursued by Patrick and his party during this year’s legislative session. One bill proposed a new process making it extremely difficult to set up offshore wind farms in state waters in the Gulf of Mexico. There was also a bill aimed at raising the costs involved for renewable-energy generators to sell their electricity in the state’s marketplace. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” isn’t just the title of an Oscar-winning movie; it’s an apt description of the flotilla of legislation intended to weaken renewable energy in Texas.

Perhaps the most impactful proposal comes from Senator Lois Kolkhorst, of Brenham, who is championing a bill that would require a new layer of state approval for all wind and solar farms, something that coal and natural gas plants don’t need. It would make setting up new renewable-energy projects more bureaucratic and more costly. The bill is “designed to stop renewable-energy development . . . everywhere in Texas,” says Jeff Clark, president and CEO of the Advanced Power Alliance.

At the same time, our elected officials are pushing legislation to favor fossil fuels:

Meanwhile other proposals were designed to favor the fossil fuels industry. One bill offered zero-interest loans (subsidized by Texas taxpayers) to natural gas power plants to help pay for their maintenance. It would also authorize the building of ten giant natural gas plants, at a cost of about $18 billion. (Paid for by a combination of part of the state budget surplus and, through additional fees, by anyone who gets an electricity bill in Texas.)

Finally, there are some places where they just can’t rig the market. In those places, fossil fuel interests are funding efforts to enact voter suppression laws as well as laws that criminalize protest by setting excessive prison terms for protests against fossil fuel infrastructure and using broad definitions to criminalize peaceful activities. 

As far as fossil fuel interests are concerned, if the choice comes down to “pumping oil” or “destroying democracy”, democracy is toast. Thus, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to view the battle over our energy future as literally a battle for the fate of our democracy.

Most of the efforts to entrench fossil fuels have taken place at the state and local levels, but if Trump is elected in November, we can expect the federal government to join in. A hint of what’s to come can be found in the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025, a roadmap for a transition to a Trump administration. 

While the report repeatedly talks about a “war on fossil fuels”, what it actually lays out is all-out war on climate science and renewable energy. They propose, for example, to abolish the Dept. of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. 

ARPA-E funds energy projects that are too risky to be pursued by private industry, aiming to help new technology make the jump from the lab to the market. Eliminating this office will slow down research on renewable energy, helping keep us more reliant on fossil fuels.

There also propose to axe NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, labeling it a center for “climate alarmism” — what the rest of us refer to as “climate science.” Given that climate science provides the underlying motivation for the transition to renewable energy, this is another blow to support fossil fuels.

Ultimately, the challenge of the energy revolution is really a problem with our democracy system. The neoliberal economic system that we live under today has transferred enormous amounts of power to billionaires and corporations, enabling them to slow down an energy transition that would benefit almost everyone.

To solve this, we citizens need to fight the power: ensure voting rights for all citizens, limit campaign contributions from corporations and dark-money groups, and nominate impartial federal judges. Make no mistake: failure to do so will fry the planet.

Related resources

Is renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels?

Believe it, you are living through an energy revolution

Past time to move on from fossil fuels

For more articles like this one, subscribe to The Climate Brink!

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Comments 1 to 1:

  1. Thank you for continuing to point to and share excellent examples of the increased awareness and improved understanding that needs to become the norm for the vast majority of global humanity in order for humanity to have a decent improving future.

    A focus on pursuing individual interests can lead to conflicting interests escalating into ‘uncivil conflicts’. A mechanism to limit the harm of such damaging developments, perhaps the most effective mechanism, is for all actions to be governed by the pursuit of learning to be less harmful and more helpful to Others. There are many books and research reports supporting this understanding regarding climate science and many other important matters that ‘people can and should learn about’.

    Specifically regarding democracy, “How Democracies Die”, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, is a robust evidence-based presentation focused on ‘norms that are essential to democracy’. The norms include:

    • accepting that all competitors for leadership are legitimate (which is only possible if all competitors have a passion for learning to be less harmful and more helpful to Others, no misleaders allowed)
    • limiting the use of systemic powers like ‘legal or government’ actions (such powers only used to limit the harm done by people, especially misleaders, who have interests that conflict with learning to be less harmful and more helpful to Others).

    If more powerful people respected those norms then less harm would have happened to date, the current day would be better, and it would be less challenging to end the harms being done to the future of humanity and develop lasting improvements like truly better energy production and less unnecessary energy demand.

    I have an improved understanding to offer regarding the opening statement. Instead of “...waiting for the day when renewable energy would become cheaper than fossil fuels”, people concerned about the climate change impacts of developed human activity should have been demanding that the negative impacts of fossil fuels and any of the alternatives be learned about and be neutralized (and reversed) regardless of the cost. A fundamental requirement is ensuring that people’s ‘free choices’ are harmless to Others. And more costly energy would bring about a very important correction – reduction of unnecessary energy use.

    The cheapest renewable energy will likely be the most harmful and least sustainable option. That is what the competitive marketplace (economic and political) can be expected to produce and promote if the objective is simply ‘Renewable energy that is cheaper than fossil fuels’. The marketplace can also be expected to produce efforts that ‘increase the harm done by fossil fuels to maximize the benefits obtained by people who want to benefit from fossil fuel use’. Also, even the best renewable energy production will have some negative impacts.

    The governing norm required to sustain any system, including a democracy or business organization, can be understood to be: Passionate pursuit of learning to be less harmful and more helpful to Others. Anyone with interests that conflict with that governing norm are likely to harm the future of the system, including democracy or other systems of ‘individual freedoms’.

    Without ‘respectful tolerance of justifiable differences and leadership passion for correction of misunderstandings’ competition for perceptions of status relative to Others will likely produce conflicting interests with damaging results. Poorly governed or misled competition will degenerate into harmful escalating efforts to obtain and maintain unjustified perceptions of status.

    Competition for perceptions of status can produce very beneficial results. But it can undeniably also produce very damaging results, including the shredding of democracy.

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