You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

'Energy Independence' Will Destroy the Planet

U.S. politicians are fooling themselves on climate change

Getty Images/Marianna Massey

We are now entering a new era of climate schizophrenia, with energy policy that accelerates climate change celebrated as a solution to global warming.

As the costs of fossil-fueled global warming grow, our leaders are accelerating the extraction of carbon reserves. You can see this in daily battling headlines, for example, from The New York Times: “Boom in Energy Spurs Industry in the Rust Belt” and “A New American Oil Bonanza” v. “Climate Change Will Disrupt Half of North America’s Bird Species,” “Cities’ Air Problems Only Get Worse With Climate Change," “Scale of Flooding Stymies Relief Efforts in India and Pakistan,” and “Drought-Plagued Phoenix Is Swamped by Rain.”

The Times is essentially pretending these two realities are not related, following a careful path of compartmentalization: The fossil-fuel boom stories listed above don’t mention global warming; the climate-change stories don’t mention fossil fuels; the extreme-weather stories don’t mention climate change. By avoiding these crucial links, the writers and editors end up maintaining the fiction that our present energy choices don’t have unacceptable consequences. (And vice versa, the fiction that the disasters of a poisoned climate have no responsible parties.)

This climate silence is nothing new. For example, from 2010 to his reelection campaign in 2012, President Barack Obama avoided mentioning climate change in the context of existing disasters. And since Superstorm Sandy, Obama’s rhetoric has shifted again, connecting climate change and extreme weather, but simultaneously celebrating fossil-fuel production.

In a speech this summer at a Seattle fund-raiser, Obama discussed how costly Western wildfires and drought are linked to climate change:

“And so I raise that because in all the day-to-day challenges that we face that are extraordinarily important, a long-term challenge that has to be dealt with right now is making sure that the planet works for the next generation and the generation after that. And so we’re very proud of the work we’re doing right now with our Climate Action Plan to make sure that we’re building resilience, and that’s what we’re talking with a lot of Western governors about—how can we start adapting our infrastructure to what are already increases in temperature, but then also what can we do to mitigate the damage that’s happening in climate change.”

Fifteen sentences later, Obama celebrated the massive increase in fossil fuel production during his presidency:

“Our energy production has been extraordinary. We’re now producing more oil in the United States than we are importing, and that’s the first time that’s happening in a couple of decades. Our natural gas production makes us the leading producer in the world and has skyrocketed.”

His audience of liberal supporters applauded.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shares Obama’s paradoxical climate stance. At a recent clean-energy summit convened by Senator Harry Reid, Clinton called climate change “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face as a nation and a world.” She then promoted increased fossil-fuel production: “Assuming that our production stays at the levels, or even as some predict, goes higher, I do think there’s a play there,” she said. “This is a great economic advantage, a competitive advantage, for us. … We don’t want to give that up.”

“The boom in domestic natural gas production is an example of American innovation changing the game,” she continued.

The journalist quoting her and writing the larger story, Politico senior energy & environment reporter Darren Goode, did not note the logical inconsistency in her remarks.

On September 7, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called for lifting the export ban on domestically produced crude oil in order to significantly increase the global supply and “bring down the price of oil” while implementing a carbon tax to “take us beyond fossil fuels.” “That is a strategy hawks and doves, greens and big oil could all support,” Friedman claimed about his incoherent policy recommendation.

“The oxymoronic logic displayed here is so dizzyingly self-contradictory that I had to re-read it three times in the vain attempt to find the hidden rationale that would turn the apparently nonsensical into the brilliant,” wrote Asher Miller, executive director of the left-leaning climate-policy think tank, Post Carbon Institute, in response to Friedman’s column. “I know that this ‘all of the above’ strategy has been President Obama’s energy policy but that doesn’t make it right.”

Obama, Clinton, and Friedman are following the lead of Washington’s policy insiders, who move between business, academia, and government, and determine the conventional wisdom on policy issues. One of the leading insider voices for lifting the export ban is Charles Ebinger, Brookings Institution’s director of the Energy Security Initiative. In a 2013 policy memo, he argued that “adopting policies that encourage the development and export of U.S. hydrocarbons including oil, coal, and gas” would allow the United States to take “a leadership role in the battle to address climate change.”

In January, Ebinger urged Obama to lift the crude oil export ban and “stimulate additional domestic crude oil and some associated natural gas production.” He claimed there would be “no negative effects for energy security.” He renewed his call last Wednesday, claiming that lifting the ban “generates paramount foreign policy benefits, increases U.S. GDP and welfare, and reduces unemployment.”

Ebinger’s accompanying report noted in passing that this fossil-industry cheerleading might not work if climate change were taken into account. “The impacts of lifting the ban on crude oil exports on global climate change are difficult to determine at this point as there is a lack of data available to make any accurate projections. These issues are complex and are not within the capacity of this report to address.”

The issues are not actually complex—it is a truism that lifting the ban on oil exports, by increasing oil production, would accelerate climate change.

Former Obama adviser Larry Summers has expressed similar views: “I believe that the question of whether the United States should have a substantially more permissive policy with respect to the export of crude oil and with respect to the export of natural gas is easy,” Summers said at a Brookings event. His remarks were reprinted in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, The Hill, ABC News, and influential trade journals such as Platts and E&E Daily

But in 2010, when he was still working for the Obama administration, Summers compared climate change to the existential threat of nuclear war to the “basic terms of life on earth on a planetary scale,” saying “it is an imperative for this planet that we act so as to reduce the risks that current science points up.”

These absurdities are a consequence of the power of the fossil fuel industry, which showers money on our nation’s politicians and policy experts. Policy advisers then publicly contort themselves into logical knots to justify new fossil-fuel infrastructure. For every dollar the fossil-fuel industry spends on campaign contributions and lobbying in Washington, the watchdog group Oil Change International estimates, it receives $59 in federal subsidies. So, in many ways, we are paying climate polluters to profit from our own destruction.

As The Boston Globe reported this weekend, the Obama administration was rebuked for its logically incoherent support for coal exports by a U.S. district judge: “Doesn’t somebody sometime need to take very seriously what the effect that these greenhouse gases is on the world that we live in?”