Thursday, May 6, 2010

Against Overreaction

(Updated Below)

I'm going to take issue with Joshua Green's complaint about the climate/energy bill and recent disasters in the Gulf of Mexico and West Virginia:
In Washington, environmental disasters come with a silver lining...Historically speaking, then, a disaster like the one unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico would seem tailor-made to jump start a legislative process that has broken down amid partisan recriminations. And that certainly describes Washington. For months, a group of senators -- Democrat John Kerry, Republican Lindsey Graham, and Independent Joe Lieberman -- worked to craft an energy and climate bill that fell apart last week before it could even be introduced. Then came the Deepwater Horizon oil rig collapse. This should have prompted the Senate to look anew at the energy bill, which steers the country toward a cleaner, safer energy future (emphasis added).
Putting aside whether the bill is or is not a good idea in the first place: no, the oil spill and the mining disaster should not have prompted the Senate to look anew at the energy bill.  It's not as if anyone believed that oil spills were impossible, let alone that mining accidents were impossible.  So these things really don't, or at least shouldn't, change the debate.  It's as foolish to change your mind about oil after this spill as it is to change your mind about climate change because it snowed. 

I'm not against using such things (cold days, oil spills) to try to gain rhetorical advantage; that's what pols are going to do, not to mention partisan hacks who host talk shows.  But really, do we have to criticize people for acting like grownups?

If the climate/energy bill was a good idea last month, it's a good idea now.  If it was a bad idea last month, it's a bad idea now.  The substance of the issue has not changed, and so there's no reason to expect Senators to change their views.

(Update: The general consensus from comments is that I'm goofy on this one.  I'm not going to concede, but I do recommend that everyone look at the comments -- perhaps they're right!).  


  1. Really, because our Senators have principled stands based on their convictions? I thought you argued that Senators being responsive to their constituents is a good thing. If a major event changes the way constituents view an issue, should not their representative adapt as well?

    And, certain events involve removing one's head from the sand. If a person thought it was a bad idea, it may be because of an inaccurate/delusional assessment of the benefits/risks. An event like this could prove enlightening and eye opening- and if so, should views not change?

  2. Come on now. Politicians have long blown with the wind.
    My favorite example is gun control post-Columbine. The House (controlled then by the Reps) passed legislation to close the "gun show loophole." The best part: the leadership appointed the NRA's favorite members to the conference committee, which proceeded to never meet.
    Congress does two things really well: glacial change, and spastic, immediate, reflexive moves. PEDs in baseball. Gun control (after almost EVERY major shooting). The list goes on. I see no reason why the environment shouldn't follow the same rules.

    Yes, an intelligent person is aware that the actual risks haven't changed a bit just because something happens. But, consider the elephant in the room: 9/11. Tom Clancy imagined running planes into buildings. Given the flight 93, Richard Reid, and underwear bomber examples, 9/11 did make us much safer in the future, if only because passengers are now more paranoid. However, the underlying risk of terrorism was the same on 9/10 as it was on 9/12.

    Politicians don't just represent people; they are people, too. So, they suffer from being responsive to the concerns of the moment, which are often driven by random events. So be it.

  3. If someone had been persuaded by the argument that drilling technology was advanced enough to make the likelihood of a catastrophe like this extremely remote, and that current regulation and enforcement was adequate -- and that position seemed to be the consensus among everyone but the environmentalists -- then watching this slow motion train wreck shouldn't be enough to convince a person of good will that the assurances have been overstated? A Senator must be riven to his prior position forevermore, notwithstanding stark evidence that everyone had been overly optimistic about current state of technology?

    Hardly seems fair.

    It's as foolish to change your mind about oil after this spill as it is to change your mind about climate change because it snowed.

    I don't think that's a fair comparison. Current weather isn't the same thing as climate. But the technology, regulation, and enforcement of mining and offshore drilling are *directly relevant* to the questions at hand.

  4. And, not to pile on here, but.....

    Couldn't a reasonably well-informed person have thought that accidents were possible, but that the results were very unlikely to be as catostrophic as they've been? Being from CA, I don't consider myself a reasonably informed person of the risks of offshore oil drilling, but I could see a world where senators got briefings that said it would be bad, but didn't say it would be THIS bad.

  5. I don't think you are "goofy" I just think you are assuming people's decisions and positions are not based on good will and good-faith assessments of risk in areas where they may not have been deeply knowledgeable before, but are more knowledgeable now. I just don't think that they ALL are cynical bastards.

    I'm from CA as well, and the oil industry -- off-shore drilling -- used to have a big presence in the area where I lived. The industry contributed a great deal to the local economy, and they were very, very good jobs. After the Santa Barbara spill, they all shut down their operations and moved elsewhere, and the local economy never really recovered from that.

    So count me as one who, not otherwise knowledgeable about the industry, bought in to the plausible but over-optimistic assurances, but is now rethinking. Not that my own opinion matters a whit, but I consider my Senators as people of good faith, and I never expected them to be experts in every area of policy. If they are now rethinking their positions on this policy based on emerging information, I would consider that a good, intelligent thing to do, and something I would expect from a legislator of good will.

    In fact, those who are NOT rethinking their position based on current information are probably either rigid ideologues, dumber than a rock, or cynical as hell.

  6. You're assuming a rational and well informed electorate. It may genuinely be that many supporters of expanding off-shore drilling actually bought the oil-company/Republican propaganda about oil rigs being totally safe and totally invincible. For such a cohort of voters, and through them for their representatives, a disaster like this really is a wake-up moment.

    Having said that, I think it's rather clear that the parties have pretty much adopted a policy of grandstanding on issues of the moment as they present themselves. In a politics driven by propaganda value (what the "professionals" call 'image'), it shouldn't surprise us that, in an attempt to appear relevant and 'on it', the Congress would shift gears from immigration/finance to energy policy/immigration. Besides, it's not like the national parties really want to hold GS to account for the last 2 decades of fraud anyway.

  7. I'll stick up for you, Jonathan. It's just too soon to know how the spill will play out in formulation of energy policy. Obama can't come out today and say "this changes everything" because, as you note, nothing has changed - there's always a risk of a big disaster. And one big disaster doesn't mean drilling isn't safe, it just means that it's not perfect (self-evident before the disaster). We could produce a billion barrels, 10 billion barrels before the next disaster hits in America. It may be years or even decades. That's probably as safe as any human endeavor could be. (Planes crash, trains derail, miners get overcome by gas, bridges collapse, etc.)

    To me, then, the disaster shows us what "drilling is safe" means. It means that we can produce billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas with no major accidents (in the US and other Western countries), but when an accident happens, it's a doozy. The livelihoods of thousands are affected, marine life dies, and the environment suffers damage that may last decades.

    In view of this, what should our energy policy be? Well, we can't afford to do without hydrocarbons altogether today, so simply banning all potentially hazardous production is impossible. But, we can reduce the need for hydrocarbons, which to date, conservatives have been explicitly against (from Dick Cheney notably noting that conservation is an unnecessary virtue to "drill, baby, drill"). It's one thing to say that we need energy to keep surgical theaters lit, but quite another to say that we can use as much as we like without regard to the consequences. I like air-conditioning as much as the next Texan (and brother, that means I love it a lot!), but surely it's wrong for me to keep the house at 65 degrees if the price is ecological devastation and thousands of people suffering. If you want to drive a Hummer to poke a stick in Ed Begley's eye, fine, a lot of people don't like Ed, but do you also want to send a hearty "F-you" to the guy running a beach bar in Destin? It's a lot harder to mock conservation now.

    If you're deciding between a hydrocarbon plant or a wind farm, you can compare the price per kilowatt, but the disaster is a perfect example of the other costs of hydrocarbons that don't show up in the comparison, and thus a good reason to pay a little more in direct costs for alternatives today. In fact, I would wager that for the amount of money the clean-up will wind up costing, you could retrofit every coal-fired plant in the US to run on natural gas (not an alternative energy source, but half as much CO2 emissions as coal), which would bring US CO2 emissions below Copenhagen targets. How many windfarms or thermal solar arrays could you build for the billions we're going to spend cleaning up the Gulf? (And a windfarm is a productive asset, while all the money spent on clean-up is cleaning up a mess we made ourselves, and won't actually makes things 100% right anyway.)

    This thing is so damn long, I'll forgo the argument about how our addiction to oil enriches the world's worst dictators, which is not directly related to the potential for catastrophic accidents anyway.

  8. I'm kind of late getting to this, but thank you for expressing what I was thinking as I read that Josh Green post. I'd also add what, in my opinion, is the biggest reason why Obama is not going to restrict offshore drilling: peak oil.

    Maybe the president understands that, as forecasted by the US Military and the DOE, when worldwide oil production starts to drop in 2012, and in 2015 when oil shortages begin to occur and the economy falls apart, that Americans aren't gonna care about an oil spill. When Wal-Mart's just-in-time delivery system starts to break down, when our globalized food system can't afford to ship strawberries from Chile anymore, Americans are going to be in favor of drilling regardless of the environmental costs.

    The Miami Herald was the only American paper that reported on the military's oil forecasts. I am waiting for one, just one, person in the mainstream media to realize that this changes the whole ball game (why they won't realize it is another interesting question). Compared to the effects of peak oil, climate change doesn't matter. financial reform doesn't matter. And unfortunately, the environmental costs of off-shore drilling don't matter either.


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