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Teixeira: Why Democrats Will Become Energy Realists -There is no alternative.

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the new Book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

“Be realistic—demand the impossible!” So went the slogan of the young revolutionaries who thronged the streets of Paris in May, 1968. At the time, the slogan was viewed by mass working-class parties as profoundly misguided, regardless of the high idealism that lay behind it. But over half a century later, it could well be the slogan of today’s left parties—which are now more Brahminthan working class—as they have rushed to embrace “net zero” emissions by 2050 and the elimination of fossil fuels.

This net zero commitment stems from the extremely high priority placed on this goal by the educated elites and activists who now dominate these parties. They believe that nothing is more important than stopping global warming since it is not just a problem, but an “existential crisis” that must be confronted as rapidly as possible to prevent a global apocalypse. Portuguese Socialist politician, Antonio Guterres, now Secretary-General of the United Nations, has claimed “the era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived” and that “humanity has opened the gates to hell”. President Biden said last September:

The only existential threat humanity faces even more frightening than a nuclear war is global warming going above 1.5 degrees in the next 20—10 years. That’d be real trouble. There’s no way back from that.

More frightening than nuclear war, eh, from which there is presumably a way back? Up and down the Democratic Party, rhetoric is more similar than not to the president’s histrionic take. Whatever else one might say about these statements, it is easy to see how they are not conducive to clear thinking on this issue. The first instinct is to do something—anything!—and do it as fast as possible to forestall this apocalypse.

Hence the commitment to net zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5ºC. Hence the commitment to an extremely rapid elimination of fossil fuel usage. Hence the commitment to an equally rapid build up of wind and solar in energy production.

But how possible is any of this? Is it really possible to hit net zero by 2050? Is it really possible to eliminate fossil fuels that fast? The answer is that, for both technical and political reasons, it is not possible (outside of edge “solutions” like crashing industrial civilization or world authoritarian government to ration energy usage).

The insistence on trying to do so anyway is why “be realistic—demand the impossible!” is, astonishingly, not so far from the guiding philosophy of much of today’s mainstream left, including dominant sectors of the Democratic Party.

Consider the technical feasibility of this program. As the polymath, Vaclav Smil, universally acknowledged to be one the world’s premier energy experts, has observed:

[W]e are a fossil-fueled civilization whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon, and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determinant of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind years. Complete decarbonization of the global economy by 2050 is now conceivable only at the cost of unthinkable global economic retreat…

And as he tartly observes re the 2050 deadline:

People toss out these deadlines without any reflection on the scale and the complexity of the problem…What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional.

Smil backs his argument with a mountain of empirical evidence in a new and hugely important paper, “Halfway Between Kyoto and 2050: Zero Carbon Is a Highly Unlikely Outcome.” The paper is a gold mine of relevant and highly compelling data. Smil outlines the realities of the net zero 2050 challenge:

The goal of reaching net zero global anthropogenic CO2 emissions is to be achieved by an energy transition whose speed, scale, and modalities (technical, economic, social, and political) would be historically unprecedented…[T]he accomplishment of such a transformation, no matter how desirable it might be, is highly unlikely during the prescribed period….In terms of final energy uses and specific energy converters, the unfolding transition would have to replace more than 4 terawatts (TW) of electricity-generating capacity now installed in large coal- and gas-fired stations by converting to non-carbon sources; to substitute nearly 1.5 billion combustion (gasoline and diesel) engines in road and off-road vehicles; to convert all agricultural and crop processing machinery (including about 50 million tractors and more than 100 million irrigation pumps) to electric drive or to non-fossil fuels; to find new sources of heat, hot air, and hot water used in a wide variety of industrial processes (from iron smelting and cement and glass making to chemical syntheses and food preservation) that now consume close to 30 percent of all final uses of fossil fuels; to replace more than half a billion natural gas furnaces now heating houses and industrial, institutional, and commercial places with heat pumps or other sources of heat; and to find new ways to power nearly 120,000 merchant fleet vessels (bulk carriers of ores, cement, fertilizers, wood and grain, and container ships, the largest one with capacities of some 24,000 units, now running mostly on heavy fuel oil and diesel fuel) and nearly 25,000 active jetliners that form the foundation of global long-distance transportation (fueled by kerosene).

On the face of it, and even without performing any informed technical and economic analyses, this seems to be an impossible task given that:

• we have only a single generation (about 25 years) to do it;

• we have not even reached the peak of global consumption of fossil carbon;

• the peak will not be followed by precipitous declines;

• we still have not deployed any zero-carbon large-scale commercial processes to produce essential materials; and

• the electrification has, at the end of 2022, converted only about 2 percent of passenger vehicles (more than 26 million) to different varieties of battery-powered cars and that decarbonization is yet to affect heavy road transport, shipping, and flying.

The slogan of “be realistic—demand the impossible!” does indeed seem to fit.

And how are we doing so far on this incredibly daunting task?

We are now halfway between 1997 (27 years ago) when delegates of nearly 200 nations met in Kyoto to agree on commitments to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases, and 2050; the world has 27 years left to achieve the goal of decarbonizing the global energy system, a momentous divide judging by the progress so far, or the lack of it.

The numbers are clear. All we have managed to do halfway through the intended grand global energy transition is a small relative decline in the share of fossil fuel in the world’s primary energy consumption—from nearly 86 percent in 1997 to about 82 percent in 2022. But this marginal relative retreat has been accompanied by a massive absolute increase in fossil fuel combustion: in 2022 the world consumed nearly 55 percent more energy locked in fossil carbon than it did in 1997.

And what would it take in the future to reach the cherished net zero by 2050 goal? Smil estimates that

…the cost of global decarbonization [would be] $440 trillion, or nearly $15 trillion a year for three decades, requiring affluent economies to spend 20 to 25 percent of their annual GDP on the transition. Only once in history did the US (and Russia) spent higher shares of their annual economic product, and they did so for less than five years when they needed to win World War II. Is any country seriously contemplating similar, but now decades-long, commitments?…

Even though we are technically far better equipped than we were 150 to 200 years ago, the task presented by the second energy transition appears to be no less challenging. Just before the end of 2023 the International Energy Agency published its estimate of global investment in “clean energy,”—in other words, essentially the recent annual cost of the energy transition. In 2023 it was close to $2.2 trillion…[W]e should be investing about six times more, or about $13 trillion a year, to reach zero carbon by 2050. Making it $15-17 trillion a year (to account for expected cost over-runs) seems hardly excessive, and it takes us, once again, to a grand total of $400-460 trillion by the year 2050, good confirmation of [the] previously derived value. This is not a forecast, just a plausible estimate intended to indicate the commonly underestimated cost of this global endeavor.

No natural laws bar us from making the enormous investments needed to sustain such massive annual shifts: we could resort to an unprecedented, decades-long, and civilization-wide existential mobilization of constructive and transformative efforts or, conversely, we could deliberately reduce our energy use by lowering our standard of living and keeping it low to make it easier to displace all fossil carbon.

In the absence of these two radical choices, we should not ignore the experience of the past grand energy transition (from traditional biomass energies to fossil fuels) and we should not underestimate the concatenation of challenges presented by practical engineering, material, organizational, social, political, and environmental requirements of the unfolding transition to a fossil carbon-free world that have been partially reviewed in this essay. When we do assess these challenges realistically, we must conclude that the world free of fossil carbon by 2050 is highly unlikely.

By any reasonable standard of feasibility, I’d make that flat-out impossible. That’s one reason why Democrats, and left parties generally, will eventually have to become energy realists. However much they wish it not to be so, grand energy transitions take time—many, many decades. Absent drastically lowered living standards and/or radical social disruption, this transition will be no different. Fossil fuels, and the support they provide to the high living standards enjoyed by the advanced world and aspired to by everyone else, will be with us for a loooong time.

But hey, “be realistic—demand the impossible!” right?

The other reason why Democrats will become energy realists is political feasibility. As in, what they are trying to do, even it was technically feasible (which it isn’t), is not politically feasible given the actually-existing electorate Democrats have to deal with. Consider the following.

In a 3,000 voter survey conducted last June by YouGov for The Liberal Patriot, voters were given three options:

  • We need a rapid green transition to end the use of fossil fuels and replace them with fully renewable energy sources;
  • We need an “all-of-the above” strategy that provides abundant and cheap energy from multiple sources including oil and gas to renewables to advanced nuclear power; or
  • We need to stop the push to replace domestic oil and gas production with unproven green energy projects that raise costs and undercut jobs

The first position, emphasizing ending the use of fossil fuels and rapidly adopting renewables, most closely resembles the current Democratic approach—but was embraced by just 29 percent of voters. In contrast, the most popular position was the second, all-of-the above approach that emphasizes energy abundance and the use of fossil fuels and renewables and nuclear, favored by 46 percent of voters. Another quarter just wanted to stick with fossil fuels.

Views were skewed even farther away from the Democratic position among working-class (noncollege) voters. Even among younger voters the Democratic position doesn’t evoke much enthusiasm. Among Millennial/Gen Z (18-44 year old) voters, the Democratic position, emphasizing ending the use of fossil fuels and rapidly adopting renewables, is a distinctly minoritarian one, embraced by just 36 percent of these voters. The most popular position is the second, all-of-the above approach that emphasizes energy abundance and the use of fossil fuels and renewables and nuclear, favored by 48 percent of Millennial/Gen Z voters. Another 16 percent flat-out support production of fossil fuels and oppose green energy projects. Together that’s 64 percent of these voters who are not singing from the Democratic hymnbook.

Further analysis revealed some more interesting patterns. Moderates favored the all-of-the-above approach by 58 percent to 23 percent support for the rapid renewables transition, as did 54 percent of independents, with a mere 18 percent favoring the rapid transition to renewables. But one group was very different: 69 percent of very liberal Democrats (about a quarter of the party) were all-in on ending fossil fuels and rapidly transitioning to renewables. That compares to just a minority (44 percent) among other Democrats, with more (48 percent) favoring the all-of-the-above energy abundance approach.

All this suggests that Democrats’ approach to energy and climate change has been defined by the most liberal and “green” elements of the party and in so doing has left the center of the electorate far behind.

Additional data from a Pew study conducted around the same time and from a 6,000 person survey by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life (SCAL) that I helped design underscores this disconnect between what Democrats want to do and what actual voters would prefer.

Here are some key findings from the Pew study:

1. By 68 percent to 31 percent, the public favors “Use a mix of energy sources including oil, coal and natural gas along with renewable energy sources” over “Phase out the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely, relying instead on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power only”.

2. About three-quarters of the public believes it’s somewhat or very likely that increased reliance on renewables will lead to unexpected problems for the country; pluralities believe increased reliance on renewables in the next several decades will worsen the reliability of the grid, the prices people pay to heat and cool their homes and the prices for everyday goods.

3. Democrats have been heavily pushing a rapid transition to electric vehicles. Seven Democratic-controlled states (Maryland, California, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington) are planning to ban the sale of gas-powered cars after 2035. And the Biden administration’s EPA has promulgated a rule on tailpipe emissions so draconian that it would effectively force automakers to shift to mostly EV production by 2032. In the Pew survey, the public is not enthusiastic: 59 percent oppose a 2035 limit on new gasoline cars and trucks, with only 40 percent in favor, a number that has been steadily dropping in the last two years. More than twice as many say they would be upset by such a ban as say they would be excited. Just 15 percent say they would be very likely to “seriously consider” purchasing an EV for their next car (and that’s “seriously consider,” not actually buy).

4. Since 2016, support for more solar panel and wind turbine farms, while still high, has steadily dropped. The only energy source where the public is becoming more enthusiastic is nuclear power, up 14 points in support over the time period.

5. Among those who do not currently have various green-identified home systems—electric heat pumps, electric stoves and electric heat pump water heaters—those who have not given serious thought to installing them outnumber those who have by five or six to one.

6. Finally, when considering proposals to combat climate change, only 30 percent think getting to net zero as quickly as possible is very important. That’s half the number who think keeping consumer costs low is very important.

The SCAL survey allows for a detailed demographic breakdown on some of these issues. These patterns illustrate how serious the disconnect is becoming between Democrats and ordinary voters.

1. The same question about phasing out the use of fossil fuels completely for renewables elicited an even more lop-sided split in the SCAL survey: 72 percent for the all-of-the-above approach, including fossil fuels, to 26 percent for the rapid renewables transition. The split was even more lop-sided among working-class (noncollege) respondents, as it was among political moderates. Predictably, white college graduate liberals were an exception—two to one in favor of getting rid of fossil fuels. But moderate and conservative white college graduates, who vastly outnumber the liberals, were almost seven to one against. That finding should give Democrats, who are increasingly reliant on support from white college graduates, some pause.

2. Fascinatingly, among both voters who currently support Biden against Trump and those who voted for Biden in 2020, solid majorities favor the all-of-the-above approach and oppose getting rid of fossil fuels for renewables.

3. Many of the Pew findings underscore the critical role that consumer price issues likely will play in any energy transition. How much are voters willing to pay to facilitate the fight against climate change? The short answer is: not much. In the SCAL survey, respondents were asked whether they would vote for a ballot measure to pay extra on their monthly utility bill to combat climate change, with amounts ranging from $1 to $100. Even on $1, the public was closely split, with willingness to support the $1 fee just 7 points higher than opposition to the levy. Among working-class respondents, they weren’t even willing to go that far, in contrast to the college-educated where support for the $1 fee was 20 points higher. This 20-point differential was true for both white working class vs. white college graduates and for nonwhite working class vs. nonwhite college graduates. And notably, political independents were two to one against paying the $1 extra.

4. And when you up the ante to $10 a month, things really start to fall apart. By 30 points, working-class respondents said they would vote against such a measure. Among moderates and independents the margin was 20 points.

5. Moving up to $20 a month, this appears to be a real breaking point. Not only do working-class respondents say they would vote against such a levy by 40 points, even college graduates are bailing out, opposing the extra fee to combat climate change by 20 points. Moderates are opposed by 40 points and independents by 50 points. Even voters who currently support Biden against Trump and those who voted for Biden in 2020 move into opposition at this point. Above this level, support for the levies becomes increasingly tiny. In fact, at the $75 level even liberal white college graduates can’t bring themselves to vote in favor. Guess there’s a limit to putting your money where your mouth is, even when it’s supposedly an “existential crisis!”

These data strongly indicate very weak buy-in among ordinary voters for Democrats’ crusade to transition rapidly to renewables and EVs and eliminate fossil fuels. Voters are just not that interested and certainly not interested enough to disregard their basic economic concerns.

Nor does it appear that the massive spending Democrats have unleashed on climate change/clean energy efforts is likely to change this baseline lack of enthusiasm among voters. A recent Wall Street Journal article was memorably headlined: “Biden Is Spending $1 Trillion to Fight Climate Change. Voters Don’t Care.” The article noted:

President Biden has done more to address climate change than any of his predecessors. So far, voters don’t seem to care.

The Biden campaign and a collection of progressive groups are trying to change that…The strategy is risky because climate has never been a priority with voters.

Indeed, a New York Times article on Biden’s ambitious climate change/clean energy plans for a possible second term pointed out:

While 54 percent of adults polled by Pew said climate change was a major threat to the country’s well-being, respondents ranked it 17th out of 21 national issues in a January survey. “Even for Democrats, who say it’s important, it’s not the top issue,” said Alec Tyson, a researcher who helped conduct the survey.

Perhaps it’s time for Democrats to get in touch with their inner energy realist instead of insisting voters must embrace Democrats’ maximalist climate agenda. While the Biden administration has taken some actions quite consistent with energy realism, they are bizarrely reluctant to talk about them, presumably because they’re afraid to annoy climate activists. The Wall Street Journal again:

Under Biden, American energy production has reached historic highs—a popular accomplishment that voters overwhelmingly support. But you would never know it from listening to him. The achievement went unmentioned in the president’s recent State of the Union address and his recent campaign speeches, where he has preferred to talk about climate investments and “environmental justice.” Perhaps as a result, most Americans disapprove of his handling of energy, and many blame him for high gas prices.

The president’s failure to tout this aspect of his record has frustrated moderate allies. Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) recently wrote a Washington Post op-ed sarcastically “congratulating” Biden for his energy record and urging him to tout it more vigorously. “This is the all-of-the-above strategy in action, showing results. But it seems some of the president’s radical advisers in the White House are so worried about angering climate activists that they refuse to speak up about these accomplishments,” Manchin wrote.

This approach is just not sustainable. Political backlash, just getting started here but already roiling Europe, is inevitable. If Democrats were smart they would abandon their quixotic net zero crusade and embrace energy realism which, unlike that crusade, is both technically and politically feasible. How to do so, while still making progress on an energy transition over the long haul? Smil, as usual, has the right of it:

Belief in near-miraculous tomorrows never goes away. Even now we can read declarations claiming that the world can rely solely on wind and PV by 2030. And then there are repeated claims that all energy needs (from airplanes to steel smelting) can be supplied by cheap green hydrogen or by affordable nuclear fusion. What does this all accomplish besides filling print and screens with unrealizable claims? Instead, we should devote our efforts to charting realistic futures that consider our technical capabilities, our material supplies, our economic possibilities, and our social necessities—and then devise practical ways to achieve them. We can always strive to surpass them—a far better goal than setting ourselves up for repeated failures by clinging to unrealistic targets and impractical visions. (emphasis added)

Eventually, Democrats will go down the path of energy realism. There is no alternative. But for their sake and that of an ultimately smooth and successful energy transition—one that raises rather than lowers living standards—it would be better if that happened sooner rather than later.

In other words: be realistic—demand the possible!

2 comments on “Teixeira: Why Democrats Will Become Energy Realists -There is no alternative.

  1. Bill Clary on

    Your understanding of the politics is probably correct. However, your understanding of science is not. This is what I study so I thought I’d share a couple of observations.

    The reason that climate change scares so many people is that we have entered a period unparalleled in human history. The greenhouse gas imbalance since the beginning of the industrial age will almost certainly result in massive increases in sea level, crop failures and other consequences that could prove fatal to civilization as we have enjoyed it for many years. Although the climate is a complex system, the actual physics behind the problem is fairly straightforward and should not be daunting to any reasonably well-educated person who happened to pay attention to high school physics. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

    Climate change is a symptom of a larger problem. Since about 1970 or so, the human species has overshot the carrying capacity of the planet. This is largely because of economic activity in the developed world. Over the last 20 years, Johan Rockstrom and his colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre have quantified nine critical “planetary boundaries” that mark the safe space in which humans can survive and flourish. Climate change is one of them, but there are also others that are also crucial, including the collapse of biodiversity, ocean acidification, the imbalance of nitrogen and phosphorus and toxic pollution. Of the nine, six are now breached.

    It would be a fool’s errand to try to predict the ultimate consequences of this, but it would also be highly irresponsible to just look away. If there is any overriding lesson to be learned it is that the human project is embedded completely in the natural world. Human politics and economics are ultimately dependent on physical systems, and the basic ignorance of most political and business leaders of the basics of physics, biology and ecology is especially appalling.

    The other issue that comes to mind is the fact that our dependence on fossil fuels would be temporary even if the environmental consequences were not so potentially dire. The supply of coal, petroleum and natural gas is finite. Although nobody knows when this will happen, it is self-evident from this simple fact is that at some point, we will reach a point where extraction and use of fossil fuels will no longer be economically feasible because the amount of energy returned from the extraction and development of the resources will no longer justify the energy used in finding and developing them. We are probably quite some time away from the peak of coal, but there are signs that the peak in oil and gas may be much sooner. That alone should at the very least incentivize society to look beyond them. And the ecological ramifications of continued reliance on fossil fuels are real.

    In 1972, Donella Meadows and her colleague released The Limits to Growth. The report was widely derided by very important people at the time, but 50 years later, the World3 model upon which it is based has proven to be fairly robust, and actual data in the ensuing decades has tracked the “business as usual” scenario in the report remarkably well. The conclusion in Limits to Growth is that without major course corrections, it is doubtful that our industrial civilization can avoid a major reckoning before the end of this century. A cautious person facing these observations should, at least in my view, not be sanguine about business as usual. At the very least,


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