The Age of Anti-Carbonism

Global warming fears should be all about science, not opinion. But, unlike the nature of the atomic force or the presence of life on Mars, one's beliefs about warming are likely to correlate with one's worldview on economics, politics, and culture. For many this constellation of beliefs and values adds up to an ideology: anti-carbonism.

Anti-carbonism rests on three foundational assumptions, all essentially in the realm of science: First, warming is the result of man-made CO2. Second, such warming is harmful, even catastrophic. Third, a program of policies and actions can prevent these harms.

So far, despite more than $9 billion in research by the U.S. alone, none of these assumptions have been proven.  Scientists can't agree on how much the climate is changing, or whether change is shaped more by human activity or natural cyclic variations. There is no agreement on trending of storm numbers or severity, neither on the extent or timing of sea-level changes, glacier melt rates, effects on agriculture, or the net impact on human welfare.

Without first establishing the science it would seem to be impossible to formulate a rational policy. But the policy war against carbon (and here we mean hydrocarbon fuels, and concomitant CO2 emissions) is an end in itself for the anti-carbonists.

According to Evo Morales, president of Bolivia:

The world is suffering from a fever due to climate change, and the disease is the capitalist development model.

To be sure, anti-carbonists are not all cut from the same socialist cloth. Some well-meaning believers are simply frightened by what they hear about storms and rising seas. Others, more cynically, like wind turbine makers, carbon traders, and many science types, may be anti-carbonist for purely pecuniary reasons. But for many in the political class, both officeholders and supporters, including members of the fourth estate, it is all about the ideology and the policies, which have much similarity to those of other collectivist movements of the past.

Anti-carbonism's economic dimension concerns subordination of choice in a marketplace to central planning.

Oil, gas, and coal are cheap for the value they offer, and they are plentiful.  Carbon based energies provide the mobility and scalability that allows the suburbs to grow. They are the main source of the abundant energy that feeds entrepreneurialism, individuality, and the American dream. Have carbon will travel, to the destination, at the time, and in the manner you wish.

Anti-carbonists generally are threatened by this decentralized economic freedom. At least for others, if not themselves, they believe in city living and mass transit. They value income equality over wealth creation and are contemptuous of owners' interests, which they believe are inimical to those of workers and consumers. Enterprise, in their view, grows through bullying and brutishness, rather than by serving customers well. Rationing industry's carbon supplies is one way to curb capitalism's greedy expansionism.

By gripping and allocating the supply of energy the politicians gain a major additional instrument of political power.

Promoting alternatives to coal and oil requires government interventions in the form of selective taxation, subsidies, quotas, and price controls. Anti-carbonists hold that government is untainted by the greedy quest for profits and thus is morally superior to private actors. Any industrial clients that government creates with energy policies will also be subject to non-economic but virtuous pressures to hire minorities, locate in favored districts, contribute to political groups, and conform to fashionable agendas of the moment.

A subtle or even open antipathy to the U.S. and George Bush pervades anti-carbon thinking. The U.S. rejected the carbon-limiting Kyoto treaty. Though it was the Clinton Senate that failed to ratify the treaty, in the anti-carbonist narrative it was Bush's fault. Bush's agnosticism regarding man-made warming and alleged politicization of science is an insult to enlightened anti-carbonists. America's enviable wealth was stolen from the rest of the world through disproportionate carbon use and emissions; America's militarism and unilateralism need to be taken down a peg. A good low-carbon diet would be just the thing.

Anti-carbonists are likely to believe that nations would forget their warring ways if only they had a unified government, gave up on parochial sovereignty, and shared their resources equitably with those in need. CO2 controls are a neat path to achieve this. The atmosphere is a globally shared resource, a commons. Nations collectively should protect the atmosphere, but individually have an incentive to pollute by releasing carbon emissions. If there ever were a case for world government, this is it.

Anti-carbonism is also a social and cultural movement.

Anti-carbonism defines the sourcing of energy as a moral issue, much like religions define virtue and sin. CO2 release is bad, like theft and murder. CO2 emissions, it is claimed, will eventually kill tens of millions of human beings. Failure to conserve is waste, and waste is theft from the poor and the powerless. Even when not wasted, but simply enjoyed or used to create products and services, carbon provokes moral indignation. That the U.S. consumes 25% of the world's carbon fuel to benefit 5% of humanity is immoral we are told. (Alternatively, it goes: U.S. consumes 24% of energy but has only 3% of reserves.)

Carbon users are also too arrogant about the superiority of the human race, the anti-carbonists believe. Drilling for oil and digging for coal despoil the sanctity of nature. Melting glaciers threaten the polar bears. CO2 is bleaching the corals (oops, maybe not). Humans are not entitled to prosper at the expense of other species.

Though anti-carbonism is now the dogma of the party in power, the news media, academia, and in many cases the church, carbon hate is a kind of counter-cultural statement. Somehow driving a Prius and installing solar panels is kind of like saying to hell with tradition and convention. Today's anti-carbon activists are reminiscent of yesterday's antiwar hippies. Just as "Hair" was the hit of 1970s Broadway, we may expect to see "Windmill" or "Solar" become the musical of the 2010s.

No doubt anti-carbonism is the zeitgeist of the moment. Global warming has been mentioned prominently in every single Obama cabinet member's acceptance speech. Congress is acting as if it is smart politics to force a transition to a low-carbon economy without delay. Venture capitalists and corporate heads are capitulating to the threats and being seduced by the blandishments of agencies and committees in Washington.

The anti-carbonists rest their case on the science and the catastrophic threat they say it portends. But it's really about a fashionable ideology.

One of the ironies will be that even with all of the Sturm und Drang, the world will continue to use carbon-based fuels well into the future, as long as there remains a modicum of economic and political freedom.

Mick C. Pitlick publishes a blog, Mix Z, which focuses on matters of carbon and anti-carbon.