He's explaining, and he's losing

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Article Highlights

  • READ about a fossil-fuel billionaire turned global-warming activist with the zealotry of a convert

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  • Tom Steyer has done an about-face

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  • Tom Steyer's climate change activism contains some serious flaws

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"He" is Tom Steyer, fossil-fuel billionaire past and present, but now a global-warming activist with the zealotry of a convert, a major funder of politicians promoting the climate-change industry, and a scourge of climate deniers, the Keystone XL pipeline and ordinary people for whom inexpensive energy is a central condition for economic advancement. For reasons simultaneously obvious and subtle, Steyer is a bit touchy about the genesis of his vast fortune — the upper-crust cocktail parties can become rather uncomfortable when the expensive booze releases the ire of the environmental lefties — and so he has offered any number of rationalizations for the yawning chasm between his past investments in coal and oil and his current investment in climate change politics.

Unsurprisingly, the rationalizations fall flat, as a billion-dollar coal-and-oil peg simply cannot fit into the apocalyptic hole of climate-change orthodoxy. And so Steyer now is making a virtue of necessity by framing his transformation as a quest for absolution, an effort consistent with the central nature of modern environmentalism as a religious movement. Consider Steyer's recent essay in Politico Magazine: "How Climate Change Changed Me," a title that calls to mind the vast and amusing number of real and imagined phenomena for which anthropogenic warming has been blamed. (Example: increased UFO sightings.) So: Is it the purported heat that has affected Steyer's thinking? Or is it the contortions necessary to transform a fossil-fuels billionaire into a green superhero?

The answer is less obvious than one might imagine, as the essay offers the kind of sloppy thinking typical of college sophomores writing an assignment the morning it is due:

More on the quest for absolution. Steyer claims to have departed from his investment firm because he could not "reconcile [his] personal values with" investments in fossil-fuels sectors. Has Steyer thought through the implications of that stance? Fossil-fuel investments and production are large because other sectors demand energy, and fossil fuels overwhelmingly are the most efficient forms with which to provide it. So if investment in fossil-fuel sectors engenders some sort of moral quandary, does the same principle apply to investment in industries that use energy? After all, they are responsible for the very existence of the energy producers. Will Steyer urge others to disinvest in agriculture, manufacturing, and all the rest? Is investment in government bonds the only moral course? Oops: Government too uses vast amounts of energy. And precisely why do all industries demand energy? Obviously, it is because people demand the goods and services made affordable by fossil fuels; should we reject education, health and other investments in human capital as well? Perhaps without realizing it, Steyer has slipped into the anti-human trap that is the hidden but essential core of modern environmentalism: Far from being a resource, people are a scourge on the planet. As an aside, will Steyer distinguish himself from the ineffable former Vice President Gore by reducing his energy demands? Will he buy some dubious "credits" from some outfit claiming to plant trees in Siberia? Or will he claim that "investments" (by the taxpayers) in utterly uneconomic renewables are the road to salvation?

The absence of evidence. Steyer twice emphasizes the importance of evidence, while offering none. There has been no temperature trend over the last 15 years, notwithstanding the predictions of the models. The past two years have set a record for the fewest tornadoes ever in a similar period, and there has been no trend in the frequency of strong (F3 to F5) tornadoes in the United States since 1950. The number of wildfires is in a long-term decline. It has been eight years since a Category 3 or higher hurricane landed on a U.S. coast; that long a period devoid of an intense hurricane landfall has not been observed since 1900. The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season was the least active in 40 years, with zero major hurricanes. There has been no trend in the frequency or intensity of tropical cyclones, and tropical cyclone energy is near its lowest level since reliable measurements began by satellite in the 1970s. There is no long-term trend in sea-level increases. The record of changes in the size of the Arctic ice cover is far more ambiguous than often asserted, because the satellite measurements began at the outset of the warming period from roughly 1980 through 1998. The Palmer Drought Severity Index shows no trend since 1895. Flooding in the United States over the last century has not been correlated with increases in greenhouse gas concentrations. Steyer is hardly alone in his failure to confront the data even as he urges others to do so.

The futility of "carbon" policy. Does Steyer actually believe that his "smart policies" will matter? If we apply the climate model developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, used by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Obama administration "carbon" policies would reduce global temperatures in the year 2100 by about two one-hundredths of a degree under the highest IPCC climate sensitivity assumption. A 40 percent U.S. emissions reduction — more than double the Obama goal — would reduce temperatures by six one-hundredths of a degree. If that 40 percent reduction were to be imposed by the entire industrialized world, including China, the predicted effect is about half a degree. Would some smart journalist please ask Steyer how much that is worth?

The use of empty jargon. Steyer applauds himself for working for a "more sustainable" economy, without bothering to tell us what that means. Does he believe that market forces cannot allocate a finite resource over time? If so, he must explain why all the crude oil in the world was not consumed decades ago; and both government agencies and the environmental left have underestimated potential fossil-fuel supplies consistently for decades. This, by the way, is the same government that Steyer trusts to allocate resources in the energy sector through the implementation of "the right policies," that is, subsidies for the uneconomic renewable energy in which Steyer invests. Finally, there is Steyer's use of the epithet "carbon," which is not carbon dioxide and which, like "carbon pollution," is little more than political propaganda, in that it assumes the answer to the central question. What actual enlightenment does the use of such terms add to the policy discussion? Answer: None.

Notwithstanding his intellectual failings, Steyer has proven himself a master at working the system, first to amass a fossil-fuel fortune, and now to bask in the applause of the environmental left even as he feeds at the green energy subsidy trough. There is nothing wrong with profiting from government policies; but Steyer is perfectly happy to do so while simultaneously masquerading as a green moralist and accusing those "promoting the political agenda of the fossil-fuel industry" of a lack of transparency. Thus has he descended into a display of crass dishonesty shameless even by Beltway standards. And thus has his influence already begun to wane.

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Benjamin
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