Oil-Funded Pat Michaels Admits Solving Global Warming Is A Problem Of ‘Political Acceptability’

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"Oil-Funded Pat Michaels Admits Solving Global Warming Is A Problem Of ‘Political Acceptability’"

In a telling exchange with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, long-time polluter apologist Pat Michaels conceded that the real challenge of solving manmade global warming is simply the “political acceptability” of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels as climate catastrophes grow. Michaels, aptly introduced as “a scientist who now works for the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank that strongly opposes caps to carbon dioxide,” has promoted global warming denial for decades, funded by a network of oil and coal companies and their ideological allies. With calm questioning, Zakaria exposed Michaels’ position as political “stand-pattism” as the world burns:

ZAKARIA: You hear all this. Doesn’t it worry you? I mean, I understand your position, which is you know, we don’t have a substitute for fossil fuels right now. But surely that isn’t an argument for stand-pattism. Don’t you want to do something about this?

MICHAELS: What I worry about more is the concept of opportunity cost. We had legislation, again, that went through the House last summer, which would have cost a lot and been futile. And when you take that away or when the government favors certain technologies and politicizes technologies, you’re doing worse than nothing. You’re actually impairing your ability to respond in the long run. And that’s my major concern along this issue —

ZAKARIA: But if you were to have a carbon tax, if you were to have a gas tax —

MICHAELS: You can put in the carbon tax.

ZAKARIA: No, but you would reduce the consumption — that which you tax you get less of. That which you subsidize you get more of. This is a pretty simple law of economics, right?

MICHAELS: Right.

ZAKARIA: So if you were were to put it in, you would get reduced CO2 emissions and the government would get some money which you may not think it would spend wisely but it has the potential of spending wisely. Why would you be opposed to that?

MICHAELS: The problem is one of magnitude and political acceptability thereof. When we had gasoline of $4 a gallon, we reduced our consumption a grand total of four percent. If you’re really serious about atmospheric carbon dioxide, you’ve got to reduce it about 80 percent. How high does that tax have to be to be 80%? How do you do that in a political republic? It’s very, very difficult. And I guarantee you that —

ZAKARIA: But is the answer therefore to do nothing?

MICHAELS: No.

Watch it:

Zakaria also got Michaels to admit that about “40 percent” of his funding comes from the oil companies whose profits are based on free pollution.

Of course, there’s no secret about what kind of economic policy would be needed to end our dependence on fossil fuels over the coming decades. The rest of the industrialized world has policies that put a gradually increasing price on carbon pollution, redirecting investment in the free market to cleaner alternatives. Michaels’ claim that the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the House of Representatives last year “would have cost a lot and been futile” is, of course, false. The legislation would have improved the economic security of working families, reduced the deficit, and spurred billions of dollars of investment in clean American jobs instead of deadly oil and coal — while making an international agreement to limit global warming pollution a reality.

Michaels was interviewed this morning with climate scientist Gavin Schmidt and economist Jeffrey Sachs, who plainly described the “catastrophic planet” we are creating by burning billions of tons of fossil fuels every year. Schmidt remained “a little optimistic that the forces of delay will eventually be put aside” and that we can “demonstrate that societies are smarter than just allowing business as usual to carry on.” “If we do this sensibly,” Sachs said, “we can do this at low cost, save the planet, and save the economy.”

Sachs agreed with Michaels that the challenge requires political will. He concluded that is “what we hired the President of the United States for,” but that “we’re still waiting to hear from the administration”:

If we end up with a different planet where people cannot grow food, where people cannot eat given where they’re living right now, we have a catastrophe. And the ironic point is the combination of the technologies we have already in hand and those that are close on the horizon, if we do this sensibly, we can do this at low cost, save the planet, and save the economy. But we need a strategy and a plan. That’s what we hired the President of the United States for also. That’s what we’re still waiting to hear from the administration. If we get it, I bet the American people will rally to it.

It remains to be seen whether President Barack Obama will live up to this civilizational challenge, or if he will continue to let the Pat Michaels of the world rule the political discourse.

Transcript:

ZAKARIA: It has been a scorcher of a summer. Record high temperatures all over the United States. Huge chunks of glacier the size of four Manhattan islands breaking off in Greenland. One third of Pakistan is now under water. Fires burning out of control in Russia. Floods in Europe. So is this just another summer on planet earth, or is it the apocalypse? Or is it global warming? And whatever it is, how will it affect all of us and our economies? To help me answer these questions, Jeff Sachs, of course, from the Earth Institute of Columbia. Gavin Schmidt is a NASA scientist who studies climate change. and Pat Michaels is a scientist who now works for the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank that strongly opposes caps to carbon dioxide. Welcome, gentlemen.

So you’re the scientist. Tell me what we should make of these high temperatures. There’s always a danger of taking one summer or one data point and extrapolating from it, but it does seem like a lot of stuff is going on.

SCHMIDT: That’s true. And some of the changes that we’ve been seeing, particularly in the heat waves in Russia, do seem to be very anomalous for a very long period of time. But you’re absolutely right. We have a very hard job to attribute any one single event or even a group of disparate events to something as kind of slow-acting but pervasive like global warming. So we know that the planet is warming. This decade is the warmest decade that we have in the instrumental record. It’s warmer than the ’90s. The ’90s were warmer than the ’80s. The ’80s were warmer than the ’70s. There are a lot more warm records breaking than there are cool records breaking. But there’s still the same amount of variability from one summer to the next summer or even from one winter to the next winter.

ZAKARIA: But all over time pointing upwards. That is, upward rise. The mean temperature is rising.

SCHMIDT: Right. So we think that’s because of the increases in greenhouse gases that industrial civilization and agriculture have put into the atmosphere. And what we anticipate is that because we’re continuing to add carbon dioxide to the system we’re going to continue to warm decade by decade by decade. The exact magnitude of where we’re going to go is going to depend a little bit on the system but also on the decisions that we make as a society to either reduce carbon emissions or just to carry on with business as usual.

ZAKARIA: So that strikes me as the scientific case for global warming. That is, that it is happening, it is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, and what we do about those greenhouse gas emissions will determine how hot the planet gets. Is there anything there you disagree with?

MICHAELS: It’s very clear the planet’s warmer than it was and that people have something to do with it. What you’re concerned about is the magnitude and the rate of the warming. And I think it’s quite demonstrable that the rate of observed warming is at the low end of the range of projections made by the United Nations. And furthermore, simply saying that one is going to reduce emissions could actually be the wrong thing to do at the moment if you don’t have the technology to really effectively do this and to do it globally. What you could wind up doing is spending large amounts of capital that would be dissipated when it could be invested in the future in technologies that frankly you and I don’t even know about. So —

ZAKARIA: What do you mean we can’t do it effectively? We know how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We stop using fuels that emit it. It may not be economically pleasant. But that’s different from — we know how to do it.

MICHAELS: We don’t have a replacement technology right now.

ZAKARIA: Well, we don’t —

MICHAELS: We simply don’t have it.

ZAKARIA: I agree with that. But that’s different from saying we don’t know how to do it. Stop using fossil fuels and CO2 emissions will go down.

MICHAELS: Yeah. But unfortunately, talk’s cheap. Yes, you can say you need to do something, but then you have to have a mechanism to do it.

ZAKARIA: Jeff, talk about the point Pat Michaels was making, which is fine, the earth is warming, human industrial activity and agricultural activity is causing it, but we don’t really know how to get off the fuels that — the whole way of life that produces these fuels and so we can mandate all these things, it doesn’t — nothing’s going to happen.

SACHS: I think what Pat said is absolutely correct, that you need a plan. But we need to get started now because every time we build a power plant today it lasts for 50 years. So what kind of power plants are we going to build? Will we get back to nuclear? Will we capture and store carbon dioxide? How many electric vehicles can realistically be on the road in five or ten or fifteen years? These are policy judgments. My view is that the costs of inaction are so frightening for the world. They’re beyond our imagining because the world is not good at handling the kinds of shocks that are ahead. They could be devastating for hundreds of millions of people easily. They could lead to war. They could lead to famine. And that’s not hyperbole. That’s a very realistic, hardheaded assessment of what can happen.

ZAKARIA: You hear all this. Doesn’t it worry you? I mean, I understand your position, which is you know, we don’t have a substitute for fossil fuels right now. But surely that isn’t an argument for stand pattism. Don’t you want to do something about this?

MICHAELS: What I worry about more is the concept of opportunity cost. We had legislation, again, that went through the House last summer, which would have cost a lot and been futile. And when you take that away or when the government favors certain technologies and politicizes technologies, you’re doing worse than nothing. You’re actually impairing your ability to respond in the long run. And that’s my major concern along this issue —

ZAKARIA: But if you were to have a carbon tax, if you were to have a gas tax —

MICHAELS: You can put in the carbon tax.

ZAKARIA: No, but you would reduce the consumption — that which you tax you get less of. That which you subsidize you get more of. This is a pretty simple law of economics, right?

MICHAELS: Right.

ZAKARIA: So if you were were to put it in, you would get reduced CO2 emissions and the government would get some money which you may not think it would spend wisely but it has the potential of spending wisely. Why would you be opposed to that?

MICHAELS: The problem is one of magnitude and political acceptability thereof. When we had gasoline of $4 a gallon, we reduced our consumption a grand total of four percent. If you’re really serious about atmospheric carbon dioxide, you’ve got to reduce it about 80 percent. How high does that tax have to be to be 80%? How do you do that in a political republic? It’s very, very difficult. And I guarantee you that —

ZAKARIA: But is the answer therefore to do nothing?

MICHAELS: No.

ZAKARIA: Then let me ask you what people wonder about, advocates like you. They say —

MICHAELS: I’m advocating for efficiency.

ZAKARIA: Right. But people say that you’re advocating also for the current petroleum-based industry to stand pat, to stay as it is, and that a lot of your research is funded by these industries.

MICHAELS: Oh, no, no. First of all, what I’m saying is —

ZAKARIA: Well, is your research funded by these industries?

MICHAELS: Not largely. The fact of the matter is —

ZAKARIA: Can I ask you what percentage of your work is funded by the petroleum industry?

MICHAELS: I don’t know. 40 percent? I don’t know.

ZAKARIA: Okay.

MICHAELS: The fact of the matter is the technology changes dramatically in 100 years. And we will very likely not be a fossil fuel-based economy in 100 years. And the way to get there is to not take capital out of the system but allow people to do investment. I have not a problem —

ZAKARIA: But you have —

MICHAELS: What’s that?

ZAKARIA: You’re confident we’ll be around in 100 years?

MICHAELS: Oh, yeah.

SACHS: Right now it’s free to put carbon dioxide up into the air. There’s no incentive not to. The cheapest thing in the world is to burn coal.

MICHAELS: that’s true.

SACHS: Okay. That can’t be —

MICHAELS: That can’t be forever.

SACHS: But that can’t be your answer also.

MICHAELS: Of course not.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you, if all this is true, and it doesn’t seem there’s an agreement on how to reduce CO2 emissions, it suggests a fairly bleak future because we’re not going to be reducing CO2 emissions in the short term.

SCHMIDT: Well, I remain a little optimistic that the forces of delay will eventually be put aside. And so I don’t see it as being — as a terribly bleak future because you know, I like to think that we’re smarter than that. And I’d like to demonstrate that societies are smarter than just allowing business as usual to carry on. If we do, we will end up, in the phrase of my boss, Jim Hansen, with a different planet. We will end up with a planet that won’t be recognizable in terms of where crops can be grown, that won’t be recognizable in terms of where rain is falling, that won’t be recognizable in terms of where glaciers are and where ice sheets are and —

SACHS: And to put that in human terms —

SCHMIDT: — and what the sea level is —

SACHS: That’s a catastrophic planet, not just a different planet. If we end up with a different planet where people cannot grow food, where people cannot eat given where they’re living right now, we have a catastrophe. And the ironic point is the combination of the technologies we have already in hand and those that are close on the horizon, if we do this sensibly, we can do this at low cost, save the planet, and save the economy. But we need a strategy and a plan. That’s what we hired the President of the United States for also. That’s what we’re still waiting to hear from the administration. If we get it, I bet the American people will rally to it.

MICHAELS: And every time we threaten an apocalypse and it doesn’t happen we cheapen the issue. Thank you.

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