Debunking David Brooks’ Sad Green Fairy Tale

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"Debunking David Brooks’ Sad Green Fairy Tale"

In this post, I’ll debunk David Brooks’ error-riddled op-ed, “A Sad Green Story.” His piece is so myth-filled, it would be better termed a fairy tale.

Brooks, of course, is the conservative who wants to be loved by progressives. But for every seemingly mavericky thing he says – “I totally accept the scientific authorities who say that global warming is real and that it is manmade” — is another filled with errors, such as his “Flip-Flop on Green Jobs.”

Today’s piece is so bad, it’s hypocrisy has already been skewered by the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein, and its litany of false statements have been debunked by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Media Matters — which I’ll excerpt below.

First though, like every fairy tale, this one begins once upon a time in a land far, far away:

The period around 2003 was the golden spring of green technology. John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduced a bipartisan bill to curb global warming. I got my first ride in a Prius from a conservative foreign policy hawk who said that these new technologies were going to help us end our dependence on Middle Eastern despots. You’d go to Silicon Valley and all the venture capitalists, it seemed, were rushing into clean tech.

Yes, it was a happy time in the Bizarro world, Htrae. But soon, a darkness fell over the land:

From that date on the story begins to get a little sadder.

Al Gore released his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. The global warming issue became associated with the highly partisan former vice president. Gore mobilized liberals, but, once he became the global warming spokesman, no Republican could stand shoulder to shoulder with him and survive. Any slim chance of building a bipartisan national consensus was gone.

Then, in 2008, Barack Obama seized upon green technology and decided to make it the centerpiece of his jobs program. During his presidential campaign he promised to create five million green tech jobs. Renewable energy has many virtues, but it is not a jobs program….

This is a story of overreach, misjudgments and disappointment.

You’re crying? I’m so sorry. But don’t worry, kids, this story never happened. It’s just make believe. Look, here, I have the real story. Sure, it also has an unhappy ending, but at least it has the advantage of being true.

You see, there was this couch, and, in an effort sponsored by Al Gore himself, the former Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich sat on it with his Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, and they both endorsed climate action. You’re crying, again? Oh, I see, yes, he is a giant newt, but his bark is much, much — googolplex much — worse than his bite. Where was I?

Yes, take a look at this chart, it’ll make you feel much, much better … for a while, anyway.

Percent of Americans Who Believe the Effects of Global Warming Have Already Begun to Happen, by Political Ideology, from McCright and Dunlap

Political polarization on climate jumped in 2009 — long after Gore’s 2006 movie.

Many, many Republicans embraced cap-and-trade after the movie and didn’t flip flop on climate until 2009, suggesting again it was something other than Gore’s advocacy to blaim (see Tim Pawlenty: “Every one of us” running for president has flip-flopped on climate change).

Let’s remember that the GOP presidential nominee in 2008 ran on a platform of climate action and cap-and-trade — even his conservative VP, Sarah Palin, endorsed it.  That’s a key reason again that you see in the top chart that the liberal-conservative polarization did not accelerate until 2009, when a certain person got elected with overwhelming majorities and the prospect of an actual climate bill became quite real.

Extensive polling data and analysis simply doesn’t support this myth that Gore polarized the debate. Indeed, on the basis of his 2012 peer-reviewed analysis, Dr. Robert Brulle told me,

I think this should close down forever the idea that Al Gore caused the partisan polarization over climate change.”

I’ve asked many other leading experts on social science and public opinion — including McCright and Dunlap, authors of “The politicization of climate change and polarization in the American public’s views of global warming, 2001–2010″ — and they all agree the data don’t support this myth.  Stanford’s Jon Krosnick also agrees there is no data to support it.

It is a fairy tale, and one that people as intermittently smart as David Brooks should stop telling.

Ezra Klein notes that “pricing carbon” is “an idea Brooks supported then and supports now,” and then he skewers Brooks:

It’s a story, though Brooks doesn’t mention this, of conservatives building an alternative reality in which the science is unsettled, and no one really knows whether the planet is warming and, even if it is, whether humans have anything to do with it. It’s a story of Democrats being forced into a second and third-best policies that Republicans then use to press their political advantage.

It’s a story, to put it simply, of Democrats doing everything they can to address a problem Brooks says is real in the way Brooks says is best, and Republicans doing everything they can to stop them. And it’s a story that ends with Democrats and Republicans receiving roughly equal blame from Brooks.

The existence of this op-ed is part of the story of why the Democrats failed. The story of what happened over the last 10 years is right there in Brooks’s column. But he doesn’t want to say who’s right and who’s wrong, which is the only tool pundits have to help those who are right and push those who are wrong. Instead, he wants to say everybody is wrong, and isn’t it just a shame.

Brooks leaves the distinct impression that venture capital clean tech boom began in 2003 but then fizzled under Obama’s watch. But that isn’t quite what happened (see “Clean Energy Investments Hit Record Highs in 2011, U.S. Clean Tech VC Funding Jumps 30%“):

As you can see, clean tech venture investments in US companies in 2011 were near an all-time high last year — and almost a quarter of all venture investment — in spite of coming off the worst  economic and financial collapse since the Great Depression.

It wasn’t in 2003 that cleantech VC funding hit its inflection point — it was still a tiny fraction of VC funding and still smaller  than government R&D. No, the inflection point would appear to be much closer to 2006, coincidentally enough, when funding doubled. Go figure!

Brooks claims that “Renewable energy has many virtues, but it is not a jobs program.” Yet that doesn’t merely ignore “explosive growth” documented in the sector by a major Brookings report.

It’s also massive flip-flop given that not so long ago, Brooks was championing green jobs.  Here is what he wrote in January 2010 after a panel discussion that included business executives:

I was once again reminded how many business and investment types are thinking quite practically and capitalistically about green, job-creating technologies. For us Hamiltonian conservatives who believe in internal improvements, energy and infrastructure are obviously the two big areas where we should be investing.

Now, less than 3 years later, he writes:

Obama’s stimulus package set aside $90 billion for renewable energy loans and grants, but the number of actual jobs created has been small. Articles began to appear in the press of green technology grants that were costing $2 million per job created. The program began to look like a wasteful disappointment.

Well, if unnamed articles appeared in the press then they must be true!

In fact, this nonsense has been widely debunked — in Brooks’ own paper! As Media Matters writes:

But the $90 billion figure — which Mitt Romney cited in the first presidential debate — has been repeatedlydebunked, including by Brooks’ own New York Times. As the Times‘ Matthew Wald explained after the first debate, not all the money went to renewable energy, not all of it has been spent, and much of it was authorized under the Bush administration:

The $90 billion is a real number drawn from the 2009 stimulus package, but it wasn’t all spent, as Mr. Romney said, and a lot of the green energy spending that went out the door on Mr. Obama’s watch was authorized during the Bush administration.

The biggest component of the $90 billion was $29 billion for energy efficiency, of which $5 billion involved improvements in the homes and apartments of low-income households. There was also $18 billion for fast trains and $21 billion for wind farms, solar panels and other renewable energy. Supporters point out that much of the energy spending drew in private capital.

Another New York Times fact-check called the number “outrageous” and “a piece of masterful spin.”

The paper was ridiculed earlier this year when then-public editor Arthur Brisbane questioned whether reporters should be “truth vigilantes.” The resounding answer was “of course,” yet the Times and other leading newspapers continue to leave misleading claims unquestioned, even when their own fact-checkers havedebunked them.

Then we have the absurd claim of “$2 million per job created.” As MM writes:

These calculations are problematic because they often count loans as if they are grants, and assume that all the money has been spent, development is complete and no new workers will be hired. A more accurate accounting of the jobs impact of clean energy investments might note that a Brookings Institution study found clean energy jobs grew at an average annual rate of 11.1 percent between 2003 and 2010, “more than twice as fast as the rest of the economy.”

Here’s a chart from the Brookings report:

green jobs

Brooks goes on to make a string of misleading or erroneous statements:

The federal agencies invested in many winners, but they also invested in some spectacular losers, from Solyndra to the battery maker A123 Systems, which just filed for bankruptcy protection. Private investors can shake off bad investments. But when a political entity like the federal government makes a bad investment, the nasty publicity tarnishes the whole program.

MM eviscerates this:

But as Clean Technica pointed out after Solyndra declared bankruptcy, “the Obama administration is batting a much better average in “picking winners and losers” than the private Venture Capital (VC) market itself.” Clean energy consultant Richard Stuebi expects just 3 out of 10 private investments to succeed — a 70 percent failure rate. By contrast, only three of the 26 companies that received Department of Energy 1705 loan guarantees have filed for bankruptcy, amounting to about 6 percent of the loan guarantee funds.

And as economist Dean Baker noted, Brooks suggested that solar energy is faring poorly because “Panel prices have fallen by three-fourths since 2008.” But that drop has actually made solar energy more cost-competitive and helped fuel a boom in installations, even if some high-profile manufacturers like Solyndra have not been able to survive making higher priced panels.

Brooks’ story is a story of overreach, misjudgments and disappointment. His own.

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33 Responses to Debunking David Brooks’ Sad Green Fairy Tale

  1. Robert says:

    In my reading of Brooks over the years, I’ve found him to mostly live in a fairy tale land of the mythical “good conservative,” refusing to acknowledge where the party is and who is running it.

    “Putz” is the word that mostly comes to mind on the days (becoming fewer and fewer) I read or listen to what he has to say…

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    There is no room in the Republican Party for thoughtful individuals. Snowe and Lugar were the two latest dinosaurs to make their exits.

    Nowadays, it’s all about spin and polemics, as Brooks’ column shows. We live in a post truth political environment, where fact checking is ridiculed, and reporters interested in truth are “vigilantes”.

    Brooks, who has written decent columns in the past, is clearly afraid of becoming a constituency of one. It’s sad, because the right can only be changed from within. Everybody else is viewed as the enemy.

    This is an inner problem, and not just on the right. Unless our leaders honor truth, we will all go down.

    • Wesley Rolley says:

      Mike, you are on target calling this a post truth political environment. My local (Morgan Hill, CA) newspaper ran an OpEd today by someone from the American Enterprise Institute that said fact checking is not a reporter’s job; that they should stick to who, what, when and where. If that sentiment is in a paper with circulation under 5K, then you know how thoroughly they are trying to dumb us all down.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      On the Right there has long been a process of negative evolution proceeding, where the selection criteria are ruthlessness, amorality, personal unscrupulousness, lack of human empathy, greed etc. All the well-known characteristics of the ‘Rightwing Authoritarian Personality’. The process has been worsened in the MSM by the presence of Murdoch, and the extra impetus imparted to this descent of man by his ideological extremity and the manner in which he runs his media empire as a straight propaganda machine, emphasising fear and hatemongering as powerful ideological weapons. Each new generation of Rightist politicians and MSM ‘journalists’ is noticeably more extreme than the one before, and their zealotry, now that it is finally coming under attack from the multitudes of victims of its propagandising, is only growing greater as they feel the fear that all bullies endure when their victims begin to stand up for themselves and confront their tormentors.

      • Mike Roddy says:

        I like the way you take cynicism to another level, Mulga, and you may well be right. Problem is, if you are, there is no sense fighting them.

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          But Mike, the fight is the thing. Maybe they win, as usual, because they are more ruthlessly unscrupulous, but actively opposing bad behaviour is a moral and existential necessity these days. Doing nothing guarantees 100% that we will disappear, and fighting back probably only reduces the odds to 99%, but it gives one such a warm inner glow. When I think of Murdoch and his minions I’m filled with happiness knowing that I despise them.

          • Spike says:

            I always remember these words:

            “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always.”

            The question here is whether they can be brought down in time.

  3. This article is fabulous. I performed my thesis on the most popular moments (based on significant Google searching) for global climate change between 2004-2011 and found that only 2007, 2008, and 2009 held the attn of the public. Liu et all (2011) (performing a time series analysis on news articles/public attn) found that since the 1980s the UNFCCC meetings, the IPCC releases, and Presidential elections were the only events to gather significant interest in global warming. It seems that the politics surrounding the UN and the inherent partisan behavior during an election are important drivers of the conflict surrounding global climate change. Al Gore is a scape goat.

  4. Also on the topic of whether or not clean, local energy is a good investment. I recently found that:

    “China is already out producing us in coal and neither of our countries even make the top ten list for nuclear energy production. As for oil, the US is in third place.

    On the bright side, the US is the top producer of solar energy and parts, natural gas, and geothermal – we’re also second in wind. We should do what we can to stay on top in the industries where we have an advantage, rather than playing favorites with the familiar.”

  5. fj says:

    Obama’s descibes Mitt’s etch-a-sketch mania as Romnesia.

  6. Steve says:

    On the point you debunk, Joe, you probably missed another of your callings, this time as an appellate attorney writing briefs for respondents and appellees. I follow the logic of the polarization debate, both as to its time of onset and maybe as to its causation.

    Actually, when Gore wrote and produced his movie in 2006 and you published as well (Hell and High Water), a lot of people saw this as a debate over moral obligations to mid and late 21st Century generations, not as an imminent crisis. It was a question of priorities, not politics or even “the science,” as I recall, though not everyone was tuned in. But now, everything has accelerated (and at a bad time in view of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and incomplete economic recovery therefrom).

    The problem as I see it: This is getting very polarized and politicized at a very bad time. 2011 was our last “mild warming” year for several reasons you’ve posted on before. We could have a huge world food crisis next year for reasons Ms. Valentine recently wrote about. The drought is not over. Extreme weather events have no reason to diminish, let alone go away.

    And, aside from a few progressive states and regions, the US is a joke on this issue. Going foreward, this NEEDS to be framed as more than just some economic rivaly between job creation in green technology/deployment sector versus the fossil fuel extraction/
    refining/distribution sector.

    We are also starting to get the world economic impact of peak conventional oil (and to a lesser degree, peak coal). We have pretty high oil prices relative to economic activity. The problem is, if oil gets pushed to $150/barrel again on supply pressure as it did in mid-2008, we are going to again have a world economic and financial crisis which cannot be solved by central banks just printing more fiat money. And renewables cannot come off the bench and save the day, especially in the transportation sector where they don’t even compete.

    This is a public health crisis, steadily escalating, in the broadest sense of the word. And it presents a cultural challenge, not just a Labor Department challenge. We cannot have a Romney White House and GOP legislature (and GOP appointees to the federal courts thereafter), but after November, this has to get more broad-based and blunt with American GHG-energy consumers.

    • Good Analysis. However, this statement might be modified somewhat:

      “And renewables cannot come off the bench and save the day, especially in the transportation sector where they don’t even compete.”

      Desert-based concentrated solar power (CSP) can supply all the electrical needs of the U.S. (and the world) cheaply and quickly. Additionally, it can provide reliable baseload power 24/7. Nothing is more reliable than the sun across the width of the sun belt.

      Gemasolar has operated a CSP plant in Spain for over a year, and Solareserve has one underway in Nevada, scheduled to be complete in 2014. A commenter on a recent Climate Progress blog brought up the idea of the exponential growth of a technology, and that has certainly happened in the past during emergency situations.

      Let’s say there was exponential growth of CSP in the U.S. desert and the grid was refurbished to accommodate the power — clearly feasible. That would account for half or more of our energy consumption — especially if electrical resistant heaters, which are quite cheap to manufacture and install, and low in embodied energy became the norm for building heat.

      Transportation accounts for about 1/3 of our energy use (and greenhouse gas output). Public transportation, however, can be run mostly on electricity — as it is in France where street cars and intercity trains run on wires. Automotive use can be restricted (think WWII rationing), or at least curtailed by rising gasoline prices. Probably 1/2 of our transportation emissions could be cut in 10 years if we really got it together.

      That means we could cut our total emissions to somewhere between 50 and 20% or what they are today in a decade or so.

      I’m not saying this will happen — it is unlikely. (More likely we’ll get geoengineered by the Powers That Be until that fails.) But we could make a real stab at cutting our carbon to an acceptable level if we wanted to.

      • Hal says:

        RE: That would account for half or more of our energy consumption — especially if electrical resistant heaters, which are quite cheap to manufacture and install, and low in embodied energy became the norm for building heat.

        You may want to rethink resistance heating. It’s the least efficient us of electricity. Heat pumps are the most commercially efficient and can both cool and heat.

  7. Big bird says:

    More extreme weather, rising seas, and escalating risks to our health. That’s what we can expect as climate change gets worse. http://clmtr.lt/cb/kuI0eV

    It’s a whole new Lloyd’s of London fellas. Better get insurance in space, cuz that’s where we’re headed If we don’t kick the fossil feul habit ASAP.

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    When every wolf, ogre, troll and grandmother turns out to be an individual pushing ahead regardless, you know it will be Grimm.

    PS. Do you know what the Green Fairy is? ME

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Let’s see-this creature argues that because Al Gore was a Democrat, and a former Vice-President and (winning) Presidential candidate, then, despite anthropogenic climate change being true and deadly dangerous, no Republican could support action to address it. And Gore is the ‘partisan’? It doesn’t pass the laugh test, but by God it outlines the moral insanity of the Right in no uncertain fashion.

  10. Ozonator says:

    The extreme GOP needs only change their icon from the elephant to the grass carp to tell one truth these days.

  11. Artful Dodger says:

    Nice takedown, Joe. Thanks for all that you do.
    Cheers!

  12. Toby says:

    2009 was the year the Republicans decided to “pay any price, bear any burden” to make Barack Obama a one-term President.

    Looks like it might cost the Earth, and still fail.

    • Dennis Tomlinson says:

      Or, it just might work. In these last two plus weeks, the candidates are basically running to be the President of Ohio. Thanks to the Electoral College [a relic installed by our founders, and which we've yet to deep six; purposed with keeping the rabble from electing the "incorrect" candidate, at a time when only white, male landowners were given the right to vote] the entire election hinges on Ohio. And if the race is within a few % the GOP (through voter suppression, lost early ballots, voting machine tampering, and a whole host of other Rovian shenanigans) could easily steal it. At that point, I’d seriously consider a long bout of deep, deep depression. And if the prescription for my affliction should include shock therapy, please make it’s solar powered shock. And press the probes tightly to my temples to ensure good probe-to-temple conduction. I wouldn’t want any nasty, ozone generating coronal breakdowns.

      • Mike Roddy says:

        http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/10/14-4

        The plan to steal Ohio is already quite advanced. MSM will not call them on it, either. Recall that we didn’t find out what really happened in Florida in 2000 until RFK wrote the Rolling Stone article years later, and wrote something similar about Ohio in 2006.

        Two elections stolen, no prosecutions, no consequences. This has never happened in our history, and our great democracy is now unrecognizable.

        • Tim says:

          Those of us who read Greg Palast knew before RFK wrote anything for Rolling Stone (the latter of which I still haven’t read). Of course, we had to read it in the Guardian.

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          Mike, you’re relying on the MSM lie-machine too much. The shennanigans in Florida, where Gore won, and Ohio in 2004, with exit polls suddenly becoming wildly inaccurate ( but the ‘colour revolution’ forces still treat them as useful when regime change is required)were utterly transparent, but studiously ignored. The ‘Free Press’ in full flight.

  13. Scott says:

    Brooks has been and is the problem because a lot of people think he is smart and honest and moderate. It seems though he simply likes the power his position affords him.

  14. SecularAnimist says:

    I don’t know why anybody takes David Brooks seriously.

    Sure, Brooks is more polite than Rush Limbaugh, and a little less blatant in his repetitive lies than George Will.

    But like Limbaugh and Will, Brooks has never been anything but a bought-and-paid-for GOP shill, whose specialty is sanitizing and legitimizing right-wing corporatist GOP propaganda for “liberals”.

    Every single column he has ever written is full of the same kind of falsehoods and BS talking points that Joe Romm has so thoroughly documented here.

  15. Peter Anderson says:

    Add to the rebuttal the fact that one of the headwinds that renewables faced, and had not been fully anticipated, was first the drop in natural gas prices from 6 to 2 bucks per million BTU — a drop which literally knocked out the private sector’s nuclear power industry notwithstanding federal gazillion dollar loan guarantees, yet draws not a scintilla of a lesson for Mr. Brooks.

    Second, there was the decision by the Chinese government to jump into solar panel construction that fed massive overcapacity, which led to plummeting solar prices.

  16. DeDe says:

    Why not put solar panels atop everyone’s home to make everyone energy efficient? I live in an area where lots of people live off the grid quite well using voltaic solar panels on roofs and individual wind turbines to pump water and have composting toilets.

  17. Spike says:

    These people deny what is already happening in Europe in countries like Spain , Denmark, germany and the UK (the latter currently under threat by similar fossil fuel interests).

    Denmark is already up to 40% renewable electricity. And it has reached its 2020 solar targets 8 years early.

    http://www.renewablesinternational.net/denmark-already-has-40-renewable-power/150/537/57215/

    http://climatecrocks.com/2012/10/14/denmark-reaches-2020-goal-for-solar-only-8-years-early/