Climate Change, “Free” Markets, and Politics

BYU sponsored a conference on Europe this week, and one of the panels was devoted to a discussion of energy and environment. The speakers included David Long, a BYU professor of Electrical Engineering, who has done extensive work on remote sensing that has played a key role in gathering evidence of the climate’s warming patterns; Günter Hörmandinger, the Environmental Counselor for the European Union delegation in Washington, DC; and Michael Mehling of the Ecologic Institute, also in DC. What was unanimously clear from their presentations is that the consensus on the reality of climate change is beyond dispute, that regulations can spur innovation rather than kill creativity, and that therefore working to mitigate against the effects of climate change is not only economically feasible but ethically important.

Of course, I fully recognize that climate change policy is a messy and uncertain business, but I would much prefer to be in that business than to retreat from it altogether, which is unfortunately what has happened in many parts of the country, including Utah. This is especially tragic because places like Utah have such rich resources of good values that you would expect would lead to more aggressive concern. Utah’s turning point came when former Governor Jon Huntsman became ambassador to China and all of his significant efforts to move Utah in a more sustainable direction were reversed by his replacement, Governor Gary Herbert. Governor Herbert is on record for doubting the science on climate change, and like most skeptics, this kind of obstinacy requires a rather firm determination to ignore or suppress the science. I point my readers to Governor Herbert’s announcement in 2009 that he was uncertain about the science, even as he was unwilling to address or to discuss publicly the recommendations of the 2007 Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change commissioned by Governor Huntsman and prepared by Utah scientists. The very question itself regarding something as serious as the earth’s capacity to regulate the climate is not a matter of little or no consequence and deserves our most careful deliberation guided by our highest values.  I have already attempted to outline those values for Mormons here and here.

On Friday afternoon, Günter Hörmandinger, Chip Oscarson, an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at BYU, and I met with staff members of Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s administration at the State Capitol. The purpose of the meeting was largely diplomatic, to enable the EU and the state of Utah to engage in conversation on the topics of energy and the environment. It was a fascinating and informative meeting, and the good will, honesty, and healthy exchange of information were all inspiring. I left with respect and admiration for the good people who serve in government. But it was also evident that on the topic of climate change, the EU and the state of Utah are even farther apart than their geographies. Utah, of course, is highly dependent on fossil fuels, primarily coal and natural gas, for its economy, and consequently it boasts a price for electricity that is among the nation’s very lowest. Utilities in Utah are required by state mandate to purchase the cheapest and least risky sources of energy.

Price and risk here apparently don’t include externalities like air pollution, health care, or declines in snowpack, runoff, and biodiversity due to climate change, so the mandate only serves to reinforce dependency on coal. This is despite the fact that most anyone recognizes that Utah faces a crisis in air quality due mainly to our reliance on fossil fuels. Even conservative lawmakers and industry leaders acknowledge that coal does not have a long future in the world economy, and yet states like Utah remain mired in a fossil fuel economy. 98% of Utah’s energy comes from fossil fuels and only .08% comes from wind, solar, and geothermal combined. The state is mineral rich, to be sure, but it is also abundantly blessed with solar, geothermal, and wind energy, a narrative we rarely hear when discussing Utah’s gifts. The argument seems to be that such energy sources are too expensive and that it is better to wait until the market “decides” that they are more economically feasible. It is, of course, an oxymoron to speak of markets as simultaneously impersonal and as agents, just as it is to speak of a “free” market. Markets are not people who make choices (people make choices within their confines), and they exist because of regulations, values, worldviews, and choices made by policy-makers (who are, we can only hope, the people’s representatives). It is an illusion that our current markets, especially energy markets, exist freely and independently of any policies, incentives, mandates, or other directives that have been put into place or maintained by political means. To argue, as do many conservatives, that it is not government’s business to meddle in energy is to ignore the fact that that is precisely what it has always done. The mandate that utilities purchase the cheapest energy is a case in point. How free is a market when I and every other lowly consumer have only one choice of energy? And if we disparage government, are we willing to admit that this means we have abandoned the old idea that government is of, for, and by the people? What if the people want regulations or want incentives? Why is such action considered socialism if it reflects our will and expands our choices?

I asked the staff what the political obstacles were to having a portfolio standard in Utah, similar to those adopted by other states whereby a goal is set regarding the percentage of energy that will come from renewable energy. The answer, not surprisingly, was that the governor prefers to let the market “decide.” As far as I can tell, this mystical decider has even more power than the people he governs because after another polluted winter and a blistering summer polls indicate growing concern about polluted air and climate change, both of which would be significantly helped by such portfolio standards of renewable energy. The little wind and solar energy we produce in Utah is mostly exported to California because, well, their portfolio standards have created the demand. Moreover, people seem willing to pay more for electricity if it would mean cleaner air. Clean air, public health, and sustainable sources of clean water, for example, seem as important to any business considering relocation as the cost of electricity. And let’s be clear: climate change means continued threats to all three.

Conservative friends of mine will argue that our culture is shaped predominantly by a liberal and secular ethos that is coercive and ubiquitous and that this coercion includes belief in human-caused climate change. I see a different form of coercion that strikes me as far more insidious and real because it is not based on values nor even on claims to empirical evidence but on mere economic self-interest. The alternative to a civic sphere wherein values are openly stated and debated or where information and data are openly exchanged is a political culture such as mine, marinated to its roots in conservative values, where business interests are allowed to be the true deciders of our markets, cultural values, and even of reality itself, as if profit margins alone could measure social, environmental, or public good. If I am wrong, help me understand why for all the world so much of our national political culture remains determined to ignore empirical evidence of our hand in creating a dangerously changing climate and instead fiercely champions the ongoing cause of fossil fuels. Such a reckless campaign will only sacrifice the last remains of what it might have once meant to be a conservative and land us finally and irrevocably on the wrong side of history.

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