What Will Drive Investment: Peer-reviewed Science or Ideology?

by Dan Watkiss

Between speakers at an Energy Bar Association conference, I paged through “Merchants of Doubt” by award-winning science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. I became engrossed in their investigation of how four once-eminent cold warrior physicists became doubt merchants, the go-to authorities for denying peer-reviewed science showing that greenhouse gas emissions are changing the earth’s climate and will do so increasingly if not abated.

This role followed well-publicized stints as go-to authorities for denying peer-reviewed science proving that direct and second-hand tobacco smoke is a Class I carcinogen that causes lung cancer, sulfur emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants causes damaging acid rain, and chlorofluorocarbons deplete the protective atmospheric ozone layer.

These ideologically driven climate change deniers and zealous opponents of doing anything about it have become darlings of the new majority members in the House of Representatives who purport to advocate for the interests of the same power industry whose representatives I heard at the conference kvetching about the absence of a coherent, national energy policy that addresses climate change.

Shouldn’t those seeking stability and certainty for capital-intensive and narrow-margined investments in new forms of generation and power delivery want a national climate change policy grounded in peer-reviewed science rather than the anti-science ideology of the doubt merchants?

During the past decade we have sought to address human-induced, or anthropogenic, climate change two ways. First was through international agreements, such as the process leading to the Kyoto Protocol, backed by signatory states enacting laws to implement their agreements. When the U.S. declined to sign Kyoto and failed to enact legislation to address climate change, this effort came to naught domestically. It failed partly because lawmakers and a largely uncritical press credited the four doubt merchants’ rejection of the peer-reviewed science demonstrating that human emissions of greenhouse gases–as opposed to solar radiation or volcanic eruptions–continue to raise temperatures and alter climates. The doubt merchants and their allies, as Oreskes and Conway document, later retreated from these demonstrably false contentions to the recommendation that legislating controls on climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions should not be pursued because:

  1. It is cheaper to cope with the symptoms such as famines, floods and extreme weather than to eliminate the causes (greenhouse gas emissions),
  2. Without government interference, the market would nurture technologies capable of mitigating the damage of climate change, and
  3. If the market failed to do so, humanity could pack up and migrate out of those parts of the earth no longer capable of sustaining them because of climate change.

International agreements supported by domestic controls having failed, followed by a Supreme Court ruling that climate-changing greenhouse gases are pollutants that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act (CAA), set the stage for the second attempt: addressing climate change at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts vs. EPA, the EPA became legally required to determine whether greenhouse gases emitting from stationary and mobile sources endangered the public health and welfare of current and future generations. Based on peer-reviewed science and a public rulemaking, the EPA answered affirmatively in a Jan. 14 final rule, thereby triggering legally mandatory public health control, including performance standards on new and modified sources of significant emissions, which the EPA has begun to craft.

Re-enter the doubt merchants and their acolytes newly elected to the House of Representatives. As a first order of business, the acolytes’ political leader on the Energy and Commerce Committee introduced the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, which “repeals” the scientific consensus that emissions of greenhouse gasses change climates and endanger the public health and welfare. Repeal peer-reviewed science? In the ideology of the doubt merchants and their political fellow travelers, markets free of regulation cannot so endanger public safety. One of their leaders, Republican Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, newly minted chairman of the Subcommittee on the Environment and the Economy, ups the ante beyond market worship and dismisses either legislative or regulatory control of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions on the ground that God won’t let human-induced climate change tank the planet because “the earth will end only when God declares its time to be over.” (One biblically literate blogger objected to Shimkus’ read of Genesis, pointing out that God told Noah only that he wouldn’t do the flood again; if sufficiently provoked, other forms of annihilation apparently are still on the table.)

Next enter segments of the power industry to complain that controls on greenhouse gases can’t be regulated by the EPA under the CAA, but rather must come from congressional legislation.

Didn’t that already fail? What’s an energy provider to do? Before investing in new power supply and delivery infrastructure, be prudent and share a copy of Oreskes and Conway’s “Merchants of Doubt” with your member of Congress, and allow for lead time.


Dan Watkiss is an energy partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm and represents clients in transactions, investigations, complex litigation and appeals in state and federal courts, and before administrative agencies, arbitral panels, the U.S. Congress and the executive branch. Reach him at jdw1954@gmail.com

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