Rhetoric Meets Reality: Energy and the Environment

By Kayla McGrady ’05


Deborah Gross, professor of chemistry, studies atmospheric chemistry and pollution and also oversees Carleton’s FOCUS program, which teaches students to address real-world issues with scientific principles
Will Hollingsworth, professor of chemistry, specializes in environmental chemistry and climate change science
Mark Kanazawa, Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics, teaches the economics of natural resources and water policy
Arjendu Pattanayak, professor of physics, teaches about renewable energy and sustainability
Janell Rothenberg, visiting assistant professor of anthropology, teaches environmental anthropology
Kimberly Smith, professor of environmental studies and political science, teaches environmental policy and ethics
George Vrtis, associate professor of environmental studies and history, teaches American environmental history and policy

What are the key energy issues right now?

Kanazawa: We’ve been hearing a lot recently about energy independence: weaning ourselves from reliance on foreign energy sources. This seems to be increasingly possible, as we have ramped up domestic oil and natural gas production lately. A lot depends upon what happens to world oil prices—if they increase, this will make foreign oil less attractive and encourage production of domestic sources.

Smith: We can’t predict how much energy we could save through energy conservation. As energy prices go up, we’ll likely find conservation opportunities that we are not even imagining yet.

Kanazawa: In considering energy prices, keep in mind that the energy economy is global. For example, when China’s economy was booming, that bid up oil prices and was part of the reason we saw gas above $3.50 a gallon. The Chinese economy has slowed in recent years, and that’s a contributing factor to our relatively low gas prices right now.

One person—even the president—has relatively little power over the global market. When politicians promise to bring gas prices down by a dollar, they are highly unlikely to be able to keep that promise.

Vrtis: A lot of people assume coal is a dying industry because cleaner and cheaper fuels are available, and they’re puzzled that we aren’t making a quicker transition to those other fuels. But the modern United States grew up with coal, and people like to cling to vestiges of the past. We’re not just talking about the relatively small number of coal jobs left in the United States—a whole way of life has grown up around coal in places like Appalachia, and it’s woven into the fabric of their cultures. Those people are going to need help from the government to transition their communities.

Smith: Miners are operating complex machinery, not swinging pickaxes. They have transferable skills, so we need to figure out how to introduce industry to replace coal mining for those skilled laborers.

Kanazawa: Natural gas has become more affordable than coal because hydraulic fracturing—fracking—has been able to recover a lot of gas from shale deposits. So market forces suggest [power plants] will move from coal to natural gas, unless fracking turns out to be a mirage. The headlines claim we have 100 years’ worth of natural gas in some of these deposits, but these are not proven reserves. It’s so deep underground that measuring is difficult, so there’s a big difference between the projected reserves (what we think we might have) and the proven reserves (what we know we have), which is more like 20 years’ worth.

Pattanayak: We will eventually run out of fossil fuels, so the question isn’t whether we’ll move to sustainable energy but rather whether we’ll do it before we’ve cooked the planet. Right now there are some things renewable energy can’t do. Technologically speaking, jet fuel won’t be replaced in my lifetime. So why don’t we concentrate our use of fossil fuels—and the resulting carbon emissions—on things we need it for, like jet fuel? Why spend carbon on electricity or heat production when we don’t need it for that? It’s about the clock and how fast we want to run it.

Kanazawa: Even oil companies are investing in other types of energy because they believe the transition from fossil fuels is inevitable. Their bottom line, based on their projections for the future, demands a mix of different energy sources.

Pattanayak: One thing that makes me optimistic is that in 2016 the single cheapest form of electricity—without subsidy—was solar. Now we need innovation in energy storage. That technology is where solar was 10 years ago. Once that’s cracked, the price will drop even more for both solar and wind.

Part of the breakthrough in solar came from Germany’s policy of feed-in tariffs that pushed utilities to drop coal and use a higher percentage of wind and solar power. For about five years Germans paid considerably more than their French neighbors paid for electricity because they were staying off coal, but during that time China raced to build solar panels to meet the German demand, and manufacturing went crazy. So as a result the price of solar collapsed. By sucking it up for five years, Germany forced worldwide change.

Smith: A market-based solution could be the best way to handle the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and it’s something Republicans and President Trump might support. The most efficient way to take the matter out of the Environmental Protection Agency’s hands—which they want to do—is to put a signal into the economy by imposing a carbon tax. It’s a bipartisan policy promoted by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby that uses administrative machinery that’s already in place. And it’s revenue-neutral, which conservatives tend to like—essentially the government collects fees on carbon and then redistributes the money to everyone equally, so no one gets special treatment. Plus, it would signal to the world that we are on board with addressing climate change because it would satisfy our commitments under the Paris Agreement, even if we formally withdraw from it.

Hollingsworth: Even if we use renewables for electricity, we’ll need more storage than we have right now to run a car beyond short range.

Pattanayak: I think eventually we’ll move away from the “plug and play” model that electric cars are using right now and move to a system where you swap out your battery—drive up to a station and trade in your empty battery for a full one. That will remove the need for a battery that can handle a superlong range.

Kanazawa: Automakers respond to the demand for products, so innovation for the future is related to what customers want right now. The first time I bought a Prius, gas was close to $4 a gallon and it was almost impossible to find one. I just bought another one, and there were Priuses sitting on lots all over the place. There’s a lot of uncertainty about what will be happening with world oil markets, and American consumers have short memories. When gas was expensive, nobody was buying big SUVs and hybrids were popular. Now people are going back to SUVs, so there’s less pressure to develop more efficient vehicles.

Vrtis: If you’re worried about our energy future, remember that Americans have made significant and abrupt energy changes before—from wood to coal, from coal to petroleum and then to natural gas. We need lessons from the past to inspire us and give us hope for the future. We’ve done this before, and we can do it again, but we’ll need leadership, technological innovation, cultural adaptation, and social and political policies that can rally people to new ideas. The transition to renewables—and to a more sustainable cultural format—is not going to be easy, but the time is now and we need to get to work.

What will become of any progress we’ve made toward abating climate change?

Smith: Some Republicans have committed to dealing with climate change. The Climate Solutions Caucus [in the U.S. House of Representatives], for example, has 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats.

Pattanayak: Sustainable energy can complement a very conservative ideology. Some right-wing—even authoritarian—governments have embraced solar energy as a business opportunity. So I don’t think it’s an ideological issue so much as who’s funding the ideology.

Smith: There are no climate change deniers anywhere except in the United States. It was the explicit project of a well-organized, well-heeled group of people who understood how American politics works and successfully used propaganda to support oil and coal.

Why isn’t this same backlash against sustainable energy happening in Europe? Europeans are just as primed as we are to be confused by targeted propaganda, but the corporate structure there is very different. There’s a stronger belief that corporations have a social responsibility. Corporations and labor organizations are included in policymaking in an expectation that they will all work together for the common good in a way that is not the case in the United States. So corporations here are able to use rhetorical strategies that wouldn’t work as well in Europe. They’ve honed them over the years and learned they work.

Hollingsworth: I was teaching during the ozone depletion debate, and some of the same people who fought ozone science switched over—when that argument was clearly lost—to the greenhouse gas debate. I show my students rebuttals from the early days of the ozone debate and they’ll laugh and say, “Oh, it’s because they forgot to factor this thing in.” But that same kind of misinformation is being applied to climate change today. And now there’s such impatience among scientists. The evidence and the scientific rigor are so strong. Scientists don’t ever say something is 100 percent certain. They say, “Well, 99 percent is pretty solid.” It’s been established.

But I do have some optimism because opponents of climate science will say things like, “We agree climate change is happening, but we don’t know how much of it is caused by human activity.” We’re gaining a little ground.

Rothenberg: Anthropologists have found that it’s useful to talk about visible effects (instead of arguing the logic behind the causes of those effects) when discussing climate change with people who don’t believe in it. If we ask people about the environmental changes they’re seeing and how they deal with them—regardless of what they think is causing those changes—we can learn from local and indigenous knowledge and work with people at a ground level. We can work with small communities to make changes that address the effects they’re seeing without having to argue about broad, sweeping policy.

Smith: There are some bad actors in this, but there are also a lot of people who are trying to make sense of something really complicated, and we don’t know nearly enough. Although scientists are certain about what’s causing global warming—and we can measure the rise in global mean temperature pretty confidently—predicting its effects is really difficult.

Pattanayak: I described the concept of a global warming “tipping point” to a group of fifth graders by asking them to picture a huge rock sitting at the top of a hill. It’s hard to move, but you could rock it back and forth and eventually budge it just enough to start it rolling. Once it starts rolling down the hill, the effort required to put the rock back is not equal to the effort it took to get it moving. So climate change is reversible, but it will take enormously more effort after a certain point.

Hollingsworth: But nobody knows yet exactly how close we are to that tipping point. That’s why we need to be funding more climate research, not cutting it.

Gross: If we cut funding, we won’t just lose progress on complex modeling and data gathering that’s currently happening in government labs. If those projects shut down and there’s a gap in training graduate students to do good, robust climate work, we’ll lose a generation in terms of being able to move forward.

Pattanayak: There’s a broader economic argument in support of science research: you can’t predict what will come of it, but you can predict that there will be some industrial spin-off. Quantum mechanics—which seems bizarre—gave us lasers, which gave us CD players. The Web was invented at a particle accelerator lab. There’s a reason Silicon Valley is clustered around Stanford and Berkeley. If you want to fund things that are good for business, you need to think more broadly about what that means.

Hollingsworth: But there’s only so much money to go around. Huge spending growth in defense and social services like health care means everything else—including science funding—gets eaten away.

Smith: The assault on academic freedom is what bothers me most [about defunding federal support for climate science]. If the government is going to fund scholarly work, we can make some judgments over the long term about priorities. We do that already—the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation decide which projects to fund each year. But when scientists worry that their research might be defunded for political reasons and that they themselves might also be harassed or fired—things that are actually happening to climate scientists right now—there’s a terrible impact on the broader culture of inquiry.

Maybe we could develop a new system for funding science in which the government stops all research funding and it gets picked up by other agents like colleges, nonprofits, philanthropists, and independent industry. But that kind of even-handed discussion of an overall philosophical shift in the government’s role in supporting inquiry isn’t what we’re talking about right now. We’re talking about targeting particular scientists and particular lines of research because some people don’t like the political or economic implications of what that science is telling them. That is terrible for cultivating an intellectually vibrant culture for learning.

Why did regulations become such a dirty word?

Vrtis: Historically, the United States has had highly liberal land use policies and a comparatively lax regulatory environment that have combined to encourage efforts to bring resources to market. Americans like you and me have benefited from these policies in the sense that resources have been made available for us to use, but the profits all went to corporations and their shareholders.

Norway, by contrast, took a royalty return from their tremendously rich oil revenues and invested it to provide for the state in perpetuity. So now all Norwegian citizens are effectively millionaires because of that wealthy endowment, which they use to fund their strong and generous social programs.

Smith: When people oppose federal environmental regulations, it’s generally not because they think we don’t have an obligation to take care of the planet. Rather, they believe they’re responsible enough to use natural resources in an environmentally sensitive way. There’s a lot to be said for empowering state and local governments to take responsibility for their environment, but they typically can’t do it on their own. They want federal resources, including expertise as well as money. So in practice we need a cooperative federalism in which federal and state governments work together to accomplish common goals because they have different resources and capacities.

Gross: Regulation can’t be entirely local because the problems don’t stay neatly within borders. Neighboring towns or states want a say.

Pattanayak: Problems aren’t isolated in time, either. Right now we’re suffering the consequences of the past 30 years. So, we should be consulting our grandchildren on environmental policy, but since we can’t, we have to imagine them.

Smith: Everyone agrees that we want federal agencies to operate efficiently, but many of the proposals intended to reduce regulatory burden may actually increase it.

The Regulatory Accountability Act—which Northfield’s new congressman, Jason Lewis, was very proud to support—adds procedural barriers to passing a new agency rule. The intent is to prevent agencies from passing rules that might burden business, but it also prevents existing rules from being easily changed. So after a rule is crafted in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act, which already requires it to take in and respond to all public comments, provide scientific evidence supporting the rule, and go through a cost/benefit analysis, the rule still might not work. Maybe it’s got problems, or the conditions have changed. Then what? To fix it or remove it, you have to go through all of that again, and now more. So in some ways, the people who want to make agencies less burdensome are going in the wrong direction.

There seems to be an underlying assumption that agencies have an incentive to make rules that aren’t needed, but that doesn’t have empirical foundation. Agencies are typically responding to public complaints or doing what Congress or the president instructs them to do.

Pattanayak: When candidate Trump said he would ask whether a regulation “is good for the American worker” to decide whether to adopt it, that test depends entirely on your definition of the word good. What’s good for my job tomorrow may or may not be good for my job in 30 years.

Gross: The word worker is a problem, too. The government’s job is to protect residents and citizens, not just workers. What about children, visitors, and retirees?

Smith: No matter what happens to President Obama’s Clean Power Plan [currently embroiled in a court challenge], many states are already on track to meet its targets. They will keep progressing toward those goals—which many environmentalists thought were actually quite generous—if the public continues to press for it.

But progress will take people with a certain vision and imagination. Market forces don’t operate automatically. It can be much easier to go with an existing system, even if the economics don’t make sense long term, than for local governments to deal with things like siting controversies for new facilities. So citizens have to keep pushing.

Where can we learn more?

Vrtis: Stay abreast of what nongovernmental organizations, like the Sierra Club or the Wilderness Society, are saying about proposed policies. But, also read broadly, and pay attention to what your imagined adversaries are saying. In the end, we are all in this together so we need to start taking one another and our situation more seriously.

Kanazawa: Some research is more reputable than others. I like Resources for the Future, a D.C. think tank on environmental resource issues, because they do balanced, data-driven research. Look for places that are focused on doing good research, being evenhanded, and getting to the bottom of things.

Rothenberg: We can improve our policies by learning from the people in affected areas. For instance, historian Diana Davis’s book The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge brings culture, politics, and science together to examine how we can learn from people who live in deserts in deciding how to intervene in those environments. And Jessica Barnes’s ethnography Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt sheds light on how water scarcity is produced and experienced in particular places.

Smith: For more information on environmental regulation policy, read Dan Farber’s blog Legal Planet. It’s well researched and accessible.

In general, take a look at what you think is valuable and important, and mobilize to protect it. Sometimes that may require supporting a bipartisan effort or working with your congressperson, even if you don’t like your congressperson. Sometimes it will call for resistance or shows of dissent. There isn’t just one strategy, but if we look around we will all see we have skills and things we can do that can help.

Personally, I’m not sure what’s going to make the world better, but I’m also not sure what isn’t going to make the world better, so I’ll try anything that looks like it might be successful.

Interdisciplinary Insights

Hard science and social science join forces in Janell Rothenberg’s winter seminar “Oil, Sand, Water: Environmental Anthropology of the Middle East.” Each student pursued an in-depth research project using interdisciplinary tools that enhance scientific inquiry:

Spencer O’Bryan ’17 (Cooperstown, N.Y.) compared fishery management strategies in Oman and the eastern Mediterranean Sea with European approaches. “We’ve been discussing [in class] how governments tend to come up with a single solution and implement it in multiple locations without considering how people in specific regions actually use water,” O’Bryan says. “Instead of breaking down the multilayered complexities, they’ll come up with a one-size-fits-all approach. Even within one nation, infrastructural projects that take into account geographical differences and the human side of the questions have been more effective.”

Emma Link ’18 (Cleveland) studied water use in the Western Mountain Aquifer, located below Israel and Palestine. Policy challenges include disputes about who gets to withdraw water, the aquifer’s increasing salinity, and its vulnerability to climate change. “I was reading a policy paper in [another class on] hydrology, analyzing the published data on recharge rates and withdrawals from this aquifer. The author argues that there isn’t enough data to make a solid scientific policy recommendation,” says Link. “If there isn’t enough research to make informed policy, people are not going to be happy with any decision you make—especially over something as central to their lives as water—because it will feel arbitrary.”

Camille Jonlin ’19 (Seattle) examined the costs and benefits of desalination processes that convert water from the Persian Gulf into drinking water. “From the anthropological side, it’s making people think there is infinite water,” says Jonlin. “But now, the waters around the Persian Gulf are becoming extremely saline from the waste salt being dumped back into the water, and that’s affecting the marine life and fishing industry.”

Sergio Demara ’20 (Tucson, Ariz.) is studying the Syrian civil war’s effects on Turkey’s farming and agriculture and the country’s attempts to protect crops from refugee migrations. “Anthropologists offer some important cultural insight about how the Western world views religion, and how that comes into play even in things like agricultural policy,” says Demara. “Even in Turkey—which is a more Western Middle Eastern country—[Syrian refugees] can be seen as savage or able to disrupt our Western morality, and that fuels antirefugee sentiment and affects policy.”

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