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An Exercise in Missing the Point

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As a vague ideological lodestar, “environmentalism” has become a polarizing idea. Broadly, Democrats subscribe to it, and Republicans do not. That is the cause of today’s lament by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. What explains the GOP’s opposition to this nebulous idea? It isn’t the policy particulars, he writes, or any coherent political framework. It’s the culture war.  In that conflict, environmental conservation has been recast as a “woke” practice. Since Republicans are trying to “limit the rights of Americans who aren’t straight white Christians,” the GOP’s hostility toward the bucolic is another pincer in their campaign against “racial and social justice.”

If that seems overly simplistic and irrationally uncharitable to you, you’re the perceptive sort. Krugman labors to dismiss or elide the right’s true objections to a dramatic expansion of state power that advances the prospects of favored Democratic constituencies. He ignores the GOP’s stated objections to the left’s environmental gambits, preferring instead to read their minds. In the process, he has misread his political opponents and misled his readers.

Take, for example, the mystery that opens Krugman’s column. Why is it that the congressional GOP, which supported the 1990 amendments to the 1970 Clean Air Act in overwhelming numbers, turned against environmental remediation? He cites as evidence the GOP’s unified opposition to the Inflation Reduction Act, “which, despite its name, is mainly a climate bill.” That brazen bait-and-switch does not factor into the columnist’s analysis of Republican motives.

Nor does Krugman dwell on the dramatic improvements to air quality that have occurred since 1990, some of which are attributable to the act’s targeted emissions standards, so neither should we. What deserves our attention is the Supreme Court’s June decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, in which the Court found that this bureaucracy had wildly overinterpreted its statutory authority. That agency set out to make it financially prohibitive to produce electricity by burning coal and cited Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act to justify this usurpation. The Court’s majority opinion asserted that the EPA sought to impose undue burdens on electricity consumers and the energy sector without congressional imprimatur. The agency even tried to implement programs, “namely, cap-and-trade for carbon,” that Congress explicitly rejected.

That is a perfectly legitimate expression of political propriety, which is perhaps why it doesn’t make an appearance in this column. What Krugman does rely on to make his point are what he believes are the wholly anodyne provisions within this Trojan Horse of a bill. “It doesn’t coerce Americans into going green,” he writes, “it relies on subsidies to promote low-emission technologies, probably creating many new jobs.”

We should only hope legislation that throws roughly $386 billion in the general direction of environmental issues, including tens of billions in grants and loans to related industries, creates jobs. That’s the least we should expect, though the economic value of conjuring up new skilled vacancies amid an acute labor shortage is debatable. The idea that the bill doesn’t “coerce” anyone is even more dubious. According to the link Krugman provides to justify the claim, the bill will “raise oil and gas royalties, rents, and minimum bids for operations on federal lands.” It will “increase Superfund taxes on crude oil and oil products.” It will set a “waste emissions charge” on methane emissions from oil and gas production and storage. And it will impose royalties on natural gas extraction. Outside of police powers, the imposition of fees and taxes are the foremost coercive powers the state wields.

Krugman has a point about the culture warring apparent in state-level Republican efforts to punish financial institutions that divest from the fossil-fuel sector. That is an exercise in point scoring, and it reflects the new GOP’s hostility toward firms that even appear to defer to progressive orthodoxies. But the columnist backs up the claim that the Republican coalition has, as a whole, turned against “free markets and opposition to government intervention” with his own misapprehension.

In the Trump years, Krugman writes, Republicans used “the power of the state” to override markets to “keep burning coal.” He notes that this followed a decade of revolutionary advancements in clean-energy technology and that the Trump administration’s intervention overruled the private sector, which “prefers alternatives” to fossil fuels. Again, the author links to items that refute his thesis.

According to the CNBC item he cites, the Trump administration did intervene to prevent the mothballing of coal-fire and nuclear-energy plants in 2018 on “national defense” grounds. As Europe’s experience following Russia’s land-grab attests, this insurance policy is entirely prudent. As for those alternatives, Krugman’s source does indicate that the cost of solar panels has collapsed in the past decade, but solar still only makes up roughly 5 percent of the U.S. energy mix. The cost of natural gas, however, declined as much in that same period following the advent of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technology. And because natural gas accounts for nearly one-third of the power generated in the U.S.—more even than crude oil—that, not renewables, was the “alternative” preferred by the power sector.

Krugman’s tidy thesis about Republican motives has little explanatory power. Its value is in its calumny and its reinforcement of a false binary. The state, in Krugman’s telling, is the author of all useful remedies to environmental degradation, and those who object to the state’s efforts, therefore, support environmental degradation. The right, by contrast, has tended to embrace the private sector and consumer choice—even the rare sort engineered into existence by taxpayer-funded incentives and regulatory standards—to advance environmental causes. That nuance is lost in Krugman’s narrative, which maintains that Republicans hate leftwing activists and initiatives so much that they’re willing to sacrifice the plant in the pursuit of vengeance.

“This may not make much sense intellectually,” Krugman concludes, “but you can see how it works emotionally.” You sure can.

Paul Krugman



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