Brad Johnson of Think Progress: Washington’s War on the EnvironmentApril 8, 2011
Energy solutions may be our single most pressing problem, but it also might provide the single greatest opportunity for our country to fix our financial problems. But, just how bad is American energy policy, and how out to lunch are we and our government on the issue of climate change? When we’re wasting 2/3 of our energy in this country, whether it’s in inefficient cars or outdated power plants or old, heat-leaking homes, we start to need looking at creative, innovative solutions and shake up the status quo to survive.
To start to find solutions on the energy and climate crisis, we talked to one of our favorite experts on the topic, Brad Johnson of Think Progress. Brad provides excellent coverage of the behind-the-scenes wrangling in Washington as it pertains to both energy policy and the climate crisis, and is also co-author of the Technomanifesto, a history of the information revolution.
Listen in as Dylan and Brad talk about current state of American energy policy, the challenges of dealing with the big power players (including the “unholy alliance” between large corporations, the big banks and our government) in Washington, and how they pass energy costs on to consumers and communities.
DYLAN: Just how bad is American energy policy and just how “out to lunch” are all of us and our government on the issue of climate change; a conversation with Brad Johnson now.
DYLAN: Welcome to Episode 49 of Radio Free Dylan. I am Dylan Ratigan. It’s very nice to be seeing, or at least talking with you, and as we’ve been talking about on the TV show, energy solutions may be our single, not only most pressing problem, but our greatest opportunity. And so far, as folks don’t have much to say these days about healthcare or banking, but my goodness me, when we’re wasting two-thirds of the energy that we burn in this country, whether it is in our cars or our power plants, we sure do have an opportunity to improve on that, and plenty of motivation if you look at Libya or Japan. I want to bring into this conversation somebody that you should be paying attention to if you’re not already. Excellent coverage on the behind-the-scenes happenings in Washington as it pertains to both energy policy and climate provided by Brad Johnson. Brad writes for ThinkProgress, which we’ll link to here on DylanRatigan.com; I’ll give you more information on Brad. His focus is on the climate crisis, energy policy, and progress in converting basically to energy sources above the earth and away from energy sources that exist beneath the surface of the earth. Brad is also co-author of the Technomanifestos, the history of the information revolution. Brad, we welcome you to the conversation.
BRAD: It’s great to be here.
DYLAN: Give us the state of play. Where do – what is your base assessment of American energy policy?
BRAD: I think you’ve really done a good job of covering it the last few days. The short version is that we have an energy policy that’s not really directed with any strategic vision or intent, and we haven’t really had that for at least as long as I’ve been around. And so that means that we have one that’s dominated essentially by private corporations, by the banks, that supply seemingly cheap energy for our nation, but pass off all the costs onto society, whether it’s the cost of our military or our health or our planet’s future.
DYLAN: Which at the end of the day is why we have such a broken market because we do have this unholy alliance between business and state that allows the energy companies to effectively either use off balance sheet accounting, like the Pentagon, to secure energy resources, or off balance sheet accounting like environmental costs that none of which are reflected in the cost at the pump, or for that matter, coal, or whatever the fuel source is. Is that a – do you agree with my assessment in that regard?
BRAD: That is precisely – that is precisely the case.
DYLAN: So we accept that, right now, the corrupt relationship between business interests and our government that plays out in healthcare and all these other things, is really the underlying reason why we burn and spend as much as we do on energy that is as toxic as it is, and have no motivation to adapt, at this point, from an economic standpoint to other variables because the prices are rigged by the special interests. Fair?
BRAD: Right, right. And I think that it’s really important to recognize that defenders of the status quo make the argument that this is the only system that can work, that essentially we have to rely on dangerous and dirty energy to keep civilization going, and the lessons, let’s say, for example, of the Clean Air Act and the lessons of regulating Wall Street, is that when you actually make the rules stronger, businesses thrive, people get healthier, and civilization grows. So I think that’s an important thing to remember.
DYLAN: At the same time that we have this non-energy policy, that we blow what we burn – again, we burn two-thirds of the energy for nothing. I think people think I’m making that up. It’s totally insane, but we’ll come back for that. As we extract resources, whether it’s oil, whatever it is, wherever it comes from, but a lot of it obviously comes from beneath the surface of the earth in the form of natural gas, coal, and oil, we also simultaneously toxify the environment through any litany of reasons. Prioritize the toxification as you see it.
BRAD: The essential threat that we don’t have any system to deal with right now and that threatens genuinely global civilization is essentially the carbon loading of our atmosphere and our oceans. So global warming, ocean acidification, those are not just threats that are changing our health today, but because there’s no system to handle it, that’s one of the biggest reasons that I have to put it at the top of the list. Of course, if you’re a citizen living in Coal Hollow in Appalachia or you’re someone downwind of a power plant in a city, then the fact that even though there are laws on the books to protect the health of the people and the water there, the fact that those laws are not being enforced probably ends up being the key threat for those people.
DYLAN: So number one, carbon loading the atmosphere with no way out, and number two, total, or at least partial to total failure to enforce any of the existing safety regulations that could be there. I want to take a momentary break. We’ll come back and get deeper with Brad on the subject specifically of carbon loading the atmosphere and just precisely how that can, is, and very well may lead to elimination of available food supplies and meaningful threat to life for humans in the decades that are ahead. We’re back with Brad Johnson from ThinkProgress on energy and the environment right after this.
DYLAN: Welcome back to Radio Free Dylan. We’re in the middle of a conversation with Brad Johnson. Brad is, again, one of the better informed people that we’ve found when it comes to the behind-the-scenes finaglings in Washington around American energy policy and around American climate policy. You can catch his writings at ThinkProgress; of course, we’ll put the links up here at DR.com. You were saying to us that carbon loading is the single biggest risk to humanity. What exactly do you mean when you say carbon loading when you talk about the atmosphere and oceans?
BRAD: So the basic principle of global warming is that there are certain gases that are a relatively small percentage of the total atmosphere, but what they do – they’re the greenhouse gases, and they’re what trap heat that comes from the sun, essentially, and makes our planet habitable. If we didn’t have these greenhouse gases, our planet would essentially have the same climate as the moon, which is not very nice. But what we’ve been doing is these greenhouse gases are produced by the burning of fossil fuels and by deforestation, but about 80% of it is from the burning of coal and oil. And because we’ve been burning the multi-million year kind of bank of those fuels that took millions of years to produce, and we’re burning them in a few generations of our lives, we’ve altered the fundamental chemistry of the atmosphere and we’re simply trapping more and more heat in the system. And that’s already dramatically changed climate and weather patterns around the world, including in the United States.
DYLAN: But at the end of the day, listen, Brad, everybody likes it a little bit warmer, nobody like the cold, whatever the byproducts of this carbon loading may be, nobody – there doesn’t seem to be anybody suffering with enough political power to care.
BRAD: I mean, I don’t – it is a frustrating saying, and there are a lot of reasons – there’s an incredible amount of disinformation to disconnect the things that are happening to people and the causes. I mean, for example, Monday, April 4th, a catastrophic storm front swept through the nation, knocked out power for about a million people, a million Americans, and killed at least six people, and just destroying homes and lives, and one thing we need to recognize is that what the weather is today is something that we have responsibility for. It’s no longer – as one scientist, Kevin Trenberth said, that there’s global warming and that there’s natural weather is a mistake now. Weather is – there’s a human influence on all weather now.
DYLAN: So I can accept that; that’s fine. Walk me through though your doomsday scenario where a couple of extra storms because we burned a little too much carbon into the atmosphere –
DYLAN: – get me from there to the loss of food supply and millions dead.
BRAD: Right. Well, the reason that scientists are most concerned about this is because the changes that we see now, the kinds of new kinds of climate extremes and the new frequency, things like the heat wave in Russia and the floods in Pakistan, the flooding in Nashville, the strength of Hurricane Katrina, so these effects have been caused by essentially the carbon pollution of the past, and rejections as there are more people as the developing world gets more prosperous is that the amount of carbon pollution will rapidly rise, and so all the affects that we’re seeing now pale in comparison to what we can expect in the coming decade.
DYLAN: But again, so it’s a little warmer, so there’s some storms, so there’s a little more snow –
BRAD: The types of changes that you can see –
DYLAN: – so what. I like to ski, you know.
BRAD: – that are projected is within this century, there’s a possibility, reasonable likelihood, in fact, of one to two meters and possibly more of sea level rise, and a dramatic increased intensity of storms. The southwest will have permanent dustbowl conditions, most of the United States will have greater than 90º temperatures for at least several months, if not the entire summer, you’re going to see the collapse of the summer arctic ice, which will transform the weather patterns of the entire planet in ways that we just simply don’t know, vast regions of the planet will no longer be able to grow crops, at least as we know now. And not only that, it’s not just that we’ll be changing from a current world to a hotter world, it’s that unless we get off this carousel, it’s not like these changes will just stop. Every decade will keep on changing and getting worse in less predictable ways that we just don’t simply understand.
DYLAN: What do you see as the greatest barrier to dealing with what you’re describing?
BRAD: I think the biggest one is the political power that the fossil fuel industry has over the United States political process and the culpability of the banks that are just as much a part of that system.
DYLAN: If you were to look at which – by the way, that the problem with everything, not just climate change. That’s the problem with the healthcare system, that’s the problem with the banking system, it’s the problem with the educational system, so at least we know what the problem is. The more we can identify the same problem and address that core problem, which is this unholy alliance between business and state, effectively, in our country, whether it’s the healthcare companies or the energy companies, we might be able to begin to solve some of these problems. But obviously, as long as we have this unholy alliance, they win and we lose. I had this conversation with John Hofmeister a couple of times, Brad. John is obviously the former CEO of Shell, and is very aggressive on peak oil, and on the basic, abominable mismanagement of American energy policy as a disastrous and calamitous political and human error on our part. With that said, I asked him whether he believes technologically, forget the obvious problem which we see as the political process and the business relationships with the political process, setting that aside, I asked John, “Can we get to all of the energy on the earth coming from above the surface of the earth as opposed to below the surface, not just wind/solar, but wind, solar, tidal, hydro, algae, whatever.” He says abso – this is a former Shell Oil CEO, “Absolutely,” he says.
BRAD: Yep, I totally agree with that.
DYLAN: You agree with that. Why do you agree with that?
BRAD: So far, as I can tell, there is no evidence that this is a problem with technology; this is a problem of – this is a societal problem. This is a one that – the only way that it’s a technological problem, essentially, is that the companies that have the skills and abilities and knowledge to lead us into a clean energy world are the energy companies. Essentially the same knowledge and skill that it takes to drill for oil or distribute gasoline around the country, and all that knowledge and talent and power could be used to build a clean and safe system if these corporations will were willing to see themselves as genuinely as energy companies instead of dirty energy companies.
DYLAN: Or if they had the incentive to do so.
BRAD: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the things that – this isn’t – I’d like to believe that this is something that businesses would do out the goodness of their heart –
DYLAN: Don’t count on it.
BRAD: – but my understanding is that that’s the role of government and society is to establish the rules of the market and then let the companies compete to succeed within that, and we have a system where there’s either no rules, practically, especially when you’re talking about commodity speculation and the way that energy prices are set, or rules that are broken, or rules that, you know, all these costs that aren’t actually – that are outside of the market.
DYLAN: Yeah, well mostly it’s just that the rules are set by one or two or a particular faction of the marketplace such that they exclusively benefit those people, whether it’s the health insurance monopolies, the big oil companies, the military defense contractors, or the giant banks –
DYLAN: – at the expense of everybody else, all the other banks, all the other etc. etc. etc. What can we do, what can I do, what can people listening to this do? What have you found as the most effective message that connects to get people to engage on this issue, and for that matter gets the attention of the political establishment?
BRAD: One thing I think that’s really important is that it really does actually matter for individual citizens to hold their politicians accountable, for example, for denying science and for trying to dismantle the “rules of the road,” they’re trying to dismantle government, which is what’s happening in Congress right now. The other thing that people can do is just work to educate themselves on this issue, and also just start thinking about the world – what’s the world that we want to create and what does that take and what kind of responsibilities does that involve. But the biggest thing is that you can’t accept – it doesn’t matter what party somebody is in, if they’re engaging in policies that are designed to support the coal companies and the oil companies and the Wall Street speculators instead of the people that they were supposedly elected to represent, they need to be held accountable by whatever means necessary.
DYLAN: We will leave it there. Mr. Johnson, a pleasure to make the acquaintance.
BRAD: A pleasure.
DYLAN: All right, Brad Johnson, ThinkProgress; check it out. We’ll put the links up here at dr.com. It’ a again, nice to get a little bit of time with you whether you’re listening to us at home, on the train, in the car, on the boat, wherever you listen to your podcast. Hey, it’s almost – it’s spring, you can be on the boat. And we will talk to you next time.