Four Reasons Why The Environment Movement Is Losing The Battle For Hearts And Minds
“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket,” Eric Hoffer wrote more than 40 years ago.
It’s still anyone’s guess whether President Obama will approve the Keystone pipeline. Perhaps he will continue to vote “present” and attempt to postpone a decision as long as possible—perhaps even through the next presidential election cycle in 2016. The administration’s body language—and actual language from Secretary of State John Kerry—suggests a negative decision, a hope that the Democrats’ green base is doing everything possible to reinforce so as to raise the political cost for Obama to approve the pipeline to an unacceptable level.
The environmental left may yet win the skirmish over Keystone, but there are several reasons for thinking they are losing the war. Here are four of them:
First, there’s an interesting little detail in the State Department environmental impact report on Keystone—the one that said the pipeline would have no impact on greenhouse gas emissions—that I haven’t seen anyone notice. The premise of the State Department’s finding is that Canadian oil is going to come out of the ground and go somewhere; if it doesn’t come to the United States by pipeline, Canada will figure out a way to ship it here by rail or overseas to China by tanker.
However, the State Department analysis did allow that there was one condition that would change this: if the price of oil dipped back down below $65 a barrel. (It’s been around $100 a barrel for quite some time now.) At that price, Canada would be less likely to produce as much tar-sands oil—or at least not as quickly—and indeed the transportation costs to ship it to China are higher than through the Keystone pipeline. But understand what a world of $65 oil would mean: it would mean we had re-entered a world of abundant and cheap oil. (Adjusted for inflation, this price would be less that the cost of oil in the glut days of the 1980s.) It would mean the world would be using a lot more of it. While it would mean lower greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian oil, it would mean higher global emissions overall. It would mean we wouldn’t care much whether the Keystone pipeline was built. So environmentalists lose big time either way.
Second, the fracking revolution that has delivered cheap and abundant natural gas, and revived domestic production of oil to its highest level in a generation, is just getting started. It has a long way to run here in the United States, and is just getting started overseas. It will extend the age of hydrocarbon energy by several decades, and is already rearranging the geopolitical map, undermining Russia’s political influence on its neighbors (hence tanks in Crimea instead of tankers), and slowly eroding OPEC’s market position. The fracking revolution is largely the product of private property rights and private sector innovation rather than deliberate energy policy from Washington. To the contrary, if Washington and the environmental establishment had gotten a clue a decade ago that the fracking revolution was coming, they surely would have done something to stop it. Environmentalists will attempt to lay down roadblocks to fracking, but cannot stop this juggernaut.
Third, there is evidence that environmentalists are losing the respect and attachment of the all-important “millennials”—the cohort of young Americans born after 1980. According to a new Pew Research survey released last week, “millennials” are the least likely among all demographic cohorts today to embrace the “environmentalist” label to describe themselves. Only 32 percent of millennials say the term “environmentalist” fits them, compared to 42 percent of baby boomers, and 44 percent of older Americans. For many young people, today’s environmental establishment looks increasingly like a relic of the baby boom era. (Perhaps this is because millennials have grew up mostly after pollution levels had fallen so much in the U.S.) This has led environmental journalist Keith Kloor to ask: “Are environmental groups on the verge of extinction? Not exactly. But unless they do something to broaden their appeal, their days are numbered as a meaningful presence in American culture and politics.”
Fourth, about that appeal. It may be waning faster than Kloor thinks. It is worth having a careful look some time at the comment threads of online articles about environmental controversies that appear in mainstream outlets such as the New York Times orWashington Post, but also liberal publications such asThe Nation and Mother Jones. While it is expected that commenters on conservative sites like National Review Online would display critical and hostile attitudes toward environmentalists, it is surprising how many hostile comments appear in the mainstream media. It is unlikely these are organized online trolls. True, comment threads are no more than anecdotal evidence, but unless I miss my mark, there are few interest groups or political in America that attract such intense hostility as environmentalists. Most environmentalists are so deep inside their own bubble that they have no perception that a plurality of Americans hates them.
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