Entries Tagged as 'environment'

Some Truths More Inconvenient than Others?

David Frum September 29th, 2009 at 11:17 am 67 Comments

Here is Paul Krugman this past weekend:

In a rational world, then, the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern. But it manifestly isn’t. Why not?

Part of the answer is that it’s hard to keep peoples’ attention focused. Weather fluctuates — New Yorkers may recall the heat wave that pushed the thermometer above 90 in April — and even at a global level, this is enough to cause substantial year-to-year wobbles in average temperature. As a result, any year with record heat is normally followed by a number of cooler years: According to Britain’s Met Office, 1998 was the hottest year so far, although NASA — which arguably has better data — says it was 2005. And it’s all too easy to reach the false conclusion that the danger is past.

But the larger reason we’re ignoring climate change is that Al Gore was right: This truth is just too inconvenient. Responding to climate change with the vigor that the threat deserves would not, contrary to legend, be devastating for the economy as a whole. But it would shuffle the economic deck, hurting some powerful vested interests even as it created new economic opportunities. And the industries of the past have armies of lobbyists in place right now; the industries of the future don’t.

Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.

Let’s test whose ideas are vested here. It ought to be unignorably obvious that the only near-term way to generate sufficient electricity while reducing the use of coal is nuclear power.

And yet… Krugman does ignore that particular inconvenient truth in this column and in so many others. In a 2006 exchange with readers, the Times columnist did have this to say:

William R. Mosby, Salt Lake City: Does nuclear energy have a part to play in mitigating global warming in the long term? Assuming it produces sufficient net energy and that fuel recycling/waste partitioning is used, nuclear energy could be one part of a non-CO2-emitting energy mix that would be sustainable for as long as a few thousand years, using the depleted uranium already in storage in the U.S. A great deal of research has already been done on the type of reactor and fuel recycling facility required to do this — the Integral Fast Reactor — but was canceled for political reasons in 1994.

However, those who see an urgent need to do something about global warming generally don’t talk about nuclear energy as a prominent part of the solution. Do they think that nuclear energy would be a bigger problem than global warming?

Paul Krugman: I was at a reception for Al Gore after a screening of his movie, and he was asked that very question. I thought his answer was very good. He said that yes, nuclear should be part of the mix, but it can’t be the main answer. And there are problems with nuclear we need to resolve: not just disposal of radioactive waste, but vulnerability to terrorist attack. In fact, as nuclear power becomes more common around the world, the possible misuse for weapons, terrorist or otherwise, will be a big problem. So unless there are some breakthroughs, nuclear power is only a piece, and maybe not a big one, of the solution.

But why can’t nuclear be the main answer? After all – there isn’t any other answer! Conservation can be incentivized through higher prices, yes. Solar and wind can contribute in some specialized niches. But remember, half of America’s electricity is generated by burning coal.  Only nuclear power is sufficiently cheap and scalable to replace so massive a power source. If your version of environmentalism cannot accept that truth, please kindly refrain from lecturing others about the blinding effects of ideology!

The Whole Foods Dilemma

David Frum August 27th, 2009 at 11:38 am 21 Comments

Now two unions are joining the campaign to boycott Whole Foods, in order to punish the company for the free-market healthcare beliefs of its CEO John Mackey. The boycott seeks to punish a company for resisting the political ambitions of the Obama White House. (You can read Mackey’s offending op-ed on the CEO’s blog, here.)

The unions may put a little muscle into what has till now been mostly online chatter. I know how I will respond: by buying an extra half gallon of grass-fed milk when I stop at the store this afternoon. But something more is called for here, a counter-boycott. And I know just the man to lead it: Michael Pollan.

Michael Pollan of course is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book I celebrated on this site earlier in the month.

In the course of the book, Pollan makes a point about the kind of food sold at Whole Foods: In most cases, it’s probably not that much better for you personally than is conventionally grown food. Milk without hormones may offer individual benefits, but not organic lettuce. So why bother? Because organic fruits and vegetables and meats offer benefits to the whole society: the first step toward a more environmentally sustainable agriculture.

But farmers will only take this step if they can be assured that consumers will pay the higher prices involved in the shift. The more consumers who agree, the more farmers who will shift.   Which is why organic advocates like Pollan go to such lengths to persuade everybody. Zachary Adam Cohen expressed the point eloquently in the Huffington Post last month:

As a political conservative who favors limited-government, the authentic over the mass produced, the local over the federal, and small business over corporate, the sustainable food movement seems a perfect fit for me. And yet when I look out over the various constellations that make up the movement, I don’t see very many conservatives.

It may be that many of us, accustomed to decades of caricature and derision, simply choose to keep our heads down and soldier on. But as the movement progresses it will be important for advocates of all political stripes to be transparent about their agendas. Transparency is never a bad thing. I also believe that advocates of a local, sustainable food system should be more welcoming and accepting of conservatives that hold the same goals, even if they have different reasons for doing so. It’s not that current stakeholders in local foods activism have excluded conservatives, I do not think they have. But what they also have not done is made it a priority to reach out to community members from across the aisle.

Shopping at Whole Foods is only the first step toward the kind of food culture favored by people like Pollan and Cohen. Still, you know what they say about the journey of a thousand miles.

Now comes the moment of revelation: Whole Foods is not only for liberals. Its CEO thinks that free marketeers have something to contribute to the healthcare debate. What do you know, he turns out to be something of a free marketeer himself. And the reaction in some of the liberal world is outrage and a desire to punish. When push comes to shove, “progressives” do think and feel exactly as Zachary Cohen wished to acquit them of thinking and feeling. They see their food culture as a symbol of belonging, more than as a valuable cause in its own right. And they are prepared to sacrifice the cause in order to defend their claim to the symbol.

Whole Foods has bigger problems than union complaints – it faces the worst recession since World War II, a recession that is driving many shoppers to seek the very cheapest products available, or anyway the products that seem the cheapest thanks to subsidies and supports that conceal their full cost. Which is too bad. American healthcare costs are driven as much by hurtful personal behaviors as by market failures. By promoting a more responsible food culture, Whole Foods does its part to discourage the obesity that now accounts for 1 American health dollar in 10. This is a solution we all should be part of. Instead, too many liberals insist on regarding Whole Foods as something akin to a sect or club, where half the pleasure comes from blackballing new members.

Here‘s Zachary Cohen again:

[C]onservative shoppers will now feel more enfranchised to shop at Whole Foods… [T]hey’ll know that John Mackey stood up for what he believed in, even in the face of a customer base that was likely to get very, very angry at him for doing so. Conservative shoppers will respect that. And they’ll put aside their long established suspicion of the company now that they’ve seen Mackey’s stripes. This is a huge moment, and one that all local foods advocates should seize upon.

Because the reality is this: the progressive boycott of Whole Foods will fail, and an entire segment of the country that never ever would have come to terms with organic produce and products, will now be engaging with them head on. This is a huge victory. I fully expect to see Whole Foods’ revenue bounce from this. Let’s not let this opportunity be wasted.

Here’s hoping.