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Joe Nocera Is Wrong About Environmental Activism

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[Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.]

Can you be an environmentalist and support things like the Keystone XL pipeline and hydraulic fracking? Not likely, but it’s conceivable. Can you be an environmentalist and oppose the power of the environmental movement? I think not.

Recently, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has written several columns defending some environmentally problematic projects. Although he indicates that he is someone who takes the challenge of global climate change seriously, he came out with two successive columns in support of the Keystone XL pipeline. Then, last week, he voiced a defense of the drilling method known as hydraulic fracking, used to extract natural gas.

Not long ago, I offered some praise for Nocera. I wrote that he was doing pretty well with his column—at least by the not-too-stellar standards of the Times op-ed page. Am I regretting this now? I still think that Nocera has had some redeeming moments, but his recent anti-environmental streak has definitely put him closer to the company of faux-liberals such as Thomas Friedman.

In his column on fracking, Nocera argues that the practice is going to happen whether we like it or not, and that the best we can do is to work with businesses to help them clean up their act. In the process, he inadvertently admits that methane leaks from fracking have an absolutely massive greenhouse gas impact—possibly accounting more than a quarter of all relevant U.S. emissions. Dean Baker notes that “if cutting the methane emissions from fracking in half would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9 percent,” as Nocera contends, “then the methane emissions must come to close to 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.” Furthermore, if you accept some of the higher estimates (in reports Nocera cites) of how much methane is leaking as a result of this drilling technique, “then fracking would account for more than one quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.” Baker concludes:

Nocera may have his numbers completely wrong, but the implication of the evidence presented in his piece is that fracking is an incredibly dirty process from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions. If his numbers are right, he makes a compelling case for banning fracking unless it can be done far more cleanly than is currently the case.

Others have remarked that Nocera totally ignores the water contamination that can result from fracking—one of the biggest environmental controversies surrounding this drilling method. This oversight also looks conspicuous.

The environmental claims behind Nocera’s defense of the hotly contested Keystone XL pipeline have also been challenged. Most notably, Joe Romm at Climate Progress named Nocera part of the “climate ignorati.” Responding to the Times columnist’s first pro-Keystone piece, Romm noted that Nocera utterly failed to discuss the impact of the pipeline on climate change:

So far, it seems as if Nocera’s views on global warming derive from reading the likes of the widely debunked physicist Freeman Dyson and attending Exxon-Mobil shareholder meetings, which causes him to [dismiss] knowledgeable people who express science-based views...as trying to “push Exxon Mobil toward their belief system—their global warming religion.”

Romm subsequently argued:

Needless to say, folks who “believe that global warming poses a serious threat” do not generally use the phrase “global warming religion.” That was a key reason I called him a member of the climate ignorati. The science says that global warming is an existential threat (see Lonnie Thompson on why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization,” and literature review here)....Apparently Nocera wants us to think he is concerned about the global warming threat while simultaneously embracing full exploitation of unconventional oil and gas.

I’m thankful for these responses. At the same time, my biggest beef with Nocera isn’t his take on climate science. It’s the implicit theory of social change that he presents. In these columns, Nocera shows himself to be an apostle of liberal moderation. He appears to believe that calm, reasoned engagement with the oil and gas industry will lead to an amicable resolution of any regrettable differences of opinion over the environment.

In this vein, he condemns social movement-oriented environmental groups for being too pushy, and he instead praises the Environmental Defense Fund. Nocera writes:

One thing I’ve always liked about the Environmental Defense Fund is its hardheaded approach. Founded by scientists, it believes in data, not hysteria. It promotes market incentives to change behavior and isn’t afraid to work with industry. Utterly nonpartisan, it is oriented toward practical policy solutions....Unlike others in the environmental movement, [EDF President Fred Krupp] and his colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund don’t want to shut down fracking; rather, their goal is to work with the states where most of the shale gas lies and help devise smart regulations that would make fracking environmentally safer.

Heaven forbid that those seeking to defend the environment be “partisans” skeptical of working with Republicans or with industry flacks! After all, how could any right-thinking moderate be so cynical about our brothers and sisters on the conservative side of the aisle and their long-established commitment to “practicality” and reasoned compromise?

It’s nice that Nocera calls for “better, more uniform regulation and tougher enforcement” to make fracking cleaner. But he’s in for a sore surprise when he sees that any effort to secure this—no matter how non-“hysterical” the proposal—will be met by firm stonewalling, big-money counter-lobbying, and rabid denunciation in the right-wing think tank/Fox News echo chamber.

Anyone who claims to be following the climate debate with concern, but who still believes that the industry can be swayed by careful consideration of the data, is living with their head stuck in the tar sand. The oil and gas interests that Nocera defends have made a mockery of climate science, denying and obfuscating at every opportunity. Sure, there’s plenty of hysteria in the debate. But environmentalists—and climate scientists not paid for by industry who have steadfastly stood by their studies—are hardly its leading proponents. To suggest that they are is to join with Rick Santorum in his through-the-looking-glass denunciation of the liberal war on science.

To me, the most telling moment in Nocera’s two pro-Keystone XL columns is when he bemoans that Obama caved to environmentalists on the issue:

I realize that President Obama rejected Keystone because, politically, he had no choice. My guess is that, in his centrist heart of hearts, the president wanted to approve it. But to give the go-ahead before the election was to risk losing the support of the environmentalists who make up an important part of his base.

Even if you’re not convinced that stopping this particular pipeline should have been the environmental movement’s top priority, you should be aware of a basic reality: any genuine solution to the crisis of global climate change will require a robust movement that is able to flex its muscle and compel politicians to stand up to the influence of the energy lobbies. Characterizing such a movement as symptomatic of the country’s “poisoned politics” is both naïve and wrong-headed. The oil barons and climate denialists could hardly ask a bigger favor of our nation’s “moderates.”