July 14, 2015 | Climate

BioEnergy Outlook: More Pope, Less Nope

Ted Niblock

Ted Niblock
BioCycle July 2015

Politics, as the saying goes, makes for strange bedfellows, and advocates for solutions to global climate change have recently received significant support from some unexpected places. As spring turned into summer, there were three notable public statements on the issue. The Catholic Church, Senator Lindsey Graham, and several international energy companies all joined the discussion, to greater and lesser degrees, on the side of addressing the obvious problem of anthropogenic climate change.
In a way, the energy (oil, really, but we will use their preferred term) companies’ stance is the most significant. BG Group, BP, Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil and Total all publicly supported a carbon tax. This is not, of course, the result of any epiphany, but rather a strategic move, similar to the actions of the American film industry a generation ago. Seeing the writing on the wall, the studios instituted their own rating system to head off one imposed on them by the government. The analogy does not track exactly, but fits the general pattern of industries recognizing that getting ahead of a policy discussion and pushing for their preferred version of their restricted future is the best strategy.
International energy companies, like other enormous institutions, cannot afford to deny the obvious in their private deliberations, even if their PR and lobbying efforts might. This open acknowledgement that the future will bring a globally unified carbon-constrained economy is a significant step towards the eventual grand bargain that must be struck to limit greenhouse gas emissions in a free market system.

Climate Encyclical

Unconstrained by any need to applaud a free market system, Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome and the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, issued a lengthy statement or “encyclical” on climate change in June. Joining other progressive and green factions that believe slowing or changing the nature of economic growth is an integral part of stopping human impact on the planet’s ecology, the church’s statement is an aggressive and comprehensive application of its ethical philosophy to the issue. It maintains that climate science is real, and that humanity has a moral duty to itself and the planet to reverse it, and to also rectify what the church sees as a major cause: “unrestrained capitalism.”
Whether or not to link criticism of free market economic activity with climate change is a question upon which reasonable minds can differ, and the biogas industry is obviously composed of companies and individuals which believe the private market can play a constructive role in stopping the damage being done to the planet. Supporters of climate change policy can welcome the encyclical’s defense of climate change science and call for worldwide action to address the problem without taking a position on the rest of the ethical argument.
Finally, the U.S. political discussion of climate change can welcome back one of its most level headed participants, Senator and Republican Presidential Candidate Lindsey Graham. In the first wave of bipartisan climate change cooperation, in the mid 2000s, Graham was a leader in trying to find a middle ground for climate policy in the Senate. As discussed before in this column, the recession and steep unemployment of 2009-2013 derailed this discussion, forcing many politicians to retreat from the issue as public support for green policy dried up in the face of economic crisis.
Perhaps because the economy is improving and voters are more accommodating, or perhaps because so many partisan members of his own party are beginning to look ridiculous denying climate science, Graham has begun to push for a more reasonable approach. Most notably, in early June, he remarked “When 90 percent of the doctors tell you you’ve got a problem, do you listen to the one?” This was a direct refutation to the many conservative Republican officials who steadfastly rely on a very small number of dissident scientists who refuse to join the nearly unanimous view that anthropogenic climate change is real, unprecedented, and a serious problem.
It is also worth noting — but not as newsworthy — that another GOP candidate, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, has avoided partisan rhetoric denying climate change science, and focused instead on the economic harm he feels some climate change mitigation policies would cause. Carefully avoiding a direct admission of human causes, he nonetheless tacitly recognizes them by focusing on the changes to industrial activity being proposed. He never says they are unwarranted, but instead urges careful examination on their possible harm to economic growth and prosperity.
It is unsurprising that elected officials from South Carolina and Florida are moving the party away from overt hostility to climate change mitigation efforts, since both states have fragile coastlines in the path of regular violent weather, and are faced with very immediate real danger from rising seas levels. However, Sen. Graham deserves special credit for his obvious commitment to the issue as a matter of intellectual honesty and national leadership.
This is all very encouraging for those of us who hope that addressing climate change will return to a prominent place in our national policy discussions.
Ted Niblock develops biogas projects for NewAg Development.

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