by Bob Brecha

Bob Brecha graduated from Wright State University (B.S. in Physics, 1983) and from the University of Texas at Austin (Ph.D. in Physics, 1990).  Since 1993 he has been at the University of Dayton where he is Professor of Physics and of Renewable and Clean Energy Program, and was founding coordinator of the Sustainability, Energy and the Environment (SEE) initiative from 2007 – 2015.  From 2006-2017 he was a regular visiting scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, including one year as a Fulbright Fellow (2010-2011).  Since January 2018, he has been affiliated with the Berlin think-tank Climate Analytics as visiting scientist and from June-December of 2018 as Acting Head of Energy System Modeling and Interim Co-Leader of the Climate Policy Team. Since August 2019 he has been funded by the European Union Marie Curie Fellowship Program to work with Climate Analytics on energy access and sustainability in least developed countries and small island developing states.

A firefighter works during a wildfire near Robore, Santa Cruz region, eastern Bolivia on August 22, 2019. – Up to now, wildfires in Bolivia have devastated about 745,000 hectares of forests and pasturelands. Neighboring Peru, which contains much of the Amazon basin, announced it was “on alert” for wildfires spreading from the rainforest in Brazil and Bolivia. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

There is a strain of strained reasoning that appears – and not only on websites like Answers in Genesis – that says that climate change scientists represent an anti-capitalist agenda.  Let’s take a look at some of the pieces of this claim to figure out if there is any coherence to it at all.

Two of the main targets here are the motivations of climate scientists themselves, as well as that perennial favorite, Al Gore, or others who try to make money from trying to prevent, or mitigate, climate change.  First, the scientists. The reasoning here seems to be on a couple of different levels. Since scientists apply for and, in a minority of cases, actually receive research grants from federal agencies (not so much these days) or from other sources, they must be doing their research just for the money.  Let’s say a scientist receives a grant for $500,000 for three years from a foundation or agency. Seems like a pretty good income stream, especially if it continues over time, as is the case for the best and most prominent scientists. Except for the inconvenient fact that a university scientist cannot earn more in salary than what the university has set according to their internal criteria.  It is true that at some of the high-power research universities a faculty member’s position may depend on her or him attracting grants, but whether the grant is large or small, the salary stays the same. The money goes partially to cover faculty salary, but also to pay for graduate students, laboratory or office space, computers, etc.  

Still, one might argue, that whole system is rigged to keep scientists producing certain results that align with … what?  Who sets the worldwide agenda as to which results are acceptable, and therefore will be funded, and which ones must be buried deeply away from public view?  For well over a century scientists around the world, from widely varying political, scientific and educational systems, have been doing the basic research that feeds into climate change science. Has there been a worldwide conspiracy over that time period – a conspiracy that stretches across Communist China, social democracies in Europe, more libertarian societies such as the US, as well as developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia – all keeping results oriented in a specific direction?  This seems a bit hard to fathom.

Of course, once worldwide conspiracies are credited with being behind climate change science, it won’t be long until the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change appears as a villain.  But the IPCC is made up of a group of well over a thousand scientists who volunteer their time to read and digest the published literature, both academic and “grey” literature like reports from governmental, non-governmental and commercial organizations.  These thousands of publications are processed into draft reports, to which anyone is free to make comments. The comments are recorded and each and every one is answered, with both comments and responses publicly available. Once the draft report is revised, another round of comments and revisions is followed by a final report, and from the final report a Summary for Policymakers is written.  

It is this last document that is often seen as “political,” but not in the sense this is often used by critics.  The Summary is scrutinized and approved word-for-word by consensus by government representatives in excruciatingly long sessions. It is not the scientists who have the final say in this document, which is frankly the part of IPCC work that is read by the most people.  The result is a lowest common denominator that all governments, both those supporting more action and those trying to thwart action, can agree upon, with the scientists there to ensure that the final result is consistent with the science in the underlying report.  In the end, the strong statements in IPCC reports that are usually quoted in news accounts stem from a conservative reading of the underlying science.

I want to return to the greed line of argument used by denialists to try and discredit climate change science, in which Al Gore is used as the demon.  It is not clear how a monetary motivation can be used to paint climate science as anti-capitalist. Let’s say scientists decide from their own research work that it will be clearly advantageous over the long run to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy.  In most situations, supporters of capitalism would proudly refer to this as the entrepreneurial spirit. More generally, the rise of a new technology sector with growth of 20% or 30% per year or more would be hailed by capitalists as a wonderful opportunity. It only seems to be in the context of climate change and the switch to renewable energy that all innovation is suspect, all evidence backing the need for that transition seen as dubious.  Among many climate deniers, and widely proliferating in federal agencies under the Trump administration, a true “Can’t do” spirit has taken root.

Or perhaps we should really turn the arguments around. Over the past few years relatively good examples of free markets have taken root in parts of the energy sector, for example with electricity generation.  Electricity producers offer their products at different time intervals ranging from long-term contracts to very short (sub-hour) time periods. Whoever submits the lowest bid is allowed to produce electricity and feed it to the grid.  We still do not take into account the negative externalities of fossil fuel generation in most regions, but some attempts have been started with sulfur dioxide emissions and even carbon dioxide emissions, where these pollutants result in higher generation costs for some fuels, like coal.  These markets, the alleged goal of capitalists, have worked reasonably well – until renewables, and even that relative newcomer to the fossil-fuel world, natural gas, began to threaten the hegemony of coal, and most recently, nuclear power. As soon as owners of these latter electricity sources realized that they could no longer compete in a free market, they did what capitalists have often done historically – they used their lobbying power to force the government to create new rules favorable to their entrenched interests, and asked for government handouts to supplement the advantageous deals they had been receiving for decades.

In the end, the only way to understand in a self-consistent way the argument that climate change mitigation is anti-capitalist is if one starts with the assumption that “capitalism” can only be defined in terms of the use of fossil fuels, not renewable energy, and that the use of fossil fuels must be allowed to have a special dispensation such that harmful costs can be spread across all of society in an intransparent way so as to be hidden from consumers.  

But I have yet to find an economics textbook that uses that definition as a starting point.