Green bootleggers and Baptists

Updated: 2011-07-21 12:50

By Bjørn Lomborg (chinadaily.com.cn)

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NEW YORK - In May, the United Nations' International Panel on Climate Change made media waves with a new report on renewable energy. As in the past, the IPCC first issued a short summary; only later would it reveal all of the data. So it was left up to the IPCC's spin-doctors to present the take-home message for journalists.

The first line of the IPCC's press release declared, "Close to 80% of the world's energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies." That story was repeated by media organizations worldwide.

Last month, the IPCC released the full report, together with the data behind this startlingly optimistic claim. Only then did it emerge that it was based solely on the most optimistic of 164 modeling scenarios that researchers investigated. And this single scenario stemmed from a single study that was traced back to a report by the environmental organization Greenpeace. The author of that report – a Greenpeace staff member – was one of the IPCC's lead authors.

The claim rested on the assumption of a large reduction in global energy use. Given the number of people climbing out of poverty in China and India, that is a deeply implausible scenario.

When the IPCC first made the claim, global-warming activists and renewable-energy companies cheered. "The report clearly demonstrates that renewable technologies could supply the world with more energy than it would ever need," boasted Steve Sawyer, Secretary-General of the Global Wind Energy Council.

This sort of behavior – with activists and big energy companies uniting to applaud anything that suggests a need for increased subsidies to alternative energy – was famously captured by the so-called "bootleggers and Baptists" theory of politics.

The theory grew out of the experience of the southern United States, where many jurisdictions required stores to close on Sunday, thus preventing the sale of alcohol. The regulation was supported by religious groups for moral reasons, but also by bootleggers, because they had the market to themselves on Sundays. Politicians would adopt the Baptists' pious rhetoric, while quietly taking campaign contributions from the criminals.

Of course, today's climate-change "bootleggers" are not engaged in any illegal behavior. But the self-interest of energy companies, biofuel producers, insurance firms, lobbyists, and others in supporting "green" policies is a point that is often missed.

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