The 2016 elections will have an enormous impact the future of energy in this country and around the world. The Obama administration has set in motion a combination of executive orders and international agreements aiming to drastically restrict national and global use of fossil fuels–a policy I believe would be highly damaging to our economy and catastrophic for billions of people who need fossil fuels to rise out of poverty. The Congress and above all the President we elect this year can turn that around–or they can entrench it.
While I rarely think along party lines, on the issue of energy freedom and energy progress most Republicans are dramatically better than most Democrats. Thus, I would like to share with Republicans–and any pro-fossil fuel Democrats–some thoughts on energy messaging in the 2016 election.
Proactive and overwhelming—the Democrats’ winning position on energy issues
The essential dynamic of the debate over energy policy is that Democrats proactively promote an overwhelming number of policy initiatives and the Republicans reactively wage a defensive battle on each one, usually unsuccessfully.
Consider the following ongoing policy battles: the Clean Power Plan, methane regulations, fracking bans, ozone regulations, pipeline blocking, new pipeline regulations, new train regulations, renewable fuel standards, wind production tax credit, solar subsidies, CAFE standards, green building standards, energy efficiency mandates, “green jobs” schemes.
All of these policy initiatives were initiated by Democrats, and Democrats are winning on most of them. Even when they “lose,” it doesn’t change the trajectory; Democrats have an unlimited supply of new anti-development, anti-freedom initiatives to propose if the old ones fail. Witness the short-lived “victory” of blocking a particular anti-fossil fuel proposal (cap-and-trade) being followed by a host of Executive Orders and international agreements to accomplish the same goal.
Since the Democrats make all the proposals and the Republicans react, Democrats control the direction of energy policy—against development and freedom, particularly the development of our most important form of energy, fossil fuels.
This is disastrous for energy policy, which affects the well-being of every other industry and ultimately every human being on the planet. More broadly, it is disastrous for economic freedom across the board, because by controlling the energy debate Democrats make energy a winning issue for their party and its policies. When one party is proposing all the new ideas in the name of “progress” and the other side is just saying “no” to most or all of the new ideas, the proactive party seems far more appealing and gains the moral high ground—and votes.
Case in point: In 2008 Barack Obama ran on a seemingly idealistic energy platform. The Republicans had no coherent response and, indeed, their candidate, John McCain, agreed with Obama that we should make fossil fuel restrictions a significant focus. Energy (and environment) was a winning issue for Obama—and Obama’s election has had a ruinous effect on economic freedom across the board.
So long as the Republicans’ policy positioning is reactive and overwhelmed and the Democrats’ is proactive and overwhelming, we are courting disaster with this country’s energy future and with every election—especially the Presidential election.
But what if I were to tell you that it is possible to take energy from an issue that gets Democrats more votes to an issue that gets Republicans more votes—for pro-development, pro-freedom energy policies? From my experience changing tens of thousands of minds on energy issues, particularly on the morality of fossil fuels, I believe it is possible.
The key is to understand the fundamental tool the Democrats use to win with false ideas. Only then can we see how that tool can be used even more effectively by Republicans to win with true ideas.
The Anti-Hydrocarbon Hydra
Observe that while every energy policy dispute has its own unique set of activists, arguments, lawyers, NIMBYs, activists, financial backers, trade groups, regulators, and elected officials, the battles are all driven by the same ideal: the ideal of eliminating fossil fuel use and using green energy instead.
This ideal is what makes the Clean Power Plan good, what makes fracking suspect at best, what makes oil spills cause for shutting down industry, what makes Keystone XL objectionable—fill in practically any battle and you will see that the Democrats’ core premise is that we need to get off fossil fuels and onto green energy.
Without that ideal, each proposal would lose much of its power and in most cases its very basis for being.
Thus, we are not dealing with separate attacks that each require a separate strategy. We are dealing with an anti-hydrocarbon hydra. If we fight this multi-headed monster by trying to take off one head at a time, we will find that two (or ten) emerge to take its place. But if we understand the heart of the hydra, its moral ideal, we can cut it out—and, more importantly, use that knowledge to create a hydra of our own, a hydra that will overwhelm the opposition.
The Democrats’ most powerful tool: “Arguing to 100”
To understand and explain how that power works in the debate, I have coined the term “Arguing to 100.”
Here is an X-axis from -100 to 100, with 0 as the midpoint.
The axis refers to our moral evaluation of a policy, product, or technology. -100 means the lowest evil, 0 means neutral, and 100 means our highest ideal.
In today’s debate, -100 is the ever-growing use of fossil fuels (“dirty energy”) and 100 is a society completely powered by “green” energy, usually solar and wind.
A good policy, on this scale, is one that helps us get off fossil fuels and onto green energy. With each proposal, Democrats are “arguing to 100”—arguing that a given policy is bringing us closer to the ideal and away from the evil. If anyone ever stands up for fossil fuels, Democrats will “argue to -100”—argue that the person is bringing us toward evil.
This positioning is incredibly powerful—because the ideal frames the debate. And he who frames the debate, wins the debate.
The Republicans’ failure comes from the very nature of setting ideals and framing debates. The Democrats have set an ideal, framed the debate, and argued their policies to 100 and their opponents to -100. The only way to defeat this is for Republicans to argue for an ideal of their own and reframe the debate accordingly.
But Republicans have not challenged the Democrats’ ideal or reframed the debate. They have conceded the Democrats’ ideal, but try to win policy debates by arguing that Democrats’ particular policies for achieving the ideal are impractical, at least temporarily. This is the method of “Arguing to 0.”
The Republicans’ white flag: “Arguing to 0”
Consider the debate over shale energy technology, perhaps the greatest, most life-giving technology of our age—a debate that has (revealingly) been framed as a debate over “fracking.” In the late 2000s, Republicans had the opportunity to proactively frame shale energy development as an epic opportunity to advance human progress. But they did not. Instead, they let Democrats frame “fracking” as evil.
Democrats introduced “fracking” to the world by arguing to -100 that it is an extension of our addiction to fossil fuels that has the added menaces of poisoning groundwater, causing earthquakes, releasing methane, and injecting toxic wastewater underground, to name a few among the ever-growing hydra heads. And of course they argued to 100 that we should be moving toward green energy instead of pursuing new forms of fossil fuels.
Once the Democrats had taken the lead, the Republicans still did not try to reframe and argue to 100—nobody knew (or knows) what ideal they stand for, and they were unwilling to challenge the Democrats’ ideal. Instead, Republicans tried to mitigate or refute the specific charges on these specific issues. But even if this worked, what would be the best-case scenario on the scale of -100 to 100? It would be 0—people would think of fracking as nothing. If your best-case scenario is 0, you have a problem.
And once the anti-fossil fuel framework is accepted, it is impossible to get anywhere near zero—because Republicans are defending new fossil fuel development while working within the anti-fossil fuel framework.
The Republicans’ seemingly positive arguments for fracking—like jobs and tax revenues and lower electricity bills—are also forms of arguing to zero. Since all of these benefits can theoretically be produced by the ideal form of energy, green energy, the Republican argument amounts to: fossil fuels are a temporarily necessary evil because green energy isn’t yet practical. Since Democrats also agree that there needs to be a transition time, the Republicans aren’t counter-arguing on a framework or a principle but on an expiration date. They are trying to argue the Democrats’ green energy policies down to 0 from 100, offering nothing positive of their own.
And since the Republicans’ concede the Democrats’ framework, including its claim that fossil fuels are causing long-term destruction, the Democrats have an easy argument that they are being practical by preventing the worst thing of all: the destruction of the planet we live on. And thus they have the moral high ground to condemn Republicans as “delayers and deniers.”
So long as this dynamic exists, the restriction of fossil fuels will continue and Democrats will continue to have energy as a winning issue—to the detriment of all.
Challenging the Democrats’ ideal: humanism and the moral case for fossil fuels
The Republicans’ energy strategy is bankrupt. So far, we have discussed why it is rhetorically impractical. But more fundamentally, it is immoral. If Republicans are going to concede that anti-fossil fuel ideal then they should take ideas seriously and help Democrats dismantle our fossil-fueled civilization. But if they think there’s something wrong with that course of action, then they should try to figure out the right ideal, the one they can confidently and compellingly stand behind.
What is that ideal?
In naming an energy or environmental ideal, it is essential to recognize that an energy or environmental ideal is not a primary—it depends on the more fundamental question: What is the overall ideal we should strive for, in energy, environment, and everything else?
My answer is: the overall ideal is to maximize human well-being. While most Americans would agree with this ideal if and when it was made explicit, this ideal is almost never made explicit—and it is not driving our energy debate whatsoever. The ideal that is actually driving our debate without being noticed, the ideal that underlies the anti-fossil fuel ideal, is the ideal of minimizing human impact—which I will discuss in the next section.
In The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, I explore the benefits and costs of fossil fuels and other forms of energy with maximizing human well-being as the moral standard. Here is a quick recap.
To reach the right conclusion on what to do about energy, we need to be clear on our moral goal, our standard of value—and that the right standard of value is maximizing human well-being rather than the environmentalist standard of minimizing human impact. If we look at the big picture, both positives and negatives, of fossil fuels by the standard of maximizing human well-being, we find that short-term and long-term they improve every aspect of life by increasing mankind’s ability to use machines—including our capacity to make a naturally dirty environment far cleaner and our capacity to make a naturally dangerous climate far safer.
If we look at the risks and side-effects of fossil fuel use, we see that they are incomparably smaller than the benefits. This is also true for other forms of cheap, plentiful, reliable energy such as nuclear and hydroelectric. Thus, short-term and long-term, the energy policy ideal is energy liberation.
The evil ideal underlying the attack on fossil fuels
If the moral case for fossil fuels and energy liberation flows from a humanist standard of value, where does the moral case against fossil fuels and energy liberation flow from?
It flows from one of the most popular moral ideals of our era, the ideal of being “green”—minimizing our impact on the planet. This ideal is completely contrary to human well-being. Despite claims that human beings live on a nurturing but fragile planet that we must tread lightly on to survive, nature does not give us a good standard of living; we need to create it by dramatically impacting—transforming—nature. In doing so, we want to maximize human well-being, which means minimizing human-harming impacts—but we want to make as much impact on the planet as necessary.
When fossil fuels are discussed, the green standard is invariably applied by both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans regularly accept the minimizing impact ideal left and right, whether by accepting “renewable” (vs. life-enhancing) as an ideal—or by obsessing over every exaggeration of our climate impact but spending no time celebrating our climate mastery—or by calling more attention to the birds killed by wind turbines than the people who would be killed if we had to rely on wind turbines.
Both sides agree: the ideal is to find the form of energy that has as little “environmental impact” as possible. This is an application of the green ideal: to minimize our impact on the planet. This must be rejected and replaced with the ideals of human well-being (or human progress) and energy liberation. Those are the real ideals, and those can be used to rapidly win hearts and minds.
Reframing the debate
Whenever I discuss any energy and environmental issue with anyone, near the very beginning I make sure to ask: “Would you agree that our goal here is to find the policy that will maximize human well-being? Would you agree that we need to look carefully at all the costs and all the benefits to get to the right answer?” It’s often necessary to bring up the non-impact issue explicitly: “Would you agree that to maximize our well-being we need to impact the world in all kinds of ways and that impact is not a bad thing but often a good thing? That we just want to minimize impacts that harm us?”
That reframing may seem simple or go unnoticed, but the resulting framework changes everything.
If we reframe the debate, making our ideals explicit, we can both win supporters and champions of the right policies, and expose the evil and anti-humanism of the wrong policies.
We have seen some of the power of defining the ideal and arguing to 100 at work in the few instances where the Republicans articulate anything remotely positive. For example, in the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans’ mild support for fossil fuels was a political asset, not a liability.
A prime reason was the ideal of “energy independence” (or “energy security”)—a vague and problematic ideal (it has anti-free trade implications, which go against energy freedom) but an ideal nonetheless. While in previous elections Democrats had often owned this ideal, the shale energy revolution and America’s rapid energy rise made it clear that in supporting fossil fuels one was supporting American industry and American economic security, and that the Democrats were clearly against this. The Keystone XL pipeline provided another example. (Note that we are still in a sorry state when the only confident stand Republicans can take is about one specific pipeline, and many of the arguments they use involve it not increasing CO2 emissions.)
The energy independence/security ideal, while being a net benefit in recent years for energy/economic freedom, does not solve the fundamental problem of the anti-fossil fuel ideal. Democrats still confidently rail against fossil fuels and Hillary Clinton can run as an idealist who will move the world forward by “fighting climate change.” It is quite possible she will do this through a combination of short-term concessions to American energy development as well as “promising investments in American renewable energy,” to claim the energy independence issue, while passing policies and signing treaties that will destroy energy freedom over the next several decades.
But while advocating energy independence doesn’t solve the fundamental energy problem, it illustrates the power of solving it by reframing the debate with a new ideal.
The framework in action; the good hydra
Framing the debate with maximizing human well-being as the ideal enables us to better reach the truth—and for that reason it makes it far, far easier to persuade others of the truth—in every issue and sub-issue. When made explicit, this ideal is compelling to the vast majority of people, much more so than the anti-impact ideal (or no ideal). It transforms our view of fossil fuels (and energy liberation) from self-destructive addiction to life-enhancing technology. The person who advocates this ideal conveys deep confidence and obvious sincerity.
The thousands of notes I have received about the moral case for fossil fuels reflect these dynamics. For example, an Obama supporter wrote me: “I am a lifelong Democrat and a strong Obama supporter. I especially liked the way you framed the issues using an identified standard (human life and prosperity), a consideration of both the risks and benefits of fossil fuels and their alternatives.” Notice that he specifically mentioned reframing the issue on a different moral standard (ideal).
Recall how the green ideal inexorably leads to the anti-fossil fuel ideal, which inexorably leads to a hydra of policies to fulfill that ideal. This is logical because once we have an ideal and an evil, we naturally look at ways in which the world doesn’t measure up and try to move in the direction of the ideal. For example, the anti-fossil fuel ideal observes that fracking is a new form of fossil fuel extraction, labels it bad, looks for things wrong with it, and seeks policies to stop it. If CO2 is bad, one looks for way after way of opposing it: Kyoto protocol, cap and trade, CO2 tax. On the positive side, one looks for ways to promote green energy: state renewable mandates, federal renewable fuel standard, international commitments, etc.
Here is the good news: the power of an ideal to inexorably shape other realms is true for any ideal that gains a following. It is certainly true for the right ideal. If the ideal is to maximize human well-being and human progress by empowering ourselves and billions of people around the world, we will naturally look for ways of doing that—and for things that are getting in the way. We will see enormous potential in coal deposits that are going unutilized—in pipelines that could be built—in nuclear power plants that could be built if not for the technophobic opposition—in shale that could be used to create wealth—in energy jobs that could exist. In short, we see opportunity—to move toward the ideal and fight anything that moves us away from it.
By the same token, if we hold the pro-human framework we see Democrats’ policies in a very different light. We don’t see them as potentially legitimate ways of achieving an ideal. We see them as negative, as obstacles toward our ideal of progress. Just as they call us “deniers and delayers,” that is how we view them: they are denying the value of energy (and the right of people to pursue it) and delaying the revolution we want to bring about.
When anti-fracking policies come up, the reaction is not: Maybe that’s a good idea, let’s prove that nothing can ever go wrong with fracking. It’s: We are creating this amazing energy revolution and technophobes are trying to hold it back. Suddenly, the dozens of proposals that seemed progressive are all revealed to be roadblocks that, at best, take legitimate issues and abuse them to stop progress.
Reframing the energy debate in human terms is the key to effective messaging. And the key vehicle for delivering such messaging is a positive, inspiring platform.
Changing the political debate with a positive, inspiring energy platform
A “platform,” as I am using the term, is a vision of what policy could be and should be, including a set of specific policy prescriptions, ideally rooted in a coherent set of principles, that will lead to great results.
Platforms are rare these days. What we usually find in lieu of platforms are sets of concrete talking points in response to “issues.” For example, a Republican candidate will have some talking points about “climate change,” about Keystone XL, about coal, etc.
This is invariably reactive. If we ask what determines the issues, the answer is overwhelmingly the ideal of getting off fossil fuels (and minimizing impact) combined with where we happen to be economically and politically. And nobody is inspired by talking points. The purpose of talking points is usually to score some mild approval points with supporters while not alienating non-supporters. The overall impact is to inspire no one and make everyone cynical.
The problem with the lack of a platform was powerfully illustrated in the debate over the moral atrocity of Obamacare. Obama had a (seemingly) clear policy based on a clear ideal: health care for all, based on the ideal of the right of all to healthcare. The Republicans had endless arguments as to why Obamacare was bad—the term “Obamacare” being one of them—but where was the proactive, positive, inspiring policy based on a compelling moral ideal? It has been nowhere for a quarter of a century. Voters concluded that a bad policy is better than no policy.
A platform doesn’t react to what people happen to feel about issues they have thought very little about; it connects with people’s core values and tries to move them on the issues.
Here are some basic elements I think belong in any proper platform:
- A moral ideal: Maximizing human well-being and human progress.
- An energy policy ideal: Energy freedom—enabling human ingenuity to produce as much cheap, plentiful, reliable energy as possible, while protecting the rights of all.
- Core principles for achieving that ideal: Property rights, pro-development, science-based health and safety standards.
- Specific policy opportunities for moving toward that ideal.
- Answers to common objections to energy freedom, such as climate change-related arguments for fossil fuel restrictions.
- Actions supporters can take.
One platform I hope candidates draw from is the America’s Energy Opportunity platform, which shows the connection between energy freedom and eight crucial issues:
- Jump-start the American economy.
- Create millions of well-paying job opportunities.
- Lower your cost of living.
- Increase our industrial competitiveness.
- Shrink the deficit.
- Increase national security.
- Fight global poverty.
- Improve environmental quality worldwide.
The platform is based on five key principles for maximizing energy progress and protecting health and safety.
- Energy lawmakers have a right and responsibility to protect the rights, health, and safety of Americans using demonstrated science, not speculated, unproved assertions and predictions.
- Energy consumers have the right to choose the forms of energy they judge best; the government should not force them to use expensive, unreliable forms of energy.
- Energy producers have a right to produce every kind of energy source so long as they protect health and safety; the government should not pick winners and losers.
- Energy transporters have a right to build the infrastructure necessary to get energy where it is needed; the government should not stop projects unless they provably threaten health and safety.
- Energy innovators have a right to pursue and harness energy in new ways, such as new nuclear and fracking technologies; the government should not restrict development based on unproven fears.
2016 is a once-in-a-generation energy election and it is headed on the wrong track; the Republicans have barely discussed energy and the Democrats are competing with one another on how much they can restrict energy–Hillary Clinton wants to allow barely any oil and gas development from shale (aka “fracking”) and Bernie Sanders claims superiority by promising to ban all of it.
If you believe that the principles of energy freedom are right, and if you believe that we need a positive, inspiring platform for energy freedom, please share this with your favorite politicians and candidates–and, if they take the right positions, volunteer to help them spread the message. I will do the same; if any pro-energy campaigns need help with their platform and messaging, whether on fossil fuels or nuclear or fracking or climate change, I volunteer.