Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Consumer Energy Report

The big money of environmentalism

Climate change is a huge concern, but misguided attacks won't solve the issue, and the environmental movement is more financially motivated than some of its proponents would like us to think.

By Robert RapierGuest blogger / July 28, 2012

In this November 2011 file photo, photovoltaic modules and a windmill of the wind farm are seen in the village of Feldheim near Berlin. Rapier argues that climate change shouldn't be used as an excuse to spread misinformation and make a quick buck.

Michael Sohn/AP/File


I want to preface this column by saying that I am very concerned about climate change. The rapid growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide shows no sign of abating, and I have concerns over what this will ultimately mean for the climate. The fact is that we are conducting a global experiment with the atmosphere, and predictions of severe consequences as a result should be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Skip to next paragraph

Our mission is to provide clear, objective information about the important energy issues facing the world, address and correct misconceptions, and to actively engage readers and exchange ideas. For more great energy coverage, visit Energy Trends Insider.

Recent posts

Having said that, I think it is important to maintain a healthy scientific discourse on the matter. “The science is settled” is just not a statement that I am comfortable with, and I am uncomfortable labeling those who question climate change with something that evokes comparisons with Holocaust denial.

Without a doubt, some of the attacks against climate science are ignorance-based. But some of those challenges and questions are by sincere people — sometimes scientists — who doubt the science in the same way that there have always been skeptics in science. In most cases the small band of skeptics is wrong, but sometimes they overturn entrenched paradigms. Those skeptics should be engaged on the basis of science, and not politics or personal animosity. (Hint: If your willingness to accept the conclusions of a report is based on whether it agrees with your position, then your position isn’t based on science nor is it objective — regardless of which side you are on).

So, in a nutshell I accept that accumulating carbon dioxide has the potential to change the climate — and may very well be doing so now — but I believe skeptics should be engaged scientifically rather than shouted down. On the flip side, I believe skeptics must engage on the basis of the science and not engage in ad hominem attacks.

Not all skeptics are idiots. But not all proponents are well-informed, as I show in today’s column.

 Organized Environmentalists are Often Naive

I have always considered myself an environmentalist, in that 1). I care about the environment; 2). I want to protect and preserve our wildlife; 3). I try to promote sustainability; and 4). I try to minimize my impact on the environment in my personal life. I recycle, drive a fuel efficient car, grow a portion of my family’s food, walk or bike when I can, etc.

However, the “environmental movement” has often come to represent something I do not wish to associate myself with, because it often appears to me to be synonymous with willful ignorance. Certainly, many (if not all) who would characterize themselves as being a part of this movement are sincere and caring people who believe their actions are just, warranted, and effective. But far too often their actions are based upon misinformation.

An example of just how misinformed this group is can be seen in the recent “Twitter storm” against fossil fuel subsidies. The Guardian described the campaign: Activists hail success of Twitter storm against fossil fuel subsidies

Climate and anti-poverty activists have launched a 24-hour “Twitter storm” against the hundreds of billions of dollars of government subsidies paid each year to the petroleum and coal industry, despite the global economic downturn and the rise in emissions. The blitz, which has been supported by Stephen Fry, Robert Redford, actor Mark Ruffalo, politicians and environmentalists, took the hash tag #endfossilfuelsubsidies up to number two in the ranking of globally trending topics and number one in the US.

“This world has a few problems where a trillion dollars might come in handy – and we’d have a few less problems if we weren’t paying the fossil fuel industry to wreck the climate,” said founder Bill McKibben. “This is the public policy no-brainer of all time.”

As I will show here, there is great irony in the fact that anti-poverty activists were actively involved, and a great deal of misinformation along the lines of McKibben’s claim that we are “paying the fossil fuel industry to wreck the climate.” Incidentally, McKibben is the friend of a good friend of mine. My friend – who walks the talk because he lives the life of an environmentalist – described McKibben to me as a caring and sincere human being, but said that he is “in error”, that “environmentalists don’t understand energy,” and that “I suspect they are naive, well-intended idealists.” So please don’t misconstrue this as a personal attack on McKibben. I just believe he is wrong.

Fossil Fuel Subsidy Numbers: Full of Misinformation

The source that McKibben and company relied upon for the claim that $750 billion or $1 trillion of fossil fuel subsidies is being paid out each year is Oil Change International. (I know this because I asked). The site claims $775 billion in global annual fossil fuel subsidies — a number that was repeated often during the Twitter storm — and they said the number was “quite possibly higher.” Naturally advocates went with the “quite possibly higher” number, which is the source of the $1 trillion claim.

Here is the irony. Of the total of $775 billion, $630 billion was for “Consumption Subsidies in Developing Countries” and another $45 billion was for “Consumption Subsidies in Developed Countries.” In contrast to McKibben’s claim that these are handouts to the fossil fuel industry, they are overwhelmingly handouts to poor people so they can afford fuel. Examples of these subsidies are Venezuela’s policy of keeping gasoline prices very low for consumers, and the Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in the U.S. that liberals have staunchly defended. Thus, you have anti-poverty activists and liberals arguing to eliminate programs they actually staunchly support because they are ignorant of what these subsidies actually entail.

Of course some will argue (and indeed have argued with me) that these aren’t really fossil fuel subsidies, and that isn’t what they are against. The problem is that LIHEAP, for instance, is mentioned by name as a fossil fuel subsidy and the amount spent on that program is included in the total. Thus, 87% of the total subsidies being cited are directed at making energy more affordable for consumers. A fossil fuel subsidy? Sure, and one that results in increased fossil fuel consumption. A “massive giveaway to Big Oil” which is how the issue has been framed? No, and by constantly framing the issue as such people are being grossly misinformed.

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer


Doing Good


What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!