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Anatomy of a Debate: Rejecting Renewable Energy at ECONOMIST Magazine (Part I)

By Jon Boone -- December 13, 2011

“Arguments have no chance against petrified training; they wear it as little as the waves wear a cliff.”

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Last month, The Economist magazine conducted a two-week Oxford style online debate over the proposition “that subsidizing renewable energy is a good way to wean the world off fossil fuels.”

“Renewable” in the case is really politically correct renewables: basically wind power, with some solar and a bit of of biofuel/geothermal thrown in.

Matthias Fripp, a research fellow for the Environmental Change Institute and Oxford’s Exeter College, defended the motion, while Robert L. Bradley Jr., founder and CEO of the Institute for Energy Research, argued against. Three comments by Jeremy Carl , Travis Bradford , and Ben Goldsmith each played to the premise that government energy policy had to displace fossil fuels.

The Economist’s James Astill, the magazine’s energy and environmental editor, and a decided climate alarmist/energy transformationist, moderated the discussion.

On November 18, Astill (reluctantly) announced the winner: the opposition (Bradley) with 52% of the vote. Turnout was high, with the total votes more than doubling the pre-debate estimate of 6,000.

An Upset Victory

Readers can follow the to-ing and fro-ing of the debate, while perusing the various comments from people around the world and drawing their own conclusions about the merits of the argument. However, the wording of Astill’s brief announcement, barnacled with non-sequiturs and the audacity of hope, barely disguised his disappointment over the outcome.

The Economist, indeed, has been promoting renewables for many years. The magazine cheered Enron’s ecopork, particularly when this company became a founding member of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change’s Business Environmental Leadership Council.

The Economist has been handwringing over global warming even as the sloganeering shifted to Climate Change. Moderator Astill distilled the magazine’s supercilious editorial stance that a surfeit of CO2 from fossil-fuel dependence is turning the world into a too-hellish place.

It is a tribute to Bradley and discerning voters, and not to mention many perceptive comments (of the 450 in all), that the opposition prevailed if the face of the home bias.

The upset occurred despite:

  1. The magazine’s formal position (the affirmative) that fossil-fuel energy reliance is unsustainable and that renewable energy was a viable alternative to fossil fuels;
  2. A moderator who was taken aback by the opposition’s challenge to the debate’s premise that fossil fuels and thus anthropogenic global warming (AGW) was bad;
  3. Three invited analyses that all were in line with the affirmative.

It was business-as-usual at The Economist, in other words, except that the voters and from-the-floor comments rebelled at both the problem and the solution.

Why the upset? One reason is the growing realization that green energy is really form over substance. Bjørn Lomborg, for example, who has proposed a $250 billion renewable-energy aid program, recently argued:

Many politicians are drawn to photo opportunities and lofty rhetoric about “building a green economy.” Unfortunately, the green-energy policies currently being pursued are not helping the environment or the economy. More likely, they will lead to greater emissions in China, more outsourcing to India, and lower growth rates for the well-intentioned “green” countries.

Lomborg is surely correct about this. But he should reexamine his own support of renewables in light not only of their failure everywhere to achieve expected policy goals but also because of the way their typically looming presence has sparked widespread and growing community/environmental opposition.
Considering the debate vote, the reasons supporting the outcome, and a burgeoning recognition that renewables are welcome in no one’s backyard, perhaps what has been labeled politically incorrect is becoming downright politically respectable, needing only a Reaganesque leader to remove, once again, those solar panels from the White House roof.

Astill’s Hedge

Although he acknowledged that renewables subsidies themselves represent waste, moderator Astill nonetheless hedged: the waste, he wrote, may stem, “perhaps,” from the subsidies’ inadequacy, implying that higher subsidies—more dollars from the federal treasury—might carry the day.

He reinforced this notion by intoning, in the usual moderator wishy-washy, that renewables “may have a role in a multi-pronged policy”—the same position that Fripp, Rick Perry, the unquenchable Newt Gingrich, and President Obama argue.

This has also been the American Wind Energy Association’s fallback when successfully challenged on wind’s inability to do much about CO2 abatement or to serve as a replacement for fossil fuels. The gist is that “every little bit,” including renewables, “helps.”

This fallacy will be exposed in Part II of this post tomorrow.


  1. Anatomy of a Debate: Rejecting Renewable Energy at ECONOMIST Magazine Part I — MasterResource « Montana Law Blog  

    […] Anatomy of a Debate: Rejecting Renewable Energy at ECONOMIST Magazine Part I — MasterResource. […]


  2. Kent Hawkins  

    This is a welcome and well-stated critique of the Economist debate. I tend not to spend time with these types of forums, but did so in part because it was the Economist that was hosting it. I was very disappointed, especially by the quality and obvious bias of the remarks of the moderator and special guests. Jon Boone has summarized this very well.

    I did follow this debate over the period of about a week, supplied my own comments, but did not read all the others. I did note some obviously well-informed viewpoints by the “audience”.

    In summary we should expect better from such a publication as the Economist.


  3. Charles Battig  

    You omitted VA Governor Bob McDonnell from the “multiprong” gang; his version labeled as”All of the Above” covers anything that produces energy, thereby appeasing all energy contenders. My letter in the Dec.12, 2011 Richmond-Times is appended here as it covers his approach..


    Published: December 12, 2011
    Home / news / opinion / mailbag /
    Correspondent of the Day
    By Times-Dispatch Staff
    Be thankful offshore wind hasn’t taken off
    Editor, Times-Dispatch:
    As the year draws to a close, it is appropriate to look back and give thanks for our mixed blessings such as the recent Dominion Virginia Power (DVP) electric-rate determinations by the State Corporation Commission.
    Consumers are thankful that a meager 10.9 percent will have to suffice as a DVP profit margin rather than the 12.5 percent requested. They should be thankful that the half-percentage-point incentive for meeting the state’s renewable energy target was not larger. This relic from former Gov. Tim Kaine’s 2007 energy plan lives on as part of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “all-of-the-above” 2010 Virginia Energy Plan. Section 6 of that document is sprinkled with the language of government favoritism and distortions of the free-market process for energy. Renewable portfolio standards and renewable electric-generating facilities are matched with legislated “enhanced rates of return” to participating utilities. There is a biofuels production incentive fund and income tax credits for undefined green jobs. Grants are offered for manufacturers producing solar panels in Virginia (son of Solyndra?). The Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority stands ready to “assist development of an offshore wind industry in Virginia.”
    Consumers can be thankful that the offshore wind industry has not taken off. The April 2011 Energy Information Administration’s levelized cost estimate for offshore wind is 25 cents per kWh, even more than solar at 22 cents per kWh. Traditional coal? 10 cents per kWh. Consumers would be on the hook to pay exorbitant energy costs to support politically favored industries.
    Consumers should be thankful that current Republican members of Congress and some presidential candidates have seen the folly of governmental subsidies for energy. Crony capitalism is a dirty word these days. The political aspirations of McDonnell are burdened by “all-of-the-above” -” just ask Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
    Charles Battig.
    Richmond Times-Dispatch © Copyright 2011 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC. A Media General company.


  4. Jon Boone  

    Nice letter, Charles. Crony policy is now so widespread that it is impossible to separate where government ends and corporate enterprise begins, since there is such a revolving door among politicians, their staff, executive branch patronage appointees, and an array of businesses and corporate boards, particularly in the energy sector. Politicians like McDonnell, O’ Malley, Christie, Perry, Gingrich, Grassley, Palin, Bachmann, Crapo, Obama, Clinton, Brown, Bush W, Romney–all renewables boosters–are, in the Biblical sense, legion…. We should all work to cast them out, as Peter Schweizer urges: http://www.amazon.com/Throw-Them-All-Peter-Schweizer/dp/0547573146.


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