A Free-Market Energy Blog

Anatomy of a Debate: When Renewables ‘Lost’ at The Economist

By Jon Boone -- January 15, 2018

“This house believes that subsidizing renewable energy is a good way to wean the world off fossil fuels.”

– ECONOMIST magazine, Online debate, November 8–18, 2011

[Ed. Note: Six years ago, the prestigious Economist magazine held an on-line debate on the future of energy policy. Despite a loaded affirmative motion (above), an upset victory was achieved with 8,916 votes opposed and 8,346 in favor of the proposition. The third most votes of 92 such debates, 70,000 visits produced 448 comments. Jon Boone’s writeup of the debate is reproduced below.]

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 this 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 that 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 in 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.”

Part II of Boone’s 2011 writeup on this debate, in which he makes his own case against the affirmative, is here.


  1. TinyCO2  

    I find the ‘every little helps’ attitude extremely annoying as it’s patently not true. Wasting large amounts of money, raw materials, manpower and public goodwill on something that doesn’t make much difference is madness. Just the lost opportunity to use those things for something more practical is a crime. Those are scarce resources and if they fritter them, they won’t be there if/when there is an alternative that does reduce CO2 (assuming it needs to be reduced). It gives politicians the sense that they’re achieving something, when they’re not.


  2. Sean  

    I’ve always wondered if the renewable debate and the immigration debate are simply two sides of the same coin trying to balance global economic development. Renewables in developed countries created economic opportunities in under developed countries such as China, India, Vietnam and others. Liberal immigration creates economic opportunity for the third world poor at a better life in the developed world. The balance however often come at the expense of wage pressure on blue collar hourly workers and lead to populist uprisings.


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