A line-by-line response to Fred Hiatt's pro-oil, anti-Sanders climate op-ed

The Post's editorial board editor strikes again with another anti-Sanders climate piece, and I strike again with my opinions about it.

Last week, I criticized the Washington Post’s editorial board for irresponsible climate opinion writing. I thought the board suffered from cognitive dissonance, because it would often say climate change was a massive problem, while arguing the policies needed to solve climate change were unrealistic.

I also argued that the Post editorial board suffered on climate in part because it was led by Fred Hiatt—a journalist with a history of allowing climate misinformation to be published in the name of spirited debate. For over 10 years, Hiatt has been criticized by progressives for publishing columns that contain verifiably false information about climate science. Hiatt has consistently defended his decision to do this, even though he believes climate change represents an existential crisis. In 2014, Hiatt told Media Matters that the debate over climate science is “healthy.”

Now, Hiatt has published another controversial climate column under his own byline. It’s called “How Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both reject the reality of climate change,” and it bashes the Democratic presidential frontrunner for not wanting to work with the oil industry to solve the climate crisis.

I had such a visceral line-by-line reaction while reading the piece that I decided to write my analysis as a series of chronological responses to each paragraph or set of paragraphs. That means the entire Post op-ed is below, and so are my responses. The sentences from Fred Hiatt’s piece are in bold. My responses are in non-bold.

Enjoy.

The survival of our planet as we know it is in danger.

Strong start.

We have at hand a bipartisan, rigorous plan to address that danger.

We do?

And now it is more than possible that we will end up with two presidential candidates who reject that plan in favor of two varieties of utter unseriousness.

I have been covering climate change in D.C. for over six years and I have never seen this plan that adequately addresses climate change and is bipartisan, but we should definitely preserve it if it exists. Please proceed.

The first is the denialism of President Trump. He either believes or cynically pretends to believe that climate change is not a threat. His administration has gravely aggravated the threat, for example by recklessly relaxing regulation of the super-warming gas methane.

Ugh, so true. He bad.

The second version is the fantasy extremism of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Not entirely sure I’d put Sanders and Trump on the same level of “unseriousness” when it comes to climate change, but OK.

Why is Sanders just as bad as Trump on climate?

He would prosecute oil executives “for the destruction they have knowingly caused” (he “welcomes their hatred”) and phase out carbon-neutral nuclear power.

Wait. Do you … not think oil executives have knowingly caused climate destruction?

Have you read InsideClimate News’s investigation into what oil companies knew about climate change, and when they knew it? It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, which I’d think you might respect, since you are a Pulitzer Prize finalist yourself.

I get that you might oppose Sanders anti-nuclear position. That’s a legitimate debate to be had. But the anti-accountability thing is just weird, especially coming from a journalist.

What else about Bernie Sanders makes him just as bad as Trump?

The Vermont independent would ban the fracking of natural gas, which is — if you control the methane emissions — a useful transitional fuel from dirty coal to clean wind and solar.

Useful for what? Because we’re rapidly running out of time to meet the goals of the Paris agreement.

If we’re to meet those goals and avoid lots of truly insane climate consequences, the transitional fuel we need is renewable fuel, not fossil fuels. There is no room for new fossil fuel development in those goals. If we keep extracting natural gas, we will break the carbon budget—even if we control methane leaks.

Also, you know Sanders’ plan doesn’t ban fracking immediately, right? It takes five years, and includes a worker transition plan.

I’m starting to feel like you might not understand the science about what truly avoiding climate catastrophe requires. But tell me more about why Bernie Sanders is the climate anti-Christ.

As though by magic, Sanders’s proposals will “dramatically decrease the cost of energy storage” and (why not?) make electricity “virtually free” after 2035 (though, sadly, we would still have to pay for “operations and maintenance costs”). All fossil fuels will be gone by 2030, the renewable energy that takes its place will be “publicly owned,” and — not to worry — the plan “will pay for itself over 15 years.”

Man, if you’re this upset about how much it might cost to solve climate change, I can’t wait to see how outraged you are about how costly climate change will be to the economy and to vulnerable communities.

Why don’t you think this plan will work?

Unfortunately, there is no magic wand to make such things happen, as Patrick Pouyanné told me last week. Pouyanné is one of those people whose hatred Sanders might welcome; he is chairman and chief executive of Paris-based Total, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies.

Bro.

PLEASE DON’T TELL ME YOU ARE ABOUT TO SHAPE YOUR OPINION ON CLIMATE POLICY FROM A DUDE WHO PROFITS FROM DELAYING CLIMATE POLICY.

On a recent visit to Washington, ­Pouyanné himself did not seem particularly hateful; on the contrary.

Well I’m glad he was nice to you.

Unlike the U.S. president, he has no doubt that climate change is real and “a huge challenge for mankind.”

Wow. Revolutionary.

“I believe the scientists,” he said, and he favors a global (and corporate) evolution away from fossil fuels. He wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency to oppose Trump’s methane regulation rollback.

A fossil fuel executive who believes scientists? And supports not destroying the planet? And wrote a letter?

I’m sure this has everything to do with Total’s deep and true desire to decarbonize society and solve climate change, and nothing to do with the fact that oil companies stocks are tanking due to the divestment movement, so they’re working hard to regain their “societal license to operate” by acting climate-friendly.

Anyway. So you’re saying this Big Oil CEO wants to solve climate change. But I’m guessing this guy has a problem with Sanders’ plan to phase out fossil fuels, right? Why is that?

As an executive doing business in many countries, however, he is aware of some realities:

● Eighty percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels.

● Despite growing awareness, and the Paris accord, last year, coal use increased and forests (the best means to pull carbon out of the atmosphere) shrank.

● Close to 1 billion of the world’s 7 billion people have no access to electricity, and their governments are not going to be satisfied with that situation.

● When it comes to energy, every nation is concerned first with the security of supply; second with the cost of supply; and only third with its ­cleanliness.

● The technology does not exist today to allow a system to rely only on intermittent sources of energy such as wind and sunshine.

● Climate change is a global challenge, “and we do not have a global government.”

Pouyanné said a U.S. ban on fracking — or the jailing of oil executives, for that matter — would have little impact on climate change. Why? Because much of the world’s oil is located in poorer countries that depend desperately on oil exports, and they will gladly make up any shortfall.

“Change will not come from changing the source of supply,” he said. “You have to reduce demand.”

Wow. I barely even know where to begin with this.

Some of these “realities” you and your oil company CEO best friend describe are extremely misleading. For example, when you say, “The technology does not exist today to allow a system to rely only on intermittent sources of energy such as wind and sunshine”—we all know this. But neither Bernie Sanders nor any Democratic candidate is promising to immediately switch the entire world to intermittent renewable sources tomorrow, using the technology we have today. Every Democratic candidates’ climate plan invests heavily in new technology, and transitions the economy over time.

And when you say, “Close to 1 billion of the world’s 7 billion people have no access to electricity, and their governments are not going to be satisfied with that situation”—what “situation” are you talking about? Because no one is proposing that those 7 billion people don’t get to have electricity if we solve climate change. Why are you implying they are?

There’s more that could be said here, but here’s the core problem with this list of “realities:” They are excuses from an oil company CEO about why his company should continue profiting from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, despite the well-established science that says the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels will devastate ecosystems, destroy economies, and kill millions of people.

When Total’s CEO says we should focus on “demand,” not “supply,” he’s saying his company shouldn’t be held responsible for destroying the planet, and that everyone else should. When he says jailing oil executives and banning fracking won’t work, he’s speaking entirely in his own self-interest—and giving more excuses about why it’s just not possible to do what’s necessary to solve climate change.

And when you, Fred Hiatt, Pulitzer Prize finalist editor of the Washington Post editorial section, just sit there and nod your head, you fail in your responsibility as a journalist. You fail to challenge a powerful executive on his own self-interest. You fail to question his commitment to solving a problem that will primarily devastate the vulnerable. With no evidence of good-faith, you take him at his word. You play directly into the fossil fuel industry’s hands. Good boy.

Now, what is this bipartisan, “rigorous” climate plan you mentioned?

Which brings us back to the plan, put forward this month by the Climate Leadership Council, that would actually work. Supported by energy companies (including Total) and environmental groups alike, it would impose a steadily rising tax on carbon. That would lead to reduced consumption and increased innovation in alternatives, including battery storage for solar and wind power. To get buy-in from industry, the plan would do away with a lot of regulation — but only so long as emissions were, in fact, going down.

By imposing a tariff on imports from countries without similar carbon taxes, the plan would pressure those countries to follow suit. And the tax would be politically palatable, because every dollar would be returned in equal shares to taxpayers — with 70 percent of U.S. households ending up better off.

“A carbon tax offers the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary,” several thousand economists, including virtually every prominent economist to have served in Democratic or Republican administrations, said in a statement.

When you say this plan will “work,” what do you mean? Because while a carbon tax alone may in fact be part of the solution, it is not, in itself a climate plan. Alone, a carbon tax will not “work” to reduce emissions as rapidly as we need to prevent death and destruction from climate change. This is not a controversial thing to say. It is Kindergarten-level stuff in the climate policy world.

Perhaps you mean you think this particular carbon tax will “work” because energy companies and some Republicans support it, as well as some Democrats. But this plan barely has any Republican support in Congress. And here’s another Kindergarten-level climate policy fact: every time we’ve tried to pass a meaningful climate bill that was supported by big, polluting industries, it died—in part because those big, polluting industries themselves refused to compromise.

Vox’s Dave Roberts said it best: The carbon tax policy proposal you cite is “first and foremost a bid by oil and gas and nuclear to secure the gentlest and most predictable possible energy transition.” It is not, first and foremost, a plan to protect people from climate change.

Now, I’m not saying a carbon tax might not be good as part of a climate plan. But to promote it as a “plan” in itself is irresponsible, because it isn’t. Indeed, Fred, you seem reluctant to admit that an effective plan to solve climate change requires us to stop burning and extracting fossil fuels, quickly. Perhaps you should consider why this is; and consider whether the reason is the same reason you gave climate science deniers space to spread lies in the Washington Post editorial section for so long.

It should be encouraging, then, that when The Post asked the Democratic candidates whether they would support setting a price on carbon, almost all either said yes (Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer) or maybe (Elizabeth Warren). There were two naysayers: ­Tulsi Gabbard and Sanders.

It should be encouraging, but it won’t be — if both parties end up with nominees who each, in his own way, rejects reality.

I would think it should be encouraging to have any nominee that truly prioritizes solving the climate crisis. But you seem to fear Sanders more than you fear the actual climate crisis, or the oil industry executives who lied about it for their own financial gain for so long. This is a far more dangerous rejection of reality.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

If you liked today’s issue, please feel free to forward it to a friend. If you would like to post a comment, click the “view comments” button below:

View comments

If you’ve been forwarded this email, and you’d like to support the spread of independent journalism that focuses on the powerful, become a subscriber today:

As always, remember to stay hydrated, and I’ll see you tomorrow!