Recent American Public Opinion.

Iran. In March 2015, 68 percent of Americans approved of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Broadly, we can see the effects of the Iraq war on the public mind. Most people favored negotiations over the risk of war. What is remarkable is the degree to which the words and actions of leaders have had a disruptive effect in spite of this broad consensus.

First, Americans seem to have arrived at an “a plague on both your houses” attitude to the Obama-Netanyahu conflict. In March 2015, only 38 percent had a favorable view of Netanyahu, while 27 had an unfavorable view of the Israeli prime minister. In April 2015, only 37 percent approved of the Prime Minister’s handling of relations with the United States. However, only 38 percent approved of President Obama’s handling of relations with Israel.[1] In many eyes, it has begun to look like a personal dispute, rather than an affair of state.

Second, a sharp partisan division had begun to manifest itself in attitudes toward Netanyahu. In the March 2015 poll, 53 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of Netanyahu, while only 28 percent of Democrats had a favorable view. Doubtless, this division of views reflected the invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress that had been schemed-up by the Republican leadership and the Israeli ambassador, the former-American and former- Republican activist Ron Dermer. That isn’t the same as saying that American attitudes toward Israel itself have shifted dramatically. Yet.

Third, in March 2015, the Republicans pushed their luck by meddling with the negotiations with Iran.[2] Forty-seven Republican Senators sent a letter to the Iranians warning that an agreement that was only an “executive agreement” could be undone by a subsequent administration. Almost half of Americans (49 percent) disapproved of this action. The hyperventilation on the left about “treason” (cue Ricky Perry) was silly. However, a lot of Americans seem to take the same view as did Napoleon: “It was worse than a crime. It was a mistake.”

Energy. In March 2015, Pew Research surveyed Americans on their attitude toward energy and climate issues.[3] At this point, 81 percent favored government-imposed higher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and 64 percent favored tighter emissions limits on power plants. However, 59 percent favored building the Keystone XL pipeline. On the other hand, 31 percent opposed building the pipeline and 31 percent opposed tighter controls on emissions from power plants. On the subject of ranking the means to develop America’s energy resources, 60 percent assigned priority to alternative energy sources (wind, solar, hydrogen) and 30 percent assigned priority to exploring for and developing carbon sources (coal, oil, natural gas). At the same time, 56 percent favored more off-shore drilling for gas and oil, while 40 percent opposed it.

There is a lot of incoherence here. How to sort it out?

First, the opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline and the opponents of controls on power plant emissions represent the very large numbers of crazy people in American politics. Together they total 62 percent. Either the middle ground learns how to make deals or we’ve got problems.

Second, more carbon energy means more oil and gas, not more coal. The “war on coal” has already been won. Mitch McConnell just doesn’t know it.

Third, the President is pandering to his base in vetoing the Keystone pipeline.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 13 March 2015, p. 17; “Poll Watch,” The Week, 10 April 2015, p. 15. In the March poll a lucky 23 percent had never heard of the Israeli leader.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 27 March 2015, p. 17.

[3] “Voice of the People,” WSJ, 31 March 2015.

Climate of Fear IX November 2014.

India is bound to be a big loser from global climate change. The air pollution in Delhi is worse than that in Beijing; sea-level rise could forcibly displace 37 million Indians by 2050, and water for farmers could be affected by accelerated melting of glaciers in the Himalayas or disruption of the monsoons. So, India has a deep interest in limiting climate change. However, India is also one of the principle forces causing climate change.[1]

Burning coal for generating electricity is central to India’s strategy for economic development. The country has huge coal deposits (the fifth largest in the world), but little oil or natural gas. Consequently, India launched a ten year plan for building coal-burning generating plants back in 2009. Generating capacity has already expanded by 73 percent. In 2013 India burned 565 million tons of coal. Most Indian coal has a high ash-content, so it pollutes more than do some other commonly used types of coal. This makes India the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. By 2019 the government plans to burn more than a billion tons a year. “India’s development imperatives cannot be sacrificed at the altar of potential climate changes many years in the future,” the government’s Minister of Power has asserted.

It will be difficult to argue that India should adjourn its plans for development. Three hundred million Indians have no electricity at all, and many more have it only in fits and starts. On a per-capita basis, Indians consume only one-fourteenth as much electricity as do Americans. In a country with hundreds of millions of people living in grotesque poverty, making do with less isn’t much of an option. Electricity powers industry and industry raises incomes.

India’s coal-fired industrialization effort alarms environmentalists elsewhere. “If India goes deeper and deeper into coal, we’re all doomed.” said one climate scientist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. There isn’t much ground for expecting push-back by Indian environmentalists. For the most part, Indians seem to accept both air pollution and the physical displacement of populations in the countryside to make space for more coal mines. The environmental movement in China seems to have more support behind it and, therefore, more influence with the government than is the case in India.

Nuclear power and solar generation offer alternative energy sources. A lot of Western India is cloudless for much of the year, so a lot of solar energy the ground. The government of Narendra Modi has said that it will launch a program of constructing solar-energy plants. Whether this can be carried forward fast enough and on a large enough scale to replace India’s reliance on coal is hard to tell.

So, that’s a problem. Still, China currently burns as much coal as every other country in the world combined. Can India’s coal-burning really pose more of a problem than does that of China?[2] The recent agreement between the United States and China called for China to cap its greenhouse gas emissions before 2030. The Chinese may continue to shovel on the coal until then, but they also might begin to shift from a reliance on coal to other energy sources. If that comes true, it will be a lot more significant for the climate than is India’s continuing development of coal. If the rest of the world moves in one direction, then India might find a way to follow. There’s a couple of big “Ifs” there. Still, the prospects look better than they did a little while ago.

[1] Gardiner Harris, “Coal Rush in India Could Tip Balance of Climate Change,” NYT, 18 November 2014.


[2] China produces 46 percent of the world’s coal and imports more; India produces 7.7 percent of the world’s coal, but has been developing its own reserves because of the cost of imports. See: “Climate of Fear IX.”

The Blood of Victory.

Cotton may be the “fabric of our lives,” but oil makes everything run.

How much oil are we using? More and more each year: 60 million barrels a day in 1985, 84 million barrels a day in 2009; probably 114 million barrels a day in 2035. Oil use will probably accelerate as “developing nations” (Chinas, India), well, develop.

One problem is that there is a finite amount of oil in the earth. But how much is that? No one knows for sure. The current estimate is 1.2 trillion barrels. This is pretty hazy, actually. There may be lots more oil than people previously thought. Still, even “bullish” estimates suggest that we may have enough oil—produced at a rising cost—to provide oil for twenty or thirty or even forty years. So I’ll probably be dead before it runs out, but most people on the earth today will not. In the meantime, world demand for oil drives the exploration for new oil reserves into new areas.  As one oil company spokesman put it, “this is where nature put the oil.  You want to find oil, you have to go where it is.”

Some of the oil exploration sites are in extremely challenging environments.  There are undersea deposits in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil, in the Arctic Ocean, and off the coasts of the United States. The American sites are problematic. People first started drilling for oil off-shore in the Gulf of Mexico in about 1950.  Success in the Gulf led to oil exploration elsewhere.  However, in 1969 there occurred a disastrous oil-rig blow-out in the Santa Barbara Channel in California.  The reaction put a stop to off-shore drilling wherever the oil industry was not already powerful.  Both the East Coast and the West Coast were soon out of bounds.  In contrast, Texas and Louisiana were already in the thrall of the oil industry.  Off-shore oil drilling became concentrated in the Gulf: there are about 4,000 oil rigs operating there now.

Since 2005 there has been a tremendous growth in the number of off-shore oil rigs world-wide.  There are about 2,500 off-shore oil and natural gas rigs around the world outside the Gulf of Mexico.  The number of the foreign off-shore rigs will expand.  Brazil claims a recently-discovered under-sea field 200 miles out in the Atlantic.  The oil deposits are estimated at 15 billion barrels.  Tapping into these fields would raise Brazil to the ranks of Canada and Nigeria among oil-producers.  For a rapidly developing economy with all sorts of needs and aspirations, this chance is too good for Brazil to pass up.  There are serious technical difficulties because the oil is four miles down.  The example of British Petroleum’s “Deepwater Horizon,” which blew up and blew out in Spring 2010, sends shivers down the spines of environmentalists.

Environmentalists go crazy over the risks. The “Deepwater Horizon” blow-out, and the resulting spill, gave them a lot of ammunition. How are you going to contain an oil spill four miles down if you couldn’t contain one a mile down? How are you going to contain a spill in the stormy Atlantic Ocean if you couldn’t control one in the comparatively tranquil Gulf of Mexico? Alternative oil sources don’t look much better. The Canadians have been extracting oil from “tar sands” in Alberta and the US is extracting oil from shale rock in the Western states. Getting oil out of tar sands requires six barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced. Water is nearly as scarce as is oil.

What to do? Well, if you’re running an oil company, you look in places that have weak environmental regulations and a corrupt government. “Nigeria is for drillers” bumper-stickers should start popping up all over the place. Ecuador, Peru, and Costa Guano should also start to figure in oil company reports.

See: “The search for oil,” The Week, 17 December 2010, p. 15; “Oil rigs: cities at sea,” The Week, 21 May 2010, p. 13.