Memo to You Got It Wrong

by Bill Chameides | February 2nd, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 3 comments

It’s great when reporters call you for your opinion. It’s even better when they feature a quote from you in the story. And it’s better yet when it’s from an organization with the reach of CNN. However, it’s not great when they get what you said wrong.

Last week I spoke to Azadeh Ansari, a reporter from, about the Obama administration’s efforts to address global warming. I began by praising the president’s announcement last Monday instructing the Department of Transportation to enhance fuel efficiency standards and the Environmental Protection Agency to re-examine California’s request for a waiver to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases.

I said that the president should go further by instructing EPA to develop rules to regulate all emissions of greenhouse gases under the authority given it by the Clean Air Act and confirmed by the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA. The latter is a step I have been urging for quite some time, and I was pleased to see that the New York Times opined similarly on Sunday.

I also endorsed President Obama’s plan to use the economic stimulus to encourage investment of green technologies. In fact, I argued, as I’ve done here on my blog, that the administration should go even further by requiring that a small percentage of investments made by companies receiving so-called TARP funds (i.e., bailout money formally called ”Troubled Assets Relief Program”) be targeted at renewable energy projects (see here, here, and here).

Why We Are Still Relying On Fossil Fuels

But, I said, there is a problem. The government has been subsidizing and encouraging investments in one form of renewable energy or another or in efficiency since the 1973 gas crisis with little effect. Our dependence on fossil fuels has grown.

I explained why: the price for fossil fuels is artificially low. The true costs of our addiction to oil, to paraphrase the former president, range from environmental and health impacts such as global warming and air pollution to defense dollars to protect our Middle Eastern sources of oil. These costs are significant but not included in the price we pay for fossil fuels. As a result, that price seems to be lower than that of renewable energy.

In fact it is not. The extra, external costs of using fossil fuels are borne by society – in health care expenditures, losses in environmental services (like clean air and drinking water), and in the case of global warming in costs that our children and grandchildren will pay for. As long as the external costs of fossil fuels are not incorporated into the price, fossil fuels will have an artificially competitive advantage, and getting private sector investment in renewable energy will be an uphill battle.

A Solution to the Artificial Advantage of Fossil Fuels

The solution I pointed out to CNN was to put a price on carbon emissions, which would level the playing field and send a signal to the private sector that investments in renewable energy made business sense. (I’ve written about this quite a bit, too: here, here, and here.) Putting a price on carbon would not actually amount to government regulation, I argued, but would simply be a step to remove the current market distortion caused by a failure to internalize the true costs of fossil fuels in their price to the consumer. A step well within the purview of the government.

How to put a price on carbon? Cap-and-trade is one approach – the one, I pointed out to CNN’s Azadeh Ansari, that I favor. A carbon tax is another possibility. Even placing a floor on the price of gas at the pump could be a step in the right direction. Until such a long term policy is put into place, efforts to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels will always be short-term and ineffective, I opined.

Somehow that conversation with CNN was summarized with a single quotation:

“These technologies are not new. They have been around for 10 to 15 years. … Government can push new policies, but it [renewable energy technology] has to prove to be economically competitive or else it will not happen.”

I actually thought I said new “subsidies,” not new “policies.” In either case, it is a mystery to me how, after my lengthy discussion with CNN on the need for a long-term policy solution to put a price on carbon, I was featured as the guy opposed to policies to address climate and energy security. Oh well, I guess that’s the risk you take when you speak to reporters.

filed under: climate change, economy, energy, faculty, global warming, oil, renewable energy
and: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


All comments are moderated and limited to 275 words. Your e-mail address is never displayed. Read our Comment Guidelines for more details.

  1. Al G.
    Mar 16, 2009

    Honestly, I like reading you blog…but I think I just stepped into 1984. Cap-and-trade, with arbitrary carbon limits, is government regulation pure and simple. It is also a pathetic attempt to claim that it will result it “market” driven solutions as is continually suggested when the topic comes up. Your claim that cap-and-trade is not actually government regulation, boggles the mind. Irrespective of the excuse (“to internalize the true costs of fossil fuels “) , it still is government regulation of the most heavy handed and severe kind.

  2. Christopher Mims
    Feb 25, 2009

    Sorry you had an experience like that with a reporter. Maybe you were the only person in his notes who said anything that was “anti” and he needed to “balance” the piece so your sole, out-of-context quote was used because it fit the bill. As a science journalist, I’m fairly convinced that the way this stuff gets covered in the MSM is nothing short of professional malpractice.

  3. Lucian Stroie
    Feb 4, 2009

    The uniform opinion of CNN and most mass media news agencies gives the false impression that our current technology is insufficient to replace fossil fuel. They justify our current addiction on the costs of alternatives, however they would never dare to mention that renewable energy will eventually be cheaper when brought to the scales that they should already be at. It is unfortunate for your name to be put in an article in such a way that completely undermines your work as an environmental activist. Why would one advertising revenue seeking company not want to upset big oil? And they bought that add because of this: Reporters hear what they want because those are the stories they need to pass of as new to continue making profit. Even their environmental/tech blog ( is a false portrait of optimism and environmental progress. Their last article was titled “China: The new wind superpower” must have been a prank because no matter China’s progress on wind power development, they are heavily reliant on coal to power their industrialization. What a convenient point to leave out of an ‘environmental’ blog. Luckily academia has not been bought off. Thank you for all of your insightful posts, your message will be heard but probably not by exclusively CNN viewers.

©2015 Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University | Box 90328 | Durham, NC 27708
how to contact us > | login to the site > | site disclaimers >

footer nav stuff