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The Polarization of Energy

Christopher Williams's picture
  • Member since 2018
  • 44 items added with 20,121 views
  • Nov 25, 2011

It’s no secret that at the core of the Supercommittee’s failure earlier this week is the increasing polarization of American politics. Huffington Post contributor and law professor June Carbone illustrates this transition over the past half-century:

“A half century ago, neither political party disproportionately consisted of those who favored a my-way-or-the-high-way approach. Unbending ideologues did not make it into leadership positions. Today, it may be the only way to get elected – for one of the parties. That party has framed the debt limit as a matter of principle and used it to fire up the base. For a group inclined to see the world in terms of absolutes, compromise can accordingly only be seen as betrayal.”

What’s causing this polarization? It’s certainly not that Americans feel that this polarization is good for the country. Eight in ten Americans disapprove of Congress, more than half disapprove of the President, and three-quarters believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. So what gives? Read past the break for the full story and join the Green Light Distrikt Facebook group for updates on new events, blog posts and more. 

Peter Orszag, Citigroup executive and former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration, says that Americans are moving to areas with people in share income brackets, which is correlated to political affiliation:

“Residential segregation by income has been increasing markedly, and since income is strongly related to voting patterns, this phenomenon may help explain the rise in residential segregation by political party. As we surround ourselves with people like us, we reinforce our own views, and the result is a more polarized population. The polarized population, in turn, feeds a more polarized political system, which makes governing difficult. Paradoxically, because polarization creates safe bases for each side, it may make the modest number of centrist swing voters ever more crucial to winning presidential elections. And yet, actually governing from the center is increasingly challenging, given the hyper- polarization reflected in Congress.”

Of course, this political polarization directly impacts people’s lens on issues such as energy and the environment. The Economist recently published a poll illustrating belief in climate change. Unsurprisingly, the poll demonstrates the strong relationship between political affiliation and one’s view on climate change.


“Tea Partiers, unsurprisingly, tend not to believe in the phenomenon (the 53% who don’t believe in global warming just outnumber the 52% who don’t believe humans evolved from other animals) and are the most strongly opposed to all sorts of government action on the issue (yet quite keen, like majorities in all sorts of polling, on research into new energy sources). They also distinguish themselves in their assessment of their knowledgeability, with 30% considering themselves very well informed on the issue and a majority happy that it needs no more information on the subject.”

What’s interesting here is not that Tea Partiers are significantly less likely to believe in climate change than Republicans by nearly 20 percentage points, but that Tea Partiers claim not to need any information in order to form informed opinions about one of the biggest problems of our time. To be sure, this trend is not unique to the Tea Party; it can be seen in the naiveté of many people on the left for instance, that participate in Occupy protests.

Which brings me to last Friday, when I had the fortune to attend the Columbia University Energy Symposium. The symposium’s theme, “Rhetoric versus Reality,” conjured up a fantasy-world battle between idealists and realistics. On the ground, though, the symposium addressed a number of critical energy problems important to people across the political spectrium, and did so in an open way that acknowledged the delusion of the polarized “drill baby drill” and “clean tech will save us” worldviews that I also found at the Harvard Business School Energy Symposium last month.

The closing remarks, delivered by President and COO of Southwestern Electric Power Company, took the theme to heart. Essentially, she argued that coal was an essential part of the electric power grid as long as rate-based utilities were required to use the most affordable energy source. And she’s absolutely right. Unfortunately, she came off as abrasive and condescending, and in stark contrast to the rest of the day’s presentations, the audience attacked her firm for using “dirty energy” and “killing local jobs.” It was clear, at least to me, that the heated situated could have been preemptively diffused with a change in tone and, to some degree, in message. Following the conference, I sent the speaker an email hoping to shed light on the situation to help make future dialogue more productive.

“Dear Venita,

As the gentleman in the front row at yesterday’s speech at Columbia University, I feel compelled to share some thoughts from your presentation. A little background: I have no connection to Columbia and work in energy research for an investment management firm.

I agreed with essentially everything you said yesterday, and can appreciate that you came in expecting to be criticized by what you anticipated as a liberal audience. I’m interpreting this based on your somewhat agitational responses to questions and your implicit comments about the audience not being realists. As someone who’s attended more than his fair share of these conferences, I can attest to the fact that people come from a wide variety of perspectives. Certainly, some are liberal, anti-coal and will challenge AEP and other coal-heavy utilities no matter what.

However, I think there’s a much larger middle ground of people who are looking for an energy solution that is affordable and realistic, and I think it’s this middle that is underestimated in number. Throughout the day yesterday, there were some insightful, open discussions about coal, gas, oil etc that demonstrated the nuanced understanding of the audience about the world’s energy challenges and that coal will certainly be a significant part of the picture.

Back to your speech and responses to audience questions. I felt like you did a disservice to your firm and coal by approaching the speech expecting to be criticized. However, I felt that your agitational remarks only instigated further challenges and prevented a more open, nuanced dialogue from taking place. I would encourage you in the future to lay out similar challenges to energy supply, cost, etc, but to do so in a way that acknowledges the problems that exist with coal emissions, a free market system, etc. Only then will the young people who you assume to be all rhetoric realize how much truth there is to what you are saying. This is of course my personal perspective and doesn’t represent the view of my firm or Columbia. I hope this is valuable.

Best regards,

Aaron Desatnik”

So far, crickets.

For anyone interested in solving the energy and climate problem, which for the sake of argument I’ll assume our readers are, understanding the roots of increased polarization and how to navigate it in the public sphere is the difference between supersuccess and superfailure.

Image credits: The Daily Show, The Economist

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