‘Liars for Hire,’ Ideologues, Block Energy Action: Interview

Eric Pooley
Eric Pooley, whose book "The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers and the Fight to Save the Earth," documents the political infighting that derailed U.S. action on clean energy. Photographer: Michael O'Neal/Hyperion via Bloomberg.

“The fact that we’ve gotten to this level of polarization on an issue that’s so important to solve is tragic,” says Eric Pooley, author of “The Climate War.”

He documents the battle between climate change deniers and environmental activists trying to avert disaster by creating a new, sustainable energy model.

Formerly with Fortune and Time before joining Bloomberg Businessweek, Pooley spent three years getting to know the major players, including former Vice President Al Gore, Duke Energy Corp. CEO Jim Rogers and Environmental Defense Fund chief Fred Krupp. The result is a chilling description of the toxic political infighting that recently derailed the climate bill in Congress.

Lundborg: Who still disputes the reality of climate change?

Pooley: I use “professional deniers” to refer to those who are paid public relations people whose job it is to sow doubt and confusion, sometimes called “liars for hire.”

I use “skeptic” to refer to those exposed to that disinformation and confused about what the reality is.

No Problem

Lundborg: What caused the derailment of rational discussion about climate?

Pooley: It became polarized because the people who say they believe it’s not happening teamed up with people who oppose all forms of taxation and regulation, and so you have a block of ideologically driven people trying to prevent any kind of climate action.

Their thinking moves from effect to cause: They hate the solutions, so they decided there’s no problem.

Lundborg: What’s their most effective tool?

Pooley: When you go inside the political strategy sessions at the deniers’ convention you see what the MO is: Cap and trade is a tax that’s going to destroy your economy.

College for your children, that’s out the window, no more violin lessons for your little daughter. It’s very much fear -- they’re going to take your jobs, it’s an eco-terrorist plot to control the energy industry, Al Gore is behind it.

It’s About Money

Lundborg: What’s the point of delaying the inevitable?

Pooley: We need to realign our economy to move us in the right direction by pricing and capping carbon, and that’s what the deniers are trying to avoid. The fossil fuel industries will be disadvantaged by it.

This is a fight over money. It began as an economic battle and morphed into an ideological battle because it suited the tactics of the people who don’t want to get it done.

Lundborg: If cap and trade is the most sensible way to go, how did it move from being the premier fix to anathema?

Pooley: It was demonized precisely because it was the leading solution.

Part of the sad story is that the right was completely unified in attacking it as a Rube Goldberg tax that was going to destroy the economy, while the climate action community was not unified in support of it. They were all over the place.

Lundborg: But aren’t delaying tactics costly?

Pooley: Businesses have been waiting for a road-map, they want to invest and they have billions sitting on the sidelines waiting to see if carbon is going to be priced or not.

So what’s going to happen to that investment? Are we going to get a new wave of coal-fired power plants? That would be disastrous.

China Gets It

Lundborg: Aren’t we also getting left behind in clean energy technology?

Pooley: While we’re arguing about yesterday’s issues, we’re giving the keys to the new economy to China, which is spending $9 billion a month on this.

We need to unleash the power of the private sector. You want to be in a place where you’re maximizing profit by doing the right thing.

Lundborg: Is economic pain inevitable?

Pooley: It’s a small hit, estimated to be between $70 and $140 per year per household.

But the cost of doing nothing is much higher. Opponents ignore that part of the equation and pretend that business as usual is sustainable.

Lundborg: During your research for the book, what surprised you the most?

Pooley: I couldn’t believe how little progress we’ve made, considering the unstoppable tipping points that are coming.

Lundborg: What can we do?

Pooley: People have not been sufficiently mobilized on this issue. The only way to jog the politicians out of their passivity is by demanding it.

The message of the book is that you can’t just have politics as usual.

(Zinta Lundborg is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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