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Hot and Bothered: When Liberals Want Conservatives to Talk About Climate Change Instead of the Middle Class

2:48 PM, Jun 4, 2014 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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"Everything reminds Milton of the money supply," Robert Solow once said of his fellow Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman at a symposium. "Well, everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of the paper."

Solow wasn't saying that money supply is never an important issue. His point was that there's more to economics than just money supply, and that Friedman's single-minded focus on the issue was not always relevant or productive.

I feel the same way lately, after two liberal writers complained that I don't put enough climate change in my paper.

In the YG Network's new report on pro-middle-class policies, titled "Room to Grow," I contributed a chapter on energy policy. "Energy policy" is an immensely broad and complex subject, so I focused on one narrow issue with obvious potential for short- and long-term benefits to the middle-class specifically and the national generally. I focused on the immense benefits that we can reap from vast supplies of natural gas, newly accessible thanks to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

Jonathan Chait and Matt Yglesias are underwhelmed with my analysis, to say the least. Not because they dispute my point that natural gas development would provide Americans with cheaper heat and light, diversify our transportation fuel base, and promote domestic manufacturing—they're silent on all of that. Rather, they complain that I don't discuss climate change. Chait says I'm afraid of science. Yglesias says I'm afraid of challenging conservatives.

As a factual matter, they're simply wrong: I don't ignore the climate issues. My paper highlights the most contentious greenhouse gas issue in the fracking debate: fugitive methane emissions. On that point I discuss the recent study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, putting the methane debate in context and finding that it does not pose a great risk of exacerbating climate change. And I also quote White House energy and climate adviser John Podesta, who urges that natural gas development is key to the Administration's goal of "moving toward a clean-energy future."

But more than that, Yglesias's and Chait's criticism reveals much more about them than about conservatives. Seeing a paper on natural gas's benefits for the middle class, their reaction is not to consider whether the middle class truly would benefit from these policies, but instead to complain that conservatives aren't talking enough about climate change.

On economic matters, both Chait and Yglesias argue often that policymakers don't care enough about the middle class and poor—about inequality, the one percent, and so on. But when it comes to energy policy, their first concern isn't the middle class. It's climate change, and the administration's push to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

It can't seriously be said that my essay tries to avoid controversy among conservatives, as Chait and Yglesias suggest. My paper goes out of its way to stress that natural gas development does require us to think seriously about the risks of groundwater contamination, and to be modest enough to realize that there may be other risks of which we're not yet aware. And I stress that energy infrastructure development raises difficult questions about property rights and eminent domain. (This is a point I have also covered here at THE WEEKLY STANDARD—criticizing Republican presidential candidates, no less.) Had I wanted to avoid challenging conservative conventional wisdom or engaging the critics of fracking and pipeline development, then I would have simply sidestepped those difficult questions.

My paper attempts to promote a serious discussion of natural gas development—its benefits, and its challenges. When Chait and Yglesias demand more talk about climate change, even in context of an energy resource that the Obama Administration and others sees as reducing greenhouse gas emissions—their goal is not to start a meaningful discussion, but to end it.

There's no shortage of talk about climate change—its causes, its dangers, and the challenges and costs of regulating it. But it doesn't need to be the central focus of every paper on energy policy. There is more to energy policy than just climate change, and the middle-class issues I discuss in my paper deserve at least a little attention, too.

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