Archive | January, 2012

Chart of the Day: Republicans Don’t Trust Anyone (Except Fox News)

24 Jan

—By Kevin Drum

| Thu Jan. 19, 2012 10:35 AM PST

Public Policy Polling is out with their 3rd annual TV news trust poll. Among Republicans, as the chart on the right shows, the shape of the river is simple: they don’t trust anyone except Fox News, who they adore. These numbers are spreads, with NBC, for example, garnering 17% trust vs. 69% distrust. Fox News, conversely, garners 73% trust vs. 17% distrust.

Well, you say, maybe this just means that trust in the media is really low these days? Nope. Democrats and Independents may not trust Fox, but they do trust everyone else. The percentages vary, with more skepticism toward some outlets than others, but what non-Republicans don’t do is simply dismiss television news en masse as a bunch of lying corporate shills. Paul Waldman explains:

While I was in the car yesterday I turned to a conservative talk radio station, which I recommend all liberals do from time to time. The host, whom I didn’t recognize, brought up some innocuous piece of news reporting that appeared in the Politico. As you know if you care about these things, the Politico is a complicated media entity. On one hand, they employ a lot of reporters and they sometimes break interesting stories. On the other hand, they’re almost a parody of the inside dope-obsessed Washington media, which finds the question of whether Eric Cantor’s press secretary and John Boehner’s press secretary are feuding far more compelling than, say, the question of what effects cuts in Medicaid would have on struggling Americans. But when this conservative talk show host mentioned the Politico, he found it necessary to refer to it as “the left-wing rag the Politico.”

Here in Washington, almost no one in either party is crazy enough to think that the Politicois actually a left-wing rag, an ideologically-motivated news outlet whose purpose is to advance the liberal cause. And whether this talk show host’s listeners know or care much about it in particular isn’t my point. My point is this: If you are a consumer of conservative media, you get constant reminders — every day, multiple times a day — that you absolutely must not believe anything you hear or read in any news outlet that is not explicitly conservative.

Everybody — yes, everybody — is subject to confirmation bias. We all get the warm fuzzies when someone tells us something we want to hear, and we resist listening to people who tell us things we don’t want to hear. But there’s still a difference. As Paul says, “Conservatives and liberals are not equally prone to huddle within their self-reinforcing cocoons.” Liberals don’t immediately dismiss as a conspiracy everything they hear from the news media that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions. They might downplay unwelcome news or even ignore it, but they’re still willing to listen to it. Increasingly, conservatives simply aren’t. They want to believe the world is a certain way, and they’re just flatly not willing to countenance anything that might challenge those beliefs. This is not a healthy development for a modern democracy.

UPDATE: Chart edited to show the correct figure for the Fox News trust/distrust difference (56%, not 73%). Thanks to reader Dan H. for catching the error.


How and Why Anonymous Took Down the FBI’s Website

24 Jan

—By Josh Harkinson

| Fri Jan. 20, 2012 3:20 AM PST
anonymous logo

On Thursday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, working with police in New Zealand, arrested the leaders of the popular file sharing service and scrubbed the site from the internet, alleging that it supports widespread copyright infringement. Coming just a day after the internet’s campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the raid was perceived by many netizens as a declaration of war.

Within minutes of the announcement, Twitter accounts associated with Anonymous, the shadowy hacker collective, announced #OpMegaUpload, a massive retaliation against government and entertainment industry websites. Just a few hours later, swarms of computers had brought down the homepages of the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, Universal Music, the US Copyright Service, the US Department of Justice, and last, but not least, the FBI. The main Anonymous Twitter account claimed that it was “the largest attack ever by Anonymous” with more than 5,600 people involved.

As with past Anonymous actions, much of the organizing for the attacks occurred in chat rooms hosted on an arcane platform known as Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, which allows users to conceal their identities. On an IRC server for AnonOps, an Anonymous splinter group, some 1,700 people in an #OpMegaUpload chat room yesterday evening were coordinating “distributed denial of service” (DDoS, or “dosing”) attacks, which direct a flood of traffic to a website and crash it by overwhelming its servers. The preferred tool for dosing is the whimsically named Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) and is relatively easy to use. Conversations in the chat room ranged from identifying new targets for the LOIC to words of precaution:

In July, the FBI arrested more than a dozen suspected Anonymous members in connection with DDoS attacks on the website of PayPal. The attacks can be easily traceable. Since then, though, the group has popularized more sophisticated dosing methods that involve channeling LOIC through a TOR, an anonymittool, using a Virtual Private Network, a secure way of transmitting data. Yesterday I discussed the DDoS attacks with Cyberpolice, an anon who I’d met in the #OpMegaUpload chat room: In another AnonOps chat room I ran into Biella Coleman, a McGill University anthropologist who is the leading academic expert on Anonymous. “It has been a long while since they showed their hydra head this way,” she told me. Though she believed more individuals turned out for the PayPal attack in support of WikiLeaks (about 7,000), yesterday’s attacks were the largest in Anonymous history in terms of the number of sites taken offline. She was impressed with how it all went down. “The significance is that in a very short timeframe a message of dissent is spread loud and clear through a disruptive but not damaging (at least not significantly damaging) tactic.”In conversations with other anons, I had a hard time getting a clear picture of why they felt was worth defending. Some argued that the arrests were draconian because the site’s primary purpose wasn’t piracy and it had complied with requests to remove illegalmaterial. Others said they didn’t care whether or not the site was intentionally hosting pirated content. And others expressed anger that authorities took the site down without regard to legitimate files that its customers had stored there. “It would be like shutting down YouTube for having copyrighted videos posted,” one anon said.

At a time when Anonymous is increasingly defined by its role in the physical encampments of the Occupy Wall Street movement, #OpMegaUpload is a reminder that the anon army of geeks still cares just as much about what it can and can’t do in front of a computer screen. Last night, it looked like one Anon was thwarted from DDoSing the FBI by an even more intrusive authority figure:

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Robert Weiss: We the People

21 Jan

If you are concerned about the collapse of the middle class, you should be concerned about how American campaigns are financed. If you wonder why the United States is the only country in the industrialized world not to have a national health care program, if you’re asking why we pay the highest price in the world for prescription drugs, or why we spend more money on the military than the rest of the world combined, you are talking about campaign finance. You are talking about the unbelievable power that big-money interests have over every legislative decision.

An already horrendous situation was made much worse two years ago this month when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission that multinational corporations have a constitutional right to spend whatever they want to influence election outcomes. A bare 5-4 majority lowered the floodgates on unchecked, unlimited, unaccountable corporate cash in political campaigns. Corporations were equated with people. A century of laws regulating business spending on elections were upended. In one fell swoop, five justices fantasized for corporations a right never conceived by the founders whose preamble to our Constitution begins with the words, “We the people…”

The ruling not only poisoned our political process. It contaminated the legislative process. It cast a permanent chill over all policymaking. Will the merits or the money tip the balance when an issue comes before Congress? What do you think? If the question is on breaking up huge banks, for example, every member of the Senate and the House, in the back of their minds, will ask themselves what the personal price would be for taking on Wall Street. Am I going to be punished? Will a huge amount of money be unleashed in my state? They’re going to think twice about how to cast that vote. Not to put too fine a point on it, you will see politicians being adopted by corporations and becoming wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate entities.

We already have seen what kind of damage Citizens United can cause. In the first election after the decision was handed down, corporations in 2010 poured hundreds of millions of dollars into independent organizations not formally affiliated with parties or candidates. About half of the $300 million spent by independent organizations came from undisclosed sources. In 60 of the 75 congressional races in which power changed hands, the unaccountable outside groups backed the winners. They spent freely and overwhelmingly on negative ads. The early phases of this year’s elections bear witness to projections that the Citizens United effect will be much worse. Karl Rove has announced plans to raise $240 million. The Koch brothers promise to spend $200 million. It’s fair to assume the Chamber of Commerce will spend at least as much. The Super PAC supporting President Obama, Priorities USA Action, aims to play in the same league. Hundreds of millions more will be in play.

It’s a virtual certainty that all of this spending will fundamentally distort our democracy, tilting the playing field to favor corporate interests, discouraging new candidates, chilling elected officials and shifting the overall policymaking debate even further in the direction of giant corporate interests and the super-wealthy.

So now we face a choice. Americans can let Citizens United remain the law of the land, or we can have a functioning democracy. We can’t have both. We choose democracy. With no reason to think that this court will reconsider its decision, we need a constitutional amendment.

Yes, legislative reforms could mitigate the damage. We should require better disclosure rules. We should make shareholders approve corporations’ political spending. We should provide public financing of elections, but entrenched money interests have thwarted that for decades.

But nothing can truly cure the problem unless Citizens United is overturned with a constitutional amendment.

The Saving American Democracy Amendment in the Senate and a companion proposed in the House by Florida Representative Ted Deutch would do just that. The amendment would establish that constitutional rights belong to real people, not for-profit corporations. The amendment would prohibit corporations from making election-related expenditures. It would clarify that Congress and states have the power to regulate campaign spending, overturning the doctrine that election contributions and expenditures constitute First Amendment-protected speech and therefore may be subject only to limited restrictions. And it would affirm that nothing in the amendment limits freedom of press.

It’s no easy thing to enact a constitutional amendment, but momentum for an amendment is building. People who have honest differences of opinion understand that there is something profoundly disgusting with what is happening in Washington and that there is something wrong with American democracy when you have a handful of billionaires and businesses putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the political process. Very few people think that has anything to do with American democracy. The American people desperately want to restore our democracy and return to rule by all of the people, not corporations and the superrich.

Bernie Sanders is a United States Senator from Vermont. Robert Weissman is the president of Public Citizen.

Sign the petition to support Sen. Sanders’ Saving American Democracy Amendment.

The Republicans’ Hidden-Money-Moving Machine

19 Jan

Inside the GOP group that skirts election rules by shuffling millions across state lines and then “wiping the fingerprints off the money.”

—By Andy Kroll

Illustration: Andy FriedmanIllustration: Andy FriedmanMichigan’s 2010 elections had just concluded, and Rich Robinson, the state’s leading campaign finance reform advocate, was conducting his usual postmortem. As he tallied the big money behind the conservative groundswell that swept Republican Rick Snyder into the governor’s mansion and placed the state Legislature solidly under GOP control, one particular political action committee caught his eye.

Created in December 2009 and shut down shortly after the election, RGA Michigan 2010 had come out of nowhere to spend nearly $8.4 million—54 percent more than any other PAC had poured into any election in Michigan history. Ninety-six percent of the group’s donors lived outside the state, and its top three funders included Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, Koch Industries’ David Koch, and New York City hedge fund CEO Paul Singer. On the other side of the ledger, RGA Michigan 2010 had given $5.2 million to the Michigan Republican Party—no surprise there—but, mysteriously, it had also funneled $3 million into the campaign coffers of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Robinson, the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, began to connect the dots. He remembered the phone calls from reporters in Maine and Florida asking if Robinson knew why money from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce had ended up with PACs in their states. The state’s Chamber, which usually spent more than $1 million on TV ads during Michigan elections, officially didn’t spend a dime on ads in 2010, according to Robinson. But it had given an unprecedented$5.37 million to a national organization that, Robinson now realized, was at the root of the anomalous spending he’d uncovered: the Washington, DC-based Republican Governors Association.

During the midterms, while many campaign finance observers were fixated on the proliferation of super-PACs and shadow-spending groups, the RGA spent $132 million—more than the five biggest conservative super-PACs and 501(c) groups combined. It was instrumental in electing a slate of GOP governors—Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, Georgia’s Nathan Deal, and Iowa’s Terry Branstad, among others—who hastened to crack down on public-sector unions and roll back environmental regulations. These electoral successes were fueled in part by the creative campaign finance strategy that Robinson began to piece together.

Since 2008, he explains, the RGA has used a network of at least 15 state-level PACs to shuffle campaign cash around the country. Doing so serves a couple of purposes. First, it enables the RGA to scrub the identity of a donor to avoid image issues. For instance, Rick Perry taking $3 million from a Texas oil baron might be controversial, but if that baron gives $3 million to the national RGA, which then diverts the money to RGA Michigan PAC and then to Perry? Harmless.

The RGA’s cash shuffle also allows it—and its corporate allies—to skirt campaign finance laws. For instance, in Michigan, corporations can’t donate directly to candidates or political parties. But the state’s Chamber of Commerce donated millions to the national RGA, which then directed some of the money to its PACs in Florida and Maine, where no such corporate-money bans exist. Why would a Michigan group want its money flowing to races in other states? Chamber CEO Rich Studley told Maine Public Radio that its members supported funding “pro-business” candidates outside Michigan.

Robinson has a different theory. During the 2010 election cycle, the Michigan Chamber donated more than $5 million to the RGA. In turn, the RGA’s Michigan PAC directed $5.2 million—contributions that largely came from individuals outside the state—to the Michigan Republican Party. Robinson believes that, through this roundabout process, the Chamber’s corporate money was swapped out with individual contributions, allowing it to be deployed in Michigan in a more potent form. (The Chamber acknowledges that the RGA called the shots on where its money was spent. Studley says his group’s political spending “has been in full compliance with all Michigan and federal laws.” The RGA did not respond to a request for comment on this practice.)

Robinson and other campaign finance watchdogs liken the RGA’s methods to the corporate-contribution laundering scheme that got former GOP congressman Tom DeLay indicted. “The whole thing,” Robinson says of the RGA’s tactics, “was about wiping the fingerprints off the money.”

An RGA spokesman, Mike Schrimpf, says the group and its network of PACs “aren’t really unique,” but he declined to respond to specific questions. “The RGA and the [Democratic Governors Association] both have to use state PACs in some states to comply with the state campaign finance laws,” he says. The RGA, however, is by far the more powerful of the two, outspending the DGAin the last four election cycles by anywhere from $10 million (2004) to $67 million (2010).

The RGA wasn’t always a political juggernaut. Founded in 1963, the group for decades was content to convene meetings and publish the occasional white paper. That began to change in the early 1980s, when Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh became chairman and the RGA started to raise serious money. With the RGA’s backing, the GOP netted seven governor’s seats in the 1986 election.

In 1994, while Newt Gingrich and Co. took control of Congress and rang in the Republican Revolution, the RGA was instrumental in the election of 11 GOP governors and successfully defended every Republican incumbent. When the dust settled, Republicans controlled 30 governorships, their first majority since 1970. The last time Republicans had performed so well in gubernatorial races was 1867.

Beyond its electoral victories, the RGA established itself as a launching pad for Republicans with presidential aspirations. The group helped to foster alliances between GOP governors and gave them access to deep-pocketed donors and top fundraisers, helping to catapult politicians like Ronald Reagan (an RGA chairman), George W. Bush, Rick Perry (twice chairman), Mitt Romney (2006 chairman), and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (current vice chair) onto the national stage.

The RGA’s rise has been fueled by a close alliance with corporate America—especially tobacco companies and Big Pharma. In the mid-’90s, the organization awarded seats on its board to executives from Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, which each donated $40,000 a year. In November 1995, tobacco lobbyists swarmed the RGA’s annual meeting in Nashua, New Hampshire, pressing governors to write letters opposing pending tobacco regulations from the Food and Drug Administration. In exchange for their support, the tobacco companies pledged financial backing when election time rolled around. They came through: In February 1996, Philip Morris held a Washington, DC, gala for the RGA that raised $2.6 million.

The increasing influence of corporate donors turned off some Republican governors, including Arne Carlson, Minnesota’s governor from 1991 to 1999. Carlson recalls attending a few RGA meetings, but he stopped going due to the group’s increasingly partisan tenor and insistence that donors be given access to the governors. “It was no longer Republican governors getting together,” Carlson says. “It was the moneyed interests getting together with governors. I found it detestable.”

In June 2002, the McCain-Feingold Act went into effect, banning federal party committees from raising “soft money”—donations from labor unions and corporations outside the scope of federal campaign finance law. So to keep the corporate cash flowing, the RGA officially broke away from the Republican National Committee (of which it had been an affiliate) and established itself as a 527 tax-exempt group. That way it could continue raising soft money from banks, drug companies, and energy companies. (A few years earlier the DGA had parted ways with the Democratic National Committee for the same reasons.)

Today, RGA’s donor listreads like a who’s who of corporate titans: Koch Industries, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, AT&T, and Pfizer. The organization’s largest donor in both the 2008 and 2010 elections was Perry Homes, the homebuilding empire run by Bob Perry, which plunked down $1.15 million in 2008 and $8 million in 2010.

But as the corporate money gushed in, the RGA ran afoul of the law. In 2008, a top official with the North Carolina state elections board testified that the RGA had illegally funneled contributions to its North Carolina PAC. (The elections board ultimately declined to pursue the matter.) Last October, a Vermont judge ruled that the RGA violated state elections law when it ran ads supporting the Republican gubernatorial candidate without registering as a state PAC. (The RGA argued the spots were merely issue ads.)

In 2012, the RGA promises to be a force to be reckoned with. Led by chief fundraiser Fred Malek, the finance co-chairman of John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, the RGA had by last fall raised $22 million (twice as much as the DGA) for the 2012 election cycle. Don’t be surprised if that money starts turning up in odd places again, says Mike McCabe, who tracks money in state politics at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign: “It’s a deliberate strategy to keep the public in the dark about who is really buying our elections.”

Prezi presentation produced by Jaeah Lee

Andy Kroll

ReporterAndy Kroll is a reporter at Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here. Email him with tips and insights at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter here. RSS | Twitter

Rick Santorum’s Big-Coal Buddies

19 Jan

The “local” company Santorum brags about helping was a coal mining giant that gave him tens of thousands of dollars during and after his time in Congress.

—By Kate Sheppard and Adam Serwer

| Wed Jan. 11, 2012 3:00 AM PST
rick santorum2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum Zhang Jun/Xinhua/ZUMA Press

Rick Santorum likes to brag about how he helped a poor local company fight big, bad government regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. “My grandfather was a coal miner,” Santorum said at a debate in New Hampshire this week. “So I contacted a local coal company from my area. I said, look, I want to join you in that fight. I want to work together with you.”

But Consol Energy, the company for which Santorum was a “consultant,” wasn’t some bare-bones local outfit—it’s one of the largest coal mining companies in the United States, and its largest shareholder is the German utility RWE. And Santorum wasn’t doing volunteer work: He was paid quite handsomely for his services, to the tune of $142,500 from 2010 to August 2011. He only ended his role with Consol when he launched his presidential bid last spring.

Santorum’s relationship with the coal company began long before his consulting gig; Santorum and Consol had a mutually profitable association during Santorum’s tenure in the Senate, too. Consol donated more than $73,800 to Santorum during his time as a legislator while simultaneously spending more than $1 million lobbying Congress on pollution limits, mine reclamation, worker health benefits, and tax policy, according to lobbying disclosure forms filed with the US Senate Office of Public Records.

In the most recent congressional debate over a climate bill—the one for which Santorum “volunteered” his services—Consol spent $10.24 million on lobbying, a major increase over its lobbying expenditures in previous years. Much of that money was spent to defeat legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gas regulation wasn’t the only area where Santorum’s legislative agenda mirrored Consol’s top lobbying priorities. In 2006, Santorum authored a provision for a tax bill that would have created a tax credit for “synfuel,” which included coal bed methane, as Greenwire reported at the time. Synthfuel is made by drilling into coal seams to extract methane, a form of natural gas, and Consol is a “leading producer” of the product.

Another priority for Consol was passing the 2005 Energy Policy Act, a bill criticized for its numerous handouts to the coal, oil, and gas industries. Santorum voted for the bill and was an enthusiastic supporter. He was particularly fond of the millions of dollars the bill allotted for so-called “clean coal” technology—another major priority for Consol’s lobbyists.

 Consol also lobbied the Senate on the Environmental Protection Agency’s mercury emission standards during Santorum’s time in Congress. In 2003, the Bush administration released new Clean Air Act rules that failed to adequately cut toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants and other major industrial sources (a court threw out the rules for having too many loopholes). When the Senate tried to pass a resolution blocking the faulty rules from taking effect, Santorum sided with the administrationand with Consol. During his time in the Senate, Santorum also lobbied Bush’s EPA to ease rules for sulfur dioxide—the emission that causes acid rain—for plants that burn waste coal.”He certainly racked up one of the most anti-environmental records in Congress in his time there,” says Navin Nayak, the senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. Nayak’s group scores lawmakers annually on their voting record, and Santorum earned a lifetime score of just 10 percent—among the lowest in the Senate. “He was consistently on the side of polluters.”

It’s not entirely clear what Santorum did during his tenure as a Consol consultant, which started in 2007 after he was defeated for reelection. A spokesperson for the company told the New York Times he was hired “to provide strategic counsel on a variety of public policy-related issues.” Although he was never registered as a lobbyist, former legislators can still be adept at maximizing their clients’ influence without actually having to officially register as lobbyists under the law.

“The definition [of lobbyist] was designed to give a reasonable enough definition so that people who lobby would have to register,” says Bill Allison, Editorial Director at the Sunlight Foundation. “What happens is canny operators like Newt Gingrich and like Rick Santorum are able to avoid the lines drawn that would force you to register…Obviously these folks are trying to influence the federal government.”

His legislative experience is exactly why the company says it approached him about a consulting gig. “Given his long and well-documented efforts aimed at providing American consumers with affordable energy, CONSOL Energy engaged Senator Santorum to provide strategic counsel on a variety of public policy-related issues,” Consol spokeswoman Lynn Seay told Mother Jones in an email. She did not elaborate explain which specific issues the former senator focused on.

Santorum’s connections to Consol were profitable for his former aides as well. Former Santorum staffers Tommy Johnson and Kevin Roy also went on to become lobbyists for Consol after their boss lost his Senate seat. Johnson was an in-house lobbyist at the company and Roy worked on Consol’s behalf at Ikon Public Affairs, a lobby shop that Consol paid $40,000 to promote its interests in Washington in 2009.

Santorum, whose description of Consol during the New Hampshire debate made it sound like a corner store owned by your grandparents, clearly saw his primary role at Consol Energy as influencing the legislative process. “I engaged in that battle,” he said Saturday. “And I’m very proud to have engaged in that battle.”

Kate Sheppard is a staff reporter Mother Jones’ Washington bureau. For more of her stories, click here. She Tweets here. RSS | Twitter

Adam Serwer


Adam Serwer is a reporter at the Washington, DC, bureau of Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter. Email tips and insights to aserwer [at] motherjones [dot] com. RSS | Twitter

Patagonia Now Legally Responsible For Positive Environmental Impact

13 Jan
By Emma Hutchings on January 12, 2012

Outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia has become one of California’s first “Benefit Corporations,” which gives the company’s directors legal protection to consider social and environmental benefits over financial returns. This new legal status was designed to embed goals into companies’ missions that go beyond profitability but ensure they are legally shielded from civil suits by shareholders. Benefit Corporations are legally required to:

  • Have a corporate purpose to create a material positive impact on society and the environment.
  • Redefine fiduciary duty to require consideration of the interests of workers, community and the environment.
  • Publicly report annually on its overall social and environmental performance using a comprehensive, credible, independent, and transparent third party standards.

The corporation’s obligations to its shareholders has been radically redefined as a result of this. Current law allows shareholders to sue corporate boards for not maximizing profits, requiring them to prioritize financial interests over environmental and sustainable initiatives. However, Patagonia’s shareholders no longer have this legal right.


Markets and climate change: A case of cognitive dissonance

12 Jan
 20 Dec 2011 5:01 PM


Earlier this month, Nicholas Stern — respected U.K. economist and author of the famed Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change — cast a spotlight on what he calls a “profound contradiction at the heart of climate change policy.”

On one side, the world’s governments have pledged to hold temperature rise to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). To have even a 50/50 shot at meeting that target, humanity has a “carbon budget” of about 1,400 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2050. The more we exceed that budget, the more the 2 degrees target slips out of reach. Here’s the thing, though: The world’s proven fossil fuel reserves, if burned, would create about 2.8 trillion tonnes of CO2, double that carbon budget. If countries are serious about 2 degrees, they must be planning to leave a lot of fossil fuels in the ground. Right?

On the other side, however, the world’s top fossil fuel companies are valued at some $7.42 trillion (including the top 100 listed coal companies and the top 100 listed oil and gas companies). They are valued at this level because of proven fossil fuel reserves to which they have access. In other words, their valuation carries the implicit assumption that they will burn the fossil fuels available to them.

Markets are assuming that fossil fuel companies will burn the fossil fuels that the world’s governments have, at least implicitly, said they cannot burn. That’s the “profound contradiction.” So what are markets thinking?

Well, either they think a full-fledged carbon capture and sequestration solution is going to spring into being overnight (spoiler: they don’t think that) or they just don’t think countries are serious about climate change. They think it’s going to be business as usual. “If this is the case,” says Stern …

… the resulting rise in atmospheric concentrations could eventually mean, with a substantial probability, global warming of 5 degrees or more, to temperatures not seen on Earth for more than 30m years. That would probably transform where and how people could live and lead to the migration of hundreds of millions, as well as to conflict and severe economic decline.

Yet markets don’t seem to be pricing those risks either! In fact, global markets don’t seem to be taking climate change or climate policy seriously. Even if you don’t care about that ecologically, it’s alarming economically. It’s a huge, unacknowledged, unhedged risk, and if we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s that having huge, unacknowledged risks at the core of your economy is ill-advised.

I was thinking about this “profound contradiction” as I looked over Black & Veatch’s latest “Energy Market Perspective” (they update it every six months), which contains a variety of predictions and projections about U.S. electricity markets. It’s a great example of what Stern is talking about, in microcosm. Here’s the core finding (keep in mind, this graph shows power produced — megwatt-hours — not capacity):

B&V: US energy mix in 2012 and 2036Click for larger version.Black & Veatch, Energy Market Perspective, Fall 2011

Renewables more than double their contribution over the next 25 years, mainly due to state renewable portfolio standards, but the big story is the shift from coal to gas, gas, gas. Coal declines from 41 to 16 percent; gas goes from 24 to 44 percent.

Here’s the impact on CO2 emissions (chart is a bit confusing: the green area is the CO2 eliminated by reductions; the other colors are regions of the electric grid):

B&V: CO2 reductions in electricity, 2012-2036Click for larger version.Black & Veatch, Energy Market Perspective, Fall 2011

Emissions decline, mainly due to a big wave of coal-plant retirements around 2020, but nothing like the amount that would be required under the carbon budget necessary to give the world a chance at 2 degrees. (After all, for large-scale reductions, electricity is central.)

To be sure, there are economic assumptions in B&V’s projections that could be disputed. They have natural gas prices staying low and stable all the way out to 2036, only reaching the highs of the early 2000s after 2030. But with demand rising through that whole period, there are reasons to expect far more volatility than that (see here and here). B&V also has wind deployment falling off after today’s state RPSs are satisfied, but I strongly suspect that underestimates both what states will do in the intervening years and wind’s increasing competitiveness.

But never mind all that. The core assumption, the one B&V shares with most analysts, is about policy. It is simply this: The U.S. is not going to do its part in a global effort to hit 2 degrees.

They don’t assume there will be no climate policy. They include state RPSs and even a carbon price starting in 2020. But as the results show, that level of policy is woefully inadequate.

It’s not that the U.S. electricity system can’t accommodate the level of changes necessary. Amory Lovins’ new book Reinventing Fire shows how to transform the U.S. electricity system at a profit. Or check out Michael Moynihan’s Electricity 2.0. Plenty of other analysts have charted out a course that U.S. policymakers could chart if they got serious. It’s just that mainstream analysts don’t expect them to.

And yet we do nothing to prepare for the future that inaction is going to bring us! It’s a widespread and increasingly glaring case of cognitive dissonance in the institutions and practices at the center of the modern global economy. One way or the other, it’s going to resolve itself, and I fear the results will not be pretty.


David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at