The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) has a legal mandate for New York State greenhouse gas emissions to meet the ambitious net-zero goal by 2050. At the May 26 Climate Action Council meeting the topic of misinformation came up. I found that discussion troubling and the proposed response unacceptable.
Everyone wants to do right by the environment to the extent that they can afford to and not be unduly burdened by the effects of environmental policies. I submitted comments on the Plan and have written extensively on implementation of New York’s response to that risk because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that it will adversely affect reliability, impact affordability, risk safety, affect lifestyles, and will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change in New York. New York’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions are less than one half one percent of global emissions and since 1990 global GHG emissions have increased by more than one half a percent per year. Moreover, the reductions cannot measurably affect global warming when implemented. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Climate Act Background
The Climate Act establishes a “Net Zero” target (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) by 2050. The Climate Action Council is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that will “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda”. They were assisted by Advisory Panels who developed and presented strategies to the meet the goals to the Council. Those strategies were used to develop the integration analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants that quantified the impact of the strategies. That material was used to write Draft Scoping Plan that was released for public comment at the end of 2021. The Climate Action Council will revise the Draft Scoping Plan based on comments and other expert input in 2022 with the goal to finalize the Scoping Plan by the end of the year.
The May 26, 2022 Climate Action Council meeting (recording) included an agenda item for Council members to describe their impressions of comments made at the public hearings I think the public hearings was the first time that opinions from outside the echo chamber of Albany politics and climate advocacy were heard by Council members. Unfortunately, the reaction to those objections was dismissive. This article lists examples of explicit Council claims about misinformation and misunderstandings in the public hearing presentations. I note that there are inconsistencies between their remarks about what they think is in the Draft Scoping Plan and what is actually in it. In particular there are issues with the Council remarks regarding reliability of the projected future electric grid, heat pumps, and jobs.
The members of the Council that were most concerned about misinformation also argued that a public information campaign was needed so that the “correct” story could be heard. I argue below that it is important that the public outreach present a balanced overview of all of the issues so that the public can decide for themselves. Otherwise, the public information effort will just be propaganda.
I follow a blog that had a recent article about human language and persuasion that included a good summary of propaganda. The article, A Serf’s Primer on Human Language, described the contents of Joseph Goebbels diary (translated by Louis Lochner). The diary describes the basic principles of propaganda:
- Avoid abstract ideas – appeal to the emotions.
- Constantly repeat just a few ideas.
- Give only one side of an argument.
- Constantly criticize your opponent.
I do not believe that there is any parallel between the motives of the Nazi party to indoctrinate a country to accept the evils of that regime and the Climate Action Council’s public information campaign. However, I do want to point out that propaganda can pervert any public decision-making processes. Therefore, the plan for public information should avoid unintentionally using these principles.
Misinformation and Misunderstandings
Two Council members talked about misinformation and misunderstandings but did not describe specific examples. Basil Seggos discussed his thoughts starting at 19:50 of the recording and brought up the subject of public engagement. He admitted that when they got out into public that they gained a better appreciation of the scale of the challenge. He said it was tough to communicate the challenges but when on to say there is lots of “misinformation and misunderstanding but also lots of excitement and support”. Raya Salter (speaking at 37:27 of the recording) claimed that there are two lobbying groups: paid advocacy community and the paid misinformation community. She said there were well-funded efforts to spread the misinformation and that there is no voice challenging it. I think these remarks represent criticism of the opponents of the plan and those who support it in principle but think that adjustments and alternatives would improve it.
Another topic for misinformation according Council member comments was concerns about the reliability of an electric system that relies on wind and solar. Paul Shepson (starting at 23:39 of the recording said:
Mis-representation I see as on-going. One of you mentioned the word reliability. I think the word reliability is very intentionally presented as a way of expressing the improper idea that renewable energy will not be reliable. I don’t accept that will be the case. In fact, it cannot be the case for the CLCPA that installation of renewable energy, the conversion to renewable energy, will be unreliable. It cannot be.
Robert Howarth, starting at 32:52 of the recording) picked up on the same issue. He said that fear and confusion is based on mis-information but we have information to counter that and help ease the fears. He stated that he thought reliability is one of those issues: “Clearly one can run a 100% renewable grid with reliability”, although he did admit it had to be done carefully. Two quotes from a recent New York Independent System Operator presentation directly contradict them: “Significant uncertainty is related to cost / availability of Dispatchable Emissions Free Resource IDEFR) technologies, as well as regulatory definition of ‘zero-emissions’ compliant technologies” and “Some scenarios do not represent realistic system performance but are helpful in identifying directional impacts and sensitivity to key variables”. I have explained that is as close as a technical report can come to saying this won’t work as you can get without actually saying it. Advocates for renewable energy solutions constantly repeat the argument that the technology works but don’t address the arguments from those who point out all the issues.
Disparaging speaker remarks about heat pumps for heating electrification were also described as misinformation. Robert Howarth (starting at 32:52 of the recording) said that another area for misinformation is heating with heat pumps. He has one and has repeatedly said that his works. He went on to say that “Anyone who says otherwise is just misinforming”. He concluded that there are forces out there that are working to counter our messages with misinformation. He hit three out of four propaganda principles: Constantly repeat just a few ideas, give only one side of an argument, and criticize your opponent.
Robert Rodriguez (starting at 43:25 of the recording) also addressed heat pumps. He said that the Council has to communicate directly with homeowners and rate payers about what this means. He claimed that the misinformation campaign listed four different numbers for home electrification and was using hyperbole about the impacts to scare senior citizens. This appeals to emotions because the opposition is scaring senior citizens.
I want to make a specific point about the Rodriguez claim that four different cost estimates for home electrification means it has to be misinformation. I showed in my comments that there are two types of heat pumps and two levels of building shell improvements in the Integration Analysis. As a result, there are four cost estimates in the Draft Scoping Plan. Furthermore, there are issues related to expectations for those estimates. My reading is that depending on where you live you could have a comfortable home with the cheaper air source heat pump and a basic building shell in some areas of the state like Long Island but in the coldest areas like Lake Placid, you might need to go with the more expensive ground source heat pump and the more expensive deep building shell. I think the Council should address the following before casting aspersions on those who are raising issues:
- How are homeowners expected to know what building shell upgrades will be needed to maintain comfort and safety in the winter?
- Today as long as the structure was compliant with the code at the time of construction it can legally exist and does not have to be upgraded when exchanging hands. What are you going to recommend to drive the changes in building codes necessary to force building shell upgrades?
- If homeowners have the option to choose to use supplemental electric resistance heating over the more expensive building shell upgrades will the distribution system be able to handle the extra load when needed the most?
- In the event of a prolonged winter outage (for example due to an ice storm) what is the plan to prevent people from freezing in the dark?
Paul Shepson (starting at 22:05 of the recording) picked up on the misunderstanding and misinformation label in his comments about job losses. He said that speakers worried about potential loss of jobs were misinformed because they apparently think that job impacts would be immediate. He said that the transition will be gradual, giving lots of people lots of time to adjust, re-train and so on. Labeling comments as misinformation and then giving one side of the argument is certainly an unintentional bit of propaganda.
There wasn’t a oft-repeated reference to the appeal to emotions principle during this meeting only because there wasn’t a recent storm. After every extreme weather event affecting New York over the last two years, the subsequent Climate Action Council meeting made the emotional argument that it was surely a sign of climate Armageddon. I cannot imagine that the public education program would not also rely on that approach.
Voices of Reason
I was encouraged that there were some rational comments from a couple of the Council members. Dennis Eisenbach, (starting at 51:09 of the recording) felt it was necessary to speak up because he said he was “starting to get concerned about some of the comments made by some Council members”. He said that: “It is almost like we are dismissing critical input maybe because we don’t agree with it or doesn’t flow naturally in what we are trying to do with the scoping plan document so that concerns me a little bit.” He suggested that “If there are issues that are out there brought up by the public or whoever brought them up that kind of like create a misunderstanding or misleading premise let’s develop a frequently asked questions section of our plan”. He concluded: “I don’t want us to be in a position that we are determining what is valid and what is not valid from the eyes of the individuals trying to provide input because if you want to shut down input this is a good way of doing it”. I agree with his comments.
Rose Harvey (starting at 46:52 of the recording) pointed out that information labeled as misleading might not be misinformation. She said these topics are so complex that it is easy to not understand everything. She admitted she doesn’t understand everything Council members are saying. I think that is a key admission. Some of the more vocal Council members talk a good game but there is no indication that they have the background and experience to have an educated opinion on some of the topics they so confidently talk about.
I have no doubts whatsoever that the intent of most of those Council members asking for a public information campaign was to sell the plan by only giving one side of the story. The outreach will appeal to emotions and repeat a limited number of points. I would not be surprised at all if the outreach manages to criticize anyone who has raised issues. That is unacceptable.
Instead, I think what is needed is transparency to instill public confidence. The universal question everyone has is how much is this going to cost me. For example, relative to home heating with heat pumps, the public information campaign should address the points mentioned above so that homeowners understand the range of potential impacts on costs. I repeatedly made the point in my Draft Scoping Plan comments that the Final Scoping Plan should describe all control measures, assumptions used, the expected costs for those measures and the expected emission reductions for the Reference Case, the Advisory Panel scenario and the three mitigation scenarios. That way, and only that way, will the Climate Action Council avoid misinformation itself, meet its obligation to provide full disclosure of costs and benefits, and avoid unintentional cost propaganda.