It’s Not About Climate Change–It’s About Keeping Advertisers Happy

Scientific American has a dilemma (Extra!, 2/11): It takes advertising from oil companies whose profits depend on denying the most important scientific fact of our era, the reality of human-caused climate change. The magazine would lose its whole brand identity if it pretended global warming wasn’t happening, but there are things short of that that will make its fossil-fuel-selling advertisers a little happier.

Such as running blog posts like “It’s Not About Tar Sands–It’s About Us” by Melissa C. Lott and Scott McNally (5/23/12). Lott and McNally–both of whom have worked for the energy industry when they aren’t science blogging–dispute the idea that people concerned with climate change ought to discourage Canada from extracting and burning its tar sands, because:

Stopping Canada from producing tar sands will not curb the world’s oil demand, reduce fossil fuel consumption or significantly reduce our total greenhouse gas footprint. In truth, if President Obama were to convince Canada to stop producing their own resources, as Hansen suggests, this would not discourage Americans from driving their SUVs to the mall.

If we want to reduce fossil fuel consumption, we have to reduce demand.

Oh, come on. Surely folks from the business world have heard about supply and demand? The Canadian tar sands account for about 12 percent of proven global oil reserves–more than enough to have a major impact on world oil prices, which is the surest way to affect demand.

But not only don’t Lott and McNally want to restrict the supply of oil to reduce demand, they don’t think it’s a good idea to reduce demand by taxing it, either.

Taxing oil producers, and then distributing those tax revenues to oil consumers makes little sense in the context of our nation’s energy markets. Here’s why:

If you impose a tax on an energy company, instead of becoming less profitable by absorbing the tax, the energy companies will pass on the expense to the consumer…. So ultimately, energy will be more expensive, and the consumer will pay more. From an environmental perspective, this is good, because incentivizing consumers to use less can lead to demand reductions. But, giving those taxes back to the consumer nullifies the incentive.

You really have to wonder if they’re trying hard not to understand the proposal they’re criticizing. As they quote, the suggestion is that a tax on carbon be returned to the public “on a per-capita basis”–meaning that people who use less carbon than average would get a bonus, and people who use more would face a penalty. Where’s the incentive nullification in that?

Sloganeering for the energy interests that have employed them, Lott and McNally conclude: “A tax that would punish producers and reward consumers is not going to help.” Writing like this is only going to help Scientific American assure its oil industry advertisers that it sometimes has their back.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.