Hoodwinked

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Dr. David Gattie is an approachable southern gentleman with a kind demeanor and snow-white hair. He’s a doting husband, father, and grandfather—the kind of person you’d want to invite over for dinner. And still, he jokes, he’s not allowed to eat in the faculty lounge at the University of Georgia, where he serves as an associate professor of engineering and also a senior fellow at the college’s Center for International Trade and Security.

Here’s why. Gattie says, out loud and unapologetically, that he supports keeping coal in the mix as a baseload source of energy. While not promoting the construction of new coal capacity, he emphasized the critical baseload role of existing coal plants and that we should prioritize reliability as we consider shutting down those plants. And he is not a climate denier, he told attendees at the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association (WECA) annual meeting in Eau Claire in November. “Let me state this up front, unqualified, please. I’m not an anti-climate change person. That is not where this is coming from. I understand about rising sea levels. I get that. It’s an issue. It is settled. I can’t argue climate change. And I don’t pretend to, but the question is, if we’re going to transition and restructure our entire economy to address it, what do we get for that?”

Dr. David Gattie speaking at the recent WECA annual meeting.

Decarbonizing our transportation and energy industries is a monumental transition for the American economy. How we power our nation has a direct effect on the cost of everything we buy, sell, and trade. “The United States is looking to decarbonize the world’s largest, most important economy, and greatest military power, and transition away from fossil fuels at a time that we are facing what are arguably the greatest geopolitical challenges in our nation’s history,” Gattie said.

The Biden Administration claims clean energy is cheaper energy, but utility rates don’t support that. In his presentation, Gattie broke down the nation by region, showing that the areas leading the clean energy transition are paying the most for their electricity. Residential rates in California, which is heavy in wind and solar, are about 26 cents/kWr, while the Midwest region which includes Wisconsin, where most of our electricity is still generated by coal and natural gas, is 15.49 cents/kWr, close to the national average. Wisconsin’s largest investor-owned utilities have recently repeatedly cited the cost of clean energy projects when making their case to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin that they need to increase rates.

Massive federal subsidies are aimed at expediting the clean energy transition while keeping costs affordable. The Inflation Reduction Act alone included $400 billion in new clean energy spending. Meanwhile, U.S. manufacturers are working to retrofit plants to meet federal requirements aimed at electrifying everything from vehicles to lawnmowers to household appliances. It’s all very expensive, and those costs, too, are passed on to consumers.

That’s not to say there aren’t savings to be had with clean energy. The sun and wind are free resources, generating power on the cost of building the infrastructure. But managing a complex grid and keeping the lights on are not that simple. Power providers must be able to meet peak demand on the hottest and coldest days of the year, and intermittent wind and solar can’t do that, not even close. This means baseload power, or power you can always count on, such as coal and nuclear (and natural gas, barring potential distribution disruptions), is still critical to ensuring reliability.

Still, the clean energy transition and zero emissions are what is best for the globe and the nation, according to the Biden Administration. President Joe Biden and his national security team have declared climate change an “existential threat” to the U.S. The Administration’s U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) cites climate change almost as often as it mentions Russia, and even more than it mentions China. The theory is that a warming climate will cause food insecurity, communicable diseases, energy shortages, and displacement in some parts of the world, and discontent breeds conflict that could, eventually, turn global.

Gattie also believes that climate change is a threat to national security, but for very different reasons. While the United States is engaged in extreme spending on clean energy and decarbonization and requiring industries here do the same, China is taking the opportunity to get a leg up, fueled, literally, by cheap coal. “They’re throwing up coal plants faster than we can put up solar panels,” he said.

And it appears to be working. The United States gained unprecedented global power after World War II, emerging as the world leader in both economic and military strength, and still today leads the global economy with an estimated real GDP (gross domestic product) of $26.85 trillion (according to International Monetary Fund data), but China has skyrocketed into second place, with its most recent real GDP at $19.37 trillion, a rise that some economists call a “defining global phenomenon.”

While the U.S. has dominated the economic arena for decades, China’s economy has doubled in 10 short years. At this rate, China could overtake the U.S. and become the world’s largest economy at some point in the 2030s. According to recent Pew Research, one-third of countries surveyed already see China as the world’s leading economic power.

China’s economic rise began in 2001 when the country joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), which promotes freer trade by requiring all members to adhere to certain principles. At the time, China was seeking to open up its economy to the rest of the world, and the United States saw this as an opportunity to push China to be “more democratic.” China got what it wanted. The U.S. did not. Chinese President Xi Jinping openly says he believes a non-democratic government provides sustained economic growth as well as, or better than, a democracy.

As for the WTO principles, one requires members honor other countries’ intellectual property rights, including copyright and trademarks, which China has blatantly failed to do. (Temu, anyone?) Turns out, we’ve been hoodwinked before.

Back to Gattie’s point, China’s monumental economic growth comes as it embraces the economic opportunities of America’s effort to combat climate change, while ignoring its own extreme, egregious contributions to the polluting of the planet.

“China is leading the world in solar panel production, electric vehicles, batteries, and wind turbines,” Gattie said. “I often hear it stated that, ‘China is providing climate leadership whereas the U.S. has abdicated.’ They’ve hoodwinked us on this. They’re not providing leadership and they’re not going to.”

It’s a claim that’s not hard to confirm. Reuters reports that China currently has 243 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired plants either approved or under construction, which is enough to power all of Germany. And its commitment to coal is ramping up, not winding down. A new report from Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and the Global Energy Monitor (GEM) finds China permitted more coal power plants in 2022 than it has in any of the prior seven years, the equivalent of about two new coal power plants per week.

China also leads the world in wind and solar expansion, according to the report, but the renewable generation is a mere fraction of the fossil fuel expansion.

Gattie doesn’t entirely blame China for leaning in on coal generation as it works to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. “Coal is affordable, it’s abundant, it works, it’s proven. China is dealing with its economy in a realistic way. If I had been in charge of China, I would have burned coal too,” he said.

China is not only continuing to build coal plants to fuel its own economy, it is taking this opportunity to work with other developing countries, entering into partnerships to build fossil fuel plants, so those countries can have cheap, reliable electricity too. The power plant agreements also make these countries indebted to China for decades to come.

“Both Russia and China are aligning themselves, strategically, with the purpose of marginalizing the United States and its allies in Europe. That is their objective,” Gattie said. “They do not get up in the morning worried about their CO2 emissions. They are working to reshape the international order that they feel has been biased in favor of the west for too long. They do not like our country.”

According to data from the Energy Institute Statistical Review, between 2000 and 2022, while the United States reduced its overall emissions by 725.5 mmtons, China’s pollution, like its economy, has skyrocketed, increasing by 8,128.1 mmtons during that same time, more than negating any global environmental gains made by carbon reduction from the United States and Europe combined. In short, we’re spending more, they’re making more, and no one is saving the planet.

“We do not have unilateral control over climate change, no matter what we do by ourselves,” Gattie said.

At the COP28 climate conference in Dubai last month, 118 countries, including the U.S., committed to tripling the world’s renewable energy capacity by 2030. China and India did not.

China recently spent $1 trillion not to push its own economic drivers toward cleaner energy as the American government is doing, but to expand its influence across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. China used the money to extend loans to countries to build not only fossil fuel plants, but railways, ports, dams, pipelines, and industrial corridors, to open up new markets for China’s exports and also to strengthen ties with resource-rich countries. It is what some call “debt trap diplomacy,” but it backfired in part, as many of the loans went to countries in “financial distress” that have since defaulted. This, along with local government loan defaults in China, has put the nation’s own credit rating at risk.

In a recent editorial published in the Wall Street Journal, Wisconsin Congressman Mike Gallagher, a former Marine who served two deployments in Iraq and has worked as the lead Republican staffer for the Middle East and Counterterrorism on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warns—don’t let China’s recent economic blunders give you a false sense of security.

Jinping has been clear about his priorities, and combatting climate change is not one of them. He wants to build a first-class military and reclaim Taiwan. “Even if the economy sags and Mr. Xi has to cut back in other areas, the military will get the funds it needs. The Pentagon’s recently released annual report on Chinese military and security developments makes clear that, notwithstanding a significant slowdown in China’s rate of economic growth, Beijing can support continued growth in defense spending for at least the next five to 10 years,” Gallagher writes, adding that “As the Chinese economy has slowed, Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels have rammed Filipino coast guard and military-resupply ships in the South China Sea. The Philippines is a U.S. ally. The Chinese military has conducted more than 180 unsafe and unprofessional intercepts of U.S. forces over the past two years—a dangerous spike that has brought U.S. and Chinese forces within feet of deadly collisions. China’s threats to Taiwan also escalate daily.”

(Gallagher holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton, a master’s in security studies from Georgetown, a master’s in strategic intelligence from National Intelligence University, and a PhD in international relations from Georgetown.)

In addition to the United States’ aggressive approach to decarbonization at home, it is also working to help poorer countries pay for clean energy initiatives. At the COP28 climate summit, the U.S. committed another $17.5 million to the loss and damage fund. But both China and India, the world’s top polluters, argue the climate crisis was caused by developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K., emitting greenhouse gases from as early as the 1850s, and therefore they owe for decades of wrongdoing. According to the BBC, China and India argue they are not responsible for paying into the loss and damage fund, as their emissions are a “recent development,” and they should actually be recipients of the fund.

Overall to date, the U.S. offers $9 of clean energy grant funds to poorer nations for every $1 loaned. China, by contrast, offers $1 of grant funds for every $9 loaned.

The United States’ historic spending on clean energy comes as the national debt continues to break records, currently topping a record $33.17 TRILLION. According to the Treasury Department, the federal government spent a record $708 BILLION on net interest alone in 2023, more than on any other program, except the military and Social Security. The Congressional Budget Office projects the cost of interest from debt will exceed the defense budget by 2027.

Gattie believes the United States’ clean energy commitment and laser focus on wind and solar are driving away developing nations. He also believes America must regain its leadership in nuclear power—a technology we once dominated but one that is now dominated by Russia and China. “The abdication of U.S. leadership in civilian nuclear power is in and of itself a national security threat,” Gattie said. “These developing nations are looking for partners, and hoping we reverse course. If we continue to divest and move away from fossil fuels entirely, particularly if we don’t aggressively reclaim leadership in civilian nuclear, they know we’re not going to be there for them. Meanwhile, China and Russia have their hands up, saying ‘we’re here for you,’ and when the world picks authoritarian powers over the U.S.—that’s a national security blunder.”

A Pew Research study found Americans widely view China as the greatest threat facing this nation. The question is—what to do about it?

Gattie believes it is time to reverse course. “We need to back off of the decarbonization mantra right now and focus entirely on ensuring that our industrial base is more advanced, more complex, and in much better shape to compete with China. That should be our energy policy,” he said.—Julie Lund

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