Scary Lies Haunt Rhode Island Statehouse for the Money

By GREG GERRITT

PROVIDENCE — I went to the recent Rhode Island Senate hearing on the Global Warming Solutions Act to make mandatory the emissions reductions offered in the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 and on a bill to create a carbon fee and dividend program. Neither bill is really up to the task we face, but they are a start.

Nothing all that interesting happened at the hearing. The environmental advocates, joined by a few business people supporting doing something about climate change, made our case. The only lobbyist testifying against both bills, the designated hitter for all of the opposition, told some very uninteresting scary stories. The lies are interesting if we are dissecting scary stories, but they are exactly the same stories, out of the exact same playbook, lobbyists for industries that harm public health have been telling for years.

Unlike most folks, I hardly prepare in the traditional sense to testify. I tend to rely on winging it, and this allows me to react to the speakers ahead of me.  Occasionally, it allows me to refute the scary story of the day. I did a bit of it at the recent hearing, but this is a bit more fleshed out.

The lobbyist represents a number of organizations, mostly business associations such as the chamber of commerce and convenience stores (read gasoline sellers). At a previous hearing, this lobbyist carped that if we had to buy electric cars then no one could go on a long-distance trip. This time it was about the price of gasoline going up, neglecting the fact that the price of gas went up the week before and no one said anything. It’s like this no matter what. It will be much too hard to adapt to changes in regulation.

But what occurred to me after this hearing is that these folks really undercut capitalism in their stories. We have what is touted as the most innovative system in the world — a capitalist system built on innovation and meeting the needs of customers. And the businesses the lobbyist represents are constantly innovating. Every time the government has created a system of regulations and fees on pollution to protect the public businesses have adapted and created new sources of value that overwhelm the cost of compliance, often creating whole new export industries that send American technology to fix problems around the world.

But every issue that comes before the General Assembly or any other legislative body that will require innovation to protect public health, it’s as if innovation stops. The industries represented will find it impossible to go on and civilization as we know it will grind to a halt. What crap.

Do you believe for one second that if we all switched to electric cars that a network of charging stations wouldn’t sprout up fast? And that the electric companies wouldn’t figure out how to use those batteries to balance the grid There would be no entrepreneurs looking for investments in these new markets?  Or that if we instituted carbon fees that people and businesses wouldn’t slightly switch their mobility strategy to use more efficient vehicles?

The record is very clear. Every time we the people have demanded better environmental protections, the lobbyists for the old guard cry wolf, claiming it will end civilization and create an horrific burden on businesses. It has repeatedly turned out that the scary stories aren’t true.

The Clean Air and Clean Water acts didn’t crash the economy. Benefits are 40 times greater than compliance. Seat belts didn’t price cars out of the reach of consumers. Creating National Parks benefits local communities with better job stability than mining or timber booms that end in a few years. Protecting fisheries keeps fishermen employed.

It’s as if the lobbyists and the industries they represent don’t actually believe in the system they constantly tell us about: the Great American Entrepreneurial Innovation Machine. Or rather they believe in it except when it’s being nudged toward the public good.

Considering their track record, you have to wonder why legislators give such credence to their views. Actually, we do know. It’s all about the money. The system where legislators are very rarely swayed by the public but are always swayed by the money. It’s about time for legislators to ask harder questions, to stop accepting the scary stories as having any credence.

The lobbyists should be laughed out of the room for their big whoppers. Ask them for facts, ask them about the actual effects of the progress they have tried to hold up. Ask them about the ability of business to innovate. And then vote to get us well on the road to stopping climate change.

Providence resident Greg Gerritt is the founder of the think tank ProsperityForRI.com.