Energy Policy: No Place for Zero-Sum Thinking

AuthorInara Scott
Chapter 3
Energy Policy: No Place
for Zero-Sum Thinking
Inara Scott
The popular notion of a zero-sum game is a scenario in wh ich, in order
for one party to gain value, another party must lose it. We can imag-
ine a pie cut into six pieces, with six people standing beside it. For any
one individual to get two pieces (the winner) someone else must go hungry
(the loser).1 One of the key assumptions here, of course, is that the number of
slices of pie is xed. We cannot add to the pie. Because one cannot win unle ss
someone else loses, there is no win-win scenario in the zero-su m game.
Any simplistic metaphor is certain to break down under scrutiny, but
in broad, multi-faceted policy contexts, such as the evolution of the energy
industry in the United States, the zero-sum g ame, or winner/loser paradigm,
is particularly unhelpful, and can lead to short-sighted and dangerous con-
sequences. For example, consider calls for transitioning electric generation
to renewable fuel sources. Zero-sum thinkers, seeing renewables as winners,
necessarily identif y fossil fuels as losers.2 Similarly, those who see the environ-
ment as the winner often suggest that economic growth must be the loser.3
For an illustration of this way of thinking, one need only look to President
1. In this piece, the author refers interchangeably to zero-sum and winner/loser thinking. For an
example of the winner/loser framing, see Eliza Barclay, 3 Winners and 5 Losers From Trump’s
Decision to Pull Out of the Paris Climate Agreement, V  .com, June 3, 2017,
2. Popular news articles about developments in electric generation often characterize solar and coal as “win-
ners” and “losers” in the electric industry. See, e.g., Katie Fehrenbacher, U.S. Solar Jobs Boom While Oil, Coal
Struggle, F, Jan. 12, 2016,; Anna Mikulska
& Michael Maher, Who’s Winning the Battle to Replace Coal?, F, May 17, 2016, www.forbes.
3. Dana Varinsky et al., 5 Claims Trump Used to Justify Pulling the U.S. Out of the Paris Agreement—and the
Reality, B. I, June 1, 2017,
paris-agreement-2017-6/#job-losses-1; Noah Kaufman, U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Energy Institute
Misleads on Climate Action Costs: 3 ings to Know, W R. I., Apr. 26, 2017, www.wri.
know?utm_source=&utm_medium=&utm_campaign. Importantly, some studies of the economic
cost of the Paris Agreement do not factor in the cost of not responding to climate change, which is
potentially devastating. Marshall Burke et al., Global Non-Linear Eect of Temperature on Economic
Production, 527 N 235 (2015) (“unmitigated warming is expected to ... reduc[e] average global
34 Beyond Zero-Sum Environmentalism
Donald Trump’s statement on his intent to withdraw the United States from
the Paris Climate Accord, where he stated that the a greement would put U.S.
energy reserves “under lock and key,” thereby “taking away the great wealth
of our nation .. . and leaving millions and millions of families trapped in
poverty a nd joblessne ss.”4 If renewable energy wins, the argument goes, the
fossil fuel industry will lose, leaving the people it employed trapped in pov-
erty and joblessness, ultimately destroying the wealth of an entire nation. It
does not get much starker than that.
e zero-sum fallac y is particularly insidious because it can be both
entirely wrong and entirely right, depending on the scope of the sc enario that
is considered. Renewable energy and natural gas have increasingly replaced
coal as a source of electric generation5; meeting carbon emission reductions
may require the elimination of fossil fuels from our generation stack.6 ese
scenarios point to a clear winner and loser. Similarly, one might be able to
show how favoring renewables could result in closing a coal plant, which
could in turn have negative economic consequences for the town in which it
was located and for those the mine employed. On the other hand, if viewed
in combination with a broad set of policy measures that include job retrain-
ing, environmental remediation, and the development of new industries, the
same plant closure could result in overall benets in physica l and economic
health for coal-dependent regions.7 Although a depleted coal industr y will
clearly create some economic losses, including jobs at coal mines, data does
not support the notion that the growth of renewable energy will necessarily
incomes roughly 23% by 2100 and widen global income inequality”), available at https://www.nature.
4. Press Release, e White House, Statement by President Trump on the Paris Climate Accord (June 1,
accord. For more information about the Paris Agreement, see U N F C-
  C C (UNFCCC), T P A,
items/9485.php (last visited June 15, 2017).
5. U.S. Energy Info. Admin., Annual Energy Outlook 2017, at 69 (2017),
6. See Steven J. Davis et al., Future CO2 Emissions and Climate Change From Existing Energy Infrastructure,
329 S 1330 (2010). Some studies suggest eliminating carbon emissions from future emitters may
not be enough to limit warming. See Céline Guivarch & Stéphane Hallegatte, Existing Infrastructure
and the 2°C Target, 109 C C 801 (2011).
7. e negative health eects of coal mining are well-documented. See, e.g., Rachel Sapire, Engulfed in
a Toxic Cloud: e Eects of Coal Mining on Human Health, H. C. G H R.,
Feb. 1, 2012, (discussing study nding
elevated mortality from chronic health diseases, including those of the heart and respiratory system, as
well as elevated levels of birth defects, in members of mining communities). A 2005 study in Ontario
suggested that coal plants were responsible for “over 600 premature deaths, 900 hospital admissions,
and 1,000 emergency room visits, each year, in Ontario.” O M  E, C-
B A: R O’ C-F E G iv (2005) (report
prepared by DSS Management Consultants Inc.),
coal_cost_benet_analysis_april2005.pdf. See also infra notes 32-36 and accompanying text.

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