SAN DIEGO — A climate policy adviser for presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg has recently come under attack for criticizing an ambitious vision of the Green New Deal aimed at dismantling the fossil fuel industry.

David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California at San Diego, caused an uproar among environmental activists this month after saying in a New York Times article that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposed climate plan “can’t work in the real world.”

The blowback centered on the fact that much of Victor’s research over the last decade has been funded by the British oil and gas company BP and the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit representing the interests of prominent energy companies. Critics also pointed out that Victor has been paid by the Trump administration to testify in defense of the federal government in a lawsuit brought by youth claiming a failure to act on climate change violates their constitutional rights.

In response, many academics came to Victor’s defense, saying the internationally recognized researcher has dedicated his life to addressing global warming. Victor has been a leading contributor to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and was a player in the 2015 Paris Agreement aimed at capping warming at 2 degrees Celsius.

“Based on my interaction with David, he’s been extremely professional,” said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a renowned climate researcher at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who has worked with Victor on a number of scientific papers and newspaper editorials.

“I’ve never thought that he’s bringing any baggage to the table when we write,” he added.

The Buttigieg campaign issued a statement to The San Diego Union-Tribune saying that Victor was a volunteer and just one of dozens of experts that contributed to the candidate’s climate plan.

Victor’s views on how to solve climate change highlight a significant rift among the Democratic Party and its supporters. While some see the fossil fuel industry as the enemy, others view oil and gas companies as potential partners in preventing catastrophic warming.

Victor — who is also the co-chair of the Brookings Institution’s Initiative on Energy and Climate — embodies the latter view.

“Some of the fossil fuel industry is going to be part of the solution,” he said in a recent interview with the Union-Tribune, noting that his views were not necessarily those of the Buttigieg campaign. “We need to find as many allies in reducing carbon as possible.”

In stark contrast, Sanders’ climate plan — dubbed the Green New Deal in coordination with the House resolution of the same name — says the presidential contender will “face down the greed of fossil fuel executives and the billionaire class who stand in the way of climate action.”

Victor said Sanders’ approach is “guaranteed to fail politically.”

Specifically, he took issue with the candidate’s $16.3 trillion blueprint’s goal of reaching 100% renewable energy for transportation and electricity by 2030 and fully decarbonizing the economy by 2050.

Pursuing such a vision, which calls for building government-run solar and wind farms, could waste valuable time, Victor said.

“Unless Bernie Sanders would win the presidency and win both houses with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, I don’t see how he’s going to get that done,” he said. “These are the kinds of things that are a concern.”

Rather, Victor would like to carve out room to further explore biofuels, nuclear power and carbon capture technology.

He argues that such technologies could help limit warming in the most cost-effective way possible, a crucial step for encouraging developing nations to follow suit.

“If electrification of all end uses is extremely expensive then it might be a fun thing to do in California, but it’s not relevant for a global solution,” he said.

Victor’s skepticism of renewable energy’s potential has made him enemies — most notably Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, whose research provided inspiration for Sanders’ climate plan.

Jacobson’s work has suggested that the U.S. electrical grid can run on 80% clean energy by 2030 and 100% by 2050. According to his research, the shift — which would include electrifying everything from cars to buildings to shipping — is not only feasible but economical.

“In fact, if we transition to 100% renewables, the aggregate annual energy cost to all consumers would be 60% lower than it is under a fossil fuel regime,” Jacobson said in an interview.

“Victor is not an expert on climate or energy plans,” he added. “He’s a shill for the fossil fuel industry.”

Victor first raised the ire of Jacobson by co-authoring a 2017 paper that attempted to debunk the Stanford researcher’s work on the feasibility of reaching 100% renewable energy.

The report, led by mathematician Christopher Clack of grid modeling firm Vibrant Clean Energy, said that Jacobson’s analysis “used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.”

Jacobson vehemently contested the paper authored by Clack, Victor and others. When Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences declined to retract or make certain changes to the paper, Jacobson filed a lawsuit arguing that the article had damaged his credibility as a scientist by using false and misleading information. The complaint also alleged that the paper’s authors failed to fully disclose their ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Citing the time and expense of the litigation, Jacobson ultimately dropped the suit in February. But the tension with Victor and others on the paper didn’t end there.

Jacobson is now testifying in a federal lawsuit on behalf of 21 young people, organized under the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, who claim a failure to act on climate change violates their “rights to life, liberty, property and public trust resources …”

At the same time, Victor and two other authors on the paper are being paid by the Trump administration to testify in the case, which is known as Juliana v. United States.

The federal government has argued that “there is no fundamental constitutional right to a stable climate system.”

If the youth prevail, the government could be forced to take dramatic action to curb greenhouse gas. It would also likely set a legal precedent expanding the power of the judicial system in the context of climate change.

Victor said he opposes the lawsuit because it would violate the separation of powers between the branches of government.

“The case here is not whether the United States should make big reductions in greenhouse gases,” Victor said. “Everyone agrees with that. The case here is whether the doctrine of public trust should be interpreted in an expansive way to create sort of a new set of human rights and legal obligations that would then result in the courts being able to determine large sections of energy policy.”


Ann Carlson, co-director of UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said the litigation has been divisive even among those who support strong action on climate change.

“Many scholars think the litigation is ill-advised, including some highly prominent progressives,” she said in an email. “Serving as an expert in the litigation does not make him … a tool of the fossil fuel industry.”


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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): David Victor

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