Monday, October 08, 2007

If you want a piece of Nordhaus to go with your Stern

Nordhaus and Shellenberger will be on line at TPM Cafe discussing their new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Joseph Romm has already cut a slice.

What do Michael Crichton, Bjørn Lomborg, Frank Luntz, George W Bush (and his climate/energy advisors) have in common with Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus? They all believe 1) new “breakthrough” technologies are needed to solve the global warming problem and 2) investing in such technology is far more important than regulating carbon. . .

Why two people who say they care about the environment, Shellenberger & Nordhaus (S&N), embrace it, I don’t understand. Their instant new bestseller, unhelpfully titled Break Through — has already been endorsed by Roger Pielke, Jr. and Gregg Easterbrook and The National Review — ’nuff said. You can read all the misinformation you want from them online in their landmark essay, "The Death of Environmentalism” and recent articles in The New Republic (subs. req’d) and Gristmill (here and here).

S&N simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Worse, their message plays right into the hands of those who counsel delay. For that reason, I will spend some time debunking them. Here is the most dangerous S&N falsehood, from TNR:

"Over the last ten years, a consensus has emerged among energy policy experts–one no less important than the consensus among climate scientists that carbon emissions are warming the earth. What’s needed, they say, are disruptive clean-energy technologies that achieve non-incremental breakthroughs in both price and performance."

Uhh, no. Energy policy is my field, and I have talked to virtually all of the leading energy policy experts over the past few years. A few believe as S&N do (mostly academics), but the majority do not – especially those who are actual energy practitioners or who have taken the time to educate themselves on climate science. Yes, they all want much higher funding for clean energy R&D — who doesn’t??? (other than the phantom “pain- and-sacrifice-loving” environmentalists that only S&N seem to have met).

But the energy practioners know that meaningful breakthroughs rarely if ever happen in energy (a key point I will return to in the next post). I can say that with very high confidence since I ran the federal office responsible for doing the vast majority of the research into new carbon-free technologies.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger get their pony.


Sparrow (in the coal mine) said...

"A few believe as S&N do (mostly academics), but the majority do not – especially those who are actual energy practitioners or who have taken the time to educate themselves on climate science.


But the energy practioners know that meaningful breakthroughs rarely if ever happen in energy (a key point I will return to in the next post)."
There is some really simple math that can be done that will make it blatantly obvious that regulation and conservation alone have no hope of solving our CO2 problem. I'm away from home right now but when I get back I'll make a post on my blog with lots of facts and figures that will make this crystal clear. I've pretty much finished the researching the post I just need to finish writing it up.

I know Joseph Romm (as well as Frederick Seitz btw) has much better credentials than I do, and therefore is a better man than I, but I have a very difficult time respecting opinions that do not heavily rely on a technology revolution as major part of the solution.

As I referenced here even Chevron is saying:

"Efficiency, improvements, and conservation are part of the solution, but will not, in themselves, meet the need for more energy"

There are more than a few academics in the energy field that agree with that statement.

So you are basically left with the following solutions:

1) Technology
2) Blocking the light in the upper atmosphere
3) Genocide

As much as I despise the policy of the Bush administration there is a ton of evidence that they are correct. It just sucks that we don't have enough Ph.D.'s in material science, don't have enough time and don't have a leadership that is acting like they give a damn.

Dano said...

I have stopped commenting at Joe Romm's CP.

They are mad over there that S&N have said that environmentalists in the past few years have been unsuccessful, and should choose a new tactic.

To which I say: oh, waaaaah.



EliRabett said...

I put that pony there for a reason. Wishing and for a miracle pony will not get us anywhere. If we find one under the pillow, that would be nice.

Dano said...

Socolow and Pacala state that we can achieve stabilization with our technology today. I don't disagree. What I disagree with is that our society can get there today. I don't think we're motivated. The Apollo project wants to motivate people, and this is an idea. The point is that S&N want carbon stabilization, you want C stabilization, I want C stabilization, the mice want...etc. Why are we doing the circular firing squad?



Simon Donner said...

Stabilizing emissions is possible with existing technology according to the Pacala/Socolow analysis. Stabilizing emissions won't stabilize atmospheric concentrations or the climate -- emissions need to be much lower than today's level.

The key to the Pacala/Socolow line of thinking is that if the world made the effort to stabilize emissions using existing technology, the incentive would then be there to develop the breakthrough technologies that will reduce emissions far below today's level (without damaging the economy, presumably).

In that sense, you might say Romm and S&N are both right -- we need to use today's technologies and we need breakthroughs

Anonymous said...

With today's technology we could do a lot more than just "stabilize emissions".

That's pretty obvious. The US emits about 1/4 the world total yearly emitted CO2.

but the US has a per capita energy consumption that is far above even most European countries (2x that of germany, for example).

If the US cut its energy consumption in half through efficiency improvements and conservation measures, it would also undoubtedly cut its emissions in half.

So, by that alone, it could CUT world emissions by 12.5%.

And a comment about breakthrough technologies: they don't happen if no one makes them happen. Importantly, you have to spend lots of money on them to begin with to make them happen.

Who really believes the libertarian types who are now saying "Don't worry, be happy" on the climate issue are going to be willing to spend the money to make the breakthrough's happen?

Fat chance. The juvenile Ayn Rand worshippers do not want to spend a single dime on anything that benefits humanity as a whole.

Zeke said...

I think the main fault of S%N is to ignore the incentives side of the equation. Yes, much more money is needed in research and diffusion of cleantech. However, diffusion will never be successful without systemic changes to make diffusion economically viable.

For example, the U.S. has spent billions on clean coal and sequestration research. However, no coal-based utility in their right mind will adopt sequestration, no matter how cheap, if there is not a price on carbon emissions.

David B. Benson said...

I don't know whether or not to classify bioenergy as a breakthough or not, but it is already making a meaningful contribution. See

where a recent review paper points out that ethanol-from-corn and biodiesel-from-rapeseed will be replaced by bioenergy solutions which do make a useful contribution.

Anonymous said...

"They all believe 1) new “breakthrough” technologies are needed to solve the global warming problem and 2) investing in such technology is far more important than regulating carbon. . ."

They could not be more wrong on the latter point.

The problem is that both existing and new technologies on the horizon that would be able to compete economically with coal and oil may not be able to do so as long as fossil fuel power plants enjoy what amounts to a subsidy: they pay nothing for the cleanup of the carbon they spew into the atmosphere.

As long as this is not factored into the equation, the price of electricity generated by burning coal, gas and oil will be artificially low.

Taxing carbon emissions is a key FACTOR -- perhaps the most important one -- in allowing alternative technologies (new and old alike) to compete in the marketplace.

for all the talk of a free market in the US, it ain't very free and the people who champion such a free market seem to be the very ones supporting support for their pet industries and projects.

Make it a level playing field and I 'd bet that we will see all kinds of innovation in relatively short order.

bigcitylib said...

J & S have a piece in Salon in which they argue something along the lines that Environmentalists should embrace a kind of philosophy of hope and joy. Keep a barf bag handy and definitely don't read it if you're diabetic.

Steve Bloom said...

Taking Simon's point, all one has to do is look around and see the numerous easy steps that are still being actively resisted but that, if taken, would send the appropriate social signal that would result in more innovation. Examples are sharply stepped-up CAFE, banning CF light bulbs, halting sprawl development, instituting energy-efficient building codes, upgrading energy efficiency of existing buildings via efficiency utilities, enhanced RPS, ramped-up appliance efficiency, and the list goes on. The point is that there are major steps that can be taken now and imnlemented short-term, and the failure to take them is evidence that our society is not committed to a low-carbon future. It's beyond me why anybody would expect large-scale private-sector innovation to occur absent such proof that society has actually decided to change direction. Government subsidization of technology can substitute only to a limited extent.

coeruleus said...

Hey, what can you expect from those who write:

Is the pleasure we get from buying trinkets at the mall any less innate than the pleasure we get from walking through an ancient redwood forest?

Cynthia said...

While the other side has made several excellent points, I find myself siding with Eli...

IMO, the main reason a few denialists (the capitalists ones, that is) have decided to jump on the warming wagon is because they truly believe there are viable alternatives to fossil fuels in the pipeline: many ponies under the pillow, so to speak. What's more, they believe that as soon as consumer demand reaches a tipping point, alternatives will be unleashed from this pipeline into the marketplace. But little do hardcore capitalists understand that until a revolutionary discovery in the fundamental nature of energy is made, there are little (if any) viable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Hate to say it, but the free market is a man-made product, whereas energy is a product of Nature. Plus no matter how hard capitalists wish to the contrary, the free market and energy don't necessarily operate in tandem. And they certainly aren't one and the same. In short, it's merely a pipe dream is believe otherwise.

Not to bust any pipelines, or even worse, any pipe dreams, but to me, the God of Energy will always rule over the god of capitalism. Perhaps even more important, the greater God doesn't give a damn about the lesser one!

Dano said...

I see societies have a long way to go before we choose an actual direction in which to point ourselves.

I, personally, don't think we can do what needs to be done where we are today. IME and training, S&N are stepping back and offering a sensible assessment, analysis and solution set.

I find it extremely fascinating the reaction to the solutions - the endpoint is the same, but the repudiation of our failed methods strikes at our identity.

Repudiating identity politics and embracing change is too much, apparently. It's a big deal for the resource managers in the room.



Holly Stick said...

Just to add to the general cheerfulness, is it not likely that potable water will run out even before oil does?

John Mashey said...

Cynthia: what's your definition of a capitalist and can you give me some examples of people? I'm having a hard time relating what you're saying.

Anonymous said...

Dano said: "I see societies have a long way to go before we choose an actual direction in which to point ourselves."

I think this is exactly right.

This is about far more than just climate change and energy.

It is all about the future "path" (as Amory Lovins put it 25 years ago) that our society will take.

Will it take the hard path? -- more and more centralization, exemplified by the nuclear power option -- or will it choose the "soft path"? -- toward decentralized power production, exemplified by renewable energy sources.

The implications of the "path" for our society as a whole are something that not many people talk about, but should.

This is an indication that there is not a lot of planning for the future going on -- and everyone knows (from Iraq) what happens when you don't plan.

Iraq might seem a walk in the park in comparison to what happens when the oil runs out if we have not prepared for it.

EliRabett said...

Eli has always been in favor of walking and chewing gum. There are applications, locations and needs that do best with central power stations, and nuclear is the best current option for that, and there are those that are best suited to distributed systems. There is a nice comment on this in an old Science as the Rabett said about that:

"In a Science Policy Forum article entitled "A Road Map to US Decarbonization", (available in part in the Energy Bulletin) Reuel Shinnar and Francesco Citro point out that while nuclear is well suited to support baseload electricity generation, solar is ideal for handling peak demand, being most available, when most needed, during the hot days.

Eli may not buy much of the detailed optimism with respect to concentrated solar thermal, but their bottom line for CO2 limited electrical generation is $170 - 200 billion/year to replace 70% of fossil fuel use."

Pretty much the same goes for ponies, ponies would be nice, and we should look for them, but they are not a sure thing and there are a lot of broken down pony salesfolk out there. We need to start doing things with what we have.

Anonymous said...

Some people sell ponies and others sell Trojan horses.

David B. Benson said...

Holly Stick --- Yes, potable water is already in short supply in parts of Australia, parts of Africa, etc.

Cynthia said...

Speaking of various ponies, there's also the "wedge strategy" and "teach the controversy": two products peddled by The Discovery Institute -- and perhaps even by its neighbor, The Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine...

Dano said...

Speaking of future paths, economists talk about 'hard landings' and 'soft landings' too. I think part of our societal discussion that isn't happening should be an honest discussion about 'landing'.

That is: so we know our lifestyles will decline. To what, and how far? In my view, S&N are offering a slightly alternative path; we know we need to go southeast, S&N say the course is 135 degrees, others say 145 degrees. I still don't understand why the 145 degree-ers have to scream bloody murder because the course is slightly different.

To me its similar to two toddlers at the table crying because the other has more milk, because mom gave them two different glasses and the toddlers haven't learned about volume yet. And how useful would it be for mom to claim one toddler was using a Trojan horse or being deceptive about how much milk was in their glass?

I mean, really.



Adam said...

Regulation can provide incentive to innovation. If people cannot do things they would like to do, with the carbon allowance they have, they would pay good money to someone who could enable them to do it some other way.

As has been said by others, I see no mutually exclusives here, and see no reason why we can't attempt to use all methods at our disposal, discarding those that prove to be problematic en-route. It's quicker than trying them all sequentially.

John Mashey said...

Suppose a business (or a geography) believes that if it makes stricter environmental rules, that it will suffer, at least in the short term, compared to its competitors. By default, many business leaders think about the next quarter, and politicians about the next election, although there are plenty who at least some who think further ahead.

Of course, it may well be that the short-term hit is less than people expect, or in some cases, (like the easier energy savings) have proved a pleasant surprise of paying off almost immediately.

If a regulation is seen as a long-term good, raises the bar for all competitors, and hence leaves the competitive landscape alone, rather than making whoever goes first take a possibly-damaging hit in revenues, then many people are happy to have the regulation. [Of course, if you've invested in a competitive advantage, you may not want the bar raised to make laggard competitors get better ... hence the (unfortunate) recent Toyota action.

Of course, things like carbon taxes turn out to cause varying degrees of pain. If only coal plants were affected, and it just meant they'd all raise their prices, they probably wouldn't care ... but they know perfectly well realistic carbon taxes would encourage people to get off coal ASAP onto other alternatives.

To some extent, this is related to the idea of "free rider" in economics, or more mundanely, suppose you had a football game with no referees.

Now, you have a choice of:
A) Voluntarily agreeing to referees that only call penalties on you, on the basis that it will help you clean up your play in the long run.
B) Getting referees that only call penalities on your opponents.
C) Getting good referees who call both.

Very few would accept A); you'd love B), but your opponent won't agree.
hence, C).

Of course, in some cases, people think that setting higher standards doesn't cost much (if anything) in the long run, and that it is often the case that if standards are going to get there sooner or later, you m,ight as well be sooner, and maybe develop skills and products you can sell to the rest when they have to.
Also, some people think that local competition (as much as it's disliked in the short term) makes for much better competitive skills in the broader markets that sitting around fat and happy ... and then being beaten later by ferocious competitors.

For instance, here's sample of entities that for one reason or another tend to think this way:
(under who is participating).

Cynthia said...

Like most commenters here, I also think that "breakthrough technologies" and "regulating carbon" oughta be implemented together, without excluding one or the other. But S&N seem to be arguing that because "regulating carbon" will gain less political traction than "breakthrough technologies", "regulating carbon" oughta take a backseat to "breakthrough technologies".

IMO, this is the right approach if "breakthrough technologies" are in the pipeline ready to be unleashed into the market, but they're not, not even close! So in the meantime, I think it's best that "breakthrough technologies" take a backseat to "regulating carbon".

BTW, I certainly didn't intend to come across as an extremist, sometimes I just get so sick and tired of hearing that laissez-faire will take care of all our societal woes: whether these woes pertain to the economy, or the environment, or somewhere in between...

Anonymous said...

I think nuclear fusion is a perfect example of why you can't rely on breakthrough technologies to solve your problems.

Scientists and engineers have been working on controlled nuclear fusion for about half a century now, spent billions on it and are really not much closer to the goal of a working reactor that produces a self-sustained fusion reaction with a net gain in energy than they were when they started.

The rose colored glasses always color your view at the beginning -- and sometimes even decades later (as with fusion).

It's a little like Iraq: the light at the end of the tunnel is always just around the next bend.

Anonymous said...

Cynthia: I ask again:

what's your definition of a capitalist and can you give me some examples of people?
And in "Like most..."

I'm still having a hard time relating what you're saying. I.e., I know you're ascribing behavior to some people, and (I think) arguing against it, but being a little more specific would help understand the points you're making.

I.e., I'm not agreeing or disagreeing, I'm just trying to understand who you are actually talking about and what you think they're saying.

BTW: mary Ellen Tiffany Gilder (a medical student) first posted and anti-Gore rant at DI, and then a pointer to a later version showed up at OISM, and then Steve Forbes highlighted it in a Forbes Editorial.

Cynthia said...

Dear John,

I'm really sorry my comments don't make any sense to you. But to be honest, some of yours don't make much sense to me either. So let's call it even and move on!

Enjoy the weekend,

Chris said...

I've been involoved in enough large projects as a engineer to realise that technological inovation, particularly in areas where there is a prevailing "status quo" midset, that such projects often operate in a "two steps forward, one set back manner". I've seen projects approved and then canceled, given green lights and then delayed. Often, the problems are technical, but more so managerial. Large scale innovation doesn't happen at the speed the free-marketeers would like us to belive.

As such, its 's my opinion that waiting for some technological silver bullet to blast away CO2 emmisions is fraut with porblems

and can be downright dangerous. We have only a few decades to get this right, and the inevitable delays that will accompany the development of "clean coal", fusion or whatever, wwill push us dangerously close to the edge of the environmental tightrope we find ourselves balancing on. We could find ourselves toppling as we wait for new technologies to become commercially availiable.

However, there are plenty of current, on-shelf technologies that can reduce our energy consumption and replacing CO2 intensive methods of energy production. While solar and wind power may not be able to replace all our power, massive investment in these technologies could see a substantial reduction in CO2 output. The same applies for energy efficiency measures.

This doesn't mean that there shouldn't be investment in new technologies. Obviously we need to do this. However, we should make cuts in CO2 emmissions now, and only put faith in "new" technologies when and if they are shown to work. There is so much we could be doing now, including regulation and target setting, to cut CO2, waiting for new technology seem ridiculous.

End rant.

Anonymous said...

Chris, you gut feeling that clean coal, nuclear and even solar and wind can not respond quickly enough is supported by hard evidence.

The only thing that can respond quickly enough to get emissions down NOW is reductions in energy use -- through efficiency improvements and other conservation measures.

This piece talks about how Bush is pushing a technological fix that relies on just the things that can not respond quickly enough.

clean coal's "effectiveness remains to be proved, and, on the other hand, should it be successful, the first adapted thermal power station will not go on the market before 2020, so that all the power stations built between now and then will fling their gases into the atmosphere."

"if this fourth generation [nuclear] comes to be, it would not be - according to the most optimistic forecasts - until around 2040. As for the possibility of increasing the share of nuclear power with the technology we have now in the balance of global electricity production, that is not envisaged by the International Agency for Atomic Energy, which even forecasts, in its "World Energy Outlook 2006" report, a reduction of that share from 16 percent today to 10 percent in 2030!"

"We cannot exclude the possibility that they [renewable energies] may succeed in doing so, but not before 2040 on a large scale."