The Intersection

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My latest DeSmogBlog entry is up–it’s a reaction to the recent Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger piece in the New Republic, which in turn is an excerpt/adaptation from their new book Break Through. You’ll recall that these guys are the stylish authors of the famed “Death of Environmentalism” essay (PDF). Anyways, I think Nordhaus and Shellenberger are largely right, but also not really as revolutionary as you (or they) might think. As I put it:

Not only do Nordhaus and Shellenberger get the central global warming message right–they go farther with detailed policy prescriptions. The bulk of their New Republic article explains why we must invest massively in new clean energy innovations, instead of just emphasizing caps on pollution all the time. After all, the latter strategy quickly and inevitably leads to counter-charges about wrecking the economy and keeping people poor–and suddenly we find economics cutting against environmental interests, rather than working in their favor.

My main problem with this line of argument is that I don’t disagree with it–which is precisely the point. I mean, does anyone deny that global warming is fundamentally an energy problem, and that solving it will necessitate bringing online innovative new technologies that let us power our societies in a way that’s both cheaper and cleaner?

Michael Shellenberger responded to my DeSmogBlog piece in the comments. Nordhaus and Shellenberger also have a lengthy Grist essay responding to critics.

Comments

  1. #1 Dano
    September 28, 2007

    The important thing, Chris, is that their message is able to move society forward in the direction that you want to go.

    You are pointing out that the course should be, say 130 and S & N are saying it should be 145. It’s still southeast.

    Best,

    D

  2. #2 Randy Olson
    September 28, 2007

    I really don’t get the point of either S&N’s essay or Chris’s response when they both seem to start off with the tone of, “The problem with the Al Gore film is …” There is no problem with that film. It broke through. It scored a direct hit. It has changed the course of history. There is a revolution going on as a result of it. It may not be the perfect revolution and the complete solution, YET, but at this point you simply have to say that Al Gore communicated very, very successfully, and he did it by standing up and telling a clearly motivating tale of gloom and doom.

    End of story. Humans are motivated by hope and fear, and religion shows us that fear can be mighty powerful. Gore took advantage of that and in so doing moved a largely academic discussion out into the mainstream of American society. Instead of picking his effort apart, you should be thinking about the fact that it is, as you say, about the only landmark communication effort since Rachael Carson. All the mountains of editorials and earth shaking books offering shocking new perspectives on our future amount to little compared to these two profoundly broad communication events.

    Suggesting that more emphasis be placed on innovation, while a nice idea, rings very similar to what the Bush administration offered up yesterday with their big climate meeting in which the main solution recommended was, once again, “voluntary target cuts rather than legally binding commitments to cut emissions.” Which Phil Clapp of NET quickly summed up with the simple statement, “Voluntary targets are a waste of time.”

    Gore is on the right track. Gloom and doom may not sell or be popular, but that’s the job of true leaders — to lead the way through hard times.

  3. #3 Fred Bortz
    September 28, 2007

    Chris,

    I think it comes down to the fact that different readers respond to different approaches.

    Some people just want the facts so they can decide how to respond.

    Others want suggestions on how to respond.

    Others prefer political analysis of the various alternatives, and of those, some like ideological writing and others like analysis from multiple perspectives.

    Even Newt Gingrich has jumped in on this subject. (Click my name for a book review.)

    You may call it “framing” in your DeSmogBlog piece. I call it using the tone that best connects to your audience. People who aren’t part of your core audience may not understand your tone or approach. (Which is why some people call Al Gore an alarmist and others say he is sounding a necessary warning–to resurrect a well-beaten dead horse.)

    The main thing is that all kinds of people are becoming aware of what may lie ahead with the climate. Some get it from you, some from N&H, some from Al Gore, some from Newt Gingrich, some from Lomborg, etc. Those who are politically active will put pressure on policy-makers to deal with the issue.

    I say let those on the left, those on the right, and those in the various regions of the center agree that this is an important issue to discuss. The result will be something quite different from business as usual, and that’s a very good thing!

  4. #4 Lance
    September 28, 2007

    I agree with Nordhaus and Shellenberger when they say,

    “In promoting the inconvenient truth that humans must limit their consumption and sacrifice their way of life to prevent the world from ending, environmentalists are not only promoting a solution that won’t work, they’ve discouraged Americans from seeing the big solutions at all. For Americans to be future-oriented, generous, and expansive in their thinking, they must feel secure, wealthy, and strong.”

    The book of revelations AGW apocalyptic scare tactics are counter-productive, especially when they are not based on realistic science, such as photo shopped pictures of Manhattan under water.

    I differ with their assessment that we can spend our way to energy innovation. To read their version of history all past innovation came from government directed spending. If that were true the Soviet Union would have been a great engine of technological innovation. Of course it was just the opposite, a low grade, coal fueled, heavily polluted, industrial back water.

    They are quite right that China, India and the rest of the developing world are about to generate a bunch more CO2 than evil consumer America. Ironically the leftist environmental elite have constructed the perfect cover for these “oppressed nations” to be exempted from limits on their growth and hence CO2 caps.

    So what are the choices proposed by the “new” and “old” environmental movements? The old gaurd wants to frighten the public into accepting massive cuts in energy use by imposing huge tax increases on carbon based energy (pretty much all practical current sources). The newbies think we should “invest” hundreds of billions in government directed programs to spur innovation, while of course turning the screws on carbon based energy with gradually increasing taxes and penalties.

    I think I’ll pass on both. I kind’a think the American public will too.

  5. #5 Linda
    September 28, 2007

    I think that Randy Olson is right on…
    Al Gore’s dialogue, both in major movie and written word, does affect large portions of our population. It has brought on activisim through a clearer awareness of our negatively climate changing world.

  6. #6 Lance
    September 28, 2007

    Linda,

    The climate is quite beautiful here in Indiana on this fine early fall morning. Prey tell what perils await you as you venture outside?

  7. #7 The Sweetest Heart
    September 28, 2007

    An ostrich with its head buried doesn’t change the outcome of things already set in motion. Perhaps if you pulled your head out, you’d have to time to start moving.

    Regardless of what you believe about climate change science, Lance, how does increased use of renewable energy, improved air quality, the reuse of materials, and decreasing waste harm anyone?

    These are likely to be the policies coming out of this debacle. How does a do no harm mentality harm anyone? Linda is right on, in a broader audience, a message of environmental stewardship is very needed in a society with the means to actually enact change.

  8. #8 Lance
    September 28, 2007

    Mornin’ Sweetest Heart,

    The worst that could come of the policies proposed to “tackle” AGW are economic recession, depression or at the least decreased productivity and competitiveness with places like China that have no real intention of hobbling their economies with “carbon reducing” restrictions. Not to mention being an excuse to limit personal freedom and expand centralized government.

    I’m all for market driven alternatives to oil and coal. I just don’t think we can “mandate” them. Perhaps you think we can legislate a perpetual motion machine.

    As for avian comparisons, you would appear to be more chicken (Little) than ostrich, Sweet-ums.

  9. #9 Wes Rolley
    September 28, 2007

    When the Secretary of State (not Energy) was the morning news spokesperson for Bush’s grand gesture Conference this AM, you get a repeat of the too-old message. According to Condescending Rice, this is positioned as an issue of economic competitiveness or saving the planet. As long as the public believes that these are the two choices, saving the planet will always lose because it does not put food on the table, clothes on the children’s backs or gas in the tank of whatever vehicle they drive.

    Yesterday, there was a conference in San Jose where the “leaders” of Silicon Valley put forward the idea that their technologies will save us. I could give them a list of things we need, but we know that many of the technological promises of the past are broken promises: e.g. use of superconductivity to avoid loss in long distance transmission lines.

    Maybe we should all turn to my congressman, Jerry McNerney, the only member of Congress with a Ph. D in math and a consultant on wind energy. We should be giving him the backing to push even harder for better federal financing of energy solutions.

  10. #10 Fred Bortz
    September 28, 2007

    Re what Wes said about his Congressman, I’m blogging about a Ph.D. physicist who is running for Dennis Hastert’s seat.

    http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/ph-d-physicsist-runs-congress-14340.html

    (I misspelled physicist as physicsist when I first posted it. I edited the title but the URL remained the same.)

  11. #11 Linda
    September 28, 2007

    Lance,
    As I follow the Intersection, both Chris and Sheril, I always find you to be argumentative, contrary, and just looking to “pick a fight”, no matter what the subject. Are you really satisfied with that as your reputation, or might you decide to really contribute??? You certainly seem to have alot of time on your hands.

  12. #12 Lance
    September 28, 2007

    Linda,

    Am I contrarian and argumentative? Guilty as charged.

    I think my views are somewhat different than many of the other posters here so it is only natural that the tone of my interactions would tend toward contrarian arguments.

    Also my personality is direct and effusive, although face to face I think my positive intentions and playful spirit tend to diffuse the occasional sarcasm of my remarks. Perhaps one day webcams here at the Intersection will allow my ebullient charms to be better displayed.

    Also I can take a jab as well as deal one, if I feel that the remark is intended in a mutual spirit of fun and not an attempt at character assassination.

    I am a scientist that happens to discount the outlandish catastrophic predictions of AGW. This website, as I understand it, is designed to encourage discussions about the intersection of science and politics. My politics and view of the science appears to be different than some.

    Is it that OK with you?

    I frequently reference scientific studies to support my views of the scientific issues and try to refrain from ad hominem retorts, although I will occasionally hit back when smacked with one.

    The dour tone of your post prompted my sarcastic, but well intentioned, reply about the current pleasant state of the climate outside my window. I’m sorry if the humor of the remark was missed.

    By the way, can you personally report some adverse effect from your “…awareness of our negatively climate changing world”? I for one cannot.

  13. #13 KevinC
    September 28, 2007

    Lance,

    That is weather outside your window not climate. since you don’t know the difference between weather and climate I doubt you understand anything about global warming.

    Kevin

  14. #14 Dano
    September 28, 2007

    That is weather outside your window not climate. since you don’t know the difference between weather and climate I doubt you understand anything about global warming.

    The important thing is he is hijacking the thread to quash discussion, not whether he believes his spam.

    Best,

    D

  15. #15 Lance
    September 28, 2007

    Kevin,

    Sentences start with capital letters.

    Lance

  16. #16 Lance
    September 28, 2007

    Dano,

    This from the purveyor of more arcane posts per second than any known spamming server.

    Best,

    L

  17. #17 Neuro-conservative
    September 28, 2007

    Back on topic, one important route to low carbon power generation is nuclear. If Al Gore were really so worried about AGW, he would be doing everything he could to promote nuclear power. Unfortunately, it was another celebrity-driven fictional disaster movie (Jane Fonda in China Syndrome) that irrationally put a virtual halt on nuclear development in this country thirty years ago.

  18. #18 Cliff Figallo
    September 29, 2007

    We coddle Americans when we be so delicate in describing real possible outcomes of climate change to them. If we approach this a product marketing problem, of course most people will prefer to buy the rosy future. That’s unfortunately the state of American consciousness today – even in the fifth year of an insane war, with 47 million lacking health insurance, a huge deficit, a demographic shift toward seniors about to happen, a frozen housing market, the threat of a new war with Iran – “It’s all good. Let’s watch football and drive the 4×4 to the mall.”

    Our culture lives in a self-created dream and we’re afraid to disturb the dreamers, maybe because we share that love of the good life we have here. I’m a believer in alarm clocks when it’s really important to wake someone up.

    At least wake up enough to join the fricking discussion.

  19. #19 Fred Bortz
    September 29, 2007

    Neuro-conservative states: “Unfortunately, it was another celebrity-driven fictional disaster movie (Jane Fonda in China Syndrome) that irrationally put a virtual halt on nuclear development in this country thirty years ago.”

    As someone who was working on an innovative but ill-fated nuclear reactor project thirty years ago, I can tell you that the major reason that the nuclear industry had a serious setback was economics.

    The anticipated increase in demand for electricity during the 1980s did not happen. This followed on the heels of Three Mile Island accident, followed by Chernobyl (a very different kind of event), which soured public opinion.

    This post is too brief to describe the differences between those two, but if you read my 1995 book Catastrophe: Great Engineering Failure–and Success (click my name) you can see where I note for my young readers that the questions about using nuclear power were going to arise again. Now, 12 years later, that time has come.

    Plenty of environmentalists think that nuclear power has to be part of the energy solution, but have legitimate concerns about its safety. It’s just not as clear-cut as Neuro would have us believe. My sense of Gore’s view is that other solutions are preferable to nuclear.

    As for me personally, I think we need to revive the nuclear industry–and living in Westinghouse Nuclear territory, I can tell you that they are hiring, especially for projects in China.

    That doesn’t mean that China is solving its CO2 problem. But in the nuclear area, they are at least addressing it somewhat.

    From an academic point of view, nuclear power raises some interesting questions. Perhaps Chris or Sheril will open up a thread to discuss the pros and cons, scientifically, economically, and politically, of nuclear power as a solution to anthropogenic global warming.

  20. #20 Neuro-conservative
    September 29, 2007

    Fred — On what empirical basis do you grant “legitima[cy]” to concerns about the safety of nuclear energy?

    As you well know, the Western experience with nuclear energy has been extremely safe. The Chernobyl plant used a flawed Soviet design that does not reflect on the safety of modern development, as evidenced by the French nuclear industry:

    – 59 reactors generate nearly 80% of their electrical needs
    – France is an energy exporter
    – they have never had an accident
    – large-scale reprocessing greatly reduces nuclear waste
    – per capita greenhouse gas emissions far lower than their European neighbors

    Specifically, Fred: what is “legitimate” the “concerns”?

  21. #21 travc
    September 30, 2007

    I just have to point out the intellectual hypocrisy of the “pollution caps wreck the economy” crowd. Caps (especially in the most modern forms of cap-and-trade and/or specific taxation on pollution) are an economic mechanism with the purpose of incentivsing innovation within a capitalist framework.

  22. #22 travc
    September 30, 2007

    One more thing, for now at least…

    The authors are playing right into the framing promoted by industry with the ultimate goal of ‘do nothing’. Yes, public funded research is desperately needed, as usual, but private development is also needed. I’ve discovered R&D are suprisingly different endeavors one learns when actually doing them.

    As they stand, most alternative energy technologies are not competitive on a broad scale (site specific is a different matter of course). But the authors ignore the fact that while lots of research has been done (more is good of course), not a hell of a lot of development has occured, and development is where things get optimized and made more efficient. It is also something that public institutions in the US at least are pretty poor at, but industry is pretty damn good.

    The sheer dishonesty of trotting out numbers (carbon tax figures) based on current systems ignoring further development and then turning around and suggesting that some new magic bullet needs to be created by research before anything is done is exactly the current tactic most favored by those who want nothing to change.

  23. #23 Fred Bortz
    September 30, 2007

    Neuro,

    My willingness to consider concerns about the safety of nuclear power is not empirical but based on experience and reading.

    There are two ways to interpret Three Mile Island, which I discuss in the book cited (click my name).

    One is that we dodged a bullet. The other is that despite serious human errors and a design that didn’t account for the possibility of those errors, which led to a partial meltdown, no human lives were lost and there was only a minimal release of radioactivity into the environment.

    I think the second interpretation is more plausible, but because humans are fallible, we need to give the first credence in our decisions.

    The point of my book is that engineers can and do learn from failures, and they are also capable of spectacular successes, such as the Apollo program. But even in Apollo, there were two accidents. Apollo I, where three astronauts died in ground testing, and Apollo XIII, where good engineering and good fortune led to the safe landing after a catastrophic failure on the way to the Moon.

    I believe nuclear power can be successful, but if we don’t give credence to the possibility of failure, we are bound to have an unpleasant surprise. So while I advocate nuclear as a viable solution to AGW concerns, I also recognize that there are risks.

    I presume you agree with that approach. It lies at the heart of good engineering and good policy in all fields.

  24. #24 Site Ekle
    January 5, 2008

    The important thing is he is hijacking the thread to quash discussion

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