The Island of Doubt

If there’s one thing every environmentally minded American can agree on, it’s the complete failure of the Bush administration to recognize the severity of the climate crisis. (Greenhouse-gas emissions stablilization by 2025? You’ve got to be kidding.) But sometimes it seems that’s all we can agree on. Take the ongoing squabbling between Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress (with some help from Dave Roberts at Grist) and the Breakthrough gang (Ted Nordhaus, Michael Schellenberger and Roger Pielke Jr.) Their mutual sniping and name-calling was amusing for all of five minutes. Now it’s time they shook hands and got back to what matters: convincing the powers to get off their butts and do something.

The sniping took off the with the publication in Nature of a commentary co-authored by Pielke that argued the climate crisis is so bad that we have to spend oodles of money developing new technologies to replace the fossil-fuel engine that currently drives the global economy. Romm took issue with the notion that existing technology isn’t up to the task and pointed out all sorts of errors in the piece, casting aspersions on Nature‘s editors for publishing the piece in the first place.

Pielke and his Breakthrough friends shot back that existing technology isn’t anywhere near up to snuff. Oh yes it is, said Romm. Oh, no, it isn’t, said the Breakthrough boys. And so on.

The central issue, which got lost among semantic debates over the definition of “decarbonization” and what exactly the IPCC means by “spontaneous,” revolved around the notion that we can either implement policies and mandates that call for widespread introduction of existing technologies, such as concentrated solar, wind, mini-hydro, grand-scale photovoltaics and so forth, or we can spend that money now developing even better, and cheaper, technologies. It’s a false dichotomy.

It seems to me that it’s important to restate the one point on which their is little doubt: Things are bad. You don’t have to embrace James Hansen’s predictions of several meters of sea level rise this century to recognize that the planet is warming too fast. As Joe likes to remind us (and appropriately so), IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri (the guy Bush installed to replace a guy who was being too alarmist for Republican sensibilities), says that

“If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

To me, it doesn’t logically follow that we have to chose between existing technology and future “breakthroughs.” What it does mean is we have so little time that we have to do both. We must, as Hansen advocates, phase in a moratorium on coal-fired power plants until such a time as the breakthroughs on carbon capture arrive. We must, as Romm advocates, start building large concentrated solar power plants, which store energy as heat and can therefore supplies continuous power. And we must, as Pielke, Schellenberger and Nordhaus propose, spend hundreds of billions of dollars on finding cheaper and more efficient ways to move people, heat homes and power industry with clean sources of electricity.

Implementing both strategies will cost money. The grand solar PV plan outlined recently in Scientific American would cost $400 billion and involve stringing new high-voltage DC power lines across the country, for example. But that’s over 40 years. And we have that kind of money. (Well, OK, it’s China’s money. But if we can spend a trillion dollars fighting a losing battle to defend access to oil, I think we can spend comparable amounts on clean energy. At least we know the investment will eventually pay off.) Let’s build what we know does work now, but keep looking for better alternatives.

Both Romm and the Breakthrough boys make some good points and both exaggerate the problems with the other’s position. Concentrated solar power, for example, probably will be more expensive that Romm claims. But probably not by as much as the B-Boys suggest.

I suppose if I had to choose a perspective that better reflects the urgency of the matter as described by the climatology community, I’d have to go with Romm’s insistence that we can’t wait for hypothetical (or worse, unlikely-to-be-realized) breakthroughs. There really is no justification for waiting, which to me invokes Bjorn Lomborg’s discount voodoo economics.

I know for a fact, because I pay our family’s utility bills, that there’s great deal that can be done with off-the-shelf technology and modest changes in habits. Our 3,000-square-foot, 100-year-old, rambling home consumes half the energy (in terms of CO2 emissions) of the average American house. And we use less than a third the average water. And that’s without any help from renewables.

Furthermore, I’m taking a conservative guess that a solar water heater would cut another 20 percent off our electricity bill. If our electrical utility, Duke Energy, was to provide solar water heaters to all its customers, that would probably cost less that the $2.4 billion it’s spending on a new coal-fired plant iunder construction 50 miles to the east of here, and eliminate the need for the plant along the way.

Will this kind of thinking get us all the way to a near-zero-emissions strategy within 42 years? (Some would argue we need to get there a lot sooner, but let’s leave that for the time being and go with the 80-90 percent reduction by 2050 as both Clinton and Obama promise they’ll support.) Maybe not. There’s plenty of political inertia to overcome, for one thing. I have no doubt that some handy dandy breakthroughs would make it more likely. But I don’t see as how anyone can rationally argue against a plan that calls for both immediate implementation of existing technology and radically increased spending on research and development of new technology.

There. Now can’t we all just be friends?

Comments

  1. #1 Jim RL
    April 17, 2008

    Isn’t it really just a debate about how much we focus on implementing current technology and how much we focus on R&D for newer better technologies? That seems like a waste of their time. Even solving that non-debate would get us almost nowhere to actually solving the climate crisis.

    We have a president for the next 9 months who barely recognizes there is a problem. We have 3 candidates whose half-assed to quarter-assed proposals on global warming would have been nice 10 years ago, but are quite insufficient now. Actually, McCain just recommended getting rid of the federal gas tax and neither Democrat called the idea ludicrous last night in the debate. We need to start convincing the powers-that-be that serious action must be taken, and we need to do it now.

  2. #2 bob koepp
    April 17, 2008

    James – Your opening sentence is demonstrably false. There are people who have worked hard to protect the natural environment since before you were born who don’t think there’s a severe climate crisis.

  3. #3 paulm
    April 17, 2008

    well blogged!

  4. #4 Jim RL
    April 17, 2008

    bob, could you please demonstrate that it is false? Or, as a denialist, are you just used to making unsubstantiated claims?

  5. #5 MikeB
    April 17, 2008

    Bob – James is entirely correct – there may indeed be people who consider themselves environmentalists (and have done so for many years), but if they think that there is not a serious problem with the climate,considering the mountain of evidence available, then they dont really care about the environment.

    Moving on to the Romm v Breakthrough slagging match, its clearly Romm who wins. Pielke Jr and his friends article has set off a whole chain of nonsense, with an idiotic article appearing in the Guardian from someone at the LSE (wtf is up at the LSE?) claiming this is evidence that Kyoto is a failure; plus strengthening the hand of every denier who somehow think that ‘technology’ will save us at some point in the future, and therefore we can’t do anything now.

    As James points out, fairly simple and relatively cost-effective energy efficency measures can really make big savings. A recent experiement on a BBC TV show showed how an ordinary family in a newish house cut their CO2 emissions by 30% by basically putting decent roof insulation and having cavity wall insulation installed (the question as to why a newish house should be so badly insulated in the first place is another matter).
    There is nothing wrong with a large-scale effort to research new technologies, but since we can largely cut CO2 with what we have, spending the money on simply basic measures makes much more sense. Its the old story about the American zero-gravity pen – the Russians instead just used a pencil.

    The problem with relying on technology (which government’s seem to do) is that cash gets eaten up by the technology, and the simple stuff usually loses. The perfect example is the UK’s planned little adventure in nuclear power. With a fair amount of subsidy for nuclear already promised, the French CEO of EDF said ‘”If you provide incentives for renewables … that will displace the incentives built into the carbon market. In effect, carbon gets cheaper. And if carbon gets cheaper, you depress the returns for all the other low-carbon technologies. [like nuclear power].”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/mar/29/renewableenergy.climatechange

    Basically, nuclear wants all the cash, and it regards other technolgies as competition, and will do whatever it can to snuff them out. The irony is that if it comes down to renewables v nuclear, a pure free market would go for renewables plus efficiency (something which Amory Lovins has been saying for years).

    Its not technology which really needs fixing, its the power of special interests, government double-dealing, economists whi just dont get it, and our own general apathy.

  6. #6 bob koepp
    April 17, 2008

    It’s absurd to make belief that we face a “severe climate crisis” a logically necessary condition for “really caring” about the environment. As far as I’m concerned, the greatest threat to the environment is the continued destruction of natural habitats — and this is happening whether or not there’s a climate crisis. The fact that I don’t find the evidence for a climate crisis persuasive doesn’t prevent me from being concerned about habitat loss, striving to find a way of living that minimizes my impact on the environment, and committing personal resources to protecting, preserving and restoring natural habitat. Why would I do this if I didn’t “really care” about the environment?

  7. #7 Jim RL
    April 17, 2008

    Bob, you may actually care for the environment, but your willful ignorance on the issue of climate change is preventing you from effectively protecting the environment.

  8. #8 bob koepp
    April 18, 2008

    Jim – OK, so you at least are able to grasp that it’s possible to care about the environment and still not believe global warming represents a “severe crisis”. How is this preventing me from effetively protecting the environment? Suppose I was persuaded that GW really is a crisis. How would that make what I do more effective in protecting the environment? In other words, apart from acquiring a new belief, what would change?

    Just so you know, I already advocate for most of the policiy changes recommended by those who claim that GW is a crisis; just for different reasons. In fact, I advocate for much deeper changes in how we relate to the environment than the vast majority of the “GW is a crisis” crowd.

  9. #9 James Hrynyshyn
    April 18, 2008

    Oh the irony: Bob and Jim, how about finding some common ground?

    It’s good to read that Bob is in favor of policies consistent with GW responses. I would favor decentralization of power generation, clean renewables, wiser urban planning to discourage needly car trips and so forth, regardless of how fast the planet is warming. I suspect that’s what Bob’s getting at. Who cares why we support such good ideas, as long as we push them.

    Jim, though, is right that it’s hard to believe there is significant number of environmentalists who have paid attention to the science but are not worried about GW.

    Now shake and make up, guys.

  10. #10 bob koepp
    April 18, 2008

    I’m all for recognizing common ground and common goals. However, I do care about why people support good ideas, since if that support is based on bad reasons, it’s unstable in the face of changing evidence — not to mention that I oppose bad reasons and reasoning as a matter of principle.

  11. #11 Jim RL
    April 18, 2008

    bob, I think it matters a great deal. I think it’s great that you support most of the policies recommended to mitigate climate change, but you can’t agree with the most important ones, can you? Do you really think we should put a price on carbon? I don’t see how that is a reasonable policy if climate change isn’t important. Coal fired powered plants look pretty darn good from an energy independence standpoint and not too environmentally harmful with modern pollution reduction technology (mountaintop removal and acid mine drainage would still be problems). Also, if climate change is the crisis that experts say it is then a lot of your efforts are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Your environmental priorities change drastically when climate change is added to the mix.

  12. #12 bob koepp
    April 18, 2008

    Jim – Regardless of whether CO2 emissions pose a serious threat (let alone of crisis proportions) via the mechanisms purported to be driving GW, I think there are good, environmentally-based reasons to dramatically reduce our use of carbon-based fuels. They put a lot of nasty things into the atmosphere besides CO2, after all, and the methods we use to extract fuels from the environment are a disaster for the local habitats. And again, this is so regardless of whether GW presents us with a severe crisis.

    As for deck chairs, I think that even if we managed to clean up our act and entirely eliminate carbon-based fuels, we would have made only a token gesture toward the kinds of changes that are necessary to prevent the destruction of habitats. So from my perspective, proposals to reduce CO2 emissions would just rearrange the deck chairs, while what I think is necessary amounts to changing the course of our ship.

    Imagine, if you can, systematically dismantling human developments in coastal areas and along inland waterways to re-establish an interconnected system of greenways in the most ecologically sensitive areas, and then rebuilding in less sensitive areas using the best green building technologies we can devise. Imagine giving up the 10,000 year tradition of tilling the soil — which is responsible for more habitat destruction than any other human activity — and developing vertical farms that can be located in the heart of urban centers, require no pesticides, provide the greatest protection against unintended gene flow, provide fresh, locally grown produce, and (most importantly) free vast areas of land from the plow so it can be returned to forest or savanah.

    To summarize, my environmental priorities would not change much at all if I became convinced that atmospheric CO2 was causing GW. Stopping habitat destruction and restoring crucial habitats would still be at the top of the list of my environmental priorities.

    Now that I’ve said my piece, I’ll thank you to stop making insulting assumptions about my motives and my understanding of the relevant scientific issues.

  13. #13 Jim RL
    April 18, 2008

    bob, I don’t know how you can say “…proposals to reduce CO2 emissions would just rearrange the deck chairs,…” and say that you don’t fundamentally disagree with policies to mitigate climate change. Putting a price on carbon is very different than putting a price on habitat destruction. There is some overlap, but when you start with different goals you get different results. The question over priorities is incredibly important. We have limited resources and it matters whether our priorities are to mitigate climate or to protect natural habitats. Quite frankly, climate change will drastically affect natural habitats. Would you be happier if wetlands were destroyed by anthropogenic climate change instead of directly by human intervention?

    Also, I still do question your understanding of the relevant scientific issues because I don’t think knowledgeable people of good faith can at this point disagree with the scientific consensus that the emission of greenhouse gases by human activities has already and will continue to significantly alter the future climate of the planet. Your collegial tone aside, I still believe you are a denialist and part of the problem.

  14. #14 bob koepp
    April 18, 2008

    Well, at least we agree that priorities are important. Beyond that, you seem more interested in trying to insult me than to understand me, so fuck off.

  15. #15 Jim RL
    April 18, 2008

    I’m sorry, but you’ve yet to offer any evidence for your stance that climate change isn’t an issue to be taken seriously. Why should I assume you are knowledgeable on the issue, when all I know is your conclusions are at odds with the scientific consensus? I don’t know you and frankly there are lot of people on the internet who claim to be more knowledgeable than they actually are. Get over yourself. If you want me to accept your knowledge of the issue then display some.

  16. #16 ianam
    April 22, 2008

    James – Your opening sentence is demonstrably false.

    Excellent trolling there.

  17. #17 ianam
    April 22, 2008

    you seem more interested in trying to insult me than to understand me

    How incredibly self-absorbed. No one has any obligation to understand you. And if you don’t want people to note that you’re an ignorant jackass, don’t be an ignorant jackass.

  18. #18 Lance
    April 24, 2008

    bob knoepp was being quite deferential and accommodating in trying to find common ground with JimRL. JimRL and the other climate alarmists in this thread were apparently more interested in bob’s capitulation to their position on climate change than in establishing commonly shared environmental goals.

    I have observed bob knoepp’s posts for sometime and I have been impressed with his coolly rational and congenial demeanor when dealing with those with whom he disagrees on this issue. JimRL on the other hand is more interested in winning a political argument than in any mutually agreeable environmental cooperation.

    JimRL if your agenda can’t manage to coexist with the bob knoepps of the world it is destined to fail.

    I actually find this heartening. Your overstatements of the evidence coupled with your caustic intransigence will doom your anti-carbon crusade to eventual ignominy and ridicule.

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