A near thumbs-up for Joe Romm’s ‘Straight Up’
While the press parrots the prevailing economic line that mitigation will be crushingly expensive. Romm notes that during his five-year stint at DOE, “I never saw a building or factory that couldn’t cut electricity consumption or greenhouse-gas emissions 25 to 50 percent with rapid payback.”
More to the point, Straight Up quotes Eric Pooley, a former editor at Fortune and Time magazine: “The press misrepresented the economic debate over cap-and-trade. It failed to recognize … that cap and trade would have a marginal effect on economic growth and gave doomsday forecasts … The press allowed opponents of climate action to replicate the false debate over climate science in the realm of climate economics.” As Tufts University economist Frank Ackerman said recently, “It’s not the costs of mitigating climate change that worry me, it’s the costs of inaction.”
I also share Romm’s impatience with policy analysts who continually call for more R&D to solve the climate crisis. Right now we have all the technology we need to begin reducing emissions quickly and cheaply. Romm happens to favor both efficiency and concentrated solar thermal power. But, his technological preferences aside, he’s right on point when he describes the call for more R&D as a stalling tactic to avoid coming to grips with the threat. As Romm writes, “deployment completely trumps research.”
Romm does overlook one critical point. While renewable technologies may be relatively expensive at this point, that is not a function of economics. It is, first and foremost, a function of political will. Were the world’s political leaders to mobilize around the need to rewire the world with clean energy, the costs of solar panels, solar towers, wind turbines, appropriate hydroelectric facilities, and other technologies would drop dramatically as they were ramped up to mass production and economies of scale. (For one set of strategies to accomplish this, see here.) Recall, for instance, that prohibitively expensive early television sets and computers became quickly affordable when their production and marketing were scaled up.
But for all the uncompromising wisdom in Straight Up, I still have a problem.
Toward the end of his book, Romm wanders into the question of why climate advocates are so bad at “messaging.” It may be a valid question. Foundations have poured thousands of dollars into exploring how best to communicate the realities of climate change. George Lakoff, for one, has devoted a substantial amount of time to wrestling with this question.
But I’m afraid the issue of “messaging” is a swerve — a diversion from the real question facing all of us at this moment of history.
We have already passed the point of no return. We are already beginning to see crop failures, water shortages, increasing extinctions, migrations of environmental refugees, and all manner of potential breakdowns in our social lives.
Where Straight Up falls short is in its failure to deal with this reality head on. It is not a pretty scenario. When governments are confronted by collapse, they too often resort to totalitarian methods to keep order in the face of chaos. Given the increasingly precarious state of our climate, it is not hard to foresee governments resorting to permanent states of martial law. And it is not hard to imagine a short-term state of emergency morphing into a long-term state of siege.
This is not at all to minimize the value of Romm’s book. To the contrary, if you think the most pressing task today is to limit the coming damage through a transition to non-carbon technologies, I can’t think of a better place to start than by reading Straight Up.
But that transition can only be a start.
Unfortunately, we have already passed a point of no return in terms of staving off massive disruptions. It is time to begin talking about how to preserve a coherent human community without a retreat into mass survivalism. It is time to start planning how we can endure in a world that will be far less stable and far more threatening than the one we grew up in.
Perhaps this is an unfair knock on Romm. Perhaps it is not environmentalists — even extraordinarily intelligent ones like Romm — to whom we should be looking for these kinds of answers.
The overriding threat to our collective future used to be an environmental one. Today it has grown into a global existential one.
Environmentalists have done us a great service by identifying the problem. But the real challenge, I think, goes far beyond the reach and expertise of Joe Romm or, for that matter, any other environmentalist.
The question of how to reorganize society in the face of impending collapse comes down to a choice between a radically more coordinated, cooperative global community and a scatter of fortressed, tribalized, and highly defended enclaves.
That is the real question facing us today. It is a question that requires courage. It is a question that requires trust. Finally, it is a question that requires the very best thinking of people from every continent, every discipline, and every single walk of life.