What do Michael Crichton, Bjorn Lomborg, Frank Luntz, George W. Bush (and his climate/energy advisors) have in common with Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus? They all believe that (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.
In fairness to President Bush — he doesn’t really believe those two things (as evidenced by the fact that he has actually cut funding for key carbon-reducing technologies), he just says them because conservative strategist Frank Luntz says it’s the best way to sound like you care about global warming without doing anything about it.
The “breakthrough technology” message is certainly the cleverest one the deniers and delayers have invented — who wouldn’t rather have a techno-fix than higher energy prices? That’s why Lomborg endorses it so much in his book, Cool It — but it is certainly wrong and dangerously so, as I argue at length in my book.
Why two people who say they care about the environment — Shellenberger & Nordhaus (S&N) — embrace it, I don’t understand. I won’t waste time reading their new instant bestseller, unhelpfully titled Break Through, and you shouldn’t either (Roger Pielke, Jr., and Gregg Easterbrook endorse it — ’nuff said). I’ve read more than enough misinformation from them 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.
Uh, 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 only S&N seem to have met)?
But energy practioners know that meaningful breakthroughs rarely, if ever, happen in energy (a key point I will return to in subsequent posts). I can say that with high confidence, since I ran the federal office responsible for doing the vast majority of the research into new carbon-free technologies.
And those who have studied climate science understand that we simply have run out of time to pin much hope on breakthroughs that may never come, no matter how much money we spend on R&D. Developed country carbon emissions need to peak in the next decade (and developing country emissions soon thereafter), or we will ruin the planet for the next 50 generations no matter what technologies they have at their disposal. Put another way, if we can’t stop catastrophic global warming with technologies that exist now or are already in the pipeline, we aren’t going to stop catastrophic global warming.
S&N’s go-slow approach to climate, as first advanced in “The Death of Environmentalism,” should have died once it became clear that climate change is happening much faster than scientists feared, and that if we don’t act now with all the technology we have available, we risk crossing tipping points whereby amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks would overwhelm any positive carbon-reducing benefits for new technology.
S&N write in Gristmill:
Public investment will be far more important than pollution limits in driving technological innovation and reducing the real price of clean energy. This point seems to be controversial only among environmentalists.
No. Pollution limits are far, far more important than R&D for what really matters — reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and driving clean technologies into the marketplace. Until carbon has a significant price, coal will remain the dominant low-cost energy supply — and key low-carbon strategies, like carbon capture and storage, will never be achieved. And for the record, I am not an environmentalist. I personally don’t know a single energy person who believes what S&N claims is not controversial.
Indeed, private investment is far more important than public investment in reducing the real price of clean energy — especially for the far more important task of reducing the total costs of clean energy for consumers. That’s because private investment is so much larger than public investment — if it can be harnessed through intelligent regulations. Don’t get me wrong — I’d love to see my old office at the DOE have its budget increased dramatically. I just don’t think that a massive increase in public investment is even among the top three things I would do if I were running U.S. climate policy, a point I will elaborate on in Part II.
S&N may not consider it worrisome that they are touting the exact same strategy on climate as Michael Crichton, Bjorn Lomborg, Frank Luntz, and George W. Bush and his climate/energy advisors — but I would rather be on the other side of whatever those folks are pushing.