Why bother criticizing S&N?
The question has been raised: Why spend time “debunking” S&N when they seem to be well-meaning folks struggling for a genuine solution to global warming, unlike, say, Bjorn Lomborg? Aside from the fact that they are adding great confusion and misinformation to a critical debate, the answer is simple — they aren’t well-meaning.
S&N spend far more time attacking the environmental community (and Al Gore and even Rachel Carson) than they do proposing a viable solution. Worse, they don’t even attack the real environmental community — they spend their time creating a strawman that is mostly a right-wing stereotype of environmentalists.
S&N’s core argument is that environmentalists only preach doom and gloom and sacrifice, and that solving global warming …
… will require a more optimistic narrative from the environmental community. Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, like Silent Spring, was considered powerful because it marshaled the facts into an effective (read: apocalyptic) story …
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.
Gore has never promoted such an inconvenient truth — they should read his book or listen to his speeches — and indeed I don’t know any major environmentalist or environmental group that has promoted such a message. Just spend some time on the climate websites for NRDC, Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. They all support (most of) the same big solutions S&N do, they just don’t think you get those solutions the way S&N do (i.e., a massive government spending program).
So why do S&N, who appear to care about the climate, attack the mainstream environmental community in such a vicious and distorted fashion? Who knows? Watthead points out, “it may be a great way to get attention for your articles and books, but it’s not a great way to build alliances with the kind of folks who you should be building alliances with.”
I would go further. It is particularly destructive for one’s supposed allies to repeat myths that Frank Luntz and Rush Limbaugh and President Bush want people to believe about environmentalists. The deniers and delayers want people to believe that environmentalists are hyping climate change to achieve a hidden agenda of government limits on their consumption. They can’t win on the merits of the science, but they can scare people into inaction. S&N play right into their hands, reinforcing tired old stereotypes:
Nor should we want to dramatically curtail energy consumption. Increasing energy use is the primary cause of global warming, but it is also a primary cause of rising prosperity, longer life spans, better medical treatment, and greater personal and political freedom. Environmentalists can rail against consumption and counsel sacrifice all they want but neither poor countries like China nor rich countries like the United States are going to dramatically reduce their emissions if doing so slows economic growth.
Apparently S&N have never heard of energy efficiency (which decouples economic growth from energy consumption), never been told what California has accomplished, and never met any of the environmentalists I talk to every day.
Even as we are seeing a groundswell of support for cap-and-trade programs at a national and state level, S&N insist the strategy just won’t work:
The only way to double global energy consumption while cutting global warming emissions in half is by developing new sources of clean energy. Thus, the problem with the proposals currently being discussed in Congress: They will, for the foreseeable future, direct private investment toward the least expensive emissions reductions (such as burning methane from landfills, purchasing forest land for carbon sequestration, or retrofitting power plants and buildings so they operate more efficiently) rather than toward breakthrough technologies (like low-cost solar energy, and carbon capture and storage), which are too expensive to become widely adopted today but vital for creating a new energy economy and thus drastically reducing emissions. Cap-and-trade schemes, for example, would achieve some inexpensive reductions but wouldn’t drive investment into long-term R&D because those investments would not immediately reduce emissions.
No, no, no, and no. Again, their obsession with breakthrough supply-side technologies is not grounded in historical reality, as I have argued. They seem painfully unaware of energy efficiency. They are very wrong that carbon capture and storage requires breakthrough technology — it can be done today but it isn’t being done because carbon has no price — so their argument is dangerously backwards.
Of course a price for carbon would drive R&D — a price for other pollutants drove R&D for their replacements — and in fact, just the now-inevitable prospect of a carbon price is already driving a big surge in venture capital funding for clean energy. But again, S&N are obsessed with investment into “long-term” R&D. Guys, hello, we sat on our hands for three decades doing nothing about the climate problem (except R&D) — the long-term is now!
If we needed long-term R&D to avoid catastrophic global warming — the very argument that Bush and Lomborg use to advocate delay — we would be in big trouble since we appear at real risk of triggering dangerous carbon-cycle tipping points. Fortunately, we don’t. What we need to do is massively deploy all the low-carbon technology that exists today or is already in the pipeline. And that is best done through the kind of carbon pricing and intelligent government regulations that S&N criticize.
Just as bad as their strawman argument is the fact that they pass off political naivete as political savvy, accusing environmentalists of pursuing politically impractical approaches, when that is what they themselves are doing — as I will discuss in Part V.