(Those who have had enough of Shellenberger & Norhaus can skip this post, but I think this is a very important messaging discussion.)

My critique of S&N has elicited from Nordhaus a sentence that encapsulates our differences, cuts through all the “barbs,” and makes clear just how dangerously wrong they are. Ted wrote here:

We have argued for five years now that efforts to build the clean energy economy needed to be centrally defined around energy independence not global warming.

I know most of my readers understand how dangerously mistaken such a strategy is. There is no chance whatsoever of averting catastrophic climate change if we focus centrally on energy independence.

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Why? As anybody who has been following the climate issue knows, we can’t possibly solve the global warming issue if we don’t start addressing coal now. S&N’s plan has no strategy whatsoever for stopping the global rush to build new coal plants, and as I have repeatedly argued and they have never rebutted, S&N has no strategy whatsoever for shutting down existing coal in the medium-term. They do have a great catch phrase:

Democrats must break once and for all from green orthodoxy that focuses primarily on making dirty energy more expensive and instead embrace a strategy to make clean energy cheap.

Indeed, they use this catchy phrase a lot:

If the environmental movement is to finally translate its rhetoric into reality, it will need to shift its focus from making dirty energy expensive to making clean energy cheap.

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But they have never explained how their strategy would ever make clean energy cheaper than existing coal, let alone that this would happen fast enough to avert catastrophe. The reason no such explanation is forthcoming is because no such explanation is technically or economically plausible, as I’ve argued. And remember, the longer you put off enacting policies that stop the construction of new traditional coal plants, the more “existing” coal plants you will have to somehow shut down in the coming decades.

The reason I keep pushing back so hard on S&N is that there’s a much greater messaging danger here. Defining the central issue as energy independence doesn’t just lead to downplaying the urgent need to address the coal issue now — it inherently pushes you toward more coal since the United States has such enormous domestic coal reserves. And yet coal with carbon capture and storage is a long, long way away. We must remember we could solve much of our energy independence problem with liquid coal, if we didn’t care about destroying the climate. And let’s not forget good old domestic shale.

A year ago I spelled out the Bush Energy Department’s energy-independence-driven unconventional fuels dream nightmare:

Incremental Production Objectives (2035)

  • Oil Shale — 2.5 MMBbl/d
  • Tar Sands — 0.53 MMBbl/d
  • Coal Liquids — 2.6 MMBbl/d
  • Heavy Oil — 0.75 MMBbl/d
  • CO2 EOR — 1.3 MMBbl/d

(MMBbl/d = millions of barrels of oil a day. EOR is enhanced oil recovery.)

Yes, I know that is a fantasy. I even know S&N don’t want that to happen. But the only way to make sure it doesn’t happen is to ensure that “efforts to build the clean energy economy” are “centrally defined around both energy independence and global warming.” Those two issues should never be separated by responsible opinion leaders. I give a lot of credit to Barack Obama for not making the same mistake that S&N do, even though it would be incredibly easy to do, and might have some short-term political benefits.

By skewing the message toward energy independence, and worse, by actually attacking those, like Al Gore, who think we need to lead with global warming (with energy independence as a key secondary message), S&N undercut the likelihood of the nation achieving the political consensus needed to avoid catastrophic warming.

Yes, avoiding catastrophic global warming is hard. And achieving the necessary political consensus is hard. But it will be impossible if we don’t take the problem head-on.

Contrary to S&N’s rewriting of history, most green and progressives, including me, have been focused on making clean energy cheaper for two decades. But those of us who have been engaged in that effort for far longer than S&N have learned that no matter how much you spend, it simply happens too slowly to prevent catastrophic climate change. (And ironically, if you really want to make clean energy cheaper, the best strategy is to focus on clean energy deployment, not R&D.)

These are all very important issues that are at the heart of what this blog is about. I intend to maintain my policy of largely ignoring S&N, but when their dangerous ideas breakthrough to a national audience, and especially when they repeat GOP talking points, I feel a strong obligation to debunk them.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.