Will Google Gore Overcome Gaia Gore?

July 17, 2008 |

In his first major speech on global warming since he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Al Gore today finally acknowledged the need for major public investments to make clean energy cheap, rather than simply increase the cost of dirty energy through pollution regulation. This represents a major step forward in his own thinking, and a break from the dominant environmental approach to global warming.

At the same time, Gore failed to address the central concern of policymakers in Washington: what to do about rising energy prices.

Gore called for taxing pollution -- which would increase energy costs at a time when high gas prices are the public's second highest concern -- and proposed cutting payroll taxes to offset the increase. But if this is a dollar-for-dollar shift in taxes, where would the public money he's proposing for tech investments come from?

Gore reiterated his call for a global cap on emissions but didn't acknowledge the reality that emissions caps have routinely failed to work because they depend centrally on making dirty energy expensive rather than on making clean energy cheap. It is for this reason that emissions in Europe grew twice as fast as those in the U.S. between 2000 and 2004. Indeed, every effort to set a cap hasn't worked because policymakers have sought to contain rises in energy prices. While this is routinely derided by greens who would like to see a high price for energy, the public's resistance to higher energy costs is the central political reality anyone who cares about climate change must deal with.

While clean energy is indeed getting cheaper, it is still magnitudes of order more expensive than coal, and less easy to use. According to some estimates, solar PV is 50 times more expensive than coal in China. Yes, it's coming down in price, but I can't find any independent expert who thinks it will come down in price enough to compete with coal anytime in the next 30 or 50 years -- unless there is a massive government program to purchase PV.

Surely Gore knows by now that voters (and thus policymakers) aren't willing to pay large sums in higher energy costs to deal with global warming. They will, polls show, pay something to invest in making clean energy cheap as a way to create jobs and win national security. But it's not obvious how much they'll pay.

Consider cap and trade's latest failure in the Senate. It occurred because policymakers didn't want to increase energy costs at a time of high public anxiety about gas prices. Democratic and green leaders so effectively spun the outcome of the vote that few greens realized that support for cap and trade in the Senate has steadily declined, not increased, since 2005. In 2003, 43 Senators voted for cap and trade. In 2005 that number dropped to 38. And while cap and trade was never voted on last month, green lobbyists and others told us that there were 32 and maybe fewer votes for the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner legislation. (Seeing the writing on the wall, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid orchestrated a vote on cloture, which received 48 votes, but 10 Senators who voted for it said they would have voted against the bill, and at least six others would have signed had there been more time.)

These facts surprise those who believe that Gore's movie caused a "tipping point" in attitudes toward global warming sometime around 2006 and 2007. But already back in 1988, when global warming first came to the attention of the American public, 63 percent of voters told Gallup that they were somewhat or very concerned about global warming. In 2007, that number was 65 percent, within the margin of error the surveys. Public support for action on climate, while broad, is not particularly deep, as most Americans have also consistently ranked global warming a low concern compared to many other political concerns. Environmentalists have argued that the low salience of global warming compared to other issues is the result of disinformation campaigns by interests like Exxon Mobil, which has spent $8 million over the last decade to raise public doubt about the science of climate change. And that's chump change compared to Gore's $300 million ad campaign.

While I strongly applaud Gore's shift in tone, there was plenty of apocalyptic Gore on display. Much of his language was over-the-top -- the future of human civilization is at stake -- which triggers fear among conservatives that Gore and environmentalists would have us sacrifice our way of life in order to deal with what Gore calls a "planetary emergency." While Gore acknowledged the economic and national security threats posed by our dependence on oil, he spent the bulk of his talk on climate change, pointing to extreme weather events as reason for action but never mentioning the importance of global warming preparedness and adaptation as crucial ways to protect the world's most vulnerable.

Happily, Gore made no mention of sacrificing our high standard of living -- which was "the inconvenient truth" he named his movie after. I would have liked to have seen Gore embed this speech in a larger story of humankind constantly overcoming adversity through technological innovation. From the invention of the wheel and the arc to the invention of flight and computers, humans have demonstrated a limitless capacity to invent our way out of crises. This is an inspiring story about human nature, and it cuts sharply against the humans-have-sinned-against-Nature story that Gore told in "An Inconvenient Truth."

The best Al Gore is the Google Gore, not the Gaia Gore. It is the Gore who truly did "invent the Internet" in the sense of bringing the military ARPAnet into commercial use. It is the Gore who gets excited about technological possibility, who supports capturing CO2 from the ambient air and storing it underground, and who understand that government is powerful, especially when it is reinvented to deal with major engineering and science challenges.

In the end, it's exciting to see Gore put ingenuity and investment rather than sacrifice and regulation at the center of his new effort. Stay tuned for whether this shift in rhetoric results in a shift away from the pricing pollution paradigm and to the investment and innovation paradigm.


Comments

While overall I like the thrust of this story, I feel concerned by the call to dump 'Gaia Gore'. The truth of the matter is that most of these crises we find ourselves in are exactly because of our constant innovations and technological advances. Advances that we often make to the short-term benefit of the few at the expense of the whole and the many.
While the story of human innovation and triumph against the odds is indeed an inspiring one (and is desperately needed now), I feel the author goes too far. The author's call for a reframing of the global warming debate is a welcome and crucial one, but I can't help but feel that he misses something crucial.
Rather than framing traditional environmentalism as a 'humans-have-sinned-against-nature' view of the world, the discussion would still benefit from a continued acknowledgement of our own culpability in the current situation.
In short, love of our own technological prowess was what got us into this mess. While technology will play a part in getting us out of it, true long-term sustainability will only be achieved when we come to a point of balance with the world around us. A balance that places the health of our planet and her species at an equal level of importance with our own 'high standard of living'.
The author also does not discuss the very real issue of coming resource constraints. Maintaining high standards of living are all well and good, but how will we feed, water and resource the 9 billion human beings expected by 2042 if all of them lived as we higher-end mortals like to do?
Like it or not, sacrifices might well have to be made and we ought to get our heads around that sooner rather than later. We live on a finite planet gentlemen and while technology and innovation can help us create a zero waste economy (long overdue) and a cradle-to-cradle society, it can't put oil back in the ground once its all gone.
Traditional environmentalism and ancient understandings of how we can live in balance with our world, may well have something left to teach us still. (It doesn't need to be an either or proposition.)
I don't think we should be digging the grave of environmentalism just yet.

By Vicki K on 2009 01 12


Jordan, To clarify, I support major investments to make solar cheap. I just don't think solar will become cheap as coal any time soon -- ie, before 30 to 50 years from now. In "Fast, Clean and Cheap" we wrote:

If the price of solar photovoltaic continues to decline 20% for every doubling of capacity, it would cost just $211 billion to bring the price of solar down to the price of current electricity costs in many countries. It might be one of the best $200 billion investments ever made by the U.S. military.


The cite is:

Bob Van der Zwaan & Ari Rabel, The Learning Potential of Photovoltaics: Implications
for Energy Policy, 32 ENERGY POL�Y 1545, 1551 tbl.5 (2004) (stating the cost of breaking
even).

Also see the table in "FCC" for solar prices relative to coal.

A major paper by David Keith will be published in late August. He's asked that I not distribute it until then. After extensive interviews with energy experts Keith concludes, "Photovoltaics are not likely to become economically competitive with other large scale low-carbon bulk electricity options in the next 40 years."

Meanwhile, here's a few things to look at:

http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2008/02/ucberkeley_study_solar_breakth.shtml

http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2007/08/the_times_andy_revkin_offered.shtml

By Michael Shellenberger on 2008 07 24


Michael,

Can you please provide references for who the experts are who are saying that the cost of PV ( where you also referring to wind as well? ) Will not "come down in price enough to compete with coal anytime in the next 30 or 50 years". I have not read many recent papers showing that timetable.

Thank you

By Jordan Motzkin on 2008 07 18