The Coming Bursting of the Green Bubble

April 22, 2008 | Michael Shellenberger,

In 2018 we will almost certainly look back on Earth Day 2008 as the high point of the Green Bubble. We will cast our eyes over our abandoned backyard gardens and chuckle softly to ourselves about how we once thought they were the solution to skyrocketing emissions in China. We will wonder why we were more worried about future droughts caused by climate change than we were by the worst global food shortages in 30 years, which were triggering food riots at the same time that we were flipping through our special Earth Day issue of the New York Times Magazine. And we will remember how, just months later, the Green Bubble burst and images of food riots abroad and economic hardship at home finally replaced images of melting glaciers, stranded polar bears, and the lists of the 1,001 Things You Can Do to Prevent Eco-Apocalypse.

Until then, those who find Earth Day 2008 vapid and annoying will have to content themselves with burrowing through the celebration of Earth! for little bits of insight, like the one offered to us by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof last Sunday. Kristof wrote a insightful column of why cap and trade is ecologically irrelevant unless it is backed with at least $20 billion per year for clean energy technology.

Kristof's column comes at an interesting moment. On the one hand, magazines and newspapers like Time, Mother Jones, and the New York Times Magazine are filled with the dual message that global warming can be solved by a) the same kind of pollution limits that worked for acid rain or, b) micro-actions like planting a garden and eating less meat. On the other hand, forward-thinking elites -- from Tony Blair to the British scientific journal Nature to Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs -- are increasingly speaking out about the limits of pollution controls and the desperate need for massive government investment in clean energy.

Why does Kristof get climate when so many others miss the point entirely? In a word, China.

Here's Kristof:


magine that we instituted a brutally high gas tax that reduced emissions from American vehicles by 25 percent. That would be a stunning achievement -- and in just nine months, China's increased emissions would have more than made up the difference.


Kristof confronts the claim -- peddled by greens who fear complexifying the climate debate -- that honest recognition of the fact that we do not have all the clean tech we need is tantamount to taking the Bush administration line that we should sit on our hands and do nothing.

Mr. Pielke and his colleagues argue that the best hope for salvation will be investment in new technologies -- and that's why I asked the climate deniers not to read this column, for it can sound a bit like President Bush's "solution."

The difference is that Mr. Bush has used modest investments in hydrogen as a substitute for immediate action, while what we need is vast investments on top of a drive to curb emissions through a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system. In the best of worlds, it will be enormously difficult to persuade China and India to rely less on coal-fired power plants, and it will be utterly impossible unless we take serious steps ourselves.


Kristof gets climate intuitively because he lived and reported from China as a journalist. He understands Chinese emissions aren't skyrocketing, as one woman said to me after a recent talk, "because they want our goodies," but rather because China and the rest of the developing world is creating an energy-intensive infrastructure and human environment -- roads, sanitation lines, electricity lines, schools, buildings, homes, hospitals -- that we in the West mostly take for granted. Cap and trade in the U.S. won't accelerate China's transition to a clean energy economy, and micro-practices like taking shorter showers, eating less meat, and installing better light bulbs are ecologically irrelevant in the context of our energy-intensive built-environment.

My view is that the personal practices only matter ecologically to the extent that they help build a political movement capable of winning massive government investment in creating and deploying new energy technologies. I'm happy that doing the right thing makes people feel good. I certainly feel good when I ride my bike, take BART to work, and eat locally. But if engaging in ecologically-aware micro-practices reinforces the widespread view that the Chinese can't have what we have, then they are dark side of the Green Bubble that can't burst fast enough.


Comments

For a fascinating look into the coming energy revolution and potential for a bubble in energy technology, we recommend Robert Bell's book "The Green Bubble": http://www.abbeville.com/bookpage.asp?isbn=9780789209559

Thanks!

By Abbeville on 2008 11 13


David, Thanks for your criticism.

As I said above, I am not suggesting there's no place for nano-practices, as Adam Werbach calls them. There is. What troubles me is the perception that they are a substitute for large-scale action by governments.

By Michael Shellenberger on 2008 04 25


Your expressions of contempt for the Earth Day 2008 "feel good" buzz and propaganda are in some ways valid. But your opinions also display an arrogant tendency to diminish the hopes, dreams, and actions of people who are trying to do something, anything, in the face of this huge and looming threat. Yes, "magazines and newspapers like Time, Mother Jones, and the New York Times Magazine are filled with the [traditional Earth Day] dual message" that is naive and incomplete. But you don't seem to realize that these naive interests are your best allies. Your job, it seems to me, would be to appeal to, convince, and guide these naive greens to support massive energy investments that aren't rife with lies like Bush's support for hydrogen or food shortage causing corn ethanol subsidies, etc. Using expressions like "green bubble," "We will cast our eyes over our abandoned backyard gardens and chuckle softly to ourselves about how we once thought they were the solution to skyrocketing emissions in China," "Earth Day 2008 [is] vapid and annoying" and "the dark side of the green bubble" is absolutely insulting to those who would be most likely to support your initiatives. "Micro-practices" are cries of the powerless in our current socio-political and economic atmosphere. They have been the only actions possible, forced on us by a hopelessly ignorant political atmosphere for over 37 years now. "Micro-practices" may also be more essential parts of the solution than you think.
The food crisis that is happening now has been foreseeable for some time and is unfortunately being kicked off by enviro-energy demand pressures and misguided global agricultural policy decisions. Micro-practices didn't cause the problem nor are they in any way a means to ignoring it as you so emphatically and arrogantly proclaim.
Perhaps you could ease off on the insulting rhetoric and make your valid practical points without attaching the misguided and blame filled venom.

By David Pratt on 2008 04 24


Thanks David for your kind words -- and your criticism.

I'm not suggesting that micro-practices are bad. Just that they sometimes -- as in, say, the New York Times Magazine last Sunday -- they are presented as a substitute for government action in general, and investments in energy in particular. Hence this line: "My view is that the personal practices only matter ecologically to the extent that they help build a political movement capable of winning massive government investment in creating and deploying new energy technologies."

By Michael Shellenberger on 2008 04 23


In general, I tend to think that you are on to some very key insights at the Breakthrough Institute: I've recommended your site, your book, and your Harvard Law and Policy Review piece to many people. However, I find the mockery of Earth Day and the statement that "micro-practices like taking shorter showers, eating less meat, and installing better light bulbs are ecologically irrelevant in the context of our energy-intensive built-environment" to be exceedingly wrong-headed. I don't see, and I'm sure that many people who are not overly familiar with the internal debates of the environmental community, how Earth Day, personal practices and choices, new politics, and investments in clean energy could possibly be at odds? You are really getting into the kind of either/or mentality that you criticize so powerfully in your book. Personal practices do matter, and they are actions we can actually take. Consumption choices do matter, along all manner of dimensions. Instead of deriding some sort of "green bubble" (I'm not sure even what you mean here: some sort of cultural environmentalism? Or are you talking about Silicon Valley VCs' interest in energy?) why don't you focus on forming a more constructive way to build on the positive momentum of attention to the environment in the media, of Earth Day, of Al Gore's activities, and of personal practices to direct people to political action and the need for New Apollo scale public investments in clean energy development?
If those who care about the environment and global warming can't get past this kind of unproductive, inward looking, either/or perspective, we're not going to make it. The attitude expressed in your post will turn people off, confuse people, and drive them away instead of drawing them in.

By David C. Brock on 2008 04 22