March 20, 2008
It's an exciting time for anyone who cares about climate change. For years, the threat of "deniers" loomed so large that we didn't have the luxury of mulling over the intricacies of policy -- if we let our guard down, they might have erased climate change from the national consciousness. But as a consensus emerges about the existence of climate change, the conversation about what to do about it is just beginning.
Judging by the response to a recent commentary in Nature, it's a conversation that not everyone wants to have. This time, it's not the deniers who are stalling productive discourse, but a fringe group of old-guard environmental leaders who feel like the rug has been ripped out from under their feet. To them, ideas that don't fit within the conventional policy framework constitute dangerous dissent that is better silenced than engaged with. Unable to respond with a well-reasoned defense of their policy agenda, a few angry environmentalists are leading a misinformation campaign.
Take Joe Romm's handling of Roger Pielke, Jr.'s recent Nature commentary, co-authored with Tom Wigley and Chris Green, suggesting that the IPCC underestimated the emissions reductions challenge. His first move was to ridicule Nature for publishing it. "This piece is an embarrassment to Nature's reputation," he wrote. As for the piece itself, Romm had no paucity of derisive adjectives: he called it "pointless," "delayer nonsense," and "dangerous." Guest blogger Ken Levenson put it even more bluntly, urging readers to "forget about Pielke and this endless debate." Anything to avoid considering the merits of the arguments it makes.
Grist's Dave Roberts continues the smear campaign. He prefaces his post about the Nature piece by calling it a "kerfuffle" hardly worth covering, complaining that Pielke and the Breakthrough Institute get too much attention:
Those guys are masters of getting boatloads of attention from the press by seeming to say something interesting and controversial that, upon closer inspection, isn't actually that controversial or interesting at all. It's like an institutional specialty.
Both Romm and Roberts would rather discredit than discuss. To avoid giving the alternative viewpoints of Pielke and the Breakthrough Institute their due consideration, they resort to slander and dishonesty. Their coverage of late has focused on disseminating three major myths:
Myth #1: That Pielke et al wrongly assumes that technology will stay "frozen" in the future
Roberts and Romm suggest that Pielke et al made a naive mistake in assuming that technology will not improve at all over time. In doing so, they misconstrue the purpose of his use of the frozen technology baseline. The entire point of scenario planning is to look at the ways in which scenarios and possible futures differ depending on what assumptions we plug into a given scenario. The problem with the IPCC scenarios is that while they vary assumptions about economic growth, they do not vary assumptions about rate of spontaneous technology development. The problem is not that some of the scenarios were based on overly optimistic assumptions about technology development but that all of them were. Given the developments of the last decade, it has become clear that the IPCC should have assumed more pessimistic assumptions about technology development in at least some of its scenarios.
Further, Roberts spreads misinformation about the history of technological innovation. He writes, "The trend toward "spontaneous" technology development and efficiency has been going on for centuries, only to pause during the last few years thanks to a burst of new dirty coal plants in the developing world." In fact, the efficiency trend began in the second half of the 20th century, and was preceded by a long period of carbonization of the global economy during and after the Industrial Revolution. To suggest that decarbonization of the economy has gone on for "centuries" is just plain wrong, and Pielke addressed this mistake on the Breakthrough blog. Romm came to Roberts' defense by trying to change the subject, again attacking the person rather than the ideas.
Myth #2: That we think we need to wait for an unknown "techno-fix" to save us.
Romm prefers to use an extremely narrow definition of the word "breakthrough" because it's much easier for him to refute. But if he had read Breakthrough's policy whitepaper, "Fast, Clean, Cheap," he would know that we call for breakthroughs in performance, price, and brand-new technologies:
Technological breakthroughs are needed to boost the performance of current clean energy technologies and to decrease the cost of deploying them. Without these breakthroughs, the costs of these technologies are too high, and their performance and return on investment too low, to justify private sector investment in their widespread deployment.
Finally, in order to be deployed at levels that might allow them to displace conventional energy sources on a large scale, clean energy alternatives like solar and wind will require significant improvement in the cost and performance of battery and other energy storage technologies, as well as the development of a new electricity grid.
We need breakthroughs in all of these areas because, as the Nature piece showed, the technology gap is that big. Romm misinterprets what others say in very narrow terms to create conflict where there is none.
Myth 3: That we oppose immediate action to address global warming.
Romm continues to assert that Breakthrough belongs on his list of deniers, claiming that we oppose taking immediate action to address global warming. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are measures we can and should take to start tackling carbon emissions right now. We should promote the use of technologies we already have with national renewable portfolio standards and increasing energy efficiency standards. We are strongly in favor of establishing a modest and consistent price for carbon.
We've expressed this belief many times over. In our debate with Newt Gingrich at The New Republic, we write:
Finally, we need either emissions regulations or a carbon tax that results in a modest price for emitting carbon dioxide. Policymakers should set the level high enough to speed the adoption of conservation, efficiency, and new technologies, but not so high as to slow the economy. Money raised either from auctioning pollution allowances, or from a modest fee on carbon dioxide, could easily generate the $30 to $80 billion per year that we need for these investments.
In "Fast Clean Cheap," we write:
We are better off establishing a modest carbon dioxide price in the shorter term, which can capture emissions reductions from efficiency and the shift to cleaner conventional energy sources, while pursuing a more feasible long-term strategy of reducing the
price of clean energy through politically palatable public investment."
Regulation alone will not reduce the global carbon emissions trajectory to any appreciable degree. For that, we are going to need immediate and exponential increases in direct public investment in the development, demonstration, and deployment of new, nascent, and mature clean energy technologies alike.