The New Climate Debate

November 14, 2007 |

The New York Times' Andy Revkin has been one of the few reporters writing on global warming to point out what every serious energy expert in the U.S. has long known: new regulations alone won't do nearly enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In a 2002 Science article by New York University physicist Martin Hoffert and 16 other leading energy experts, Hoffert et. al argued that, "although regulation can play a role, the fossil fuel greenhouse effect is an energy problem that cannot be simply regulated away." It is a conclusion overwhelmingly echoed by other leading analysts, including the UN IPCC and the Stern Review.

What's required, energy experts agree, is not just a price for carbon, but also massive public investments to deploy clean energy technologies so we can achieve the performance and price breakthroughs needed for these new technologies to be picked up worldwide, including in places like China and India whose development is being fueled by cheap coal and oil.

Indeed, given how quickly China is bringing new coal plants on line, the most important thing we can do is bring down the price of new clean energy sources as quickly as possible. Direct public investment in innovation is a faster means to this end than gradually making dirty energy sources expensive so that clean energy sources gradually become cost-competitive.

In a forthcoming paper for the Harvard Law and Policy Review, "Fast Clean Cheap," we argue that a regulation-centered approach would only achieve 10 - 30 percent emissions reductions in the U.S. by 2050, whereas we need 80 percent emissions reductions in the U.S. and 50 percent emissions reductions worldwide by then if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming.

Revkin understands this, which is why he writes on his blog:

All the slow gains from market forces quite clearly... don't get the energy system out of fossil mode in time to avoid serious climate consequences.

Stuck in the older pollution paradigm, the environmental lobby has long put virtually all of its political eggs in the regulatory basket. Environmental groups like Environmental Defense, NRDC, the Sierra Club, and UCS -- the groups with the most influence (with Democrats) in Washington -- have simply never seriously lobbied for a massive investment in clean energy.

Joe Romm, Arthur Smith, and David Roberts claim that this isn't the case, that the environmental movement has always advocated for big investments. But they make this assertion without offering a whit of evidence to back up their claim.

That's because they have no evidence. The top priorities of environmental groups have for two decades been higher fuel economy standards, new efficiency regulations, renewable portfolio standards, and greenhouse gas limits. Major public investments on the order of $30 to $80 billion a year have never been a priority for environmental groups.

Here's Revkin:

You do need an energy revolution to empower something like 9 billion people by mid-century, all of whom want out of poverty. That has not been a forefront message of any environmental group I know of.

It's not only not the their message, it's not their policy priority.

It's not enough to blame the carbon lobby for political inaction. In the 30 years since Amory Lovins wrote his seminal piece on clean energy in Foreign Affairs, in the 20 years since James Hansen declared that global warming had arrived, and during all of Joe Romm's tenure at the Department of Energy, greenhouse gas emissions and our oil addiction have increased.

An investment-centered agenda is the right policy and the best politics. Romm and the rest of the environmental lobby have failed to enact transformational action in Washington, and rather than acknowledge their failures, and reconsider their approach, they are calling for more of the same.

The good news is that there is a new generation of thinkers who recognize that global warming is an urgent priority and that the regulation-centered agenda can't get us where we need to go.

The old global warming debate was between those who thought global warming was serious, human-caused, and requiring action and those who didn't. That debate is coming to an end.

In its place is being born a new debate, one centrally focused on solutions. Revkin's new blog has provided a place for thoughtful discussion about new ideas -- and it has arrived just in time.



The information I got was pulled from the FAO web site. The publication name is "Global Agriculture Toward 2050," and it was prepared for the FAO Hunger meeting in Rome next month.

The FAO document you cited advocates no-till agriculture as "conservation agriculture." It does not advocate a return to small scale organic farming.

Indeed, it concludes, "Conservation agriculture is not organic farming, but both could be combined, FAO emphazised. In Conservation Agriculture, farm chemicals, including fertilizer and herbicides are carefully applied. Over the years, however, quantities tend to decline."

In other words, FAO's description of conservation agriculture is the improvement of the industrial agricultural path we are on. Sounds sensible.


By Michael Shellenberger on 2009 09 28

A massive expansion of public transportation would help too.

By libhomo on 2009 06 10

Credit cards and loan lenders contribute greatly on financial situation of our country. That is why the government wanted banks to keep afloat and hold on until the economic crisis subsides. However, the bank stress tests that will say the ability of the bank to survive have been leaked, albeit in incomplete form. The bank stress tests indicate that the largest banks, all of which received large installment loans from the taxpayers, are still heavily leveraged and still run a huge risk of collapse. The source isn't exactly known for its journalistic integrity or anything resembling something positive. The leak comes from the Turner Radio Network, run by Hal Turner, a radio show host and blogger who is closely tied to the white supremacist movement and is a Holocaust denier (a crime in Germany and Austria). Regardless of the dubious nature of the source, the listed companies on the bank stress tests still need debt relief.

By payday loan on 2009 04 25

Thanks Robert. Enjoying getting comfortable with this new (for me) medium to communicate these things. Again, apologies for the (too) rapid speech. I swear I hadn't even had my coffee yet that morning! Cheers,

By Jesse Jenkins on 2009 04 02

Very interesting segment. It certainly shows the differences in approach amongst the carbon activists. Thanks for posting.

By R Margolis on 2009 04 02

You already knew the Center for Responsible Lending was awesome. But you probably don't realize how awesome. Let's just say there is a reason why North Carolina leads the nation in consumer protection against predatory lending. Dean Starkman, a respected journalist, has jumped on the anti payday loans bandwagon. A recent article by Dean Starkman came out in ardent defense of Martin Eakes, head of the Center for Responsible Lending, citing all the good work the organization is doing to curb subprime lending and all predatory lending practices. While this would be admirable if all things were equal, the Center for Responsible Lending campaigned in favor of the mortgage industry increasing loans to high risk borrowers, which naturally came with terms that weren

By Darin H. on 2009 03 10

Some deficit spending is needed to be sure - but that will increase the size of the government's debt. The national debt is at epidemic levels, and it has only increased over the last thirty years. Our grandchildren will be probably be paying off the debt incurred by the first Iraq war. Some serious cuts have to be made in the federal budget if we ever expect to get out the hole we're in. Granted, new industry, and sustainable industry that will survive on a long term basis is in dire need of creation in the US, but if we create industry that is funded solely on an increasing burden of debt will profit us nothing.

By SWelker on 2009 01 23

Thanks, Jesse and Michael. As usual you have a realistic and pragmatic take on a daunting challenge facing our economy ...and our climate.

I think this is a prescient and excellent road to get to the best place possible given the current conditions.

"Offer government loans to the Big Three to ensure the companies don't collapse now during the midst of recession. But the conditions of those loans should be similar to the conditions of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy the companies would enter in absence of the loans. No blank checks for the Big Three to continue business as usual."

The only thing I would add to it - if in any way possible to enforce, and I suspect we can come up with something - is that no matter what amount the companies ultimately receive from the government, they report their progress on the retooling and revamping of their factories to make clean, efficient cars once a week until every dime of the loan is repaid.

By Jake Brewer on 2008 12 05

So if I take the money I am going to get, say, in June, 2009, and spend it now, isn't this the same as borrowing the money now, spending it now, and paying it back in June, 2009. And doesn't that money I borrow today take some resources from someone else. Projected consumption is comsuming something now that I had not planned on consuming until later. If I take the money out of my savings account and spend it now and replace it later, is this the same? The government takes tax money it expects to receive in the future and spends it now, ideally in infrastructure. Wow, I'm getting dizzy just going around. Economics is just one thing after another.

By DavidGD620 on 2008 12 04

Barney Frank was one of the architects of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac policies that precipitated this melt down and then he was one of the architects of the bail out debacle(google: Barney Frank Architect Bail Out). His hearings will be yet another exercise in deflecting blame away from his serial incompetence and away from all the money he took from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

This mess is what government intervening in a market looks like. That's something to think about when are thinking about who should do what to roll out alternative energy.

By Robert on 2008 11 01


Good on you, and keep up the good work; you will live richer for it. As you acknowledge, the vast majority of folks have already gone over to the big 5. Even without gene splicing they have homogenized the food supply. I love my farmers market as much as you appreciate your patio containers. We are both on the margins in that regard. As I acknowledged, I think the "economics" of GMOs are suspect; however, like it or not I expect market justice to prevail. Regardless, I expect you, and many other home growers, will end up with fabulous summer tomatoes regardless of Monsanto.... lets all feel good about that!


By Ray on 2008 04 23

Did you know that genetically modified plants can't make babies? They're sterile! When you buy genetically modified plant products, you're placing the future food supply in the hands of the "Patent Holder" of the genetic modification, companies such as Monsanto.

There are 5 huge corporations that control almost all of the world's food supply. They are:
ADM (Archer Daniels Midland)
Famland Industuries
and I have a brain fart for the last one at this moment.

Genetically modified means that we place the entire plant species future in the hands of the corporation who owns the patent to the GMO. Do you really want that? I certainly don't! I want to be able to save my own seeds and plant them in my garden, yard or patio containers for as long as I wish. If my plants are Genetically Modified--that won't work...they're sterile! They can't make babies! Their ONLY FUTURE is with the company who controls the seed AND FUTURE PRICES AND PRODUCTION.

SO, if you think prices for organic are too high, simply grow your own! You can do it easily in your landscape--front or back yard or on your patio in containers.

Please Readers, try to get THE BIG PICTURE! Remember the story of the Ant and the Grasshopper don't you? This depbate is about that.

By Charles on 2008 04 23


maybe it's time to stop mincing words. Just call it the "WAR ON CLIMATE" and you'll have half the country screaming YES!!!

By Chris Maui on 2007 11 18

I'm going to confuse myself by responding to the same comment in 4 or 5 different places grin So I'll just say here, sure, your proposal on Lieberman-Warner sounds good. The more we work together the better. That's why your emphasis in the book (and even here) on complaining about other people and organizations who share many of your claimed goals, instead of working with them, has made no sense to me from the start.

By Arthur Smith on 2007 11 16

Dear Arthur,

You keep insisting that environmentalists are for major investment. Revkin and I keep pointing out that this is simply not the case. And, notably, you never respond with any evidence.

The national environmental lobby has never made massive public investment in clean energy a priority. When discussing global warming in Break Through, it's pretty obvious that the "environmentalists" we are talking about are the main environmental groups -- Environmental Defense, NRDC, Sierra Club, UCS, NET -- that have clout in Washington, that write environmental legislation, and that have budgets in the hundreds of millions to run ads, mobilize members, and lobby.

The environmental lobby has resisted a major push for large investments in clean energy for two reasons. First, they think that regulation plus small increases for R&D � on the order of $1 to $3 billion more a year � is all that's needed. (Hence the inadequate increases in R&D proposed by the Democratic Congress.) Our contention -- like that of Hoffert et al. and Rayner et al. (Nature October 2007), and perhaps you as well, is that investments on the order of $30 - $80 billion a year are needed.

Second, the green lobby thinks new regulations are more politically popular than major investments. And on this point they're just wrong, as every serious opinion poll shows.

Yes, various individuals have been calling for major investments for at least the last five years. Having read Hoffert et al. in 2002, I was inspired to co-found the Apollo Alliance. And yes, the expert literature, which we've summarized here, is very clear that big investments are needed.

But guess what: we're not the ones who have influence in Washington. The committee staffers look to the senior attorneys and scientists at the big environmental groups, not to Energize America, Apollo Alliance, or Hoffert et al., for guidance. Sure, we all talk to Hill staffers and media. But unless you have some hidden influence on leaders of Congress that I'm unaware of, you don't drive legislative action like Carl Pope and David Hawkins do.

That's why the parts of Break Through that criticize environmentalists on climate are actually quite pointed at NRDC, Sierra Club, et al., and not at groups and individuals who have very little clout over climate policy matters in Washington.

The good news is that in the debate over Break Through, prominent environmental leaders from Carl Pope (he's quoted in the Wired magazine profile about us) and David Hawkins ( see his blog) have insisted that they support big investment.

The time has come for them to put their money where their mouths are. They need to publicly commit to making sure that Lieberman-Warner generates at least $30 billion for clean energy investments every year. A mechanism should be created to insure that the money is well-invested in R&D, demonstration, deployment, and outright procurement and not frittered away into a million little pork projects.

Will you endorse this call?

The opportunity is here to see to it that investment be taken as seriously as regulation. Lieberman-Warner, by auctioning permits, could be a vehicle to make it happen. I hope you'll join us.


By Michael Shellenberger on 2007 11 15

Ted and Michael,

this is a response to both of you. Your gripe seems to be with "major environmental organizations". I can't speak for Joe Romm or Dave Roberts, but I am neither part of nor a supporter of any "major environmental organization" and never have been. That does not mean I and many others have not been active on the climate and energy questions for a long time. But your claim is incoherent - at least reading your book and your posts - your evidence comes from the stance of "major environmental organizations", and yet your book attacks scientists, "liberals", and the Democratic party wholesale, all lumped in with "environmentalists". Why?

In fact, most "major environmental organizations" I'm familiar with don't spend a lot of their effort on government legislation; rather they focus on what people can do now. Look at the Earth Day climate change effort for instance. Or Bill McKibben's "Step it Up" campaign. You seem to have praise for Bill - I do too, he's a great enthusiast for the cause. But where's his position on "public investment"?

Clearly those on the science side, from IPCC to people like Marty Hoffert to the DOE folks in the trenches see the need for greatly increased R&D and government investment in the issues. What you are doing is nothing new to them. What's different about your plan?

And have you actually succeeded any better? In all the fuss about your attacks on environmentalists (and half the rest of the country it seems) I haven't seen any media discussion of what you claim to be your main policy proposal, on increased public investment.

By the way I just posted a review of your book:
If you want to quote it, I'd suggest: "Maybe this is all part of some secret Machiavellian plan to win over the conservative side to actually doing something about climate change"...

By Arthur Smith on 2007 11 15

Hi Matthew,

Thanks for your comments.

Yes, the response from the True Believers -- Dave Roberts, Joe Romm, et al. -- was to be expected. They don't strike me as very interested in having this debate, but rather in shutting it down. It's telling that neither Romm nor Roberts appears to have read the book -- Romm actually bragged that he didn't read the book before attacking us, saying, "I won't be reading their instant best-seller, and neither should you."

Nor have they responded to "Fast Clean Cheap." Nor have they provided any evidence to back their claim that the environmental lobby has long lobbied for massive investments into clean energy (because they can't -- there isn't any).

I think the fact that so many people have commented on Andy Revkin's story -- people who aren't True Believers and likely feel alienated by Grist's shrill tone -- is perhaps a sign that this debate is moving on.

By Michael Shellenberger on 2007 11 15

Seeing the backlash and negativity of many prominent individuals in the Global Warming debate, do you believe a new energy R&D initiative will be a part of any (hopefully comprehensive) climate change policy?

Following this "Civil War" within the "fix Global Warming" portion of society, everything that has been said so far (by Roberts, Romm, etc.) has been expected. Wouldn't you think a debate over how to solve such a complex issue would expected and wanted? What stake do some of these respected academics and thinkers have in hard regulatory caps (while not combining it with anything else)?

It is an interesting debate and I thank you for professing a view that I know many have.

By Matthew Stepp on 2007 11 15