April 17, 2012
Why Climate Science Divides Us But Energy Technology Unites Us
[Updated 1/11/2011: Robert Stavins was previously misidentified as the former chief economist of the Environmental Defense Fund. He is a former staff economist. We regret the error.]
By Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus
Thank you very much. We'd like to start by thanking William Ott for inviting us to give this colloquium, which is an honor. NIST has a long record of advancing innovation by developing new ways of measuring new natural phenomena and creating standards for critical technologies. The Institute, famous for the first atomic clock, played a critical role in creating the technologies behind modern computers, semiconductors, sonar, and blood pressure machines. We are grateful for NIST's work and reminded of the critical role played by America's sustained investments in science and technology in creating our prosperity.
It may be hard to remember now but it wasn't that long ago that much of the American political establishment came to believe that the science of climate would transcend ideological and national boundaries and result in common national and global action. The idea was that climate scientists would tell us what the safe level of atmospheric emissions was, and that nations would take shared steps to reducing their emissions over the next 50 years.
But things didn't work out that way. The United Nations treaty process has devolved into an endless exercise in empty promises and angry recriminations. The growth of global carbon emissions has only accelerated in the 13 years since Kyoto was signed. The United States failed last summer for the fourth time in seven years to cap its emissions while Europe, which supposedly has, has seen its emissions grow faster than the United States since 1997.
What happened was effectively the opposite of what most of the scientific and political establishment predicted. More scientific research divided rather than united the polity. Increasing numbers of Americans today tell Gallup that they think the news media are exaggerating global warming. And liberals and conservatives are more polarized than ever on the question of climate change - this despite the fact that media coverage of global warming increased and increasingly excluded or dismissed skeptical views.
In our talk here today we explore why this is. How is it that the thing that was supposed to unite us in a common, universal language -- climate science -- ended up dividing us? And might it be that technology, not science, holds the potential to unite us?
I. Climate Science
Over the last several years it became common for scientists, greens and reporters all to suggest that climate science is telling us what we must do. It is a curiously unscientific idea -- at least in so far as science is imagined to be the study of facts, and to be value-neutral. Science, at least traditionally defined, is not supposed to prescribe -- it's supposed to describe. You can't get an "ought" from an "is" as the saying famously goes. Yet climate science, since at least NASA climate scientist James Hansen's seminal 1988 Congressional testimony, has seemed to prescribe a particular set of actions.
Those who accepted the mainstream climate science saw a particular solution set -- emissions caps and trading, lifestyle changes, renewables and efficiency mandates -- as the only way to deal with global warming. And most of those who rejected these specific solutions found themselves, in one way or another, rejecting the mainstream climate science.
The science and technology expert Dan Sarewitz, a Breakthrough Senior Fellow, recently wrote in Slate:
"For 20 years, evidence about global warming has been directly and explicitly linked to a set of policy responses demanding international governance regimes, large-scale social engineering, and the redistribution of wealth. These are the sort of things that most Democrats welcome, and most Republicans hate. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science."
Skepticism about, and outright rejection of, climate science has long been motivated by skepticism or rejection of particular climate policies. This is not to say that there are no skeptics motivated purely by the quest for capital-T truth. Nor is it to say that most skeptics are paid by the fossil fuel industry, which many liberals wrongly believe. But if you pay attention to climate skeptics what you will often find underneath the talk of sunspots, water vapor, and the myriad uncertainties is a visceral resistance to proposals that would expand state regulatory power, slow economic growth, or mandate lifestyle changes. Not surprisingly, this resistance is stronger in the U.S., with our anti-establishment laissez-faire populism, than it is in many other countries.
As Sarewitz noted:
"Think about it. The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence--or causation?"
The politicization of climate science was the result of both sides going too far. Many climate scientists, greens, and Democratic partisans went too far in linking particular solutions to the study of our changing Earth and its climate. Greens, such as Harvard professor and former
chief economist staff economist of the Environmental Defense Fund, Robert Stavins, have repeatedly claimed that "there is no other feasible approach that can provide meaningful emissions reductions" other than caps and pricing carbon pollution.
But as these policies both failed to galvanize strong public support and faced staunch opposition from industries opposing higher energy prices and consumers fearing slower growth, green groups and activist scientists alike increasingly portrayed global warming in apocalyptic terms, even though such claims go well beyond the scientific consensus that they so often invoke. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not in fact predict human extinction, the collapse of civilization, or even extremely dire economic impacts. Scientists attempted to show that humankind has never faced such high temperatures, and presented the data to downplay or hide contradictory evidence. While this simplification of a more complex picture is often dismissed as minor, the truth is that over the last 20 years scientists and greens have exaggerated particular threats, from the collapse of North Atlantic gulf stream to increasing malaria in Africa, and attributed today's extreme weather events to anthropogenic warming.
All of this further alienated many conservatives, who increasingly took the very real uncertainties within the climate science and portrayed them as uncertainties over the basic link between emissions and warming. The two critical uncertainties are, first, how much temperatures will increase with a doubling of pre-industrial carbon levels -- the IPCC estimates somewhere between two and five degrees Celcius -- and, second, what the impacts of the warming will be on ecosystems and the economy. Skeptics like Marc Morano regularly bundle these uncertainties together to conclude that global warming either isn't happening, will mostly be positive, or is too poorly understood to act on.
In this way, the effort to present both climate science and green policy prescriptions as "settled" made the controversy over climate change worse, further polarizing conservatives and liberals, not just over the nature of the solutions, but also the nature of the problem. Liberal appeals to scientific authority led conservatives not to abandon their opposition to state intervention in the energy economy but to reject climate science. Lecturing Americans about Europe's ecological superiority and the need to "fundamentally change our way of life" offended the abiding faith that many Americans have in American exceptionalism and greatness. Green portrayals of climate change as apocalyptic struck many Americans as fear-mongering. The rise in the number of Americans telling pollsters that news of global warming was being exaggerated began virtually concurrently with the release of Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth. Conservative skepticism, in turn, enraged liberals, who attributed it to corporate propaganda, a supposed "Republican War on Science," and anti-intellectualism.
Meanwhile, left and right increasingly adopted exaggerated views of climate scientists. Liberals started treating climate scientists as prophets and martyrs. Environment writers asked climate scientists what to do about climate change, and proceeded to treat the scientists' answers as more authoritative and credible than the answers offered by policy experts, economists, or energy experts, many of whom have a greater understanding of climate solutions than climate scientists. Meanwhile, many conservatives treated climate scientists as frauds or even corrupt.
Over time, both sides constructed increasingly baroque fantasies of the other. To partisan greens, skeptics are fossil fuel-funded and brainwashed planet killers too stingy to spend a postage stamp a day to save the world from imminent apocalypse. To the partisan skeptic, greens seeking emissions caps are crypto-socialist watermelons whose policies would destroy the global economy and rapidly goosestep us into U.N. governance. Those who fit into neither frame are squeezed in one camp or the other by those who believe that if you are not with us, then you must be against us. The result? A Manichean debate with essentially no room for a third view.
II. Energy Technology
If the political and ideological fault lines that today largely define the polarized climate debate seem familiar, that's because they long predate public concern about climate change. The public was polarized about the solutions to climate change for several decades before anyone had actually heard about the issue. Liberals and greens have favored pollution controls, renewable energy, efficiency mandates, and limits to consumption and growth since the 1960s. In 1976, Amory Lovins bundled these policies and technologies into a program called "soft energy" for Foreign Affairs, which was widely embraced by green groups.
In the early years, Lovins' soft energy path, as well as the opposition to it, was largely a proxy for nuclear power. Multiple strands of post-war green ideology over time congealed around opposition to nuclear power. Greens increasingly came to conflate nuclear power with nuclear weapons. Green skepticism of technology and disenchantment with consumption and economic growth further drove rising antipathy toward nuclear power - which was seen not only as dangerous but also encouraging the continuation of living patterns that could not be sustained. Nuclear power came to symbolize 1950's era faith in modernity, technology, and progress that boomer environmentalists by the late 1970's overwhelmingly rejected.
The soft energy path became green gospel. It combined a strange amalgam of steady state energy economics - the simultaneous notions that we could continue to grow without increasing energy use and that we should reject economic growth and its empty material promise for a simpler but more rewarding way of life - with a peculiar techno-optimism - baby boomer greens substituted their own faith that solar and wind energy would enable us to harmoniously harness the power of Nature for their parents faith that nuclear power would provide energy that was too cheap to meter.
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, $10 barrel oil, and cheap natural gas brought America's nuclear power boom to a quick end. Over the next three decades, America's energy use would continue to grow largely unabated, while wind, solar, and other renewables barely registered in the nation's energy mix. But green faith in the soft energy path remained undiminished, if unrequited, and the spectacular emergence of global warming into the nation's consciousness in the late '80s offered greens renewed justification for policies that might put the nation on the soft energy path.
The result was that the debate over climate science became polarized along exactly the same lines as the energy debate. Liberals doubled down on their conviction that solar and wind power and efficiency and conservation were ready to be scaled up to replace fossil fuels only now the scale and timeline for doing so were even more unrealistic. Greens now insisted that renewables and efficiency were ready to remake the entire global energy system in short order. Conservatives, meanwhile, insisted that there was no reason to move away from fossil fuel extraction and consumption, even as they continued to advocate that the nation move to nuclear power. Al Gore insisted that America could move to 100 percent renewable-powered electricity in 10 years and that we should shun nuclear power, while Dick Cheney's energy committee pushed greater drilling for gas and oil, on-shore and off.
But the apocalyptic construction of climate science created its own contradictions, and beneath the surface of technology polarization, things started to change in a surprising direction. Many of the climate scientists most alarmed by global warming were making the case to their friends in the green movement that scaling up nuclear power was critical to reducing emissions, since renewables remain expensive and difficult to scale. "One of the greatest dangers the world faces," NASA climate scientist James Hansen said, "is the possibility that a vocal minority of antinuclear activists could prevent phase-out of coal emissions."
Energy experts, for their part, have long been overwhelmingly pro-nuclear, viewing nuclear as safer and cleaner than fossil energy, and cheaper and more reliable than renewables. Since then a number of prominent greens have come out strongly for nuclear power, including Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand, and Gaia hypothesis creator James Lovelock.
Public support for nuclear power is also growing. In the U.S., public support grew from 46 percent in 2000 to 62 percent in 2010. While Republicans have long supported nuclear power more than Democrats, Democratic support grew from 35 percent in 2000 to 51 percent today. Even ecological Europe, which has long been seen as a bastion of anti-nuclear resistance has started to shift. Sweden recently abandoned its plans to phase out its nuclear fleet. Germany, where the Green Party was forged out of anti-nuclear resistance, recently decided to extend the life of its nuclear plants. And Britain now intends to build new nuclear plants as the central part of its plan to deal with climate. France today generates 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear and exports 20 percent of it for a profit to neighboring countries. Japan, China, and Korea are all moving forward with plans to build nuclear, even as they reject carbon pricing and other traditional climate policies.
In the U.S., some of the fiercest climate skeptics and critics of any expansion of government regulatory authority are outspoken in favor of government support for nuclear power. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, from nuclear-heavy Tennessee, has called for 100 new nuclear plants in 20 years. George Will, who for years has attacked some of the basic climate science, called for expanded nuclear power in the wake of the coal mining disaster in April of last year. Will wrote:
"In September 1942, the federal government purchased 59,000 acres of wilderness in eastern Tennessee and built an instant city--streets, housing, schools, shops, and the world's most sophisticated scientific facilities. This was--is--Oak Ridge... That is what Americans can do when motivated. Today, a mini-Manhattan Project could find ways to recycle used nuclear fuel in a way that reduces its mass 97 percent and radioactive lifetime 98 percent."
Bipartisan interest in energy independence today also motivates strong support for alternatives to fossil fuels. Neo-conservative hawks have long viewed America's dependence on foreign oil as a threat to national security, and have favored the expansion of biofuels like ethanol to reduce our dependence. While many have lamented that ethanol is no better for the environment than oil, it's worth remember the Congress' intent was reduced oil dependency, not environmental protection.
The partisan divides over energy still exist, but they are far smaller than the ones that exist over climate policy. Republicans still favor nuclear and expanded oil drilling while Democrats still favor renewables and efficiency. But large majorities support increased federal funding for innovation in alternatives, from nuclear to solar to biofuels and batteries.
And so, despite the polarized climate wars, we can start to see a pathway toward some bipartisan agreement around innovation for new energy sources.
III. What's Going On?
How is it that the thing that was supposed to unite us in a common, universal language -- climate science -- ended up dividing us? And how is that the thing we are supposedly most divided on - technology - holds so much potential to unite us?
It's now clear that much of what gets called skepticism about climate science is not what it seems. Conservative opposition to liberal climate policies increasingly became conservative skepticism of climate science. And even here what passes for skepticism of climate science is often skepticism not of the relationship between emissions and warming but rather the view that climate change will be catastrophic or even apocalyptic.
Greens and skeptics alike are guilty of cherry-picking the climate science to suit their claims. Conservatives point to the IPCC scenarios of minimal economic damage from anthropogenic climate change and liberals point to scenarios of maximal damage. Skeptics point to negative feedbacks like faster-growing trees while greens point to positive feedbacks like the release of methane gas from melting permafrost.
Against the widespread belief that more science would resolve uncertainties the opposite is occurring. Earlier this year, the climate scientist Kevin Trenberth noted in the journal Nature that the fifth IPCC assessment report, due out in 2013, will examine predictions of future climate change. Like many scientists and greens, Trenberth believes this exercise will, in his words, "help guide decision-makers on how to plan for and adapt to change," but he doubts that the report will reduce uncertainties. Trenberth wrote:
"Many of these models will attempt new and better representations of important climate processes and their feedbacks -- in other words, those mechanisms that can amplify or diminish the overall effect of increased incoming radiation. Including these elements will make the models into more realistic simulations of the climate system, but it will also introduce uncertainties.... So here is my prediction: the uncertainty in [the IPCC's] climate predictions and projections will be much greater than in previous IPCC reports, primarily because of the factors noted above. This could present a major problem for public understanding of climate change. Is it not a reasonable expectation that as knowledge and understanding increase over time, uncertainty should decrease? But while our knowledge of certain factors does increase, so does our understanding of factors we previously did not account for or even recognize."
Thus, he writes, "The spread in initial results is therefore bound to be large, and the uncertainties much larger, than for the models in the last IPCC assessment. There are simply more things that can go wrong."
This is a more complicated picture than the one presented by environment writers who make claims like, "the scientific debate is over," and that scientific certainty has grown in the last two decades. What is largely over is the debate over whether or not increased carbon and other emissions causes increased warming. They do. But how much warming they cause, and what the impacts of that warming will be, is far from clear, as Trenberth notes. More scientific research will not solve this debate since more scientific research will increase the number of uncertainties.
While this will plainly distress those who imagined that more science would result in more certainty, and that greater certainty would result in the policies they have long favored, it is in fact good news for those whose primary concern is reducing emissions, rather than winning an argument in the climate wars.
Once we set aside any hope that science can tell us what to do or, much less offer some reasonable amount of certainty about the future, we can move on to consider a policy framework that takes into account the wider context of human development and the role of technology in it.
Over the next half century, demand for energy and other resouces will double or triple. The increase will be due only in part to population growing from today's 6.8 billion to 9 billion. Most of it will be due to 7.5 billion who are relatively poor seeking to live like the 1.5 billion of us who are relatively rich.
The history of energy modernization strongly suggests that as economies get wealthier their carbon intensity declines, which is to say that they are able to produce more wealth with fewer emissions. The increased consumption of energy is strongly correlated with longer, healthier, and freer lives. This process of modernization is, in many ways, the process of using more energy more efficiently. As nations get wealthier they move to cleaner sources of energy, from wood and dung to fossil fuels to nuclear and hydro-electric energy. These cleaner sources of energy bring immediate health benefits, reducing diseases caused by breathing dirty air produced by cooking over wood and dung fires.
But using energy more efficiently does not mean we use less energy, quite the opposite. There is increasingly good evidence that increased efficiency -- the increased productivity of energy -- actually increases energy consumption, which an article in a recent New Yorker describes. While virtually all advanced developed economies have significantly decarbonized their economies over the last fifty years, only two nation's in the world have significantly reduced their carbon emissions in absolute terms, and done so at a pace and scale consistent with addressing global warming. Those nations are France and Sweden, which did so through the direct deployment of nuclear and hydro power.
The barrier to the more rapid adoption of cleaner energy sources is their relatively higher cost. Generally speaking, coal-generated electricity is more expensive than wood and dung, hydro-electric power is more expensive than coal, nuclear is more expensive than gas, and renewables are more expensive than nuclear and gas.
The picture is more nuanced than this, however. France generates 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear and has some of the cheapest energy in Europe, exporting a full 20 percent of its electricity to its neighbors. The reason for this is due in no small measure to the direct government financing of nuclear power, which cut out the cost over-runs which have plagued new nuclear plants elsewhere.
At the same time, alternative power sources are becoming increasingly less expensive. The cost of solar panels has consistently declined over the last 30 years as the conversion efficiencies of panels has increased. Wind turbines are now just 50 percent more expensive than natural gas thanks to technological advances mostly made through the direct off-shore deployment of wind turbines by the Danish government in the early 1990s. Various biofuels such as corn and cane ethanol are being cheaply produced. And new, next-generation nuclear power plants hold the potential to be much less capital intensive.
Governments have a strong track record of accelerating innovation, including of new energy sources. Hydro, solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, hybrid-cars and other clean energy technologies have been dramatically improved through direct state investments. And yet few countries, the U.S. included, invest adequately in innovation. Mostly governments subsidize the production of existing technologies rather than the invention of new ones.
In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, the two of us proposed radically overhauling how governments fund energy. Keep in mind that virtually all demand for clean-energy technology is a result of governments subsidizing companies to make clean-tech and consumers to buy it. Governments will continue to be the central driver of clean-energy innovation for the foreseeable future; without public support, the technology isn't close to being cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Because policy makers have not fully come to terms with this reality; nations simultaneously spend too little and too much on clean-tech: too little on research, development and demonstration of new technologies, and too much subsidizing the commercialization of older technologies that will never be cheap enough to stand on their own. If clean-tech companies can profit making uneconomic, but subsidized, technologies, why invent anything better?
Public investments in clean-tech should work more like military procurement of new defense technologies and less like federal crop supports. What we need is competitive deployment. Governments should solicit bids for projects or technologies within a given class--say, a next-generation nuclear reactor or a new solar-panel technology. Once a new technology with the lowest cost is proved, it should be set as the benchmark for another round of bids--all with an eye toward ever-newer, ever-cheaper technologies.
The military has used this method for decades to drive down the costs and improve the performance of critical technologies. A decade of Pentagon procurement drove the price of microchips to $20 a chip by the mid-'60s from over $1,000 in the late '50s.
At the same time, the military heavily invested in government, university and industrial research labs to deliberately create knowledge spillover--the sharing of intellectual property--which is crucial to rapid innovation.
In calling for a new framework for action on climate and energy, we are increasingly being joined by a growing cadre of thinkers and institutions on both sides of the partisan divide who are ready to hit the reset button on the climate and energy debates. In October, we released a whitepaper entitled "Post-Partisan Power" with colleagues at American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution. Post-Partisan Power starts from the premise that we should avoid picking technology winners in advance -- we don't know yet which energy technologies we'll need to power civilization's future. The whole point of a step-wise increase in federal innovation funding is that we can fund research and purchase from an array of advanced energy technologies, from nuclear to solar, biofuels and batteries.
Over the two months we've reached out to left and right and received a mostly favorable response. Many movement conservative grumble that much of the $25 billion in new government funding for innovation will be badly spent, but see it as better than the gigantic regulatory framework that was cap and trade. Many liberals and greens complain that what we are proposing is wholly inadequate to prevent catastrophic climate change, but see it as a first step forward. New bipartisan consensuses are not formed over night, and few, including the two of us, think our proposal will become law anytime soon. But it may turn out that the lukewarm appeal of stepped-up energy innovation will, in this over-heated atmosphere, turn out to be one of its greatest attributes.
Support for such a proposal, as our Post-Partisan Power report showed, does not depend on believing that global warming is happening, is caused by humans, or will be catastrophic. It requires no opinion of temperatures on Earth 1,000 years ago. Our co-author, conservative author Steve Hayward of American Enterprise Institute, for instance, believes global warming is real but will not be as bad as most climate scientists claim. Steve's motivation largely rests on non-climate concerns, such as America's dependence on imported foreign oil, the millions of deaths every year from air pollution, and the high number of annual deaths from fossil energy production. As it turns out, those are much stronger motivations for most Americans than global warming.
Technology unites its users around its use. We might support the expansion of nuclear power and electric cars in order to reduce the risk of catastrophic global warming while Steve might support them to reduce America's dependence on imported foreign oil. We might also support policies aimed at making clean energy technologies much cheaper for similarly different reasons.
One of the oft-heard criticisms of creationists is that they are hypocrites for using antibiotics, whose invention requires a theory of evolution. But who cares what somebody's motivation is for using an antibiotic? Should we really object to someone using a technology who has a different belief system than the technology's creator? If such a requirement were imposed on our technologies the world could scarcely function.
Nuclear power is today being embraced by individuals such as Stewart Brand, who holds an apocalyptic view of global warming, as well as by George Will, who doubts anthropogenic global warming is in fact occurring. Must their motivations align before we make the necessary investments to make nuclear power cheaper, safer and cleaner?
One of our Senior Fellows and author of The Climate Fix, Roger Pielke Jr., likes to paraphrase Walter Lippmann on this point - the goal of politics is not to make people think alike, but rather, to make people who think differently act alike.
In the face of so much potential for technology to unite us, the continued insistence that climate science must be the central motivation for global action toward low-carbon power development and deployment can only be understood as religious. And after 20 years of climate wars the insistence that ever-more climate science will bring us together must now be understood as a kind of a blind faith.
Thank you very much.