June 21, 2010
Wired Calls for the Death of Environmentalism
Wired just went live with a powerful challenge to environmentalists as its cover story for its June 2008 issue.
Dave Roberts at Grist is, predictably, freaking out. (You can always tell when Dave finds something exciting because he goes on and on about how boring it is.)
The special issue is the opposite of boring. It's totally provocative and interesting. While I don't agree with all of it (I'd like our few remaining old-growth forests to remain standing!) Wired nails a bunch of hugely important issues that greens (that means you, Dave) still haven't grappled with.
Invest in clean energy manufacturing in China. How do we create a win-win economic relationship with China that drives down the price of clean energy as quickly as possible? Wired points out that China has the potential to radically drive down the price of manufacturing clean technologies like wind and solar. The problem, as we argue in a forthcoming issue of Democracy Journal, neither Kyoto nor any other cap-centered plan will do this. A better U.S.-China accord would be centered on technology and infrastructure investments, not pollution limits.
Get over your agrarian nostalgia. Enviros need to get over their agrarian nostalgia. Dave insists they already have. I'd say that many post-boomer greens have. But not all. This nostalgic quote below is typical of the discussion at the youth climate web site, It's Getting Hot In Here:
Why is electricity necessary to lift people out of poverty? Have you considered that people can live rich, fulfilling lives without electricity or with subsistence, agrarian lifestyles?
Over the last three years I've visited a couple of dozen colleges and universities, and spoken to hundreds of students. I'd say that the climate and student movement is about evenly split between those focused on limits and possibility. What sometimes gets expressed as an anti-capitalism is often more a farrago of anti-modern views than the Grundrisse. It goes something like this: indigenous people were closer to Nature. Our distance from the land makes us incapable of dealing with ecological problems. We all need to do with less. If only we lived on farms.
Which leads to other item Wired says greens need to get over:
Biotech. We need to invent things that will burn clean or eat carbon.
Organics. Conventional ag often emits less carbon (though I must say it's not clear to me how thoroughly Wired sourced this one).
Preparedness and Adaptation.
A no-brainer -- or at least it should be.
In his 1992 best seller, Earth in the Balance, Al Gore derided adaptation as "a kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our own skin." Better to take Stewart Brand's advice from the opening page of the original Whole Earth Catalog: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it." We're in charge here. Let's get to work.
Can I get an amen?
Wired must have known that it's issue would hit the stands just as the Senate was taking up climate legislation. Here's Wired's twist of the knife:
Carbon Offsets Don't Work
A few fun facts: All the so-called clean development mechanisms authorized by the Kyoto Protocol, designed to keep 175 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere by 2012, will slow the rise of carbon emissions by ... 6.5 days. (That's according to Roger Pielke at the University of Colorado.) Depressed yet? Kyoto also forces companies in developed countries to pay China for destroying HFC-23 gas, even though Western manufacturers have been scrubbing this industrial byproduct for years without compensation. And where's the guarantee that the tree planted in Bolivia to offset $10 worth of air travel, for instance, won't be chopped down long before it absorbs the requisite carbon?
As usual, Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke provides the factual kicker (does that guy ever sleep? Last time I checked he was in a huge debate over climate modeling -- and both Roberts and Romm, masters of the innuendo, used the debate as another chance to imply that Roger is a skeptic -- without ever coming out and saying so.)
Four Fault Lines on Climate
The argument of Break Through is that climate change is creating new fault lines in the society and in politics, ones that no longer fall along the "environmentalist/anti-environmentalist" dichotomy. Wired -- whose whole special issue is motivated by the threat of climate change the failure of greens to deal with it -- arrives at a similar place.
I would define these fault lines as:
1. Limits to Growth vs. Green Growth. If you think economic growth is only a problem and not also a solution, you are a limits-person. If you think we can limit our way to 50 percent emissions reductions worldwide by 2050 -- a time we are expected to have doubled our energy consumption -- you are a limits-person. If you think China will slow its growth because of climate change, you are a limits-person.
But, if you think that the only way out of the crisis is to grow our way out of the crisis -- both with markets and government investment, regulation, and adaptation -- then you are a green growth person.
2. Investment-centered or regulation-centered. If you think we can price and regulate our way to a clean energy economy, you're regulation-centered. Regulation-types like Romm and Roberts believe in some modest public investment in technology and infrastructure. Both believe investment should be a small part of the equation, and a low political priority. Both see emissions caps as the main policy play.
Breakthrough Institute holds a different perspective. For us, investment in tech and infrastructure is the main play. Regulation can help, but ultimately what's required are massive public investments, on the order of $30 to $80 billion per year from the U.S., and somewhere closer to $150 billion from all developed countries, every year. And it's far better politics to invest to make clean energy cheap rather than regulate to make dirty energy expensive.
3. Technology. Some of us -- like Breakthrough and Romm -- are open to coal or natural gas with carbon capture and storage (it was odd that Wired didn't mention this one), nuclear, and GMOs. Others -- at least half if not more of the environmental movement -- is against these things.
4. Adaptation as Important as Mitigation. Most greens don't believe adaptation is as important as mitigation. (Exhibit A: Joe Romm on Katrina.) Happily, this is changing. It turns out that Lieberman Warner would put a whopping $20 billion a year to it, showing that the national environmental groups who wrote Lieberman-Warner have embraced adaptation but still haven't embraced investment (which gets a measly $10 billion per year).