GMO Fears Overblown
World Without GM Crops Poses Greater Risks
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the topic of genetically modified (GM) foods and, more specifically, labeling food that contains GM ingredients. Recently, the state of Washington voted on an initiative that would force manufacturers to disclose their use of genetically altered crops. If it was approved, Washington would have become the first state to pass GM labeling requirements, although dozens more are considering similar legislation.
Commanders in Growth?
Commanders in Growth?
Charting Economic Growth Under Republican vs. Democratic Presidents
The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post recently reported on a new paper by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson (here in PDF, hereafter BW13), which tackles what would seem to be a straightforward question: Why is it that since World War II the US economy has grown significantly faster under Democratic presidents than Republican presidents? This post looks at this question from the broader standpoint of policy research methods. I conclude that BW13 have asked the wrong question, one that lends itself to many answers or none at all, and perhaps it tells us more about policy research methods than anything else.
America, Land of Carnivores
America, Land of Carnivores
An Interview with Maureen Ogle, Author of "In Meat We Trust"
“In Meat We Trust,” Ogle’s newest book, hit shelves Tuesday, November 12. In it, she traces the history of meat in America, from the livestock raised by the original settlers to the birth of the modern industrial system. Along the way, she seeks to understand what she sees as a fundamental disconnect between consumers’ demand for an abundance of cheap chicken, beef and pork, and the producers whose motives bear little resemblance to what the critics would have us believe.
Ogle spoke with Salon about Americans’ long-standing and complicated relationship with their favorite proteins, from price scandals to pink slime. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hendrik Hertzberg’s Nuclear Option
Hendrik Hertzberg’s Nuclear Option
New Yorker Editor Endorses the Atom
Tucked into his New Yorker column on Congressional filibuster reform, Hendrik Hertzberg admitted his support for the expansion of nuclear energy: “Nuclear power plants have their drawbacks, as we’ve learned from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima,” Hertzberg wrote. “But global warming has changed the picture.” Echoing a recent letter written by four leading climate and energy scientists, which acknowledges the scaling challenges of solar and wind, the New Yorker senior editor argued, “breezes and rays are not enough.” In terms of a realistic alternative to fossil fuels, Hertzberg says, “the nuclear option, though not the best of all possible worlds, is better than the one we’re living in.”
Embracing Our High-Energy Planet
Embracing Our High-Energy Planet
More Energy, Not Less, the Key to Cutting Emissions
"The long story of human progress is one of continually rising energy consumption," says the Breakthrough Institute's Alex Trembath.
In order to continue the path of human progress, and indeed to extend it to all of the world's inhabitants over the next century, Trembath argues that we need a "high-energy planet."
This idea flies in the face of the conventional environmental movement. Our profligate energy use is our biggest problem, the story goes. So in order to avoid doomsday scenarios, we need to cut back. We all need to live simpler and smaller lives.
The Socialist Case for Nuclear Energy
How Technology Can Achieve Marx’s Vision of a New Society
The deepest, the most objective and the most indisputable criterion says: progress can be measured by the growth of the productivity of social labour. -- Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October (1932)
Energy, the environment, global climate change, and sea level rise are all huge, vast interconnected subjects that generate much debate and controversy at every level of society. One expects this when the future of our species, and all other species, are at stake.
The center of this discussion can be narrowed down to one technological and scientific issue: the generation, use, and distribution of energy. The historic application, or utilization, of various forms of energy is a measure of human progress. Even before the rise of civilizations such as the Indus, Greek, Persian, and others long gone were relegated to the anthropology text books and museums, and even before the development of class society, human use of energy set us apart from all other species, including the higher ones such as dolphins and apes.
Barriers to Climate Legislation Following the 2016 Election
Political Dysfunction Requires a New Paradigm for Climate Advocacy
Political forecasts are always difficult to make. But given the dysfunction in Washington and the fall out from Obamacare, as I write in a column at Ensia magazine this week, environmentalists would be wise to reflect on what are quickly appearing to be tough barriers to passing a major climate bill following the 2016 election. Even assuming that an experienced leader like Hillary Clinton is elected president, let’s take a moment to consider how these barriers are likely to shape up.
The Explosive Rise of Subsidies to Chinese Industry
How China’s Mercantilism Hurts the Global Economy
The intellectual foundation of free trade, and the North Star guide for US international trade policy, was formulated by David Ricardo, a 19th century classical economist whose theory of comparative advantage holds that the market determines which nations are naturally good at producing and that more trade is always welfare-maximizing. What happens when a nation openly rejects Ricardo, desires absolute, not comparative, advantage, and employs massive state subsidies to attain that end, is the subject of Usha and George Haley’s comprehensive and groundbreaking book Subsidies to Chinese Industry: State Capitalism, Business Strategy, and Trade Policy.
Behind Japan’s Climate Fail
Nuclear Energy and Global Warming Commitments
A government panel on measures to tackle climate change approved on Friday a new goal to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 3.8 percent by 2020 from the 2005 level ...
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he is sure that Japan can substantially contribute to global efforts to tackle climate change. The government will steadily implement necessary measures to achieve the new emissions reduction target, he said.
The new goal means a setback from the target of reducing emissions by 25 percent from 1990 by 2020, which was set in 2009 by the administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan. The DPJ is now an opposition party.
Our Super Zip State of Mind
Engaging with Life in Communities Not Like Our Own
Chances are if you are reading this blog, you live and work in a “Super Zip,” one of America’s most affluent neighborhoods and zip codes. Super Zips rank in the top 5 percent nationally in education and earnings, according to the American Enterprise Institute's Charles Murray who coined the term. On average, households in Super Zips earn $120,000 annually with 70 percent of adults holding college degrees.
It’s Not About the Money
More Money for Basic Science Is Not Resulting in Societal Benefits
Amid the mess of US politics — a pointless government shutdown, across-the-board cuts, endless partisan squabbling — now is a good moment to take stock of the fate of publicly funded science. After all, five years ago next week Barack Obama was first elected president, promising that he would “restore science to its rightful place” in US society. How has he done?
The Great Green Meltdown
How Economic Arguments Against Nuclear Highlight Environmentalist Delusions
Two weeks ago, four of the world’s most respected climate scientists took the extraordinary step of sending an open letter to their long-time friends and colleagues in the environmental movement, urging them to reverse their longstanding opposition to nuclear power. The scientists told AP and CNN they felt the need to make public their displeasure after years of trying and failing to reason privately with green leaders, who believe solar, wind, and efficiency are enough to power the planet.
Nader-Shellenberger CNN Debate Showcases Generational Divide on Environment
The generational divide around nuclear power within the environmental movement got wider last week when environmental leaders from two different generations clashed on CNN’s Crossfire.
Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger, president of Oakland-based environmental think tank, Breakthrough Institute, debated legendary consumer and environmental advocate Ralph Nader on November 7.
New Paper Challenges Metrics of Ecological Overshoot
Ecological Footprint Found to Be "Misleading"
Is humanity really using 1.5 Earths? That is the central finding of the Ecological Footprint (EF), a widely cited global sustainability indicator used by the United Nations and major NGOs around the world to estimate the impact of human activity on the biosphere. But a paper published today in PLoS Biology finds the method behind the Ecological Footprint "so misleading as to preclude its use in any serious scientific or policy context."
Top Climate Scientists Urge Support of Nuclear Power
Letter Calls for ‘Fresh Approach’ to Nuclear in the 21st Century
On Sunday, November 3, four top climate and energy scientists, James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, and Tom Wigley, released an open letter calling on world leaders to advocate for the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems. The letter begins:
To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power:
As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.
‘Pandora’s Promise’ Airs Nationwide Nov. 7 on CNN
Pronuclear Documentary Deemed ‘Essential Viewing’
Tune in and set your DVRs: Pandora’s Promise will air nationwide on CNN this Thursday, November 7 at 9 p.m. (EST), with an encore showing at midnight (EST). Following a strong critical reception at Sundance Film Festival and a successful film tour led by its Academy Award-nominated director Robert Stone across the United States, Australia, and Japan, Pandora’s Promise will be available to US viewers for one night only.
The Lessons of Hinkley Point C
Why Nuclear Needs to Get Cheaper, Faster
The energy-geek world I inhabit has been abuzz this week with the announcement of commercial terms for the construction of 3.2 GW of new nuclear power in the UK, to be known as Hinkley Point C. Total cost to first operation is £16 billion, comprising £14 billion in construction and £2 billion in costs to date. At £5,000 kW installed, we are talking some serious coin here.
Limiting Population Growth Is Not the Answer to Global Warming
‘Elephant in the Room’ Has Weak Relationship to Greater Carbon Emissions
Getting people to produce fewer babies – they already are – is a far less important challenge than getting them to consume and produce energy more rationally. It is time we worried more about rich people driving luxury cars than poor people having more babies.
Australia’s Climate Follies
Abbott Government the Bellwether of Global Carbon Debate
Australia’s longest-running tragedy is starting a new season with a new cast but the same familiar follies. Of course I am talking about Australian climate policy.
Before Julia Gillard was deposed she had announced that Australia’s carbon price, which had been implemented as a tax (following her pre-election promise not to institute a tax), would be linked with Europe's emissions trading scheme by 2015, cutting almost $20 from the per-tonne price of carbon that had been so hard won, leaving it in the low single digits.
Is Pot Growing Green?
Assessing the Carbon Footprint of Cannabis
Over the past several years, the campaign for marijuana legalization has surged ahead in the United States. Colorado and Washington have voted for full legalization, and a number of other states now allow the consumption of medical cannabis. Yet the US federal government still regards the substance as a “Schedule 1” drug, more dangerous and less useful than cocaine or methamphetamine. The position of cannabis in American society is a deeply charged issue undergoing a sea change in the court of public opinion.
It’s Time to Label GMOs
Why We Need to Move Biotech Out of the Shadows
In just about three weeks from now, on November 5, Washington State will likely pass a ballot initiative to label GMOs. Polling I’ve seen suggests two-thirds of voters currently approve of I-522. Those numbers may come down a bit, but my hunch is this particular battle is lost.
I’m told that it’s entirely possible that the ballot initiative could then be struck down as unconstitutional, so it being passed is not the end point. But as Churchill once said, it is certainly the end of the beginning. The strategy of fighting labeling state by state will have failed, and something new will have to take its place. Today I want to outline to you some ideas about what this something new might look like.
Electricity for All
Obama’s Climate Pragmatism
Clean Energy Stagnation
Against Technology Tribalism
Energy Efficiency: Beware of Overpromises
Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena
World Energy Agency Exaggerates Climate Potential of Efficiency
Liberals and Progressives for Nuclear
How to Make Nuclear Cheap
Which Nations Have Reduced Carbon Intensity the Fastest?
How the Left Came to Reject Cheap Energy for the Poor
Cost of German Solar Is Four Times Finnish Nuclear
How We Made Clean Energy Cheaper
Where the Shale Gas Revolution Came From
President Obama, Coal Killer
Breakthrough Generation Application
A Science Communications Intervention
Dan Kahan on How Different Cultural Groups Evaluate Risk
It’s a common refrain: If people only knew more about the science, there wouldn’t be so much polarization on the issue of climate change. But Dan M. Kahan’s groundbreaking work has gone a long way to prove that idea wrong. In fact, he’s found, it’s not the lack of scientific understanding that has led to conflict over climate change, but rather the need to adhere to the philosophy and values of one’s cultural group.
Elites Are Ruining America
The Hype Market Dominates US Politics
If America’s bipartisan establishment is agreed on something, you can be pretty sure it will be a disaster. That is my reluctant conclusion, after nearly three decades of involvement in politics and journalism, in Washington and New York.
I say “reluctant” because I am not a populist by temperament. I respect academic training as well as expertise based on personal experience. I think that institutions are, or should be, less likely to make mistakes than individuals. I detest people who pose as “contrarians” for the sake of controversy. I would happily be an establishmentarian, if there were a US establishment worth belonging to.
Peak Coal in China or Long, High Plateau?
Half of Nation’s Power in 2030 Will Come From Coal
China coal power is one of the world’s largest single contributors to carbon dioxide emissions, which will likely need to be reduced to near-zero levels over the next few decades to manage climate change. So when two reports came out in the last few weeks that project a peak in Chinese coal consumption within the next couple of decades, many environmental and energy commentators concluded that the problem has been tamed, and that coal will be swiftly replaced by wind, solar and gas.
Ascension Island’s Novel Ecosystems
I was standing on the summit of an extinct volcano in the center of one of the most remote islands on the planet: Ascension Island in the tropical South Atlantic. Midway between Brazil and Africa, Ascension is a thousand miles from the nearest speck of land. Below me was a harsh treeless moonscape of volcanic clinker, baking in the sun. But in the cool mountain air, 800 meters up, I was surrounded by lush greenery and a light mist from a cloud settled over the mountaintop.
They call it Green Mountain. But the greenery is new. My guide, the island’s conservation development officer, Stedson Stroud, peered around us and smiled. “Nothing you see here is native,” he said. “Except for a few ferns, everything has been introduced in the past 200 years.”
How Much Energy Will It Take?
We’ve been surprised at all the attention Todd’s new fridge has gotten recently—including comments saying the comparison against African per capita electricity consumption isn’t fair because many of those people don’t have refrigerators. Exactly our point!
Sparse grids and limited incomes make it hard to own or operate modern appliances, but plenty of Africans would consume a whole lot more energy if it was available. Regular rolling blackouts suggest that countries aren’t producing enough energy to meet current demand, let alone what would be necessary to achieve universal access by 2030 (possibly a post-2015 MDG).
Innovation Before Carbon Pricing
How Economists Misrepresent Energy and Technology
Carbon taxes are in vogue. Economists’ predilection for price signals as the universal solution has fused with environmentalists’ impulse to punish Big Oil and Big Coal to make carbon taxes the darling of the climate change debate.
It’s the elegant solution climate hawks have been looking for since the death of cap-and-trade. But as Dr. Rob Gross, the Director of the U.K. Imperial College Centre for Energy Policy and Technology stated, this idea is, “so simplistic it is absurd.” Carbon taxes are doomed to fail because they do little to drive what is needed most: innovation that generates affordable clean energy that all 7 billion humans will want to adopt, not out of altruism or coercion, but out of self-interest.
Weighing the Benefits and Trade-Offs of Natural Gas
A Conversation with Michael Shellenberger & NRDC’s Kate Sinding
MODERATOR: Kate Sinding is a senior attorney and deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York Urban Program. Her primary focus involves ensuring the proposed natural gas drilling in the northeast is subject to the most stringent environment and health protections.
Michael Shellenberger is an author, environmental policy expert and the president of the Breakthrough Institute, which is a long-time grantee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Co-editor of “Love your Monsters” and “The Death of Environmentalism,” Michael, and his co-author Ted Nordhaus, were described by Slate Magazine as modernists or ecopragmatists. Welcome to both of you.
Fukushima Fallout Does Not Endanger US Seafood
Radiation Levels in Fish No Higher Than Average Banana
This article was originally published by the Center for American Progress.
In recent weeks, there has been a significant uptick in news from Fukushima, Japan. Officials from the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, admitted that radioactive water is still leaking from the nuclear plant crippled by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The new revelations about the amount of water leaking from the plant have caused a stir in the international community and led to additional scrutiny of Pacific Ocean seafood. Last week, South Korea announced it had banned all imports of Japanese seafood from a large area around Fukushima. And Al Jazeera reported that the cost to the region’s fishing industry over the past two years exceeds $3.5 billion.
Challenging the ‘White Hat Bias’
What’s At Stake With the Subpoena of EPA Data
Last month Republicans in the US House of Representatives launched a new offensive in the long-running battle over the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of air pollution under the Clean Air Act. For the first time in 21 years the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology issued a subpoena requiring the EPA to hand over the data from two scientific studies, which provide the basis for most of the regulations.
‘Mass Flourishing’ Falls to Myths of Economic Growth
Edmund Phelps’s Book Belies State’s Role in Innovation
Despite winning the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2006, Edmund Phelps has endeavored to write a big and ambitious book—something like The Wealth of Nations for the 21st century. Phelps hopes to offer a bold new answer to the big question of why some nations are wealthy and others poor. While innovation is central to his latest book Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change, Phelps does not understand how innovation occurs. What he intended as a learned argument for rolling back ‘big government’ ends up sounding like just another Tea Party diatribe.
‘Pandora’s Promise’ Screening in Seattle
Vulcan Productions invites you to an exclusive screening of Pandora's Promise, the acclaimed documentary by Robert Stone, in downtown Seattle. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Director Robert Stone and Michael Shellenberger.
Scientists & Experts Must Guide, Not Usurp, Climate Negotiations
Last Friday, Björn-Ola Linnér and I had an op-ed in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that discussed the role of experts in politics. We argue that, "a commitment to democratic governance means accepting that power rests with the people, and not the experts." An English translation appears below, courtesy Björn-Ola Linnér.
On Thursday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented the first of four assessments, this one taking stock of the physical science of the climate system. The report’s reception and promotion highlights challenges that arise when expertise meets politics.
Bridging the Polarization Gap
How Science Communication Paves the Way
Those of us involved in journalism, education, and science like to believe that facts and science illuminate the way through contentious debates. We believe that given ample evidence, thoroughly weighed, we will arrive at some consensus. At the very least, our viewpoints will converge. This devotion to objective facts, the scientific method and the primacy of evidence is the basis for a liberal democracy.
Oh, how very 18th century.
Mark Bittman Gets It Wrong On Gas
How New York Times Columnist Misunderstands Shale Revolution
Natural gas and nuclear have done more than any other fuel source to displace coal, and have saved the United States 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. In the past five years, natural gas alone has displaced coal and driven the country’s power sector emissions down 20 percent, leading to immense environmental and human health benefits. What follows is a response to Mark Bittman’s dreary diagnosis of natural gas.
Ends & Means Luncheon, Sponsored by Will Evers, Jr., Member of The Pacific-Union Club
For over thirty years, Ends & Means has brought politicians, economists, diplomats, scientists, medical researchers, inventors, business leaders, doctors, attorneys, journalists, artists, venture capitalists, clergy, district attorneys, activists, and other community leaders and change agents to speak and discuss issues over lunch in a non-partisan, off-the-record, think tank environment. Last month, Ends & Means focused on the science behind climate change, and the expected planetary impacts. This month, our focus shifts to the question "what can and should be done to deal with it?" and how ecomodernism can offer a framework for the future.
Climate Skeptics Against Global Warming
What Conservatives Can Teach Liberals About Global Warming Policy
Over the last decade, progressives have successfully painted conservative climate skepticism as the major stumbling block to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon and the Koch brothers, the story goes, fund conservative think tanks to sow doubt about climate change and block legislative action. As evidence mounts that anthropogenic global warming is underway, conservatives’ flight from reason is putting us all at risk.
Part 2: The Limitations of Body Mass Index
The problem of obesity is so complex from a scientific standpoint and so highly-charged in the public discussion that it’s hardly surprising that there are divergent opinions. My previous article prompted several responses arguing that “obesity” should be considered a “disease.” But let’s leave this question aside for the moment.
Bury, Burn, or Recycle?
Zero-Waste Greens Oppose Incineration on Grounds of Consumption
For communities short on landfill space, “waste-to-energy” incineration sounds like a bulletproof solution: Recycle all you can, and turn the rest into heat or electricity. That's how it's been regarded in much of Europe, where nearly a quarter of all municipal solid waste is burned in 450 incinerators, and increasingly in the United States, where dozens of cities and towns are considering new, cutting-edge plants.
But leaders of the international zero-waste movement, which seeks to reuse all products and send nothing to landfills or incinerators, say incineration falls short on the energy front and actually encourages waste. Many “zero wasters” — including groups such as Zero Waste Europe and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA — have become ardent opponents of the technology, contending that proponents have co-opted the carefully crafted zero-waste label by suggesting that burning to produce energy isn't actually wasting.
The Bottom Line on iPhones vs. Refrigerators
"The Cloud Begins with Coal" Author Responds to His Critics
It’s uncontroversial to note that the global information-communications-technology sector (ICT) uses a lot of electricity. But convert that observation into a per capita form, illustrated, for example, by how many kilowatt-hours an iPhone might use, and protests and invectives sprout up faster than windmills in Iowa.
In response to our new report The Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, Big Power, some in the media got the point, but others seized on the comparison between an iPhone and refrigerator’s annual energy use and made claims of cherry picking and questionable assumptions. It should be obvious -- though apparently not for some -- that we are not talking about the few kilowatt-hours (kWh) a year needed to recharge the battery inside an iPhone, iPad, or their equivalents.
Gas Industry Should Embrace Regulation
Sorting Out Legitimate and Illegitimate Concerns About Fracking
On Thursday, August 29, President Obama visited Binghamton, New York, and was met by a diverse collection of citizens. On one side were organized opponents of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, protesting the President’s more-than-tacit support for an industrial practice with significant impacts on local communities. On the other side, members of the Joint Landowners Coalition hosted a picnic endorsing the economic and environmental benefits fracking would bring to New York. Similar face-offs have been staged recently at political events in Ohio, Colorado, and elsewhere. But while anti-fracking sentiment fomented by national environmental organizations have focused on groundwater contamination and fugitive greenhouse gases, the protests and recent surveys indicate that communities are far more concerned about issues like increased trucking traffic, pollution from gas processing plants, and the industrialization of virgin landscapes.
Nuclear Has One of the Smallest Footprints
From Fuels to Building Materials, the Atom is Antidote to Sprawl
When evaluating the footprint of nuclear, writers and analysts tend to focus on its near-zero carbon emissions. Yet, there are many other areas where nuclear power consumes fewer resources than other electricity-generating technologies. In fact, when compared to coal, natural gas, and renewables, nuclear is the most land efficient, energy-dense source of power, with the lowest use of building materials per unit of energy generated per year, and one of the least expensive in terms of levelized costs. Evaluating these different aspects of its footprint demonstrates that nuclear is one of our most viable solutions to readily decarbonize the economy.
Obesity Is Not a Disease
Part 1: The Illness Label Precludes Societal Factors
The American Medical Association’s decision last month to label obesity as a disease has provoked a good deal of commentary, much of it critical. In fact, the AMA’s action went against the conclusions of its own Council on Science and Public Health, which had considered the issue over the past year.
While no analogy is perfect, in terms of the magnitude of a societal problem, the example of smoking offers a number of points relevant to the discussion of obesity.
Remembering George Mitchell
Tributes Honor Gas Innovator as Public Servant
“I don't want to take anything away from Mitchell,” wrote Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, in Foreign Policy after famed Texas gas innovator George Mitchell passed away in late July. “He was a great investor, philanthropist, and entrepreneur who doggedly pursued the idea that shale could be made to yield its vast oil and gas content. But contrary to the classic picture of the lone wolf inventor who persists alone in the face of indifference, ridicule, disappointment, and even contempt, Mitchell had a partner -- the American taxpayer and the federal government.”
Trash, Trees, and Taxes
The High Environmental & Economic Costs of Germany's Energy Transition
Germany’s renewable energy transition, the “Energiewende,” has long been a subject of scorn among conservatives, who have argued that it is a massive ratepayer-subsidized boondoggle that has harmed Germany’s economy and imposed significant regressive costs on poor and working class energy consumers. But the last several months have seen growing skepticism about the Energiewende from the center-left as well. Both Der Spiegel and the Wall Street Journal have published lengthy investigative pieces raising troubling questions about the costs and the environmental benefits of Germany’s headlong pursuit of an all-renewable energy future. Even left-leaning Dissent Magazine recently published a long expose about the failure of the Energiewende to reduce carbon emissions, concluding that Germany’s enormous investments in renewables, together with plans to phase out its nuclear fleet, would cost the nation a generation in the fight against global warming.
Climate Scientists Must Not Act as Policy Advocates
More Science Doesn’t Solve Our Problems
As a climate scientist, I’m under pressure to be a political advocate.
This comes mainly from environmentalists. Dan Cass, wind-farm director and solar advocate, preferred me not to waste my time debating “denialist morons” but to use political advocacy to “prevent climate catastrophe”. Jeremy Grantham, environmental philanthropist, urged climate scientists to sound a “more desperate note…Be arrested if necessary." A concerned member of the public judged my efforts at public engagement successful only if they showed ”evidence of persuasion."
The Cloud Needs More Precise Energy Accounting
Don’t Feel Guilty About Your iPhone Use Just Yet
In the last few weeks an idea has been making the rounds that, when you count all of the required networks and cloud services, your iPhone uses more electricity than your refrigerator. This idea was first presented in a publication called The Cloud Begins with Coal by Mark Mills, and was quickly followed up with further analysis (and a different version of the calculation) by the Breakthrough Institute, “Bracing for the Cloud.” [Disclosure: I am proud to be a Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute.]
Since these articles make some very interesting points, I decided to dive into the data. I’ll share some observations here. At the end, I’ll take a closer look at the iPhone-fridge comparison. Teaser: I wouldn’t crank up the iPhone guilt just yet.
Poverty, Not Global Warming, Remains Biggest Challenge
Deprivation Is Most Important Problem No Matter Climate Impacts
It’s particularly trendy among politicians and members of the media to be worried about climate change. When President Obama recently spoke before a crowd in Berlin, he said that climate change “is the global threat of our time.”
But that’s not true. Just a cursory glance around the world reveals that, given the enormous problems facing our planet, it would be surprising if climate change cracked a list of the top 10 immediate concerns.
Drilling for Innovation
How Revenue from Oil and Gas Can Fund Clean Energy R&D
In 2011, ITIF proposed using a portion of U.S. oil and gas drilling revenue from federal lands to fund critical clean energy innovation programs. The proposal expanded on a similar idea made in 2008 by House Republicans in the American Energy Act, which called for using revenue from expanded drilling to support both fossil fuel and clean energy programs. In 2013, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski reinvigorated the idea by calling for the creation of an “Advanced Energy Trust Fund” backed by revenue from expanded oil and gas drilling to support a broad set of policies including clean energy innovation. Shortly thereafter, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) proposed a scaled-down version that would use a smaller share of oil and gas revenues to support the development of low-carbon and natural gas-based transportation technologies. President Obama ultimately made SAFE’s proposal a key part of his second-term energy strategy during his State of the Union address.
Mapping the Anthropocene
Visualizing How Humans Are Embedded in Nature
Any ecology student could tell you what biomes are: vegetation types, such as grasslands and tropical rainforests, that ecologists use to map the planet. But there’s a problem. Biomes exist only at the discretion of nearly 7 billion people trying to live their lives on a crowded planet.
Invert that ancient image of invasive humans chopping away at the edges of a pristine nature. The era has long since moved from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Nature is now embedded within a matrix of human-altered croplands, pastures, towns and cities. These anthropogenic biomes — “anthromes” for short — offer a fresh way of seeing our planetary pastiche.
Nuclear and Gas Account for Most Carbon Displacement Since 1950
US Saved About 54 Billion Tonnes of Carbon Dioxide Emissions Switching to Cleaner Energy
A new analysis finds that the vast majority of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with America’s carbon intensity decline since the mid-1900s can be attributed to the increasing shares of two energy sources: nuclear fission and natural gas. These two fuels have done more than any others to displace coal, and have saved the country 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. By comparison, in 2012 the entire world energy sector emitted 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Mark Bittman’s Renewables Delusions
Debunking the New York Times Columnist’s Recent Attack on Nuclear Energy
Nuclear provided America with about 180 times more energy than solar last year, and is one of our cheapest, safest baseload sources of zero-carbon energy, and yet New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman insists that solar and other renewables are better positioned than nuclear to replace coal. This post debunks Bittman's column.
Subsidies for Solar Two Times Higher Than for Nuclear in California
Golden State Spends More on Solar than Nuclear on Per-Kilowatt Basis
California has spent two times more on subsidies for solar than nuclear, measured on a per-kilowatt basis, according to a new Breakthrough analysis. The finding challenges a new analysis from DBL investors, which compares nuclear to solar subsidies without accounting for the fact that nuclear generates far more electricity than solar. Comparing subsidies on a dollar-per-kWh basis is more appropriate because it gives a sense of relative effectiveness of subsidies at providing services to society, in this case electricity provision.
Betting Against Apocalyptic Thinking
The Simon-Ehrlich Wager
$576.07. That is how much money Julian Simon won from Paul Ehrlich, John Harte and John Holdren in 1990 in a bet about commodities prices. The wager was actually a proxy for competing ideological views about the role of humans on the Earth. The story of the bet between Simon and Ehrlich is told in a wonderful new book by Yale historian Paul Sabin, titled The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and the Gamble over Earth’s Future.
Behind the Golden Rice Attack
Don't Blame Filipino Farmers for Anti-GMO Attack
Did you hear that a group of 400 angry farmers attacked and destroyed a field trial of genetically modified rice in the Philippines this month? That, it turns out, was a lie. The crop was actually destroyed by a small number of activists while farmers who had been bussed in to attend the event looked on in dismay.
The nature of the attack was widely misreported, from the New York Times to New Scientist to BBC News, based on false claims by the activists. But then anti-GMO activists often lie. In support of the vandals, Greenpeace has claimed that there are health concerns about the genetically modified rice. In fact there is no evidence of risk, and the destruction of this field trial could lead to needless deaths.
No More Railing Against iPhones
ICT Ecosystem Must Be Part of Innovation Strategy
Given the explosion of information and communications technology (ICT) and the proliferation of tablets, smart phones, and other high tech devices, it is pertinent to investigate the potential climate change implications of an increasingly digital world. This is the topic of the Breakthrough blog post “Bracing for the Cloud,” which rightly points out that “we need to be thinking seriously about how we can power the information sector with cheaper, cleaner alternatives.”
Building the Case for a High-Energy Planet
Generation Fellows Assess Future of Energy, Innovation, and Agriculture
How much land would be required to power the world on renewable energy alone? When does greater energy efficiency actually increase energy consumption? How are China and the United States working together on innovative technologies like solar and wind? What is the future of travel? These are some of the big questions Breakthrough Generation 2013 Fellows confronted this year, leading to surprising and path-breaking answers.
Preaching to the Choir
Is Bill McKibben's Anti-Keystone Chorus Doing More Harm Than Good?
On a cold March afternoon in 2007, Bill McKibben made an important strategic declaration about his growing campaign to fight global warming.
"It's important now to get everyone in the choir to sing at the top of their lungs," the environmental author and activist told a packed auditorium at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College.
After describing the imminent dangers of climate change, and the urgent need for a mass social movement capable of averting them, McKibben had been accused by an audience member of "preaching to the converted."
Don’t Blame the Internet for Political Polarization
Don’t Blame the Internet for Political Polarization
New Media a Force for Democratization, Not Subjugation
Leading intellectuals blame the Internet as cause of our increasingly isolated, polarized, and fragmented society. Evgeny Morozov (above right), author of Net Dellusion and To Save Everything, Click Here argues that the web distracts youth from political engagement. The critique isn’t new: thinkers and writers from Socrates to Theodor Adorno (above left), have feared that new media, whether books, newspapers, radio, or TV, would undermine democratic rule. With the benefit of hindsight, these concerns seem grossly misplaced. Each new form of mass media started as a tool of elites but over time has a massively democratizing effect. Furthermore, political polarization was driven by forces that long predate the Internet, including the rise of libertarian conservatism, the disappearance of Southern Democrats and Northeastern Republicans, and democratization itself. In the end, the “filter bubble” that most increases polarization and threatens democracy is the ideological one in your head.
Decentralized Renewables Won’t Fuel Modern Cities
Why We Can’t Ignore Fundamentals of Power Density
The 21st century will almost certainly witness a transition to an overwhelmingly urban human population, and – hopefully – a low-carbon energy system. The former scenario, however, will have a significant impact on the latter because a fundamentally urban species cannot be powered locally.
The continued, and essentially unabated, accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may at times render considerations of the requirements of a decarbonized energy system appear somewhat self indulgent, but I must ask the reader to indulge me, and at a little length.
Watchdog of the Biosphere
The Eco-pragmatism of Vaclav Smil
A few weeks ago, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates published his personal summer reading list on his blog Gates Notes. Of the eight titles, two are by the same author, a Canadian professor emeritus you’ve probably never heard of: Vaclav Smil.
“I’m trying to read everything he writes, but he publishes so quickly that I can’t keep up,” Gates writes of Smil on his blog.
Electricity for All
What Universal Energy Access Will Take
This article was coauthored with Morgan Bazilian, and originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology (Summer 2013) under the title "Making Energy Access Meaningful."
In a somewhat inconsequential meeting at the United Nations (UN) in 2009, Kandeh Yumkella, the then Director-General of the UN Industrial Development Organization, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s informally assigned “energy guy”, noted something obvious and profound, namely that, “the provision of one light to poor people does nothing more than shine a light on poverty”. Yet much of an emerging discussion on the critical importance of global energy access as a pathway out of poverty continues to focus on what are, in effect, “one light” solutions. In this essay, we seek to help clarify the challenge of energy access, expose assumptions that are informing policy design in the development and diplomatic communities, and offer a framework for future discussions rooted in the aspirations of people around the world to achieve energy access compatible with a decent standard of living.
Don’t Blame the Robots
Technophobia Distracts Us from What Most Imperils Working Poor
Technophobia is an affliction we have yet to cure even after decades of evidence-based ameliorative efforts. We might not have expected much resistance to the disease in earlier times, before evidence accumulated that the fears it inspired were irrational. Back in 1930, a mind as brilliant as John Maynard Keynes was susceptible to the condition. Keynes sensed sickness in the air but misdiagnosed it as a feature of the capitalist economy: “We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come—namely, technological unemployment.”
Bracing for the Cloud
Digital Economy Requires Massive Amount of Electricity
They weigh less than five ounces, but according to recent data, when you count everything that matters, the average iPhone consumed more energy last year than a medium-sized refrigerator. By the numbers, a refrigerator from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star ratings list uses about 322 kWh per year. In contrast, the average iPhone used 361 kWh of electricity when you add up its wireless connections, data usage, and battery charging. Considering that a smart phone represents just one device in the ocean of the world’s Information-Communications-Technologies (ICT) ecosystem, it seems superfluous to say that the digital economy is poised to consume massive amounts of energy.
Why Zero Carbon Technology Is the Key
Initiatives to curb the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change have, since 1997, centered upon the implementation of top-down market-based solutions known generically as cap and trade. Theoretically speaking, cap and trade is based on the premise that climate change is best conceptualized as a case of market failure. As Nicholas Stern said, "The problem of climate change involves a fundamental failure of markets: those who damage others by emitting greenhouse gases generally do not pay." This conceptualization, however, misapprehends the challenge of climate change because it doesn’t address the problem’s fundamental political dimension.
The End of Economics
Part One: Dreams of Being a Science Led to Irrelevance
Forty years ago today, that any student who enrolled in an undergraduate degree at the Faculty of Economics at Sydney University in 1971 had to complete four year-long courses in economics, out of a total of ten such courses: Microeconomics and Quantitative Methods in the first year, Macroeconomics in the second, and International Economics in the third.
The Proactionary Principle
Between No Caution and Precaution
What is the most prominent science-based principle that influences international law today? The answer is undoubtedly the precautionary principle, which aims to promote only those policies whose likelihood of harm to both target and collateral populations is relatively small.
The principle is "scientific" insofar as it invites skepticism towards ambitious claims, typically about proposed innovations, which are sufficiently uncertain that their worst outcomes would be catastrophic and possibly irreversible. Thus, applications of the precautionary principle tend to be accompanied by "risk assessment" studies that try to distinguish what former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld memorably called the "known unknowns" from the "unknown unknowns." This sounds very hard-headed. But is it really?
Mega-Philanthropists Won’t End Poverty
Rapid Economic Development Will
Philanthropy has become the ‘it’ vehicle for investment managers, corporate leaders, and nonprofits to come together and abet a curious form of ‘noble’ colonialism that accelerates inequality by reinforcing political and societal norms. The argument isn’t a new one, but that didn’t stop Warren Buffett’s son Peter from taking to the opinion pages of the New York Times with a proposal for a “new code” of philanthropy that will truly enable systematic change.
The Founding Father of Foodie
Wendell Berry and Green Pastoralism
No other contemporary writer has captured the hearts of food-conscious Americans than Michael Pollan, who argues across his seven books, most recently Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, that our food and our eating habits have a complex narrative we must heed. Today’s narrative, according to Pollan, is one in which Americans tacitly accept the industrial food industry and cheap energy system, both of which are cause not only for obesity and disease, but also global warming, pollution, and humanity’s numerous wicked problems.
Against ‘Anti-science’ Tribalism
Science Is No Substitute for Politics
One of the more useful concepts to emerge from online discussions is Godwin’s Law, which holds that the longer that an online debate takes place the probability that someone invokes Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1.0. When discussions reach such a point of fantastic overstatement, the existence of Godwin’s Law enables its invocation, and often a conversation can be reset to good effect.
Liberals and Progressives for Nuclear
The Coming Atomic Age
While historically conservatives have been the prominent supporters of nuclear energy, the urgency of climate change has recently compelled liberals and progressives to reconsider nuclear as the best zero-carbon source of baseload electricity for a world with rapidly rising energy demand.
A couple years prior to the release of Robert Stone’s documentary Pandora’s Promise, which follows five anti- to pro-nuclear converts, Breakthrough Senior Fellow Barry Brook, writing at his blog Brave New Climate, composed a list of the most prominent intellectual leaders and public figures who changed their mind about nuclear energy and now support it.
Germany’s Green Energy Bust
Energiewende by the Numbers
Through much of 2012, the Energiewende, Germany’s pioneering effort to construct an energy system around renewables while simultaneously phasing out nuclear power and cutting carbon emissions, was on a roll. Plunging prices and eye-popping production figures for wind and solar power seemed to fulfill all the visionary prognostications. Germany shrugged off the shuttering of nearly half its nuclear plants without a backward glance: not only did it not suffer the predicted power shortages, it boosted electricity exports. Renewable power pushed market prices down and threatened to drive gas- and coal-burning power plants into bankruptcy. The press and the green blogosphere celebrated passed benchmark after shattered milepost, including the day in May when, according to Treehugger.com’s headline, “Half of Germany Was Running on Solar Power.”