The Future of Food

Ending Agriculture to Feed and Re-Wild the Planet

I have criticized him before for investing in projects like sovereign libertarian island-states, but I am glad to see that Paypal founder Peter Thiel is investing in the worthy cause of in vitro food production. The sooner we manufacture most of our food from stem cells or chemicals, rather than grow it, the sooner vast amounts of land on the earth’s surface can be partly or wholly “re-wilded.”

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Energy “Access” Is Not Enough

Why We Need to Talk About Energy Poverty

Access to energy is one of the big global issues that has hovered around the fringes of international policy discussions such as the Millennium Development Goals or climate policy, but which has been getting more attention in recent years. In my frequent lectures on climate policy I point out to people that 1.3 billion people worldwide lack any access to electricity and an 2.6 billion more cook with wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues and animal waste (an additional 400 million cook with coal).

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New Technologies Preceded Regulations in Saving Ozone

Accelerating Innovation Paramount in Climate Fight, Too

Twenty five years ago, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was introduced for signature by nations around the world. Since that time, the treaty has become arguably the most successful international environmental success story in history. It may also be the one which historians and policy analysts have argued about the most in an effort to draw lessons relevant to the climate debate.

Conventional wisdom holds that action on ozone depletion followed the following sequence: science was made certain, then the public expressed a desire for action, an international protocol was negotiated and this political action led to the invention of technological substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons.

Actually, each chain in this sequence is not well supported by the historical record.

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Uniting a Fractured Republic

Pragmatism, Innovation, and the Shale Gas Revolution

In 1981, George Mitchell, an independent Texas natural gas entrepreneur, realized that his shallow gas wells in the Barnett were running dry. He had millions of sunk investment in equipment and was looking for a way to generate more return on it. Mitchell was then a relatively small player in an industry that by its own reckoning was in decline. Conventional gas reserves were limited and were getting increasingly played out.

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The Signal and the Noise

In Obsessing Over Polls and Models, We All Lose

If you are a Democrat, you were likely feeling good on Election Day about President Obama’s chances.  Many pollsters and forecasters predicted an Obama victory, with The New York Times’ Nate Silver pegging his chances at 90.9%. Not surprisingly, conservatives voiced skepticism about Silver’s prediction, making the science and art of modeling the subject of considerable attention at cable news and blogs.

Silver provides a useful and powerful new resource for understanding the cascade of polls that have come to dominate discussion of elections.  Yet it’s the news media’s very obsession with polls and models that hinders our ability to talk about substantive issues.  When advocates, for example, deservedly complained that we had gone months without talking about climate change only to be woken from our slumber by a tragic storm, we can thank in part the media’s infatuation with polls and modeling.

 

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Hurricane Sandy and the Case for Adaptation to Climate Change

Mitigation Alone Is Not Enough

In the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, many commentators are arguing that global warming is causing increasingly severe weather events in the Northeastern United States. I am not qualified to judge assertions about the link between global warming (the accurate phrase I prefer to the weaselly euphemism “climate change”) and worsening weather in the Bos-Wash corridor where I live. For the sake of argument, let us stipulate that it is correct. It does not follow that the most cost-effective response to climate change along the Atlantic seaboard is mitigation alone, rather than a mix of adaptation and mitigation, or even adaptation alone.

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Does R&D Drive Economic Growth?

The Mythology of Innovation

It is a claim that you hear often in discussions of the role of research and development in the economy: “Federal investments in R&D have fueled half of the nation’s economic growth since World War II.” This particular claim appeared in a recent Washington Post op-ed co-authored by a member of the US Congress and the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It would be remarkable if true. Unfortunately, it is not.

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Cut-and-Invest Is a Death Trap

A Better Way to Finance Public Investment

If Obama is re-elected as president, there are indications that his administration will try to work with the lame-duck Congress to pass a “grand bargain” to reduce long-term deficits, in order to avert the “fiscal cliff” created by the expiration of George W. Bush’s ten-year tax cuts together with the steep automatic cuts devised last summer in order to provide lawmakers with an incentive to negotiate. As part of this national conversation, some neoliberals are likely to revive an old phrase from the 1990s: “cut-and-invest.” The idea is classic Clintonian triangulation—progressives can increase public investment in R&D and infrastructure, and at the same time prove to the business and financial community that they are serious about deficit reduction, by cutting entitlements for the elderly.

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Our Unproductive Climate Debate

Broadening and Diversifying Public Concern

Public opinion about climate change, observes the New York Times' Andrew Revkin, can be compared to “waves in a shallow pan,” easily tipped with “a lot of sloshing but not a lot of depth.” In a chapter published last year at the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, I review research that provides several explanations for the complex nature of U.S. public opinion. Environmental, political and media conditions will change over time, but the basic processes by which individuals and social groups interpret climate change will remain generally the same, and it is these processes that I highlight in the chapter.

I discuss studies identifying an "issue public" of Americans supporting political action and a similarly sized segment of Americans opposing action. Between these tail-end segments, more than 2/3 of Americans still remain relatively ambivalent about the importance and urgency of climate change. I also discuss how research is being used to identify and develop communication initiatives that empower and enable these publics to reach decisions and to participate in societal debates. Scholars are examining how values, social identity, mental models, social ties, and information sources combine to shape judgments and decisions.

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The ‘Corporate Welfare’ Behind the Gas Revolution

The Hamiltonian Promise, from Fracking to Clean Tech

Not long after President Obama defended his green energy investments by pointing to decades of taxpayer money for the natural gas revolution, prominent conservatives responded by denying the government's role outright. "I hear the President say the DOE invented [fracking] 30 years ago," said T. Boone Pickens, "and I don't know what he's talking about." At a public forum last July, Romney adviser Linda Gillespie Stuntz said, "The American wildcatters who really developed the hydraulic fracturing technology that's made this energy bonanza a reality didn't have anything to do with federal government."

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