Climate Negativity From the Naysayers

by Bill Chameides | April 27th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 6 comments

First the globe was not warming. Then the warming wasn’t due to human activities. In a slow, rearguard action, the naysayers now have a new mantra: “It can’t be done — it won’t work.”

As Obama launches his Major Economies Forum on Energy, Congress prepares to debate climate legislation, and the Environmental Protection Agency ponders regulating greenhouse gases, two national op-eds (in the New York Times and Washington Post) strike a precautionary chord. Debate is great, but do the arguments hold water?

Lomborg: Don’t Cut Emissions?

Bjorn Lomborg, who directs the Copenhagen Consensus Center, seems to be dedicated to saving the world by convincing us to ignore global warming. In his latest New York Times op-ed, “Don’t Waste Time Cutting Emissions,” (April 24, 2009) Lomborg argues that a cap and trade won’t work. Instead of a global treaty mandating a cut in global emissions, he favors all countries spending 1/20th of one percent of their gross domestic product on “energy research and development.” This would result in an “increase in such spending to $30 billion.”

Here are a few of the holes in Lomborg’s piece:

  1. Why, in Lomborg’s view, won’t cap and trade work? His hobby horse is pointing to the Kyoto Protocol — emissions have yet to come down, and even if Kyoto was “fully obeyed … it would cut temperatures by only 0.3 degrees Fahenheit.”

    Such arguments ignore the fact that Kyoto, which only went into effect in 2005, was intended to be a first baby step in a century-long effort at reining in greenhouse gas emissions. To argue that we shouldn’t embrace a decades-long effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions slowly but steadily because Kyoto’s effect will have been small is like telling you not to bother getting up for your morning cup of joe because that first step will only get you one percent of the way to the coffee pot.

  2. Instead of cap and trade, Lomborg argues, let’s subsidize research and development in low-carbon energy. But will publicly funded R&D work? Consider this: ever since the oil shock in the 1970s, Congress has implemented myriad R&D programs, from synfuels to biofuels, to catalyze the development of alternative fuels, renewable energy, and the next generation of fuel-efficient cars — all with very little to show for it.
  3. Why haven’t government subsidies worked? The economists I’ve spoken to explain it’s all about price. Right now the fossil fuel costs are artificially low because their true costs (e.g., from global warming and other pollution) are not included in them. As a result, alternative energy sources are economic non-starters. Without a price signal (such as that provided by a decades-long cap-and-trade system) long-term investment into alternative energies from the private sector is unlikely to materialize.
  4. Lomborg’s proposed injection of $30-billion from the global public sector into R&D would be significant, but private sector investment is the real prize. For example in 2007, U.S. venture capital investments alone amounted to more than $29 billion. (Such investments were understandably down in 2008.) That’s why many believe that true innovation will more likely come from the private sector rather than from the public sector.
  5. To spark private investment and innovation, I doubt if Lomborg’s 1/20th of one percent global tax will help. A cap and trade has a much better chance than such a tax, and even more so if the dollars collected by governments from auctioned allocations are put right back into the market place for further investment.

Schlesinger and Hirsch: Solar and Wind Not Feasible

James Schlesinger and Robert Hirsch, the authors of the second op-ed I take issue with, come with impressive energy credentials. Schlesinger, appointed by President Carter to be the nation’s first U.S. Secretary of Energy, established the National Renewable Energy Lab. Hirsch, who served in the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (the Energy Department’s precursor), is now a senior energy adviser at Management Information Services Inc., a consulting firm based in Washington.

Both Hirsch and Schlesinger are vocal proponents of the peak oil scenario and, therefore, of the need to develop alternative fuels. (See news article and CNBC interview on Hirsch and peak oil.) Oddly enough, however, it is at this point that both diverge from the imperatives imposed by addressing climate change. Schlesinger is on record as a climate skeptic, and Hirsch favors aggressive development of carbon-intensive, climate-disaster-inducing fuels such as coal-to-liquids.

The More Low-Carbon Energy Sources, the Better

In their recent Washington Post op-ed “Getting Real on Wind and Solar” (April 24, 2009), Schlesinger and Hirsch downplay solar and wind energy’s potential because their energy is intermittent and spatially specific. They write: “The United States will need an array of electric power production options to meet its needs in the years ahead.” Renewables will have their place, they argue, but so will other sources.

I don’t have a problem with this basic message. The more energy sources the better — as long as they are low-carbon and environmentally friendly. How to do this? One way is through a cap and trade. Set a limit on total carbon emissions and let the various energy sources duke it out in the market place.

The Here and Now Vs. Tomorrow

My problem with the Schlesinger and Hirsch piece is its myopia. Today we have a problem dealing with intermittent energy sources because

  • we do not have viable energy-storage technologies,
  • we lack a smart electric grid, and
  • spatially specific energy sources are problematic because our grid cannot move electrons over long distances.

These are reasons we can’t realistically incorporate large renewable sources into our energy mix today. But engineers are working to address these problems. Schlesinger and Hirsch imply that today’s technological limitations will be limiting tomorrow. Not likely.

The “it won’t work — we can’t do it” folks would have us focus on the here and now rather than imagining the possibilities of tomorrow. The fact is that virtually every air quality law or regulation was implemented over the objections of companies that argued too difficult, too expensive. And virtually every air quality law or regulation ended up being significantly less expensive than originally projected. Why? The innovation of the can-doers.

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  1. Matt
    Apr 27, 2009

    The way I read these articles, it comes down to skepticism about climate change. Schlesinger and Hirsch point out all the problems with wind and solar and refuse to entertain solutions; solutions are expensive and therefore impractical. However, they fail to mention the problems associated with fossil fuels. Lomborg and Samuelson don’t like the idea of a cap and trade because of the expense, which will slow economic growth. These views are only viable if the possible consequences of climate change are ignored. They are gambling that climate change will be insignificant and that it will have a negligible economic impact 50 or 100 years down the line. On the off chance that 97.2% of climate scientists are wrong, they refuse to sacrifice economic growth in the short term for a more stable, and therefore more productive, future. It all boils down to whether we as a society accept what science is telling us, or not. Thanks for the post. Any thoughts?

    • Bill Chameides
      Apr 28, 2009

      Matt, And thank you for the post. I agree. Their viewpoint would be viable if it turns out that global warming is “no big deal.” Some people like to gamble. But it’s an awfully big bet in this case.

    • Adam Kuehn
      Apr 30, 2009

      I don’t think this analysis is correct. I think it is just a different weighing of the problems. Peak-oilers (and I consider myself one) are concerned that the social effects of oil shortages may be very severe. The argument is that short-term solutions are needed to avoid those effects because wind, solar, etc. simply can’t scale quickly enough, and there are existing techonogical challenges which prevent them from bridging the oil gap. Climate change, they argue, is more remote in time, so we should also ramp up less palatable solutions in the short term in order to bridge the gap to the preferred long-term solutions. Is that a gamble? Sure. But it is also gambling to risk economic collapse and widespread energy shortages. There are no risk-free solutions. Incidentally, I don’t think many people who express concern over peak oil are worried about “sacrificing economic growth”. Economic growth is already out of the question in the absence of cheap energy. Sustainable growth is simply an oxymoron.

      • Bill Chameides
        Apr 30, 2009

        Adam, I guess I would not have had much of a problem if the arguments in either piece had a “this is just for the short term” caveat.

  2. Dan Kolomeets-Darovsky
    Apr 27, 2009

    Was just reading an article relating to this. Robert Samuelson at his best.

    • Bill Chameides
      Apr 27, 2009

      Dan, Samuelson’s comments are thought-provoking but in my opinion myopic. Pronouncements that we cannot deal with climate change presume a world much like today’s. They miss two key points: 1. Addressing climate change does not require that we wean ourselves off carbon in a few years or even a decade or two. We need to do it slowly but steadily, reducing emissions a percent or two or three each year. And early reductions can be had from low-hanging fruit like efficiency. We can also make use of carbon offsets to buy some extra time. In short there is time for new technologies to develop, provided we get busy tackling the problem. 2. The world and its technologies can change very rapidly. Think what the world was like 100 years ago or even 50 years ago. The piece you linked to correctly points out that economic models are fraught with difficulties and may underestimate the economic costs of transitioning to a low-carbon economy. But I think it much more likely that the models’ prediction will overestimate the costs because they are unable to foresee the technological breakthroughs. As I pointed out in my post, that was the case in virtually every previous air quality regulation — costs turned out to be far less than had been predicted by those economic models.

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