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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Will Copenhagen Mark the End of "Magical" Climate Thinking?

That's the question explored by the Breakthrough Institute's Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in a new column in Foreign Policy that chronicles the climate odyssey of the past year - from President Obama's campaign and election through Congressional climate debates and the chaos in Copenhagen.

Take a gander at the in-depth column here.

Here's a few excerpts:

There was good reason to be hopeful in January 2009 that the election of Barack Obama would bring about America's long-awaited clean energy revolution. As president-elect, Obama had started to talk about energy policy in a way that no leader of either U.S. party had before. Promising to save the country from both severe recession and industrial decline, Obama described the transformation of the United States' energy economy as a defining challenge of his presidency -- an economic and national security imperative that Congress would fail to address at the country's peril.

But the reality fell far short of expectations. The Obama administration succumbed, like many others, to a sort of magical climate thinking that promised a painless and even prosperous transition to a low-carbon future with the tools already at hand. The only official within his administration to accurately grasp the technology challenges faced, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, was sidelined at crucial moments.


One year ago, in his first State of the Union address, Obama proposed a previously unprecedented $15 billion annual investment in clean energy research and development. Further, he appointed a technologist, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Chu, as energy secretary to oversee that investment. The $800 billion stimulus, passed shortly thereafter, gave further credence to the notion that after 30 years of false starts, overblown rhetoric, and outright neglect, Congress and the president might finally get serious about remaking the United States' energy economy.

The stimulus included billions for energy R&D, infrastructure, and efficiency, and overturned the conventional wisdom that the United States would never again make big federal investments in technology as it had during the Cold War. But no sooner had the president's stimulus program demonstrated that a new way forward on climate change and energy might be possible, then the new administration relinquished its climate change and energy policy to the partisans of the past.


Putting Browner, a former Al Gore aide, in charge of climate-change policy was payback to environmental groups and the green donors who had supported Obama's campaign. But it also signaled that, inside the White House, the clean energy investment message that the president had used to such great effect in winning battleground states like Ohio and Colorado was seen as just that: a powerful message to use in the campaign, not a policy priority.

In this, Obama was following two decades of magical thinking among both greens and liberal Democrats about energy technology. In this view, energy efficiency pays for itself, solar and wind power are already nearly cost competitive with fossil fuels, and both can quickly and cheaply reduce emissions. This Pollyanna view of fossil fuel alternatives and efficiency, which makes going green seem cheap and easy -- little more than the cost of "a postage stamp a day" -- has provided the justification for green-policy advocacy that has overwhelmingly focused on pollution regulations and carbon pricing while ignoring serious investment in energy research and development.

The price of Obama's failure to break with green climate orthodoxy is only now becoming apparent. The collapse of international climate negotiations in Copenhagen last month was just the latest evidence that efforts to regulate global pollution output cannot succeed. The Kyoto framework, which imagined that carbon pollution limits could be the primary driver of the complete transformation of the global energy economy, has irretrievably failed.

The real technological obstacles to decarbonizing the global economy today represent an insurmountable obstacle to political efforts to limit carbon emissions. Until policymakers get serious about addressing the central technological challenge, all efforts to control carbon emissions are doomed.

Steven Chu came to Washington expecting to manage a massive expansion of energy R&D. Chu had cut his teeth as a research scientist at the justly famed U.S. government-funded Bell Labs, which he saw as a model because they were responsible for inventing or developing a range of devices now part of the fabric of American life, from fax machines to TV transmission, radio astronomy, solar panel cells, the transistor, calculators, cell phones, Wi-Fi, and hundreds of other technological miracles.

Chu had never bought the idea that, in Al Gore's words, "we have all the technology we need" to solve the climate problem. Instead, he told the New York Times that Nobel-caliber breakthroughs are required in chemistry, physics, and biology to make more efficient batteries, solar panels, and biofuels that can compete with fossil fuels in price, and that nuclear power is needed to displace coal.

Unfortunately, his view hasn't shaped the actions of the administration or Democrats in Congress. By early spring it was clear that Democratic leaders on the House and Senate budget committees were not inclined to honor the president's request for a dramatic scale-up of federal clean energy R&D and that the White House was not inclined to fight for it. And with greens and establishment Democrats fully lost in the magical idea that we can achieve massive emissions reductions through conservation, efficiency, and existing renewable technologies, there was scarcely any constituency inside the Beltway for the kind of big energy-technology program that Chu had hoped to launch.


The Waxman-Markey legislation passed the House of Representatives last summer by a scant few votes, even as it became glaringly obvious to everyone who dared look that it would not require emissions reductions below business-as-usual levels.

Green groups insisted that the bill would reduce emissions and pointed reporters and green donors to allegedly independent analyses by the World Resources Institute (WRI). But the WRI, a major party to the cap-and-trade agreement negotiated by the EDF and NRDC with energy companies, simply used a magic accounting trick that was visible in plain sight: counting carbon offsets as real reductions of U.S. emissions.

Offsets typically fund activities such as tree planting and methane capture from landfills, and have proven over the last decade to be extremely unreliable, when they have not been outright fraudulent. The extensive offsets in Waxman-Markey would have allowed U.S. emissions to rise at business-as-usual rates over the next decade rather than declining to 17 percent below 2005 levels, as proponents of the bill claimed. Nevertheless, the WRI created graphs showing U.S. emissions magically going down 17 percent by 2020 and nearly 80 percent by 2050; the New York Times duly reprinted them; and partisans on both sides of the debate tacitly agreed to pretend as if proponents' farcical claims about the bill's mandated emissions reductions were true.


Incumbent energy interests had, in short, hijacked magical climate thinking for their own uses. They took cap-and-trade legislation and turned it into an opportunity for them to raise energy prices on consumers, invest a fraction of the higher revenues in clean energy, remove existing regulatory obstacles to the construction of coal plants, and lock in their competitive advantage while crowding out energy newcomers, including clean energy firms, for decades to come.

The legislation's prominent defenders, like CAP's Joseph Romm, labeled green critics of the bill "global warming deniers" and told anyone who would listen that Waxman and Markey had pulled a fast one on the coal lobby. Duke Energy's James Rogers played along, offering to gladly repay the American public in emissions reductions after 2030 for billions in free allowance allocations today.


The collapse of the Copenhagen talks marks not just the end of the United Nations as the primary venue for global climate negotiations but also the abandonment of binding emissions-reduction targets and timetables as the primary vehicle for achieving emissions reductions. Targets will continue to be tossed around, either as aspirational goals or as loophole-riddled sops to appease greens. But the real international action on climate change and energy will involve bilateral and multilateral negotiations to develop and deploy clean energy technologies.

Those negotiations will sometimes look like trade negotiations, sometimes like IMF negotiations, and sometimes like global agriculture or public health efforts. What they won't look like is the impossible global pollution-output negotiations that have defined international efforts to address climate change since the Rio climate convention 18 years ago.


In the end, whether or not the Senate passes a cap-in-name-only climate bill, the long-term failure of Kyoto and all other efforts to establish binding emissions caps is virtually assured and is a function of a basic technological problem. We simply do not have low-carbon technologies today that can at large scale replace fossil fuels at a cost that any political economy in the world is willing to impose upon itself. There will be no political solution to climate change, no binding international agreement to substantially reduce emissions, and no effective domestic carbon cap until low-carbon technologies are much cheaper than they are today.


However, the technologies we need will not materialize in response to carbon prices or emissions caps. Nor will they arrive, as many conservatives would have it, by getting the government out of the way and simply allowing a new generation of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to tinker away in their garages.

Rather, we need to create a new clean energy economy in the same way we created our information economy: by identifying a set of well-defined technical problems and mobilizing the human resources of our technologically advanced civilization -- our scientists, laboratories, universities, and engineers -- to solve them.

These technical questions are not difficult to grasp and in fact have already largely been laid out by Chu in his remarks to the New York Times. How do we convert sunlight into energy much more efficiently than solar panels do today? What combination of chemicals can store more energy in batteries that are smaller and lighter? How can we manufacture a next generation of self-contained nuclear reactors that are safer, smaller, and cheaper than the large ones of the 1950s and 1960s? And how can we engineer new biological organisms to serve as a cheap fuel alternative to oil?

Solving global warming's technology challenges will require not a single Apollo program or Manhattan Project, but many. We need to solve technical problems across a range of technologies and at a variety of stages along the road from technological development to demonstration to commercialization to mass deployment.


Transforming the global energy economy from fossil fuels to low-carbon alternatives over the next 50 to 100 years is such a monumental technological undertaking that it is quite understandable that many would either declare it impossible or retreat into magical thinking. We must resist these temptations.

Solving the technology challenge will not be easy, but in terms of our collective wealth and knowledge we are in a better position today than at any other point in our history. In the end, global efforts to address the climate challenge, if they are to succeed, must centrally focus upon the creation of a new and extraordinarily important global public good: the development of low-carbon energy technologies that are cheap, clean, and abundant. After two decades of domestic and international failure to take real action on climate change, it is time for the purveyors of magical thinking to take their exit so that the main act can begin.”

1 comment:

al fin said...

Interesting plan to de-carbonise the economy using magick. I suppose it's okay if the little people end up freezing in the cold, as long as the people who really matter can feel good about their efforts. Lovely.

Magickal thinking is dominant in the halls of state on both sides of the Atlantic, and particularly within institutions receiving large climate grants. Magick makes that particular world go around.

"De-carbonizing" the economy? May as well de-carbonise the human body and the entire plant and animal world. But as it happens, ocean evolution has learned how to deal with orders of magnitude more carbon than even China and India are currently spewing.