Open challenge to Roger Pielke and Breakthrough Institute — Part 1

Please stop misstating the findings of the Pielke et al. Nature paper.

The subhead on the Breakthrough Institute’s blog post on the paper says:

“Dangerous Assumptions” shattered the notion that we already have all the technology we need to deal with climate change.

And the first line in the blog post says:

A new piece in Nature today shatters the notion that we already have all the technology we need to deal with climate change.

In fact, it doesn’t, but this is obviously a major theme the Institute is pushing. Why?

I realize my long reponse to the Nature piece combined important points and less important points — and did not get to the heart of the key issues. Many readers wondered what was the real disagreement I and others have with Pielke and Breakthrough Institute (B.I.). Two commenters had posts that help clarify the issues. Let me boil the matter down to three issues:

  1. I challenge Pielke or Hoffert or Shellenberger or Nordhaus or anyone else at B.I. [or anyone on the face of the planet] to show me where in the Nature piece it “shatters the notion we have all the technology we need to deal with climate change”? I assert that the only “notion” the Nature piece “shattered” is the idea that we can possibly “deal with climate change” without very aggressively deploying both energy-efficient and low-carbon technology starting immediately.
  2. I also challenge Pielke and B.I. to indicate where the IPCC ever said “we already have all the technology we need to deal with climate change.” After all, if the IPCC never put forth this notion, then how could Pielke et al. shatter it? I would add that Princeton’s Robert Socolow never put forth this notion in his “stabilization wedges” work (although Marty Hoffert mistakenly seems to think he did). Nor have I made this assertion. Nor has anyone else I know in the energy or climate arena. I assert this is a straw man attack by Breakthrough.
  3. I also challenge the statement in the Nature piece: “Enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels.” I specifically challenge Pielke and B.I. to state what “atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations” are “acceptable.” I assert that this statement has no meaning whatsoever if “acceptable levels” are not defined. I also assert that you never define what you mean by “enormous advances in energy technology” so the entire sentence is doubly meaningless. Are we talking major breakthroughs like fusion and hydrogen storage? Or are we just talking steady cost reductions to things like PV and solar thermal electric — a trend that would be driven as much by a serious price for carbon plus aggressive deployment strategies (which bring in manufacturing economies of scale) as anything else.

Let’s see if Pielke and B.I. take up the challenge — or if they just want to be delayers kibitzers in the climate debate. The answers to the questions should clarify just whose myths they think they are debunking.

Certainly B.I. expends an unusual amount of effort attacking Al Gore (see here). So in Part 2, I’ll examine why they do that — when Gore has long been one of the biggest champions of clean technology solutions, both deployment and R&D?

17 Responses to Open challenge to Roger Pielke and Breakthrough Institute — Part 1

  1. Robert says:

    Joe, I quite liked the BI piece. It is logical, realistic and no more leads to a solution than your approach. I think you should be more open minded.

    I think Ill give up and go plant my vegetables.

  2. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    I oasted this comment on March 4, 2008 over Gavin’s Garage.

    RE: Age of Fossil Fuels Will Last Forever!

    I have said this many times here and elsewhere, I will say this once again here, and I will say this at RC for the very last time. We will always use increasing amounts of fossils fuels because there are no subsitutes with the requisite chemical and physical properties, and there never ever will be any reduction in the emission of carbon dioxide.

    For example, boats, planes, freight trains and trucks, construction, mining and agricultural machines, most cars and light trucks, motorcycles, snowmobiles, ATV’s, all military vehicles, go-carts, golf course and sports field grass mowers, etc will require and use liquid fossils fuels becasue these fuels have high energy density and are easily prepared from crude oil by fractional distillation and blending, low energy processes that do not require the breaking of chemical bonds. Even catalytic cracking of heavier distillate fractions is a low energy process.

    The “Fuels of Freedom” are chemically inert (except to reaction with oxygen. halogens and several highly reactive chemicals such as singlet oxygen) noncorrosive, highly portable, and can be stored indefinitely in sealed containers (e.g., steel drums) and under an inert atmosphere (e.g., nitrogen) in large tanks.

    Fossils fuels will always be required for lime and cement kilns, metal smelters, steel mills, foundries and metal casting plants, metal cutting and braising torches, all factories that make ceramics (e.g., bricks, tiles, china, glass, etc), all food production, processing and distribution, space and water heating, cooking and baking, BBQ’s, manufacture of porcelain-coated metals, harvesting of wood and lumber manufacture, isolation of essential oils by steam distillation for prepartion of fragrances and flavors, etc.

    The reasons we use thermal plants for generating electricity is that these plants have a small footprint, can be located close to consumers, and produce electricity reliably and at very high energy-densities.

    Fossils are the feedstock for the petrochemical industries (sometimes called the chemical process industries), which manufacture everything from A to Z, such as synthetic fibers. There is not enough suitable land for growing cotton, flax and sheep to meet world demand.

    If you guys have any schemes that will replace fossil fuels for the above applications and uses, I’m quite sure the engineers will glady welcome your suggestions.

    We will always have lots of fossil fuels because we can always use coal for manufacture of synthetic hydrocarbons. Germany did this on amassive scale during WW II and South Africa use the process and it supplies about 40% of liquid hydrocarbons which can be manufactured into a wide range of useful materials. Google “SASOL” for more info.

  3. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    Darn! “oasted” “shoud be “posted”. Remarkably, Gavin the Grinch didn’t wack it!

  4. Robert says:

    Harold – I agree with what you say, in the sense that it explains why getting off fossil fuels is going to be all but impossible. Don’t quite agree with the last para: “We will always have lots of fossil fuels because we can always use coal for manufacture of synthetic hydrocarbons.”

    We WON’T always have lots of fossil fuels, not even coal. For a start they are finite so will run out eventually, as surely as night follows day, and secondly, coal reserves may only be good for 40 or 50 years if use accelerates at its current rate.

    World coal consumption rose 4.5% last year. That equates to a doubling every 15.5 year. 4x in 31 years. 8x in 62 years, and so on.

    One way or another man will not be using fossil fuels within 2 or 3 generations. The climate debate is all about whether we can stop voluntarily before they run out.

  5. Paul K says:

    Good job of getting past your passion and getting to the nub of the issue. A serious discussion between you and the breakthrough crew, especially on the definition of current vs future technology and the prospects of each, would be great.

  6. Roger Pielke, Jr. says:


    Answers to your questions:

    1. The IPCC SPM WG III writes, “The range of stabilization levels assessed can be achieved by deployment of a portfolio of technologies that are currently available and those that are expected to be commercialised in coming decades.” Assessed stabilization ranges include 450 ppm CO2eq (or about 400 CO2).

    2. We define “acceptable levels” in our Nature paper as 500 ppm (the level focused on by IPCC WG III) and 450 ppm (the level focused on by the EU and implicitly in the FCCC).

    Had you actually read either of the two above documents you would not have had to ask such questions, as the points above are abundantly clear in each.

  7. Joe says:

    Paul — Thanks. Half the reason I blog is so that I can figure out what I really think. I read and ponder all the comments. Keep ’em coming.

    Robert — Don’t give up!

  8. Paul K says:

    Roger Pielke, Jr,
    I hope you find the readers of climateprogess are among the most polite and sincerely curious on the web.

  9. Greg N says:

    Does this mean there is now close agreement between Roger Pielke Jr and Joseph Romm on what is an “acceptable” stablization level, namely: 450 ppm to 500 ppm?

    Reaching such a consensus is encouraging progress, surely? Now we can focus on practical measures to achieve the agreed goal and dismiss every policy that would cause an overshoot above 500 ppm?

  10. Joe says:

    Greg — I don’t think Pielke is a 450 guy, but hopefully we find out.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Harold Pierce Jr — Ever heard of Peak Coal?

    Just so everybody knows, I’m a 315 advocate. Maybe even less.

  12. Tom says:

    The Nature commentary delivered most of what you needed to know in one sentence: “An analysis of China’s carbon-dioxide emissions estimated them to be rising at a rate of between 11% and 13% per year for the period 2000–2010, which is far higher than that assumed by the SRES scenarios for Asian emissions (2.6–4.8% per year).”

    What technology can possible get in front of that runaway train?

    The strength of the Nature commentary was the way it helped shake the inertia that seems to be brought on by a love of technology, and a blind trust it will solve everything.

    Take a long view, and you see that a depressing amount of the innovative energy in the United States seems dedicated to entertaining and distracting consumers, rather than transforming society. In the late 19th Century, the situation was quite different.

    Al Gore’s a great leader, but why does his We Can Solve It campaign inspire us with references to defeating Hitler and overcoming slavery without mentioning the scars left by those events? No one is preparing society for the extraordinary cost of reversing the damage done to the environment.

    Instead, we’re left to believe this global warming problem is on the verge of being licked, if only we’d send an email to our senator.

    Pielke, Wigley and Green make a strong case for a little less wishful thinking and a little more hard-headed preparation and honest discussion.

    Debating the number of assumptions that can dance on the head of pin misses the overall theme of their article.

  13. Joe says:

    Tom — that is how any reasonable person other than the authors would read their piece. The conclusion you drew, however, is not the one they drew. Quite the reverse.

    I don’t think Gore has mislead people as to how hard this is. Right now we’re doing NOTHING.

  14. Robert says:

    Gore said almost nothing in An Inconvenient Truth about solutions, or about politics. Just that political will was a renewable resource (or something like that).

    If you buy the science then the political battle is enormous. Rather like convincing everyone on the planet to give up breathing air.

  15. Tom says:

    The issue of climate change and global warming seems overwhelming, and it’s not helped by a feeling in the popular press that we can get on top of things through the use of funny-looking lightbulbs and hemp shopping bags.

    I got the impression the authors of the Nature piece felt we lack the technology to reach the goals of reversing global warming, setting up for severe disappointment.

    There’s a phobia in DC right now about preparing people for sacrifice (the Iraq war being the best example). Except for a few dimly lit corners of the Internet, I don’t find much debate about the size of the societal transformation that may be necessary if we’re going to leave much for our great grand children.

    I may have missed the conclusion of the authors, but the details of their piece made clear we either need to begin talking about sea-walls around Manhattan or rethinking every aspect of modern life.

  16. Robert says:

    You could argue that the renewable energy technology is not actually very advanced and not marketed on a large scale simply because fossil fuel is so hard to compete with. By tilting the playing field against fossil fuel the power of the market could prove very effective in developing and advancing the technology. No technology is very optimised to begin with (e.g. the first PC’s, the Apollo moon shots) but let the market scrap over it for a few years and all sorts of technological miracles evolve.

    The catalyst to kick off the process is to make fossil fuels far less attractive via some form of carbon tax or capping system.