Breakthrough Institute decides to go back to being VERY uncivil …

… though, in retrospect, it’s now clear that they never really stopped being uncivil.

I honestly don’t get the Breakthrough Institute and Shellenberger and Nordhaus. As discussed in my post from early morning on Thursday, “Civility breaks through the blogosphere,” I thought Ted Nordhaus and I had come to an understanding on Wednesday in the back-and-forth comments (here) on an earlier post. Indeed, I had already said as much at the end of this post on Pielke from Tuesday (see here).

But I now realize that B.I. never apologized for all the things they wrote about me — and apparently rather than simply calling this a “no fault” decision to be civil, they have decided to try to portray this as if they are they completely innocent victims of “unfair attacks” and that somehow that means they can just go on attacking me uncivilly over and over and over again, which it would seem to me proves that they aren’t so innocent.

[I could list endless instances of their incivility, but let’s just try three, Pielke writing that the “bloggers at Grist … make up ‘facts’ to support their critiques of him,” and B.I. attacking me in headlines for the “Politics of Personal Destruction” and “Joe Romm’s Dissembling.”]

And so all this leads up to this post from B.I. Thursday night:

The Debate Gets Civil: Romm Apologizes For Unfair Attacks.”

A controversial commentary in last week’s Nature — arguing that the IPCC greatly underestimated the emissions reductions challenge — immediately launched a heated debate among environmentalists. We had hoped for an open and productive exchange of ideas, but after the rude welcome the Nature piece got from Joe Romm, we braced ourselves for another round of low blow mud-slinging and ad hominem attack. The ugly battle wore on for a week before things took a turn for the better.

In the comments section of one of Romm’s posts yesterday, Ted pleaded to elevate the level dialogue:

If you would stop with the hysterical character assassination and slander, we might actually be able to have a serious debate about the proper mix of pricing, regulation, and public investment in U.S. climate policy – one that might actually contribute to the policies that the next president and the next congress might actually enact.

What ensued was the beginning of the level-headed, honest critique of each other’s ideas — what we had wanted to begin with. Romm responded,

I think I have stopped calling you two “delayers” a while back. If not, I’m sorry. Anybody who supports Obama’s plan is not a delayer. I disagree with some of the things you are doing — and plan to point that out.

… Here’s hoping that we can put behind us the destructive attacks on the credibility and character of those who, in good faith and with the goal of protecting humanity and the planet, ask hard questions about how we are attempting to address the problem. We commend Romm’s shift in tone and appreciate his apology and look forward to an open debate that focuses on these challenges.

So, it’s all me. They are innocent victims AND at the same time, they can just say anything they want about me. In their view, it’s only because Ted pleaded with me to “stop with the hysterical character assassination and slander” that I apologized. Honestly, B.I. folks, if you actually read what I wrote, I said I had already stopped calling you “delayers” (which, frankly, ain’t much in the way of a character attack on the blogosphere), and I was apologizing if I had slipped up and accidentally used the term more recently.

Anyway, I have decided I am going to continue focusing on just the facts about how they are wrong on so many things. The facts are, it is hard to know exactly what the Breakthrough Institute is up to, but civility is pretty clearly not on their agenda.

35 Responses to Breakthrough Institute decides to go back to being VERY uncivil …

  1. Ken Levenson says:

    Oh Joe you ENVIRONMENTALIST!!!! ;)
    I reread “Fast, Clean, & Cheap…” yesterday – it’s an odd document – unsettling (not in a good way…) kinda like their arguing from some cultural frame that for me is at least 4 years old…. I know, not that long ago, but times a mov’in fast.

    I’ll need to thunk more on it but the feeling I get is kinda they’re trying to be to the “environmental movement” what the DLC was/is to the Democratic party. (full disclosure, I’m a Dean guy) The analogy might not be the right fit but there’s something there….humm….

  2. Ted Nordhaus says:


    I think any reasonable comparison of your rhetoric and ours over the last week and in fact over the last year would find a qualitative difference. I won’t get back into it, as I think almost everyone has been relieved that our dialogue has evolved towards civility and a fact based debate about our respective views, which, as many have observed on this blog, are a lot closer on many of these questions than the rhetoric might lead one to believe.

    As I noted in an earlier post, I quite appreciate the change in tone of your last few posts. You have raised, in your most recent post about the cost of solar power a number of important challenges to our position which we will address on our blog in the next couple of days and we will look forward to your response.


  3. Joe says:

    That is rich, Ted. I have tried to be civil. You folks — not so much. You haven’t even apologized for your scathing personal attacks on me.

    But more important, you seem to forget that your latest careers started with a scathing attack on the environmental community (of which I am not a part, so I can look at it as an outsider).

    Let’s see. You attacked the whole community: “Today environmentalism is just another special interest.” Remember that? Or

    The arrogance here is that environmentalists ask not what we can do for non-environmental constituencies but what non-environmental constituencies can do for environmentalists.”

    “For nearly every environmental leader we spoke to, the job creation benefits of things like retrofitting every home and building in America were, at best, afterthoughts.”
    I suppose that could be true – but curiously, it has been a primary aim of every single environmental leader I’ve spoken to for two decades – long before you showed up on the scene.

    I can’t tell you how many environmentalists I know who feel that your entire rhetorical attack on them was wholly unjustified and not fact-based.

    And then there are your relentless and unjustified and inaccurate attacks on Al Gore by name that continue to this very day – I’ll address them in a later post.

    The tone of my posts hardly does justice to the tone of your attacks.

    You like to pick fights. I get it. EVERYBODY GETS IT.

    No “reasonable comparison of your rhetoric and ours” over time would find mine even close to the relentless attacks you have waged on all the people who might otherwise have been your allies. Yes, I do attempt to debunk people who appear to be undermining the effort to solve the problem. I have no idea what your goal is, but your constant attacks on Al Gore make it hard for anyone to see you as either the good guys or as innocent victims.

    I wanted to see if a leopard could change its spots. You can’t. Fine. Life goes on.

    The three blog posts I cited above are but the tip of the iceberg. But this most recent blog post of yours is in a whole different league. Heck you have it featured on the front page of your website (comparable to the Center for American progress featuring one of my posts on you or Pielke on their front page, which, of course, I’d never ask them to, and they wouldn’t anyway). And it says: “Romm pledges to put destructive character attacks behind him.”

    Your comment above just vindicates everything I’ve written. No apology. No recognition of what you’ve done. What did President Bush say, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again”? Sorry, can’t get fooled again by you all. Bush said so!

  4. Ted Nordhaus says:


    You just cited our essay, Death of Environmentalism, published four years ago. You also cited extremely selectively, neglecting the many passages where we praised environmentalists and the environmental movement for its many accomplishments and where we stated, unequivocally, that our criticisms of the narrow and literal minded focus of the environmental movement was in no way intended to suggest that environmentalists did not care about other social concerns.

    Moreover, we have never suggested that the failure of environmental policies, proposals, and campaigns reflected an intention on the part of environmentalists to forestall, undo, or undermine ecological outcomes, which is precisely what you have accused us of repeatedly over the last year.

    We have been accused by many of being arrogant, pretentious, misinformed, and divisive. And while those charges are annoying and often distract from having substantive discussion, that is qualitatively different from doing what you have done: openly questioning our motives and suggesting that we are attempting to delay action to address climate change, blatantly misrepresenting our arguments even after we have repeatedly corrected you and the record, and attempting to associate us with Bush, Cheney, Inhofe and others whose views and actions on climate change are diametrically opposed to ours.

    So if the fact that we have continued to point out that qualitative difference is the excuse you’ve been looking for to return to slander and character assassination then I don’t imagine there’s much we can do to dissuade you from doing so. If so it would be too bad, your more measured and respectful tone of late has served you well.

    If there is a particular statement that we have made about you questioning your motives, inappropriately associating you with individuals or interests, or misrepresenting your views about climate change or anything else, please let us know. We will gladly retract them.


  5. Paul K says:

    Ted Nordhaus,
    Joe is not in any way shape or form an environmentalist. He hates trees. (as carbon sinks)

  6. Robert says:


    Just to demonstrate why I say the problem is first and foremost political, read the most recent annual report published by your own Center for American Progress. Climate change gets just one very peripheral mention on page 12. That’s it.

    Politicians pay lip service to climate change but behind all the words I don’t think they really recognise it as a problem. That leaves your technofixes as a solution in search of a problem – never a good place to be.


  7. Paul K says:

    The fact that CAP lip services climate change and that fewer than 1% of Americans name climate change as their top voting issue should indicate that politics is not the proper path. The path does lie within the people, but politics cannot be the organizing principle.

  8. Joe says:

    CAP does NOT lip service climate change. It is a short document and it’s got plenty on energy. CAP was not originally set up for environmental purposes, since there are so many major organizations whose sole focus is the environment. But they did decide to work on climate and energy security, and have been adding folks. Through this blog, CAP certainly demonstrates it recognizes the very grave importance of the issue.

  9. Peter Foley says:

    It appears the AGWers are having a little war over who gets to lead the jihad. Did the aliens use a latex probe or a stainless steel instrument on the elect? Just what is going to be the final dogma? when the bells ring, is the bread actually transformed into the godhead? (its okay, I’m a lapsed R. Catholic, I’ll pay an indulgence and confess my sin). When the brownouts start, any one that had anything to do with delaying the timely construction of power plants will righteously pursued by the deads’ surviving friends and family for justice.
    Climate security is just a parka here in the winter and hat with a brim in the summer.
    Every day of lower global temps further reduces the fear factor of the alleged carbon forced AGW. Its time to find a new label for the snake oil bottles and head the next town before the marks get out the tar and feathers.

  10. Ben says:

    I think I speak for at least some readers besides myself when I say that this back-and-forth, finger-jabbing-chest arguing is getting very tiresome. I feel like I’m probably fairly representative of many of the readers on here–fairly aware and concerned with climate change, trying to better understand energy systems and emissions, and looking for a straight, lively discussion about solutions.

    Now because I have both of these sites feeding my RSS feed (I appreciate all sides of an discussion and try my hardest to navigate and best comprehend this issue, which is admittedly tricky for someone w/out years of experience in the energy field), I’ll be posting this comment on both blogs.

    It does seem like all parties are at least somewhat responsible for keeping this “debate” from clearing out of the very clear personal contempt for one another, but we, as readers, beg that both sides recognize that this issue is more important than your respective egos. If the vitriol and personal attacks don’t cease, you’re only going to drive people away. Which would be a shame, as we are all quite concerned about the future of our climate, and would love to hear a reasonable debate/discussion about solutions.

    (I mean–unique posts dedicated to the immature framing of this “discussion?” How meta! And awful!)

    Please, please, please, clean it up and proceed with a mature and level tone.

  11. Peter Foley says:

    Ben, Selling solutions for a non-problem is fraud. let us ensure we need to remove our economic legs above the knee prior to the surgery, You know, the precautionary principle. I’m still waiting for proof of man made CO2 driven temperature increases instead of the host of alternatives which exist as alternative possibilities.
    At least we now know who doesn’t have the skill sets needed for the staffing of the world government bureaucracies that will be needed to enact the no-carbon non-future.
    Moses didn’t get into the promised land either Joe.
    I’d suggest reading up on the interwar governments of the USSR and the N_____ Socialists of Germany for techniques of surviving during the purges to come of the anti-carbon cult leadership cliques.

  12. Joe says:

    Ben — I announced my intention to be civil, and I will. I just wanted to let people know that B.I. has neither apologized nor decided to be civil.

  13. john says:


    I’ve looked at your web site, and I’m nearly through reading your book, and I’ve got to say, you guys seem to want to have it both ways. You appeal to reason and decorum when challenged, yet you are quite vitriolic in your rhetoric about others.

    You set up strawmen (for example, a decades old environmentalism) then attack them; you dismiss those trying to educate the American public on the danger of climate change as merchants of “doom and gloom”, particularly Al Gore (ad hominem, anyone?), and — whether wittingly or unwittingly — bolster arguments for doing nothing by dismissing most of what we can and should do now as marginal.

    I can’t decide which would be worse — your providing cover for delayers and apologists unwittingly, or doing it on purpose, but either is bad.

    I am particularly perplexed by your ceaseless attacks on Al Gore and others who are engaged in attempts to educate Americans about the severity and immediacy of the problem.

    Personally, I roll with Jefferson on this issue — As he said,

    “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

    Do you suppose that the American people will be moved to act if they do not perceive a problem? If so, you are dangerously naive.

    Your entire strategy seems to be to shut out the people from the consequences of our choices, to promise salvation from breakthrough technologies, thereby betting the future of a habitable planet on the hope of technological performances not now in existence, and unlikely to be in any time frame that would make a difference.

    Hansen has said we need to get back to 350ppm. Joe and others are laying out an initial target of 450 ppm and they’ve laid out the timetable by which this must be achieved.

    What is your target, how would you get there, and what certainty can you offer that betting on the come on a set of breakthrough technologies would get us there? That latter question is critical, because you are basically asking us to join you in a bet on the planet’s future, based on the appearance of technological breakthroughs (and their penetration into markets) the like of which we’ve never seen in energy technologies.

    Until you provide answers to these questions, BI seems an organization devoted to two things — snarky attacks on serious talk about climate change, and deus ex machina resolutions to the most serious challenge humanity has ever faced.

    I did see two areas of agreement between us. First, that the IPCC has underestimated the nature of the challenge we face, and second, that we should have large government R&D programs aimed at breakthrough technologies. Not that I believe a breakthrough technology is likely — I don’t — but it’s worth a hundred billion of so over the next decade to explore, given the nature of the challenge we face.

    But where we differ is this: You strongly imply that there is some sort of dichotomy — massive R&D for a set of breakthrough technologies that may — but probably won’t — materialize VS. serious attempts to educate and mobilize the people, develop and use smart market interventions, regulations, and financial and fiscal tools — both government administered and voluntary.

    Now, I expect you’ll challenge me to show exactly where you say such things, and when I offer quotes, you will say they are out of context or out of date, as you did with Joe. So I will not waste my time and yours, as well as everyone else’s. Instead, I invite everyone to study your work. I’m quite confident that for most, a “preponderance of evidence test” would clearly find you guilty of laying our and advocating this dichotomy.

    If they happened to be up on environmental policy, they’d also identify how out of date your characterization of environmental policy is. you seem at war with that bad old command and control approach that existed in the 70’s and 80’s. By all means drive a stake in the heart of this beast — but please know it’s been dead for nearly 3 decades.

    So here’s the deal, Ted: the preponderance of your writing clearly suggests this dichotomy. And I would ask, if it is not there, then what exactly is your point?

    But my real problem with BI is that your position strengthens the position of delayers and it seems to presume that the people are not able or willing to act in their own interests — indeed, it seems predicated on some elite few rescuing us from ourselves because we are too ignorant, too selfish, and too dumb to act for the common good or in our own interests.

    As Al Gore — that doom and gloomer — frequently says, climate change not only offers us a chance to create jobs and make money, it offers us a chance to find purpose and meaning by coming together to meet a generational challenge greater than any we’ve ever faced, and in the process, transcend the differences that divide and limit us.

  14. David B. Benson says:

    Peter Foley wrote “Every day of lower global temps …” But even this year is in line to be on the the 15 or so warmest years on record. The first grpah in the link gives the trend for the latest 17 years:

    which continues the trend of the past 50 years.

  15. John,
    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis…I’ve been puzzling over what motivates the Breakthrough folks to do things as they do them and I’ve come up with two interacting levels of analysis that are in no way a complete picture. I think they have a rhetorical/publicity strategy and a policy strategy that sometimes work together and sometimes don’t. (Having a rhetorical strategy in and of itself is not a bad thing, by the way.)

    Their rhetorical/publicity strategy is to get attention by defying expectations in somewhat random ways: if people know what you are going to say before you open your mouth, they pay less attention than if they don’t really know what you are going to say exactly. Sometimes they come across as concerned about policy and about global warming; sometimes they come across as slightly amoral commentators on the imperfections of other people who are concerned about global warming, as cool cats who don’t care too much about the issue. They have already gotten a lot of attention from the media by “turning state’s evidence” against the environmental movement so they are hoping to repeat the experience of getting all that attention…seems like a good career move. Also supporting scientific research and Big Science is also a way of “playing it cool”…not committing strongly to a political strategy that requires confrontation and getting into the trenches.

    More specifically, I think their policy strategy is based on a similar unwillingness to engage in a confrontation with broader American values concerning the price of energy. I have written about the Cheap Energy Contract which dictates that you shouldn’t monkey with the price of energy or incur the wrath of American/Canadian voters/consumers by raising energy prices to either increase energy efficiency or to pay for clean energy. While the BI folk say here that they support a moderate carbon price, they rarely bring this up as a leading part of their strategy on their site which drones on and on about research.

    Their policy focus on research I think is predicated fundamentally on the assumption that people in the US will not be willing to pay for cleaner energy but instead will want technological miracles to make it cheaper. So they are supporting a strategy that is not a particularly high probability strategy (hoping for a breakthrough) rather than going full at the problem of deploying existing technologies, which involves people paying more money for energy so it can be cleaner. The “cheap” part is I believe an unimaginative and counter-productive assumption that makes their position in actual fact blend in with so many gee-whiz “what if” technical innovation dreams. It’s great if those dreams come true but you can’t count on them.

  16. Jon says:

    Is the Roger Pielke at Breakthrough related to the Roger Pielke that allows Christopher Monckton- who employs a chart (Fig 2) that depicts temperature traveling backwards in time twice- to guest blog on

    Perhaps BI is so optimistic about future technological solutions because they likewise possess knowledge about the nature of spacetime that the rest of do not…

  17. David B. Benson says:

    Jon —

    Roger Pielke, Jr. — the Roger Pielke at Breakthrough (son)

    Roger Pielke, Sr. — the Roger Pielke that allows Christopher Monckton (father)

  18. David B. Benson says:

    “temperature traveling backwards in time” — It has been a long standing tradition in the historical sciences (such as geology) to start with the present on the left and work backwards in time moving to the right. For example:

  19. john says:


    I think you’re right about part of their modus operandi being based on getting good PR and attention — it’s certainly worked for Bjorn Lomborg. But I didn’t want to conjecture on motivations — I was more interested in sticking to their published positions and in trying to get them to tell us what they’re for, beyond crossing their fingers and hoping for a miracle, and in what their actual plan was, beyond telling us that others aren’t as smart as they are.

  20. Ted Nordhaus says:


    You write:

    “But where we differ is this: You strongly imply that there is some sort of dichotomy — massive R&D for a set of breakthrough technologies that may — but probably won’t — materialize VS. serious attempts to educate and mobilize the people, develop and use smart market interventions, regulations, and financial and fiscal tools — both government administered and voluntary.”

    But as we have noted repeatedly on this blog, on our blog, in our recent policy paper, Fast, Clean, and Cheap, in response to attacks on our book last fall at Grist, TPM Cafe, and numerous other blogs, in the New Republic last September, and in our book that we do not believe there to be a dichotomy between technology investment and regulatory and pricing policies. We support both. So why would you continue to suggest that we have made such a claim?

    What we have asserted, is that the national environmental movement, while expressing notional support for the former, has put most of its eggs, intellectually and politically in the latter. We do not suggest that is because they wish to delay action on climate change or are conspiring to wreck the planet. Nor do we suggest that it is because they are stupid or ill informed.

    Rather we argue that the way that the environmental movement thinks about the problem has deep philosophical, ideological, and conceptual roots. And we cite extensively from the environmental canon, from Thoreau to Carson to Gore, to document those roots and their relevance to contemporary enviornmentalism.

    For this we have been accused of creating strawmen to argue against. But, typically, when one speaks of strawmen, one speaks of using marginal figures or ideas as the prototypes for the ideas that one attacks. But as noted above, we have done no such thing. Rather we have taken on the most celebrated figures in the movement, and, I think, represented their ideas accurately. Moreover, if it is indeed strawmen that we have criticized, a quick perusal of the comments section of this blog, Grist, Dot Earth, or any other environmentally focused blog would suggest that there certainly are alot of these strawmen extant.

    Finally, I will point out to you that we are all betting on technology to save us. Whether you call them break through technologies or technologies that we have that require significant improvements in cost and performance, we are all counting on the broad and rapid adoption of clean energy technology globally. Targets, timetables, prices, and regulatory policy, all are intended to, through a variety of means, push or pull technology into the energy economy. The certainty that they promise is illusory – dependent upon the political will maintained over decades and the evolution of energy technology to meet targets while also meeting global demand for energy that will grow at an enormous rate over the next century.

    Where we differ is not in making a big and unprecedented bet on technology. Rather it is in what bets to make and how to make them. As noted above, we support a variety of regulatory and pricing policies to help pull clean energy technologies into the market. But we have pointed out that doing so, without also making big public investments in research, development, and DEPLOYMENT, should give us little confidence that such policies will achieve deep reductions in global carbon emissions.


  21. Robert says:

    Paul / Joe

    Paul wrote: “The fact that CAP lip services climate change and that fewer than 1% of Americans name climate change as their top voting issue should indicate that politics is not the proper path. The path does lie within the people, but politics cannot be the organizing principle.”

    Real political action on a global scale COULD address this problem. The world’s leaders would need to decide to start burning and emitting less carbon each year and leaving much of the remaining carbon safely sequestered in the ground. Leaders would of course need to exercise leadership, but I thought that’s what we paid them for.

    Joe’s approach seems to somehow depend on deploying existing technology and being more efficient. I just don’t see how this could work, and certainly not on a global scale. We have a relatively free global market, and markets decide what they will and will not do. Right now renewables are just not making any significant impact. Of course, our global leaders could DECIDE to switch to renewables, but that’s just the sort of political leadship that no-one thinks can happen (see para 1), given the lack of interest from the voting public.

    Lastly we have the BI position – hope for technological breakthroughs which will suddenly make the market WANT renewables because they are the cheapest way to make energy. I can see the attraction of this approach, given the low probability of the others working. Also – it would be such a shame if we invested billions in deploying silicon PV’s, only to have someone invent a PV paint that reduced the cost 100-fold!

    Conclusion – all routes should be persued simultaneously and aggressively. None should be held up as the only solution and thus be labelled a delaying tactic by anyone who disagrees.

    …and finally… I am almost 100% confident that mankind will extract and burn all of the available fossil fuel and take his chances on the consequences. If this does happen then all the arguments about deploying renewables and other low-carbon sources of energy are ultimately irrelevant.

  22. David B. Benson says:

    Ted Nordhaus & Robert — My perspective, for what its worh, is that the high costs of oil and coal are currently driving ‘the market’ to find substitues. All that is required is that the substitutes can compete successfully with fossil fuels. This becomes easier almost daily.

    At the same time, many researchers and devlopers realize that there is no an opportunity to polish up older technologies enough to compete (in whatever regulatory and incentive environment as may exist). I make some attempt to stay informed with regard to biofuels. Some of the technologies are currently being deployed in Africa, South America, South Asia and Southeast Asia with little or no government monetary support. In North America the costs are such that govenment monetary support is currently required.

    I am alos of the opinion that achieving ‘energy independence’ in the United States is impossible, at least with regard to transportation fuels. It would be far better to obtain these from South America and Africa.

    With regard to climate change, immediate deployment of alternatives to fossil fuels will certainly help. But it will be necessary to convice especially the Chinses of that if, for example, we wish to keep growing wheat in the mid-west…

  23. Ted,
    Your position is predicated on a bet that clean energy is like bioscience or microchip research. I believe that because of the predominance of large infrastructure investment required that this is more like WWII mobilization or the building of the Interstate system. This emphasizes innovations and incremental improvements in manufacturing rather than just laboratory research. That some of these monies come from tax revenue is inevitable but as in WWII, people bought war bonds to help the effort…a similar type of mobilization where people chip in rather than sit back and hope for scientists to solve their problems cheaply is necessary.

    You are selling your policy package as a “white collar” gee-whiz high-tech revolution, when I believe it is a mix of a “blue collar” and “white collar” technology revolution in which incremental improvements will end up being more important that singular breakthroughs. Incremental improvements have an almost 100% probability yet breakthroughs have a much lower probability. You are asking us to bet the farm on or at least hold our breath for, these somewhat improbable breakthroughs.

    Also, Pielke et al., whom you support has said that “enormous advances” are required in technology. Enormous advances are only required if you believe the American consumer will remain passive and unconcerned about the environment and will only accept cleaner versions of current technology (cheap liquid fuels mostly) at a very low price. I think your loyalty to what I call the Cheap Energy Contract is not well thought through. You’re selling people short.

  24. David Benson,
    Your pessimism about the US’s ability to become energy independent in terms of transport fuels is based entirely on a assumption that liquid fuels are the future. If you realize that the future of transport is electric drive both grid tied and grid-optional, we have more than enough renewable resources to fuel all terrestrial transport needs as well as biofuels for marine and aviation fuels. You seem to be stuck on biofuels.

  25. Ted Nordhaus says:


    As usual with historical analogies, none are exactly right. Really what we need is something that looks like a hybrid between the war bond/interstate highway efforts and the microchip revolution. It demand both very significant investments in the basic and applied sciences and even larger investments in early state demonstration and deployment. The microchip revolution was not just driven by classic R&D. In the 1960’s and again in the 1980’s the U.S. basically guaranteed the market for microchips, which brought enormous and rapid advances in both the cost and performance of those technologies.

    And anyone who has actually read our book should know that we suggest anything but sitting back and waiting for technology, with a little bit of R&D money, to take its course. We describe global warming as an existential threat to human civilization and call for an all hands on deck effort to rapidly make the transition to a global clean energy economy.

    Our concern is not that the present strategies to address climate change go too far but that they don’t go far enough. We call for a minimum of $300 billion in public investment for research, development, and deployment of clean energy technologies over the next 10 years, which we believe will leverage another $200 billion in private investment. We suggest that we challenge the rest of the developed world to match that investment, which would result in a trillion dollar global investment in the clean energy economy over the next decade.

    We cofounded the Apollo Alliance and are well aware of the enormous role that the blue collar economy will play in this effort. It is one of the reasons we believe that an investment centered political agenda, will, in the long run, be much more powerful and sustainable than the current pollution focused agenda.

    While we have no particular allegiance to the cheap energy contract (well put I might add) we are extremely concerned about the potential backlash that will occur when the American public figures out that the environmental movement’s solution to global warming is to raise their energy prices at a time when public concern about energy prices is much more salient than concern about climate.

    Moreover, virtually every economy that has gone through the process of industrialization and modernization has used a cheap energy contract to do so. While Western Europe, as you have noted has moved away from this model, they did so after they had industrialized, not during or before. It is worth remembering that the European Union was initially founded as the European Coal and Steel Partnership in the years after World War II, which was a shared investment in cheap energy and steel to rebuild Europe after the war.

    So we have no confidence that China and India will diverge from this model. The U.S. may take steps to modestly increase dirty energy prices as the EU has done. And doing so would be a good thing and will surely help accelerate the adoption of clean energy technology. But without dramatic decreases in the real costs of clean energy technology we see little reason to expect China or India to adopt clean energy in the coming decades.


  26. Jon says:

    @David B. Benson

    I’m more than familiar- not what I’m talking about. See Fig 2. here:

    Look at temp in the Permian. Temperature goes a-time-travelin’ not once, but twice.

  27. Ted,
    Despite your profession to the contrary, your next sentence is pretty much a loyalty oath to the Cheap Energy Contract. “Extreme concern” about the “backlash” against prices pretty much ties you to cheap energy. You are assuming that all attempts to consciously and with full explanations raise the price of energy will be unsuccessful. You believe that all such attempts are like some other real or mythical attempt by the environmental movement to foist regulation on an unwilling populace.

    I think we really have no other option but to pay somewhat more for some goods, otherwise we have really no chance as a society to sustain an economy of any description. The reduction in living standards of the middle and working classes has a lot to do with our commitment to consumption over production; we cannot afford to pay each other for our services. We are part of a race to the bottom. Technology can help somewhat but it is not going to create the entirely harmonious solution that you hope it will.

    A call to sacrifice, not just for the environment but for ourselves and each other, is what is required from political leaders. Without forgoing some hedonic pleasures we will not be able to develop a sustainable economy of any sort. While I think paying for technological innovation exclusively through tax dollars is a little naive, spending taxes in the way you suggest goes against the trend of the last 30 years and itself requires a huge political battle. I believe you have developed your solution in contrast to the bad, old environmental movement and you haven’t yet gotten out into the wider world which has been trashing government for the last 30 years. Now THAT is a huge political struggle, one that I am willing to wage but not necessarily for a research-heavy agenda (some research yes).

    Finally, the notion that we are going to arrive at the China price in one step is naive and over-ambitious. Why not first develop clean technologies that are priced right for the developed world or, at least, not hold those clean technologies hostage because we are thinking “oh no, this won’t work in China”.

    This is looking for a magic bullet for the ENTIRE problem. It is either motivated by a beautiful sense of global justice or a simple unwillingness to address local and regional concerns before you take on the whole enchilada. We are in a far better position to help others if we first try to help ourselves. Isn’t it interesting that on airplanes the attendants tell mothers to first put on their own oxygen masks before they attend to their children? You are suggesting that we put on the oxygen mask for developing countries before we put it on ourselves.

  28. john says:


    First, I would say that if the tone of your web site and your writing were as balanced, measured and thoughtful as your responses on this site are, you would not be getting the kind of blowback you’ve been getting. I find it hard to come away from your work without feeling that you are implying that anything we can do with current technology — including policies effecting deployment — are only marginally valuable. And so, apparently, do a lot of other folks.

    My sense is there two underlying issues that frame the debate occurring on these and other pages:

    I.) How far can existing and soon to be deployed technologies take us; and
    II.) Is it likely that we can get the kind of breakthrough you talk about at all, let alone soon enough to make a difference.

    Let’s start with I.

    I believe — and there is empirical data to back this up — that efficiency can dramatically cut GHG emissions in the near term at little or no cost with the right regulatory, financial and fiscal policies. (SEE ACEEE’s studies for the states of Texas, Florida, South Carolina, and Maryland on the amount of cost-effective efficiency available to displace new generation, for example).

    Overall, an eighty percent reduction of GHG by 2050 is feasible with existing or in-the-pipeline technologies.

    Let me outline a just a few approaches:

    1.) aggressive codes and standards for all new buildings and appliances leading to zero net energy buildings;

    2)an FHA guaranteed loan for energy retrofits on existing homes (or alternatively, on-bill financing from low cost bonds or banks affixed to local real estate taxes, thus embedding the payback period into the building, and substantially reducing administrative costs of servicing the loan). Either approach would extend amortization periods from 3-5 years at 9, 12 or even 18 per cent interest to 20 or more years at 6 percent interest. This, of course, would mean that monthly costs would be low — in most cases more than offset by the energy savings from efficiency. Bottom line- we could afford far more efficiency. Such a scheme could also be used to finance on-site renewables at both commercial and residential buildings, making solar hot water and PVs cost-effective.

    3) aggressive efficiency standards for vehicles — starting with something like the 45 mpg I now get in my Prius by 2015 and moving rapidly to the 100 plus mpg we could get from plug in hybrids by 2025 and we’d be well on our way to serious reductions. We could even have a buy-back bounty on pig mobiles and SUVs.

    4) On the Utility and power generation side, RPSs that escalate, in conjunction with carbon dispatching, and a strategy like forward capacity auctions that put efficiency on an even field with new generation (see ISO New England’s web site) and the carbon from generation would plummet.

    As for industry and the public sector, requiring bonding agencies to incorporate risks and costs associated with fossil fuels into corporate, municipal and state bond rating would completely rewrite the way the industries, communities, and the financial community looked at energy
    decisions. And if the SEC were to require publicly traded companies to list potential and actual future liabilities and costs associated with clean air act emissions, GHG emissions, energy price volatility,and supply disruptions in the MD&A sections of from 10Ks and 20 Fs, we wouldn’t see a single new coal plant built, and every industry would design products and processes with clean energy as an integral — if not primary — design principal.

    So there you have it — buildings, power generation, transportation, industry and the public sector are covered, here.

    I’ve only mentioned a few ideas, intentionally ignoring cap and trade or a carbon tax. My point is that current technologies can take us a long way when appropriate policies are used — and the costs can be negligible. The key effect of these strategies is two-fold: Pull existing stuff off the shelf; and stimulate PRIVATE investment to develop new technologies and refine existing ones … complimenting those investments with ITCs or other public subventions might help, but such support would be ancillary to the market forces unleashed by these polices — of course, do them in conjunction with a rigorous cap and trade program, and these things would become that much more effective.

    Now let’s look at II — publicly funded RD&D for the purpose of identifying breakthrough technologies.

    Well, assuming that such an investment could be sustained over a decade or more — perhaps in the face of a severe recession — such an effort MIGHT pay off in a decade or so. there’s no empirical evidence to support that notion, but it could. And then of course, there’s market penetration — add another 10. And bear in mind that most cost reduction and fully half of innovation in manufacturing occurs after a product enters the market. And political resistence from fossil fuel interests who now control more capital than any sector other than government …

    Sorry, Ted, but I just don’t see it accounting for much in any meaningful time frame. And, it introduces a lot of uncertainty into the equation.

    Call me crazy, but I’m not willing to play craps with the Earth.

  29. Robert says:

    This discussion makes no sense. What is the point of developing “clean energy” and making efficiency improvements? It might address US energy security and give you a few climate change bargaining tokens but it won’t make a jot of difference to global CO2 emissions.

    The global economy is predicated on growth. The global population continues to grow. Use of fossil fuel and CO2 emissions are absolutely bound to grow while these conditions remain. There is only one road to reducing emissions, and that is to burn less fossil fuel. Your aprroaches will never address that.

  30. David B. Benson says:

    Michael Hoexter — Electricity is not a fuel. I wrote what I had to say with some care. I make no predicition regarding electric cars, but I will offer the statement that electricity is most unlikely to replace diesel for big trucks.

    I’m not stuck on bioenergy. It is rather than most appear unaware of the great potential than bioenergy offers.

  31. David,
    I am answering the assertion that you made about the US needing to import transport fuels from South America. The “Electricity is not a fuel” statement is puzzling because I don’t know what you are trying to get at with it. At some point everything can be considered an energy carrier of the original energy of the Big Bang…what is a fuel and what is an energy carrier then?

    With electricity we can capture as much as 30% of the energy of the sun and transform it into a useful “energy carrier”. With bioenergy we are talking usually of conversion efficiency of less than 1% with many ongoing variable costs and ecosystem inputs (water, soil). There are pluses to bioenergy that I am aware of, especially in areas of the world that do not have some of the renewable resources that we have in the US. We have such strong renewable resources here that importing fuels from abroad should eventually become just a niche business.

  32. David B. Benson says:

    fu·el Pronunciation (fyl)
    1. Something consumed to produce energy, especially:
    a. A material such as wood, coal, gas, or oil burned to produce heat or power.
    b. Fissionable material used in a nuclear reactor.
    c. Nutritive material metabolized by a living organism; food.


    Michael Hoexter wrote “We have such strong renewable resources here that importing fuels from abroad should eventually become just a niche business.” Not enough renewable resources in the U.S. to become ‘energy independent’, as best as I can make out.

    Hard to run big trucks and ships without (bio)diesel. Train lines could be electrified.

    But whatever appears to be the most cost-effective means of supplying the actually needed energy is fine with me.

  33. Peter Foley says:

    David b. Benson, the graph doesn’t include the most recent global data that shows decreases in temps. but even the data show in the non-current graph shows stabilizing at ~+0.6 degrees celsius. The old data is at ‘edge’ of fitting the IPCC projection. Just what is the integacial average annual delta +T ante carbon burning? ~0.50 degree a thousand years? what is the normal fractal ‘noise’ of temp records?

  34. David B. Benson says:

    Peter Foley — 2007 CE is the last complete year. See the ‘humor’ post by Joe up a few to see the temperature anomolies of the first quarter of 2008 CE. To see that there is no ‘stablization’ for the past 50+ years, see

    to compare from 1850 CE to 1950 CE with the last half of the graph.

  35. Sam says:

    Joe: A tip for the future straight out of the experience of blog comments- BI is and always will be trolls. “Don’t feed the trolls”.

    BI gets no attention, they want more, they do0n’t really care about anything beyond that.