Nick Kristof drinks the tech-breakthrough Kool-Aid — guess who he’s been talking to

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"Nick Kristof drinks the tech-breakthrough Kool-Aid — guess who he’s been talking to"

When I see a Nicholas Kristof piece in the NYT on global warming, I expect to learn something. Alas, not today. The online version of his article, “Our Favorite Planet,” has the blurb

None of the presidential candidates focus adequately on climate change, for this will be one of humanity’s great tests in the coming decades — and so far we’re failing.

Well, actually two of them do, as I explained in “Could a President Obama or Clinton stop global warming?” As we’ll see, this time Kristof couldn’t be bothered to check out the facts about “one of humanity’s great tests.” Near the end he says:

So the next president should start a $20 billion-a-year program (financed by a pullout from Iraq) to develop new energy technologies, backed by a carbon tax and cap-and-trade system.

No, no, a hundred times no. First off, why on God’s green earth would you have both a carbon tax and cap-and-trade system? One of the main reasons to do something as complicated as an economy-wide cap-and-trade system is that the simple approach, a tax, is a political nonstarter in this country. If you could get a tax, why would you add all the complexity of a cap-and-trade system? Pick one and stick with it. Please.


Second, as someone who helped run the billion-dollar federal program for developing new climate-saving energy technologies for three years (and who ran that program’s Office of Planning and Assessment for two years), and who has blogged about this more than I had ever imagined — let me say one more time, the country doesn’t need a $20 billion annual program to develop new energy technologies. I’d take $2 billion, but frankly would be happy to live with the existing R&D budget if you gave me the cap-and-trade system plus some strong government efficiency and renewable standards, redesigned electricity regulations, and $10 billion a year in demonstration and deployment programs.

This serious confusion by Kristof has serious consequences. He is regurgitating repeating the new MSM campaign meme being peddled by, who else, the McCain campaign, that McCain is no different from Obama and Clinton on global warming. This is doubly ironic because McCain is the only one who doesn’t support an aggressive government-led clean tech deployment program — see, for instance, Campaign stunner: McCain “might take [new CAFE standards] off the books” and “No climate for old men.”

Does Kristof even know that Obama has a $15 billion a year clean tech program in his climate plan? It would seem not. The details are here, page 1. He should apologize to both Democrats.

Now what one person on earth could leave someone as smart as Kristof so confused? [Hint: This person co-authored a Nature article that Kristof cites.] You are all way ahead of me. And you will love this quote from the piece:

“We’ve gotten this hopelessly wrong,” said Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado at Boulder, one of the authors of the Nature article. “If we approach this from reducing emissions we get nowhere. Driving Priuses may be good, but it’s not going to accomplish what we need.”

Let’s see. We’re at 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year — rising 3.3% per year — and we have to average below 18 billion tons a year for the entire century if we’re going to avoid catastrophe. And this is according to the world’s top climate scientists, who are desperately begging us to start cutting emissions immediately (see “Desperate times, desperate scientists“).

Note to Kristof, Pielke, and everyone else who cares about maintaining the health and well-being of the next 50 generations — We must approach this from reducing emissions. Anything else is self-destructive. We have simply dawdled too long. That’s why a sober guy like IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri, said in November: “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” Increasing R&D into new energy technologies has been a good idea for longer than the two decades I’ve been pushing the idea — but right now it is about a distant fourth on the list of priorities.

I can hardly wait to hear from Pielke how he was misquoted yet again, as he claims (here) with the L.A. Times last month, who wrote: “His research has led him to believe that it is cheaper and more effective to adapt to global warming than to fight it.”

I get misquoted, too, from time to time, but most MSM journalists who talk to me for a few minutes don’t get my position completely backwards over and over again. Maybe serious journalists are actually correctly understanding the message Pielke is delivering, the message the LAT described as follows:

Pielke’s analysis, published last month in the journal Natural Hazards Review, is part of a controversial movement that argues global warming over the rest of this century will play a much smaller role in unleashing planetary havoc than most scientists think.

Is that what Pielke really believes? Actually, I have found some of Pielke’s words from a few years ago that I could not disagree with more, words that remind me why I need to keep taking him on — but I’m going to leave that to a follow-up post.

For now, I would merely note, again, something Kristof himself writes:

Mr. Pielke and his colleagues argue that the best hope for salvation will be investment in new technologies — and that’s why I asked the climate deniers not to read this column, for it can sound a bit like President Bush’s “solution.”

Actually, Kristof probably should have told those of us desperately trying to avoid catastrophic impacts to skip the piece, too.

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32 Responses to Nick Kristof drinks the tech-breakthrough Kool-Aid — guess who he’s been talking to

  1. Joe says:

    Enough of what?

    What does this mean: “We’ve gotten this hopelessly wrong,” said Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado at Boulder, one of the authors of the Nature article. “If we approach this from reducing emissions we get nowhere.”

    Who is hopelessly wrong? What does your second sentence mean?

  2. Roger Pielke, Jr. says:

    Enough of your attacks and misrepresentations, that is what. This statement in this post is a completely misleading fabrication on your part: “MSM journalists who talk to me for a few minutes don’t get my position completely backwards over and over again.” Please cite just one example of a MSM journalist who has gotten my position on anything “completely backwards over and over again”. Either you can cite such a case involving me or you made this allegation up to smear me. Krstof quoted me accurately, despite your claim to the contrary, as do 99% of journalists.

    Here is an elaboration of that second sentence (and please do not continue to parse my use of the phrase “technology innovation” to mean only long-term R&D. When you do so you are misrepresenting my views. What I mean by this term is excerpted from the Sarewitz and Pielke article in the link provided above):

    “It becomes a bit more clear that we may have set ourselves down the wrong path when we framed the challenge of mitigating greenhouse gases in terms of “reducing emissions”. Characterizing the policy challenge in this way leads people in rich countries to focus on things like changing light bulbs and driving less thirsty cars – all good things, to be sure – but which can hardly make a dent in the overall challenge of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations. And it leads people in developing countries shaking their heads – how can they “reduce emissions” when they hardly have any to begin with?

    We must acknowledge up front that the world needs more energy – vast amounts more. The International Energy Agency projects that global energy demand will increase by 60% by 2030 and recent trends in China and elsewhere suggest that this may even be an underestimate. Consider also that published estimates suggest that 2 billion people or more currently lack access to electricity. Their energy needs have only one direction to go.

    If the world needs more energy, and this fact seems inescapable, then the first question to ask is not “how do we reduce emissions?” but instead, “In a world that needs vast amounts of more energy, how can we provide that energy in ways that do not lead to the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere?”

    There can be only two answers to this question. One is to develop new technologies of energy supply that are carbon neutral or, to take carbon dioxide out of the air in some manner. Both types of actions require significant technological innovation. It is hard to square the I.P.C.C.’s conclusion that we have all the technology that we need with the results presented in our Nature paper.”

    Do you really think that Clinton’s acceptance of gas tax relief (in the most recent debate) really bodes well for US energy policies?

  3. “In a world that needs vast amounts of more energy, how can we provide that energy in ways that do not lead to the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere?”

    That is precisely the question whose answer we are discussing in comments on this thread.

  4. Joe says:

    I’m glad you clarified that, Roger. Now I see just how much we disagree with both how to frame the problem, and what the solution is.

    I urge My readers to read your comment above — it makes the classic but wrong equality between energy use and emissions. I will post on this later in the day.

  5. Paul K says:

    Joe,
    How you can read “In a world that needs vast amounts of more energy, how can we provide that energy in ways that do not lead to the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere?” or anything else in Roger’s comment as equating energy and emissions is beyond understanding.
    [Remainder of post edited for inappropriate language.]

  6. Joe says:

    Paul — it is a sly trick, yes, but I’m kind of surprised that a savvy guy like you missed it. You are looking at the wrong sentence — you need to look at the rest of this comment.

  7. Roger Pielke, Jr. says:

    Joe- Please post away as to your policy arguments, no worries there. I do expect that you will do more than simply ignore my comments about your continued misrepresentations.

    I wrote above, “Either you can cite such a case involving me or you made this allegation up to smear me. Krstof quoted me accurately, despite your claim to the contrary, as do 99% of journalists.” You can answer this, apologize, or ignore it. Which is it Joe?

  8. Roger Pielke, Jr. says:

    Posted for a second time:

    Joe Romm leaves the comments over at my blog:

    “First, it doesn’t matter if you can dig up writing of yours from the past (read by hundreds of people) that seems to agree with things I’ve written. What matters is that when the media writes about their interviews with you (for millions of people) they seem to conclude mistaken things — in this case the need for a $20-billion-a-year federal program to “develop new energy technologies.”

    Second, I didn’t call you names. Where did I do that?”

    This is an amazing admission from someone who wants to be taken seriously in policy debate.

    1. It doesn’t matter what I’ve written? Well, what I’ve written over the past 15 years on climate change is what I believe and argued. If you don’t like what the media reports, then take it up with the media.

    2. Yes, I’d be happy to see a $20 billion research program in energy R&D. Not only this, but including this. You disagree. Good for you. Is my view “mistaken” or just different from yours?

    3. “I didn’t call you names. Where did I do that?” Are you seriously going to baldly lie like this? How about, say, “delayer 1000 du jour” for starters?

    Joe, I don’t agree with everything that you’ve said either, like that whole global warming-bridge collapse thing, but I am certainly not going around trying to trach you at every opportunity. Though it looks like I might have to.

  9. Joe says:

    Gosh, Roger, I explicitly said weeks ago I was no longer calling you a delayer. But you and Breakthrough Institute never reciprocated.

  10. Roger Pielke, Jr. says:

    “Either you can cite such a case involving me or you made this allegation up to smear me. Krstof quoted me accurately, despite your claim to the contrary, as do 99% of journalists.” You can answer this, apologize, or ignore it. Which is it Joe?

    Looks like ignore.

  11. Joe says:

    Not at all, Roger.

  12. Roger,
    Your assumptions erase the 30 plus years of development of carbon free technologies. I believe Joe here is focusing on the less important deficit of what you are saying.

    Are we at the endpoint of the technical development of these technologies?

    No.

    Should we seek to improve those technologies and invent new ones?

    Yes.

    The error you make is the erasure of the current technologies we have that emit zero carbon. You can compare them to some ideal technologies that you have in your head and criticize them but that doesn’t make them less effective. They do require better market design to deploy them en-masse.

    An analogy to your position would be if in the 1980′s you would say

    “Mobile phones are no good; they are brick-like and superexpensive. we should start a large government research program that will find a cheaper, smaller alternative”

  13. Roger Pielke, Jr. says:

    Michael-

    Your comments are ironic. Do you realize how much the mobile phone industry benefited from public R&D? Consider the case of Finland:

    Finland and the mobile phone industry: A case study of the return on investment from government-funded research and development
    Technovation, Volume 27, Issues 6-7, June-July 2007, Pages 335-341
    David Walwyn

    Abstract:

    “The sudden and dramatic growth of the mobile phone manufacturing sector in Finland is an interesting case study for science and technology (S&T) policy analysts. Mostly on account of the rapidity of this growth against a relatively static situation for the other sub-sectors, the Finnish economic data over the period 1990–2001 can be used without ambiguity to quantify the return of an initial public sector research and development (R&D) expenditure on the growth of a sectoral economy. Although it is apparent from the data that this economic success story is to some extent now running out of steam, the returns to date for all the participants have been astonishing. Using the Patterson–Hartmann model, which has been developed to link company-level R&D expenditure with product revenue, it is shown that government has managed to achieve a multiplier effect of about 66 on its initial R&D expenditure through initially a leveraging of business R&D expenditure (at a level of 1:3) and then the translation of the latter into an increase in gross domestic product (GDP) (at a level of 1:22). These figures are extraordinarily high, even in comparison to the multipliers obtained by large private sector companies.

    The keys to the success were both the vision and foresight of the Finnish R&D community, who identified cell phones as a major growth opportunity, the sharing of risk by the various role players (government, universities and industry) as can happen in an efficient national system of innovation, and finally a sustained commitment to R&D by the industry leaders. The latter has now reached a level of 3.5% of GDP (2005), which makes Finland a global leader in R&D expenditure (as a percentage of GDP). The lessons for developing countries such as South Africa, which are moving towards higher levels of R&D expenditure but within a resource constrained context, are apparent.”

    Gov’t R&D by itself is not sufficient for innovation to occur, but it can sure help stimulate progress, as the mobile phone case suggests.

    What I don’t get is why Joe and his followers completely oppose gov’t R&D or its mention.

  14. David B. Benson says:

    More teapot tempest, I see.

    While more research is nice, there are already fully deployable (almost) carbon-neutral energy sources. One which is seriously underutilized is bioenergy. The cost of fossil fuels is causing many to consider bioenergy altrnatives. Such deployments are a big help to the world’s rural poor.

  15. Joe,

    Please consider this post a genuine attempt to understand your position.

    I often read you saying that your positions are grounded in a scientific consensus. Here’s what I don’t understand about this claim:

    • You attack adaptation. This is odd to be me because adaptation has long been a central recommendation from both the IPCC and the Stern Review. Are you against investments in adaptation?

    • Ted and I co-authored a white paper on “global warming preparedness” with Bracken Hendricks, a Senior Fellow with your organization, the Center for American Progress. Are you against the global warming preparedness recommendations we made in that paper?

    • You say, “The country doesn’t need a $20 billion annual program to develop new energy technologies.” And yet there is an overwhelming expert consensus that we need massive government investments in technologies. Do you disagree that there is a consensus among energy scientists, or do you disagree with the consensus?

    We did a fairly extensive literature review and found a consensus among energy scientists that public investments should go to both creating new technologies and to improving the performance (and reducing the price) of existing technologies — a process that will effectively result in new technologies.

    We’re hardly hardly alone in finding a scientific consensus for big public investments. Andy Revkin from the New York Times interviewed 48 energy experts in the fall of 2006 and came to this conclusion:

    In the private sector, studies show that energy companies have a long tradition of eschewing long-term technology quests because of the lack of short-term payoffs.

    Still, more than four dozen scientists, economists, engineers and entrepreneurs interviewed by The New York Times said that unless the search for abundant non-polluting energy sources and systems became far more aggressive, the world would probably face dangerous warming and international strife as nations with growing energy demands compete for increasingly inadequate resources.

    Most of these experts also say existing energy alternatives and improvements in energy efficiency are simply not enough.

    In “The Investment Consensus” we reviewed more than two-dozen analyses by leading energy experts and found a strong consensus for massive public investments. Here’s U of MD scientist Jae Edmonds:

    Fundamental changes in the world’s expanding energy system are required to stabilize concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Incremental improvements in technology will help, but will not by themselves lead to stabilization (Edmonds et al. 2007: 11, emphasis added).

    Also consider that:

    • The IPCC has called for major investments in energy RD&D.

    • In his 2006 report for the UK government, Nicholas Stern called for public investments of $68 – $128 billion worldwide.

    • Last December, more than 30 energy scientists, including four Nobel winners, sent a letter to presidential candidates calling for $30 billion per year.

    Do you disagree with the IPCC, the 48 energy experts cited by Revkin, with the more than 24 experts whose papers we reviewed, and with Nicholas Stern on the need for major investments in clean energy? Please clarify.

    I appreciate that you worked at the DOE. But let’s face it, while your budget — one billion dollars — sounds like a lot, it buys almost nothing in the trillion dollar annual electricity sector. Your budget was puny and thus your ambitions were, understandably, puny as well.

    I hope you’ll read this email not as an attack but rather as a serious effort to discern your position.

    Sincerely,

    Michael

  16. Roger,

    I have some substantial disagreements with Joe so cannot be called his “follower”. However when dealing with people such as yourself who insist on producing a reality distortion field around them through rhetorical games, I may appear to line up with him on this matter.

    You are showing yourself to be more a politician than an analyst, despite your having earned an advanced degree somewhere.

    Anyone who opposes or criticizes your position is “against R&D” . This is a Frank Luntz/Fox News style level of distortion of your opponents’ positions. The thinking behind your positions is weak, so you resort to dumbing down the positions of the people who are criticizing you.

    I am “for R&D”, which is abundantly clear in the comment above. I don’t know if I can speak for Joe, but I believe that he is also “for R&D”.

    However, I am against “erasing or downplaying existing technologies from discussion” and against “erasing or downplaying the effect of aggressive policies that put existing technologies in the ground”.

    Re: mobile phones. Throughout most of the 1980′s simultaneous with government programs, there was a lot of private investment in mobile phones and the development of that technology on a massive scale had a lot to do with those investments as well as a THRIVING MARKET of early adopters, people and companies who were willing to fork over the extra dough for a new technology, brick-like and expensive as it was.

  17. Roger Pielke, Jr. says:

    When I first came to this blog someone mentioned how thoughtful and respectful the commenters were here. Most probably are, but the screed from Mr. Hoexter suggests that the tone here is no better than any of countless echo-chambers in the net. Those wishing to discuss policy issues are welcome on our blog, but I’m done here.

  18. Joe says:

    Michael — I don’t view that as an attack. Give me 2 hours for a reply.

  19. Joe says:

    Gosh, Roger, get thicker skin!

    Hoexter uses far gentler language in his comment than you have been using about me — he didn’t call you hysterical. I stopped using the term delayer-1000 for you, which frankly I didn’t consider to be that harsh. I see some pretty darn harsh comments on your blog, though. So I can’t see why anybody here would want to go over there — but far be it from me to discourage that.

  20. Roger,
    I did not employ the rhetorical flourishes “followers” and “completely oppose R&D”… you did. If you show your opponents respect, they will treat you respectfully. If you show them disrespect by distorting their positions, they will point it out.

    If you don’t like to have your own debating practices reflected back to you, don’t use dismissive or aggressive rhetoric.

    I am VERY CONCERNED about how your position hinges on dismissing and downplaying the effectiveness of existing technologies. You are doing the public a MASSIVE disservice, not by advocating for more clean tech research, but by creating the impression that existing and emerging technologies are laughably inadequate. So pointing out your rhetorical games in the service of not very well thought out ideas is in my mind well worth it.

    (Like you, have a Ph.D. so if we are going to get formal, call me “Dr.”)

  21. anna haynes says:

    > “(see “Desperate times, desperate scientists“).”

    …which is in Salon and requires viewing an ad, to see it, which makes it a PITA to visit.

    Does anyone have a link to an article/post covering the same territory, that doesn’t require ad-viewing to see, and is as cognitively accessible as the “How do we really know humans are causing global warming?” Climate Progress post?

    I use that post and Oreskes’ talk and PDF presentation to show my coworkers a) that the science says it’s real, and b) how there’ve been efforts to obfuscate this; but what do I direct them to, to show a scientific consensus on the urgency?

    (Right now I use a Steve Kirsch page(PDF) for this, but he’s just a (very sharp) civilian.)

  22. Joe says:

    You don’t need to look at the Salon ad. Close your eyes for 5 seconds. Or look at your other screen. That’s what I do.
    Sheesh!

  23. Joe says:

    Sorry, Michael Shellenberger, the day zoomed by and I had to work on my Salon article. I will reply on Earth Day.

  24. Paul K says:

    Roger Pielke, Jr.,
    I believe Michael Hoexter arrived here around the same time you did.

  25. What is this supposed to mean?

    “Roger Pielke, Jr.,
    I believe Michael Hoexter arrived here around the same time you did.”

  26. Jay Alt says:

    GE’s hysterical Immelt weighs in -

    http://money.cnn.com/2008/04/21/news/companies/ge_immelt_energy/index.htm?postversion=2008042115

    Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric, said Monday much of the technology to make energy generation cleaner and more efficient is available now. The challenge, however, is deploying it and making it cheaper.

    “A lot of the technology is already there,” Immelt told a crowd of electric utility executives at an industry meeting sponsored by the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group. “This is a business model issue, not a technical issue. Our job is to make them cheaper.”

    The Board will be stunned that he missed the ‘brakethru’ entirely. Pfffft

  27. Ronald says:

    Some people are advocating that the most important principle to reduce global warming is large increases in government research and development and all else is of secondary importance. The hope is that energy costs will decrease enough to make everybody not use carbon energy and only non and low carbon energies. They are making a mistake in their understanding of the reasons why we have such large differences in innovations in information products, mass products and energy products.

    Information products are cell phones, TV’s, computers, anything with integrated circuits and all those silicon chips. The last 30 to 40 years we’ve had huge amount of innovation and new products that are related to information. Information after all is just digital systems, 1’s and 0’s and it didn’t matter how big or little the 1 or 0 are, they could just make those products smaller and use less power. Information increases for the most part with Moore’s Law which says something like transistor density doubles every 18 months. 40 years of doubling every 18 months should bring us a lot of innovations and it did.

    What’s been the innovation of mass products? Not so much. Mass products would be houses, 2×4’s, roads, aircraft carriers, cars, silverware, books, copper pipes, etc. There has been some decrease in cost of some of these things, but for houses for example, the costs have actually gone up. Given increases in productivity, we can afford more of each of these things, but nothing like doubling every 18 months.

    What about energy products? That would of course be the coal, oil and gas generators, ICE’s, photovoltaic, wind turbines, etc. Here’s where those people who think that the principle need to reduce greenhouse gases is research make their mistake. They think that innovations in energy are like innovations in information products. And why not. Photovoltaic are made from silicon and so are integrated circuits. How much different can everything else be? That’s just it, it is different, and those things that are non-carbon and low-carbon are more like mass products and not like information products.

    If we spent 20 billion a year on research on building houses, would they be cheaper? How about aircraft carriers? Cars? Roads? Copper pipes? Certainly research would do some to reduce costs. But the main elements on each are still going to be there and the research is going to be much more like mass products than information products.

    I remember a conversation I had with a professor in 1984 on this subject. He had worked at solar one and was up to date with what was going on with energy which made him fun and interesting to talk with. In the early 80’s there were all kinds of predictions that the technology would do for power photovoltaic what it did for integrated circuits. It was turning out that it wasn’t happening and researchers realized they were different products.

    What is the thing we need to influence the non-carbon, low-carbon and carbon energy? A price for carbon. Maybe other incentives to not use carbon energy. But we can’t use examples of innovations from information systems as examples of what can happen in energy systems. They aren’t the same. Research can help, but it’ll take real economic incentives for people to use less carbon sources and more non and low carbon for their energy.

  28. Ronald says:

    To those who think that if we only spend 20 billion a year in research of renewables, that it’ll bring the cost of it below carbon fueled energy. Except that carbon fueled energy has also had many years of research already done on it and for tens of years already. The costs of renewables may just not go below that of carbon fueled energy or at least not low enough to bother converting to low and non carbon renewables.

  29. Paul K says:

    Michael Hoexter,
    If you were commenting here before Joe started in on Pielke et al, I stand corrected. I don’t think to have been particularly rude to Mr Pielke, just misdirected and critical of positions he does not hold.

  30. Steve Bloom says:

    This passage (quoted by Roger above) from the Sarewitz and Pielke article seems to me to encapsulate a critical aspect of the problem:

    “It becomes a bit more clear that we may have set ourselves down the wrong path when we framed the challenge of mitigating greenhouse gases in terms of ‘reducing emissions’. Characterizing the policy challenge in this way leads people in rich countries to focus on things like changing light bulbs and driving less thirsty cars – all good things, to be sure – but which can hardly make a dent in the overall challenge of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations.”

    In which case it seems obvious that we ought to change the frame so as to bring the scale of the solutions into better alignment with the need. It’s true that there will be considerable resistance to such a paradigm shift, but pretending one isn’t needed is simply wishful thinking. Such thinking leads to this sort of techno-silliness.

  31. Paul K,
    I’m critical of Pielke for exactly the words he writes and the way he argues his positions. I don’t know if your criticism of me is perhaps directed somewhere else but I have been focusing on how he is conducting himself here, on the Nature article and what I see at the BI website.