The religion of technology pessimism gains a disciple at the New York Times

What to make of this statement by the N. Y. Times‘ Andy Revkin in a recent blog post titled, “The Energy Gap and the Climate Challenge“?

With or without the threat of human-caused climate disruption, it’s clear the world lacks the menu of energy options it will require to avoid trouble as the human population heads toward 9 billion people (more or less), all seeking a decent life.

You may agree or disagree with that statement, but it surely is not “clear.” I have spent a lot of time on this blog arguing it is simply false (see Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 2: The Solution and Part 3: The breakthrough technology illusion and Part 5: So what do we do NOW?).

Revkin never bothers to explain or justify this statement. His link is to a long N.Y. Times series on energy that does not prove his point at all. Indeed, it includes Matt Wald’s piece on concentrated solar power: “The world appears to be on the verge of a boom in a little-known but promising type of solar power,” which may well be one of the key solutions needed around the globe (see Concentrated solar thermal power — a core climate solution). Bizarrely, Revkin claims:

By some credible estimates, triple today’s fossil-based energy supply is likely to be required by mid-century.

This is a heck of a statement to make with no sources whatsoever.

If you go to the link, you’ll see it has nothing whatsoever to do with this claim. One certainly can’t make this claim without discussing peak oil. We’re now getting to the point where even major CEOs of oil companies don’t think we can get more than a 20% increase in oil production (see “Peak oil? Consider it solved“). And we may not see “peak coal” anytime soon, but tripling today’s fossil-based energy supply in the face of serious limits to oil production requires coal reserves the world does not seem to have (see “What is the impact of peak oil and peak coal?“)

And the use of the phrase “likely to be required” is completely unwarranted. We know — and Revkin knows — that what is required is cutting fossil-based energy in half by mid-century. Can that be done with existing or near-term technology? The international consulting firm McKinsey thinks so (see “Must read McKinsey report shatters myths on cost of curbing climate change“). More importantly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change thinks so (See “The technologies needed to beat 450 ppm“):

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.

Revkin is mostly a climate reporter and not an energy reporter, so I’m not sure how he can so blithely ignore the IPCC report’s key technology conclusion.

I use the phrase “religion of technology pessimism” because this technology pessimism is mostly based on unproven assertions and beliefs and because it assumes we lack the knowledge today to solve the climate problem. Many of the people who hold this view do so sincerely, but as we have seen again and again, the notion that “we can’t solve the climate problem without technology breakthroughs” is a premier strategy of the global warming Delayers, like Bush, Luntz, Crichton, Lomborg, and Gingrich (see, for instance, Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook: “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah.”).

Regular readers of this blog know that I believe that solving the climate (and energy security) problem does require improvement of existing technology. But I believe the vast majority of that improvement will come from accelerated deployment of existing technology into the marketplace, the so-called experience curve (see the second half of “Part 3: The breakthrough technology illusion“). Action now is much more important than research, more important than some sort of a massive government “Apollo program” or “Manhattan project,” especially given the large amount of private sector and venture capital money that are now going into clean energy (see “Do we need a massive government program to generate breakthroughs to make solar energy cost-competitive?“). And while would be terrific to increase the budget of my old billion-dollar clean energy office at the Department of Energy by a factor of three or so, we would see vastly more private sector money go into technology development if the nation and the world ever adopted a serious greenhouse gas reduction policy.

To leave people with the impression that a lack of energy technology options is the obstacle to solving the climate or oil problem is, I believe, not merely engaging in unwarranted technology pessimism. It is contributing to the delay in aggressively deploying every technology we have available now to reduce emissions — a delay that is almost certainly fatal to efforts to stabilize below 450 ppm and that may well set us on a near irrevocable path to the catastrophe of 1000 ppm.

16 Responses to The religion of technology pessimism gains a disciple at the New York Times

  1. Andy Revkin says:

    The lack of a link on the projections of a tripled global energy thirst was because of lack of time, given all the climate developments last week.

    Here’s the keystone line from one of a series of papers on this energy gap by Hoffert et al (Science, 2002), John Holdren (pdf), and others.

    “Mid-century primary power requirements that are free of carbon dioxide emissions could be several times what we now derive from fossil fuels (~10 [to the 13th power] watts), even with improvements in energy efficiency.”

    The details are in the paper. And when I talk about “energy options,” unlike you, I include the developing world — where kids hike an hour in Gunea to do their homework in an airport parking lot.

    I do agree with you, Joe, that — overall — the main impediment to progress on energy (with climate benefits coming as well) is social and political, not technological. But the lack of options is real, whether on the ground in subSaharan Africa or in country’s seeking primary power sources that don’t come with vastly increased CO2 emissions (or a slippery grid to move intermittent power around).

  2. I am not sure if I agree completely with Joe in this case, or with Andy saying:

    “I do agree with you, Joe, that — overall — the main impediment to progress on energy (with climate benefits coming as well) is social and political, not technological”

    The point is – we have to do A LOT, to make a difference…

    More detailed analysis on what renewables can and can’t do you will find in new online book by prof. David MacKay at – opinion is welcome…


  3. David B. Benson says:

    Here are the estimates (from IEA?) as best as I can recall.

    Total all sources recently: 420 exajoules
    Total fossil recently: 300(?)

    Estimate for the year 2050 CE, all sources: 800 exajoules

  4. Joe says:


    I am a big fan of Holdren’s work, but his paper doesn’t support your claim. He does a calculation on page 16 of the article you cite aimed at “maintaining real economic growth worldwide at 2.4% per year” for the century:

    “If the recent historical rate of reduction of energy of intensity of GDP worldwide, 1% per year, were to persist over the entire century, the amount of non-carbon-emitting energy supply (renewables, nuclear, and advanced fossil-fuel technologies with carbon capture and sequestration) needed to be on the 550-ppmv stabilization trajectory would be 800 exajoules per year in 2050 and 1500 exajoules per year in 2100. (This is to be compared with 100 exajoules from these sources in 2004 and 400 exajoules from fossil-fuels in that year.)

    So with no policy-driven energy efficiency gains, we would need twice as much advanced energy in 2050 that we have in the form of fossil fuels today.

    But any climate strategy would include a major focus on energy efficiency. What then?

    “If the historical rate of reduction of energy intensity could be increased by half, from 1% to 1.5% per year over the whole world and the whole century, the need for non-carbon-emitting energy supply for the 550-ppmv stabilization trajectory would still grow to nearly 400 exajoules by 2050 and 800 exajoules by 2100.

    “Only if the historical rate of reduction of energy intensity could be doubled to 2% per year over the whole world and the whole century could the need for non-carbon-emitting energy supply by 2100 be held to “merely” the 400 exajoules per year being provided by fossil fuels in 2004.”

    So we do need a lot of advanced energy in midcentury to stabilize, but not triple our current level of fossil fuels.

    Also, all of my analyses include the developing world.

  5. What about Jevon’s paradox? Is it included in all those analyses? Don’t we need *absolute* caps on energy use?

  6. Joe says:

    Jevon’s Paradox is not based in fact.

  7. Arthur Smith says:

    My view is that the two of you (Romm and Revkin) are looking at it from different perspectives. Romm feels the urgency of the problem, sees the existence of solutions, and wonders why people aren’t choosing to implement those solutions as fast as needed. Force, in the form of regulations or a carbon cap or tax, seems necessary. We could go that route – in fact I’m pretty sure we should and will, with little further delay, but I also don’t believe it will be enough. We already know, for example from the McKinsey report Romm mentions, that there are actions people can take now that will be of net economic benefit to them as well as reducing carbon emissions – but they’re not doing it (or at least not to the degree they could). Why not? What sort of force would be necessary to make them do both the things that will be of direct economic benefit and those further steps that will not? I can’t see our democracy, or others, going as far as necessary in that regard before the worst of the problems are upon us.

    Humans are capricious and willful and often not rational in their actions. That’s the way we are. I could very likely save myself a lot of money this winter, and cut our family’s carbon footprint, by adding insulation in my attic; instead I stood 2 hours in line Friday for my new iPhone (very cool though :-). Maybe I’ll get to the insulation later, but we certainly are attracted by the shiny and new. That’s one of the things R&D can bring us – new products and ideas can change thought patterns in a way that regulations simply cannot. The Toyota Prius won a large following relative to other hybrid contenders in large part because of its distinctive look, not so much because of its price, which was definitely marginal at the time (much clearer benefit now, making us Prius owners look ever smugger). We want energy production technologies that make coal power plants and coal mining look ever more archaic and unfashionable so that no developed or developing nation can build another one with any pride, and so even energy companies will shut down existing plants with a sense of relief, rather than regret.

    Cost is part of that – a coal plant may be ugly, but if it saves hundreds of millions of dollars over alternatives, that money looks awfully tempting to anybody. So the costs of the alternatives and efficiency measures need to be roughly competitive, particularly when you include the needs of developing nations that are less likely to be able to agree on or enforce regulatory measures. But the other part of it is the existence of some capability that, at least in peoples minds, can’t be matched by alternatives. Wind may be close to competitive with coal in some areas, except it can’t supply more than 20% of grid capacity, except it doesn’t come with a cost-effective storage solution, except it requires building new underutilized transmission capacity, except some people think the windmills are ugly or kill birds etc… You need to not only compete on price, but also figure out how to get rid of all those “excepts” that make coal still seem viable. R&D that brings out new product solutions – perhaps combinations of different energy options, perhaps improved storage, perhaps shiny new (superconducting!) transmission lines – and of course makes them cost-competitive – is what will actually make the transition happen, without the need to use an undemocratic degree of force.

    But that need for R&D is certainly not any reason to delay taking what actions we reasonably can now.

  8. Earl Killian says:

    Arthur, a thoughtful comment. I disagree with one point about coal and one about wind. It was, but is no longer cheap compared to the alternatives. I hope to post some data on this next week.

    First, wind can be made more reliable by interconnection of geographically diverse farms. See Archer, C. L. and M. Z. Jacobson, 2007: Supplying baseload power and reducing transmissions requirements by interconnecting wind farms, Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, 46, 1701-1717. This interconnection effect can be enhanced by combining wind and CSP and CSP+TES.

    Second, wind can be used as the primary method of charging PHEVs, which have tremendous flexibility in when they charge (i.e. they can charge when the wind blows, and wait when it does not).

    Third, a technology called V2G, which is synergistic with Joe’s call for plug-ins, has the potential to allow 50% wind power on the grid. See Kempton, W. and J. Tomić. 2005. Vehicle to Grid Implementation: from stabilizing the grid to supporting large-scale renewable energy. J. Power Sources Volume 144, Issue 1, 1 June 2005, Pages 280-294.. They say, “Our calculations suggest that V2G could stabilize large-scale (one-half of US electricity) wind power with 3% of the fleet dedicated to regulation for wind, plus 8–38% of the fleet providing operating reserves or storage for wind.”

  9. Earl Killian says:

    As an illustration of Joe’s point about Jevon’s Paradox, consider that Californian’s spend less for their annual kWhs than Americans as whole (measured by average price per kWh times average kWh per capita), and yet they use the least kWh per capita.

  10. Dear Earl,

    is it not that the exception that proves the rule? ;-)
    Don’t you think that if gasoline in US would be as expensive as e.g. in Europe, US citizens would use less of gasoline?
    By the way, that’s already happening, more expensive fuel leads to higher efficiency – in fact, higher efficiency is the result of scarcity and wise versa… Americans are throwing away their inefficient SUVs (finally!!!) – simply, if somtehing is scarce, one uses it more efficently AND *less* and if something is abundant and cheap, one uses it inefficienly and wastfully… it’s no more complicated than that… doesn’t matter, if it is energy, wood, water, food, whatever…

  11. I think the great weekness of many renewable advocates (I don’t think Joe is that example) is, that the energy transition will NOT be easy… we need renewables, but we need huge amount of them… but we all know it, don’t we? :-)

    for that matter – see the work of Vaclav Smil, for instance…

  12. Ron Broberg says:

    While I have the feeling that I am a bit over my head here, nevertheless …

    Something like 37% of current global energy consumption is in petroleum. The easy oil is being depleted as we speak. It is likely that conventional oil production will be significantly lower by the middle of the century and/or the “energy return on investment” (EROI) will be significantly lower – which is to say that we will need to burn more energy than ever before in order to extract or manufacture a particular barrel of oil. This later point includes unconventional oil sources. So even if everything putters along as it is today with no major growth in oil demand – we will still have less oil for consumer use since the EROI will be steadily dropping.

    So over the years, countries will have to find replacements for oil and natural gas.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that it is not just a matter of meeting future demand – you must also consider the impact of oil depletion.

    My gut tells me that while renewables *may* be able to grow fast enough to meet future growth in this and other industrial countries, but that the cheapest option (minus environmental impact) is coal and the second is nuclear. I would like to see more acceptance for nuclear in the climate policy community. A strict adherence to renewables is putting too many eggs into a single basket – and if that basket fails, coal is and always will be the ‘fast and dirty’ solution.

  13. David B. Benson says:

    Somewhere I saw the estimate that gasoline consumption is down about 2%.

    That hasn’t kept the local price from climbing and climbing.

  14. Earl Killian says:

    Alexander Ač said, “is it not that the exception that proves the rule? Don’t you think that if gasoline in US would be as expensive as e.g. in Europe, US citizens would use less of gasoline?

    I saw the smiley, but I’ll reply seriously anyway. There’s no exception/contradiction here. California electricity costs more than the US average (12.82 cents per kWh vs. 8.90 cents per kWh), so you could argue that price is driving efficiency, but that’s probably a tiny part of the story. Californians use only 7,032 kWh per capita vs. 12.347. Multiply those out and you get $901.50 vs. $1098.88 per year. My point was that the lower out of pocket annual expense doesn’t negate the efficiency gains. People spend their savings on lattes instead ;-)

    Higher prices do lead to efficiency, but so do other things, and in many cases the other things are more important. Government policies, incentives, and regulations that encourage efficiency lead to consumers being able to have efficiency and other things they want, instead of having to make a choice between alternatives (e.g. efficiency vs. features). Often left to a choice between efficiency and features, consumers have chosen features. Policies that let them have both improve efficiency. In this way regulation can lead to greater consumer choice.

  15. Earl Killian says:

    Ron Broberg, a thoughtful comment. Diversity is important, as you suggest. I think you might want to read
    You’ll see that Joe’s proposed solution is multi-faceted.

  16. paulm says:

    The problem is growth.

    Everything is based on this. We can’t exist unless there is growth. But the dilemma now is the foundation that it is based on can not support it.