Shellenberger and Nordhaus go after Obama by recycling GOP talking points

They’re back! I’ve been bombarded by people wanting a comment on the new S&N L.A. Times piece, “The green bubble bursts.” How about “naive and dangerous”?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus get coverage in the media because they are green(ish) recyclers of rubbish. They take piles of garbage (i.e. Republican talking points) and repackage them with some green-sounding lingo and then put their green credentials behind them. I have been ignoring them for a while now, but this piece is high profile and even more outrageous than their typical attacks on the environmental community and Al Gore.

The recycling begins in the first paragraph:

Republicans stole the energy issue from Democrats by proposing expanded drilling — particularly lifting bans on offshore oil drilling — to bring down gasoline prices. Whereas Barack Obama told Americans to properly inflate their tires, Republicans at their convention gleefully chanted “Drill, baby, drill!” Obama’s point on conservation and efficiency was lost on an electorate eager for a solution to what they perceive as a supply crisis.

No, that wasn’t written by Karl Rove, although it sounds like it.

“Barack Obama told Americans to properly inflate their tires.” You must be kidding. That is precisely the GOP talking point — heck, the GOP even handed out tire gauges to mock Obama on this (see “Will GOP’s cynical lies destroy the chance for serious energy and climate policy?“).

Why would anybody claiming to care about progressive politics or clean energy repeat such a lie? In fact, Obama was asked by a voter what individuals can do to conserve. And Obama stated correctly that measures like proper tire inflation and tuning up your car can save more oil than coast drilling would provide.

To ignore Obama’s entire energy plan and suggest that somehow it can be summed up by “Obama told Americans to properly inflate their tires” is to be nothing more than a cynical GOP shill.

Obama has the most comprehensive energy plan ever offered by a Presidential candidate (see “Breaking news — A real energy plan for America: Efficiency now, 10% renewables by 2012, and one million plug-in hybrids by 2015” and a terrific climate plan (see “Obama’s excellent energy and climate plan“). In fact, his climate plan has so much clean energy in it that, to my great surprise, S&N took up my challenge from last year and endorsed it. But you’d never know anything about Obama’s plan from reading this piece.

Let’s continue with a stunning series of paragraphs, in which Shellenberger and Nordhaus reveal their policies to be all but indistinguishable from those of global warming delayers:

Democrats and greens ended up in this predicament because they believed their own press clippings — or, perhaps more accurately, Al Gore’s. After the release of the documentary film and book An Inconvenient Truth, greens convinced themselves that U.S. public opinion on climate change had shifted dramatically, despite having no empirical evidence that was the case. In fact, public concern about global warming was about the same before the movie — 65% told a Gallup poll in 2007 that global warming was a somewhat or very important concern in comparison to 63% in 1989. Global warming remains a low-priority issue, hovering near the bottom of the Pew Center for People and the Press’ top 20 priorities.

S&N have never liked Al Gore’s message because he talked about real global warming impacts, and S&N thinks that the public will only buy happy, happy, happy talk about clean energy and green jobs and lollipops [okay, I added the lollipops].

Here they recycle the standard GOP talking points that nobody really cares about global warming. In fact, even though S&N are pollsters themselves, they seem completely unaware of the fact that the overall Gallup poll numbers mask a sharp break between the views of Democrats and the views of Republicans (see “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP“). It is primarily the GOP that doesn’t care about human-caused global warming — and that of course is not the fault of “greens.”

The Democrat-Republican gulf on warming is the direct result of a major disinformation campaign launched by conservatives that is inherently more credible to conservatives. S&N devote very little effort to detailing and debunking this disinformation campaign because then they would have to assign a large part of the blame for the mess that we’re in to the fossil fuel companies, conservative think tanks, conservative pundits, GOP leaders, and the like.

But how could greenish people like S&N get any media coverage from attacking conservatives and polluters? That would be a dog bites man story. S&N need to attack the people who are desperately trying to save the planet from catastrophe to get attention.

This summer, elite opinion ran headlong into American popular opinion. The train wreck happened in the Senate and went by the name of the Climate Security Act. That bill to cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would have, by all accounts (even the authors’), increased gasoline and energy prices. Despite clear evidence that energy-price anxiety was rising, Democrats brought the bill to the Senate floor in June when gas prices were well over $4 a gallon in most of the country. Republicans were all too happy to join that fight.

So what exactly are S&N saying — that we can’t pursue a cap and trade when energy prices are high? That’s the same thing as saying we can pretty much never have a cap, since energy prices are surely headed higher in coming years.

Of course a climate bill raises energy prices. It is inconceivable that we could possibly get anywhere near the needed CO2 emissions reductions fast enough (1990 levels or lower by 2020 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050) without much higher prices for coal — gasoline is quite a separate issue, as I have discussed many times — and/or tough emissions standards for coal plants. Energy efficiency is, of course, the key to keeping energy bills flat while energy prices go up — and the Climate Security Act certainly had a variety of measures to promote efficiency.

Indeed, they so relished the opportunity to accuse Democrats of raising gasoline prices in the midst of an energy crisis, they insisted that the 500-page bill be read into the Senate record in its entirety in order to prolong the debate. Within days, Senate Democrats started jumping ship. Democratic leaders finally killed the debate to avert an embarrassing defeat, but by then they had handed Republicans a powerful political club.

Contrary to S&N’s minority view, the forced reading of the bill was widely viewed as a blunder by the GOP, an embarrassing over-reach. It is true that many Democrats weren’t thrilled with the bill — I certainly wasn’t. But the bill was long dead before the Congressional Republicans got to it because we have a Luddite president, another fact conveniently omitted by S&N.

In any case, what killed the bill in the Senate was that despite the overwhelming evidence climate change is coming faster and harder than anyone imaged, the vast majority of GOP senators have refused to budge on the issue (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us“). And the way Republicans are operating in the Senate these days, if you don’t have 60 votes you don’t have a bill.

S&N’s analysis is absurd. If conservatives were willing to join with moderates and progressives to tackle this issue, we would have a climate bill. Moreover, S&N simply refuse to accept a crucial point that undercuts their entire argument and their entire approach, no matter how many times I and others point this out to them: Conservatives don’t universally oppose climate bills like the Climate Security Act just because they don’t believe in global warming. Conservatives also hate spending significant government resources on investment in clean energy. Conservatives hate S&N’s entire strategy as much as they hate climate action. I will come back to this key point.

On June 9, three days after the emissions cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate, Obama led McCain by eight points, according to Gallup. By June 24, the race was in a dead heat, a shift owed in no small part to Republicans battering Democrats on energy. Seeing the writing on the wall, Obama reversed his opposition to drilling in August, and congressional Democrats quickly followed suit.

But the damage has largely been done. In following greens, Democrats allowed McCain and Republicans to cast them as the party out of touch with the pocketbook concerns of middle-class Americans and captive to special interests that prioritize remote wilderness over economic prosperity.

S&N’s analysis is nonsense. First off, it is not true that “Congressional Democrats quickly followed suit.” Congressional Democrats went off in about three different directions. Had they quickly followed suit and embraced the Senate Gang-0f-10 compromise, then we would’ve ended up with some serious money for clean energy (which S&N presumably would have endorsed) and far more restrictions on offshore drilling than we ended up with, since, of course, we didn’t end up with any (see “Gang-of-10 deal, Part 4: A must for Dems“).

Second, given that S&N are pollsters, they really should know better than trying to make their case with a couple of outdated polls done at a time of relatively low voter interest. In fact, Obama has made a priority of articulating his energy independence and clean energy message in his speeches, the debate, and his advertising. In fact, Obama is now winning on this issue, as I recently noted (see here). Perhaps it bears repeating that during the first Presidential debate, pollster Stan Greenberg ran a dial group of 45 undecided voters in St. Louis: “These voters had an unmistakably Republican tilt, voting for President Bush by a 2-to-1 margin in 2004 and self-identifying as 33 percent Republican and 27 percent Democrat.” What did they say?

“On one of the most important issues to these voters — who will do a better job achieving energy independence — Obama … more than doubl[ed] an already impressive 20-point lead on the issue to 44 points. Obama scored some of his highest marks on our dials when talking about the need to make America energy independent. Even those who felt [Obama lost] the debate agreed in our follow-up focus groups that Obama was the more persuasive candidate on energy independence.”

And, of course, Obama is currently leading in the four major tracking national polls by about 5 or 6 points. If I were S&N, I suppose I would attribute that solely to Obama’s terrific energy plan and growing voter awareness of his positions. But that would be equally unjustifiable. That said, Obama and the Democrats are also leading all major polls I have seen on issues of pocketbook, middle-class, and economic prosperity. So again, S&N’s entire blame-Democrats-and-greens-first analysis falls apart.

Finally, we get to the conclusion and the heart of S&N’s dangerous thesis:

But with an economic recession likely, and energy prices sure to remain high for years to come thanks to expanding demand in China and other developing countries, any strategy predicated centrally on making fossil fuels more expensive is doomed to failure.

A better approach is to make clean energy cheap through technology innovation funded directly by the federal government. In contrast to raising energy prices, investing somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion annually in technology R&D, infrastructure and transmission lines to bring power from windy and sunny places to cities is overwhelmingly popular with voters. Instead of embracing this big investment, greens and Democrats push instead for tiny tax credits for renewable energy — nothing approaching the national commitment that’s needed.

With just six weeks before the election, the bursting of the green bubble is a wake-up call for Democrats. Environmental groups, perpetually certain that a new ecological age is about to dawn in America, have serially overestimated their strength and misread public opinion. Democrats must break once and for all from green orthodoxy that focuses primarily on making dirty energy more expensive and instead embrace a strategy to make clean energy cheap.

By continuing to hew to the green agenda, Democrats have not only put in jeopardy their chance of taking back the White House and growing their majority in Congress, they also have set back the prospects of establishing policies that might effectively address the climate and energy crises.

No, no, no, and no.

First off, S&N simply can’t guarantee to anyone that their strategy would ever make clean energy cheaper than existing coal, let alone that this would happen fast enough to avert catastrophe. Why can’t they do that? Probably because it’s almost inconceivable. The entire world needs to cut fossil fuel-based emissions by at least 50% in four decades — rich countries like ours need an 80% cut by 2050. That means shutting down at least half of the existing coal plants worldwide and virtually all of the coal plants in this country by mid-century. After all, the electricity sector is certainly a much easier sector to make deep emissions cuts in than the transportation sector (and, within the electricity sector, cutting coal use sharply makes more sense than, say, cutting coal only as much as cutting natural gas, which burns more cleanly and efficiently).

I have analyzed and advocated climate solutions like efficiency, wind, solar PV, and solar baseload as much as anybody — but even I would never assert that the scalable clean energy technologies (other than efficiency) could possibly be cheaper than electricity from coal plants that have already been bought and paid for. That will be even more true once we start reducing coal consumption and demand for coal starts dropping. And remember, if we embrace S&N’s policies and reject regulations as a core strategy, then it isn’t enough for clean energy to be as cheap as existing coal.

For S&N’s strategy to work, new clean energy will have to be so much cheaper than existing coal that people actually voluntarily shut down existing coal plants in order to build new wind or solar plants. The chances of that happening are so small that this wishful thinking approach simply cannot possibly be the basis of any rational or responsible climate policy.

In short, to save the planet, we must have strong carbon regulations no matter what else we do.

Second, S&N assert that $30 billion to $50 billion annually in federal clean tech spending is overwhelmingly popular with voters. I’d love to see some evidence to back up that statement. Yes, “energy independence” is overwhelmingly popular with voters. But the spending S&N propose won’t achieve energy independence. You simply can’t do that without regulations like tougher fuel economy standards and mandates for plug ins. Certainly no other country in the world has ever successfully introduced a mass-market alternative fuel vehicle without standards and mandates.

But more importantly, the voters who have elected conservative Congressmen and women have elected representatives who overwhelmingly oppose clean tech spending. S&N keep suggesting that environmentalists and progressives are somehow politically naive if not downright stupid for pushing legislation to directly address our climate, based on their assumption that it would be infinitely easier politically to pass legislation doling out $30 billion to $50 billion annually for clean tech. In my mind, that is both a na¯ve and dangerous view.

It is naive because conservatives have consistently opposed funded for clean energy at even one tenth that level. S&N mock Democrats for failing to embrace their massive program of government spending: “Instead of embracing this big investment, greens and Democrats push instead for tiny tax credits for renewable energy.” Why don’t S&N point out that the vast majority of Republicans consistently oppose even the tiny tax credits. Does S&N really mean to suggest that the Democrats would be more successful asking for 10 times as much money as they can’t get now?

Do S&N understand the huge budget deficit we’re operating under and understand why even many Democrats insist that all new major government spending programs be paid for by spending cuts elsewhere or tax increases? That, of course, is why Obama and many other Democrats who support large funding programs for clean energy do so under the auspices of the very program that S&N oppose — a big cap-and-trade bill where the revenue for the clean energy comes from the auctioning of the permits.

I view S&N’s position as dangerous for three reasons.

  1. It gives false hope to those who want to avoid climate catastrophe, by creating the misimpression that this can all be done without tough regulations if we just spend enough money on technology (see “Breaking the technology breakthrough myth — Debunking Shellenberger & Nordhaus again“).
  2. It plays into the technology, technology, technology, blah, blah, blah strategy of delayers like Bush and Luntz and Gingrich and Lomborg (see, for instance, Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook: “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah.”).
  3. By taking the Naderesque approach and attacking Obama and the Democrats, rather than their opponents, S&N simply make it more likely we will be led by conservatives in November who have a very long track record of opposing all clean energy subsidies and incentives (see “No one can be opposed to alternate energy”).

The bottom line is that there is little or no chance of saving humankind from catastrophic climate change if we don’t make dirty energy much more expensive fast and/or simply pass some major mandates that first stop the construction of new dirty energy plants and then gradually shut down existing plants and replace them with clean ones. I suspect it is “and” — we will need a hard and declining cap on emissions in the utility and industrial sector along with strong regulations on coal plants and cars and the rest of the transportation sector.

Making clean energy less expensive has been my primary activity for nearly two decades. It is an important and worthwhile goal. By itself it has no realistic chance of saving the health and well-being of future generations — but it can make the necessary deep cuts in fossil fuel consumption more affordable and hence more politically palatable.

A strong push on clean tech — with ten times as much money spent on deploying existing technology as opposed to R&D into new technology — deserves strong support as part of the overall plan. But it should never be sold as an alternative to the plan.

I end with a challenge to Shellenberger and Nordhaus to back up their strong words with real money. They write: “By continuing to hew to the green agenda, Democrats have not only put in jeopardy their chance of taking back the White House and growing their majority in Congress….”

I say the reverse is true. I say that Obama’s green agenda has been quite shrewd politically (and also good from a policy perspective). So I challenge S&N to a $1000 bet on the outcome of the Presidential election and/or on the Democrats growing their majority in Congress. If S&N actually believe what they write, this should be easy money for them.

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27 Responses to Shellenberger and Nordhaus go after Obama by recycling GOP talking points

  1. Earl Killian says:

    Several times before, when someone from BI has posted a comment here at ClimateProgress, I’ve asked them how making new clean energy less costly can stop global warming. At best, cheap clean energy can change the mix of new power plants, but with CO2 increasing at 2.2 ppm each year, our mix of existing power plants is enough to reach 450ppm in less than thirty years. We’ve got to close coal plants fast. The price of clean energy won’t close coal plants, so perhaps it is not surprising that BI refuses to answer. Their is no answer with their approach.

    And as if to dramatize the point, the California Energy Commission recently had EThree study the cost of various power sources and they showed that clean energy is already cheaper than dirty energy, and guess what BI, the old coal plants are still running.

    Busbar cost in cents per kilowatt-hour in 2008 dollars:

    Biogas: 8.552
    Wind: 8.910
    Gas Combined Cycle: 9.382
    Geothermal: 10.182
    Hydroelectric: 10.527
    Coal Supercritical: 10.554
    Coal Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC): 11.481
    Solar thermal: 12.653
    Nuclear: 15.316
    Biomass: 16.485
    Coal IGCC with Carbon Capture & Storage (IGCC with CCS): 17.317

  2. David B. Benson says:

    Earl Killian — Is there a link?

  3. Earl Killian says:

    My apologies for omitting the link David. It is E3.

  4. Earl, which document on the website you link to do those cost figures come from? Most of those documents talk about compliance costs for California’s GHG bill, AB 32. Are you sure those prices don’t include CO2 emissions prices? I know new coal plants have gotten more expensive, but 10.5 cents/kWh for new pulverized coal?

    Thanks for clarifying.

  5. Earl Killian says:

    Jesse Jenkins, click on “GHG Calculator v2b (ZIP 5.7MB) (5/13/08)” It is an Excel spreadsheet. Got to the “Gen Cost” sheet, and look at row 66.

    Note the coal line is IGCC, which is slightly more expensive than ultrasupercritical-PC, and subcritical-CFB.

    Have you seen the spot price of coal lately?

    Powder River Basin coal prices remain low because of transportation constraints out of NE Wyoming. Also, the use of PRB coal often requires changes in boilers because it is lower quality and higher moisture.

    Sean Casten wrote,

    The 1976 Clean Air Act (CAA) dramatically raised the cost of new coal plants, but grandfathered the existing coal plants out of compliance obligations. This essentially eliminated the economic logic for new coal plant construction — and explains the absence of coal fleet growth over the past two decades.


    Even with no further increases in coal plant construction costs, the economics stink. Consider a coal plant with a total installed cost of $2,500/kW and assume no cost overruns. At the low costs of capital that ratepayer-guarantees provide for regulated utilities, $2,500/kW and 70% capacity factor requires 5 cents/kWh just to recover the capital costs associated with generation. Fuel and operating costs add 3 — 4 cents, and transmission and distribution add another 2-3 cents. Add all together and one quickly concludes that the investment in these coal plants simply doesn’t pencil below anticipated retail prices of 10-12 cents/kWh. Even after the recent run-up in electricity rates, this would represent a 17% increase in average retail electric prices — and even more in the coal-belt, where these plants would likely be built.

  6. ted nordhaus says:

    there you go again Joe. Your post is so rife with misinformation that it will longer than I have to “debunk” all of it. But let’s start with a few things.

    1. You know perfectly well that our op ed in the LA Times was not an attack on Obama nor on his energy plan. It was an attack on greens who convinced congressional dems to pursue legislation that would, by all accounts, increase energy prices in the midst of an energy crisis.

    [I don’t know that at all, nor do I think anybody reading the op Ed would buy this new spin of yours. You wrote: “By continuing to hew to the green agenda, Democrats have not only put in jeopardy their chance of taking back the White House…” Readers are supposed to figure out that you don’t mean Obama when you say Democrats, that you don’t mean Obama when you are earlier adopt GOP talking points that mock his energy positions, that it is Democrats other than Obama who have put in jeopardy Obama’s chance of winning. Seriously, you’re going to have to do better than that.]

    2. You also know that the Climate Security Act lost not just because conservatives opposed it but because a fair portion of the Senate Democratic Caucus opposed it as well. Harry Reid engineered a cloture vote that allowed Democrats and Greens to blame Republicans for defeating the bill but the reality is that the Climate Security Act would almost certainly have garnered fewer than 40 votes had it been voted on on the Senate floor.

    [I don’t know that at all. In fact had this bill — or frankly a better designed bill — been forced to a real vote that mattered, I don’t think it would’ve garnered fewer than 40 votes. Voting against action on climate change is quite a serious business, but since everybody knew that this bill would never become law, the vote was moot.]

    3. You have once again written an entire post attacking an argument we never made, namely that Obama’s energy independence agenda is not popular. We have argued for five years now that efforts to build the clean energy economy needed to be centrally defined around energy independence not global warming. The op ed and the polling we cite was not about the low salience of energy independence, it was about the low salience of global warming and the political perils of advocating policies that centrally depend upon increasing energy prices to advance clean energy technologies.

    [And you have been wrong for five years. As anybody who has been following the climate issue knows, we can’t possibly solve the global warming issue if we don’t start addressing coal now. And your plan has no strategy whatsoever for addressing coal now, and as I have repeatedly argued and you have never rebutted, you have no strategy whatsoever for addressing existing coal in the medium term. I am so glad you spelled this out here for all my readers to see. I think one can state unequivocally that there is no chance whatsoever of averting catastrophic climate change if we focus centrally on energy independence not globally warming.]

    4. I would no more take the bet that you offer than you would take a bet that Obama will lose and Democrats will not increase their majority because they have abandoned twenty years of opposition to off shore drilling and cap and trade legislation.

    [Why would I take a bet to defend a position I have never advocated? I repeat that the fact you won’t take the bet proves your entire piece is B.S.]


  7. Teryn Norris says:

    Joe, just a few points of clarification:

    [JR: While I think S&N are the ones who need to clarify their views, here goes.]

    1) how do you reconcile your quoted statement in E&E News — “The environmental community has had its head in the sand when it comes to reality” — with what you’ve said here?

    [Reconcile? Did you read the original article or any of my blog posts on this subject? The one area where I agree with S&N is that enviros are lousy at messaging. But I think S&N have it backwards. Like S&N, they have focused too much on clean energy happy talk, and not talked enough about what’s going to happen if we fail to act — both from a climate and peak oil perspective. Here, specifically, I felt the environmental community and Dems should have quickly embraced the Gang-of-10 proposal. But the GOP never stole the energy issue from the Dems since the Dems never had it. In any case, Obama has shown how to talk about energy, a fact that S&N clearly missed or else they would not have criticized Obama’s messaging in this Op-Ed and stated that it threatens his chances to win the White House.]

    2) do you think it will be possible to pass a high price on CO2 — let’s say above $30 per ton — through congress in the next year? if not, how about five years?

    [JR: I don’t think I could possibly be clearer about what I believe. There is not going to be a significant price on CO2 for 5 years, obviously — a serious 2009 bill probably wouldn’t kick in before 2013-2015. That’s why we need a carbon emissions standard that effectively mandates CCS, plus tougher CAFE and a plug-in mandate, while at the same time pushing hard on clean energy. The primary immediate purpose of a high CO2 price is to stop new coal. The secondary purpose of a high CO2 price is to replace existing coal with clean energy alternatives starting in the 2015-2020 time frame. Now The world is going to be a very different place toward the end of that time frame. But as I have blogged, we may simply need to do this with a mandate. We certainly can’t do it with S&N’s warm and fuzzy approach, which is neither fast enough nor technically/economically plausible.]

    3) do you think the majority of the developing world will accept binding emissions caps or a high carbon price?

    [If they won’t agree in the next few years to accept those starting in the 2020-2025 time frame — or the regulatory equivalent of what I propose in #2 — then it is game over. But this is mostly about China right now, and I think that if the United States passed a serious plan and we and the EU went to China and perhaps India, we could get some serious commitments. One thing I know for certain, if the entire U.S. plan is what S&N propose, which is to say, a complete rejection of a hard cap, then China and India will keep the pedal to the metal on coal consumption, and all the U.S. clean technology funding in the world will achieve nothing.]

    4) do you think the primary reason why global warming is a low public priority is because of right-wing disinformation?

    [Nice try. This is not an issue that can be answered so simplistically nor do I accept the claim that “global warming is a low public priority.” I guess I’d ask you, “why is a massive govt program on clean tech R&D and infrastructure such a low public priority?” In any case, I think I’ve been pretty clear here. Global warming is a low public priority on the GOP side because of the right wing disinformation campaign. The public would certainly support the action that Democrats and moderates want to pursue, say, the California plan or the Obama plan, if conservatives would do the right thing and go along. The solution to global warming necessarily requires strong action before we see the kind of pain that the economic meltdown has begun to cause — and that requires leadership. And I have certainly blog at length but there is a lot of blame to go around for the lack of leadership we have. But the post-2000 Al Gore that you guys keep trashing is certainly not among those who deserve blame. To his credit, Obama has not backed off talking about climate change or making it clear it is a top priority of his administration.]

    [You folks seem to think that we can get the public and Congress to buy in to what is needed to solve the climate problem without spelling out in great detail what the problem is we are trying to solve and what happens if we don’t solve it. You are simply wrong about that — even if there weren’t a very effective disinformation campaign, which there is. Indeed, the response to the financial crisis should make that crystal clear. It has only been in the last few days when the leaders of both parties have explained to the public that the Wall-Street bailout is in fact needed to preserve the economic health of Main Street has public opinion started to reverse on the plan. But until the nation’s opinion makers and media, including people like Warren Buffet, start telling the public how dire the climate situation is, then no plan, including your clean tech spending spree, has a chance of passing.]

  8. Earl Killian says:

    ted nordhaus or Teryn Norris, how about answering the question on how making new clean energy cheaper is going to shut down existing dirty energy? Once a dirty energy plant exists, the capital expenditure is a sunk cost, and new energy is competing with the fuel, operation, and maintenance costs. If new clean energy is cheap, it might change the mix of future power plants, but it is not going to shut down the old plants that are sufficient to ruin the atmosphere in less than 30 years. Do you have a plan to deal with the existing dirty energy sunk cost investments?

  9. Shellenberger and Nordhaus portray us as powerless to make the case to the American people that they should pay somewhere between $.10 to $.25/kWh to clean up our energy supply. No one has actually made this case but they treat it already as a lost cause. They claim that this “green” argument has been made and it is, essentially a lost cause.

    I don’t know where they became so fatalistic because they are really not all that old, nor have they really struggled that hard to make such a case to the world.

    Instead they are hoping for the deus ex machina of technology to avoid having to make the case that SOME economic sacrifice is necessary to confront climate change (and energy independence challenges) with the rapidity that needs to happen. The $40 billion for research is for them the path of least resistance, combining techno-fascination with

    Meanwhile they make their living by pillorying what is essentially the rather small environmental or green lobby for the delectation of some of the larger media outlets or people who are bitter about environmentalists (maybe them). They hold these people responsible for all manner of sins. The Germans have a name for this function “Kronzeugen” or “people who turn state’s evidence”…those who were once fellow travelers but now are supposedly exposing the sins of their former allies.

    The traditional environmental movement and the climate change movements are not perfect but they are not nearly as powerful nor as wrongheaded as these pair make them out to be. Their notoriety is earned on the backs of well-meaning though perhaps people who are not bold enough in making the case to the American people about their cause. S&N are saying the opposite: that because they are too influential and bold: that is why they screw up. I think it is exactly the opposite.

    The We Campaign’s TV commercials are for me the very first step in bringing the case to the American people that we simply need to build a clean energy infrastructure, even if it costs a few dollars more a month for ratepayers and taxpayers.

  10. Above I meant to say:
    “combining techno-fascination with hiding the expenditure in the federal budget somewhere.”

  11. john says:

    Well, Earl, S&N haven’t answered your question, and N’s response to Joe’s excellent critique is Palinesque in its absurdity.

    Basically, these guys have figured out that the press is hungry for iconoclastic BS in which someone pretends to straddle the “sides” in the global warming debate — they know if they fill that mythical gap, they’ll get coverage, and so they do it.

    The problem is, science doesn’t care about balance or sides, and so their split the difference BS is, at best, irrelevant, and at worst highly destructive of a real debate.

    But they are so enamored with seeing their names in press, they don’t seem to care – or maybe they simply don’t know any better. Hard to say which would be worse.

  12. Joe,

    You’re just pissed because reality keeps getting in the way of your ideology….

    [Michael — I am not going to print on my blog another one of your rants, which is filled with misstatements and GOP talking points, until you respond to the core points in my post. You can print what ever disinformation on your blog that you want. You can tout adaptation as a superior strategy to mitigation. You can keep pushing the breakthrough technology myth even after it has been long debunked. You can keep claiming that I support using government regulation to push up the cost of gasoline, when I quite explicitly don’t. You can claim that I ever argued that as a result of the Gore movie — “everything had changed” — action was right around the corner — when my readers know very well that I never claimed that. You can claim “Cap and trade had less support in the Senate in June 2008 than it did in 2003,” even though there is no evidence whatsoever to support that statement.

    You can write nonsense like — “In following the raise-energy-prices-to-deal-with-climate strategy peddled by you and the green groups, Democrats got beat. You know it, we know it, and Democrats are increasingly starting to realize it. No amount of your usual histrionics will distract attention away from the egg on your face.” — on your blog, but it is an outright lie. Indeed, I doubt there is anybody who has written more than I have about why we can’t “deal with” the global warming crisis by raising energy prices.

    By the way, please, please stop pushing the GOP/delayer meme that anyone is talking about raising energy prices. It is, for some, about raising the prices of carbon and carbon-based energy. Until you stop pushing GOP talking points, I’m simply not going to let you print whatever you want on this blog.

    Finally, the mere fact you and Ted won’t take my bet on the election, shows that you yourself know what nonsense you are peddling.]

  13. john says:

    S&N say:

    “Democrats must break once and for all from green orthodoxy that focuses primarily on making dirty energy more expensive and instead embrace a strategy to make clean energy cheap.”

    This statement ignores efficiency and on-site renewables–and it ignores the power of government programs to reduce costs. If the price per kW goes up, but people use fewer kWs, then their monthly energy bill may change very little. This is particularly true if the cost of efficiency measures can be amortized over 20 to 30 years and funded with government guaranteed loans (centralized power pants using fossil fuels get rate-based expenditures that function as guaranteed loans since returns are built into rate decisions).

    The city of Berkeley has a program that does something like this for effieicny and on-site renewables — and the feds could make it national. For example, compute the monthly cost of — say a $5000 investment in improving the efficiency of a home under 2 scenarios

    Case 1= the funds are financed at 9% over 3 years — about the best deal one could get on their own; this computes to $160/month

    Case 2= a 20 year amortization at 6% interest. This computes to $35/month.

    Based on data from the low income weatherization program, $5000 is enough to install new windows, enhance insulation and shell, and install more efficient lighting, reducing energy use by 40%. With energy costs for a house at roughly $200/month (depending upon climate and energy prices — but a reasonable average), savings would be $80 month.

    Now, only a government will offer a guarantee — and only a scheme that embeds the savings into the home (rather than the short term investment horizon of a single homeowner) such as on-bill financing administered through the tax code (either locally or at the state or fed level) will enable a long term amortization period.

    Such a program would get a 40% reduction in carbon from residences AT A SAVINGS, AND WOULD REQUIRE NO NEW TECHNOLOGY. You could throw in roof top solar hot water and get another 5% reduction at a break even cost. Stretch the amortization to 30 years and you could spend as much as $15,000 per house on efficiency and renewables and still break even (and that assumes energy prices remain stable — which they won’t). At this price, one could replace appliances with super efficient energy star models and get a 50% reduction in energy use.

    But it would have to be required by regulation.

    By putting the focus on gee whiz technologies and bad mouthing regulation, S&N do a real disservice — we need innovation, but it’s policy innovation we need most.

    And it will only begin when and if people are convinced there is a problem to be solved. No one is going to support regulations OR SPENDING $30-50 BILLION A YEAR if they don’t first perceive a problem.

    S&N are stuck in an old adversarial notion of enviros and greens as granola crunching nay-sayers. The new breed of enviros have a lot of innovative answers — they’re just not very good at communicating the problem. S&N are slaying dead dragons, and one gets the sense they’re doing it solely to see their name in the papers and on the broadcasts.

  14. Sam says:

    Amen Joe-

    Can you please begin to refer to these two self-promoters as Bjorn Schellenberger & Bjorn Nordhaus?

    They’ve discovered the age old idea that attacking your “friends” makes news. It’s an old trick- yet obviously still works.

    There are a few basic questions they still have never answered:
    * When will their plan reduce carbon emissions and by how much?

    * How much will it cost & who is going to pay for it?

    Ted? Michael? Bjorn?

  15. ted nordhaus says:


    The only rant is one at the top of this page authored by you. Michael’s open letter, which you refuse to post here, documents how casual you have been with both the facts and your own arguments as you have attacked and slandered anyone who has challenged your view of the climate crisis.

    For those of your readers actually interested in judging for themselves they can find it at:

    The fact that you won’t post it here just further demonstrates that you are interested in demagoguery, not a serious debate about how best to address the climate and energy crisis.

    [JR: The fact that I won’t post it here after I let you and Terryn post your comments is primarily due to the fact that you had your say in a major national newspaper with probably 100 times the readers of this blog. I’m mainly trying to provide some straightforward debunking for my readers. There is no “debating” you guys because you never admit when you’re wrong. Your colleague in particular just makes stuff up, and I have reiterated many times my standing policy that I will not print long debunked disinformation. Anyway, You guys have all the access to the media you want, and your own blog, so I’m letting you print your hyperlink in case any of my readers are interested in any more of your “side.”]

    Only in your hyper-partisan world Joe, would the observation that Democrats, including Obama, made a political mistake in hewing to Green orthodoxy on cap and trade and drilling, be perceived as an attack upon Obama. Our article has been commented upon far and wide since it was published yesterday and you are the only blogger who has even suggested that it constituted an attack on Obama or Democrats.

    As usual, your math, whether making up wedges or counting cap and trade votes is just way off. At least a third of the Senate Democratic Caucus made clear to leadership that they would not vote for the bill. They did so not because it was not strong enough or was poorly written but due to concern about it’s impact on energy costs and it’s failure to aggressively invest sufficient resources in the technology necessary to achieve the caps. Those concerns were explicitly spelled out in this letter to the Senate Democratic leadership:

    Ten Democratic Senators authored the letter before the vote and another seven signed on shortly thereafter. So you can tell me how you count to 40 votes without the Senators who signed that letter. With Bush in office, it was a free vote. Yet greens, who publicly stated that they expected to get a majority and even the 60 votes necessary to pass the bill off of the Senate floor couldn’t even deliver 40.

    So no, I won’t take your ridiculous bet. Greens were routed on cap and trade and routed on drilling and Democrats election prospects, most especially Obama’s, were seriously harmed. Democrats blunted some of the impact of that mistake by reversing their position on drilling and now, with the global economy melting down, they may not pay a price for following Greens off the energy price cliff. But they are unlikely to make the same mistake again and that has very serious consequences for the prospects of any meaningful cap and trade policy succeeding in the next Congress.


  16. Earl Killian says:

    Am I the only one that gets tired of barbs being traded on unimportant (almost he said she said) points in this “conversation” between BI and Joe? Why is it so hard to talk about real solutions?

    I’ve read Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s opinion piece at the LA Times website without Joe’s commentary, and to me it is a good example of the dysfunctional debate that prevents America from acting (and it is action that is required). It is 90% attack without offering any substance of its own. I for one appreciate Joe’s attempt to lay out the wedge proposal that Nordhaus criticizes above, because at least it is more of a proposal, unlike anything I’ve seen from BI and their hand-waving generalities. If I’ve missed something specific from BI, let me know, because I did look once, and I didn’t find anything other than feel-good sorts of things like clean energy R&D. At least now they’ve added a little deployment to that, but what’s the plan to get rid of the real problem: the existing infrastructure? If you don’t have a plan for that, you haven’t got a plan.

    As far as my concrete plan for the US, it is (0) Allow the EPA to enforce the Clean Air Act (as directed by the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA), e.g. garnering much tougher standards than the new CAFE; (1) Federal adoption of California policies, incentives, and regulations (e.g. Negawatts first); (2) Convert the US passenger fleet to PHEVs from 2010 to 2050; (3) Smart grid build out; (4) HVDC grid build out; (5) Federal Renewable Portfolio Standard; (6) Fossil power plant buy-outs / shutdowns to remove generation no longer needed from #1, #5; (6) Reforestation; (7) Improved Ag practices; (8) biofuels from Ag residue (only) for PHEV backup fuel; and (9) use U.S. trade leverage to encourage countries that export to the U.S. to adopt greenhouse pollution policies such as our own. The U.S. government should also use its purchasing power to jumpstart deployment where possible.

    One way that California was able to pass AB32 was not trying to craft all the solutions in the legislation itself. For example, AB32 does not design the system to implement the cap; it left that to regulatory agencies. Those agencies are looking at cap-and-trade systems, but they are taking their time with that, because there is so much more that can be done first without that system. See The savings from cutting California’s carbon “outweigh the costs” for example.

    I can think of plenty of things to add to the R&D agenda too, but that’s not the point. We don’t have time for R&D before we take our first action. R&D will introduce further options as it produces technology ready for deployment, but we cannot schedule breakthroughs, so the plan must be to start with what we have, and incorporate what R&D provides when it provides it.

  17. David B. Benson says:

    Earl Killian — Thanks for the link. From going through the section on using biomass, it appears that neither torriicaion nor pyrolysis were considered. Do I have this right?

  18. David B. Benson says:

    Earl Killian — Biofuels from algae appear to be cost-effective and nearly carbon-neutral.

  19. llewelly says:

    Shorter Nordhaus and Shellenberger: No matter what happens, the Greens are terrible, bad, no good people, even if they are right.

  20. Nick Adams says:

    __Romm Takes Bizarre Satisfaction in Shooting the Voters’ Messenger__

    Wow! Romm is clearly motivated to battle S&N. What a litany! But in all his haste to attack, he seems to have missed the larger point: even if his own plan is better on paper, recent events suggest that it can’t be put into practice. S&N have written an article about how some greens, and the Democrats who listen to them, are out of touch with the American public and have been caught off guard by Republicans’ ability to unite support for off-shore drilling and other unhelpful delays. They make a compelling case that Americans are more concerned about energy prices in the short-term than they are about global catastrophe in the long-term. Knowing what we know about human psychology, this really shouldn’t be a surprise, but it seems like Chinese to Romm.

    Then again, if one was reading S&N’s op-ed only for the purpose of lambasting it, maybe that rather simple point would be easily lost. Joe Romm clearly gave S&N such a reading. He begins his blogpost stating that he tries to ignore S&N and their “garbage,” but that this was too high-profile to go unchallenged. Then, rather than thoughtfully considering the potential virtues and weaknesses of their argument as a whole, he cuts it up into decontextualized chunks that are easier to distort and attack – often with more name-calling, straw-man pummeling, etc. Take Joe’s rant against S&N’s description of the differences between Americans’ perceptions of the Democrats’ and Republicans’ energy policies. If Joe had given the op-ed a fair reading, he would have recognized that the authors were lamenting the perception and enthusiasm gap between Obama’s comprehensive energy policy and the “inflate your tires” messaging that made it through the media. Instead, consciously or not, he disunderstood [yeah. I made up that word and it makes sense.] their piece to be an attack on Obama(?)! And even more bizarrely, he ended his tirade with a masculinity-challenging bet of a $1000 on the outcome of the election. Huh?

    S&N’s point, as I have read them here and elsewhere, is not that cap and trade makes for bad policy. Cap and trade is actually a rather elegant policy prescription. The problem with cap and trade is that it makes for bad politics.

    As much as Joe and all of us might want the American people to wake up to the disastrous consequences of our carbon guzzling economy, pay higher energy prices, reduce our energy usage, and gradually shift to greater use of renewables, S&N don’t see the public going for such a plan. They could be wrong, of course, but their argument doesn’t lack evidence. Anyone shocked by the policy reversals on off-shore drilling – first from McCain, then from the American people and pundits, then from the Democratic leadership – must worry at least momentarily that S&N are right, that Americans won’t agree to higher energy prices.
    But Joe displays no time or care for such considerations. Instead, he is happier distorting the article through a partisan lens, smearing S&N as friends-of-Rove, and displaying (what he thinks are) his cajones with a public wager on the election. How about a modicum of intellectual maturity? What is really at issue between Joe and S&N is not some thousand dollar bet. It’s the answer to this question: Are Americans more likely to support legislation that will have the effect of raising energy prices, eventually getting them to clean energy; or legislation that would have the government invest in clean domestic energy research and infrastructure development?

    This is a debate about the political viability of a funding mechanism and messaging strategy to avert global warming: cap and trade and fear-mongering or front-end investment and a focus on the future? Joe could be right. Maybe the “Drill, baby, drill!” chant was a fluke. Maybe the polling showing that Americans support off shore drilling is just plain wrong. Perhaps the polling showing that Americans treat Climate Change as a low priority is also wrong.

    Of course, Joe chimes in on this one saying, “It is primarily the GOP that doesn’t care about human-caused global warming — and that of course is not the fault of greens.” But this is not a counter-argument to S&N’s contention. It’s merely a footnote displaying the limited nature of Romm’s thinking. In his world, if Democrats agree with the greens, the greens have done their job. In S&N’s world, we actually need a larger base of support if we hope to realistically face down a global climate crisis.

    But I don’ want to pick on Joe too much. After all, both Joe and S&N are right in different ways. Joe continues to be right that the policies he wants are excellent policies if they can be implemented and supported over time. But, while it’s still technically an open question, S&N appear to be righter by the day about their contention that voters aren’t going to support Joe’s policies.

    Political psychology supports the S&N argument, too. Humans, like all animals, tend to discount the future. We would much rather have “a bird in hand than two in the bush” and that makes us – on average – relatively poor long-term planners. Paying higher prices now to avert a catastrophe that some (wrong) people claim is never coming doesn’t appeal to as many Americans as we would like. We also don’t do well with self-imposed rules and limits. A big part of the reason Republicans have been able to win 7 of the last 10 elections is because their ideology has monopolized voters’ hatred of “regulations” and “bureaucracy.” But, and this is the most important point, we humans are especially unwilling to accept limits and share resources when we are placed in a psychological state of fear. Imagine it. You are a mammal in a harsh world with limited resources. When you are threatened, is your emotional-limbic system going to encourage you to give away your resources and cut off some of your individual options for escape? No. Your fear might prepare you for action (fight or flight response), but that action is as likely to be flight (escapism) as it is fight (actually struggling for a solution).

    S&N, on the other hand, offer a policy agenda that is far more attuned to the everyday functioning of human psychology. (Greens, even if they don’t feel it is their responsibility to appeal to the ideology of Republicans, might at least consider appealing to their psychology. After all, they are not a different species.) The S&N plan has broader appeal – witness their rising popularity – because it invokes people’s feelings of control and optimism. It is exactly the kind of psychology that makes people feel like they are empowered to do something good. It is imaginative, visionary, inspirational. Rather than relying upon people’s fear, it organizes their thoughts about the future in terms of human achievement. And though American taxpayers would still end up paying for the S&N plan, they wouldn’t feel it coming out of their pockets.

    Many of S&N’s critics seem to want to box in the specifics of their policy plan and nitpick the flaws. Such policy criticisms can be useful as we move forward toward the goal of a cleaner, cooler future. But no matter what policy we choose, we must be mindful of Americans’ willingness to back it. When we cast global warming as a horror to be avoided, people do want to avoid it. Unfortunately, they avoid it by putting it out of mind. When we cast cheap, clean energy as a smart and bold investment in an abundant future, people want to get on board at the ground level.

    We can all grouse about how disappointing some of our voters are. And we can enjoy shooting the messengers. But ultimately, we have to work with the electorate we’ve got. What S&N are suggesting, I think, is that we embrace the (sometimes ridiculous) parameters that voters present to us and find a way to mobilize their support. Doesn’t seem like such a terrible idea to me.

  21. hapa says:

    you know, all this noise from ted and michael here would be a lot more believable if that LAT piece had, just once, pointed out that the “drilling” argument was a load of crap.

    that’s a strong position, leaving out that detail. somewhat telling.

  22. Sam says:

    Hey Ted! Stop picking nits & answer my questions!

    * When will your plan reduce carbon emissions and by how much?

    * How much will it cost & who is going to pay for it?

    You get pretty deep into the weeds on this stuff, but fail to answer the most basic questions on climate policy.

    Come on, please….

  23. whitis says:

    The busbar costs cited by killian are ultimately wrong for nuclear vs. wind resulting in the wind appearing to cost 42% less than nuclear when it probably actually costs about 200% more. They might reflect the power companies costs but they do not reflect society’s cost. The advantage for wind on that spreadsheet seems to come primarily from tax incentives such as production tax credits, depreciation schedules, AFUDC, etc.; the government is paying the utility for wind power (and a number of other renewables) while the utility is paying taxes on nuclear power. The firming costs for wind also assume the use of massive amounts of natural gas to generate power (which isn’t taken into account on greenhouse emissions either though carbon taxes aren’t used) which simply isn’t viable on a large scale elimination of carbon-based energy sources – it requires about 2/3 of power to come from fossil fuel sources. Nor does it reflect the cost of upgraded transmission lines that would be required to smooth out the capacity factor allowing less fossil fuel use. It also assumes that nuclear will be financed over a longer period even though it has a slightly lower capital cost per capacity adjusted gigawatt year. Maintenance costs for wind turbines were low, as well. Further, the electric bill under that inconsistent treatment of carbon-free sources reflects the true cost of nuclear encouraging conservation while taxpayers pay for wind whether they use it or not reducing the apparent marginal cost and encouraging waste.

  24. S&N are mostly looking for PR. I tried to read their book but found it too much BS and self-promotion.

    Haven’t they figured out that the number of people who are paying attention to global warming is growing by leaps and bounds? Just ask pollsters in Houston, Galveston, Florida, New Orleans, etc.

    I have a friend who gave me S&N’s book, and a few months ago, I told him that the “contest” was NOT about technological breakthroughs, it was about economic contraction v. building renewable infrastructure.

    Voila! Now that the market has dropped 40%, economic contraction is here.

    I only hope we can get a lot of infrastructure before we get hit with the NEXT contraction: when oil supplies start to decrease 3-6% per year.

    I also find S&N very irritating to read. They talk about “environmentalists” in such derogatory and patronizing terms I couldn’t read any more. I’ll be the first to say that the likes of NRDC and EDF are more corporate than anything else, but nonetheless S&N are just so much blabbing.

    In the final analysis, S&N are simply shills.

  25. Julie Warner says:

    Are we as a movement so above reproach that we can’t “pass the red pen” . Take constructive criticism , say ” Hey , this may not be working so well? ” And it isn’t. Really. The point made is the complexity of the issue’s facing all of us. In my backyard, my town, my state, our country. We have the capacity as individuals to find the solution’s , do the math, vote, whatever it takes it is ultimately up to me , you , to embrace the complexity of it all and work it. BRAVO boy’s BRAVO!!!! This shake up , knock down , from those who know and are not afraid to take a stand.
    Piss me off , make me think , look, feel differently , about an issue that hasn’t shown me the money and given little change. Brilliant !! Please , to leave the devices and mechanism’s to us, and honor the change the space to occur. If one more book , expert ,comes out to tell me “how to ” placate my guilt, recycle , save the planet I will start bleating like the sheeple we are fast becoming.
    I love these guy’s for cracking the facade and asking us simply to make it real , and the dignity to not tell me how to do it!!! Jewel

  26. shop says:

    As far as my concrete plan for the US, it is (0) Allow the EPA to enforce the Clean Air Act (as directed by the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA), e.g. garnering much tougher standards than the new CAFE; (1) Federal adoption of California policies, incentives, and regulations (e.g. Negawatts first); (2) Convert the US passenger fleet to PHEVs from 2010 to 2050; (3) Smart grid build out; (4) HVDC grid build out; (5) Federal Renewable Portfolio Standard; (6) Fossil power plant buy-outs / shutdowns to remove generation no longer needed from #1, #5; (6) Reforestation; (7) Improved Ag practices; (8) biofuels from Ag residue (only) for PHEV backup fuel; and (9) use U.S. trade leverage to encourage countries that export to the U.S. to adopt greenhouse pollution policies such as our own. The U.S. government should also use its purchasing power to jumpstart deployment where possible.