“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.”

[Those who have had enough of CP vs. Shellenberger & Norhaus can skip this post, but I think this is a very important messaging discussion.]

My critique of S&N has elicited from Nordhaus a sentence that encapsulates our differences, cuts through all the “barbs,” and makes clear just how dangerously wrong they are. Ted wrote here yesterday:

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.

I know most of my readers understand how dangerously mistaken such a strategy is. There is no chance whatsoever of averting catastrophic climate change if we focus centrally on energy independence.

Why? 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. S&N’s plan has no strategy whatsoever for stopping the global rush to build new coal plants, and as I have repeatedly argued and they have never rebutted, S&N has no strategy whatsoever for shutting down existing coal in the medium term (see “S&N go after Obama by recycling GOP talking points“). They do have a great catch phrase:

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.

Indeed, they use this catchy phrase a lot:

If the environmental movement is to finally translate its rhetoric into reality, it will need to shift its focus from making dirty energy expensive to making clean energy cheap.

But they have never explained how their strategy would ever make clean energy cheaper than existing coal, let alone that this would happen fast enough to avert catastrophe. The reason no such explanation is forthcoming is because no such explanation is technically or economically plausible, as I’ve argued. And remember, the longer you put off enacting policies that stop the construction of new traditional coal plants, the more “existing” coal plants you will have to somehow shut down in the coming decades.

The reason I keep pushing back so hard on S&N is that there’s a much greater messaging danger here. Defining the central issue as energy independence doesn’t just lead to downplaying the urgent need to address the coal issue now — it inherently pushes you toward more coal since the United States has such enormous domestic coal reserves. And yet coal with carbon capture and storage is a long, long way away (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“) We must remember we could solve much of our energy independence problem with liquid coal, if we didn’t care about destroying the climate (see “Congress should say NO to coal-to-diesel“). And let’s not forget good old domestic shale (see “Stop the shale oil madness from destroying the climate — and Colorado“).

A year ago I spelled out the Bush Energy Department’s energy-independence-driven unconventional fuels dream nightmare:

Incremental Production Objectives (2035)

  • Oil Shale — 2.5 MMBbl/d
  • Tar Sands — 0.53 MMBbl/d
  • Coal Liquids — 2.6 MMBbl/d
  • Heavy Oil — 0.75 MMBbl/d
  • CO2 EOR — 1.3 MMBbl/d

[MMBbl/d = millions of barrels of oil a day. EOR is enhanced oil recovery.]

Yes, I know that is a fantasy. I even know S&N don’t want that to happen. But the only way to make sure it doesn’t happen is to ensure that “efforts to build the clean energy economy” are “centrally defined around both energy independence and global warming.” Those two issues should never be separated by responsible opinion leaders. I give a lot of credit to Barack Obama for not making the same mistake that S&N do, even though it would be incredibly easy to do, and might have some short-term political benefits.

By skewing the message toward energy independence, and worse, by actually attacking those, like Al Gore, who think we need to lead with global warming (with energy independence as a key secondary message), S&N undercut the likelihood of the nation achieving the political consensus needed to avoid catastrophic warming.

Yes, avoiding catastrophic global warming is hard. And achieving the necessary political consensus is hard. But it will be impossible if we don’t take the problem head-on.

Contrary to S&N’s rewriting of history, most green and progressives, including me, have been focused on making clean energy cheaper for two decades (see “Time to end the phony, and historically inaccurate, debate“). But those of us who have been engaged in that effort for far longer than S&N have learned that no matter how much you spend, it simply happens too slowly to prevent catastrophic climate change. (And ironically, if you really want to make clean energy cheaper, the best strategy is to focus on clean energy deployment, not R&D — see “Breaking the technology breakthrough myth — Debunking Shellenberger & Nordhaus again.”)

These are all very important issues that are at the heart of what this blog is about. I intend to maintain my policy of largely ignoring S&N, but when their dangerous ideas breakthrough to a national audience, and especially when they repeat GOP talking points, I feel a strong obligation to debunk them.

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7 Responses to “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.”

  1. thingsbreak says:

    Cue the injured “heretical non-skeptics” professing to not understand the pushback against their dangerously misguided dogma…

  2. jorleh says:

    Why not use the cheapest and cleanest energy of the potential energy of the Greenland and Antarctic ice masses? Is everyone here too an idiot?

  3. red says:

    I agree with the red-shaded text, although I haven’t read the associated S&N text or previous work from them (this not being my field), so I don’t know if I agree with the rest of what they say or not.

    That doesn’t mean you have to ignore global warming altogether. It just means instead of leading “with global warming (with energy independence as a key secondary message)”, lead with energy independence (with global warming as a key secondary message). Focusing mainly on energy independence first doesn’t mean giving up on global warming, nor does it mean global warming will never get front and center.

    Some reasons:

    – Energy independence, done right, can tackle many of the same problems you’d be tackling going up against global warming. For example, a “WWII-level” push for mass-produced PHEVs, alcohol fuels (with disincentives for coal-based variants), and higher vehicle fuel efficiency, matched with incentives for renewable electricity deployment and efficient power use in homes and industry so we have electricity for those millions of PHEVs, would help energy independence and global warming at the same time.

    – This economic and political moment in history is ripe for an energy independence push. It’s not quite there for the more painful parts of an AGW push in the U.S.

    – Divide and conquor: going after oil, auto, and coal industries all at the same time is a lot! Going after oil, and co-opting auto, isn’t such an insurmountable problem. Then, later …

    – Demonstrating success with energy independence will show that this kind of effort can succeed.

    – AGW efforts have the political difficulty that not only are they painful (for example phasing out existing coal plants, cap and trade taxes), but it’s difficult to gain the benefit of them, since they depend on all countries pitching in. Energy independence efforts, on the other hand, tend to spread. For example, mass producing PHEVs of FFVs in 1 country helps spread that industry worldwide. The leverage is favorable.

    – The Apollo Alliance looks for $50-$300B per year in cap and trade revenues. $300B per year?? We are strapped already. With the 4 Federal Budget Horsemen already running amok (War/DOD, Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, Federal Debt), with high energy prices already, with a wounded financial system and expensive bailout, with a weak dollar, inflation prospects, job loss, bad trade balance … I don’t think we (the U.S.) is ready for anything like the scale of economic hit they’re talking about at the moment. Even if something like that is put into law, there would probably be a huge political backlash later.

    If we can push energy independence (i.e. phase out oil) in the context I tried to describe, while making mild progress on AGW-specific fronts (i.e. focusing most new energy on renewables rather than coal, etc) we should be well set up to finish the AGW job later.

  4. rjm says:

    I expect green energy to take a huge blow in a year or two. We’ll get blackouts and brownouts more and more. We just don’t have the baseload power that will be demanded.

    When the rolling brownouts start happening, people will demand energy now. The insta answer will be coal.

  5. john says:


    Why have you never answered the question Joe and several others have posed to you: How do we limit GHG concentrations to 450 ppm without dumping coal?

    And as Joe points out, many of the strategies for getting to energy independence — shale oil; Fischer-Tropse processes etc. — actually create exponential increases in GHG emissions per unit of energy used, hastening GW, not mitigating it.

    Until you answer these questions, your rants are worse than worthless — of course, the reason you don’t, is because your central argument is wrong — we won’t get to stabilization by pursuing energy independence. Domestic energy is not always the same as clean energy —

    Please figure out another — less destructive — way to get press coverage. Why don’t you, Easterbrook, and Bjorn get together and brainstorm on it. We’ll help.

  6. john says:

    Oh, and rjm — If you examine the state of the national grid, you’ll see that the problems you assign to green energy — blackouts, brownouts etc — are pretty much in the cards regardless of what kind of fuel we use. Bottom line: there is some $2 trillion in deferred maintenance and needed upgrades for the gird at this moment.

    So here’s the question for you: Do we make that investment around a finite fuel that will either run out or kill us first, or do we do it around a sustainable renewable fuel?

    Seems like a no-brainer to me.

  7. Ronald says:

    A good analogy is from World War II.

    Imperial Japan was invading Asia and Nazi Germany was invading Europe in the 1930’s.

    It would have been nice and good if the United States would have helped to defend Asia and Europe, but we had our own problems with a bad economy. We weren’t willing to invest hundreds of thousands to die and hundreds of billions of dollars to be spent on a war.

    Until we we attacked by Imperial Japan at Pearl Harbor. Until Nazi Germany declared war on the United States 2 days later and torpedoed our shipping off the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts killing over a thousand. Then it was our survival at stake. Then we were going to defend our own families and country. We didn’t invade France in June, 1944 to liberate France from Nazi Germany. We invaded France to get to Nazi Germany and kill Hitler.

    Polls might show that having energy independence is more popular than slowing down Global Warming, but it is thin support. Energy independence might be a nice thing to do, but it is not our survival. Slowing Human Machine and Land use caused Global Warming is for the next 50 generations.