NYT columnist Tom Friedman slams Lomborg’s nonsense
Well, that didn’t last long.
Last week, it seemed like Washington Post‘s Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt had a real come to … science moment with his blunt op-ed (see WashPost stunner: “The GOP’s climate-change denial may be its most harmful delusion”). I noted that it was a man bites dog story because Hiatt “in the past had printed multiple columns by George Will and Sarah Palin spreading disinformation on climate science and who has recycled Wall Street Journal op-eds from the likes of Bjorn Lomborg.”
But Hiatt is back to publishing Lomborg, who now is flinging out new disinformation to see what sticks following his staggering box office bomb “Cool It,” which grossed a whopping $63,000.
Lomborg’s latest piece, “Hold the accolades on China’s ‘green leap forward’ ” is so bad that New York Times columnist Tom Friedman sent me a rare rebuttal. Unfortunately, publishing a rebuttal of Lomborg’s piece means you’re going to have to actually read parts of it. I apologize in advance for that.
As the world’s factory floor, China is not an obvious environmental leader. It is beleaguered by severe pollution and generates more carbon emissions than any other nation. Yet many have trumpeted it as an emerging “green giant” for its non-carbon-based energy production and its aggressive promises to cut carbon emissions. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described China’s “green leap forward” as “the most important thing to happen” at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
But the facts do not support this “green” success story.
China indeed invests more than any other nation in environmentally friendly energy production: $34″‰billion in 2009, or twice as much as the United States. Almost all of its investment, however, is spent producing green energy for Western nations that pay heavy subsidies for consumers to use solar panels and wind turbines….
This is the green lesson China holds: A green future will result not from subsidizing immature technology today but from developing competitive green technology that is effective and cheap. Wind and solar power are not yet competitive. Research would be a much better investment for Western countries than subsidizing imports of today’s green technology from China. Until we can make alternative energy technology effective and affordable for everybody, there will be no happy ending to the “green” success story.
For years Lomborg and the breakthrough bunch have been telling us that the only way we can reduce emissions is if 1) we lower the cost of renewable energy and 2) developing countries like China embrace those technologies. Apparently, Lomborg is now attacking China for having the nerve to start this process, but not finish it immediately! The fact that the Chinese can make some renewable energy cheaper than we can, but haven’t out-built us in every category themselves is cause for a wholesale attack in a major U.S. newspaper.
Let’s be clear, they have already passed us in wind capacity! Yes, wind power is, according to Lomborg, uncompetitive. Yet somehow the Chinese and other countries just keep building it (see “Wind power surged from 17,000 MW to 194,000 MW in past decade“). Imagine how much they would build if fossil fuel power were correctly priced for the damage it causes to the climate and human health (see Life-cycle study: Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated”). I know, Lomborg says one is simply not allowed to imagine such things. So I digress.
Lomborg pushes an old claim that Chinese wind turbines are being built and not connected to the grid. Sources in China say that a big part of this is that it always takes several months to connect new turbines to the grid. Now if your wind capacity is almost doubling every year, then there are going to be a lot of growing pains along the way and a big chunk of China’s capacity is recently completed and not yet grid connected. Also, Chinese wind turbines have a slightly lower reliability record that ours. Obviously once you build a wind turbine it is going to be cost effective to connect to the grid in the overwhelming majority of cases and you can expect that’s what will happen in China.
The key point is that China has made commitments for deployment of all forms of low carbon energy — including solar — that vastly exceed ours (see “China cuts nuclear goal, raises solar goal after Japan meltdown,” which notes “The goal for solar-power capacity will increase from the current target of 20 gigawatts”). Anyone doubt they will carry through on those commitments, especially as the price of coal and oil soar?
There is no logic in Lomborg’s position — or any understanding of technology innovation. Friedman emails me:
“There is a chance that China is going to do for solar panels, wind power, solar hot water heaters, electric car batteries, electric cars and energy efficient building materials — what it did for tennis shoes. That is, bring down the price to a level that they can scale, not only in America but in China and the rest of the developing world, where they are still not affordable for most people. It is a fundamentally important inflection point. We should be celebrating this.
“The notion that the only way to bring down the price of a product is by more research is utterly idiotic. It is precisely through manufacturing and deployment — yes even subsidized — that we learn how to make things cheaper and better. That has been the case with every industry in the world. How do you think the price of your cellphone came down? Just by more research?”
It is clear that solar and wind are competitive in many situations right now — see Wind now on even playing field with gas and Solar costs may already rival coal. And continued aggressive deployment along with continued R&D will keep driving the price down (see Energy Sec. Chu sees “wind and solar being cost-competitive without subsidy with new fossil fuel” by 2020).
For an extended discussion of why deployment is essential for driving down the price of clean energy, see “The breakthrough technology illusion.” The fact is that mass production is driving down the cost of both wind and solar in China. That is such a painfully obvious fact it almost boggles the mind that Lomborg could denounce a policy aimed at driving production and it does boggle the mind that Hiatt would reprint it.
I know, Hiatt never suggested he would start publishing reasonable articles on clean energy. But even the one paragraph on climate in Lomborg’s piece is inane:
The avoided carbon emissions from all of China’s solar and wind generation “” even maintained over the entire century “” would lower temperatures in 2100 by 0.00002 degrees Fahrenheit. That is the equivalent, based on mainstream climate models, of delaying temperature rises at the end of the century by around five hours.
Uhh, well, the whole point is that they are rapidly ramping up production and bringing down costs which will in turn lead to even greater production. They are an “emerging” green giant. The fact that their current generation isn’t high enough to make a big dent in emissions is precisely why we should be encouraging efforts to accelerate production. But Lomborg condemns all efforts to increase production and asserts we should put all of our money into R&D, even as the planet fries.
[Regular readers know that Lomborg posts require multiple head vises. New readers can take some comfort in the fact that DARPA is funding R&D into a containment field that could protect people's crania from Lomborgian analyses. It's too late for you, of course, but just imagine how that breakthrough might improve the lives of future generations!]
I understand why Lomborg keeps making ever more outlandish statements like a Danish Charlie Sheen — it’s the only way he can get any attention now (see Still Bjorn: Now that his movie has bombed, Lomborg is back to telling folks “Go Ahead and Guzzle”).
But why does Hiatt keep pushing disinformers like the Danish delayer? Could it be that he thinks that publishing controversial nonsense is the way to drive up eyeballs, even if it helps spread confusion that delays the necessary action to avoid catastrophic global warming?
I guess I’ll paraphrase the question Hiatt poses about Tim Pawlenty’s incomprehensible flip-flopping:
Which leads to another question: Should we feel better if an editorial page editor is not ignorant about the preeminent environmental danger facing our planet, but only too calculating or cowardly to print the truth about it?
To paraphrase Hiatt, I don’t know the answer to that one.