A blogger once said that only the ideologically-driven anti-science disinformers never admit to error, since their job is to make errors on purpose. Okay, that was me, but still.
In truth, most people rarely if ever admit to major errors. So it seemed to me that Leap Day would be a good day to run through my biggest mistakes.
I’m not going focus on the many, many small mistakes that are inevitable for anyone who blogs daily and has written literally millions of words on this subject. I work to admit and correct those mistakes as quickly as possible – see my post about whether you should cancel your subscription to the New York Times.
I do think Climate Progress presents the science more accurately and with fewer errors than the vast majority of the MSM — especially since errors include quoting people whose job it is to make errors on purpose.
I’ll end with my biggest blogging mistake, but let me start again with my biggest climate science mistake.
I have consistently underestimated the timing and speed of climate impacts and the level of greenhouse gas emissions that would likely cause catastrophic warming. In the 1990s, I was mostly a 3°C or 550 ppm guy. In fact, looking at my 2004 book, The Hype About Hydrogen, I now see that it actually floated a scenario in which “in 2037, the the National Academy of Sciences’ Panel on Abrupt Climate Change, noting that the 3 previous years were a full 1°F warmer than the past decade, urges CO2 stabilization at 650 ppmv within 50 years.” Ouch.
Here’s how I corrected that mistake: After my brother lost his home in Hurricane Katrina, I spent a lot of time attending seminars by the top climate scientists, talking to as many as possible, and reviewing as much of the scientific literature as I could. That’s when I realized the situation was considerably more dire than I or 99% of the public and opinion-makers realized — and that climate scientists were doing a lousy job of communicating that fact. Six years later, the situation is still considerably more dire than, oh, at least 95% of the public and opinion-makers realize, but at least my understanding of climate is more grounded in the latest science (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).
Of course, now I’m a 450 ppm guy and I still may be too high! It’s also worth noting that because of our better understanding of carbon cycle feedbacks, the cumulative CO2 that humans can afford to emit to stabilize at any temperature level is considerably lower than we thought just 5 years ago (see “Hidden Bombshell in the IPCC Fourth Assessment“). So we need to act ASAP.
In that regard, my biggest political error in judgment was to believe President Obama (and his uniquely knowledgeable climate team) would be willing and able to actually pass a serious climate bill. All I can say in my defense is I wasn’t alone. Obama’s lameness on this issue is not the primary reason we didn’t get climate action — the disinformers and their political allies as well as the media deserve 90% of the blame, as I’ve said many times. Could Obama have succeeded if he had really tried? I do believe there was a meaningful bill that could have passed had Obama made it a priority, but we will obviously never know the answer.
I shouldn’t leave out my biggest mistake at the Department of Energy — my strong support for the hydrogen and transportation fuel cell program.
At the start of the Clinton Administration, funding for those two efforts were miniscule and small, respectively. Within days of my arrival at DOE in 1993, I was briefed on Los Alamos National Laboratory’s work slashing the cost of the fuel cell most likely to work in a vehicle, the proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell. President Clinton’s entire team was very supportive of R&D for all of clean energy and fuel-efficient technologies, including PEMs. Funding for hybrid vehicles, including fuel cells, with significantly increased. So, too, was funding for hydrogen R&D.
In mid-1995, I moved to the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. I was principal deputy assistant secretary, the number 2 slot, in charge of all budget and technology analysis. In that capacity I was able to work with other fuel-cell advocates in and out of the administration to keep the PEM fuel-cell budget creeping upward even as the entire budget for the office was cut 20% by the 1995 Gingrich Congress that just hated all clean energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment. Plus ca change.
What many people may not know is that US automakers wanted to focus on R&D with near-term payoffs and thus were not supportive of increases in long-term research on PEM fuel cells, especially once budgets became tight. Also, many fossil fuel companies–including those in the natural gas industry–were equally unsupportive of PEM fuel cell research.
Had I not weighed in repeatedly to preserve the PEM budget, it probably would have been raided and gutted. In retrospect, that might have spared us hundreds of millions of dollars and a major misdirection of effort for a decade when President Bush embraced and vastly expanded the effort.
In my defense, I will say that at the time, we were pursuing onboard reforming of gasoline into hydrogen, which would have obviated the need for significant onboard storage of hydrogen — a major problem, even today — and it obviated the need for a whole new fueling infrastructure — arguably the still-unsolved fatal problem. Only after I left DOE did they abandon onboard reforming because it proved impractical. I also didn’t fully realize when I was at DOE just how intractable the problem of building a hydrogen infrastructure was.
Once I figured that all out, though I did my best to set the record straight with my book, The Hype About Hydrogen. You can read a summary of my conclusion in the 2005 journal article, “The car and fuel of the future” (see also “Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a dead end from a technological, practical, and climate perspective“).
Finally, my biggest mistake in blogging has probably been too much blogging about other bloggers, especially those unaffiliated with major media outlets. It was incredibly easy to get caught up in a back and forth with other bloggers, especially when I was a newbie. It took me a long time — too long — to stop wasting so much time and space on this blog dealing with nonsense from people that aren’t worth the time because they have relatively little traffic and/or the traffic they do have is largely unpersuadable. This is especially true of the hard-core denial sites, but also many confusionists.
In fact, CAPAF commissioned a study a couple of years ago and found that the disinformers were only reaching the already disinformed. They are mostly talking to themselves, unlike Climate Progress, which even then had a very broad audience. So I have been trying, mostly successfully I think, to stop responding to those folks — indeed, to generally stop reading them. I will admit to the occasional lapse.
I do draw a distinction between the disinformers and confusionists when they blog and the disinformers/confusionists when they get the major media to quote or print their nonsense. That still needs debunking because it reaches so many more people across the political spectrum. I will continue my focus on media criticism — and that includes the highly trafficked and influential blogger-journalists for the major media outlets.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome — especially since you probably won’t see a post like this until next leap year!