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Paging Elizabeth Kolbert: The New Yorker (!) parrots right-wing talking points

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"Paging Elizabeth Kolbert: The New Yorker (!) parrots right-wing talking points"

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[Please write an email to themail@newyorker.com about this outrageous piece and Submit a question to author David Owen.]

The New Yorker magazine has just published a lead story on climate, “Economy vs. Environment,” by David Owen, that is so bad, so filled with long-debunked right-wing talking points, it would barely qualify for the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

The piece could be the poster child for award-winning journalist Eric Pooley’s searing critique of the media’s coverage of climate economics (see How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics — “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress”).

What makes this all the more stunning is that The New Yorker is one of the few magazines in the country that has had consistently top-notch reporting on global warming, led by Elizabeth Kolbert. Her three-part series, “The Climate of Man,” which became the terrific book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, famously ends:

It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.

But Owen’s piece, which leads off the March 30 issue and is heavily featured on their website, undoes all of Kolbert’s good work.

What is especially shocking about the piece is that after all of the magazine’s coverage of the catastrophic climate impacts we face on our current emissions path, Owen has managed to write an entire piece on climate economics that mentions that not a single one of them. And this in spite of his opening paragraph:

The week before last, twenty-five hundred delegates, from more than seventy countries, met in Copenhagen to prepare for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will take place there in December and will produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1992 and will expire in 2012. The speakers in Copenhagen were united by a sense of urgency–and for good reason, given the poor record of most participating countries in meeting their Kyoto targets for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

I just don’t see how a responsible journalist can reference the Copenhagen conference, and not mention a single one of the dire scientific warnings of what happens on our current emissions path (see U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm … the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” — 1000 ppm).

I also don’t see how a responsible journalist can use that conference to kick off an article that ends by saying that action on climate would “be nudging us back toward the [economic] abysss” — when the conference itself came to the exact opposite conclusion:

Key Message 5: Inaction is Inexcusable

There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches — economic, technological, behavioural, management — to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented to achieve the societal transformation required to decarbonise economies. A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems and revitalisation of ecosystem services.

Owen simply parrots the standard conservative argument that the only way to achieve prosperity is to keep emitting carbon dioxide and the only way to cut carbon dioxide is through economic collapse:

So far, the most effective way for a Kyoto signatory to cut its carbon output has been to suffer a well-timed industrial implosion….

… the world’s principal source of man-made greenhouse gases has always been prosperity.

Owen never bothers to cite a single analysis disputing his conclusions, even though many highly credible expert organizations do, including the traditionally staid and conservative International Energy Agency, McKinsey, as well as the economic literature as summarized in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report:

You could write a book debunking Owen’s disinformation treatise. But let me hit just a couple of the whoppers:

How do we persuade people to drive less–an environmental necessity–while also encouraging them to revive our staggering economy by buying new cars?

Uhh, actually Americans are driving less — have been for a couple of years now, but knowing that would have actually required a tiny amount of research by Owen (see here).

The popular answer–switch to hybrids–leaves the fundamental problem unaddressed. Increasing the fuel efficiency of a car is mathematically indistinguishable from lowering the price of its fuel; it’s just fiddling with the other side of the equation. If doubling the cost of gas gives drivers an environmentally valuable incentive to drive less–the recent oil-price spike pushed down consumption and vehicle miles travelled, stimulated investment in renewable energy, increased public transit ridership, and killed the Hummer–then doubling the efficiency of cars makes that incentive disappear. Getting more miles to the gallon is of no benefit to the environment if it leads to an increase in driving–and the response of drivers to decreases in the cost of driving is to drive more. Increases in fuel efficiency could be bad for the environment unless they’re accompanied by powerful disincentives that force drivers to find alternatives to hundred-mile commutes.

No, no, a thousand times no.

This is the kind of disinformation and that you expect — and get — from the National Journal Review (see “Planet Gore Wrong on CAFE Rebound Effect“).

[Apologies to National Journal!]

Yes, energy efficient devices often don’t save 100% of the advertised gain — but this rebound effect has been well documented and it is small. It is at most 20%, and probably much less, possibly 10%. One of the best recent studies is “Fuel Efficiency and Motor Vehicle Travel: The Declining Rebound Effect,” by two University of California economists.

And in the real world I don’t expect there’s going to be even a 10% rebound effect since, as noted, vehicle miles traveled has been dropping for a while now, which Brookings thinks is actually a new long-term trend, and because peak oil is very soon going to be driving oil prices back up, as McKinsey recently explained.

Indeed, in Owen’s one brief nod to reality, he acknowledges that our entire global economy is a Ponzi scheme, using language remarkably similar to mine:

… we are borrowing against the world’s dwindling store of inexpensive energy in the same way that we borrowed against the illusory equity in our homes.

But Owen quickly abandons such rationality and returns to standard right-wing anti-renewable talking points:

Moreover, American dependence on fossil fuels isn’t going to end any time soon: solar panels and wind turbines provided only about a half per cent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2007, and they don’t work when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

And yet somehow both solar and wind are the fastest growing forms of energy in the world, providing more U.S. jobs last year than coal mining. And, of course, like many journalists, he seems completely unaware of the various forms of renewable energy that don’t have to stop working when the sun isn’t shining, including, of course, Concentrated solar thermal power Solar Baseload — a core climate solution.

Finally, Owens asserts:

The prospects for a meaningful worldwide climate agreement probably improved last November, with the election of Barack Obama, but his commitments to economic recovery and carbon reduction–to bringing the country out of recession while also reducing U.S. greenhouse emissions to seventeen per cent of their 2005 level by 2050–don’t pull in the same direction.

Again, I just don’t know how a responsible journalist can quote Obama’s dual commitments to economic recovery and carbon reduction, assert they “don’t pull in the same direction,” but never bother even quoting a single one of Obama’s arguments as to why he doesn’t believe Owen’s nonsense (see, for instance, Obama: “We can remain the world’s leading importer of foreign oil or … become the world’s leading exporter of renewable energy. We can allow climate change to wreak unnatural havoc or we can create jobs preventing its worst effects” and links therein).

Creating “green jobs,” a key component of the agenda, is different from creating new jobs, since green jobs, if they’re truly green, displace non-green jobs–wind-turbine mechanics instead of oil-rig roughnecks–probably a zero-sum game, as far as employment is concerned.

Again, hardly a zero sum game if, as Obama proposes, you are replacing hundreds of billions of dollars of oil imports a year, or becoming the world’s leading exporter of clean energy, or, for that matter, replacing Owen’s “dwindling store of inexpensive energy” — which means that current non-green jobs are simply not sustainable.

The ultimate success or failure of Obama’s program, and of the measures that will be introduced in Copenhagen this year, will depend on our willingness, once the global economy is no longer teetering, to accept policies that will seem to be nudging us back toward the abyss.

Sad.

And doubly sad to see it in The New Yorker.

Owen may have been the kind of journalist Kolbert had in mind when she talked to Yale Environment 360 “about the responsibility of both the media and scientists to better inform the public about the realities of a warming world.” I’m gonna end by repeating Kolbert’s admonition to her readers:

It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.

Please let The New Yorker and David Owen know that you don’t think they should be contributing to humanity’s self-destruction.

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18 Responses to Paging Elizabeth Kolbert: The New Yorker (!) parrots right-wing talking points

  1. Gail says:

    One Word:

    AAAUUUGGGGHHHHHH!

  2. Joe B says:

    to the New Yorker: David Owen’s Economy vs. Environment is a piece of pure, ideologically-blinded rubbish. It’s as if the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide wrote the article. I pay for your magazine because your writers typically filter, add value, investigate, etc. I could have gone to Exxon’s website for free to find a more well balanced treatment of the topic. People need to finally realize that we’re engaged in a Global Ponzi Scheme … thinking we’re prospering economically, but piling up massive external costs (environmental destruction) that are starting to hit us in the face, and will do so even harder in our CURRENT generation. Economic expansion, as we’ve known it, will prove to be a fallacy when we must face the consequences that we actually DO pay — dearly — for emitting carbon. What will happen to the economy THEN? The economy IS the environment, increasingly. The sooner we learn this, the better chance we’ll have of prospering as a nation and planet. Those chances diminish every time we see an article like Owen’s.

  3. paulm says:

    Bio Char debate raging across the Atlantic.

    let the Earth remove CO2 for us
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/24/biochar-earth-c02

  4. paulm says:

    We never said biochar is a miracle cure
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/25/hansen-biochar-monbiot-response

    Pushker Kharecha and Jim Hansen

  5. harold ross says:

    The New Yorker has been in a death spiral for years now. Elizabeth Kolbert, Sy Hersh and the fiction are still valuable but much of the rest of the content is largely a waste of time.

    Sad. It once was a great US journalistic institution. Tina Brown nearly finished it off but David Remnick has well and truly knocked it on the head.

  6. Brendan says:

    Is there a reason that when you talk about renewable baseload power, you only mention CST, and not Geothermal on Hydro? (I can see the hydro, we can’t/don’t want to build much more of it, but it seems like Geothermal is worth mentioning more often)

  7. MarkB says:

    The poor argument made here is that fossil fuels and a high-carbon society are required for prosperity. This is a very backwards way of thinking. It presumes that technology never advances.

    This was a pretty good debunking. To add a few things:

    “Moreover, American dependence on fossil fuels isn’t going to end any time soon: solar panels and wind turbines provided only about a half per cent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2007,”

    That’s like someone in the 1970′s saying that home computers won’t replace typewriters anytime soon because only 1% of households have them. It’s like someone in 1990 saying e-mail won’t largely replace snail-mail because only 1% of households have internet access. Progress happens. Owen needs to look forward. Wind power is already economically viable (and solar is getting close), but it’s going to take time to build wind farms and infrastructure.

    “Getting more miles to the gallon is of no benefit to the environment if it leads to an increase in driving–and the response of drivers to decreases in the cost of driving is to drive more. Increases in fuel efficiency could be bad for the environment unless they’re accompanied by powerful disincentives that force drivers to find alternatives to hundred-mile commutes.”

    This goes back to the price elasticity of demand for gasoline. The argument here implies unit elasticity, meaning if the cost of driving is cut in half, miles driven will double. This, of course, doesn’t happen. Note the U.S. miles driven at $2 per gallon vs $4 gallon. As Joe points out, at most we see a small change with large price swings.

  8. Bill Woods says:

    “Moreover, American dependence on fossil fuels isn’t going to end any time soon: … That’s like someone in the 1970’s saying that home computers won’t replace typewriters anytime soon because only 1% of households have them.”

    Nor did they — home computers didn’t really take off till the ’90s.

    “…it’s going to take time to build wind farms and infrastructure.”

    Right, which is *why* dependence on fossil fuels isn’t going to end any time soon (barring the economic implosion).

  9. Ric Merritt says:

    To mention just one small point: the notion that fuel is the main cost of driving is nuts. If fuel cost gets high enough, it certainly begins to pinch, but other auto costs are very high. For anyone middle-income and up, the main cost is probably time in the car (depending on what other choices you are comparing the travel decision to).

  10. llewelly says:

    Given the quality of their arguments now, when emissions cuts are finally enacted, the denialists will blame the current economic recession on emissions cuts, confidently counting on their victims to misremember the chronology.
    Worse, when global warming continues (due to long lags in climate), they’ll cite that as ‘proof’ that emissions cuts did nothing, and are therefor bad.

  11. I was pleasantly amused by Owens and the glossy style of the New Yorker until I read this: “Creating “green jobs,” a key component of the agenda, is different from creating new jobs, since green jobs, if they’re truly green, displace non-green jobs—wind-turbine mechanics instead of oil-rig roughnecks—probably a zero-sum game, as far as employment is concerned.” Al Gore wants to kill your job, is I guess the intended point. Rather a low blow, and the ref should have called it.

    I don’t see how a green job would necessarily displace a black job. And you could make the same argument about all of the steps in technology that have created our modern way of life. Is progress bad now?

    That, and the weird shot about fuel costs, spoiled what was otherwise a frank examination of the tension between pollution control and prosperity.

  12. Rachel Mark says:

    Economy vs environment seems to be consistent with the thinking of sufficiency versus efficency (Pinchen:The Logic of Sufficiency). Isn’t he right in saying that the consumption-basis of our economy cannot work in a world of finite resources and climate change? Isn’t his last statement saying that we WILL need to be willing to accept policies, even though they seem to be nudging us toward the abyss?

  13. Alan Wilkinson says:

    A science reporter should report science not religion. Scientists are allowed to challenge existing beliefs and indeed that is the whole purpose of their work. Political lobbyists have entirely different objectives.

    You inadvertently confirm Owen’s case for the economic linkage when you say:

    “I don’t expect there’s going to be even a 10% rebound effect … because peak oil is very soon going to be driving oil prices back up.”

    A newspaper that reports only half the story does its readers and democracy a disservice. A lobby that demands opposing views not be heard deserves only ridicule. If you cannot win a debate except by shutting out your opposition you deserve to live and die in the dictatorship you promote.

  14. JoeK says:

    “And yet somehow both solar and wind are the fastest growing forms of energy in the world, providing more U.S. jobs last year than coal mining.”

    Given the absolute amounts of electricity generated, I really hope you mean new rather than total jobs here. Sure, new infrastructure will make new jobs but it’s very important to understand that in the long term the measure of productivity is how little labour it takes to generate energy. In that sense, the fewer jobs the better – and the cheaper.

    [JR: I mean total. Not many coal miners any more. We level whole mountains now.]

  15. Al says:

    Hear Hear Alan

  16. ian hilliar says:

    This article seems to have generated a fair bit of heat itself, even without mentioning the unmentionable–nuclear power. Even James Hansen has come out and said that we need to be investing in 4th genseration fast breeder reactors, which means the greens will now try to make him dissapear, like Mark Linus, or intimate that senility has set in.

  17. Marion Delgado says:

    It’s not at all out of line to point out that this guy is not even a usable expert in the field he’s pretending expertise in — because, frankly, his brand of market fundamentalism PUT US IN THE ECONOMIC FIX WE’RE IN RIGHT NOW without ANYONE LIFTING A FINGER TO SOLVE GLOBAL WARMING.

    In fact, a simple, “nice one, from one of the people who helped ruin the global economy.” might suffice.