The center cannot hold. Here’s why it shouldn’t.
As climate change and clean energy have become first-tier political issues, many otherwise smart people who know precious little about either subject are suddenly making pronouncements on both as if they were opining on who should win American Idol.
A case in point is Michael Lind, whose title is “policy director of the economic growth program at the New America Foundation,” though as we’ll see, his ideas make it sound more like an Old America Foundation and make him sound more like Dr. Doolittle.
Ironically, while the “think small” centrists help undermine the political consensus for even modest climate action, every year we delay ensures that when we do act to address global warming, we will have to think very, very big. As the executive director of the International Energy Agency said last year, “we need to act urgently and now. Every year of delay adds an extra USD 500 billion to the investment needed between 2010 and 2030 in the energy sector”.
The NAF website claims that it “invests in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States.” Why?
Too often, these challenges have proven impervious to conventional party politics and incremental proposals. With an emphasis on big ideas, impartial analysis and pragmatic solutions….
But in a Sunday Washington Post piece, “Comprehensive reform is overrated. For real change, Washington must think small,” that Lind and NAF proudly tout on their website (screenshot above), Lind argues for not doing terribly much to address our climate or energy problems:
… both liberal environmentalists and conservative deficit hawks rely on sophisticated models to predict dire threats decades away, whether a catastrophic rise in the Earth’s temperature or unsustainable entitlement spending. In each case, even slight changes in the variables can make the remote future look either scary or benign.
That split-the-difference assertion is absurd on two counts. First, if we follow Lind’s do-little advice and fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly and sharply, then the science tells us with high confidence we risk multiple catastrophes — including dangerous widespread Dust-Bowlification, massives species loss, deadly ocean acidification, and sea level rise of 3 to 5 feet by century’s end rising rapidly thereafter. See “An illustrated guide to the latest climate science.” Inaction dramatically reduces the range of uncertainty of future climate impacts (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F).
Second, if Lind had bothered to talk to leading climate scientists, he’d know that our confidence in this grave threat is not simply driven by computer models of the future, but also by our deep understanding of the past. As the lead author of a 2009 article published in the journal Science explained his findings, “The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today “” and were sustained at those levels “” global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland.”
A 2010 Nature Geoscience study found that the oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than they were 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred. Climate change is about much more than warming, but Lind just blithely asserts: “In reality, we have no idea what the global temperature or the budgetary climate will be like in 50 or 100 years.”
This isn’t so and it’s a dreadful policy comparison. The country could change the budgetary climate in 2050 simply by passing a comprehensive bill in, say, 2040. But the climate system has major lags — energy infrastructure lasts decades, a large fraction of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion stay in the air for hundreds of years, it takes decades for the temperature of the planet to equilibrate to any given atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, and certain changes, such as acidifying the oceans and the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, may well be irreversible for millennia.
If we don’t enact comprehensive energy and climate legislation this decade, our chances of preserving a livable climate in 2050 and beyond diminish rapidly.
But Lind immediately makes the most bizarre “Old America” argument for inaction I have seen in two decades of following this issue:
“If the United States had adopted a comprehensive energy strategy in the early 1900s, for example, it would have been based on the assumption that known reserves of coal and oil would soon run out. No one could have foreseen the oil reserves of Texas, the Middle East, West Africa and the Gulf of Mexico (including the deep-sea reserves squandered by the BP disaster). We could not have imagined nuclear energy or techniques to reach enormous quantities of shale gas.”
Huh? Lind is asserting that because Americans living a century ago had limited knowledge of potential energy resources and technologies, we are paralyzed now. This is wrong on so many levels.
First off, the energy resources of the planet have been rather thoroughly investigated in the past century, so the likelihood of surprises that matter is rapidly diminishing, especially since they mainly involve fossil fuels, which we need to get off of. In fact, the biggest surprise we face is a near-term peak in the production of oil, as projected by the International Energy Agency, Deutsche Bank and many oil companies — a serious threat to our economic well-being that Lind ignores but which could, again, be addressed with comprehensive energy legislation he rejects.
Second, the world has invested a staggering amount of money in research and development into energy technologies in the past few decades, so we have a very good idea of the core technologies that we will need to deploy in the next few of decades — assuming we ignore Lind and try to avert catastrophic climate change. Indeed, solar photovoltaics are now over a half-century old and nuclear power is even older. The potential of technology breakthroughs in the energy arena, as I have written many times, are quite overrated.
Third, and Lind must know this, the comprehensive energy and climate policy under consideration is based on the moderate, market-oriented, business friendly approach embraced by President Bush’s father and bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress to addressing acid rain pollution. Such a bill would put a shrinking cap on carbon dioxide emissions, and allow firms to trade emissions permits, thereby maximizing investment in the lowest cost strategies and most efficient firms.
The policy is technology neutral. It simply doesn’t require that you know in advance what the lowest cost strategies are. Yes, the bills would put money into research and development and demonstration of low carbon technologies, but that is precisely how you help bring the next generation of technologies online, just as we have done with nuclear and solar.
So, ironically, Lind’s argument against comprehensive energy legislation — that we don’t know for certain all of our energy options — is in fact one of the strongest arguments for comprehensive energy legislation. In fact, without comprehensive energy legislation that makes polluters pay, the “think small” energy bill that Lind theoretically endorses is unlikely to have any significant amount of funds to drive the innovation needed to preserve a livable climate for future generations.
I say “theoretically endorses” since in his entire Washington Post piece, he never actually spells out even the smallest proposal to address our climate or energy problems after many years of Washington embracing the “Think Small” approach.
MISINFORMED ON CLEAN ENERGY, TOO
In an even more uninformed June Salon piece, “Goodbye, bullet trains and windmills,” however, Lind shows that he truly is no student of energy technology or policy or even energy politics.
He asserts that “The center-left consensus favors massive government investment” in supposedly uneconomical rail and renewables. Why?
“The answer is the fusion, in the last decade, of two previously distinct post-’60s activist movements on the left: urbanists, who despise suburbs, and Greens, who despise automobiles and airplanes.”
Okay, Lind obviously isn’t a progressive, but these are essentially right-wing talking points — that the people who like renewables and trains do so because they hate the suburbs and automobiles and airplanes. It’s a crazy claim.
I know a great many of the leading policy advocates for rail and renewables (center-left and otherwise)– and none of them fit Lind’s absurd conspiracy-theory stereotypes. In fact, most of the mainstream advocates don’t even support massive government investment in renewables — they vastly prefer using market-oriented measures like a rising price for carbon along with renewable electricity standards, which is why those are the basis of the comprehensive energy bill Lind rejects. I personally like cars and planes, but I support investment in rail (and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) mainly because peak oil is coming and we are likely to need an alternative to energy-intensive air travel.
As I wrote two years ago here, replacing oil in the transportation sector requires strong government action two decades before a peak because of the time needed to replace vehicles and fuel infrastructure (see also “Peak oil production coming sooner than expected“). That was the conclusion of a major study funded by the Department of Energy in 2005 — yes, the Bush DOE — on “Peaking of World Oil Production.” The report notes: “The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.”
But “Think Small” Lind, the Dr. Doolittle of DC wonks, says such investment is hopeless. Why?
Well, first he suggest that what we’ve tried hasn’t worked: “In 1979, President Carter predicted that solar power in 2000 would contribute 30 percent of U.S. electricity. Today in 2010 solar power contributes less than 1 percent.” Hmm. Lind never mentions that President Reagan cut the renewable energy R&D budget 85% after he took office and eliminated the tax credit for solar homes and the wind investment tax credit. But that might prove comprehensive energy policy works — at least when it it is comprehensively bad.
Lind asserts the future is predetermined:
“According to the Energy Information Agency, in 2035 two-thirds of U.S. energy will come from coal and natural gas. Nuclear energy will provide another 20 percent. Renewable energy — mostly from dams — will rise from 8 percent today to around 14 percent. Wind and solar generation will still be rounding errors.”
Lind makes so many mistakes here it appears as if he is incapable of reading. First, he apparently means “electricity” not “energy,” since nuclear energy will supply closer to 8% of U.S. energy in 2035. Second, he is citing the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2010, which clearly states here, “In the Reference case, growth in renewable generation accounts for 45 percent of total generation growth from 2008 to 2035.” It also states, “In 2035, the share of total electricity sales accounted for by nonhydroelectric renewables is 13 percent in the Reference case.” That is hardly a rounding error.
Equally important, as anybody who follows the EIA knows, the “Reference case is best described as a ‘current laws and regulations’ case, because it generally assumes that existing laws and fully promulgated regulations will remain unchanged throughout the projection period, unless the legislation establishing them specifically calls for them to end or change.” It is basically the no-policy case or what I guess we could call the “Michael Lind” case.
Doing even minimalist policy like extending tax credits leads to renewables accounting for 61 to 65 percent of total generation growth and non-hydro renewables providing 17% of total generation in 2035. Obviously even the most modest additional policies could lead to renewables accounting for a share of electricity exceeding nuclear’s.
Aside from getting the basic facts wrong, Lind has never met a right-wing renewable myth he didn’t like:
“But as Robert Bryce has argued in his important new book, “Power Hungry,” anyone who is serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions should support replacing coal in generating electricity with natural gas in the short run and with nuclear energy in the long run.”
Only someone center-right would quote Bryce, who works for the right wing Manhattan Institute, which has received $800,000 from the big-time polluters at Koch Industries in recent years, on top of money from ExxonMobil. That doesn’t make Bryce wrong or his book wrong, of course, but peddling easily debunked nonsense about energy does. Lind quotes him:
“While Bryce thinks that solar energy might play a minor role in the future, he emphasizes that, thanks to laws of physics that technology can never overcome, both solar and wind power require vast amounts of acreage for collection in order to produce meager amounts of energy: “More than 2500 skyscraper-sized wind turbines, spread over 500 miles of terrain, and a passel of natural gas units at 90 percent of wind’s maximum output — and hundreds of miles of new transmission lines/voltage regulation — would be required to provide parity with the capacity of a single 1500 MW nuclear facility.”
No, no, and no.
In fact, as Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson explains in this must-see video debate with pro-nuclear Stewart Brand, “The footprint on the ground for wind is by far the smallest of any potential energy source in the world.” The footprint is merely the pole touching the ground. The rest of land can be used for farming or grazing — and many farmers today already get such a dual income from their land.
Jacobsen explains the all-in footprint for solar is about the same as that for nuclear — although solar PV can be put on people’s houses which cuts down on the effective footprint greatly.
For the record, new nuclear power also needs transmission since no one really wants to live near a nuclear power plant. Back in 2008, Progress Energy had said the twin 1,100-megawatt plants it intends to build would cost $14 billion, which “triples estimates the utility offered little more than a year ago.” And that didn’t even count the 200-mile $3 billion transmission system utility needs, which brings the price up to a staggering $7,700 a kilowatt.
A 2008 report on wind power from the Bush Administration, which I discussed here 2 years ago, concluded that wind power by itself could provide 20% of US power. Even with new transmission, it would cost less than new nuclear power and add only about 50 cents per month to household electricity bills. Progress Energy ratepayers in Florida have seen their bills jump ten times that recently in large part to help build just two nuclear plants, a cost increase they must bear even though the plants won’t be finished and providing electricity for perhaps a decade (see What do you get when you buy a nuke? You get a lot of delays and rate increases”¦.)
That’s why I — and many other clean energy advocates — have been arguing for replacing coal with renewables and energy efficiency (and some gas) for a while now. Nuclear energy has a role to play, but it has essentialy priced itself out of the market, with new reactors costing several billions of dollars. But in any case, we mainly need legislation that creates a shrinking cap and a rising price for global warming pollution. Then the market can figure out what the cheapest solutions are.
In releasing its 2009 Energy Outloook, the executive director of the International Energy Agency said last year, “The message is simple and stark: if the world continues on the basis of today’s energy and climate policies, the consequences of climate change will be severe.”
Back in the 1990s, the IEA was a staid and, yes, centrist, international body. But now they explain, “we need to act urgently and now. Every year of delay adds an extra USD 500 billion to the investment needed between 2010 and 2030 in the energy sector”.
Every year delay adds half a trillion dollars to the cost of action.
Centrists like Lind may want us to think small. Reality will force us to think bigger and bigger every year.