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Fred Hiatt back to running climate and energy disinformation from the likes of Bjorn Lomborg

By Joe Romm  

"Fred Hiatt back to running climate and energy disinformation from the likes of Bjorn Lomborg"

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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.

Seriously.

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.

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‘All of the above’ is no energy policy, Part 2 ›

17 Responses to Fred Hiatt back to running climate and energy disinformation from the likes of Bjorn Lomborg

  1. Lou Grinzo says:

    Joe says: “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?”

    My response is a resounding “Yes!”. This is exactly the “arms merchant in the war of words” model I’ve been talking about forever. Traditional media outlets are under so much economic pressure that they will sprint into the open arms of any “controversy” that will have them. They’re so focused on very-short-term economics that they effectively don’t care who’s right as long as they can keep garnering eyeballs and clicks. If this means they can make more money by promoting the war of words, so be it, and they can easily rationalize it by saying the public deserves to hear all sides and will figure out the truth, etc.

  2. Anne van der Bom says:

    This is so important, I repeat it in full:

    “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?”

    The most popular type of solar panels today are crystalline silicon. They are not fundamentally different today from 30 years ago. Why are they so much cheaper? Large scale manufacturing and lots small incremental improvements in the production process.

    Another important thing is that progress is an iterative process. You find something new in the lab, put it the product, get it out into the real world, and start your next research cycle on that product and the experiences in the field.

  3. I debated Lomborg in April 2010 at Stanford and in by debate preparations I came up with a nice sound bite that boils down the essential absurdity of his position: ” Learning by doing requires that we DO.” (I ended my talk with that sentence),

    The talks and video are posted here: http://www.koomey.com/talks.html

    My friend Peter Gleick says I was too polite in my remarks, which is probably true, but Lomborg is such a nice man that being too harsh can backfire, so I erred on the side of being nicer. I won’t make the same mistake next time.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The reason Lomborg keeps re-surfacing despite the tremendous damage that his reputation has suffered over the years is that he represents Rightwing groupthink. For the Right, which includes the Western MSM almost entirely, denying anthropogenic climate change, belittling renewables, promoting ‘adaptation’, etc, are all part and parcel of a Rightwing religion that also includes hatred of China, support for Western neo-imperialism and contempt for the ‘other ranks’ in Western society. This is a bundle of opinions that grow out of the basic Rightwing psychology, and out of the supreme Rightwing obsession, to keep society divided, unequal and utterly dominated by the rich elite.
    Any deviation from one of these dogmas is sign of apostasy, which can lead to the propagandist in question being kicked off the gravy train. The Dunning-Kruger-Joyce lumpen acolytes of the Right parrot whatever their thought controllers say, not being intellectually equipped to know better. This idiocy, that renewables are currently expensive (although much less so than even a few years ago) and will, miraculously, remain so forever, becoming the first industry, bar nuclear fission power, where the price has not come down and efficiency improve as mass production and distribution kick in, is commonplace on the Right. It’s a dogma, not an argument, so pointing out its imbecility just makes the true believer cling to it all the stronger, out of religious conviction and faithfulness. Likewise they believe that Chernobyl killed 54 people, that CO2 has ‘never been proved to cause warming’ and, in any case, is ‘plant food’ necessary to life etc, all repeated like mantras until they become received wisdom and truth. And Lomborg is a past master of exploiting the credulous and gullible ignorance of this mob, to keep his name up there in lights.

  5. adelady says:

    Come on Mulga. I doubt Hiatt is a know-nothing bumbler like Joyce. Joyce (for non-Australians) is much more like some of those don’t-know-don’t-wanna-know ground troops of the US state legislatures. My judgment is that Hiatt is a more thoughtful, and therefore more dangerous, underminer of public understanding of our perilous situation. You know all too well, mulga, that if his constituency told Joyce that they accepted the science and they wanted more decentralised power generation in remote and rural areas, he’d go for it with all guns blazing. He wouldn’t understand it, but he’d do it.

    And I must thank Lou. “Arms merchant in the war of words” will stay with me forever.

  6. Rob Honeycutt says:

    I wonder if Lomborg is the kind of guy who’s always late for work. By his logic if you wake up in the morning, look at the clock and see it’s not time be at work, then why get out of bed? You’re not late yet!

    Guys like this will have the US playing catch-up for the next 100 years.

    Just pure idiocy.

  7. mightyDrunken says:

    In an argument that green energy is not competitive I would hesitate trying to argue that it is, or that it soon will be. In my view the reason we would want to increase green energy is not because it is cheaper but due to its other benefits. As long as you can argue it is not ruinously expensive, that is enough.

    I wonder why so many people who are usually well off themselves argue against alternatives which are more expensive but come with other benefits, be it wind power or reducing pollution via other means. I’m sure if I asked them out for a meal and gave them the cheapest fast food they would bemoan my choice and tell me all the benefits of the more expensive and tastier option. Why do they argue against the same idea in other parts of industry?

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’m sorry adelady #6-I must have been more than usually incoherent. I do not lump Hiatt in the Dunning-Kruger-Joyce tendency. I see him, like Lomborg, as a professional Rightwing ideologue, the type who do the thinking for the D-K-J rabble. As for Joyce, I’m sure that political opportunism would feature in his decision-making as with all other Western politicians that I can think of (in this sad era). But I’m also convinced that his denialism is genuine and rooted in, shall we say, intellectual insufficiency.

  9. mightyDrunken #7, the key is to define economic perspectives. From the perspective of an individual utility, wind is cost effective in some situations, not in others. But from society’s perspective (where all costs, including external costs like pollution, need to be counted) it’s a slam dunk home run. So the key is to reframe the discussion away from the narrow internal cost perspective of the utility to the broader societal perspective (that’s where the studies of coal’s massive pollution costs come in handy).

  10. Mike Roddy says:

    Lomborg has long been a valuable asset to the oil companies, since he is friendly, glib, and capable of keeping a straight face while telling one lie after another. The Dane reaches people that the knuckle draggers like Rush and even Patrick Michaels cannot. And how many people are willing to actually look up Lomborg’s claims? A book debunking the Dane’s “Cool It” was thicker than the book itself, since it seemed as if every page was packed with bullshit.

    Hiatt appears to be intelligent enough to have figured out what Lomborg is all about. My guess is that Hiatt’s phone rang off the hook after his piece ridiculing the Republican Party’s climate “policy” appeared in the Post. Some of those callers must have been big shot advertisers with links to oil, coal, and gas companies. Instead of standing for principle and truth- which has become a corny, dated position, suitable only for old Jimmy Stewart movies- Hiatt capitulated, and ran Lomborg’s implicit rebuttal.

  11. john atcheson says:

    Head exploding stuff.

  12. James Crabb says:

    Lomborg was on Letterman, Letterman had a more coherent grasp of the issues than Bjorn, Climate science died a little.

  13. adelady says:

    And soooo depressing. After reading this lot first, I finished up over at Tobis’s blog. Watched JFK’s go to the moon speech. The striking thing was not so much the power of the intention, but the detailed listing of all the technological marvels involved. Not the “somebody will come up with something sometime” of Lomborg, but real problems described with the intention of _solving_ them in a practical way in a defined timeframe that also safeguarded the lives of the people concerned.

    We take these things for granted now, but at the time they were largely in the realms of sci-fi for the populace at large. And everyone thought this speech was wonderful. How likely is an equivalent speech with the equivalent response now? As I said, soooo depressing.

  14. scatter says:

    Too true Anne

    It astonishes me how often delayers pull out the higher costs of renewable energy as evidence that we should wait. They seem totally convinced that they’ll magically come down of their own accord. And often these people have training in economics!

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Hang in there adelady! There are lots of things happening out there in the global social field and when they reach a critical turning point you will hear that speech, by somebody, somewhere. And it will ignite the entire field as such events always do, creating a critical mass of energy and action, a wave of hope that sweeps away the flotsam and jetsam of the deniers and the mediocracy.

    Can’t tell you where or when but it will happen. That is the lesson from the history of social movements and change, ME

  16. Tom Gray says:

    I guess the simplest way of responding to the allegations about the high cost of green energy is this: in 2008, under the Bush Administration, the U.S. Department of Energy published the 20% Wind Energy by 2030 Technical Report. It found that producing that amount of electricity from wind was feasible, and that the incremental cost would amount to approximately 50 cents per household per month. All the info is at http://www.20percentwind.org . The first chapter is a detailed executive summary. Also, a two-page fact sheet summarizing the report is located at http://www.awea.org/learnabout/publications/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=4128 (it’s a 3-plus-MB PDF).–Tom Gray, Wind Energy Communications Consultant

  17. xiao-zi says:

    I would add one point: In accounting for it’s clean energy resources China does NOT include wind, solar or any other soure until it is grid connected, which is a honest and rational approach since there is no return on the investment or environmental cost of construction until the power starts flowing.

    But do not expect facts or reason from Lomborg.