Slate magazine is seen as liberal, but is in fact just another status quo publication promoting a do-nothing policy on clean energy and global warming (see, for instance, “Slate and the Post are suckered by anti-environmentalist Newt Gingrich”).
Why else ask for a review of Tom Friedman’s new call to action, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, from the American Bj¸rn Lomborg? And I don’t mean that in a good way (see “Lomborg skewers the facts, again” and links therein).
I’m speaking about Gregg Easterbrook, well-known fountain of climate and energy misinformation (see, for instance, “People Who Just Don’t Get Global Warming: Gregg Easterbrook and the Editors of the Atlantic”). I’ve already commented on Friedman’s must-read book here. This post will focus on the three biggest energy and climate whoppers in the Slate review.
WHOPPERS #1 and #2: Wherein Easterbrook reveals he knows absolutely nothing whatsoever about renewable energy, energy efficiency, government technology programs, or commercialization:
Hot, Flat, and Crowded is wise to say that American innovation is the best hope for a clean-energy future. The book is wrong to advocate a government-subsidized crash program of energy research — just as Barack Obama calls for $150 billion in alternative-energy subsidies. Government should regulate greenhouse emissions, then let the free market sort out the details, including by funding the research. Government’s track record at setting goals is good; its track record at commercialization is awful. Wind-turbine application went nowhere in the 1970s and 1980s when federally subsidized; actual use has come since the 1990s, when the government bowed out and the private sector took over. Friedman extols various energy-saving gizmos about to become practical, such as inexpensive black boxes for home power management. They sound great — but no government-subsidized research ever would have produced them.
First off, the government has been unbelievably successful at commercializing “various energy-saving gizmos” as I detailed in “Energy efficiency, Part 5: The highest documented rate of return of any federal program.” Indeed, the illustrious National Academy of Sciences verified that a handful of energy-saving gizmos developed by my old office at the Department of Energy have returned a staggering $30 billion on an R&D investment of about $400 million.
Second, the government never “bowed out” of the wind turbine busines. Well, the U.S. government did under Reagan and Bush’s father, but not the rest of the world. Reagan gutted Carter’s large renewable energy R&D program and eliminated the tax credit for wind. But governments in the rest of the industrialized world significantly increased their research and subsidies, and wind-turbine applications steadily improved in the 1980s and 1990s. The U.S. wind industry soared “since the 1990s” because we put in place a tax credit in 1992 (and because we made use of advances funded partly by the Clinton administration but also by other countries) — although growth has been intermittent in this country because conservatives began working hard to cut wind R&D and cut off the tax credit after 2001 (see “Anti-wind McCain delivers climate remarks at foreign wind company”).
But “since the 1990s” was too late. Thanks to the Gregg Easterbrooks of the country — otherwise known as Reagan, Gingrich, Bush and McCain — the United States became only a bit player in a global industry it helped create and once dominated, a bit player in what will certainly be one of the largest job-creating industries in the world. Government R&D and deployment programs not only advance the technology, they advance U.S. manufacturers and market share.
Gregg Easterbrook typifies why this country has no serious energy policy — he seems to be a moderate, independent thinker of a kind that a liberal-seeming publication like Slate should turn to, but in fact he is a reactionary know-nothing, which I suppose is redundant.
[As an aside, Friedman’s book doesn’t advocate a government crash program of energy research. It advocates a government crash program of R&D and one for deployment. I know that because Friedman interviewed me and that entire discussion can be found on pages 187–189 of the book.]
WHOPPERS #3: Wherein Easterbrook pooh-poohs those who are concerned about global warming and reveals he is Lomborg’s less-informed twin:
Artificial climate change is real; even skeptics now call the danger scientifically proven. [NOTE: This is a link to Easterbrook’s own 2006 “reversal” from “skeptic” (aka denier) to “convert” (aka delayer)!] But Friedman, Al Gore, James Hansen of NASA, and others present climate change as some kind of super-ultra emergency. Global warming is a problem, one that must be managed via greenhouse-gas restrictions and a weaning away from fossil fuels. But in a world of poverty, disease, dictatorships, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, lack of girls’ education, and more than 1 billion people without cleaning drinking water or electricity — climate change barely makes the Problem Top 10.
Lomborg couldn’t put it better himself, assuming that he and Easterbrook aren’t actually the same person. Has anyone seen them in the same room at the same time? I’m betting not. Lomborg, by the way, had the decency to publish his new review of Friedman’s book in the Wall Street Journal, where all rational people can simply ignore it as a right-wing disinformation-laden hit job typical of all that publication’s opinion pieces.
But I digress. In Easterbrook’s list of problems, the only one that is “an existential threat to civilization,” as the head of the IPCC put it recently, “barely makes the Top 10.” Many girls around the world lack education, for sure, and that is tragic for them and their families — and preventable at low cost. The lack of knowledge by the likes of Easterbrook and Slate, however, is far more tragic since it is helping to ensure the self-destruction of civilization, helpling to ensure that the girls (and boys) of the world — and their children and the next 50 generations of girls and boys — experience decades of misery and suffering no matter how smart they are.
Besides, the solution can’t be a panicked pullback from the present economic system, though perhaps that system can be amended over the long term. Economic growth is needed to allow the world to afford environmental protection. At least for the next few decades, headlong resource consumption will be necessary to generate the capital that will pay for a clean-energy infrastructure.
Even two more decades of “headlong resource consumption” means no amount of capital in the world will save us from crossing tipping points into catastrophic outcomes that cannot be reversed (see “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 0: The alternative is humanity’s self-destruction” and “Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return”).
Why does the cocktail-party circuit embrace claims about a pending climate doomsday? Partly owing to our nation’s shaky grasp of science….
Actually, the cocktail-party circuit most certainly does not embrace claims about a pending climate doomsday (see “Most opinion leaders just don’t get global warming.” If they did, the nation would have a serious climate policy. In fact, thanks to publications like him Slate and “experts” like Easterbrook, the claims about a pending climate doomsday have been largely ignored. And that is due to “our nation’s [and Easterbrook’s] shaky grasp of science.”
Shame on Slate for asking Easterbrook to write this review.