Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pielke Jr: Greens hate innovation

The lesser Pielke has a new post reiterating his dislike of of the "climate wedge" analysis, which says, somewhat incontestably one might presume, that stablizing greenhouse gas emissions will require a number of different tactics, which some people like to group together in terms of "wedges" of reduced emissions.

It takes a while for Pielke to get to the point of what he has against wedges, but he does give us this sweet graphic:
Apparently if you disagree with Pielke after he has already said you are wrong, you are a zombie. With ice cream. So what is the wedge analysts' terrible mistake?
The focus on deployment, often to derision if not the exclusion of the need for innovation, is still central to environmental messaging, even as the math of emissions reductions would seem obvious and the policy centerpiece of DTW -- cap-and-trade -- has failed comprehensively.
I'm sorry, what? Environmentalists don't like innovation? That's ridiculous. Environmentalists, like the rest of the public, love the idea of green tech, love to highlight the next newest best solar panel/wind turbine/tidal energy station. And what does that have to do with climate wedges?

One might think that the modern environmental movement is adept enough at simple math to accept this message and thus proceed to advocate policies consistent with our lack of technological capabilities, such as calling for a much greater commitment to innovation. While some have, of course, the loudest, most well funded and arguably most influential parts of the movement have strenuously resisted the notion that we do not have the technology needed to rapidly decarbonize our economy, preferring to hold on to the myth that -- in the words of the original "wedges" paper -- "Humanity can solve the carbon and climate problem in the first half of this century simply by scaling up what we already know how to do."
 So what Pielke is really mad about is the notion that we can start to decarbonize now, today, as opposed to his preferred approach -- waiting and waiting on a magical technological fix whose sheer low-cost high-yield awesomeness will cause it to literally vanish from the Popular Mechanics cover struggling to contain it and materialize in the world.

The climate "wedge" approach gets caught in the crossfire here for no other reason than the fact that by breaking the problem into eight or ten or twenty "wedges," you pre-refute the common "skeptic" counterargument that "Well, that won't be enough [by itself] to solve the problem." Wedge analysis highlights what we can do today by combining the tools and technology we have rather than waiting for a single technological "silver bullet" (which, if we find one at some point, will be a more than welcome development.)

What makes Pielke just furious is the notion that we have the tools to start solving this problem right now, if we chose to use them. That if France get 75% of its energy from nuclear power, nuclear power could provide more of the world's energy. That if Japan gets twice as much economic output from a unit of energy as the US, that a Japan-like commitment to energy efficiency could cut emissions. That solar and wind power costs are falling and while not "competitive" with coal or natural gas, are already cheap enough for widespread deployment without bankrupting ourselves. And so on.

The beauty of a carbon tax is that you never have to chose between a dollar for research and innovation and a dollar to implement the solution you already have. You price the negative externality of carbon correctly, and you let the market make that call. Regardless, Pielke is not being honest with himself here. When he says he has a problem with greens' attitude towards new technology, real issue is their rejection of his rationalization for procrastination -- some day the technology will save us, but not yet, Lord, not yet.

A little Philip Larkin for your Tuesday, Dr. Pielke:

Next, Please 
Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead wit golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.


  1. Can't beat Larkin. Brings a smile to my face every time.

  2. FWIW, Pielke's Sr. and Jr. both, apparently, approve of a carbon tax (so as to fund innovation).

  3. Really, Pielke Jr is on board with a carbon tax? Good for him! Do you have a link, by any chance?

  4. Yeah - here's a clip. He favors a weak tax.

    A while back, I watched a lecture he gave in series of lectures on energy at some university in Western Canada (can't seem to find it again). He makes an interesting argument about the logistical impracticality of reducing CO2 emissions enough to make a significant difference w.r.t. global warming,and the logistical difficulties of meeting highly restrictive emissions restrictions. You might want to look around and see if you can find that clip or others that lay out his position.

    I don't agree with some of his argument, but I don't think that it is easily dismissed either.

  5. Here's what I see as the main thrust of Pielke's argument in re the economics of CO2 reduction:

    "To achieve stabilization of carbon dioxide concentrations at a low level the proportion of primary energy consumption from conventional fossil alternatives will have to increase from 13.9% to above 90%."

    He thinks that achieving stabilization of CO2 levels can't be achieved by restrictions on or taxing of CO2 emissions - as it would require a massive reduction in economic activity and/or a level of taxation that is simply not politically feasible.

    I'm inclined to agree with both points. So the question becomes how to increase energy from alternative sources. Unfortunately, Pielke's focus on the politics of climate change seems more directed at climate scientists than the libertarians and rightwingers who are focused on attacking the development of, and thus reduction in cost of, alternative energy sources.

  6. Here's the link to the video I mentioned (I went to his blog and he provided it for me):

    Scroll down to see his talk. I'd be curious to read your response