Samuelson’s Global Warming’s Real Inconvenient Truth has factual errors, misleading statements and conclusions, and provides a counterproductive path for thinking about and achieving change for a better future.
If you are not, you should be, terrified about the prospects of the world we are creating for ourselves and future generations. An Inconvenient Truth is an incredible movie whose fault, if anything, is that it is not pessimistic enough. Samuelson’s OPED looks to be part of the effort to diminish AIT‘s impact and to derail efforts to turn the world toward a better tomorrow.
Global warming may or may not be the great environmental crisis of the next century, but — regardless of whether it is or isn’t — we won’t do much about it. We will (I am sure) argue ferociously over it and may even, as a nation, make some fairly solemn-sounding commitments to avoid it. But the more dramatic and meaningful these commitments seem, the less likely they are to be observed. Little will be done. . . . Global warming promises to become a gushing source of national hypocrisy.”— This column, July 1997
Well, so it has. In three decades of columns, I’ve never quoted myself at length, but here it’s necessary. Al Gore calls global warming an “inconvenient truth,” as if merely recognizing it could put us on a path to a solution. That’s an illusion.
Samuelson should speak to an expert on counseling or even actually read some political texts. Re addiction, the typical comment is that the first step toward ending an addiction is recognizing/admitting the problem. That was why George Bush’s comment during the State of the Union speech about America’s “addiction to oil” had importance.
To get political support for any major initiative takes effort and creating a recognition for the need for that effort is critical for gaining support.
Yes, Robert J., recognizing the problem, truly recognizing it, should set the world on a path toward solving (or at least ameliorating) the problem., one must plant the seeds and fertilize the concept so that a full and robust policy can emerge from those seeds. Putting it another way, no recognition of problem, no solving it!
The real truth is that we don’t know enough to relieve global warming, and — barring major technological breakthroughs — we can’t do much about it.
This is absurd on so many levels. There are huge numbers of a wide range of technologies available now to change energy use patterns through new renewable generation and more efficient power.
This was obvious nine years ago; it’s still obvious.
Samuelson is right — those opportunities were obvious then and are even more obvious and available today.
Let me explain.
From 2003 to 2050, the world’s population is projected to grow from 6.4 billion people to 9.1 billion, a 42 percent increase. If energy use per person and technology remain the same, total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (mainly, carbon dioxide) will be 42 percent higher in 2050. But that’s too low, because societies that grow richer use more energy. Unless we condemn the world’s poor to their present poverty — and freeze everyone else’s living standards — we need economic growth. With modest growth, energy use and greenhouse emissions more than double by 2050.
Samuelson provides an ugly and stark choice: either poverty of doubling of greenhouse gas emissions because energy use doubles. Oh no, we as progressives can’t doom the impoverished to future poverty — can we?
Let us call this what it is: Bullshit! This correlation simply does not have to hold true. With a changing pattern of energy sourcing (as per renewables, see below), the emissions rate per energy use does not have to be linear growth. And, with more efficient use of power, the energy use does not have to grow proportionate to the increased economic activity/use of energy.
Samuelson is asserting unbreakable causalities and linkages when, the reality is, that these chains are breakable — without great difficulty. And, he simply does not deal with the fact that we have gotten ever more energy efficient in terms of economic output over the past 30 years. And, that this could accelerate rapidly. The United States could, by 2020, reduce energy consumption by 25% with probably a positive impact on economic growth (via capital and other investments for improved efficiency — such as home insulation, compact flourescent lightbulbs, more (2-3x) efficient trucks, investements in rail lines) and massively shift power use to renewable energy (especially wind).
Just keeping annual greenhouse gas emissions constant means that the world must somehow offset these huge increases. There are two ways: Improve energy efficiency, or shift to energy sources with lower (or no) greenhouse emissions. Intuitively, you sense this is tough. China, for example, builds about one coal-fired power plant a week. Now a new report!from the International Energy Agency in Paris shows all the difficulties (the population, economic growth and energy projections cited above come from the report).
The IEA report assumes that existing technologies are rapidly improved and deployed. Vehicle fuel efficiency increases by 40 percent.
A fuel efficiency increase of 40 percent is rather unambitious, even fleet wide, in my opinion. The entire US car fleet (even with old cars) could match this by 2020 if there were government leadership and policy — and would likely exceed it, with people driving plug-in, hybrid composite, fly-by-wire SUVs that would be well over 100 mpg equivalent.
In electricity generation, the share for coal (the fuel with the most greenhouse gases) shrinks from about 40 percent to about 25 percent — and much carbon dioxide is captured before going into the atmosphere. Little is captured today. Nuclear energy increases. So do “renewables” (wind, solar, biomass, geothermal)
Interesting that hydroelectric is not counted as a renewable — would up renewables from 2 to between 15-20 percent of world electricity.
their share of global electricity output rises from 2 percent now to about 15 percent.
Samuelson is, in theory, an economist and should understand the concept of “compounding”. Right now, these renewables have a growth rate of between 25 and 33 percent per year world wide in productivity — and note, this is only for direct electrical production and does not count solar hot water and solar thermal heating, direct geothermal heating, etc… If that compounding continues at that pace (which is monumental but has been this way for a number of years), then in 15 years — electrical production from these renewables will be over 28 times what it is today.
By 2050, using these rates, renewable electrical generation would be over 18,000 times greater than what it is today. Now, that 18,000 times increase is rather hard to believe for a huge number of reasons but this simple compounding calculation has as much validity as anything Samuelson is arguing. But, the point is that an increase from 2 percent to 15 percent is easily achievable, even with increasing electrical demands worldwide.
And, with public policy decisions, could be achievable worldwide — without great problems — in the next 15-20 years. And, many countries — like China — seek to make these achievements.
Some of these changes seem heroic. They would require tough government regulation, continued technological gains and public acceptance of higher fuel prices. Never mind. Having postulated a crash energy diet, the IEA simulates five scenarios with differing rates of technological change. In each, greenhouse emissions in 2050 are higher than today. The increases vary from 6 percent to 27 percent.
Since 1800 there’s been modest global warming. I’m unqualified to judge between those scientists (the majority) who blame man-made greenhouse gases and those (a small minority) who finger natural variations in the global weather system. But if the majority are correct, the IEA report indicates we’re now powerless. We can’t end annual greenhouse emissions
Sowing doubt … geez a majority say man is at fault but there is that minority …,
and once in the atmosphere, the gases seem to linger for decades.
Decades? Perhaps centuries/millennia?
So concentration levels rise. They’re the villains;
Well, let us place the threat into an abstract. This doesn’t have anything to do with human beings, it seems, but those dastardly “concentration levels” that only scientists can see.
they presumably trap the world’s heat.
Again, DOUBT is worth propagating — “presumably” … wonder where that scientific consensus is? Presumably discounts all of the research and analysis that say “they trap”. What is the scientific basis for this suggested doubt?
They’re already about 36 percent higher than in 1800. Even with its program, the IEA says another 45 percent rise may be unavoidable. How much warming this might create is uncertain; so are the consequences.
Hmmm … well we really don’t know how much warmer we will get … and, well, who knows whether there are any important implications. (Note to Washington Post editors. Perhaps have your OPED writers read the paper, like today’s Growing Acidity of Oceans May Kill Corals. Note that the title tremendously understates the implications, as this acidification threatens the entire food chain in the oceans — perhaps even zooplankton. (And, the article does not deal with facts related to the acidification such as that the acidity will reduced the oceans’ ability absorb carbon dioxide — see the terrifying discussion of Darksyde’s Science Friday: Slippery When Wet in the comments.))
I draw two conclusions — one political, one practical.
No government will adopt the draconian restrictions on economic growth and personal freedom (limits on electricity usage, driving and travel) that might curb global warming.
Okay, let us talk consistency please .. Above Samuelson asserted that there were only two potential paths: renewable energy or efficiency. He just threw a curve ball — this is “usage patterns”, conservation.
Just as a reminder Samuelson, energy is a three-legged stool:
* Usage patterns: How do people / does society use power? This can be reduced through “conservation” efforts, like having people use the air conditioner less and combine trips so that they drive vehicles less.
* Efficiency: What are the power requirements for the systems to provide the service? For example, refrigerators today in the United States use far (FAR) less electricity for cooling (e.g., are more efficient) and, by the way, don’t use freon anymore.
* Energy/Power source: Where does power come from? Hydrocarbons? Solar? (Yes, I am aware that virtually all power sources go back to solar radiation in some way.) Bio-fuels? Geothermal? Wind? Ocean?
There is no silver solution — the path toward a sustainable and prosperous energy future (with a sustainable environment for mankind to live in) requirements addressing all three areas.
Still, politicians want to show they’re “doing something.” The result is grandstanding. Consider the Kyoto Protocol. It allowed countries that joined to castigate those that didn’t. But it hasn’t reduced carbon dioxide emissions (up about 25 percent since 1990), and many signatories didn’t adopt tough enough policies to hit their 2008-2012 targets. By some estimates, Europe may overshoot by 15 percent and Japan by 25 percent.
Hmmm … okay … they aren’t hitting their targets (maybe) … But where would they be without any efforts? How much worse would the problems be without
Ambitious U.S. politicians also practice this self-serving hypocrisy. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a global warming program. Gore counts 221 cities that have “ratified” Kyoto. Some pledge to curb their greenhouse emissions. None of these programs will reduce global warming. They’re public relations exercises and — if they impose costs — are undesirable. (Note: on national security grounds, I favor taxing oil, but the global warming effect would be trivial.)
Trivial? By what measure?
The practical conclusion is that if global warming is a potential calamity, the only salvation is new technology.
Again, he is ignoring the existing technologies that could have dramatic impact rapidly if implemented. Replacing incandescent bulbs, worldwide, with Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) and Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs). Smart grid controls over air conditioning to reduce peak load requirements. Energy-Star type appliances. Insulation. And, the list is endless. Reality is that there are massive opportunities out there.
I once received an e-mail from an engineer. Thorium, he said. I had never heard of thorium. It is, he argued, a nuclear fuel that is more plentiful and safer than uranium without waste disposal problems. It’s an exit from the global warming trap. After reading many articles, I gave up trying to decide whether he is correct. But his larger point is correct: Only an aggressive research and development program might find ways of breaking our dependence on fossil fuels or dealing with it. Perhaps some system could purge the atmosphere of surplus greenhouse gases?
Yes, okay — so we need to conduct more research … let us find that silver bullet out there … and really, can’t do anything until we find that (elusive) silver bullet. Does anyone get the sense that I am getting frustrated? How many ways can one columnist merit the BS flag in just one short OPED?
The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade when it’s really an engineering problem. The inconvenient truth is that if we don’t solve the engineering problem, we’re helpless.
No, yet again, Samuelson gets it wrong and propagates a false world vision.
The world requires both.
How does Samuelson expect anyone to get the resources for solving the engineering challenge if there is not political and societal support for those investments?
In addition, there are many engineering solutions already in hand that can go a tremendous distance toward providing the same (better) life styles at far less energy use and to provide far greater shares of our energy requirements from renewable sources.
And, a moral crusade will drive greater usage of these technologies. With Presidential leadership and moral crusade — with the issue shouted from the pulpit of every church in the nation — would people be ‘shamed’ into using less energy (have the air conditioner at 75 in offices with suits not required rather than 68 degrees; turn off lights when not in use)? Would they learn about the value of and use more energy efficient systems (such as CFLs rather than incandescents which can pay for itself in a matter of months)?
But, we certainly need both, because with a growing world population, a moral crusade without viable technological tools to support that crusade will only have limited (in time and scope effect).
To quote a colleague, “Moral crusading is useless if we can’t get all the way to the real world.”
But, in the real world, the United States (every American) and the entire world need to tackle the very real challenges of energy issues and Global Climate Change across all three arenas of energy: usage; technological efficiency; and better (less polluting) energy sources.
And, we all need to remember — there is no magical silver bullet. I agree with Samuelson that we must have a much stronger R&D program in energy issues. I am in violent disagreement, however, that we should simply sit on our hands, watching the world decay around us, placing at risk the entire concept of a future for ourselves and future generations, with a blind hope that those research investments will come up with that non-existent silver bullet that will magically restore the world to pre-industrial age carbon dioxide levels and will bring back to life all the species that became extinct in the interim.
Robert J. Samuelson: J’accuse! You are using your pulpit to mislead and deceive. You seek to perpetuate the problem rather than solve it.
I will not sit idly by at this deception! I love my children too much. I hope that, despite those who deceive like you, there will be a future for them. A future that I will fight for.
For that, I call on us to Energize America!