Tag Archives: breakthrough myth

No one could have predicted

Remember how a few years back, supporters of aggressive climate mitigation legislation were castigated for being shrill, tribal, hippies? And how if only we tried a “third way” of making incremental progress with opponents of greenhouse gas limits, a bipartisan tide would lift us all to new clean energy heights?

Good times.


Rumors of cap and trade’s demise have been greatly exaggerated

Image courtesy of Flickr user Bernt Rostad

The world’s 8th largest economy is going to enact a cap and trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Apparently they didn’t get the memo that cap and trade is “dead”.

Stop the Presses! Climate journos think the emissions-reduction issue looks an awful lot like a narrative problem. No word yet on just how “nail-shaped” people wielding hammers see it

Cartoon by Tom Toles

Keith Kloor, Andy Revkin, and Tom Yulsman appear to have bought into the meme that in order to really combat climate change, what’s really needed is a New Narrative. For too long, Keith tells us, people have framed the problem of climate change as… a problem of climate change.

So, I’ll bite. After all, I care about the end success, not about any particular road to it. So what’s this “new” narrative, and what’s the underlying plan to limit climate change? Apparently it goes something like this:

  1. Fund clean energy technology!
  2. ???
  3. Climate disaster averted!

Longtime participants in the climate blogosphere will note that, far from being a “new” narrative, this is just another iteration of the technology trap. Moreover, there isn’t actually anyone in favor of averting disruptive climatic change opposing clean energy technology investment- we’re all big, big fans.

Why are Kloor and Co. so hot for a master Narrative game changer? This meme plays straight into two key occupational prejudices: narrative primacy and conflict. People who make a living painstakingly creating stories from ideas tend to overvalue the importance of narrative. Additionally, people who have been brought up on journalistic crutches like forcing events into artificial frames of conflict are predisposed to view systematic and process-based events and outcomes in terms of individual actors and thus winners and losers. This is almost comically evident Kloor’s piece “Who’s got game?“:

Well that ball is dead. There’s no longer a game. There’s not even the pretense of a game on the global stage. So all those progressive steps that were promised by the legislation’s supporters are not going to happen. Where does that leave them?

Well, why not try a new ball with some life in it and get another game going? For that, let’s go to one of the willing players…

… Here’s the way I look at it: there’s no game in town right now. Norris and his team see an open court and are starting their own game, with their own ball. Some people are starting to come by and watch what unfolds. The other guys who held the court before don’t like that. Well you lost and got kicked off. What are you going to do now? Hurl insults from the stands, or take on the new guys?

In response, I and a whole host of others have pointed out that the flawed assumptions implicit in Keith’s framing of this issue in the comments section of that post. My chief objection is that it’s a little absurd to “challenge” people to adopt a “new narrative” to prevent climate change problems when said narrative is neither new nor explains how it will- even in theory- actually prevent climate change problems.

Keith has responded several times telling us all that we just don’t get what he’s saying (guilty as charged!)- he isn’t going to debate the actual merits of the “new narrative” in terms of its viability as a strategy to combat climate change. Rather, he’s interested in why people seem so unwilling to adopt this new narrative before being informed about its viability as a strategy to combat climate change. I point out the implicit, problematic assumptions in doing so, Keith complains that I’m missing the point, and on and on.

Did I mention that this New Narrative meme is being pushed by the same people who are arguing against any sort of meaningful emissions pricing? They wouldn’t have a vested interested in framing emissions legislation as a dead, would they? I mean, it’s not like they would ignore that for the first time in US history, climate legislation actually passed in the US House of Representatives.

Look, as I’ve said before- pursuing clean energy on its own isn’t going to keep coal in the ground. What is the proposed mechanism by which the “breakthrough” scheme accomplishes this? If they don’t have one, they should just explicitly acknowledge it. If they have a mechanism, they should articulate it, so that people like me will become evangelicals for them. I’m ripe for conversion, “breakthrough” people. Help me help you. How, absent a price on carbon or obscenely distorive subsidies does a clean energy fund keep coal in the ground?

It’s nice that you have a meme. It’s nice that some journalists bit. When you feel like getting around to actually hooking some grassroots support, give us a reason to support your Narrative besides an appeal to novelty.

Meanwhile, there has been early signaling that any dreams of a post-partisan big clean energy push will be dead on arrival. In a Politico story framed in terms of compromise- precisely the mood that the “breakthrough” people assure us will make their scheme viable whereas emissions pricing is not- GOP insiders have showed their hand on energy plans in a Republican-led 112th Congress: drilling in ANWR, some tax breaks for coal and nukes, with a token nod to renewables. Same old, same old. What of a transformative investment in clean energy breakthroughs?

One thing is certain: Republican leaders probably won’t have to worry about being called overly ambitious.

“I wish I had some real great novel stuff, but this is all Riggins up the middle,” said a former House Republican energy staffer, referring to former Washington Redskins running back John Riggins.

The GOP isn’t interested in averting dangerous climatic changes because it as a party has almost uniformly turned its back against science. It may make token gestures towards geothermal, natural gas, and electric vehicles as the Politico article later guesses, but a party that sees no problem with GHG emissions is going to dig up the coal and either burn it, turn it into synthetic gasoline, or export it.

Rather than take serious steps to address the issue, they’re going to try to defang or coopt the relevant Congressional committees and regulatory agencies like the EPA, Department of Interior, etc. They’re going to push for tax breaks for their pet energy industries- namely oil and gas, coal, and nuclear- without regard to GHG emissions. They’re going to push for more domestic fossil fuel consumption, not less. As they whinge about government spending and deficit doom, they will close the government’s purse strings to the kind of funding that the “breakthrough” people assured us will have bipartisan support.

Clean energy developers themselves seem to have little faith in the “breakthrough” scheme, with some major players moving their projects to nations that have more aggressive clean energy incentives and low carbon requirements. Even though there is some bipartisan support for some aspects of clean energy funding in the Senate:

[T]here’s also willingness on the Republican side to resist anything constructive being enacted.

A large majority of Americans wants the government to limit greenhouse gas emissions. As such, that isn’t the narrative failure on this issue. I do agree with Roger Pielke Jr. and many others who point out that when people are given a choice between economic growth and emissions reductions, they will choose the former over the latter. But you can substitute virtually any other subject for “emissions reductions” in that proposition and it will still hold true. If there is a narrative failure on the climate issue, it has been the utter failure to communicate to the general public that there are genuine economic costs in failing to reign in emissions. People mentally compare the costs of reductions with unimpeded economic growth, not with the costs of unchecked emissions growth.

The physical science basis for the case for emissions reductions was made sufficiently back in 1979. Obviously that doesn’t mean that there are no unanswered questions or that future studies cannot meaningfully further strengthen that case. But at a policymaker-level, the focus needs to shift to the impacts and economics of different emissions trajectories. If the various “-gates” have taught us anything, it’s that the WGII and WGIII IPCC reports need to be tightened up far more than the WGI Physical Science report.

Economic models that show a mere 50% loss in GDP for a 20°C temp increase need to be rejected out of hand. On what basis should we believe that people prefer and are willing to pay for a hotter planet? That initial warming will see a large decrease in mortality?

If there was a grossly underestimated or zero cost associated with burning a house to the ground, who would insure their home against fires? How can we expect people to prefer a significant price on carbon when they believe the alternative is basically no economic cost whatsoever? Getting a more realistic handle on the cost of unchecked emissions should be a bipartisan (post-partisan, post-post-partisan, what have you) goal. Will the “breakthrough” people and climate journalists in search of a new narrative buy in? Or are they going to bet the future of ameliorating climate problems on the GOP allowing massive governmental interference in the energy market?

UPDATE: Why on Earth is anyone supposed to take claims of bi- or post-partisan anything seriously when the GOP leadership is trumpeting its plans to frustrate the current administration at every turn? Does this sound like a political party that is going to work across party lines for massive governmental funding of a clean energy “breakthrough”?

“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” — Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), in an interview with the National Journal, describing his goal in retaking the Senate.

Ezra Klein on the technology trap

Tom Toles

Showing hopeful signs that maybe he hasn’t bought into the Breakthrough myth, Ezra Klein:

There’s something to this line of thinking. We really don’t know what we’ll be able to do by the year 2100. America’s best scientists are studying the problem. China just committed more than $700 billion to funding clean energy research over the next decade. We’re human beings. We’ll think of something.

But will it be enough? The example I’ve been using to show the limits of techo-optimism has been the BP spill. We could’ve stopped it from happening, but we couldn’t reverse it once it happened. And we know a lot more about managing oil spills than about manipulating the atmosphere. But reading Atul Gawande’s article on dying brought another example to mind: cancer.

Cancer, of course, has been a long-term problem. For decades now, we’ve put an enormous amount of money into researching cures and treatments. We’ve thrown our best minds at the problem. And we’ve made some remarkable advances. But not nearly enough of them. Insofar as we’ve been waging a war on cancer, there’s a very good argument that we’re losing, and it’s not clear when, or whether, we’ll turn it around. Sometimes, the best minds and a lot of money are enough. That’s been the case in computers. As this proposal for more energy research says, if our technology had been left in 1975, the iPod would cost $1 billion and be the size of a building. But sometimes, money and minds are not enough. We can’t solve problems so much as try and prevent them. And the death of cap-and-trade means we’re not going to hedge against the possibility of our failure.