Every once and a while one encounters such an exquisite combination of insightful analysis and misguided thinking that one is motivated to respond, point by point.

Robert Samuelsons recent editorial (link here) “Global Warming’s Real Inconvenient Truth” motivates me to offer this little response.

Samuelson

“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.”

Hochstein

Surely recognition of a problem is a prerequisite for developing a solution, even an engineering solution such as Mr. Samuelson favors?

Samuelson

“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 was obvious nine years ago; it’s still obvious. 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.”

Hochstein

It is historically the case that growth in economic well being has been accompanied by growth in energy use. That is a as close to a law of economic development as we can get. But of course that is just a statement of the problem, and the historical pattern observed over a few hundred years, not a statement of an eternal verity.

Much closer to eternal verity is the fact that fluctuations in atmospheric carbon are associated with global warming, as observed over about 600,000 years. In contrast to THAT truth, the correlation between economic growth and energy use is an interesting issue that may or may not prove alterable. It is an interesting SOCIAL engineering question, whether we can have increases in human well-being together with decreases in energy use. We’d better try to figure out an answer to THAT engineering problem, because it is much less likely that there is an escape from the atmospheric carbon / global temperature correlation than from the energy / well-being correlation.

Samuelson

“Just keeping annual greenhouse gas emissions constant means that the world must somehow offset these huge increases.”

Hochstein

Again, why MUST there be these huge increases? The increases are only necessary if energy consumption is a sine qua non of economic growth. Could we develop a new model of economic growth based on reducing energy consumption? (More on this theme below.)

Samuelson

“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.”

Hochstein

Mr. Samuelson is correct. It’s going to be VERY difficult to stop China or the US from burning its coal. Whether it is so difficult that it should not be tried is a function of whether you believe that the consequence of not doing so could be the end of human life on earth.

Samuelson

“The IEA report assumes that existing technologies are rapidly improved and deployed. Vehicle fuel efficiency increases by 40 percent. 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); their share of global electricity output rises from 2 percent now to about 15 percent.”

“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.”

Hochstein

The analysis here is sound, but incomplete. Even the most drastic changes now contemplated today may not be enough to avert… the end of human life on earth.

Samuelson

“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.”

Hochstein (The following paragraph has been modified from the original.)

OK, here we get into the realm of simple bad faith or naivete. There is no small minority of thoughtful scientists unpaid by the energy industry who think we are simply experiencing “natural variations.” Mr. Samuelson reveals his hand by supposing that there is a serious scientific debate about carbon dioxide and atmospheric warming. As Al Gore notes in “An Inconvenient Truth”, the small minority who still raise questions about this issue are bought and paid shills for the energy industry. If Mr. Samuelson is genuinely confused about this issue he needs to do more research. I suggest that he, along with you and I, are qualified to judge between scientists based both on what they say (to the extent that we can follow the science itself), and on the basis of who (if anyone) pays them to say it. There are many important judgments that can and must be made in forming our opinions about the reality (or unreality) of global warming. Refusing to make judgments about this issue is not an option, because too much is at stake. Refusing to make judgments is itself a kind of acquiescence, a relegation of global warming to a “question mark” which therefore can be ignored. The pretense of open-mindedness becomes in fact a way of choosing sides. As we learned in the case of tobacco, and in many other corporate crimes, fostering an imaginary debate around an issue over which there is no serious scientific debate is a classic method for delaying action and influencing public policy. Is that what Mr. Samuelson is engaged in here? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

Samuelson

“But if the majority are correct, the IEA report indicates we’re now powerless. We can’t end annual greenhouse emissions, and once in the atmosphere, the gases seem to linger for decades. So concentration levels rise.”

Hochstein

No, actually the IEA report indicates that even the most radical measures now contemplated aren’t sufficient. And Al Gore has a metaphorical explanation for why the IEA report might stop where it does. It is profoundly inconvenient to make the changes that may actually be required of us. It would require us to do things that have never been contemplated in the history of mankind.

Samuelson

“They’re the villains; they presumably trap the world’s heat. 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.”

Hochstein (The following comment slightly modified for tone)

Note the word “presumably”, as if the scientific consensus did not universally support this conclusion. That word “presumably” enables the author to both accept and yet call into question the consensus. There is nothing left to presume about atmospheric CO2.

Mr. Samuelson then draws a political calculation and a practical calculation.

Samuelson

“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.”

Hochstein

Does Mr. Samuelson mean to imply that no government should do so, or simply that he predicts that no government would do so? Because of course if you take the consequences seriously (the “inconvenient truth”… and the “recognition” of that truth that was so derided at the outset), then the moral mandate to do something becomes overwhelming.

Samuelson

“Still, politicians want to show they’re “doing something.” The result is grandstanding.”

Hochstein

The result is grandstanding because people still have not fully come to grips with how mind bogglingly inconvenient the truth of global warming really is. It’s inconvenient the way death is inconvenient. Samuelson has missed the understated graveyard humor in Al Gore’s phrase.

Samuelson

“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.”

Hochstein

And of course the biggest carbon emitter per capita of all, the United States, didn’t even bother to join, making everyone else feel like something of a sucker.

Samuelson

“By some estimates, Europe may overshoot by 15 percent and Japan by 25 percent.”

Hochstein

Kyoto isn’t a magic bullet, and it isn’t nearly enough, but it won’t fly without U.S. involvement, and we certainly won’t move on to the next step and the next one after that in drastically reducing carbon emissions as long as the US sits outside it and know-it-alls mock its failure to meet its goals while the US refuses to even join. This argument seems profoundly ill intentioned. Who is more responsible for the failure of Kyoto than the U.S. government?

Samuelson

“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 …”

Hochstein

Not all public relations exercises are hypocritical. Yes they are public relations exercises, intended to put pressure on an immoral US government that refuses to reckon seriously with what is at stake — the future of the planet.

Samuelson

“….and — if they impose costs — are undesirable.”

Hochstein

Now, we can see just how radical and immoral Samuelson’s position really is. Catalytic converters on automobiles and thousands of different environmental measures impose costs, costs we (most of us) are glad to pay because we care about our health and the well being of the planet.

The costs lamented by Samuelson, costs that are imposed by voluntary compliance and resolutions as part of a campaign to get the US government to join the very weak and wholly inadequate global carbon emissions regime (Kyoto) are nothing at all, compared to the even higher costs of dealing with this issue effectively. But the end of human life on earth is more than inconvenient, and when you take that possibility seriously what do you really mean by “cost” and “too expensive.” Which price is too high to prevent that outcome?

Samuelson

“The practical conclusion is that if global warming is a potential calamity, the only salvation is new technology. 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?”

Hochstein

Well of course, that would be a wonderful thing, but Mr. Samuelson would prefer to bet the future of humanity on wild scientific suppositions than the scientific certainties offered by the global scientific community concerning the consequences of following our current path.

Samuelson

“The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade…”

Hochstein

Every important political problem is a moral problem isn’t it?

Samuelson

“…when it’s really an engineering problem.”

Hochstein

In Mr. Samuelson’s dreams! Thorium! Suck those evil gasses out of the air! There must be an engineering solution that would enable us to avoid actually changing anything about how we live on this planet. Giant federal contracts, not political change and lifestyle change, are the best answer the man can think of. They must love how that sounds in Washington DC and Corporate America. Give us money to invent and build giant “carbon suckers.” You’ll hear plenty more talk like this as the planet changes and people begin to die more visibly.

Samuelson

“The inconvenient truth is that if we don’t solve the engineering problem, we’re helpless.”

Hochstein

No Mr. Samuelson, the inconvenient truth is that if we don’t solve the social engineering problem of increasing human well being while decreasing energy consumption, we’re probably doomed. And the first step in solving that problem, the step that you seem not yet to have reached, is the step of recognition, followed by joining the weak global carbon regime of Kyoto, followed by far more intensive efforts.

Conclusion

It is not hard to understand Mr. Samuelson’s general economic perspective or to speculate on the fundamental response that he might offer here. He would probably point out that economic growth and prosperity alone create the power to solve the problems created by global warming, and that limiting energy consumption limits economic growth and thus our ability to solve the problem itself by, for example, building thorium reactors and CO2 sequestration technologies.

But those technological fixes are his Hail Mary passes, based on the fact that he probably believes, as an economist, that the relationships between energy consumption and economic growth and human prosperity are tighter and more certain than even the relationship between atmospheric CO2 and global warming. (Recall that he does not question the former, only the latter.)

I think that likely belief of his and of many others in his profession is misguided. I believe that it is possible to imagine an economics and an economy of increasing prosperity and decreasing energy consumption. It is that bet, not the bet on a deus ex machina of technological fixes, upon which the future of humanity on planet earth depends. (Some of the tricks of combining economic growth with massively decreasing energy use may rely on technological fixes, but that is very different from looking to technology to assure our ability to continue to use increasing energy consumption as a driver of economic well being.)

David Barry said, memorably, “Should we go to Mars? This is not a new dream. As long as humanity has been human it has looked to the heavens and dreamed that some day, in some way, there would be giant Federal contracts involved.”

That same mentality is at work here, but I don’t believe in it. Do you?

Miles Hochstein

  3 Responses to “A Reply to Robert Samuelson’s Recent Washington Post Op-Ed Concerning Global Warming”

  1. I read your article where you countered the points of Mr. Sameleson.
    To be fair I will read it again to get a better graps of your points.

    The one concern I have is perhaps your attitude. I am not trying to dismiss your points out right but sometimes I found my self wincing.
    Sometimes it seemed like you were lightly slapping his face. That is a personal perception ofcourse.
    The greatest concern I have is that we are not challenging each other to do better. Some who are not quite convinced need to go the way of better technology etc and quickly. Those like you need to further develop the idea of economic growth while reducing the use of energy. I suppose I am suggesting two pathways that run parralell to each other. The destination is one we need to move toward.
    By the way I live in Canada. Our new government is moving away form Kyoto and it’s (unreachable ?) targets. Yet all they have come with if making it mandatory for all gasoline to contain up to 10% ethanhol by 2010. Changing our energy useage ways is proceeding at a snails pace. I am not a very good enviromentalist but to me we need to do more encouraging of others. In pursuit of the goal we need to work together as a team.
    Get the best minds to work on solutions. Social and technological fields. When they have workable ways we need to get it happening.
    Kind of like saying to them, ” just do it” or “make it so” I have borrowed heavily from some media examples but the words seem to express my thoughts the best.

  2. Steve,

    Thank you very much for your thoughts. I am guilty as charged. I don’t feel comfortable with the tone I adopted either. In fact I’m going to take the liberty of softening one or two of my expressions, but for the record, your criticism is (or was) deserved. I wish I’d adhered better to Benjamin Franklin’s admonitions to be gentle and consultative, rather than argumentative and contending. (I just read his biography by William Isaacson and Ben Franklin is much on my mind.)

    Frankly I’m torn by my outrage at the naivte expressed by Mr. Samuelson, and my desire to be compassionate and kind. I wrote in anger and frustration… and perhaps that’s not a very good excuse.

    The reason for my anger is that I find the idea of questioning the fact of global warming, or its potential danger to life on earth, at this point in history to be not merely a matter for polite disagreement, but an issue of life and death. The problem we are faced with is that there are very large corporate and political agendas devoted to delegitimizing the very idea of global warming. When you hear Samuelson toying with those “bought and paid” ideas, making the same tired arguments that there are really two equally legitimate points of view on the fact of global warming itself or its origins, you have to wonder what is really going on.

    It makes the blood boil. Whether I should have allowed my anger to be revealed is a good question. Your point is well taken.

    Is one reason the Kyoto targets are unreachable that the United States remains outside of the framework? Why should other countries handicap themselves if the US won’t play ball?

    There may be technological fixes to CO2 build-up that are possible to invent, but the fundamental challenge is that of disconnecting prosperity and well-being from energy consumption, and rethinking the energetic basis of the “good life” itself, on a planetary scale.

    Samuelson and conventional economists might say that this is an impossible dream, but it is surely no less improbable than betting humanity’s future on Thorium reactors and yet untested CO2 carbon sequestration on a planetary scale.

  3. I was doing a search for the Samuelson article (thank you for linking it!) because I know who the engineer is: Kirk Sorensen (formerly of NASA). He discussed writing the letter in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-uxvSVIGtU from last year in which he announced that he started a company (Flibe Energy) to make Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR).

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