The "Rebound" Ricochet

By Keith Kloor | February 16, 2011 4:00 pm

As I noted yesterday, the recent fiery debate over the merits of energy efficiency is becoming increasingly acrimonious. The latest public skirmish was triggered earlier this week when Jon Koomey, a consulting professor at Stanford University, wrote on his blog:

Over the past few weeks I’ve been engaged in an email conversation with about 30 energy analysts and environmental reporters about the rebound effect.  That conversation has had many threads, but one of particular interest is a specific example I asked the rebound advocates to create.  After some resistance to the idea, someone from the Breakthrough institute took up the challenge, but has thus far failed to respond to technical critiques of his example that reduce the projected rebound effects by an order of magnitude or more.

[Just as a quick aside, I’ll mention that none of what has transpired during this ongoing email exchange has yet been written up by any of the reporters (I am not on the email list), so this is an interesting case where one of the non-journalist participants is first out of the box with his interpretation of the discussion.]

Koomey then writes:

I summarized where we stand in a memo that I sent to the group today, which is downloadable here.

In the remainder of his post, Koomey provides a condensed, bullet-point version of that summary.

I asked Koomey earlier today if he had told the group that he was publishing his summary online. He responded via email:

I didn’t tell the group at the time that I was posting it, but should have. I just recounted the train of events for the group today.

One train of events triggered by Koomey’s post was Joe Romm’s republishing of it yesterday in his own unique style, which I discussed here.

Since Romm has amplified Koomey’s summary of the discussion, giving it wide exposure, I thought I’d give The Breakthrough Institute (TBI) an opportunity to respond, since they are the recipients of Koomey’s critique.

From Ted Nordhaus, chairman of TBI:

I’m pretty well resigned in this day and age that anything I write to a large group of email correspondents may as well be on the record. What is really sleazy is how Koomey represents the debate. The reality is that Harry [Saunders] and Jesse both cited published research to support their assumptions, Koomey, [Amory] Lovins, and their colleagues gave anecdotal examples from their own experiences, cited studies that didn’t actually show what they claimed they showed, and stretched to find pretexts to attack the actual data and studies that Jesse and Harry cited in order to ignore it. Koomey represents the debate as exactly the opposite – as if he and his colleagues had provided hard evidence and we failed to refute it. These are the tactics of scoundrels. They know they can’t win the argument and that forced to actually deal directly with the evidence, their long-standing claims that rebound is negligible will be debunked. So this is what you get.

From Michael Shellenberger, President of TBI:

This is what energy efficiency advocates have been doing for thirty years in order to avoid dealing with the rebound issue ““ obfuscating the issue, misrepresenting the debate, and smearing anyone who dares challenge them on this question. Koomey’s “summary” blatently misrepresents the conversation and was clearly written with the intent of attacking our forthcoming review of the peer-reviewed literature on rebound effects. [That review will be officially released tomorrow.//KK] Against his claim that those of us who believe there is strong evidence for large rebounds failed to make our case, the reality is that Jon and his colleagues repeatedly refused to engage with the overwhelming evidence in the peer-reviewed literature for large rebound effects at the macro-economic level, instead citing selectively from studies of direct rebound effects in end use sectors of developed economies and offering anecdotal examples from their experience as energy efficiency consultants to claim that rebound effects are insignificant.

After receiving these responses (via email) from Nordhaus and Shellenberger, I then asked Koomey if he wanted to address TBI’s charge that he had misrepresented the discussion. He wrote back:

My memo makes this crystal clear.  We asked for a specific example, which they resisted supplying.  Jim Sweeney showed them one, then Jesse Jenkins finally made one of his own.  When Amory and Jim showed serious errors in that example, Jesse refused to defend it.

If they really understand rebound they can create a specific example and work it through.  The dialog is continuing and Harry Saunders is working on another example, so we’ll see (and you should point out that the discussions are continuing),  But as my memo points out, this complaint about us not looking at the literature is a distraction. Please look again at my memo and read the parts [which he highlights for me//KK] where I respond to this issue.
Jesse Jenkins, the Director of Energy and Climate Policy for TBI counters via email:
In a discussion between analysts and journalists, Jon Koomey requested a sample explanation of the mechanisms driving rebound. I provided that example, with mechanisms and approximate values drawn from economic literature on rebound. The economic mechanisms at work behind rebound effects are quite clear and well understood: elasticity of demand and substitution in response to changing prices of energy services, re-spending of net energy cost savings, and the contribution of productivity to economic growth. Koomey and colleagues responded primarily by citing anecdotal experience from their work as energy efficiency consultants that is entirely inconsistent with the body of peer reviewed literature, a whole field of academic research that Koomey and his colleagues have so far ignored. Koomey’s now-public misrepresentation of the discussion to date gives the impression that he would actually prefer to avoid debate over the evidence.
Finally, I asked Nordhaus to address Koomey’s response from earlier today. Nordhaus emailed:
I think that the crux of this is that Koomey claims that Amory and Jim showed “serious errors” in Jesse’s analysis. They did no such thing. Jim’s critique was irrelevant and Amory just asserted a bunch of stuff from his experience as a consultant. The whole specific example thing is a canard they are using to distract attention from the fact that their claims about energy efficiency are completely out of touch with the peer reviewed literature. If that sounds familiar it should. This is, of course what Romm does all the time on everything, and he learned from the master, Amory is his guide and mentor.
Regardless of which side is right, one thing seems clear: this venomous battle over energy efficiency is yet the latest rhetorical cage match in the climate wars.
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy, energy efficiency
  • Marlowe Johnson

    that’s your contribution Keith?

    wow.

  • keith kloor

    There will be a third related post tomorrow morning, dealing with the substance of the debate, hooked to the release of the TBI review.
    As for this particular post, what is your issue with it? I know yesterday you were perturbed that I focused on Romm’s style.  This second post focused on the response from TBI, and some of the backstory. I guess you’re not interested in that, huh?

  • Marlowe Johnson

    guess i’ll have to wait for the third post on the substance then….sorry if i came across a little harsh there.

  • keith kloor

    Marlowe, I know that your mind is made up and merely reinforced by Romm and Koomey’s posts.
    But journalists go on the assumption that there are other sides to a story. So this post was about hearing from the other side. Of course, if you are predisposed to tuning out everyone but your own side, then yeah, I doubt you’ll see anything of value in TBI’s responses in this post.

  • Tom Fuller

    Keith, did you read the book Breakthrough? I found it excellent, although that may well have been because I was favorably predisposed to many of their ideas…

  • Marlowe Johnson

    No.  I’m reasonably well informed on this subject and have yet to see anything compelling from the TBI folks to convince me that their argument –that energy efficiency gains are substantially eroded by secondary macroeconomic impacts–is theoretically or empirically sound.  My mind is never ‘made up’.  But that doesn’t mean it’s tabula rasa either…

  • Sashka

    My mind is never “˜made up’.

    As we saw talking about climate sensitivity, Mr. 3 degrees.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Sashka,

    nice try.  my question to you on that score has always been why you reject the 3 degree estimate (i.e. THE CONSENSUS value) given your lack of relevant expertise.  Like most people, in the absence of personal knowledge to the contrary, I tend to operate under the assumption that the scientific establishment isn’t a grand conspiracy run by eco-kleptocrat-communists.

    But I’m all ears.  Please convince me that sensitivity is <3C (nevermind less than 4-5C).  I really will sleep much better. Honest.

  • Pascvaks

    It’s hard to be neutral and objective when the heathen horde are breaking down the gate to your castle.  In fact it’s downright impossible once they get their hands on your treasures and Social Sceurity card.

  • Sashka

    Not only it was nice it was exactly to the point: you accept whatever the “consensus” tells you and thus make up your mind. Your open-mindedness rates at exactly one on 1 to 10 scale. Why are you trying to deny it? How’s blind accepting of the majority view fundamentally different from religion?

    Now, please remind me when did I tell you about my lack of relevant expertise? Perhaps you learned it some other way? Please go ahead and tell me what you know about my experience. I’d be most interested to find out.

    Now, I never said that sensitivity is less than 3 degrees, nor that it is less than 5. What I said was that we don’t know what it is. We have a good low bound but we don’t have a decent upper bound which allows all sorts of lunatics to make catastrophic predictions. There is absolutely nothing special about the value of 3 except this is the mean value of the garbage produced by the model.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Tom (5):

    While I have never met anyone from TBI, I am familiar with all their main works, including that book.

    Marlowe,

    I know you’re breathlessly waiting for my their third post on this issue, but sporadic internet access en route to DC is making blog stuff difficult. Eventually…

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    You never met Roger Keith (he is associated with them).

     

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Allow Eli to state a theorem
    Rebound effects are large only when accompanied by a large gain in functionality which expands the market for the product.

  • Dean

    I read the Breakthrough book and it struck me as happy talk. Don’t tell people the truth because it is political suicide. Instead tell them something that won’t upset them – that we can solve these problems with no sacrifice. We get lot’s of that these days.

    This follows from my post of the other day – that those who don’t accept the IPCC consensus have success with the public because it is what people want to hear. Breakthrough understands the politics much better than the science, because nature doesn’t care about the politics. The irony here is that the rebound effect demonstrates why the Breakthrough program won’t work.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-9111-SF-Environmental-Policy-Examiner Tom Fuller

    Hmm. Dean, there may be other factors in play in the ‘success’ of contrarians. ‘Success’ in quotes because I do not believe for one second that there is any contrarian on the planet who could be in any way, shape or form be considered famous. I’m not even sure if there are famous people admitting to contrarianism.

    It’s just the idea that spread. Maybe some of that is ignorance. Maybe some of that is self-serving. But until you lot realize that some of it is recognition of defects in the diet of doom you’ve been feeding them, this whole argument will just be Pete and Repeat.

  • kdk33

    GM has a technological breakthrough.  Next years suburban gets twice the MPG of last years for the same price.  My cost of ownership goes down, my discretionary funds up.  I buy more stuff; that stuff has an energy component.  Rebound.

    DC ups the CAFE standards.  Next years suburban gets twice the MPG of last years for 4X the price (it’s made of titanium).  Cost of ownership goes up, discretionary funds down.  I buy less stuff.  A 3-pointer, with a foul.

    DC forbids GOM oil exploration.  Price of gasoline goes up.  Next years suburban gets 1.5X last years MPG for the same price.  I break even.  I buy as much stuff as least year.  A 1-and-1 (do they still have these?)

    GM makes an even bigger SUV.  It’s called the long commute (LC for short, but it’s really long).  I buy one.  It gets half the MPG for 2X the cost.  I don’t care.  Discretionary funds go down.  I buy less stuff.  Offensive rebound.

    I assume my driving miles are inelastic.  Which they basically are. 

    The point is: it depends (and it’s basketball season).

    YMMV

  • harrywr2

    #14 Dean
    The last I checked, most of the developed world is being run by ‘elected’ representatives.
    In the South Eastern US the price differential between coal and nuclear is quite small. Georgia is the 8th largest consumer of coal in the US. It would appear from all reports that the people of Georgia are reasonably content to replace some coal fired generation with nuclear powered generation.
    No where in the sales brochure for nuclear power in Georgia can I find the words climate or sacrifice.
    http://www.southerncompany.com/nuclearenergy/why_nuclear.aspx
     

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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