Greens who care most about global warming are in a tough spot. One of the biggest climate killers is coal, a 19th century fuel that may bake the planet well into the 21st century. As Jeff Goodell notes in Rolling Stone,
We still burn nearly a billion tons of it a year in America, almost all of it to generate electricity.
Even still, Goodell argues that
coal is dying in America, and everyone knows it. In the largest sense, it’s being killed off by technological progress and the rising awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy. Even the biggest coal boosters have long admitted that coal is a dying industry ““ the fight has always been over how fast and how hard the industry will fall.
This has to cheer greens, who haven’t had much to cheer about on the climate change front. Then again, maybe not. For as Goodell notes:
The real dagger in coal’s heart is natural gas ““ more accurately, cheap natural gas from “unconventional” sources like shale and other porous rocks. Thanks to new technologies like horizontal drilling and fracking, we are suddenly awash in gas, and prices are lower than they’ve been in decade. Drilling and fracking is its own kind of nightmare, but for better or worse, one incontestable consequence of cheap gas is that it has driven many electricity generators to turn off the coal plants and fire up the natural gas generators instead.
Meanwhile, the natural gas revolution is stunting the growth potential of a climate-friendly source of energy: Nuclear power. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
The U.S. nuclear industry seemed to be staging a comeback several years ago, with 15 power companies proposing as many as 29 new reactors. Today, only two projects are moving off the drawing board.
What killed the revival wasn’t last year’s nuclear accident in Japan, nor was it a soft economy that dented demand for electricity. Rather, a shale-gas boom flooded the U.S. market with cheap natural gas, offering utilities a cheaper, less risky alternative to nuclear technology.
“It’s killed off new coal and now it’s killing off new nuclear,” says David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy Inc., a power-generation company based in Princeton, NJ. “Gas has come along at just the right time to upset everything.”
Across the country, utilities are turning to natural gas to generate electricity, with 258 plants expected to be built from 2011 through 2015, federal statistics indicate.
Anyway, one thing’s for sure: The natural gas revolution has arrived, and it’s upending the energy/climate debate.
Last summer, when Rick Perry mania was cresting and he was spouting nonsense about climate science and evolution, I said this:
Of course, in that same post, I also that the Texas Governor
will likely saddle up the congealed Republican discontent, anger and culture war politics, and ride all the way to the GOP Presidential nomination.
Hey, nobody bats a thousand.
Anyway, at the time, some of you who are in the climate skeptic camp chafed at being lumped in with the mouth foamers (climate science is a hoax!) in your midst. My point was that, fair or not, the crazies (there is no greenhouse effect!) had come to be the representative face of the climate skeptic position.
It now appears that some well known climate contrarians are coming to this conclusion, too. In the American Thinker (which is no climate science friendly precinct), Fred Singer recently penned an essay titled,
Climate Deniers are Giving us Skeptics a Bad Name
Wait, did he just say climate deniers? And he repeats it a bunch of times in the piece! I thought that term was verboten in the climate skeptic universe? What’s going on here?
It seems that Singer wants to put some distance between him and the crazies (he identifies two different groups of “deniers”). Interestingly, he sees only one position on the other side of the spectrum–the “warmista,” who has “fixed views about apocalyptic man-made global warming.” True, the climate doomer is the public face of the climate campaign, but it is by no means the only position in the climate consensus universe.
Conveniently, Singer places climate skeptics “somewhere in the middle” of the climate landscape, between “climate deniers” and “warmistas.” That middle ground exists only in Singer’s head.
But to be fair to Singer, he also says that “these three categories” [denier, skeptic, warmista] “do not have sharp boundaries; there are gradations.” After making his case against what he considers the two extremes, he ends on this note:
I have concluded that we can accomplish very little with convinced warmistas and probably even less with true deniers.
Well, so long as climate “deniers” and doomers remain the de facto public representatives of the climate debate, their mutual antagonism and contempt will continue to shrink the space for rational discourse, and very little will be accomplished.
Despite the immense human tragedy of the earthquake/tsunami that struck Japan one year ago, many media stories in the West this past week have focused on the Fukushima meltdown, which led Mark Lynas to tweet:
I find the total silence about the 20,000 victims killed by the tsunami a year ago horrifying, current nuclear angst out of all proportion.
On a related note, because nuclear power is part of the energy/climate debate, George Monbiot recently tweeted:
How come climate change ceases to be an issue as soon as someone needs to make the case for abandoning nuclear?
That is a curious thing, isn’t it? Which leads me to this essay by Michael Lemonick, titled, “No Nukes? Only if you believe in magic.” It is a wry, concisely argued deconstruction of all the proffered “magic” solutions that keep the climate change debate stuck in the realm of fantasy. After reading that, waltz on over to Dot Earth for some historical perspective by Spencer Weart on why “nuclear fear feeds back on itself” in society.
Then there are the regulatory and cost issues that still bedevil nuclear power. The Economist, in an introduction to a new special report, writes:
In any country independent regulation is harder when the industry being regulated exists largely by government fiat. Yet, as our special report this week explains, without governments private companies would simply not choose to build nuclear-power plants. This is in part because of the risks they face from local opposition and changes in government policy (seeing Germany’s nuclear-power stations, which the government had until then seen as safe, shut down after Fukushima sent a chilling message to the industry). But it is mostly because reactors are very expensive indeed. Lower capital costs once claimed for modern post-Chernobyl designs have not materialised. The few new reactors being built in Europe are far over their already big budgets. And in America, home to the world’s largest nuclear fleet, shale gas has slashed the costs of one of the alternatives; new nuclear plants are likely only in still-regulated electricity markets such as those of the south-east.
While not giving up on nuclear power, the piece argues that the much anticipated “promise of a global [nuclear] transformation is gone.”
So where does all this leave us? If you don’t believe in magic, and you’re not waiting anymore for a nuclear renaissance, what’s the quickest (and most realistic) path to a low-carbon energy economy?
In the immediate aftermath of Peter Gleick’s confession, reaction was passionate and wide-ranging. The news dominated the climate blogosphere for weeks, with every climate blog having something to say on the matter (with the conspicuous exception of RealClimate).
The story was also dutifully covered in the mainstream media. The first wave focused on Gleick’s admission. The second wave was the response to it. Any stories that followed after that mostly reported on the repercussions to Gleick. Since then, no reporters on the climate beat have seemed eager to follow up on the most dubious angle to the whole story.
That brings me to this post by Steve McIntyre, which compares the Gleick affair to Watergate and some of its principal characters. McIntyre writes:
Much recent commentary has characterized Gleick as a “hero”, some invoking [Daniel] Ellsberg as a precedent. But a closer examination of Watergate events shows that Gleick’s conduct is more evocative of Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy than of Ellsberg.
It’s too early to say what lies ahead for Gleick. So far, the story of his entanglement with the Heartland Institute is what he has written. It’s not clear to me that any reporters are interested in pursuing it.
Two recent articles about science journalism carry headlines that reflect a tension between two modes of thinking on climate change reporting. The Guardian piece asserts in its headline:
Science journalists should be asking questions and deflating exaggeration
Michael Lemonick, a veteran science journalist, asks:
Should we tell the whole truth about climate change?
The two articles address separate journalistic issues (the Guardian piece does not reference climate change), but to my mind, they each are relevant to a larger, fundamental concern that dogs environmental reporters on the climate beat: Insufficient context for and skepticism of claims made in climate studies and reports.
Is the problem with reporters (or headline writers?) who simplify and overly dramatize climate findings? (See here and here, for example.) Or is the problem with reporters who uncritically regurgitate the findings from NGO’s and think tanks? (See here and here.) I tend to think there’s ample evidence of both. That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that there are plenty of times when climate reporters don’t allow themselves to be spoon fed. (See here, for one notable instance.)
Ironically, despite the perception that media has exaggerated the dangers of global warming, some climate activists (and climate scientists) often criticize mainstream reporters for not ringing enough alarm bells. The charge heard most these days is insufficient linkage of extreme weather to global warming. That whole debate has become a minefield for reporters.
Regardless of what they write, however, there is one constant for journalists on the climate beat: They are assailed from all sides, as I discuss in this new post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.
Several years ago, my oldest son (now 7) came back from preschool one day and announced that we shouldn’t drive our car anymore. “It causes pollution and that kills animals,” he said. I tried explaining to him that things were a bit more complicated than that.
It didn’t help that our family (which includes my wife and his younger brother, now 5) hopped in our Subaru Forrester virtually every weekend to drive all over Colorado (we were living in Boulder at the time), in search of majestic landscapes and wild animals at places such as Rocky Mountain National Park.
We found much to marvel at during these mini-road trips, and didn’t dwell on the mixed messages that my oldest son was already trying to process. Instead, we had fun teaching his precocious mind new words like “ubiquitous,” which he quickly learned by pointing at every McDonald’s that we passed in the car. (“Ubiquitous!” he would yell.)
My boys are still not old enough to understand the contradictions between an environmental ethic and modern life. Take the recent news encapsulated in this New York Times headline: “Deepwater Oil Drilling Picks up Again as BP Disaster fades.” Amy Myers Jaffe, associate director of the Rice University energy program, spelled out an uncomfortable truth in the NYT article:
We need the oil. The industry will have to improve and regulators will have to adjust, but the public will have to deal with the risk of drilling in deep waters or get out of their cars.
Yes, and since many Americans also like to fly to Disney World, take cruises to the Caribbean, and live in sprawling houses in the suburbs, it seems a safe bet that we’ll deal with that risk.
So how do my wife and I raise two young eco-citizens without going off the grid and living like the Amish? For starters, we moved back to New York City and live an urban lifestyle, which means we mostly walk/scooter/bike and ride the subway. (We still use the trusty, weather-beaten Forrester for weekend road trips out of the city and for bi-monthly food hauls to Fairway.) We live in–ahem–a cozy apartment, instead of the 2500 square foot house in the Boulder foothills (which came with a wrap around porch and menacing bears). We dutifully recycle, I routinely chase down neighborhood litterers, and my wife berates me when I forget to bring our canvass shopping bags to the supermarket.
To stay in touch with nature, we try to go as often as we can to the local botanical gardens, parks, and sanctuaries. (N had his 5th birthday party at the Audubon Nature Center in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to keep Chuck E Cheese out of the birthday rotation one year.) For hands-on ecological immersion, we planted a flower garden last Spring (on Earth Day!) in the tiny dirt patch outside our building’s front step. But every few weeks a villainous thief would uproot one of our precious saplings. That was not a pleasant lesson for the kids, who looked forward every morning to seeing the progress of their plants. Dug-out holes were met with disappointment and puzzlement.
All these experiences, however they turned out, are how my wife and I have sought to imbue our boys with some semblance of environmental awareness and appreciation.
But what they learn from their teachers seems to trigger the hardest questions for us to answer. For example, recently my 7-year old came home from an after-school science program and described what causes global warming. He got the basic science right but then he also told me that not everybody cares about global warming and that this was why nothing was being done about it. Once again, I tried explaining to him that the issue was a bit more complicated than that.
I said that lots of people cared about global warming, but that it was a hard problem for individuals to do anything about. I explained that the same pollution that comes out of our cars is partly responsible for creating greenhouse gases (a term he knew). The same, I said, goes for much of the energy that provides electricity for us to turn on our lights at home. I said that we needed to use cleaner sources of energy (like solar and wind) but that those couldn’t as of yet replace the fossil fuels the world relies on for its energy needs. (I’m waiting a few more years before I complicate his world even more with the whole nuclear power question.) As I recall, my son thought about all this for about 30 seconds before asking if he could play wii Mariocart.
Another teachable opportunity presented itself this past weekend, when I took the boys to see to the new hit children’s movie, The Lorax. For those of you unfamiliar with this classic, here’s a good primer from NYT movie reviewer A.O. Scott:
Since its publication in 1971 “The Lorax,” by Dr. Seuss, has occasionally been caught up in squalls of controversy, most of it cooked up by people choosing to be outraged by the book’s mild allegorical moral of ecological responsibility. In our own globally warmed, ideologically fevered moment there has been a minor flurry of predictable, pre-emptive bloviation aimed at Universal’s movie version, “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” which is supposedly part of a left-wing Hollywood conspiracy to brainwash America’s children into hating capitalism and loving trees.
The bloviaters needn’t have worried. As Scott (who wrote a scathing review) notes, the movie’s simplistic anti-business/pro-eco message collides with the “reigning imperatives of marketing and brand extension.” Bryan Walsh at Time was similarly disapproving:
Universal Pictures wasn’t content just to turn The Lorax into an incredibly valuable film property. The studio also inked more than 70 promotional tie-ins to the movie, with everyone from Mazda to the Environmental Protection Agency to XFinity TV.
Whatever. My kids don’t pay much attention to product placement. For them, the movie was a gaudy entertainment that they seemed to enjoy. They’re also too young to understand the irony of critics who lambast a movie for wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. After all, isn’t that what green-minded consumers (with their latest i-pods) and their Whole Foods sensibilities do as well? Personally, I’m less concerned with brand tie-ins than I am with the movie’s one-dimensional, cartoonish characters. Then there was this quote that appeared at the film’s end, which echoes the message my son received several weeks ago about global warming:
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. Its not.” -Dr.Seuss.
But what happens when caring is not enough? Moreover, can you still care and keep your cars and gadgets and airplane-enabled conferences and vacations? I’d like to see a movie that addresses that. It might even help me and my kids make some sense of the world we live in.
In his weekend op-ed, Thomas Friedman indicated he was ready to embrace a form of climate pragmatism:
This is a column about energy and environment and why we must not let the poisonous debate about climate change so tie us in knots that we cannot have any energy policy at all, particularly one focused on developing much more efficient use of resources, through better designs and systems.
Friedman still had some tart words for those who think that belief in climate science is a slippery slope to one-world, UN-led government.
Actually, this is what he said:
If you are so reckless as to dismiss all climate science as a hoax, and do not accept the data that our planet is getting hotter and the oceans rising, I can’t help you.
Translation: He’s moving on. He’s realized that fighting climate contrarians–much less trying to reason with them–is futile. And counterproductive. He’s concluded:
We can’t let the climate wars continue to derail efforts to have an energy policy that puts in place rising efficiency standards, for buildings, windows, traffic, housing, packaging and appliances, that will drive innovation “” which is our strength “” in what has to be the next great global industry: energy and resource efficiency.
Friedman’s philosophical shift prompted Andy Revkin to tweet:
Needless, to say, this non-climate-centric rhetorical approach was not received well in certain quarters. The Climate Orthodoxy Police (COP), an outfit run by blogger Joe Romm at the Center for American Progress (CAP), sounded its internal alarms. This happens nearly every day when someone goes off message or does anything to undermine the dictates by the COP. Friedman’s column definitely put him on the wrong side of COP. Shortly after his column was published, he received a phone call from Romm. A COP insider sent me the exchange between Romm and Friedman:
JR: Tom, this is Joe Romm. Listen, about your column today…
TF: Uh oh. I already got your three emails about it. Look, I know I’m deviating from the COP playbook…
JR: Tom, you can’t go soft on me now. We can’t let the deniers off the hook. Climate has to remain front and center.
TF: I’m not going soft. I just don’t see any other way. Listen, I finally got around to reading this report called Climate Pragmatism, which makes a lot of sense to me. Maybe these Breakthrough guys are on to…
JR: [shrieks] Nooooo! Arghrhrh…
TF: Joe, are you alright? I can’t understand you.
JR: Breakthrarghrhh [audible choking]
TF: No, really, Joe. Come on. You know I’m one of your biggest fans, but I think it might be time for you to consider a new tact. Maybe be a little more tolerant of…
JR: Tolerant of who?! The disinformers! The delayers! Tom, don’t let them fool you. Those so-called climate pragmatists are flim flam artists.
TF: What are you talking about?
JR: Tom, listen to me. Ok. Just listen. You need to stay strong and fierce, like a climate hawk.
TF: [Sounding offended] I am a hawk! Always have been. And, by the way, look where that got me with Iraq.
JR: Water under the bridge. Look, this is the real war, Tom. Civilization hangs in the balance.
TF [Sounding distracted.] I feel like I’ve heard that…
JR: Stay focused, Tom. Don’t get wobbly on me. Look, did you see my recent post, the one about the tornadoes? This is the stuff we need to keep hitting. We ratchet up climate doom messaging and we whack the deniers. That’s the strategy. That’s Climate Progress.
TF: I’m not so sure anymore. How do India and China fit into this strategy? You know, this Roger Pielke Jr. and his “iron law of climate policy” seems to make a lot of…
JR: [choking] Arghghhg. [Loud thud, like a body hitting the ground.]
TF: Joe, are you there? Joe, is everything alright? Ok, well listen, you take it easy. We’ll finish this conversation another time.
When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, anti-nuclear sentiment rose to a crescendo in the early to mid-1980s, just as the Shoreham nuclear power plant on the Island’s eastern end was nearing completion. If you know your history, you know what happened around this time. As Wikipedia explains:
The [Shoreham] plant faced considerable public opposition after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. There were large protests and two dozen local groups opposed the plant. In 1981, 43 percent of Long Islanders opposed the plant; by 1986, that number had risen to 74 percent.
In 1989, the utility that built Shoreham conceded to the politics of the day and agreed not to open the plant. But the deal LILCO (Long Island Lighting Company) made with New York State also called for much of Shoreham’s $6 billion construction cost to be passed down to Long Island residents. (Long Islanders are still paying this debt off.) In 1992, the Shoreham plant was dismantled.
Twenty years later, New York is embroiled in another heated nuclear power debate, this one involving the future of the Indian Point nuclear plant, which generates 2,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power all of Boston and Baltimore, with juice to spare. The facility sits along the Hudson River, 28 miles north of New York City. As with Shoreham, similar concerns about safety and emergency evacuation have animated a campaign calling for Indian Point’s closure. Post 9/11, the specter of terrorism has been added to the mix. Throw in the Fukushima disaster and you can imagine the potency of the anti-Indian Point message.
There is, however, a strong argument to be made in favor of keeping Indian Point in operation.
The two sides of the debate came together last night at Columbia University’s law school. The panel discussion, which I attended, was represented by two anti-Indian Point environmentalists and two pro-Indian Point advocates. Each side made forceful, compelling cases for their respective positions. I felt that the anti-Indian Point team was least convincing on the economic and energy issues (as in, where will NYC get the 20 percent of electricity that comes from Indian Point, and at what cost to the consumer?). I felt the pro-Indian Point team was least convincing on the safety issue (they played down concerns about terrorism, fuel containment, and orderly mass evacuation).
We don’t live in a world with no [energy] impacts; we don’t live in a world of free and cheap energy. We know there are tradeoffs. We have to make tough decisions. What risk do we want to take? That’s the challenge.
On the other side of the podium, Arthur Kremer, a former New State Assemblyman and currently the Chairman of the Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, said emotion and fear shaped the public discourse on nuclear power. On Indian Point, he asserted:
The debate has been short on facts and honesty.
The media, it goes without saying, plays an important role in the public’s understanding of nuclear power and related safety and risk issues. Alas, the public’s mind is most concentrated in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, when perspective narrows and the coverage is often breathless. (As for those economic and environmental tradeoffs, it would nice if there was more discussion of them, especially now that countries like Germany are providing a real-world case study.) Anniversaries of nuclear disasters are also a time when press coverage spikes and the public tunes in. We are entering such a moment now and the signs (for level-headed coverage) are not encouraging, assert Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the California-based Breakthrough Institute, at Slate:
With an eye to the first anniversary of the tsunami that killed 20,000 people and caused a partial meltdown at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, a recently formed nongovernmental organization called Rebuild Japan released a report earlier this week on the nuclear incident to alarming media coverage.
“Japan Weighed Evacuating Tokyo in Nuclear Crisis,” screamed the New York Times headline, above an article by Martin Fackler that claimed, “Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis than the one that engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.”
Nordhaus and Shellenberger go on to argue that the Times story credulously peddles the nuclear doomsday was narrowly averted slant of the Japanese NGO’s post-disaster report. Journalists at other esteemed outlets are viewing Fukushima through a similar lens. At the New Yorker, Evan Osnos writes:
Good fortune is not the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about Fukushima these days. But it is, in fact, one of the clearest””and most troubling””lessons to be drawn from the Fukushima story: plain old luck, along with a colossal dose of heroism and quick-thinking, prevented the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns from wounding Japan even more thoroughly than they did.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger question that take. In their Slate piece, they note:
The same day the New York Times published its story, PBS broadcast a Frontline documentary about the Fukushima meltdown that invites a somewhat different interpretation. In an interview conducted for that program, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan suggests that the fear of cascading plant failures was nothing more than panicked speculation among some of his advisers. “I asked many associates to make forecasts,” Kan explained to PBS, “and one such forecast was a worst-case scenario. But that scenario was just something that was possible, it didn’t mean that it seemed likely to happen.”
Nordhaus and Shellenberger suggest that the media’s emphasis on the potentially worst outcomes of Fukushima skewers the reporting and inflates the risk associated with nuclear power. Indeed, this is a criticism that journalists are already acquainted with, says Osnos in his New Yorker article:
When the [ Fukushima] anniversary arrives in two weeks, reporters and analysts will note correctly that nobody has died so far from the Fukushima meltdowns (this, of course, does not refer to the tsunami). One of the questions will be whether the media overplayed the dangers””whether it scared people away from nuclear power.
In light of what happened on Long Island two decades ago and the debate that is now playing out over the Indian Point power plant, that is not an unreasonable question to ask.
UPDATE: Bryan Walsh at Time has a related piece I didn’t see until after I posted. Taking stock of the one-year Fukushima anniversary stories starting to come out, he says that,
nearly a year after the event, the question still remains: was the Fukushima meltdown that dangerous?
Several years ago, a scholar wrote that the popular image of archaeology was characterized by three themes.
1) Archaeology is about searching and finding treasure underground; 2) Archaeological fieldwork involves making discoveries in tough conditions and in exotic locations; 3) Like a detective, the archaeologist tries to piece together what happened in the past.
In the United States, archaeologists have been unable to escape their own past. They can’t seem to shake their early reputation as treasure hunters and grave robbers. As I write in this new article for Science Insider, “that perception dates back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when museums sponsored field expeditions to dig up Native American ruins.”
In recent decades, an adventurous but less exploitive image of archaeology has taken root in the public mind, reinforced by Hollywood stereotypes and popular TV shows. Archaeologists have pretty much made their peace with this cartoonish representation.
But now two new gimmicky programs on cable TV have many archaeologists fuming. One of the shows is called “Diggers” and made its debut earlier this week on the National Geographic channel. The other is called American Digger and premieres later this month on Spike TV. You get the idea?
In my Science piece, I report on the archaeological community’s furious reaction to both programs.
Regular readers of this blog may recall that I have periodically covered archaeology’s pothunting legacy in the United States. The two new cable TV programs are a reminder that this treasure-seeking pastime endures in our popular culture.