David Roberts at Grist seems to have had an a ha! moment. In a long, wonky post about the “rebound effect,” he frames the grand challenge of emissions reduction as a problem that offers one of two choices:
2a. Drive down global energy intensity.
2b. Drive down global economic growth.
Roberts runs through the math and concludes that “it will be extremely difficult to drive energy-intensity decline faster than economic growth.” He also admits that it will “be extremely difficult to scale up low-carbon energy fast enough, especially in the short- to mid-term.” The logical conclusion he arrives at:
So what option does that leave us? It seems we’re back to 2b, the option that dare not speak its name: suppressing economic growth.
Roger Pielke Jr. gets a chuckle out of all this (while coughing “iron law“) but gives Roberts props for
taking the time to run the numbers and report the results — we all benefit from such analyses, uncomfortable as the results might be.
Roberts is a brainy fighter in the climate debate (he popularized the term climate hawk). He believes in staying on message and not giving his opposition any ammunition. By all appearances, he abides by the an enemy of my friend is an enemy of mine credo. So who knows what prompted this sudden realism, but it will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Roberts’ post has also triggered a sane, constructive discussion at the Grist thread, including this comment by Steve Harris, a Fellow at the UK’s Schumacher Institute:
Having spent some time considering these issues in my role as a researcher at the Schumacher Institute here in the UK I have also arrived at the conclusion that further growth is incompatible with climate change mitigation. Today’s figures on the upsurge in UK emissions as our economy goes back into growth are yet another confirmation, if any were needed. Unfortunately – and I think Jesse’s [Jenkins] contributions on wealth redistribution also point to this – the tight connection between GDP growth and GHG emissions also carries serious implications for social justice, the ‘development’ part of sustainable development, which also appears to be strongly tied to growth (unacceptable as that might be in principle). In other words, it looks like social justice loses both ways: either because the poorest are hit hardest by climate change, or because they are hit hardest by degrowth/recession. The situation is, as you say, daunting. I for one am being forced to reluctantly agree with the growing cadre of scientists who are arguing that as abandonment of growth-oriented economics within the required timeframe looks unlikely, geoengineering now looks inevitable and we better start seriously researching it as soon as we can. It’s also caused me to radically shift my position on nuclear energy - here I’m with the Breakthrough guys – because if the gap between renewables and demand is much bigger than we thought, as rebound indicates, then we better throw any and every low-carbon technology we have into the gap. All in all, the more information we get the more it becomes clear that the old entrenched positions within the environmental and sustainable development movements are no longer tenable, especially where they lead to rejecting technological solutions out of hand before we have enough knowledge to judge them fairly.
I once thought that Grist would be at the forefront of a necessary debate, examining how “old entrenched positions within the environmental and sustainable development movements are no longer tenable.” But it has mostly become a bloggy clearinghouse that, when it comes to technology, is happy to encourage long-standing green fears about nuclear power and GMO’s.
Roberts’ post lays out the huge challenge of climate change from the energy perspective. It gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, Grist will start to question green orthodoxy, instead of enforcing it.
UPDATE: I should say it’s clear that Roberts recognizes the negative implications of option 2b–suppressing economic growth. I assume he’ll try to puzzle out (in a future post) how it can be done without the downside that Harris notes in his comment.
Actually, it’s David Roberts at Grist, and he recommends that adaptation undergo a linguistic makeover to make it more palatable. More on that in a minute.
What’s most notable about Roberts’ post is that he has had a change of heart on an issue that, based on my own anecdotal experience, will be met with growls from some of the hardcore climate advocates in his community. Here’s the admission from Roberts:
Back when I started covering my beat, it was conventional wisdom among greenies that it’s best not to talk too much about adapting to climate change. The worry was that it might lure people into a false sense of security, get them thinking there’s no need to cut emissions since they can adapt to whatever changes come.
I’ve come to think that this is a deeply counterproductive way of looking at things. In fact, adaptation may be the most effective way to approach climate change.
Welcome aboard my lonely train, David. Two years ago, I asked:
Would climate change have greater urgency in the public mind if we started talking more about adaptation?
The silence was deafening. (In fairness, the blog was just getting off the ground and my mother didn’t feel confident enough to speak on behalf of the climate community.)
Since then, I’ve periodically returned to flog the issue that dare not speak its name, with much the same result.
More recently, last month I asked if the climate concerned community was finally ready to have a conversation about adaptation. Based on the heaping scorn vented in the comment thread, I took the answer to be a resounding no.
So it’s a curious thing to see Roberts change his mind at this point in time–or at least go public with it. Part of me wonders if it’s borne out of frustration with the lack of policy and political action. Regardless, Roberts still isn’t fond of the term adaption (too “bloodless”) and recommends replacing it with….get ready for it: ruggedizing.
Yeah, that’s an improvement. If you consider incomprehensible better than “bloodless.” And it rolls off the tongue nicely, heh?
Is this the same guy who coined the clever climate hawk term? Oh well, let’s get ready to ruggggggedize.
The world knows all about the stated dangers to climate. It has heard the projections and in large part accepted the science. Every government, every school from kindergarten through university, most newspapers and magazines and media outlets subscribe.
Despite that, the world has rejected the global/state approach of mitigation through tax or penalty. Since Copenhagen the climate concerned have been slow to face this reality.
As someone who has seen the necessity of energy transformation for far longer than climate has been an issue, let me assure the climate concerned. There is an overwhelming mass of people who share your goal of fossil free energy, but for other reasons. Even though you’ve very largely won the climate debate, your approach to the goal is irrevocably blocked. No further discussion of the science can change that.
The goal, however, is still attainable. If you stop thinking in terms of climate, you will find approaches that can be implemented and have a chance for success. The truly concerned will ask how best to achieve energy transformation if climate were not an issue at all?
Paul’s been arguing this to no avail over at Stoat’s and other climate concerned blogs for a while. He’s articulate, unfailingly civil, and pretty much ignored. In lieu of this, here’s a few post-midterm predictions you can bank on:
Climate hawks will remain fiercely protective of their turf. They will feast on their new (Republican) enemies. They will continue preening. Meanwhile, their habitat will become increasingly less favorable to their long-term survival.
And if the worst comes to pass, at least they can say they went out fighting.