“The Trump folks seem to believe that anything that has Obama’s fingerprints on it, no matter how sensible, they’re going to rescind, revoke and demolish, and it makes no sense at all.”
“[The climate conundrum] is scary and I’m not sure we’re gonna be able to turn it around.”
– John Holdren, December 2017.
This is Part II of a transcribed interview with John Holdren, leader of the energy/climate Malthusian school, by Climate One. Yesterday’s post critically assessed Holdren’s views on federal energy research and development, the Paris withdrawal, and China’s energy policy. Today’s post looks at his views on most other issues in the “energy sustainability” debate.
Holdren quotations are below in red, followed by my rebuttal comments indented in black (subtitles added).
Technology Boom in Renewable Energies
“… there have been huge improvement in battery technology. People have been struggling to improve batteries for many decades, but it’s only in the last 10 years or so that really dramatic progress has been made. And that’s partly due to advances in nanotechnology which enable us to manipulate the properties of the materials that go into batteries in ways that we could never do before.
Rebuttal: Why all the expense and ecological footprint of batteries when fossil fuels have their own built-in storage? Intermittency is a curse and reason to not complicate what is natural from dense, mineral energies. And has Professor Holdren examined all of the environmental issues with making lithium batteries–and the battery disposal problem. Life-cycle analysis anyone? As explained by the World Economic Forum:
“… producing an electric vehicle contributes, on average, twice as much to global warming potential and uses double the amount of energy than producing a combustion engine car. This is mainly because of its battery. Battery production uses a lot of energy, from the extraction of raw materials to the electricity consumed in manufacture. The bigger the electric car and its range, the more battery cells are needed to power it, and consequently the more carbon produced.”
Moreover, the WEF continues,
“An estimated 11 million tons of spent lithium-ion batteries will flood our markets by 2025, without systems in place to handle them…. Recycling lithium costs five times as much as extracting virgin material. Hence, only 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled in Europe.”
We’ve made enormous progress in photovoltaic cells and solar electricity generation. We’ve made enormous progress in the efficiency of wind turbines and the reduction. In the cost of wind turbines in the eight years that President Obama was in office the United States increased by 4 1/2 full to [fold?] the amount of electricity it gets from the wind and an increase by more than 40 fold the amount of electricity it gets from photovoltaics from solar energy.
And that’s going to continue. It’s already true now in some parts of the world, in some parts of this country that wind and photovoltaics are economically competitive with coal soon they’ll be economically competitive with natural gas. This is transformative and enormous change.
Rebuttal: Proponents of government-led energy transformation (from fossil fuels to wind & solar power in particular) have to walk a thin line. One the one hand, progress toward a renewables future is hyped. One the other hand, FETs (forced energy transformationists) they have to argue that government subsidies (and disproportionately high ones at that) are still necessary.
After decades of huge subsidies and mandates, it is past time for the training wheels to come off. Dilute, intermittent energies simply cannot compete against nature’s wonder of mineral energies that are superabundant, are portable, and have built-in storage.
Consumers choose the most affordable, efficient energies, and their market verdicts must be respected. “Put up or shut up” for those who promise time and again that renewables are (or are about to be) competitive. The current planned end of wind power’s Production Tax Credit at year-end 2019 will be a test of their (false) claim.
We’ve made enormous progress in energy efficiency. We can make new buildings not just zero energy buildings. We can make new buildings that export more energy to the grid than they have to import. The Woods Hole Research Center, which I directed from 2005 to 2008, has a building that does that. That is exporter of electricity to society. We can do that across society. We have drastically increased our ability to improve the efficiency of vehicles, electric vehicles are one way but even the internal combustion engine has become much more efficient.
Something that most people don’t know is that jet aircraft airliners have become vastly more efficient over the last 30 years. The energy use per seat mile is a small fraction of what it used to be and the potential for doing better continues. The potential for doing better in industry and manufacturing in terms of how much energy it takes to make the products that we use is enormous and we will continue to harvest that potential as probably the cheapest, fastest, safest, surest new energy supply.
A kilowatt hour we save is just as much good elsewhere in the economy as a new kilowatt hour we generate. A gallon of fuel we save just as much good elsewhere in the economy. Another area where there are enormous advances being made, I think, is in the domain of advanced biofuels. I’m not talking about ethanol from corn, which is only marginally beneficial at best….
Rebuttal: Amory Lovins negawatts. Highly profitable energy efficiency just sitting there for individuals and business to discover and capture. But golly, government must lead the way. This was Enron’s mantra (via Enron Energy Services, one cheerleader of which was Joe Romm).
US and global energy demand is growing, as it should. There are ever more ways to substitute energy for labor and to remove discomfort (think outdoor A/C during summers in many areas, for starters). And Al Gore needs a lot of juice.
Carbon Capture and Storage
The other thing that’s going to be important, I believe, is learning to capture and sequester carbon dioxide from power plants that do continue to burn coal or natural gas affordably and practically. That is extremely important because whatever else happens, there’s still gonna be a lot of fossil fuel burned in electricity generation around the world.
And even if the United States can reasonably rapidly unhook itself from fossil fuels and electricity generation and we still have a long way to go in that domain, China and India both sitting on a lot of coal are going to burn a lot of it. We have to figure out working with them how to burn that coal without the carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. We know how to do that today, but it’s too expensive. I think there are very exciting advances in sight, which will make that technology affordable….
Rebuttal: Carbon capture and storage (CCS)? For enhanced oil recovery maybe? To allow us to live our high fossil-fueled lifestyles? Don’t mention that to many FETS (forced energy transformationists). Here comes the cronyism via the Carbon Capture Coalition, critically examined here.
But I think it’s again unjust, irresponsible and ultimately self-defeating to say let the poor solve their own problems let India and China and Indonesia and Brazil and Mexico pay for everything that’s needed to reduce their emissions, never mind to adapt to the changes in climate, we can no longer avoid, say well that’s their problem.
It’s our problem too as a matter of moral and ethical responsibility but also as a matter of self-interest. As I said before, what goes into the atmosphere once it’s there becomes a global problem. We are being disadvantaged by the emissions in China and India.
Today, China is by far the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. United States is second but India is third and gaining rapidly. It is in our interest even if we didn’t care about the health of those populations and the impacts of climate change in those countries and only cared about our own, it would still be in our interest to work with them, to collaborate with them, to help fund their approaches to reducing their emissions.
Rebuttal: Climate statists envision one world government–and a massive wealth redistribution from the (free market) haves to the (statist) have-nots. This hidden agenda is one that the Trump Administration has exposed as a reason to bail out of the Paris climate accord. And John Holdren has reconfirmed this problem for the rest of us.
Given that adaptation is becoming the strategy of necessity and choice to wealth and/or climate events, the have-not countries must free their economies. The US should not subsidize failure by propping up socialist states in the name of climate change.
Messaging Climate Activism
We had a brilliant individual as the head of the Office of Management and Budget, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, OIRA. Cass Sunstein, one of our country’s leading public intellectuals who is a lawyer by training, but who became very interested in behavioral science wrote a book called “Nudge” about how differences in the way you message traces the way you message opportunities have dramatic effects on what people do. And you can without coercion get people to do things that are in their self-interest by changing the way you message things.
We have thought a lot about that. We’ve thought a lot in the Obama administration about messaging. We worked a lot with the private sector. Because clearly the point that American business will benefit from sensible strategies to address climate change rather than being hurt by sensible strategy, this is a very powerful message. It didn’t work with Donald Trump when Trump was considering what to do about Paris more than 600 CEOs of major American corporations wrote to President Trump and said please stay in the Paris agreement it will be good for American business. He chose to ignore that, but that’s an important message and it’s a message that still has some considerable resonance in the Congress.
And I think that’s very important because again everybody knows the economy is important people react to messages that say this is not a bad thing economically to take sensible action about climate change it’s a good thing economically. The message that says yes there are some costs in the short run to addressing climate change in an adequate way and in a practical way, but those costs are much lower than the damages that will ensue if we don’t address climate change in a sensible way. And basically making that economic argument, not just saying the sky is falling, but that millions of jobs will be created holding it up is very powerful.
Rebuttal: Nudges are one thing; government coercion is quite another. The climate issue has brought out the worst in corporate strategy. There is cronyism where firms resort to politics to try to make profits outside of the consumer-driven free marketplace. There is also political correctness which translates into economic incorrectness. Past this, the false assumptions and fallacies are too many to address in this (long) post.
All Bad Things
In many different ways. One of the things that many people don’t understand actually is climate change makes smog worse. So you have this immediate impact that in a warmer climate you have more severe smog episodes and you have more illnesses and deaths from conventional air pollution, you have this connection between climate change and conventional air pollution. Another aspect in which it’s a health hazard is that we are expanding the geographic range of tropical pathogens and vectors of malaria, of dengue fever.
Rebuttal: What about global greening and the benefits of lukewarming for large populations? What about the risks of less affordable, less available energy? What about energy poverty. The other side of the coin is not being looked at here.
John Holdren: Zika. And so we are exposing populations that previously have no exposure to these pathogens and these vectors to these new diseases. Asthma is getting worse. Pollen seasons are getting longer and so we’re having more asthma attacks and we’re harming the health of more of our children who are particularly susceptible to asthma attacks through climate change. And this is without talking about the extreme weather events that go along with climate change, where, for example, flooding leads in many circumstances to outbreaks of cholera it leads to overflowing sewage facilities. It leads to breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
And there’s absolutely no question by the way, no scientific question that climate change is causing an increase in the power, the most powerful storms the intensity the most extreme downpours the frequency and magnitude of flooding. In fact, this is one of the most elementary connections between climate change and extreme weather. The fact is that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water. This is just fundamental physics. And if it can hold more water, more can come down at one time and that is what we’re seeing. And of course it’s amplified by changes in atmospheric circulation patterns that create blocking patterns that keep powerful storms like the one that recently hit Houston in place for a long time. So that even more water comes down in one place and you see this incredible phenomenon where you get 4 feet of rain in the space of a few days. And of course Houston is still suffering from that and part of that suffering is disease and death from flooding.
Greg Dalton: This is very dark and there’s something called pre-traumatic stress disorder which is been ascribed to some scientist like yourself who often look at these numbers that are very scary about things that could happen in the future. They’re traumatized by the things that are yet to happen, rather than things that happened in the past. Do you ever have moments where you get a lump in your stomach and say this is really scary I’m not sure we’re gonna be able to turn this around?
John Holdren: I do. It is scary and I’m not sure we’re gonna be able to turn it around. I don’t have a clear crystal ball, but I end all of my talks on what we can do on a discussion of the options we have as a society to address this successfully. You know, some of the people I mentioned earlier that there are many dimensions of contrarianism, you know, one is to say it’s not happening another is to say it’s happening but people are causing it. Another is to say yes it’s happening and people are causing it, but it won’t amount to much.
And another is saying people are causing it, it’s happening, it’ll amount to a lot, but it’s too late to do anything about it.
And my argument is that all of those forms of contrarianism are wrong. It is not too late to do anything about it. When some of the contrarian say well there’s too much uncertainty about the future of climate change to justify big investments. I point out that the biggest uncertainty about how much harm will come from climate change is what people decide to do about it. If we decide to do a lot about it, if we take aggressive, practical, effective action to reduce the pace and the ultimate magnitude of climate change, we’re gonna get a lot less damage than if we don’t. And then what I do in my talks is I go into the various categories of action. I say look, society facing this challenge has three options. Mitigation, reducing the emissions that are driving this problem, adaptation, meaning steps you take to reduce the damages from changes in climate that you can’t avoid. And the third option is suffering. And if we’re sensible as a society, we want to act to minimize the suffering. And to minimize the suffering we need to minimize both mitigation and adaptation.
That was another very important feature of the climate change strategy in the Obama administration. We lifted up adaptation to be co-equal with mitigation. Yes, we need to make significant efforts at reducing emissions in this country and around the world. But we also need to recognize that climate change is already happening. It’s already doing damage to life, health, economies, property, ecosystems. We need to address things that we can do to reduce the harm from the changes that are already occurring and that will continue to grow until our emissions reductions take hold to the point of stabilizing things.
So we need to do both. There are lots of things we can do. There are things individuals can do cities, states, businesses, governments, international coalitions. And I talk about all of those things because I don’t want to leave people at the end of my presentations about climate change with the sense that we’re screwed. We might be screwed if we don’t do any of the things that are available to us. But we don’t have to be screwed.
Shame on You!
In response to a question from Greg Dalton, “Do you ever feel guilty that your high carbon lifestyle, flying a lot, you know, I have a high carbon lifestyle as a, you know, privileged American,” Holdren answered:
Oh absolutely. But what that sense of guilt does is it re-energizes me to try to educate the public and the policymakers about where we’re headed and to take the kinds of actions that can drastically reduce the harm to be expected from what we’re doing to the climate. In other words, guilt per se is not terribly useful.
Guilt that drives you to do constructive things is maybe a little better. But yes our lifestyles, those of us in the United States, in Western Europe, in Japan, in the wealthiest countries in the world, increasingly in the wealthy part of China. We have a lot to answer for and that should give us a sense of responsibility to take action.
On Trump Policy
The Trump folks seem to believe that anything that has Obama’s fingerprints on it, no matter how sensible, they’re going to rescind, revoke and demolish and it makes no sense at all. One of the arguments that I’ve tried to make is that investments in climate change preparedness resilience and adaptation should be embraced by both parties enthusiastically whether you believe climate change is happening or not because powerful storms have always happened, floods have always happened, wildfires have always happened.
We’ve always been under prepared it would make sense to build up society’s resilience against those kinds of events even if you didn’t believe that climate change is increasing their frequency and severity. It undoubtedly is according to the science that we should be embracing these measures even if you don’t believe the science…. They’re just dismantling it because it has Obama’s fingerprints on it.
Rebuttal: But perhaps Obama overreached both on policy and executives orders in a vendetta against the fossil-fueled economy. And maybe the tissue of regulation slowed down the economy and personal advancement for many Americans. And perhaps such an overreach has caused an opposite movement in politics.
And maybe Trump is Winning on energy and climate!
If you want to be depressed and get more depressed (fossil fuels are winning the “climate war” a little more every day), then pretend that high-sensitivity climate models are impregnable. But why not check your premises–as did Matt Ridley. He tells his story in “My Life As A Global Lukewarmer“:
I was not always a lukewarmer. When I first started writing about the threat of global warming more than 26 years ago, as science editor of The Economist, I thought it was a genuinely dangerous threat. Like, for instance, Margaret Thatcher, I accepted the predictions being made at the time that we would see warming of a third or a half a degree (Centigrade) a decade, perhaps more, and that this would have devastating consequences.
Gradually, however, I changed my mind. The failure of the atmosphere to warm anywhere near as rapidly as predicted was a big reason: there has been less than half a degree of global warming in four decades — and it has slowed down, not speeded up. Increases in malaria, refugees, heatwaves, storms, droughts and floods have not materialised to anything like the predicted extent, if at all. Sea level has risen but at a very slow rate — about a foot per century.
Also, I soon realised that all the mathematical models predicting rapid warming assume big amplifying feedbacks in the atmosphere, mainly from water vapour; carbon dioxide is merely the primer, responsible for about a third of the predicted warming. When this penny dropped, so did my confidence in predictions of future alarm: the amplifiers are highly uncertain.
Another thing that gave me pause was that I went back and looked at the history of past predictions of ecological apocalypse from my youth – population explosion, oil exhaustion, elephant extinction, rainforest loss, acid rain, the ozone layer, desertification, nuclear winter, the running out of resources, pandemics, falling sperm counts, cancerous pesticide pollution and so forth. There was a consistent pattern of exaggeration, followed by damp squibs: in not a single case was the problem as bad as had been widely predicted by leading scientists. That does not make every new prediction of apocalypse necessarily wrong, of course, but it should encourage scepticism.