06 May 2011

The Green Blind Spot

Dave Roberts at Grist has post up critiquing Matt Nisbet's report in which he reveals a lot about the mindset of many American greens (of course, to the extent that Grist represents this community).  Roberts' critique clearly shows that greens have a huge blind spot when it comes to technology, it just doesn't factor in their calculus.

Roberts explains the world along two dimensions power politics on one end and ideas on the other:
Imagine, if you will, a spectrum: On one end, there are those who see politics as a battle of interests, a raw contest of "power politics" waged with the weapons of money and influence. "Post-truth politics," one might call it. On the other end, there are those who see politics as a battle of ideas, wherein the cleverest messaging and policy proposals attract the most reasonable people and public support, and win. Obviously there's a mix of the two, and one can come down anywhere in between on the spectrum.

In Nisbet's telling, the green movement has devoted itself to power politics when it's actually involved in a battle of ideas, and it's losing. It needs new ideas, new policies, new messages, not just more organizing and spending and lobbying. Cap-and-trade was always doomed because it's the wrong idea at the wrong time. That's why Nisbet tries to show that supporters of the climate bill were as powerful as opponents. If he can show that the sides were evenly matched in the battle of interests, then the only thing that can explain the loss is bad ideas.
Roberts thinks that Nisbet is focused to much on "ideas" and not enough on "power politics."  What is missed here is that policies lead to real world impacts, and all of the political power and good ideas in the world are impotent if they do not lead to practical action.  And absent an effective policy framework -- call it an "idea" if you want -- action will not occur.

Let's explore this with a thought experiment.  Imagine if there were in fact a cap-and-trade policy in place.  Imagine further that the government committed itself to getting off of fossil fuels and nuclear power, and had committed to high speed rail and even $7 $8.80 dollar-a-gallon gasoline.  Let's go further and imagine a near-universal commitment to green values among the public.  Surely, Roberts would find such a set of circumstances to be near nirvana.

We actually don't actually have to imagine such a set of conditions, they exist in a place called Germany.  And guess what?  German rates of decarbonization over the past decade have been exceeded by those in the United States.  How can that be if in Germany the political battle over climate has long been won?  Could it be that Germany climate policies are flawed in some sense?  That Germany needs some new ideas?

Decarbonizing the global economy is ultimately a technology problem.  It is simply not a problem of power politics or ideas, but rather, in implementing a set of policies that lead to technological innovation.  Roberts comes close to getting this, but doesn't make the connection, preferring to see technological change as a mere matter of political choice and not as a function technology itself:
Cheap fossil fuels have shaped America's infrastructure, industry, politics, land use, consumer habits, and self-image for over a century. They're woven into the fabric of U.S. history, commerce, and governance. Relationships among fossil-fuel execs, lobbyists, and politicians date back generations. Even if advocates for change can argue convincingly that there will be winners from the shift to a low-carbon economy -- more winners than losers, even -- the fact remains that many of the future losers currently wield enormous influence and the future winners don't yet exist, are not yet organized, do not yet have a history of cultural affiliation and financial common interest with politicians.
As the case of Germany shows, winning a political battle over green values does not compel policy outcomes related to specific technologies (in this case, I mean specifically accelerated decarbonizion to levels consistent with low stabilization levels).  The marriage of politics and policy in a way that accelerates decarbonization remains far away, in Germany and the United States.  So long as greens continue to ignore the central role of technology, and the role of policy in stimulating that innovation, they will find themselves in political battles with only the prospects of Pyrrhic victories.


  1. It's true that decarbonization is a technology problem, but it's important to remember the Iron Law and related factors here. Namely, policies that make people less wealthy are going to slow down adoption and willingness to spend for luxuries like a cleaner environment (this is much broader than CO2 phobias, of course).

    So, $7/gallon gasoline certainly makes us want to find something cheaper, but by reducing our ability to invest in replacements or alternatives, and thus less likely to actually change.

  2. Roger, I wondered if this approach using normal world evidence and logic, is effective in your discussions with people like Roberts? I have not had success for example pointing to the Eon Netz engineering reports data on wind power inefficiency as normal world evidence that wind power has serious limitations and is not the end all be all. I have found that if someone has it in their mind that wind power will save mankind, for example, they ignore normal world evidence. It is as if they have a "virtual brain" that creates a "virtual reality" and dismisses the evidence of normal reality when it conflicts with their "virtual reality".

  3. $7 a gallon? In my dreams. £1.45 per litre now in London, times 3.79 for US gallon = £5.50, times FX rate of 1.64 = $9 per gallon.

    According to http://gasoline-germany.com/statistik.phtml it's €1.60 in Germany, same math gives $8.80.

    The natural substitute is LPG, but until then we all drive VW Polos I guess.

  4. I never cease to be amazed that, even with all the technical expertise in the world of climatology, few recognize that we don't have the technology at this point to solve the problem. Not only is wind power still a bit too expensive, it has several serious downsides. First, it will also require significant extra infrastructure since turbines usually can't be located near the demand. Secondly, it's intermittence requires some form of redundancy and/or storage, which greatly adds to the cost. And of course, it has negative esthetic/environmental/NIMBY issues. This isn't rocket science. I can only assume that this oversight by so many greens is a bi-product of a lack of objectivity. They want to believe that we have the answer and that it's just a matter of political will. But there is hope. George Monbiot seems to be catching on.

  5. -2-Papa Zu

    Thanks, I have been at a workshop this week on "post-normal science" (which I will blog on soon enough), and one of the point that we have discussed is that is situations such as you describe, reality wins.

  6. -3-roderick

    Thanks, I will update with these numbers. I have just returned from a stroll around the Binnenalster and there is no shortage today of v-8 (and v-12) cars, including American muscle cars and giant BMWs, Porsches and more. There are also plenty of smart cars and other micros. Hamburgers appear to love their cars, even at $9/gallon!

  7. the fact remains that many of the future losers currently wield enormous influence

    The people that won't be able to afford to heat or cool their homes...or afford homes at all certainly wield enormous influence.

    Maybe the 'Greens' should wake up to reality and realize the only power 'Big Coal' and 'Big Oil' yield is being cheaper then the alternatives.

  8. Papa Zu - my experience in discussing issues like the one you raise, real provable yields and intermittency using 5-minute interval data for wind farms in Scotland, or it could be the CO2 bang-for-buck for solar FiTs, is that one is well-advised to give up, as a positive act rather than in resignation. It takes a while, but the rational, however much they want it to be true, will either a) see the light (Monbiot on civil nuclear and UK solar pv, Romm on corn ethanol) or b) move on to something else as whatever it is turns out in reality not to be the silver bullet, or gvt turns off the subsidy tap and the thing withers on the vine (subsidies for vehicle LPG conversion in UK).

    Frontal attempts to 'win' or 'prove' are seen as denial, obstruction, and so on.

    The starting positions people take up are interesting. My starting position, as a commercial animal, is that if a wind farm tells me it will produce X power with Y intermittency characteristics and Z outages, that that is the best possible outcome, and that as a rule of thumb I should multiply those numbers by the appropriate previously achieved discount on a comparable venture. If grid wind models across the UK use a default position of largely uncorrelated wind, again one discounts that.

    The starting position of a believer is different.

    So in effect one is also calling them stupid (for having believed the sticker numbers).

  9. Roger,

    I think you overstate your case (or rather understate the effectiveness of 'green' policies like C&T and renewables, and gas taxes). In 1990 Germany's per capita emissions were close to 2/3 rds of the U.S. By 2007, they were down to about 50%. While much of these changes are likely do to other factors, it's equally likely that 'decarbonization' policies have also played a role.

    I'd also emphasize the fact that Germany's per capita emissions are HALF of the U.S. So, you could make a plausible argument that no new technologies are needed to get a substantial portion of the reductions needed (i.e 80% below 1990). This is not to say that technological breakthroughs won't help speed up the process, but again the economist in me would argue that ultimately it's the price that matters and the German experience relative to that of the U.S. reinforces rather than disputes this conclusion (i.e. higher prices = more fuel conservation).

    The principal question then, is why are Germans willing to tolerate $8/gallon fuel whereas Americans are not?

    Apologies if it seems like I'm starting to sound a little repetetive.

  10. -9 Marlowe Johnson,

    "The principal question then, is why are Germans willing to tolerate $8/gallon fuel whereas Americans are not?"

    Yeah, what's the deal with those Germans? /snark

    I guess the question (to which I don't know the answer) is, "When did German gasoline taxes get so high (i.e., >70% of the price)?" Look at how that came about, and maybe it will give a clue as to why Americans aren't interested in doing that.

    How often do you get people volunteering to raise prices on something they buy a lot of in exchange for...nothing (at least, nothing tangible and immediate at best, and for less than getting nothing at worst)?

    Also, doesn't that 80% German CO2 reduction since 1990 include getting rid of the old East German inefficiencies?

  11. @Matt

    I think we're in fierce agreement here. The simple anwser has two components I think.

    First, Germany, like most other European nations has historically been an importer of liquid fossil fuels and developed its energy policies on that front accordingly. The U.S., until the early 70s produced a substantial portion of its liquid fuels and effectively adopted a 'too cheap to meter' approach to conservation. One need only look at the differences in vehicle fuel economy to see that this is so.

    Second, Germans are willing to pay higher prices because they drive more efficient vehicles and drive less (less urban sprawl). Thus, their total cost of ownership is not as large as a straight $/gallon comparison would suggest.

    I think the question of why Europeans are willing to tolerate higher fuel taxes than their North American counterparts is an interesting one; while it's rationale at the macro/national policy level, it would seem to make for bad politics nonetheless.

    Wrt to the East Germany question, I'm no expert, but I think that's already been taken care of by and large...