A View from Richard Martin
Recommended Reads on the Energy Beat This Week
A roundup of the best stories on energy from other sites, collected by Richard Martin, MIT Technology Review’s senior editor for energy.
COP21 and the Shift Toward Climate Pragmatism
A week after the historic Paris accord on climate change was reached, it’s clear that the agreement is broad and vaguely worded enough that, as with the Bible, it’s possible to see in it just about anything you want to justify your ideology or your convictions. According to Ted Nordhaus, cofounder of the Breakthrough Institute, the agreement represents a long-overdue shift away from clean-energy idealism toward a more pragmatic and effective approach to limiting carbon emissions. Building wind farms and hoping for a miracle is not going to work. “Big reductions in emissions, practically, are going to require low-carbon technologies that are better and cheaper,” argues Nordhaus. “Hence, finally, the acknowledgement that stabilization at two degrees will require radical technological innovation.”
Scientists See U.N. Climate Accord as a Good Start, but Just a Start
Scientists who have been issuing largely unheeded warnings about the consequences of climate change for years tend to view the Paris accord as a vindication—but one that does not go nearly far enough in addressing the problem. NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce surveyed some of the most prominent climate scientists and got responses ranging from “There’s no chance of this agreement working” to “At least now we have a chance.” Most scientists view the goal or limiting global temperature rise to 2 °C (to say nothing of the aspirational 1.5 °C urged in the new agreement) as probably unattainable. But now they are more hopeful than they were before Paris. “If countries really do what they say they’re going to do, it could make a real difference,” says Ken Caldeira, one of the prominent scientists calling for a massive investment in nuclear power to slow emissions. But after the failures of previous talks in Kyoto and Copenhagen, he’s a “little bit cynical” that nations will fulfill their pledges. The cynicism is justified, as is the hope.
For the really cynical point of view you can turn to the British author and commentator George Monbiot, who has become the Christopher Hitchens of energy and the environment. Scoffing at the timidity of the Paris delegates, he acknowledges the Janus-faced nature of the outcome: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” That’s the thing about international climate talks: it depends on which end of the telescope you’re looking through. Nonbinding agreements like the Paris document are always far from actually solving the problem, but if implemented and followed up on, they could be rungs on a ladder that might enable us to limit it, adapt to it, and eventually overcome it. Monbiot’s dim assessment is worth reading for one central point: the Paris accord does nothing to curtail supply of the fossil fuels on which the planet is gradually choking. “The U.N. climate process has focused entirely on the consumption of fossil fuels, while ignoring their production,” Monbiot states. “In Paris the delegates have solemnly agreed to cut demand, but at home they seek to maximize supply.” Finding a way to make the production of fossil fuels less profitable is absolutely critical to a workable climate solution. And that requires a price on carbon.
Africa Looks for Help to Implement Climate Agreement
“Africa, the least emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, now suffers the most from climate change,” Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, told an audience in Paris. And this clear-eyed analysis from Voice of America examines the ways in which the rest of the world—especially the developed nations of the West whose Industrial Revolution started the whole climate mess in the first place—can help Africans adapt to a new world of persistent drought, climate-driven migration and conflict, and an expanding Sahara. One clause that made the Paris agreement historic called for the creation of an international fund of $100 billion, given mostly by the OECD countries, to invest in adaptation and mitigation strategies. Already, the International Development Research Center is deploying mobile communications and data technologies that provide “seasonal weather forecasts and agricultural information localized to the sub-county level; weekly livestock and crop market information to help farmers decide what, when, where, and how much to sell; guidance on low-cost rainwater harvesting techniques; and information on drought and flood-coping mechanisms.” It’s not nearly enough, but, again, it’s a start.
Rebuttal to Harvard University Professor “New Form of Climate Denialism” Article
Finally, here are two pieces that examine the fundamental question of the climate crisis: How should we spend our limited financial, social, and technological resources to most rapidly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases? A long report from Third Way, another pragmatist think tank promoting realistic solutions to the energy crisis, examines the data and concludes that, indeed, renewables cannot do it alone and that “we must … recognize their limitations and put equally serious effort and political capital into bringing to scale other low-carbon technologies.” In practice, that means nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, waste-to-energy, and new biomass technologies—and the practicality of several of those technologies in very much open to question. At the Clouded Head, meanwhile, Dutch blogger Mathijs Becker does a full takedown of Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, for her column charging that calls for large investments in nuclear power, and suggestions that renewables alone are not up to the task, represent “a new form of climate denialism.” Whatever your opinions on the most effective way forward, there’s something thrilling about seeing an ill-informed argument by a prestigious academic get demolished, stone by stone.