Wednesday, January 18, 2012


date: Thu, 8 Feb 2007 19:00:19 -0600
from: Marty Hoffert <> (by way of Michael Schlesinger)
subject: Samuelson: The Dirty Secret About Global Warming


You have the guts and honesty to say what many climate/energy researchers and science
reporters know but scarcely dare to utter: "The Emperor Has No Clothes." (cf. your piece
below.) We six billion Homo sapiens are going boldly forth into the uncharted waters of
this century with very little "on the shelf" to address the most disruptive energy
technology challenge since we left East African savannas a hundred thousand years ago.

The challenge of building a sustainable energy infrastructure capable of running high tech
civilization at 50 to 100 terawatts, a level required for equity of the world's population
at a western lifestyle, and at the same time achieving phaseout of CO2 emissions by
midcentury -- the objective global warming mitigation problem -- is so daunting many fear
even speaking of it will paralyze the masses. This is a huge job. Don't expect to work
around global warming and keep civilization's business as usual by "adaption" without an
energy revolution either. Most adaptation paths -- building seawalls, massive indoor air
conditioning, irrigation previously rain-fed agriculture in drought regions -- require
massive amounts of energy.

Is it better to live with the delusion that solutions are at hand? There have, of course,
been prior forecasts of civilization's collapse as its life support systems break down; as
did happen, for example, on Easter Island and other places. But the moral of "The Boy who
Cried Wolf," isn't that there is no wolf. The moral is that we should not be lulled into
thinking the wolf won't come because he hasn't so far. We scientists and engineers
optimistic enough to think the problem is doable, but hard, even if we disagree on specific
approaches, believe the problem can be solved if we face it as an objective problem of
planetary engineering; a discipline that we will need, but one that doesn't yet exist. In
light of the historic failure of experts to predict which technologies will succeed, and
which will fail, and on what time scales, a big danger is prematurely ruling out approaches
that could work. We have to research and develop on a great deal of innovative ideas and
test them, some of which might seem "crazy," knowing in advance that many will fail. Our
guide has to be scientific plausibility, which gets back to education (see below). In any
case, technology evolution is like biological evolution insofar as both need mutations.
Most mutations fail in the battleground of natural selection. But without them evolution

Our best chance for a hopeful outcome from the crunch ahead in is to treat the
climate/energy challenge as a war of survival in which failure isn't an option. Anyone who
thinks we can muddle though should think again. If we believe our magnificent civilization,
built upon the ideas of the Enlightenment and the scientific method, is worth saving, even
with its evident flaws, a civilization on which we stand, in the words of Newton, on the
shoulders of giants, we've got to stop dissembling about our technological readiness to
solve the climate/energy problem. We have to stop saying technical solutions are here; that
they basically exist, without defining what "exist" even means. It's brain-deadening to
say "Cap and Trade," or carbon taxes alone, will solve the problem, because it distracts
from the question of where carbon-neutral primary power will come from capable of running
civilization. We simply don't have the luxury of scientific illiteracy, particularly of
leaders, who in the US tend to have legal, not scientific, education, when science and
technology underpin our very existence. It was precisely the belief that creative
accounting trumps creative engineering that characterized the Enron Ponzi scheme. What's
really scary is the thought that Kenneth Lay may have really believed he had a business
plan. Economics in its predictive mode is closer to astrology than to the hard sciences.
Much of it's predictions are ideological delusions (some of my best friends are economists,
really)! Tell that to Harvard MBAs. To survive, we will need to educate ourselves about how
the life support systems that sustain us on planet Earth work, and how they could work, to
run high tech civilization without savaging the remaining nonrenewable energy resources and
precious biodiversity legacy of Earth.

Is there a chance in Hell this complex message can be conveyed to the public and to
legislators? That appropriate R & D policies can be put in place with inspired and
competent administrators in time to be serious options for the next Presidential election?
If so, the media will be crucial (the reason for this cc. list). And kudos again to you Bob
Samuelson, along with a few others who are media heros in my book. You know who you are.
On that happy note:


Marty Hoffert
Professor Emeritus of Physics
Andre and Bella Meyer Hall of Physics
Room 525, Mail Code 1026
4 Washington Place
New York University
New York, NY 10003-6621

NYU Phone: 212-998-3747
NYU Fax: 212-995-4016
Home Phone: 516-466-9418
Home Fax: 516-487-0734
Cellphone: 516-972-4779

Web page:

Date: Thu, 08 Feb 2007 14:34:44 -0600
From: Michael Schlesinger <>
Subject: FYI: Samuelson: The Dirty Secret About Global Warming

Original-recipient: rfc822;

Samuelson: The Dirty Secret About Global Warming

From politicians to the corporate world, everyone's talking about saving the planet from
disastrous climate change. But for now, it's just talk.

By Robert J. Samuelson
Updated: 10:40 a.m. MT Feb 7, 2007

Feb. 7, 2007 - You could be excused for thinking that we'll soon do something serious
about global warming. Last Friday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC)-an international group of scientists-concluded that, to a 90 percent probability,
human activity is warming the Earth. Earlier, Democratic congressional leaders made
global warming legislation a top priority; and 10 big U.S. companies (including General
Electric and DuPont) endorsed federal regulation. Strong action seems at hand.

Don't be fooled. The dirty secret about global warming is this: We have no solution.
About 80 percent of the world's energy comes from fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas),
the main sources of man-made greenhouse gases. Energy use sustains economic growth,
which-in all modern societies-buttresses political and social stability. Until we can
replace fossil fuels or find practical ways to capture their emissions, governments will
not sanction the deep energy cuts that would truly affect global warming.

Considering this reality, you should treat the pious exhortations to "do something" with
skepticism, disbelief or contempt. These pronouncements are (take your pick) naive,
self-interested, misinformed, stupid or dishonest. Politicians mainly want to be seen as
reducing global warming. Companies want to polish their images and exploit markets
created by new environmental regulations. As for editorialists and pundits, there's no
explanation except superficiality or herd behavior.

Anyone who honestly examines global energy trends must reach these harsh conclusions. In
2004, world emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2, the main greenhouse gas) totaled 26
billion metric tons. Under plausible economic and population assumptions, CO2 emissions
will grow to 40 billion tons by 2030, projects the International Energy Agency. About
three-quarters of the increase is forecast to come from developing countries, two-fifths
from China alone. The IEA expects China to pass the United States as the largest source
of carbon dioxide by 2009.

Poor countries won't sacrifice economic growth-lowering poverty, fostering political
stability-to placate the rich world's global warming fears. Why should they? On a
per-person basis, their carbon dioxide emissions are only about one-fifth the level of
rich countries. In Africa, less than 40 percent of the population even has electricity.
Nor will existing technologies, aggressively deployed, rescue us. The IEA studied an
"alternative scenario" that simulated the effect of 1,400 policies to reduce fossil fuel
use. Fuel economy for new U.S. vehicles was assumed to increase 30 percent by 2030; the
global share of energy from "renewables" (solar, wind, hydropower, biomass) would
quadruple, to 8 percent. The result: by 2030, annual carbon dioxide emissions would rise
31 percent instead of 55 percent. The concentration levels of emissions in the
atmosphere (which presumably cause warming) would rise.

Since 1850, global temperatures have increased almost 1 degree Celsius. Sea level has
risen about seven inches, though the connection is unclear. So far, global warming has
been a change, not a calamity. The IPCC projects wide ranges for the next century:
temperature increases from 1.1 degrees Celsius to 6.4 degrees; sea level rises from
seven inches to almost two feet. People might easily adapt; or there might be costly
disruptions (say, frequent flooding of coastal cities resulting from melting polar ice

I do not say we should do nothing, but we should not delude ourselves. In the United
States, the favored remedy is "cap and trade." It's environmental
grandstanding-politicians pretending they're doing something.

Companies would receive or buy quotas ("caps") to emit carbon dioxide. To exceed the
limits, they'd acquire some other company's unused quotas ("trade"). How simple. Just
order companies to cut emissions. Businesses absorb all the costs.

But in practice, no plausible "cap and trade" program would significantly curb global
warming. To do that, quotas would have to be set so low as to shut down the economy. Or
the cost of scarce quotas would skyrocket and be passed along to consumers through much
higher energy prices. Neither outcome seems likely. Quotas would be lax. The program
would be a regulatory burden with little benefit. It would also be a bonanza for
lobbyists, lawyers and consultants, as industries and localities besieged Washington for
exceptions and special treatment. Hello, influence-peddling and sleaze.

What we really need is a more urgent program of research and development, focusing on
nuclear power, electric batteries, alternative fuels and the capture of carbon dioxide.
Naturally, there's no guarantee that socially acceptable and cost-competitive
technologies will result. But without them, global warming is more or less on automatic
pilot. Only new technologies would enable countries-rich and poor-to reconcile the
immediate imperative of economic growth with the potential hazards of climate change.

Meanwhile, we could temper our energy appetite. I've argued before for a high oil tax to
prod Americans to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. The main aim would be to limit
insecure oil imports, but it would also check CO2 emissions. Similarly, we might be
better off shifting some of the tax burden from wages and profits to a broader tax on
energy or carbon. That would favor more fuel-efficient light bulbs, appliances and
industrial processes.

It's a debate we ought to have - but probably won't. Any realistic response would be
costly, uncertain and no doubt unpopular. That's one truth too inconvenient for almost
anyone to admit.

� 2007

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