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New Yorker and Old Speak = Reckless endangerment?

March 25th, 2009 · 4 Comments

The New Yorker has been a bright spot, in many ways, in the media disaster that has been global warming reporting. Elizabeth Kolbert is not just a beautiful writer, a pleasure to read, but insightful and thoughtful about the climate crisis and energy issues. (See, for example, her wonderful The Island in the Wind.) The latest New Yorker has an article that is a travesty, caught in old speak, old thinking, that clearly suggests that the author (David Owen) and The New Yorker‘s editors haven’t been paying any attention to (if they’ve even been reading) Kolbert.

The title is a give-away: Economy vs the Environment.

Earth to New Yorker and Owen: It is not, by any means, Economy vs Environment, it is Economy and Environment if we have any hope of creating prosperity not just for future generations, but for ourselves in coming years. From the E2 Solution,

To be honest, one of the things that most frustrates me about Global Warming Skeptics, like those currently occupying the Oval Office and the Office of the Vice President, is their constant misleading of people on issues that are, quite literally, issues of life or death.

Well, it is here in the arena of win or lose that we see their misleading. When it comes to the interaction of economy, energy and environment, without batting an eyelid, they will look you in the face and tell you that you have a choice between these: the Environment with clean energy or the Economy powered by dirty energy. And, they will argue that somehow, Environment vs Economy are actually separable and in opposition to each other. That you can either have lights on at night and warm homes or a clean environment. That you can either have good jobs or polar bears far away from you in the Arctic. That you can either have a functioning economy or a functioning environment.

Let me tell you in no uncertain terms. It is not an “or” situation. It is “and”. We must have both the environment and the economy. There is no economy to care about without an environment that can sustain us and our children. And, there is no economy worth having if it devastates the world we live in and that might destroy the world of our children.

E2 … Environment and Economy. Economy and Environment.

The New Yorker‘s title and David Owen’s piece states an opposition that is a falsehood, perpetuated by too many for too long, that there is somehow a choice. They are wrong.

Sadly, books could be written (actually, they have been written) to refute Owen, point-by-point and in overall thrust. Let’s take a quick romp through this travesty.

The week before last, twenty-five hundred delegates, from more than seventy countries, met in Copenhagen to prepare for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will take place there in December and will produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1992 and will expire in 2012. The speakers in Copenhagen were united by a sense of urgency—and for good reason, given the poor record of most participating countries in meeting their Kyoto targets for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

Now, several things here. This is perhaps a good start to the piece. Scientists met. They agree on core elements: humanity is affecting the climate through greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts, on balance, of the resulting changes will be highly negative for the habitability of the plant for humanity. These 1000s of scientists feel a great sense of urgency, seeking to figure out how to communicate the seriousness of the situation in a way to spark real action to forestall the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change. Their urgency is driven, in no small part, by what is viewed as failures of communication as evidenced by “the poor record of most participating countries”. Their key messages are serious … even terrifying.

Now, one might expect some more information about what the scientists said. About the extent of their concerns. Perhaps, in something entitled “Economy vs The Environment”, a discussion of the drastic economic impacts (a small part of the overall set of impacts) of unchecked Global Warming. You might have expected but you won’t be receiving.

Now, one of the real travesties of Owen’s writing is how he has qualifiers that might make him feel happy but will be glossed over by most readers. Above was the opening paragraph, here is the conclusion:

The ultimate success or failure of Obama’s program, and of the measures that will be introduced in Copenhagen this year, will depend on our willingness, once the global economy is no longer teetering, to accept policies that will seem to be nudging us back toward the abyss.

Note that “seem”. Owen kept the door open, it seems, for being able to argue that he was reasonable in the piece even when he is stating that dealing with climate issues will be damaging to the economy.  Now, considering that he opened the piece with a reference to Copenhagen, it is a true travesty that he ends it with comments that are 180 degrees out from the scientists’ key messages:

Key Message 5: Inaction is Inexcusable

There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches (economic, technological, behavioural, management) to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented to achieve the societal transformation required to decarbonise economies. A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems and revitalisation of ecosystem services.

Does this sound like a message about “nudging us back toward the abyss”?

Here are some of Owen’s arguments, summed up.

1. Countries have met Kyoto targets only through economic problems.

2. Clean technology isn’t ready.

3. Efficiency is counterproductive, because it just leads to more use.

4. ‘Green Jobs’ are, basically, a zero-sum game against polluting employment.

Misleading to false.



Patently false.

1. Economic failure ...

This is a misleading frame. First, because it is captured within the discussion of Kyoto. Second, because it rejects the reality that efficiencies and other paths are reducing emissions, even if not enough to hit Kyoto. And, well, the most absurd I’ll deal with in a moment.

So far, the most effective way for a Kyoto signatory to cut its carbon output has been to suffer a well-timed industrial implosion, as Russia did after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991.

This really is basically true and is a problem, in part, with Kyoto: baseline year of 1990, all those ex-Warsaw Pact countries shutting down inefficient (heavy polluting) plants got a quick benefit in terms of reduction. Modernizing from 1920s/1950s technology (and shutting down uncompetitive industries) to 1990s made a real difference.

The real absurdity:

The United States didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but Canada did, and its experience is suggestive because its economy and per-capita oil consumption are similar to ours. Its Kyoto target is a six-per-cent reduction from 1990 levels. By 2006, however, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on climate initiatives, its greenhouse-gas output had increased to a hundred and twenty-two per cent of the goal, and the environment minister described the Kyoto target as “impossible.”

The explanation for Canada’s difficulties isn’t complicated: the world’s principal source of man-made greenhouse gases has always been prosperity.

What is the absurdity here?  The reason why Canada has failed to make it’s target? Three words: Alberta Tar Sands. Six more words: The Most Destructive Project on Earth.  Canada’s problems in meeting Kyoto accords are not because of general prosperity, but due to the decision to pursue (aggressively) a highly polluting exploitation of the Tar Sands.

The recession makes that relationship easy to see: shuttered factories don’t spew carbon dioxide; the unemployed drive fewer miles and turn down their furnaces, air-conditioners, and swimming-pool heaters; struggling corporations and families cut back on air travel; even affluent people buy less throwaway junk.

Gasoline consumption in the United States fell almost six per cent in 2008. That was the result not of a sudden greening of the American consciousness but of the rapid rise in the price of oil during the first half of the year, followed by the full efflorescence of the current economic mess.

Well, by the way, hmmm … Yes … But, isn’t it interesting that as electricity use fell, coal as a percent of electrical production fell even faster while new renewables (especially wind and solar) grew by nearly 50 percent in terms of electricity production. (And, are likely to see similar growth this year as well.) Thus, there is introduction of new and clean power, changing the power system, even as economic situation is helping reduce emissions even more due to lowered electricity use.

The world’s financial and energy crises are connected, and they are similar because credit and fossil fuels are forms of leverage: oil, coal, and natural gas are multipliers of labor in much the same way that credit is a multiplier of wealth.

How about, Owen, that they are connected because they can either be solved together (the “E3 solution” of economy / energy / environment) or have catastrophe together?

2. Clean Technology isn’t ready

Many books and studies on this one.

Moreover, American dependence on fossil fuels isn’t going to end any time soon: solar panels and wind turbines provided only about a half per cent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2007, and they don’t work when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Replacing oil is going to require more than determination.

Well, they provided about three percent of electricity in 2008. Up from 2 percent the year before. Up from one percent just a few years before that. Likely to be over 4 and perhaps nearing 5 percent of electricity in 2009. One of the questions, of course, is what is “any time soon”? With some serious policies, there are paths to cut fossil-fuel dependencies dramatically over the coming decade. Is that soon enough to be “any time soon”?

3. Efficiency is Counter-productive

Okay, let’s not get into a debate over Jevon’s Paradox but simply state with Owens’ deceit and yet again another arena of book after book.

Our best intentions regarding conservation and carbon reduction inevitably run up against the realities of foreclosure and bankruptcy and unemployment. How do we persuade people to drive less—an environmental necessity—while also encouraging them to revive our staggering economy by buying new cars?

The popular answer—switch to hybrids—leaves the fundamental problem unaddressed. Increasing the fuel efficiency of a car is mathematically indistinguishable from lowering the price of its fuel; it’s just fiddling with the other side of the equation. If doubling the cost of gas gives drivers an environmentally valuable incentive to drive less—the recent oil-price spike pushed down consumption and vehicle miles travelled, stimulated investment in renewable energy, increased public transit ridership, and killed the Hummer—then doubling the efficiency of cars makes that incentive disappear. Getting more miles to the gallon is of no benefit to the environment if it leads to an increase in driving—and the response of drivers to decreases in the cost of driving is to drive more.

Think about this. Putting aside any environmental considerations, if we magically doubled your fuel efficiency, would you drive twice as much? Really want (more than) twice as much time in your car. A 10 percent increase across large populations. Perhaps even a 20 percent, but a doubling of driving to match a doubling of fuel efficiency? Forget it, it is outside the bounds of reasonableness — and outside the bounds of research on the issue.

(Note, again, there might be a quite different and serious discussion to be had when it comes to Jevon’s Paradox and paths for keeping ‘efficiency’ from leading toward greater consumption. But Owen provides an example that is simply wrong.)

5. Green Jobs: Zero-Sum Game

Owens’ act of journalistic malpractice comes out clearly here. On journalism’s failures on climate and economy, there is Pooley’s must-read Shorenstein Center paper, which I should write up. (See  Romm’s write up of it.) Owen clearly hasn’t read it. (Nor, does it seem, has he or the New Yorker’s editors read their colleague’s (Elizabeth Kolbert) interview: A Reporter’s Field Notes on
The Coverage of Climate Change

The prospects for a meaningful worldwide climate agreement probably improved last November, with the election of Barack Obama, but his commitments to economic recovery and carbon reduction—to bringing the country out of recession while also reducing U.S. greenhouse emissions to seventeen per cent of their 2005 level by 2050—don’t pull in the same direction. Creating “green jobs,” a key component of the agenda, is different from creating new jobs, since green jobs, if they’re truly green, displace non-green jobs—wind-turbine mechanics instead of oil-rig roughnecks—probably a zero-sum game, as far as employment is concerned.

“Probably a zero-sum game …” What basis does Owen have for this statement other than, it seems, a shallow pulling it out of his a–? Every single piece of analysis shows that a clean kilowatt-hour produces more jobs than a fossil-fuel one. And, writ large, moving toward an energy efficiency economy is, is no small part, built on investing upfront (insulation, hybrid cars, etc) to reduce the operating costs of using fossil fuels. Those investments, by the way, pay for jobs in the United States (ever try to install insulation in Omaha from an out-sourcing center in India?) rather than send dollars overseas to import polluting energy sources.

Washing one’s hands …

For whatever reason, The New Yorker chose to join the ‘faux and balanced’ club, deciding to publish a deceptive, fossil-foolish talking points travesty to balance Elizabeth Kolbert’s quality journalism. Journalism, we should note, should not be about balance but about seeking to provide truth and truthful information, with thoughtful analysis (opinion) to provide a path for interpretation, to an outlet’s readers. In this case, The New Yorker‘s editors have utterly failed their readers.

Time to go wash my hands after digging into this filth.

NOTE: For some other romps through this filth, see: Joe Romm at Climate Progress and Ryan Avent at Grist.  And, perhaps interesting to note that Owen is a golf writer and not the only sports writer to do a poor job on economy/energy/environmental reporting in the past week.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Would they mess up sports reporting? // Mar 26, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    […] ← New Yorker and Old Speak = Reckless endangerment? […]

  • 2 Robert H // Mar 29, 2009 at 1:48 am

    There is a direct relationship between energy consumption and standard of living.

    Actually, Robert, that is only partially true. There are GDP correlations but there are also correlations against energy efficiency. What your statement is saying is that we improve our standards of living by purposefully wasting energy. Let’s take a simple, direct, personal analogy: why not leave your lights on in you home 24/7, whether you’re in the house or not. Energy Consumption has a direct correlation to standard of living so obviously your standard of living should go up. No?

    If the climate stalinists have their way to meet Kyoto commitments they will be prepared to sacrifice half the worlds population to meet the goal.

    “Climate Stalinists” … greatly appreciate your ability to engage in discussions thoughtfully.
    “Prepared to sacrifice …” Well, Robert, the concern is that humanity’s path is wreaking such havoc that we are creating conditions where the planetary system might not be able to support humanity, thus issue is save, not sacrifice.

    Kyoto is a monstrous fraud as is the claims of the IPCC.

    First off, few are arguing for Kyoto (and I don’t think that I ever have) since it is not the path forward.

    Secondly, you are libeling 1000s of people through your calling the work of all those involved in the IPCC “frauds”. This accusation of a global conspiracy by so many who have dedicated their life to science is, to be very polite, shameful.

  • 3 craig // Mar 29, 2009 at 2:14 am

    I agree with almost everything David Owen wrote.

    You “agree” … Since gasoline prices are less than half what they were last year, are you driving twice as much? For example …

  • 4 Jonathan Franzen’s @NewYorker diatribe re #birds & #climate change is, according to conservationists, for the birds // Apr 1, 2015 at 10:16 am

    […] it remains legitimately on the reading list. Sadly, on occasion, the editors chose to put out pieces that stain the quality that Kolbert (and other) bring to its pages on climate change and many other science […]