What You Should Think About Energy Independence

August 18, 2008

“If money is your hope for independence you will never have it.  The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability.”

–Henry Ford

Ten years ago, the few Americans readily able to associate a concept with the phrase “energy independence” tended toward a consensus that its pursuit was a bad idea.  Energy imports were a path of least resistance sure to make the economy more efficient in the short term, and other considerations were quickly discarded.  Today many Americans contemplate issues that were once the province of academic specialists.  Today many Americans are willing to judge choices by an outlook that goes beyond the short term.

This is excellent.  In my opinion, only a great party or a terminal illness justifies failure to incorporate some sort of long term perspective into one’s thinking.  It is never responsible to look at the national economy as a great party, and it is absurdly melodramatic to look at climate change as a terminal illness.  This leaves us with a real need to look at both . . . look at them long and hard.

All the economic trends favor sweeping and swift change.  Oil prices have sustained a multiple of their peak from the 20th century.  Political responses to atmospheric carbon emissions remain undefined and shamefully belated, but they now seem inevitable.  As if those indicators were not clear enough, the American car buyer is increasingly inclined to favor smaller more efficient vehicles over uselessly large SUVs and their accompanying fuel demands.  In a sense, petrochemicals are simply going out of style.

Yet beneath the trends remain many complex problems.  Most obvious is the delay between a national committment to a new energy policy and the saturation of new technologies in the real economy.  More subtle is the role oil plays outside of combustion reactions.  Byproducts of fuel production are a primary source of raw materials for the plastics industry.  A staggering array of household chemicals also have their roots in the fractional distillation processes taking place at oil refineries.  Even if we could do without gasoline, could we also do without sandwich baggies, paint thinner, and dozens of other ubiquitous items?

I believe both major party Presidential candidates have observed aloud that the oil trade causes our nation to send large sums of money to parts of the world where “people don’t like us very much.”  To me, this says that we ought to work on our image.  To many, it seems to say that we ought to stop buying oil outright.  I suspect those views would change as the matter is examined in more detail.  Given a choice between spending $700 billion on fuel imports or spending $750 billion on domestic energy development to get the same result, and I suspect most Americans would endorse energy independence.  Put forth a choice between spending $700 billion on fuel imports or spending $2 trillion on domestic energy development to get the same result, and suddenly the price tag becomes much harder to justify.

The sticky bit here is that no honest individual can claim a high degree of confidence in pinning down the real numbers.  The science is in on climate change as an ongoing and economically devastating phenomenon.  However, the precise nature and extent of that devastation cannot even be confined to a particular order of magnitude.  Perhaps longer growing seasons will soften the impact of regional famines and expanding deserts, while transpolar shipping partially offsets losses in coastal real estate.  Then again, perhaps the Pentagon was right and global warming will be the driving force behind a new age of savagery and desperation in modern warfare.

Even if some omniscient entity were to spell out the real annual costs of climate change if status quo policies continue indefinitely, humanity would remain in the dark about the extent to which change could mitigate these harms.  Some of the damage has already been done.  Some will result from processes too far along to be stopped.  Much could be minimized or averted, but just how much?  Even for the most informed experts, ultimately it is a matter of opinion just how much economic value ought be placed on various levels of industrial emission restraint.

Also, the monetary cost of petrochemical dependence today is clearly an aberration.  Fundamental forces, like the growth of the Chinese economy, create an upward pressure on oil prices.  From a vantage point in the United States, the plunge of the dollar exaggerates import inflation.  Yet the behavior of those prices does not reflect the realities of those forces.  The real rise in the cost of this particular commodity is clearly a function of market manipulation rather than a reflection of an entirely real, but much more gradual, trend upward.  Alternative energy ventures risk having the economic rug yanked out from under them if business models marginally sustainable under present price levels must contend with much cheaper oil in the near future.

“Energy independence” has a nice sound to it.  As a principle, there is no good reason to oppose it.  Elements of any sound energy independence plan are good in practice.  Take conservation — whenever you can consume less to get the same result, scarcity is alleviated and economic conditions improve.  Research is another good example.  Our society could reach a fairly high multiple of present levels of investment in fields like theoretical physics, miniaturization, solar energy, etc. before diminishing returns would make further spending unrewarding over the long term.  Bold actions that effectively promote efficiency or discovery are entirely appropriate responses to present conditions.

On the other hand, a rush to abandon old ways could prove as costly as the inept dithering we have experienced under the sitting President’s guidance.  Imagine a huge national investment in traditional nuclear power plants is only just completed when the latest and greatest supercollider reveals a much safer and less costly method of generating nuclear power.  The United States would be hamstrung by this committment to old technology while other societies remain poised to fully capitalize on scientific achievement.  That scenario is speculative, but it is far from a worst case scenario.

President Jimmy Carter once helped guide this nation onto a course toward efficient renewable energy technology and national energy independence.  His successor promptly undid much of that work.  Many noble projects, including numerous growing businesses, were wrecked by the double whammy of falling energy prices and rescinded federal subsidies.  A long term outlook must not only consider the challenges of unresolved technology gaps, but also the pitfalls of failure to provide any new paradigm with long term support.

In the abstract, I believe trade is a good thing.  Imports and exports brings distant peoples closer together.  When conducted fairly, trade makes life better for everyone involved.  For all its rhetorical appeal, “energy independence” is nothing more than a state of doing without imports in the energy sector.  In some contexts, it offers a way to rally support for genuinely useful initiatives like raising fuel efficiency standards or funding alternative energy research.  Yet it may also distract from important priorities like addressing climate change or optimizing economic efficiency.

Energy independence itself is no big deal.  However, it intersects with several issues that are each very big deals in their own right.  To the degree that a proposed plan or policy may make our nation more economically productive, less ecologically destructive, more technologically advanced, and/or less heavily involved in resource depletion, it is likely to be a good thing.  If actual energy independence is a side effect of those gains, so be it.  The danger lies in the prospect that none of those gains will be realized even as energy independence is pursued with tremendous national zeal.

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What You Should Think About Climate Change

October 12, 2007

“Doubt everything or believe everything: these are two equally convenient strategies. With either we dispense with the need for reflection.”

–Henri Poincaré

Political journalism has suffered mightily at the hands of infotainment, but science journalism suffers even more. News programming tends to assume thorough science education is rare among audiences. Behind the scenes, being scientifically astute is not seen as a professional credential in the same way that keeping up to date on partisan narratives seems to be. With public service taking a back seat to ratings/circulation numbers, misrepresenting scientific discoveries provides a comfortable way for media outlets to focus on audience growth.

Global warming brings us a bizarre intersection of politics and science in that the false narratives sustaining today’s American political right wing are extensively involved in misinforming the public about matters of pure science. To hear the real dittoheads speak of it, global warming is all part of a liberal conspiracy to replace Western democracies with ecologically conscious despotisms. Such views rest on profound misunderstandings of ideology as much as climate. Yet for some, profound misunderstandings are the essence of political discourse.

In all fairness, even back in the 70s and 80s when news programming was significantly more responsible and informative than today, profound misunderstandings fueled concern about climate change. Popular scientific journalism was always a little more interested in grand exaggerations than the technical nuts and bolts of observations and analytical techniques. “Scientists pin down CO2 levels to an accuracy of 0.001%” makes for a lousy headline. “Climate modeling guru predicts new Ice Age!!!” is more likely to attract a large general audience.

The innately spectacular nature of many subjects studied by science feeds into media trends toward grandiose storytelling and oversimplification of complex matters. Thus it is that many were led to believe a firm scientific consensus regarding global warming was claimed long before a firm scientific consensus regarding global warming had actually formed. A function of “the boy who cried wolf” phenomenon, irresponsible alarmism perpetrated by science journalists in the past now props up irresponsible denials perpetrated by pundits in the present.

Never mind that nearly all the prominent voices bemoaning the liberal conspiracy to seize power through fear of global warming made parallel bogus arguments when international laws protecting the ozone layer were taking shape. “Man is too puny to affect the global atmosphere at all,” “the science isn’t really in on this yet,” and even, “atmospheric change could hardly do as much damage as curtailing industry surely will” were all in the mix. Unfortunately, this fringe of ideologues serviced by partisan and hyperpartisan media are more concerned about seeing their biases catered to en masse than they are concerned about the poor predictive track records of their preferred (mis)information sources.

A casual poke with the prod of skepticism causes these false narratives to collapse under their own contradictions. Yet for die hard self-identified conservatives, it seems forbidden to ever use that prod on content produced by conservative sources. For example, President George W. Bush acted early in his first term to crush an existing global initiative to govern greenhouse gas emissions. His justification — “the science isn’t in yet.”

Never mind that was factually untrue by 2001. Anyone who honestly believed industrial emissions’ role in global warming was an open question couldn’t overlook the extreme urgency of researching answers to that question. Rather than ratchet up funding for that crucial research, the President made it his business to censor EPA reports and other federal government work products that might make mention of global climate change.

All that said, both then and now there are legitimate areas of uncertainty related to global warming. Of course, there are also legitimate areas of uncertainty related to gravity. One need not have subject-specific omniscience to act on available knowledge, as evidenced by how reluctant most people are to jump off tall bridges. Since 2001, available knowledge has included estimates of human fossil fuel consumption, revelations that atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen dramatically in recent decades, physics establishing that CO2 influences the magnitude of the greenhouse effect, and a measured global increase in average temperatures.

Correlation does not prove causality in the strictest logical sense. On the other hand, a literal “smoking gun” is merely a correlation. That evidence alone does not constitute absolute proof anybody killed anyone else. Yet most people would be outraged to learn a man holding a smoking gun over a freshly shot corpse was acquitted based on lack of epistemological perfection in the case against him. Everybody knows that there is a cause and effect relationship between gunfire and bullet wounds. The cause and effect relationship between CO2 and a warmer, more energetic atmosphere should be no less controversial.

Among climate scientists of at least marginal competence, that link is not in doubt. However, it is the focus of much misleading criticism from pundits and pseudoscientists involved with a social movement that (along with demonizing foreign laborers and preaching the sacrosanct perfection of unregulated markets) leaves millions of Americans passionately convinced that unchecked industrial emission of atmospheric carbon is not at all a cause for concern.

These “skeptics” so politically selective in their application of skepticism to new information nonetheless manage raise an interesting argument or two along the way. Some people see no interest in protecting biodiversity, so why should industry pay any price for that? Is the impact of glacial loss and shifting rainfall patterns really more damaging than the impact of carbon control policies? What about global greening — the prospect that crops and forests will tend to thrive more in an environment of elevated CO2 levels?

Realists today find the tables turned from the state of climate warnings in the 1970s. Now the science is “in” in terms of findings that continued industrial emission of atmospheric carbon will increase the magnitude and speed of effects like loss of natural ice, rise of sea levels, variations in circulatory patterns, rapid regional climate change in some areas, etc. On the other hand, “global greening” and other theories contrived to take the apparent edge off of fossil fuels’ environmental impact are new and almost entirely speculative.

Because news editors often have little grasp of the underlying science and the preponderance of any audience is no different, a mix of outright denial and unfounded climate optimism tends to be presented as “the other half of the story.” Temperature readings are not opinions. The behavior of radiant energy passing through air with varying levels of CO2 is not an opinion. CO2 output from fossil fuel consumption is also not an opinion. Yet the distortion of balance perpetuates public perceptions in which anthropogenic global warming is seen less as a known reality and more as one point of view that must be offset by equal coverage of some opposing view!

Perhaps as much as any controversy in our times, global warming is a call to cognitive arms. Though many political liberals are broadly correct about the facts of the matter, their understanding may come more from feelings than thoughts. Clearly the strong denials coming from American conservatives are more a function of how they feel about their political identity than any sort of thinking on scientific matters. This is a complex subject where the stakes are enormous. Public policy responses can only benefit from the most realistic and thoughtful assessments humanly possible. So long as this continues to be a matter where passion trumps reason, the national debate will only perpetuate both literal and figurative dangers spawned by an excess of hot air.