Wasting Time

Roger Pielke Jr. points to a nice example of why all the energy so enthusiastically devoted to arguing about the hurricane record or fighting those pesky Climate Audit guys and the other “science wars” activities is such a colossal waste of time. On Prometheus, Roger points to comments by both James Hansen and David Victor on the issue of coal. Both care deeply about climate change. For Hansen, coal is likened to the holocaust. For Victor, it offers a potential route to solution. Roger notes:

That David Victor sees coal plants as part of the solution to limiting greenhouse gas emissions and James Hansen does not illustrates how widely experts who agree on the need to limit emissions disagree on energy policy.

There may be fun fights to be won over the hurricane record or the latest  thermometer in a parking lot, but actually dealing with climate change is a genuinely hard problem.


  1. Here, here… A fresh look at our ongoing Energy Challenge series (two and a half years and counting) might help remind folks just how tough it will be with market-driven trends in technology to divert from high-emitting energy choices. Without a huge burst of federally (and internationally) pushed research, development, demonstration and deployment of leading-edge ideas, we’re in for a lot of warming for a long time to come.

  2. I don’t agree with Andy.

    I am working on a new high efficiency engine. Market forces are fine as motivation. Lots of new federal programs might help get the engine to market but only if a private company could use those funds to get a new product into the hands of consumers and not use most of them to fill out paperwork, guard against Federal fickleness, or make campaign contributions.

    The NIH model of funding would be a good place to start if someone needs federal funds.

    P.S. The engine has been under development, quietly, thoughtfully, and cheaply, for a long time. And, yes, the solution that yielded the engine was difficult.

  3. Most studies of savings (I’m thinking of the most recent one I read, about water rates in Aurora, CO) find that reductions are best brought about by a combination of th’ regalayshun and incentivization.

    That’s because different folk respond to different things. There must be a mix of both carrot and stick.

    The same for development of new technology. That is: we know that the CAA reduced air pollution in the US. We also know that the imposed costs were repaid 7-fold in public health savings. The market responded to the regulation.



  4. Since Hansen has stated many places that he WANTS coal combustion IF there is sequesterization, one wonders what Victor’s point is and also Pielke and Revkin’s who both are surely aware of Hansen’s statements.

    From Hansen’s testimony about the Iowa coal plant license that set this off

    Q. Coal is only one of the fossil fuels. Can such a strong statement specifically against coal be justified, given still-developing understanding of climate change?
    A. Yes. Coal reserves contain much more carbon than do oil and natural gas reserves, and it is impractical to capture CO2 emissions from the tailpipes of vehicles. Nor is there any prospect that Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States and other major oil-producers will decide to leave their oil in the ground. Thus unavoidable CO2 emissions from oil and gas in the next few decades will take atmospheric CO2 amounts close to, if not beyond, the level needed to cause
    dangerous climate change. The only practical way to prevent CO2 levels from going far into the dangerous range, with disastrous effects for humanity and other inhabitants of the planet, is to phase out use of coal except at power plants where the CO2 is captured and sequestered.’

  5. Andy –

    Indeed, the coverage by you and your colleagues in the series has been outstanding, as has been all the related coverage of big-picture issues involving resource issues in China and India.

  6. What Eli said.

    Where’s the beef? Hansen is being misrepresented in pursuit of what appears to be a contrived controversy. Had Eli not posted the evidence I would have had to spend a few minutes finding it myself. I had no doubt that the attribution was wrong when I read this.

    After all, the position attributed to Hansen does not make any sense. It is incoherent with the parts of reality that Hansen is a world expert on and with the opinions that Hansen so vocally espouses.

    Why is that worth a hear hear here? Methinks it is alarming that Pielke made this attribution and that Fleck and Revkin, whom I persist in admiring in general, commend him for so doing.

  7. Guys –

    It’s Victor who’s saying he disagrees with Hansen, not us, and the disagreement looks pretty straightforward. Hansen’s calling for a moratorium on new coal plants. Victor thinks such a moratorium is a bad idea.

    Hansen is clearly arguing for moratorium/halt on coal unless carbon sequestration is possible – “phasing out coal use except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered.” Look at his language: “phasing out”. Hansen himself has acknowledged that we don’t know how to do it, and he’s called for a moratorium on new coal plants until we do know how to do it.

    Victor is clearly and explicitly disagreeing: “That means that simple-sounding solution like … passing moratoria are politically impractical and also probably will set back the cause.”

    Hansen’s called for a moratorium. Victor thinks a moratorium is a bad idea. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

  8. I am new to this discussion but very interested. Could someone answer a couple of questions?

    1. With the shutting down of many nuclear plants over the next few years, what will replace their energy output?
    2. With the lack of interest by the public in global warming, (see today’s Wall Street Journal, I think), how will the politics be worked out to decrease our carbon footprint?
    3. If coal burning plants are put on a moratorium, what will citizens do for energy?


  9. Victor’s position is only coherent if he thinks there is a substantial chance that current and new plants can be retrofitted. Since retrofitting would involve rebuilding the plant this appears unlikely. The only other possibility is to claim that new coal plants would be so efficient that their carbon intensity per unit energy was lower than alternatives. I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell to anyone signing onto that proposition.

    Besides which Hansen is NOT calling for a moratorium on new coal plants, he is calling for a moratorium on new coal plants that DO NOT HAVE SEQUESTERING CAPABILITY. Whether that is politically possible or not appears to me to be no more or less likely than it is politically possible to have a moratorium on new nuclear plants. Ying and Ying as it were.

  10. I am new to this discussion but very interested. Could someone answer a couple of questions?

    1. Efficiency gains, alternative energy, energy savings, behavioral changes.

    2. The public is interested in AGW. The WSJ shouldn’t be your guide in such things.

    3. See 1.



  11. Dano,
    Personally, I am working on energy savings and behavioral changes. I am much less sanguine that behavioral changes will be widespread enough, for instance in China and India, to do any good. As to the WSJ, I am a scientist and an amateur political follower. I look for data. So, I am waiting to see how the votes go.

    For efficiency gains and alternative energy, I am making devices that should help a lot in these areas.


  12. Eli –

    Thanks for the discussion. As I said before, I think energy policy is an important area of inquiry for those of us who believe climate change is an important issue.

    I too am skeptical about the possibility of retrofitting coal plants for carbon capture. But I don’t pretend to know enough to write it off. There is some literature suggesting retrofitting can be done at a cost of a few pennies per kwh electricity, which does not sound so ludicrous that it needs to be off the table. More importantly, the IPCC doesn’t rule retrofitting out. I presume that Victor must have something substantive to say worth understanding in this regard, else he would not have raised the issue so forcefully.

  13. Hansen opposes new coal plants unless they start out with CO2 sequesterization. If Victor is stating that new plants should be built now and retrofitted later as opposed to this, he sure was not very clear about it. If so, he should have said something like:

    “Hansen thinks that no new coal plants should be built unless they incorporate sequesterization. Our opinion is that the technology will soon be available to retrofit such plants and they should be licensed now under condition of a later retrofit”.

    Of course I am putting words into Victor’s mouth now, but that appears, to me to be a reasonable statement of the position based on Victor and Hansen’s statements. Note that I am reading something extra into Victor’s statement given that he states that sequestration will be necessary.

    Instead Victor flat out attacked Hansen on a false premise which was amplified by Revkin, Pielke and you. Such behavior is not civil but it is common. I anticipate that someone will claim I am not being civil.

  14. Eric, one of the things about India and China is that there is a lot of room for improvement. For example substitution of a decent cooking fuel for dung in India would greatly decrease black carbon emissions. Efficient combustion systems would eliminate the Asian brown cloud which although not decreasing greenhouse gas concentrations directly would greatly decrease a significant forcing.

  15. Hi John,

    As Eli and Michael point out, its not clear how far apart David Victor and James Hansen really are on this issue. As Eli quotes Hansen (and as can be seen in his presentations, available online), his opinion is that coal plants should not be built unless they include the capacity for reducing emission (i.e. through sequestration, gasification+sequestration, etc.). David Victor has an interesting article in the Boston Review (http://bostonreview.net/BR32.1/victorcullenward.html) where he and his coauthor say that:

    “The inescapable conclusion is that the advanced industrialized countries must create a much larger program to test and apply advanced coal technologies … State and federal regulators need to create direct incentives—such as a pool of subsidies—to pay the extra cost until the technology is proven and competitive with conventional alternatives.”

    The difference between Victor and Hansen I think is perhaps not as large as it might seem? The Boston Review article, in any case, doesn’t seem to say what we should do in the meantime, until ‘clean’ coal technology is readily deployable. In any case, it’s a really interesting article from Victor and Cullenward.

    The way I read this is that, yes these technologies exist in some rudimentary stage, but that to put them into practice at all now, even in rudimentary form, requires subsidies and incentives, at least for a time. Although gasification/synfuels is included as one possible ‘stabilisation wedge’, for instance here:


    One problem seems to be that ‘clean coal’ plants are probably a decade from commercial viability, at least without heavy subsidy? More here:


    Interesting stuff, all around — thanks for the venue, John.

  16. Hmm, this Victor chap is new to me. I just thought the attribution to Hansen had to be wrong and I still think it’s wrong based on subsequent conversation. It may be Victor’s fault and not y’all’s based on what I see here.

    That said, I feel a bit sheepish for castigating journalists for being too unidimensional on one thread and then jumping all over you for introducing a bit of complexity just a few days later.

    Errors are inevitable and oversimplification isn’t. Please make more mistakes rather than making only safe claims. We need to look under every rock.

    Sometimes you will get it wrong, but it’s very helpful that you look.

  17. Michael –

    Thanks for sticking with this. I got all curious, and spent some work time talking with and reading work by Victor’s group. It’s quite clear after engaging in the exercise that he and Hansen are quite far apart – not in terms of the end point goal (carbon capture and sequestration of coal emissions) but about the appropriate path – whether to impose near-term moratoria or not.

  18. Hi John,

    Thanks for following up on this — can you share with us what you found (maybe you’re saving it for an article?), or point us to the appropriate articles by Victor’s group? As you point out, its pretty clear what Hansen’s position is on what we do until sequestration is possible (near-term moratoria), but I was having trouble gleaning the exact near-term alternative strategies suggested by Victor and his colleagues (probably because I haven’t spent enough time on it!).


  19. It’s quite clear after engaging in the exercise that he and Hansen are quite far apart – not in terms of the end point goal (carbon capture and sequestration of coal emissions) but about the appropriate path – whether to impose near-term moratoria or not.

    We’re going to have quite a lot more of this in the near future.

    Number one, we have to learn as a society to work these things out. Recently at Joe Romm’s place, I found him castigating Schellenberger & Nordhaus for wanting to get to the same place he wants to get to, but doing it slightly differently. Because they didn’t agree with him, he had to “debunk” their ideas and methods, which were just fine with me. “Debunking” is unnecessary. “Finding the best path” is far more fruitful. We have to learn how to discuss this stuff so we can direction society appropriately.

    Number B, I agree with MT’s implicit assertion that journalists are an important part of the societal discussion component. Keep up the good work, John.



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