19 July 2010

The Reality-Based Community

In much of the debate over energy and climate there is a distinct departure from reality. The reality that I m referring to is not the reality of the physical climate system, but the reality of social, technological and political systems. This reality governed by human interests and values, and is no less (and perhaps more) important than the reality that human activities are influencing the climate system.

I was reminded of this reading two articles today. Fist, here is Don Runkle, CEO of EcoMotors, a company that Bill Gates has invested in with a focus on developing dramatic advances in the efficiency of combustion engines:

“I’m a big fan of electrification and electric cars,” he says, noting that he spearheaded GM’s now-abandoned EV1 electric-car in the 1990s.

But he adds: “The products and solutions that win in the marketplace are those that don’t defy economic gravity.”

The second was in Paul Krugman's column, where he talks about "the pundit delusion":
. . . the belief that the stuff of daily political reporting — who won the news cycle, who had the snappiest comeback — actually matters.

This delusion is, of course, most prevalent among pundits themselves, but it’s also widespread among political operatives. And I’d argue that susceptibility to the pundit delusion is part of the Obama administration’s problem.

What political scientists, as opposed to pundits, tell us is that it really is the economy, stupid.
Designing climate and energy policies based on the "boundary conditions" established by social realities is a central focus of The Climate Fix.


  1. You start out well, but you always tend toward central planning by experts by the time one gets to the end.

    I would reply to "[d]esigning climate and energy policies" with this standby from 'The Fatal Conceit':

    "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they know about what they imagine they can design."

  2. -1-anoldwhig

    Who said anything about "central planning"?

  3. Roger. I understand your message very well. The solutions to AGW alarmism do not correspond to any possible future socio economic reality. The EV1 conspiracy theory and the reality that it just didn't sell is an excellent example.

    For me, it's simply a matter of scare tactics, a bargaining position. There is nothing better designed to focus the mind of employees on the benefits of a salary, than the announcement of 3,000 compulsory redundancies.

    The biggest weapon in the climate war is the corporate media. In the UK, the Guardian has been promoting extreme scare stories on an industrial scale. For example, unless we change our ways, the planet will be irredeemably damaged in 100 (now 80) months. The biggest target of their propaganda has been the frivolousness of air travel, particularly the budget airlines.

    The woman who oversaw these campaigns, sponsored in the main by the Shell Oil Company, million dollar a year chief executive, Carolyn McCall is leaving left to manage, the UK's most popular airline, Easyjet, a budget carrier.


    The absolute bad faith of the bought and paid for liberal corporate media (think Joe Romm) is hardly a surprise. By contrast, a real journalist, John Pilger, because he operates, and has experience of being outside the system, from the point of view and interests of private citizens rather than corporations, was able to write this about the modern media.

    Power, illusion & America's last taboo

    “The invisible government that Bernays had in mind brought together the power of all media - PR, the press, broadcasting, advertising. It was the power of form: of branding and image-making over substance and truth - and I would like to talk today about this invisible government’s most recent achievement: the rise of Barack Obama and the silencing of the left.”


    Pilger was once an award winning mainstream journalist and wrote blog pieces for the Guardian until last year. Later in the article, that Mr Obama's first employer was a CIA front company, a fact which would not appear in the NYT in a hundred million years.


  4. Roger

    You may find this interesting.

    Funding cuts will finish Britain's clean energy race

    In the 1970s the UK invested about 0.15% of GDP each year in research and development (R&D) into providing cheaper and cleaner energy. Britain was putting more public money into nuclear power and other new sources of electricity than almost any other economy.

    From the mid-1980s the amount invested each year has fallen almost continuously. The figure today is about 0.01%, one 15th of what it was a generation ago. We now sit at the bottom of the international league. The US, for example, spends three times as much as a percentage of its GDP, Japan nine times as much.

    The UK government announced last week that it was cutting yet more money from of the energy R&D budget. Some £34m is to be axed, affecting low-carbon technology programmes including offshore wind, wood fuels, building insulation and geothermal energy. This represents a reduction of just under 20% of total public expenditure on low-carbon technologies.

    This figure is on top of the cancellation of the £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters that would have paid for much of the installation of a new press to make the huge parts necessary for new nuclear power stations.


  5. Roger,

    I take it as implicit from the phrase, "[d]esigning climate and energy policies."

    That is not terminology normally associated with individual choice, unless you somehow mean to say that I will be designing a climate policy for myself.

    My main complaint is that you seem enamoured with something you believe to be a good idea, "decarbonization."

    To achieve that goal you have supported taxing behavior which is "carbonizing" and subsidizing behavior that is "decarbonizing."

    Neither of those are consistent with individual choice or possible without central direction. Someone must decide for everyone what should be done, and reward that using money extracted by taxes. Likewise someone will decide what should not be done and punish it with taxes. Both cases imply forceful coercion, as it is not the choice of any individual to refuse to pay the taxes that reward others' "good" behavior; nor to refuse to pay the taxes that punish their "bad" behavior.

    I know that you like your ideas; they may even be good ideas. I just don't understand why you are so blithe to compel, by force if necessary, other people to support them.

  6. -5-anoldwhig

    Sounds to me like you are describing some sot of libertarian Utopia.

    I do assume that governments will be involved in making decisions along with the private sector that have impacts on energy production and consumption. Governments will continue to tax and spend. I think I am on safe ground here.

    Similarly, I look to history and see that decarbonization is a process well underway. There are good reasons why we may wish to consciously act to accelerate that process (see my new book). If those actions result in greater energy access, lower costs, greater security and reduced risks, then one might argue that it adds to rather than subtracts from the ability for individuals to express choice. Certainly for those presently lacking access to energy that is the case.

    I have never argued for the use of force to compel policy implementation. What nonsense.

  7. Roger,

    Of course you did, even if for some reason you don't realize it. Force is always implied in government policy, because the only options are to follow the policy or guys with guns come and take you away.

    Whenever you advocate for the government to do something, you ought to at least ask yourself, "Am I willing to have cops handcuff a guy and haul him away from his family for this?" Because that is how it ends for anyone who refuses to play.

    If it isn't worth that, it isn't worth it; and it is at least intellectually dishonest to pretend that that isn't how government regulation and policy work.

    But, now we are back to my original objection regarding planning, that you think there are good reasons to "consciously act to accelerate that process."

    That statement implies a couple of things:

    (A) Conscious action is action directed by government.

    (B) Such consciously-directed government action is more effective than unconsciously-directed market action.

    (A), in reality, is about making sure the actions you favor are supported rather than other actions which might be supported by other people. I would wager that if people happened to be executing exactly the actions you support on their own initiative and for their own reasons, you would conclude that new governmental policies requiring those actions would not necessary. The fact that they are not doing those things is what makes new policies necessary. If that is the case, you should at least admit that your position is that you, Roger Pielke, Jr., are, in fact, the judge of what actions are and are not needful across the entire globe.

    On (B), “conscious action” used to have another name, planning. Government planning does not have a stellar history. It tends to be cliquish, self-reinforcing, glacially slow to adapt to changed conditions, and inefficient to the point of wantonness -- when it isn’t outright corrupt. Most importantly, the knowledge necessary to plan for “conscious action” is distributed while the actual decisions are not, raising the very real problem that it will not even work by its own terms, much less that fact that it may impose costs on others which are of no concern to the planners but which the people bearing the costs would not have chosen. There isn’t room to go into all of that, but I might recommend the “Pretence of Knowledge” Nobel Prize lecture by Hayek, or just hit Wikipedia for “knowledge problem.”

  8. -7-anoldwhig

    I see your point -- if you are against government in general then you'll be against any policy in the specific.

    As you might guess, I am not interested in wide ranging ideological debates -- not because they are not worth having (in a classroom or a pub) but because they are pretty far removed from actual policy making.

    Feel free to have the last word, thanks!

  9. Wait, why does government need to be involved in energy policy? (Leaving aside the foreign policy part.) Why? Government didn't invent the steam engine, the train, the internal combustion engine, the car, the airplane, or even the jet engine. They sure as hell didn't subsidize cars to move away from horse-and-buggies or for people to use airplanes instead of covered wagons.

    Why would government all of a sudden have the insight to know that electric cars are The Only Way and wisely direct that development? Or any energy or transportation policy, for that matter?

    I look at history, and I don't see government doing anything beneficial or creative.

  10. I guess my argument would be that there are reasons that certain things - like electric or hybrid cars - haven't caught on. Like, the expense. Being socially unsustainable is just as destructive as being environmentally unsustainable. In fact, it is environmentally unsustainable, since society is part of the environment.

    A true solution to a fossil fuels problem is going to come about organically. It can't be predicted and government (which has the power to give and to take) shouldn't get involved because it will back someone solely on political reasons - political/social personal connections between politicians and company presidents, or money, or lobby groups. That's unavoidable. And by picking a winner, the government will keep EVERYONE else out.

    The best idea may not win in the market place, but a good and/or better idea certainly will. Yeah, there's advertising and the fact the market scuttled the superior technologies of beta max and laser disc and that thing that isn't bluray, but the fact remains that for every Windows megacompany, there is still an Apple out there making an iPhone and a Linux out there for servers. Government benediction would prevent that.

  11. I believe anoldwhig and elladeon have a valid points. Perhaps the bridge to link "Designing climate and energy policies..." with free choice and sustainability is to uncouple such policies from the public treasury.

  12. elladeaon,

    Wait, why does government need to be involved in energy policy?

    Well, for one thing, the domestic oil, gas, coal and rivers that make up the bulk of the US energy supply are owned by the people of the United States.

    There are numerous other reasons, but that seems to be the most obvious.

    As for the rest, I agree that government should not pick "winners" but it's completely appropriate to provide incentives and disincentives.

  13. -9-elladeon

    I agree that understanding history is important, and with due respect, you might want to recheck yours!

  14. elladeon said... 9

    "I look at history, and I don't see government doing anything beneficial or creative."

    The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency Network was designed by the Government as an easy way for Defense Researchers to share information.

    It was known as DARPANET.

    The network was expanded over time to allow any University doing any Government work to share information.

    It was then further expanded to allow any university or government agency to share information.

    Finally, it was opened up to all.

    It's now called the "Internet".

    There are plenty of 'modern conveniences' where the basic R&D was paid for by Government for Government purposes that ended up having quite interesting 'civilian' applications.

  15. Harrywr2,

    Just to play devil's advocate: Try to name a few such technologies that didn't come from military research.

  16. Why do people argue either/or all the time? Government makes few decisions without consulting business/industry first. Probably in fact they accomodate business interests far too much in many cases to the detriment of the consumer.

  17. Matt said... 15


    "Just to play devil's advocate: Try to name a few such technologies that didn't come from military research."

    I would be hard pressed. Even Chicken McNuggets came out of a military research project.

    Here's a couple of year old report of all the pies the DOD has it's finger in related to energy.

    Bio fuels, Solar Cells, Garbage to synthetic JP8 fuel, easy to apply insulating technologies.

    Making electricity using a portable generator fueled with JP-8 is pretty expensive. Various alternative energy options are pretty close to being cost competitive with electricity from diesel.