On Thursday February 24, I had the opportunity to attend a guest lecture by Breakthrough Institute founders, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, two leading figures in the study of green energy and climate change. The event was sponsored by the UW Energy Institute, Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative, WAGE, and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. The lecture was titled, “Beyond The Climate Wars: Why the Left and Right can Agree on Energy Innovation.” An apt title given the lecture focused on how parties from both the left and right can be brought together to help combat climate change and develop new methods and technologies to meet not only growing U.S. energy demand, but world energy demand.
The lecture started off with Michael Shellenberger stating why cap-and-trade is dead, and how characterizations of “big oil” outmuscling green lobbies is a bit of a reach, pointing out that “green lobbying” has racked up a bill upwards of $1 billion in the last decade. While not on par with oil lobbies, the disparity is not a large as some pundits would have others believe. Further, he stated the apocalyptic views of the left and right on climate change is nowhere near conducive to tackling the very real issues that face us. Mr. Shellenberger pointed out that none of the IPCC scenarios that many climatologists use to make their points, and detractors their counterpoints, involve the collapse of modern civilization or an economic depression. However, he did state that the upcoming IPCC estimates will have greater levels of uncertainty than estimates of the past. Shellenberger also discussed the impacts and consequences of the polarization of the politics of climate change citing the success of the anti-nuclear movement and growing energy efficiency and decreasing energy intensity, but also noting the growing energy demand and resulting coal boom in the U.S. and Europe in the 70’s.
Ted Nordhaus was the next to speak and he stated that the way forward is “radical innovation” to meet the world’s growing energy needs and effectively combat rising CO2 levels worldwide. The stated goal of 450ppm of CO2 would require the equivalent of constructing any one of the following: 3 Cape Winds Energy plants/day, 5 Mojave solar systems/day, 1 full capacity CCS plant/day, or 1 5GW nuclear plant/day. This is a staggering comparison considering it would take approximately 10 years to build any one of these in the U.S.
Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Nordhaus’ speech was his policy proposals, some of which admittedly raised some eyebrows in the crowd. This included convincing the government to treat innovation less like farm subsidies, are more like military procurement to encourage innovation in new low-carbon technology. He also advocated the promotion of the development of labs dedicated to finding new low carbon energy solutions. But the biggest shock of all was stating that nuclear energy was critical to effectively reducing carbon emissions. Knowing that the nuclear proposal would raise the biggest objections they focused on the fact that more people have died drilling for oil in the Gulf since 2001 (69), than from nuclear accidents, not counting Chernobyl. Nordhaus was also quick to point out that Chernobyl was poorly constructed and lacked effective monitoring and oversight.
Moving on from these policy suggestions the lecture moved towards addressing the political concerns of the day. Nordhaus and Shellenberger stated that the current climate wars are toxic and should be avoided. By focusing on what needs to be done, and not why it needs to be done, parties on both sides can move forward. Perhaps one of the more intriguing points made during the lecture was that the best way to encourage the development and deployment of climate change should involve making clean energy cheap, and not making fossil fuels expensive. By making clean energy cheap, it provide a better incentive for investment and deployment rather than penalizing current forms of consumption. Moving forward Shellenberger and Nordhaus state that these changes are necessary and that they are not going to happen overnight. Rather, much like the space program there will be failures, but by speeding up the failure rate we will achieve success quicker than current innovation trends allow. They also pointed out that the energy debate is the right one to have because it involves everyone, but by having the debate we can bring about the requisite change necessary to improve climate conditions and growing world demand.