Sunday, April 19, 2009

Whoa, Jim

On April 2, 2009, policy wonk Jason Grumet and climate scientist Jim Hansen spoke on climate change at Dartmouth College as part of the engineering school’s “Great Issues in Energy” series. The video of the happening can be found here. Because I am connected to the Internet through a satellite that has about much bandwidth as a tin can attached to a taut string, I cannot download that video just now, but I was present for the event.

I found it depressing. There was not much news for me on the climate front, which is grim enough, but hearing Grumet — who is funny, flashy, and likeable — riffing cleverly on how there is no hope from democracy, only from the skillful exercise of Jedi mind tricks on semi-retarded US senators (though he didn’t say it that way), was pretty bleak. And although I liked Hansen very much, including his unabashed love for children and his insistence that we act responsibly toward future generations, I got an unpleasant shock during the question-and-answer part of the program.

A questioner mentioned Amory Lovins, well-known energy guru since the 1970s. Grumet disarmingly joked, “Well, Amory Lovins is always right —

I am paraphrasing from memory, but Hansen’s follow-up went partly like this:

“Well, at least we’ve finally found a point on which Jason and I disagree. Lovins is not always right. He is dead wrong. He says you don’t need coal, you don’t need nuclear — that you can do it all with ‘soft energy.’ But I’ve had my students graph what he said back in the 70s was going to happen with alternative energy versus what has actually happened. There’s no resemblance.”

(When my tin-can link permits me to download the video of the event, I may be able to substitute a verbatim transcript for that paraphrase.)

The problem? I have read almost everything by Amory Lovins, and I am reasonably certain that he never, in the 1970s or later, made any predictions at all about the shape of the energy future. The only Lovins graphs that I can imagine that Hansen is referring to were not
predictions but illustrative scenarios concocted to show where we might go, energywise, if we made certain decisions. Here is the most famous of them, the one, I’m betting, that Hansen has his students debunk:

That is from page 38 of Lovins’s most influential book,
Soft Energy Paths (1977). I speculate that it is the one Hansen offers his students because so far as I know, it is the only graph explicitly showing an alternative-dominated future that Lovins ever published. But note its title: this is an “alternative illustrative future,” not a forecast. Nine pages earlier, Lovins supplied a similar graphic showing coal and nuclear power’s possible contribution to gross primary energy swelling and dominating through 2025, with no visible contribution from “soft technologies” (which include, but are not limited to, what we now call “renewables”).

Such charts are not forecasts and so cannot be accused of making inaccurate predictions. Lovins was not predicting that we would make the choices leading to a “soft energy path” future; he was arguing that we could and should. In the event, we didn’t, so there is nothing surprising —or meaningful — about the graph’s non-realization.

A real scientist and a thoroughly likeable chap, Hansen should know better than to treat a scenario as a prediction. That is what depressed me about his response. Hansen has produced charts like this himself, only for greenhouse-emissions scenarios rather than energy-usage scenarios. Here’s one:

So Lovins was doing exactly the same thing with energy supplies in 1977 that Hansen was doing in 2008 with carbon dioxide: not forecasting, but choice-picturing. A perfectly legitimate exercise.

Also, Hansen said during the Q&A that Lovins “says we don’t need a price on carbon.” (This according both to my memory and to a
partial real-time transcript that skips over the remarks I’ve paraphrased above.) But that’s simply not true. Lovins said in 2008, “carbon pricing is a good idea and we should do it. Putting carbon in the air should not be free any more.” He does caution that both main ways of putting a price on carbon — a carbon tax and cap-and-trade — could fail if done improperly, but that is hardly a controversial statement.

I am not a mindless Lovins groupie: I think he projects too much optimism about the ability of profit-driven corporate reform and “technical fixes” to preserve our technical civilization while absolving us of any unwelcome changes in lifestyle whatsoever. But when Hansen speaks about Lovins I hear, to my alarm and surprise, the sound of axes being ground against grudges. My guess is that Lovins’s opposition to nuclear power, which Hansen supports, is the nub. But fair is fair. And Hansen, when I heard him, was not being fair to Lovins. And the stakes are too high for someone as important as Hansen to indulge in annoyance-driven inaccuracies.

Whoa, Jim.