Nordhaus and Shellenberger Are Wrong Again

11/30/2010 05:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Paul Tullis Writer on the science-policy intersection

The latest missive from Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger -- the professional contrarians posing as environmentalists -- is a collection of factual errors, inherent contradictions, rhetorical omissions, unconscionable appeasements and general foolishness.

But what else should we expect from a "report" in the Wall Street Journal, neatly dovetailing with the positions of that paper's editorial page, and financed in large part by ads for oil companies?

The article is billed as "How to Change the Global Energy Conversation," and its purpose seems primarily to generate buzz for Nordhaus and Shellenberger and rationalize another several decades of dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emission.

How else to explain gems like, "Significantly raising energy costs slows economic growth." Technically, this is correct. The question is by how much, and compared to what?

The answers are: Barely enough to measure, and less than doing nothing.

The CBO looked at the cap-and-trade bill passed last year by the House and found it would cause, at worst, a whopping 0.09 percent decrease in GDP over 40 years.

We also have real-world history to look at to answer this question: In 2005 the price of gas went up by a dollar -- the equivalent of a tax on CO2 emissions of $200 a ton (according to a Stanford climatologist). The conventional wisdom on carbon market scenarios is that, under cap-and-trade, it'd cost around 1/10th this amount to emit a ton. Did the economy collapse when the free market increased the price of emissions ten times as much? Of course not.

And what if we don't raise energy costs in order to make people pay for their emissions (as we've been doing for 20 years for the pollution that causes acid rain)? Estimates are around 5 percent.

I'm not very good at math, but I'm pretty sure 5.0 is significantly more than 0.09.

N&S write, "old technology...will never compete with fossil fuels..." and that it's a "widespread myth that today's clean energy sources are either ready or almost ready to replace fossil fuels. They are not."

Well, that was easy! Got any data to back that up? No? Must not have had room to get into it all, what with the giant, green washing Chevron ad in the section, huh?

Here's the truth: This statement is the article's second falsehood by omission frequently employed by dangerous, do-nothing climate denialists.

Solar and wind farms compete very nicely, in fact, when you consider that, unlike coal or natural gas plants, the cost of building them includes 30 or 40 years' worth of fuel. Unsustainable fuels go up in price as reserves are depleted; that's just a fact of life. Look at EV's and hybrids: when you price in the cost of powering them over the long term, they're cheaper than guzzlers.

But wait, there's more: The authors argue that governments should stop subsidies for green technology and instead increase R&D and "buy cutting-edge clean-energy technologies, prove them -- and then give them away."

This is just an excuse for delay. It marks no material change from subsidies, in terms of cost or effect, while putting off action for another couple of decades. We don't have time for that; just ask Pakistan, or Norfolk, VA, or any of the dozens of North American species that have moved north in the last 20 years.

The appeasement continues: "We should change how we look at climate-related aid to developing nations."

Great. So the Nordhaus-Shellenberger plan is, Do nothing, then pay others for our having sat on our hands. This, when combined with their other useless prescriptions, is a losing formula for everyone.

Here's yet another stroke of superficial cleverness that falls apart on examination: N&S write, "Public investments in clean tech should work more like military procurement [which] drove down the price of microchips to $20 a chip by the mid-60s from over $1000 in the late '50s."

The fact that they have to go back 50 years to find a good example of the past success of their prescription is a pretty good sign that this is a load of crap.

And here's proof that it's a load of crap: Ever heard of Moore's Law? The cost of computing falls by half every 18 months. So between 1958 and mid-1965, you'd go from $1000 a chip to $32.75 even without this lauded procurement process. Chalk up a whopping 1.275 percent change for Nordhaus and Shellenberger!

Their article contributes nothing but the opportunity for oil companies and one of the loudest voices of self-interested climate disinformation to appear like they actually give a damn. These guys should be embarrassed.