05/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

New York Times' Tierney Wrong on "Saving the Planet"

We're not sure how much time you spend perusing the New York Times' Science section. With the Times Co. reporting a first-quarter loss of $74 million this week, chances are you're one of the hundreds of millions of Americans not relying on the Gray Lady for your science news and not clicking on the ads draped so desperately across her bosoms. But if you did happen upon the Science Times this week, you might have noticed an article by John Tierney entitled "Use Energy, Get Rich and Save the Planet."

In contrast to left-wing sewers like the Huffpo, Legitimate News Outlets like the NYT do their best to present Both Sides of every issue. For political opinion, that means hiring William Kristol, at least until his columns become so inconsistent, hysterical, and poorly written that you are forced to dismiss him. For science news, that means hiring--in addition to all of the smart, hardworking science reporters at the Times -- somebody deeply contemptuous of both science and those who do it for a living.

John Tierney is that somebody. You may remember him from 2005, when he slithered onto the Times' op-ed page and managed to stay there for an entire year before somebody noticed and kicked him off. Tierney now writes a column for the Science Times ("Findings"), as well as a blog called TierneyLab, whose little logo of an antique microscope alerts the reader that this blog is all about putting the latest, hottest science under the kind of dim scrutiny that only a 19th-century instrument can afford.

TierneyLab is based on the premise that "Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn't mean it's wrong--but that's a good working theory." Unsurprisingly, then, much of the blog is devoted to attacking what Tierney calls "conventional wisdom."

Nothing wrong with that, of course--attacking conventional wisdom is what both scientists and journalists are supposed to be doing all of the time. The thing is, when conventional wisdom is based upon evidence, then you can really only attack it if you have better evidence. For example, we would like nothing better than to disprove evolution by natural selection, which would make us scientific legends overnight. But we can't, because we don't have any data that would convince anybody. We cannot argue, Tierney style, that (1) Darwin was a scientist; (2) Scientists have been wrong about stuff; (3) Therefore Darwin was wrong about natural selection.

But we digress. In Tierney's latest Findings column, he invokes Kuznets curves from economics to argue that the best solution to climate change is to get rich, use energy, and let everybody else do the same. Briefly, Kuznets curves as applied to the environment show that some kinds of pollution tend to increase and then decline as per capita GDP increases--for example, as countries develop beyond a certain threshold, you get progressively less fecal matter in the water supply, less sulfur dioxide in the air, etc. Which makes sense--nobody wants to drink shitty water or breathe air with a strong, suffocating, pungent odor, and rich people can afford not to.

Tierney extrapolates: Because other pollutants have followed this Kuznets pattern, so will carbon dioxide. He then dissociates the issue from its social and political context: The best thing to do to mitigate climate change is to get everybody in the world as rich as possible, as quickly as possible, at which point the problem will solve itself without the radical intervention of any "leader, law, or treaty."

So far, Tierney has only stated a hypothesis, which is not unethical, even if you question the logic used to come up with it. Where Tierney gets disingenuous (and unethical) is in providing "evidence" to support his hypothesis, as exemplified in the following excerpted paragraph:

"As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more efficient and cleaner sources -- from wood to coal and oil, and then to natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit of energy. This global decarbonization trend has been proceeding at a remarkably steady rate since 1850, according to Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station."

Tierney's sleight of hand here is encapsulated in the phrase "per unit of energy." While our petroleum-based economy emits less carbon per unit energy than a wood-based economy in rural Africa, we are using orders of magnitude more units of energy. Thus, our carbon emissions continue to rise. In other words, carbon intensity--the ratio of carbon dioxide to energy from different fuels--is only part of the equation. The number of people using energy (which Tierney ignores), and how much energy they decide to use (which he casually dismisses), are also crucial in determining total emissions (which is what ultimately matters).

You cannot grasp the emptiness of Tierney's "global decarbonization trend" from looking at a Kuznets curve. For that, you need a Keeling curve. Named for Scripps scientist Charles Keeling, this curve shows the trend in atmospheric CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory since 1958. This trend is anything but "decarbonized," and it shows no sign of leveling out.

And the argument that China and the rest of the developing world (the population of which is still increasing) should continue to follow their Kuznets curves through massive coal-fueled industrialization followed by rampant consumerism and gradual "decarbonization" ignores the potentially devastating effects of all the CO2 emitted while that process ran its course.

All of this makes Tierney's laissez-faire attitude seem pretty irresponsible. He concludes the piece by saying that "a Kuznets curve is more reliable than a revolution," but that's a dangerous proposition. We need a revolution for energy on the scale that the internet was a revolution for information, and we need both public and private investment in research and development to make it happen. In the meantime, John Tierney owes us all an apology.