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Good analysis, but who is the audience?
on April 19, 2011
One line of attack on the "green energy" agenda is to question its primary rationale, namely the theory that catastrophic global warming will result unless human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are drastically reduced.
This book tackles a different question: Assuming that global warming due to carbon emissions might be a problem, is the green energy agenda well designed to achieve the environmental and economic benefits that have been attributed to it?
The authors are four academics (three being economists and/or attorneys) who describe themselves as "professional skeptics." And they do a workmanlike job of questioning the logic and integrity of green energy from various angles.
Having followed the debate about this subject, I was familiar with many of the points. The technical feasibility of a rapid transition to solar and wind power has been vastly exaggerated, while the cost estimates are correspondingly understated. Some environmentalists view nuclear power as "green" because it has the potential of reducing carbon emissions, while others will oppose it to their dying breath. There are numerous environmental objections to the government-supported ethanol program. There is no common definition of the green jobs that are promised, and forecasts are typically expressed on a gross basis (without subtracting jobs that would be eliminated, e.g., in the fossil fuel industries and in industrial operations that would leave the country as the result of higher US energy costs.) Some analysts would count jobs in regulatory compliance areas as a benefit, when they actually represent an economic cost. Claims that green jobs will necessarily provide highly paid, agreeable employment are not credible. Barring the creation of trade barriers, most wind power or solar power equipment would be produced in Asia or Europe versus the US. Etc.
It is nice to have an authoritative source to cite, with a logically organized series of chapters and a handy dandy index. And some of the conceptual points are novel, e.g., demonstration of selective optimism about technological progress in the future (assumed for green energy operations, ignored for traditional energy operations), and repeated demonstration of the Baptist and bootleggers syndrome (people with very different objectives closing ranks to support Sunday closing laws). It is amazing how ready green energy advocates are to trade the taken-for-granted benefits of a free market economy for their vision of what life on earth should be like (e.g., small pastoral communities, locally grown food, no more Wal-Mart).
However, who is the audience? For right wing think tanks and academics, the book is preaching to the converted. Left wing think tanks and academics will not read it. Corporate employees will tend to do whatever suits their own interests.
The authors suggest that the general public could use the book as a source of green energy questions (30 questions are listed in the concluding chapter) for candidates for elective office, but I doubt this will work. The material is too involved, diverse and sophisticated for the average reader to absorb and remember. Also, direct contact between the voters and politicians on policy issues is increasingly infrequent, and written communications from voters are recapped without much reflection on the content unless the sender is seen as potential source of campaign cash.
So if green energy is indeed an expensive, ill-conceived experiment in social engineering, as the authors argue, I think a simpler, more straightforward formulation of the issue would be needed to combat it.