Debunking 3 doomster stories about energy & climate

by Fabius Maximus

Summary: An oddity of US political debates is that both Left and Right lie like rugs. See three fun but telling falsehoods from a comment yesterday. They express widely held beliefs about energy use in America. They hide some good news.

Clear vision

The first falsehood

“Nonsense. …Your claim – that we are advancing into a low emissions future – is false.”

This is breathtakingly wrong, but easy to believe based on what we read in the news. Let’s look at it in steps, by the numbers.

Energy intensity is energy use per unit of GDP, a measure of the efficiency with which we use energy. It has been improving (decreasing intensity) in the US since 1950 (see the EIA). It has been improving globally since 1990: down 40% in the US, down 1/3 in the world. See this interactive graph showing the trend for nations and the world.

Carbon intensity is the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy used. It has been dropping since 1970 (per the EIA). The power sector’s carbon intensity was stable at 60 kg CO2/MMBtu for decades, then began to decline after 2006. By 2016 it had fallen to 48 kg CO2/MMBtu (down 20%). the carbon intensity of transportation has also begun to slowly decline. The electrification of vehicles in the next few decades will accelerate that decline.

US carbon intensity by sector per year

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As a result of these two trends, America’s CO2 emissions peaked in 2007, and they have fallen since then (see VOX, and see Wikipedia). The other developed nations are following us at various speeds. For more about these trends, see McKinsey’s April 2019 report: “The decoupling of GDP and energy growth.

US CO2 emissions by source, by year

A second fun falsehood

“Electric cars are inferior to gasoline cars, and can only be rammed down our throats by force.”

Electricity is a far cheaper source of energy than gasoline. And electric vehicles (EVs) are much more efficient:  combustion-powered motors max out at 40% efficiency while electric motors can run at 90%. As for storage, EVs will work just fine for many people. My wife has never driven 200 miles in a day. Many commercial vehicles that work in urban areas can function with today’s battery loads.

The speed with EVs replace gas/diesel vehicles depends on how quickly they drop in price, which depends on the volume sold (which depends on their price). Most new technology rides down the price-volume curve. Raytheon sold the first commercial microwave oven in 1947; it cost $28 thousand in 2019 dollars. In 1967 Litton sold the first countertop microwave oven; it cost $3800 in 2019 dollars. (See this history.) Now they are $50+ and everybody has them.

EVs will not drop in price as drastically as did microwave ovens. But they could eventually become as cheap to buy as gas/diesel cars, and perhaps cheaper over their full operating lifetime.

A third fun falsehood

“James Hansen said wind and solar are ‘fairy tales and Easter bunnies.’”

This is a popular Right-wing story, a misstatement of what climate scientist Hansen said in a 2011 essay.

“Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future? It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”

Hansen tells us what should be obvious. Today we rely on a diverse array of energy sources. The components will change over time, but there is no magic bullet existing or under development that will provide “all” or even most of our energy. Certainly not solar and wind.

First, both are in use without subsidies in many areas. We have and always have had diverse systems of energy production. These are just new additions. They are not magic bullets – because there are no magic bullets. Second, Hansen did not say anything like that. He said in his essay that they could not replace fossil fuels.

Be skeptical of forecasts

The energy and climate policy debates are driven by predictions. Sometimes about immensely complex and poorly understood dynamics. Hansen’s essay gives an example of why we should be skeptical of forecasts. Energy use is a relatively simple thing to predict compared to climate change. Yet even top experts have a terrible record at predicting prices and quantities, even over modest time horizons. See Hansen’s update through 2009 of a graph in his entry to the growing genre of climate doomster lit: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.

orecasts of US Energy Consumption - Hansen 2011

Conclusions

Despite the screams of climate doomsters, having little basis in science, we are not on the fast track to climate armageddon. We are making progress and will continue to do so. Depending on as yet unknown factors, we may or may not face extreme climate change in the mid- to late 21st C.

Falsehoods by both sides are chaff in the public policy debate, preventing agreement on common-sense measures to accelerate the shift to high efficiency and less pollution energy use, and lower carbon sources of energy. There is insufficient evidence at present for the drastic measure of the Green New Deal, and far better uses for the money. Our schools are a mess, especially where they are most needed (e.g., in inner cities and rural areas). The oceans are being destroyed. You can list other urgent needs for funds.

Clear sight of the facts. Open debate, without the poisonous smears used (successfully) today by climate activists. These tools will work for us, if we have the will and wit to use them.