As the US Presidential Election is now behind us and 2013 is beginning, it is critical that our country begin to focus on solving problems. As one of this generation's most pressing problems is related to energy and sustainability, my sincere hope is that the debate on this topic leads us forward in a way that benefits our economy, environment, and security. Good debate, based on facts and reality, will lead us to a better place. Poor debate, based on fiction and myths, will lead us nowhere. And going nowhere on one of the most important challenges of this generation is unacceptable.
The challenge is that before and during an election, there are many myths promulgated as reality. If this continues unabated, this muddles the debate and leads to inaction or poor decisions. The objective of this short article is to highlight some consistent topics that are often confused, or what I call myths that are purported to be realities. By working with facts and good logic, we will improve the quality of debate and the resulting decision-making.
Debate 1: How is the Problem Defined?
Myth: Climate change is not real, thus “clean” energy is not needed
Reality: This is the wrong response to the wrong question; a broader framework is needed
There are some that still debate climate change, whether it is real and – if so – the potential impact. But to start with climate change as the central question misses the mark. The future of energy and sustainability is about solving the question of “how do we meet the needs of growing worldwide energy demand in an economical, environmentally-acceptable, and secure manner.” Climate change is just one piece of the environment portion of this statement, albeit an important one. Different people might value different aspects of these criteria differently but the debate should start with a framework that is broader than just climate change. To solely address the climate change aspect of the issue assumes that there is the only aspect of the question at hand. This is simply not true.
I would be remiss to not comment on climate change at all. There is not 100% assurance that rising carbon dioxide levels cause global warming. Nor is there 100% assurance on what will happen if it does. That is a fact. I would also note that you cannot state with 100% certainty that you will continue breathing five minutes after reading this, although the probability that you will is likely high.
So climate change, like many things, is a probabilistic question. And the probability that climate change is real, and the impact will be non-trivial is quite high for several reasons. First, the argument is logical. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does trap heat, the levels of carbon dioxide have increased measurably, and the increase can clearly be linked to industrial development. Second, analysis from the vast majority of the world’s leading scientific organizations, such as the National Academy of Science in the US and the Royal Society in the UK, are consistent in their assessment that climate change poses a real risk. Finally, the main sources of opposition always seem to be those that have the most to lose economically and thus their objectives can be questioned. I would note that the numbers of persuasive deniers are dwindling.
Perhaps most interesting was a Koch Brothers funded study at the University of California at Berkeley. The study, backed by the Koch Brothers, who are known to fund studies skeptical of climate change, ended up reversing course and printing their view under an op-ed entitled, “The Conversion of a Climate Change Skeptic.” It’s getting lonely being a climate change skeptic and will only get lonelier in the future.