Nathan Myhrvold responds to baseless attacks by Joe Romm on his views about solar energy and geoengineering as presented in SuperFreakonomics. Not surprisingly, he laments how politics interferes with rational debate on climate change.

One of the saddest things for me about climate science is how political it has become. Science works by having an open dialog that ultimately converges on the truth, for the common benefit of everyone. Most scientific fields enjoy this free flow of ideas.

There are serious scientific and technological issues in studying our climate, how it responds to human-caused emission of greenhouse gases, and what the most effective solutions will be for global warming. But unfortunately, the policy implications are vast and there is a lot at stake in economic terms.

It seems inevitable that discussions of climate science would degenerate to being deeply politicized and polarized. Depending on which views are adopted, individuals, industries, and countries will gain or lose, which provides ample motive. Once people with a strong political or ideological bent latch onto an issue, it becomes hard to have a reasonable discussion; once you’re in a political mode, the focus in the discussion changes. Everything becomes an attempt to protect territory. Evidence and logic becomes secondary, used when advantageous and discarded when expedient. What should be a rational debate becomes a personal and venal brawl. Rational, scientific debate that could advance the common good gets usurped by personal attacks and counterattacks.

 In explaining his position, Myhrvold notes the limitations of a massive buildup of renewable energy capacity such as solar PV:

The net result is that we may not get much CO2 benefit from the solar plants until we are past the rapid-growth phase of building out new plants. If we go hell-bent for leather in building solar plants for the next 50 years or so, it is entirely possible that we won’t see much small benefit for 30 to 50 years. In the long run, we still get benefit from the solar plants — lots of benefit (hence the “great carbon-free infrastructure”) — but in the near term, we may get little or no benefit. I say “may” because the details matter, and it is beyond the scope of what I can do here to calculate and explain them all; but the basic effect is that the time to get real benefit is delayed. A large part of this is due to the energy it takes to make them, and some is due to their blackness.

This is one of the dilemmas we face as a society. If we rapidly invest to make a new renewable-energy infrastructure, the very fact that we are making that investment can delay the onset of the benefit. It’s really hard to cut emissions quickly unless you cut consumption quickly, which society doesn’t seem very keen to do. So when people say “Let’s build out solar massively between now and 2050 in order to cut emissions,” I say yes, we’ll get the emissions cut, but in the short-term there may be less benefit than you think.

The rest of his commentary is definitely worth reading.

Advertisements