Saturday, November 12, 2011

Thought, and the lack thereof, in the dialogue

Immersion in the contentious world of energy policy and politics is, at times, profoundly depressing. When I first decided to specialize in energy and energy policy as my field of study, some 7 years ago, there were only a few grumblings in the English-speaking world that energy might be a problem at some point in the future. As I've studied and worked my way up into the field, I have been confronted with the reality that while the general level of knowledge of the population has gone up, the tone of the conversation has gone down.

There are a few causes. Prominent among them is the intersection of energy with other thoroughly politicized, holy-war type controversies. The two biggest are climate change theory and peak oil. If you are a regular reader of this blog, it should be obvious that I am a subscriber to both theories, and in a naked appeal to authority, I will point out that the vast majority of academic and private-sector experts are as well. (Might as well have my biases in the open) Regardless of my own personal views, it should be obvious that these controversial, politicized issues tend to color people's views on energy production, energy technology, and the necessity of changing energy resources. It also encourages the same media coverage of the issues and the general attitude of many political partisans who vocally poison the debate with confirmation bias and an equally poisonous lack of desire to learn more. Part of my desire to teach is to mitigate the latter tendency.

There is also the fact that energy policy itself has become one of the most politicized issues of our time independently of its association with any other topic. The large-scale application of industrial policy to support alternative energy has brought with it the inevitable criticism of factions within and without government. Most of this storm of attention is actually not all that new - the criticisms of industrial policy that I see are familiar and have come up in all of its applications since the first wave of progressive reform in the United States - in the late 1800s. What makes this amusing is that the sides have now changed - those on the left now support today's industrial policy, while in the early progressive era they campaigned against it. The supposed intellectual basis for the opposing side has turned in a completely orthogonal direction, but the result is the same.

Finally, the overall tone of the debate is getting far, far lower simply by virtue of the broadening of the discussion pool. In 2006, energy policy and energy technology was a conversation largely restricted to a small group of consultants, scientists, policy wonks, and economists. These are, by and large, very smart people. The average level of intelligence of the discussion could really only go down from there, and it has.

What triggered this post were a few things that I saw in my daily reading of energy-related news. There were three things I read over the past week that made me worry for the future of intelligent policy and collective action.

One article I read was willing to give more credence to hypochondriacs claiming to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome due to smart meters than to the idea that smart metering might work as intended. I should not have to point out that EHS is complete and utter bullshit, a manifestation of psychosomatic hysteria and nothing more. (Note that in a rare exception to my policy thus far, I refuse to link the article because no one, not even someone seeking an alternative viewpoint, should be allowed to read such drivel).

Another area in which I noticed a clear drop in the tone of the debate was The Economist, where a formal debate between two experts degenerated into two ships sailing past each other. The debate as I saw it framed centered on an economic question: given that fossil fuels are being depleted and the world ought to move towards a renewable paradigm, are subsidies the best way to accomplish this? What we got, however, was an opposition contributor who all but said that he does not accept that fossil fuels are unsustainable, nor does he accept that renewables are necessary at all because he doesn't think anthropogenic climate change exists. For those keeping score, this man contradicted both premises of the debate.

While his views are not an uncommon theme to see, but it is all the more depressing because this man is sufficiently prestigious to have been invited into a formal debate, and then proceed to ruin the debate by trampling past the premise and into a grand unified conspiracy theory that dismisses any outside information. Economist debates have sunk lower (the one between a conceited Cambridge economist, Ha-Joon Chang, and the septuagenarian Columbia economist Jagdish Bhagwati, was full of mudslinging), but they've skipped the blatant contradiction of the moderator.

The final thing that I'd like to address, however, is an attitude I see coming from the opposite side of the aisle. A common reply to expressions of doubt about anthropogenic climate change and the necessity of renewable fuels is something along the lines of this: "Well, if we stop burning dirty fuels, use less energy, and make the world a better place for nothing, then so what?"

Once upon a time I had a lot of sympathy for that argument. But on closer examination, it smacks of the same lack of desire for new information and the discounting of the importance of the other side's view that pervades the climate change denialist's, peak oil skeptic's and anti-green partisan's dialogue. It is a message that tells the other side that their view does not matter, and no information will change it. It is, in short, a dangerous idea.

Everyone should care about energy. They should also care about the manner in which a transition to a renewable energy infrastructure is made, and that it is made efficiently. The answer to "so what?" is that we go through a great deal of sacrifice that could have otherwise made our lives better. It is precisely the effect, though on a smaller scale, that might happen if the United States suddenly forced everyone but the military to be able to buy at most 3 gallons of gasoline or diesel a day. Sure, in a few years we'd have incredible participation in mass transit, more people'd be biking, and we'd have a wonderful renewable transportation infrastructure. But we'd have destroyed so much wealth and potential wealth in the process that it almost certainly would not have been worth it, given the alternative of gradual and efficient change.

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