Outlier Thoughts on Climate and Energy

As the Paris climate talks were starting, activist Bill McKibben wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that “The conference is not the game—it’s the scorecard.” He explained that he did not expect the negotiations to produce any significant breakthroughs, but they would consolidate the progress that has been made in recent years through many smaller agreements such as the one negotiated between the United States and China in 2014. Of course, he also argued that these actions are a woefully inadequate response to the threat of global climate change. His hope is that the meeting will set the stage for a “ratchet mechanism” by which nations will continue to adjust upward their commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if the evidence of the damage of climate change becomes more compelling.

Issues in Science and Technology has published a steady stream of articles about climate change since the 1980s, beginning with a piece by Al Gore in 1985 worrying about nuclear winter. We have covered all the standard arguments from across the political spectrum. With more than 3,000 journalists crowding into Paris for the current round of talks, we didn’t see a need to replicate what can be read in newspapers and magazines in every corner of the globe. Instead, we have a somewhat idiosyncratic collection of articles that we hope will stimulate fresh thinking in the climate debate. This discussion will continue for decades, and little will be gained by repeating the familiar ideas.

Andrew Revkin has been reporting on the climate debate for decades, beginning in magazines, continuing for many years at the New York Times, and blogging now at earth.com. A thoughtful and reliable journalist, Revkin reflects on his personal evolution as an informed observer and offers his insights on the current state and likely future of climate discussions.

Many climate scientists and environmental activists are growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of public commitment to fighting climate change and the half-hearted actions of policymakers. Although aware of the gap between expert and public opinion on the urgency to do something about climate change, Nico Stehr worries that frustration is leading many climate experts and activists to lose faith in democratic processes and to advocate for granting more power to technocratic experts.

McKibbin and other activists are heartened by the rapid progress in lowering cost and boosting efficiency in renewable energy technologies, which leads them to envision a future in which renewable energy sources meet most of our needs. MIT nuclear engineer Richard Lester supports renewable energy development but sees no chance that renewable sources can replace all fossil fuels anytime soon. He therefore provides a roadmap for rapid expansion of a safer new generation of nuclear power plants.

Virtually all participants in the climate debate see a need for research to develop better energy technology, and most agree that the government should play the key role in early stage research and development. Venture capitalist Ray Rothrock has a different idea. Observing the high cost and slow progress of the government-funded ITER project to develop fusion energy using tokomak technology, Rothrock and other venture capitalists have launched a privately funded effort to pursue an alternative technological approach.

The Paris climate talks did ultimately produce an international agreement, which should reduce the sense of frustration of those who thought nations incapable of taking any action. But climate activists will be quick to point out that the agreement does not go far enough. The path to the future might look brighter if we widen it by incorporating more of the ideas that follow into the mainstream discussion.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Outlier Thoughts on Climate and Energy.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 2 (Winter 2016).

Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Winter 2016