Amory Lovins Goes Breakthrough

A fascinating article in (Vancouver’s urban weekly, which used to be called the Georgia Straight, which presumably confused both Georgians and Georgians) on geo-engineering, raises familiar questions about the path form research through the press office through the press to the public:

I got an email from Andy Parker, now a research fellow in the Kennedy School at Harvard University and previously a climate-change policy adviser for the Royal Society in the United Kingdom. You’ve been suckered by the publicity flacks at Reading University, he said (though in kinder words). They have spun the research findings for maximum shock value. In other words, read the damn thing before you write about it.

Well, actually, I did read it (it’s available online), but the conclusions are couched in the usual science-speak, with a resolute avoidance of anything that might look like interpretation for the general public. I didn’t look long enough at the key graph that undercuts the dire conclusions of the publicists, presumably because I had already been conditioned by them to see something else there.

Well, yeah. There’s a lot of that going around.

That said, I don’t really think sulphate releases are a good strategy. I think the much finer regulation possible with cloud droplet releases will prove vastly more useful as well as less scary.

But that aside, what surprised me was where the article went after that, going for some optimism from Avory Lovins that struck me as overoptimistic:

Since the Kyoto conference in 1997, most efforts to hedge climate risks have made four main errors: assuming solutions will be costly rather than (at least mainly) profitable; insisting they be motivated by concerns about climate rather than about security, profit, or economic development; assuming they require a global treaty; and assuming businesses can do little or nothing before carbon is priced.”

“As these errors are gradually realized, climate protection is changing course. It will be led more by countries and companies than by international treaties and organizations, more by the private sector and civil society than by governments, more by leading developing economies than by mature developed ones, and more by efficiency and clean energy’s economic fundamentals than by possible future carbon pricing.”

Well, the thing about wishful thinking is that it is perfectly okay to wish for it. I wish he were right. I wish Lomborg, and Nordhaus and Pielke Jr. were right. I even suspect that they might be right. But it’s amazingly irresponsible to bet on it.

Basically this is a reverse Inhofe. Inhofe, notoriously, doesn’t believe in “global warming” because doing so would be too expensive. These guys don’t believe international cooperation is necessary because international cooperation is difficult. It’s the same sort of magical reasoning. I hope all of them are right, but I don’t believe it for a second.


  1. Link here:

    I think you are wrong to lump Nordhaus in with Pielke and Lomborg. He calls for a carbon tax now and does not shrink from criticizing climate deniers publicly. He is not a delayer. Read his book, Climate Casino, it is an eye-opener. I guarantee that you won't like it all, but it shows how clear the case for climate action is, even when seen through the tinted lens of a conservative economist.

    Lovins has been saying the same thing for decades. As technology and infrastructure changes, he may be right, someday, to say that drastically reducing emissions saves money, even if we neglect the externalities. But today he is wrong and dangerously so and, by the time he is right, it will be too late. It is a seductive message that we can solve this giant problem painlessly.

    Trivia: "Georgia Straight" is a pun on the Strait of Georgia, named after George III. It makes sense to locals. The US State of Georgia was named after George II and the Nation State of Georgia was named after St George who, presumably, was the root of naming all of the above.

  2. Vaclav Smil wrote, in 2000, a brutal review/rebuttal of a book, Natural Capitalism, by Lovins and others, claimed on the dust jacket to be "the design manual for the 21st century"

    It's old, but it's good.

  3. Wonderful and convincing demolition by Smil, well written. Thanks!

    I'm a bit shocked that Paul Hawken was involved in that round. I had a high opinion of him prior to this.

    I had until today only a vaguely positive impression of Lovins but that's thoroughly eroded now.

  4. I've been keeping an eye on Lovins/the RMI since the 80's, when a friend was working as his PA. I agree with Smil that the core concepts of greater efficiency and 'eco-wealth' have remained consistent.

    I am generally impressed by the effort the RMI has consistently made to find a narrative for business to change its attitude to 'responsible' stewardship, via greater efficiency, which in turn leads to profits, not costs. It's now become more commonplace to see this kind of thinking at corporate and sometimes regional levels.

    Like Smil, though, I found myself questioning some of the 'math', even as far back as 'Factor Four', but let it slide, because the baseline message/motive seemed to work, even if the numbers were suspect.

    My suspicion is that, in recent years, with both Lovins' becoming increasingly influential (I believe they have presented direct to Government core committees, perhaps even Presidential advisors), they have struggled to keep their strategies up-to-date. As a result, some of the output has in recent years become increasingly suspect.

    I think the key to understanding their approach is to recognise that they form a part of the cadre which espouses developing technology and efficiency whilst sustaining current economic practises/systems, as the 'best solution' going forward. Some people like this flavour of conservation/responsible growth, others are cynical of it. In this sense, the RMI has always been 'linked' to the Lomborgian slant on future action. Personally, I think they are both wrong, but it would take to long to explain here.

  5. Pingback: Another Week in the Ecological Crisis, February 9, 2014 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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