By Eugénie Berger. Greta Thunberg addresses the Austrian World Summit and Climate Kirtag in Vienna on May 28, 2019. The event was hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


International climate summits are a waste of time. But some of Biden’s quiet plans are more promising.

Yanking the United States out of a global climate accord was no Trumpean innovation. In 2001, George W. Bush pulled the United States out of the unratified and un-ratifiable 1997 Kyoto Accords Bill Clinton had signed. This induced hysteria in the global warming chorus. Sending that chorus into a second round of apoplexy probably ranked high among the Trump Administration’s motives, for Trump’s base detested anything the chorus liked with a vigor unaltered by facts or consequences.

Four years after Bush tanked Kyoto, Barack Obama rushed into the void to negotiate the Paris Agreement, but failed to submit it to Congress for ratification, knowing it would be rejected. The United States adhered by executive signature alone, leading to doubts about the US government’s ability to commit to the long haul, especially if that commitment entailed spending money, which is Congress’s prerogative. Those doubts are well-founded.

So while supporters in the US and abroad have hailed Joe Biden’s grand return to international climate negotiations—part of the vaunted “the US is back” theme—there’s a good deal less here than meets the eye. People tend to believe what their ideology bids them believe. It’s called confirmation bias. Those who think environmental issues generally and global warming in particular are existential crises are overjoyed; those who think the whole thing is a hoax are not. (The ranks of those who think global warming and Covid19 are hoaxes are being thinned by Darwinian mechanisms.) Those of us in the center are left to ponder the facts, after Dick Gregory’s excellent advice that one should start with the truth before tampering with it.

Nearly all of this has been about domestic and global politics, not climate science and technology. That’s a problem, because the people who make the policy calls are politicians, and politicians typically know little about science, technology, engineering, or statistics. They choose language and tools for dealing with these issues because they’re familiar with the language and hope to control the tools, whether these are appropriate for managing real-world problems or not. They are not.

On its own, all the international conference approach to global warming is apt to achieve is full employment for diplomats and retired cabinet officials, along with a significant, polluting waste of aviation fuel. The actual scientists who attend these international conclaves have to fly economy.

It has all been about the optics, the more as what we now call climate change becomes growingly politicized, like just about everything else in American life. Politics, when dosed sufficiently with ideology, deranges anything and everything practical.

To illustrate, consider the locution “climate change.” When concern about rising global temperatures first arose, thirty-plus years ago, educated people used the phrase “global warming,” not “climate change.” Why? Precision—and precision, then, included the logical assumption that warmer temperatures would advantage some species, and some human populations, but disadvantage others. This has always been the case. It is no longer permissible to say so in public. When the late Freeman Dyson had the temerity to do so a few years ago, he was tossed from the hive of respectability by swarms of soldier drone bees guarding the moral purity of the honeyed guild.

Anyone who passed eighth-grade earth science knows the planet’s climate has been changing continuously for several million years, sometimes warming, sometimes cooling, sometimes slowly and sometimes faster. The Little Ice Age, for example, from about 1300 to 1850, made the Northern Hemisphere colder. This followed a significant warming trend from about 950 to 1250; this was, obviously, before the Industrial Revolution. To describe a climate oscillation that features a warming trend as “climate change” is like describing someone falling from the roof of a twelve-story building as “moving.” Motion is involved, sure; but somehow the term misses the significance of the moment, doesn’t it?

When language gets deranged, it’s a sure sign the thinking behind it is deranged as well.

In short: The Greta Thunberg approach to global warming suggests a moral panic that in its extreme form resembles any garden-variety millenarian cult. Like all cults, it is impervious to scientific doubt and debate, and tends to maximalist interpretations of both danger and guilt. Most such true believers couldn’t pass a freshman earth science midterm.

Moral panic over the environment used to stand primus inter pares, but now it has to get in line with the moral panics about racial justice, #MeToo, and anything concerning transgenderism. America, and parts of Europe with it, is experiencing another Great Awakening. Why this should be is a question for another time. There are kernels of justification and usually more in all these matters, but it is the nature of moral panics that those in their grip emote exorbitantly and exaggerate everything. This is why typically, and these days certainly, they evoke equally emotional opposition. (A once-in-a-century global pandemic has hardly helped to settle everyone’s nerves.)

But this is not how scientists trying to deal with real problems work. In the end, as solutions to environmental problems emerge, it will be scientists, technologists and engineers who come up with them, not hysterics, who are about as useful for practical purposes as monkeys in a machine room.

In mass democracies, however, politicians cannot duck politics, however irrational they may be, and it’s churlish to expect them to. They must attend them because human nature hasn’t changed since Walter Lippmann wrote Public Opinion in 1922: “For the most part, we do not first see and then define, we define first and then we see.” (An early description of confirmation bias.)

Biden’s latest announcements, including his declaration that the US will halve its CO2 output by 2030, have thus occasioned the schizophrenic reaction you’d expect. End-of-the-world environmentalists believe (word carefully chosen) this is the most welcome event since the invention of Kombucha. Radical right sceptics believe it’s part of the socialist, globalist plot to destroy their freedoms and take their hamburgers—the black helicopters arrive next year.

Neither one knows or cares a whit that US emissions are already on a significant declining trajectory and have been for a while—same is true in most of Europe—owing to deindustrialization, demography, and a market-driven substitution of less polluting energy. Getting to “half” by 2030 may not be achieved, but it’s not that far-fetched. If it is achieved, though, it won’t be because the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement.


Here is the good news: Some of Biden’s plans are unlike Obama’s in critical ways. If we care about fixing problems—with solutions in the realm of the possible and the prudent—they are better.

The Democratic Party platform was mostly unremitting babble. It devoted but one short paragraph, made up of two vague sentences, to science, technology, and innovation. But soon after his inauguration, the President announced he would integrate some disused and misused Executive Branch science policy units; he nominated geneticist Eric Lander as his science advisor and elevated the position to Cabinet rank. This came as a wonderful and unexpected surprise; it should have happened many, many years ago. If Biden manages to drag Congress along, his approach to the climate challenge may well be useful not only in getting discrete results, but in creating a new government organization paradigm for science across a range of public policy domains, with all the potential this could unlock. Do President Biden and his top advisers grasp that the politics and the praxis of global warming run on two mostly separate tracks? Politics can’t be denied, so it’s an interesting but unanswerable question (by me, anyway). If they know, then they realize the politics are purely performative, albeit necessary. If so, they are already aware of the three generic problems with the global conference approach that epitomizes Kyoto, Paris, and Biden’s much-publicized recent summit.


First, by aspiring to maximum participation, the global conclave approach sacrifices rigor and enforceability to legitimacy. In all exercises aimed at global governance functions save those far below the political line of sight (like the International Bank of Settlements and the Universal Postal Union), there is an unavoidable tradeoff between efficacy and legitimacy. Those who would design such efforts must choose with eyes wide open.

Second, taking a lowest-common-denominator approach to achieve maximum legitimacy cedes bargaining power to the weakest but most recalcitrant players; in this case, to countries like India and China, but also to a fairly large group of smaller—but not small—Asian countries, including Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Pakistan. The key result is a legitimated consensus that in fact robs the accord of legitimacy in the very countries most essential to its implementation.

A related secondary result is the undermining of trust between wealthy countries who agree to subsidize the agreement’s implementation and poor countries who promise to spend this money as intended, but probably won’t. This arrangement, smuggled into the Paris architecture redolent of the charity model of the traditional foreign aid business is a very bad and unpropitious idea.

Third and most important, Kyoto and Paris are based on the premise that the long-term benefits of reducing fossil fuel emissions justify the short-term economic costs of transitioning to renewables—as though use of renewables would pose no environmental problems if they rose to scale at current and future global GDP levels. We need to examine this last premise with care; it is a veritable cornucopia of error.


According to standard assessments, about 80 percent of energy use worldwide remains fossil fuel in origin—mainly oil, gas, and coal. No serious person believes that this level of use can be driven below 50 percent within the next fifteen years if we trust to some combination of voluntary national emission caps and normal market behavior alone. Driving it down faster would require draconian, government-enforced reductions in fossil fuel use—which would depress GNP in wealthy countries and induce sharp constraints on growth in developing ones—or a concerted international effort to accelerate technological innovation to reduce emissions then disseminate and apply the technology. That innovation might include new ways of using fossil fuels or renewables of known but poorly exploited types. The former approach overflows with political poison, so it simply will not happen. The latter requires imagination, leadership, hard work, astute management, cooperation across national boundaries, and patience. It could, however, happen. Some critics of the Kyoto-Paris approach to climate change have distorted the issue of costs. Even Bjorn Lomborg, who has the right basic idea—concerted and accelerated government-supported green-tech innovation is the best way forward—has been guilty of this. He and others have argued that even if Paris works exactly as advertised, the impact on temperature would be nugatory and the costs astronomical. Lomborg’s numbers have come under fire from critics who accuse him of focusing on worst-case scenarios, but his message resonates all the same: Paris is a wildly expensive way to accomplish next to nothing.

Alas, it’s not quite so simple. First, in calculating how much a reduction in emissions will lead to a slowing of warming trends, Lomborg implies that this relationship is well understood. It isn’t. There is more evidence of correlation than there is confidence in cause. Something similar is true in cardiology, for example, where correlation between cholesterol levels and incidence of heart attack and stroke is strong, but the causal relationships are elusive; this has given rise to pharmaceuticals that reduce cholesterol levels but not so much the actual incidence of heart attack and stroke. Something similarly complex probably makes it hard to posit a linear relationship between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and temperatures. There are problems yet to solve, as most high-credentialed climate scientists recognize.

To take just one of these problems, the New York Times reported in 2017 that atmospheric CO2 would seem to be fertilizing plants and fructifying the earth: More CO2 seems to cause more vegetative growth. “Dr. Campbell and his colleagues,” the article announced, “have discovered that in the last century, plants have been growing at a rate far faster than at any other time in the last 54,000 years.”

For those of us who passed earth science in high school, it had long been obvious that warmer temperatures and more moisture would accelerate plant growth. Plants—for those of you who missed class—take in CO2 and give out oxygen. The notion that CO2 emissions just float around up there forever isn’t correct. Nor, by the way, is the assumption—this will shock some of you, so hold on to whatever you can hold onto—that someone, somewhere, regularly samples the atmosphere to count and monitor trends in particulate density and accumulation. No one has or does; it’s not as easy to do as you may assume. All the numbers we see about carbon dioxide and other compounds at various atmospheric levels are modelled extrapolations from samples taken near the Earth.

The ecosphere has a way of cycling gasses, which is why climate pragmatists have recognized for years that one cost-effective and otherwise useful way to mitigate the warming problem is to plant a whole lot of trees. Obviously, plants can’t absorb great gobs of CO2 indefinitely; there is a saturation limit somewhere. But the point is that our models cannot yet firmly capture the dynamic relationship between temperature and the mix of gasses in the atmosphere.

Then consider how CO2 gets into the atmosphere in the first place. Burning fossil fuels is one way. It is not the only way. Capital-intensive monoculture agriculture is another. Some estimates hold that deep tilling, and the failure to re-seed agricultural land after harvest, is responsible for as much as a third of carbon emissions. Most estimates range from 10 to 24 percent, showing, once again, that these numbers are just estimates. But even a low-end 10 percent is a lot, and just half the highest estimate is far more. It’s enough to know that government-mandated smart agriculture techniques could reduce emissions faster and at a lower cost than the Paris Agreement.

That’s not the end of error in this third problem domain. What does “cost” mean in this context? Who exactly pays the trillions of dollars to which Lomborg and others refer?

This is a crucial question, because it is a prelude to grasping the potentially revolutionary impact of the Biden approach to the problem.

One way to define “cost” is by lost production and thus lowered GDP. These costs would be borne by economies and thus societies, but the distribution of costs within societies would vary according to the shape of their political economy. The costs would be real, but beyond a very modest level, neither wealthy nor developing countries are politically inclined to pay them.

Another way to define “cost”, however, is by the investments and adaptations involved in moving away from coal and oil and toward natural gas, or moving away from fossil fuels toward renewables.

There is a huge difference between cost defined as foregone production and cost defined as capital redirected toward investment in innovation. It’s a bit like the difference between legislatures passing spending bills that subsidise current consumption and bills that invest in future growth capacity—and anyone who doesn’t understand that difference can’t understand much else. Politics makes paying the latter sort of cost vastly more likely than the former: No one votes for austerity.

This is why large corporations involved in energy liked Paris: They stand to make a boodle from the transition, and they’re eager to attract investment of all sorts (government, private, commercial) to make the necessary innovation happen. Yes, their stand on Paris has a public relations dimension, and yes, their employees and shareholders are as greenwashed as the general public. But make no mistake: Sound business sense has been the motor of their enthusiasm.

One can think of the Paris approach, then, as a sprawling, essentially unmanageable, and underperforming behemoth of an incentive generator. Implicitly, it expects national private sectors to innovate and so drive economies toward environmentally beneficial destinations. Fine; maybe this will happen, and maybe, with energy being anything but a normal free market, it won’t. The motivational value of Paris and other Davos Man-extravaganzas like it probably isn’t zero.

But whatever their use as incentive assets, it isn’t clear that the participation of the United States matters much one way or the other. US emissions have been falling for some years now because natural gas has been replacing coal and population growth has stalled. Many European countries are in the same boat. Alas, one of the political trade secrets of the climate change business is that until very recently, emissions rose in lock step with GDP growth and GDP growth tends to be a function of demography—no matter what public policy happens to be.

So Biden’s climate confab—track one of the policy—may do some good over time. But it’s track two, which Biden is pursuing with less fanfare as part of his so-called infrastructure initiative, that holds the most promise. (Why not tout this in public, too, you may ask? Have you ever tried to explain differential calculus to a pigeon? There, that’s your answer.) The better way is for the United States to lead an international green-tech innovation effort to accelerate the transition from highly polluting to less polluting ways of using energy.

How? That’s easy. The US government created ARPA-E to do just that, on a national level, in 2007.

ARPA-E was based on the DARPA concept that proved so successful in the national defense sector. Never mind its origins, which, actually and truth to tell, I and a colleague named William Bonvillian had a little something to do with. Suffice it to say that Congress has failed to fund it properly, and the Trump Administration tried to zero it out despite the success it’s had even on a pauper’s budget. Rather than eliminating ARPA-E, the Trump Administration should have scaled it up and internationalized it. Imagine if Trump had pulled out of the Paris Accord in 2017, but, rather than flipping the bird at the rest of the world, said something like this:

We recognize that you can’t beat something with nothing. We don’t think the Paris Accord is the best way to deal with the problem before us and the world, but we have a better idea. We want to accelerate innovation in the energy sector by creating a massive, cooperative international R&D project, bigger and better than the Manhattan Project. We’re not content to trust the private sector to deal with this challenge. We don’t have time for that, and we recognize the occasional special need for government to serve the common good, as in infrastructure, with highly targeted investments. In this case, governments must invest cooperatively for the good of all mankind. We’re going to create a global ARPA-E.

It is ridiculous, of course, to imagine the Trump Administration ever thinking along such lines. It would have constituted an unnatural act.

But what grieved me at the time was that the Obama Administration, which so dearly wished to “lead the world” on climate change, lacked the vision to question the Paris paradigm or propose something better. The best it could come up with was a half-assed, crony-riddled version of a serious policy. The infamous Solyndra case says it all; look it up if you’ve forgotten the particulars. Not only did a pile of money get wasted amid heaps of favoritism and political sweetheart gestures but, much worse, Solyndra soured Congress and others on the whole approach. The bad apple ruined the whole barrel.

The Biden Administration, however, fairly clearly knows what it’s doing here. It has a plan that can work, and the plan lives already at a level of detail such that if someone had briefed me on this two months ago, I would have been highly sceptical of the proffered claims.

The Administration has proposed creating ARPA-C—C for Climate, of course—which will focus on the research priorities recommended by the founding director of ARPA-E: grid-scale storage, carbon capture, small modular nuclear reactors, decarbonizing the food and agriculture sector, and more. The budget—US$1 billion—is too tiny a fraction of the US$2.3-trillion infrastructure proposal, and it is to be shared with ARPA-E. But the spending plan as a whole would shovel a huge amount of money toward innovation research at the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

Of course, at this stage it’s just a plan, and it can get better. It can also be voted into oblivion. Implementation depends on Biden’s ability to sell it to the public and Congress, where Democrats enjoy only a slim majority. Whether and how it will work turns on faith, but educated and experienced faith rather than the blind kind. As with the original DARPA, it is almost certain to lead to significant scientific innovations, even if they are not necessarily what we expect.

Initial public reaction has been strikingly positive: More than two-thirds of Americans, including even a majority of Republicans, support the infrastructure plan. But this level of support may drop as the GOP hones its criticism, honest and mostly otherwise, and as the price tag, added to all the other price tags, induces sticker shock. So far, the GOP line of attack has been that the money won’t really go to infrastructure—defined unimaginatively as “roads and bridges”—but to far-left priorities and Solyndra-like cronyism. The Administration has made itself vulnerable to these attacks by including politicized priorities in the plan, as it did with the stimulus bill, along with a lot of pork. Just politics braying in the breeze.

But withal, if Biden manages to push through the R&D budget while quietly accepting the Paris accords for what they are—the Kellogg-Briand Pact of climate change—we may achieve something very useful. Or we may not. It all turns on the politics. What, these days, doesn’t?

Adam Garfinkle is a member of the editorial board of American Purpose and a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. This updated essay draws on “Leaving Paris in the Springtime,” published in The American Interest on June 12, 2017.


  1. Bravo!!!

  2. “The infamous Solyndra case says it all; look it up if you’ve forgotten the particulars. Not only did a pile of money get wasted amid heaps of favoritism and political sweetheart gestures but, much worse, Solyndra soured Congress and others on the whole approach. The bad apple ruined the whole barrel.”

    This is one of my favorite examples of how political wings are the enemy of reason. Rather than attempt to fix the errors made while researching new tech, pundits used this as an opportunity to sell their audience the plan of “fold your arms and pout.” No need to do the hard work of improving our situation if you can throw up your hands in exasperation and blame all of the failures on The Other Guys. Especially true if you can use this incident to build up your strawmen for future debates over policy. And smug self-satisfaction.

    Thanks for acknowledging the emotions present around the edges of this discussion. I’m sure you’ll notice it leak into the comments section this week.

    • If you Google “solyndra + toilet” you’ll get 72.4K hits, of which all that I’ve looked at so far say something like, “flushed a half billion of US taxpayers dollars down the toilet”. No doubt. But apparently it would take quite a deeper dive to find out that before Solyndra fabricated and sold a single photovoltaic gizmo, they equipped every crapper in their fabulous new Silicon Valley HQ with state-of-the-art sensor- and microprocessor-embedded $$$ toilet seats that read out body temp, basal metabolism, blood pressure, pulse rate, BMI, life expectancy, prostate enlargement, and sperm count.

      • So, if we’re to give out large public loans to companies: more aggressive oversight, especially if they’re heavily favored by the oval office? This seems like a good take away in general, since anyone receiving public funds should be accountable for the results.

        Given the investments the CCP is making in their own “private” industries, I’m not sure how we can compete otherwise. Or is this Toilet of Myth and Power terrible enough that we should yield the ground and let China corner the market?

    • Thomas M Gregg | April 30, 2021 at 8:41 pm | Reply

      It’s not as if the Solyndra fiasco was an isolated incident. Subpar performance and plain old incompetence are common in all areas of government, e.g. the FDA’s stumbling, bumbling response to the pandemic. Bureaucracies simply aren’t very efficient. They have scant incentive to work efficiently, because there’s no real accountability and no bottom line. If things go wrong, a few politicians may be sent packing by the voters, but the bureaucrats always remain in place.

      The complexities inherent in the issues we’re discussing are such that the thought of the US government undertaking to overhaul the nation’s entire energy infrastructure absolutely terrifies me. The administrative state is so structured that failure is practically guaranteed. Look for example at the utter failure, despite twenty years of commitment, to win the war in Afghanistan. That was a failure of the Pentagon bureaucracy.

      Government does all right with things that are simple, like sending people checks, and with projects that are limited in scope and have well-defined objectives, like Project Apollo. But any project prefixed with the adjective “comprehensive”? Not so much…

      • I mean, blaming failures in Afghanistan on the Pentagon bureaucracy seems like you’re choosing your favorite complaint out of a very large list. Blaming failures in Afghanistan on the fact that it’s Afghanistan and people have been failing to pacify it for millennia seems a more reasonable starting point. Or at least easily Top 3?

        Did you notice the article I linked to that suggested the entire DOE loan program that involved Solyndra actually produced a net increase after repayments? I feel the same relief seeing that as I felt when I learned the 2008 bailouts were repayed. Sometimes the government tackles a problem and we come out the other side in the black. Or in the red, but with a moon lander and noticable economic gain. Sometimes politicians and business interests will cherry pick the worst looking fruit to display, just to protect their own interests. Solyndra is just the worst cherry.

        I don’t mean to imply I think that the government is efficient, or that bureaucracy is a goal to be pursued, merely that the boogeyman of inefficiency shouldn’t scare us away from tackling projects. Especially projects that the free market is unwilling or lacks incentives to take on.

        • Thomas M Gregg | May 1, 2021 at 12:57 pm | Reply

          Who else is to blame for a failure besides the group that’s in charge of the operation? Regarding Afghanistan, the military bureaucracy never specified an objective, i.e. never explained what victory was supposed to look like. Instead it stumbled from one expedient to another, eventually fetching up against the far end of a blind alley. As Henry Kissinger once remarked, if you don’t know where you’re going, all roads will get you there.

          You can say what you like about Solyndra but the bottom line is that the company no longer exists. So what was the point? A net increase for the DOE loan program?

          “The boogeyman of inefficiency” is not a figment but a fact and where government is concerned we in America have reached the point at which it’s a feature, not a bug, of the system. One thing that hasn’t been much discussed here is the regulatory environment in the Land of E Pluribus Unum, which all too often facilitates delay, obstruction, cost overruns and ultimate frustration. Case in point: homelessness in California, which is largely to blame on a regulatory regime that make it almost impossible to construct new housing.

          • Sorry, we’re galloping all over the place and my point is going to get lost in the weeds if we get in to homelessness or Kabul or Apollo.

            The DoE ran a program where they invested in new tech companies to expand energy availability. As can be expected, some companies failed, some succeeded. The interest earned exceeded the costs of the program, meaning that the government had more money, more successful US businesses, and greater availability of energy. But because Solyndra failed spectacularly, it’s a great horse to beat rather than look at the program as a whole.

            This is called counting the hits and ignoring the misses. Perhaps in the case of Solyndra it’s more counting the misses and ignoring the hits. If a program is designed in invest in new tech companies and it both produces them AND didn’t cost anything after it received returns, there is no good reason to stare myopically at the slice of the pie that fell on the floor. Unless you want to count political theater as good reason. Or you’re honestly looking for ways to improve similar programs, which I welcome AND why I suggested improving oversight for the next round of DoE loans which are going forward presently.

            Googling “solyndra + toilet” will demonstrate how pathetic the conversation around this DoE program has become, rather than honest critique. It’s poisoned people to the point where they can’t see the overall successful program it was a part of.

            And it’s actually sending people checks, which you seemed to say is what the government does well. They sent checks, they ended up with more money than they started with, and US companies reaped benefits. There’s plenty of inefficiency in the government. This ain’t it.

          • That being said, yes, there’s a lot of inefficiency out there. We’ll never get rid of it. We can limit it and prune it back IF we can get people to look at things honestly. It’s why the GAO is so important, because it’s their job to mind the till.

            And it’s why when somebody sneers at them, we need to check that politician or pundit’s pockets.

          • Alan Potkin | May 2, 2021 at 2:34 am |

            Speaking of “pathetic”… maybe, Matt, you should take an undergrad intro to economics course if you think that the Feds broke even on Solyndra. Here’s more of my pathetic whining about how swell the Feds conduct energy and economic analyses… Van Jones seems to be the main perp behind the infamous Cash for Clunkers (CfC) debacle, and with the resurrection of the rest of the Obamazoids we’ll probably getting more of his brilliant contributions soon enough…
            (rejected op ed by LAT, NYT, and Wapo in 2019)

            “I’m not an economist, but as an alternative to a classic benefit/cost analysis I actually did run a quick and dirty work-up of the relevant crude energetics (all data from five minutes of Googling):

            Assuming 50K miles remaining service life in the clunkers getting 16 mpg (now being destroyed instead), the comparative savings in gasoline in a 32 mpg vehicle over those same 50K miles is about 1,600 gallons.

            The energy content in a gallon of gasoline is about 130 MegaJoules (i.e., ~35 MJ/l). Producing new steel requires about 22 MJ/kg, while recycling old steel requires about 14MJ/kg. The energy yielded by the 1,600 gallons of saved gasoline is 210,000 MJ, or about enough for smelt a little less than 10 tons of completely new steel, or to reprocess about 15 tons of recycled steel.

            I’ve also seen another set of figures showing production energetics of raw steel at 65 MJ/kg, and recycled steel at about 52 MJ/kg. If those numbers are more correct, the fuel saving allows for producing only 3.5 tons of new steel or 4.1 tons of recycled steel.

            I further Googled up a figure of 66 giga joules (GJ) as the ballpark energy input required to manufacture a single new motor vehicle, including the metallurgical energetics (as above, plus copper wiring, aluminum components, etc.). One gigajoule is 1,000 megajoules, i.e., 66,000 MJ/vehicle. That figure comes from Ford and is based on Taurus sedan or a F-150 pickup truck.

            Ford also offers a lifetime energy consumption of those same models at about 961 GJ = 961,000 MJ, assuming a 120K lifetime mileage yield.

            So very roughly speaking, it would take the fuel savings (over 50K miles estimated remaining life in each) of recycling four or five (!) clunkers to account for the lifecycle energetics of only one new vehicle.

            No doubt this is a vastly oversimplified analysis, and doesn’t at all address the carbon issues at the heart of the global warming hypothesis. Likewise I’m staying away from the “stimulus” and job-creating/job conserving nominal objectives of the scheme.

            This also doesn’t address the personal financial issues of holding onto a fully-paid-for clunker getting 16 mpg, or alternatively taking on a $15,000 auto loan for a 32 mpg vehicle that saves about $4000 in fuel costs (at $2.50 gallon: roughly the present average cost of gasoline in the USA) over the first 50K miles driven. Or only about $800/yr at the typical 10k miles/yr driven by Americans. Of course the maintenance and repair costs of a new car will likely be much lower than of an old clunker over the first 50K miles.”

            Now Matt, why don’t see if you find find a post-facto benefit/cost analysis done for CfC —on which the Feds dropped $3.5 billion!— by any of your admirable your buds at GAO or DOE.

          • Alan Potkin | May 2, 2021 at 2:40 am |

            Sorry, that was written in 2009, not 2019!

          • Well, I’ll take an apology for your typo of you’re not going to apologize for your tone. Thanks.

          • Alan Potkin | May 2, 2021 at 3:07 pm |

            Feel free to check out my pockets, Matt. Call a posting “pathetic” and you’re offended by the tone in response? At least it wasn’t a Mean Tweet. But somebody at DoE sure wasn’t minding the USD $500 million store if they hadn’t queried Solyndra’s prioritizing kozmik toilets ahead of getting their flagship PV product line into production and distribution. Likewise, the easily calculable energetics/resources inefficiency of the $3.5 billion CfC misadventure, which in the end destroyed the inexpensive used car market and led most of the “beneficiaries” to use their gubmint payouts to buy fuel guzzler pickup trucks and high quality import sedans.

          • Alan , I didn’t intend to direct the comment at you, rather about the tone of this conversation elsewhere on the internet. I did tie it back to your search terms, since the terms seemed to prove my point about finding dramatic editorials in an unnecessary number places, but you were most certainly not the target. My apologies, as that was not my intent and just sloppy of me.

          • Alan Potkin | May 2, 2021 at 3:32 pm |

            OK, thanks.

  3. Adam Garfinkle’s piece contains so much wisdom in science, sociology, and politics. A phenomenally brilliant piece.

  4. Thomas M Gregg | April 29, 2021 at 7:41 pm | Reply

    An excellent essay that underlines the point I have been making: You can’t ignore the politics of climate change and energy policy; you have to finesse them. Obama was too much of a smartass to be bothered, Trump was without a clue, and I’m dubious of the proposition that Biden can hit the sweet spot. His long and undistinguished career gives no reason for optimism, but we shall see.

  5. great essay. Lots to think about. I wish I could see the association between CO2 and temperatures that everyone else does, but who could disagree with more research and innovation.

  6. Apart from Mr. Garkinkle’s essay —so rich in too-clever-by-halfs— demonstrating a strong need of him obeying Georges Simenon’s, “if you find phrases in your prose that you luv luv luv, immediately and ruthlessly delete them!” (as paraphrased)— his obsessive and phenomenally obnoxious put-downs of everything Trump, especially “Trump’s Base”, is not the way to win hearts and minds of those otherwise finding agreement on some of the particulars. I’d imagine Garfinkle has nearly zero first-hand experience with Trump’s Base, given the rarified atmospheres of their/our betters in which he evidently lives and breathes.

  7. I’m available all times except Sat May 8, 16 to 20 GMT.

    • Claire Berlinski | April 30, 2021 at 5:50 am | Reply

      Thank you, Geoff! Anyone else?

      • I’m available on all of those days except 5 to 13 GMT, which is the middle of the night on the East Coast of North America although if it gets scheduled during this time I will still try to join in anyways.

  8. I don’t particularly like Newsweek, but:

    This suggests Solyndra is a bloody shirt, not a smoking gun.

  9. I don’t want to get too off-topic but I want to recommend this seminar that Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute about economic and political nostalgia did two days ago. I think it can be best described as a “globalist” response to this concern echoed by many here about jobs “disappearing” to do technological change. I think it might serve as an interesting discussion point for what we are talking about even though it is not specific to the energy sector.

  10. Ronald STEENBLIK | April 30, 2021 at 10:45 am | Reply

    Ronald STEENBLIK16 min ago
    Two points to start off:

    (1) My understanding about the shift from “global warming” to “climate change” has more to do with capturing the full panoply of changes that are expected to occur — so, not just warming generally, but also possibly deeper lows in some places and at some times, and also shifts in rainfall patterns and the severity of storms — and less to do with political correctness.

    (2) Yes, significant changes in the climate have occurred previously, even in historical periods, due to such phenomena as cyclical lows in solar radiation; heightened volcanic activity, which disperses solar shielding particles and aerosols into the air; changes in ocean circulation; variations in Earth’s orbit and axial tilt; and declines in the human population (e.g., from the Black Death and the epidemics that followed European contact in the Americas). The latter periods have been interesting because they have typically been followed by considerable tree growth, which captures and stores CO2.

    But the concern about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is that it is an additional factor that is strong enough to over-ride other possible non-anthropogenic changes that may be affecting the climate.

    Regarding aerosols, when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, the big worry (behind that of a risk of an exchange of hostilities between the West and the USSR that, besides killing millions immediately, would provoke a “nuclear winter”) was global cooling because of all the particulates and sulfur aerosols being spewed into the air by factories and power plants. One of the ironies of shifting towards cleaner energy is the air should become cleaner (great for our lungs!), but that the countervailing effect of air pollution on AGW will be lessened.

    • Ronald STEENBLIK | April 30, 2021 at 10:49 am | Reply

      Had to repost the above because of a couple of errors. Also, I found this interesting article on NASA’s website from a year ago titled “There Is No Impending ‘Mini Ice Age'”:

    • Don’t we need to stop clear cutting the trees, if that’s going to be part of our CO2 capture strategy? There are an awful lot of us.

      • Ronald STEENBLIK | April 30, 2021 at 2:04 pm | Reply

        Clear-cutting trees (as opposed to other management and harvesting techniques) to me is more an issue of its greater impact on biodiversity, soil and water protection, though certainly harvesting that leaves peaty soils exposed, and that peat catches fire (as has happened in Indonesia), it can be associated with higher carbon emissions.

        If you mean the world should reduce its harvesting of trees, however harvested, certainly that would help in atmospheric CO2 capture.

        I went looking for a breakdown of the end-uses of wood flows, and all I could find quickly was wood flows in Europe in 2010, which doesn’t seem to show the uses of imported wood and forest-derived products.

        But, for what it’s worth, it does highlight relative proportions that are used for the big categories: paper, lumber, and energy. Recycling of paper and cardboard is actually at a pretty high rate now. And lumber for construction, furniture, and other finished wooden items accounted for about 45% of the total. From a carbon perspective, that carbon is bound up, which is a good thing.

        It is the 37% that was being used for energy production (even more is being used now, including a significant amount that is being imported) that is potentially a problem. In theory, burning biomass is carbon-neutral, on the argument that the carbon that is released will eventually be re-absorbed in vegetative growth. But as climate scientists point out, especially while fossil-fuel-derived carbon emissions are increasing, it is dangerous to add a burst of carbon from burning trees at this point, on top of the fossil CO2, as it will take decades to re-absorb that carbon. Better to leave those trees in place to keep absorbing carbon is the argument.

        I realize the situation gets more complicated if one is looking at short-term rotation trees, the need to thin out forests if you want to create space for the remaining trees to grow bigger, etc.

        All this mainly to say, that, yes, I agree: forestry matters, and it can contribute importantly to capturing CO2.

  11. Claaire asked me to post this in the comments, rather than telling her back-channel…

    I’m here in the Frozen Prairie, our present time zone is US Central Daylight Time (CDT), which is five hours earlier than GMT. I can participate at any hour that you want to run the ZOOM event,

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