The Optimism of Tom Friedman…

Today, New York Times’ columnist Tom Friedman weighed in on carbon emissions and the growing role that natural gas can play in our energy future.  The article itself is here:

Although he didn’t write it, the column description on the Times’ web site does more or less capture Friedman’s position:

“The Amazing Energy Race – The United States is falling behind. To catch up, we need to reorder our priorities, find cleaner and smarter fuels and develop new technologies.”

Now, I am not a big Friedman fan, but I will concede that this column makes some good points.  It is true, for example, that burning natural gas results in about half the carbon emissions of burning coal for the same amount of energy (indeed, we show the calculations elsewhere on this web site.)

It is also true that leaked and unburned natural gas (emitted into the atmosphere) has a much higher global warming potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide, which argues for great caution in natural gas extraction and transportation (GWP numbers are also located on another post on this site.)

And Friedman correctly warns that we should not be seduced by low-cost, lower-carbon-emitting domestic natural gas into not pursuing “renewable” energy opportunities such as wind and solar, since natural gas only slows the rate of carbon emissions, it does not address the issue.

Friedman also makes a reasonable political and policy argument as to how a carbon emission reduction program might be implemented without insurmountable obstacles blocking any hope of achievement.

He notes too that the Germans and Chinese among others are becoming heavily invested in renewable energy even as we more or less pay it lip service.

So all in all, a pretty reasonable column.

There is one place, however, where I find Friedman a bit Pollyannaish, and that is his unquestioned faith in our ability to carry out “…continuous innovation in clean power technologies…” and to conjure up “smarter materials, smarter software or smarter designs” in order to produce products that can operate while using less energy.

It is, of course this belief that “continuous engineering innovation” is a function of market forces rather than physics and science that kind of bugs me.  And it doesn’t bug me just because I’m an engineer.

It  bugs me because when policy wonks like Friedman throw “innovation” around like it’s some limitless and undifferentiated commodity, they risk selling policy solutions that will not or cannot be met.  It bugs me because they are unwilling to get their hands dirty and learn what the real world technical limitations are to energy conversion before they start marketing their seemingly clear eyed solutions.  It bugs me because we can’t afford to spend a decade or two or three chasing fantasies like carbon sequestration while “realistic” solutions – whatever that may  be, perhaps solar furnaces and solar hydrolysis factories – are not pursued because they are not cost competitive with the fantasy options.

And so we arrive finally at my point.

The politicization of science has already rendered the public’s discussions of such virtually settled fields as evolution, combustion science and climate science preposterously and idiotically combative.  Not to mention stupendously uninformed.

The subsequent devaluation of scientific expertise has consequently led to policy recommendations that do not defer to scientific consensus.  Rather, policy “experts” simply assume that the science will take care of itself while the “policy” can serve as an ideological stalking horse.

This is backwards.  Those with the expertise should play a much larger role in shaping policy that is realistic, hard-headed and achievable.

We recall that the Manhattan Project was directed by a physicist, not a politician or policy wonk.  That is not to say that the fruits of the Manhattan project were not used by politicians and policy wonks.  But at least the politicians and policy people got out of the way when the hard work needed to be done to figure out the physics and science.

When it comes to “clean” energy, we cannot assume that there will be equivalent breakthroughs to nuclear fission.  Better perhaps to let the brainiacs at MIT and Cal Tech help us understand what nature will allow, rather than to assert that “continuous innovation” will cure what ails us.

We had a Manhattan Project.  Why not a “Cambridge Project” to map out the feasible limits of energy conversion with the physics and technology currently at our command?

Then you could map out an energy policy that, with a little luck, all Americans could invest in.


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