This piece on energy technology from Eduardo Porter at the New York Times is disappointing. Porter lays out a criticism of a particular paper on clean energy that is, according to critics, too unrealistic in its predictions concerning our ability to power the US completely on renewable energy resources. He uses this one paper and a recent response to it to mount a much broader criticism of renewable resources, all while claiming that he is simply trying to have a conversation about energy that is practical and realistic.
How we frame conversations about the practicality of renewable energy technology is important, and this kind of framing is bad. Despite being ostensibly concerned with the societal impacts of changing our energy diet (he calls them “wrenching transformations across the economy”), nowhere in the piece does Porter discuss the material effects of climate change on global communities and the urgency of finding and investing in clean energy solutions. To argue that pursuing untested clean energy technologies would damage the US economy without also addressing the fact that climate change will profoundly reshape the US economy on its own, regardless of us doing anything at all, is to ignore the entire point of the conversation. The current makeup of our energy usage is not just unsustainable because it uses finite resources, it is actively and persistently obliterating the viability of the kinds of communities we recognize today.
The way this article approaches the topic sort of implies that the choice facing us is between pipe-dream clean energy technologies and fossil fuels. But this isn’t really the choice. That second option – the one we’ve chosen for the past few decades and are living with right now – won’t last, and the cost of disregarding this will be far more damaging than the costs of clean energy that Porter highlights in his piece. The alternative to a world run on clean energy by 2050 is not the world of 2017, it is instead a far more inhospitable planet that leaves huge chunks of the global population susceptible to extreme drought, famine, flooding, and more. Millions of people are already experiencing this. On our current path, that kind of precarious existence will spread to people living in western countries with governments that presume themselves to be exempted somehow from the most disastrous effects of climate change.
Regardless of the practicality of current renewable energy tech, we should be actively pursuing all possibilities on that front. Some of them may not be as fruitful as we expect and others may end up being totally impractical. This will ultimately not matter as much as Porter thinks it does. The window for having the kind of debate he wants to have probably closed about 20 years ago, and every dollar and hour spent on non-renewable energy right now will prove itself to be wasted within the lifetimes of many of us. What we’d learn and gain in the long term from investing in even the most ambitious renewable energy plans would be of far greater benefit to ensuring some kind of future for ourselves than trying to find some pragmatic balance that respects current fossil fuel industry interests. This necessarily means job losses in the short term, but it saves a great many more jobs – and lives – down the line.
This kind of contextless analysis is frustrating anywhere, but it’s especially galling to see it in the New York Times, which continues to enjoy a reputation as a liberal or even left-leaning outlet. On certain issues, the Times may feature work that earns this distinction; Porter himself has written before about income inequality, ideas for wealth redistribution, the need for robust social programs, and similar topics. But in general, the Times’ Business section (where Porter’s column appears) often operates as a laundering service for centrist or conservative economic perspectives dressed up as liberal pragmatism. This is, at best, a missed opportunity and, at worst (as is the case here), it’s actively damaging to the conversations we need to be having. Cheers to the Times for continuing to do the hard work of telling people hoping to create a better future to “get real.”