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Monday, October 08, 2007

Questions for Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben answered questions from readers about his article "Can Anyone Stop It?" in the Review's October 10 2007 issue {1}. Selected questions are posted below along with Mr. McKibben's replies.

The New York Review of Books

Economic Productivity
Studies have shown that economic productivity increases since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have been primarily a result of increasing energy inputs (primarily fossil fuels) per unit of labor. How will productivity be preserved even at its current level, let alone increased, if fossil fuel usage declines substantially over the next decade or two?
-- Gary Peters

Bill McKibben replies: That's a very powerful question - and one that goes to the heart of whether our economic growth regime is entirely dependent on fossil fuel or not. We know that there is all kinds of easy stuff to be gained here in the States via conservation - our per capita energy use is twice western Europe's, which has comparable productivity. In the longer run, decoupling fossil fuel and the economy depends on either making new energy technologies work, or living with a different idea bout endless economic growth. Or some mix.

Inaction as Strategy?
Could the reluctance of the American government in fighting the global warming be caused by some sort of strategic thinking because it would reduce rising global competitors like China and India? How realistic are ideas about economic procedures like those described in Graciela Chichilnisky's recent paper, "Energy Security, Economic Development and Global Warming" {2}?
-- Thomas Riepe

Bill McKibben replies: I haven't yet read Professor Chichilnisky's paper. My sense from traveling to India and China in the last year is that they are using our inaction as a cover for their own, and vice-versa. It's a wicked co-dependence, and it's going to be the hardest part of this nut to crack. But the first step involves action here close to home.

The French Model
Is France's near total reliance on nuclear energy a workable model for the rest of the world to incorporate as part of 'alternative energy' strategies?
-- Stephen Ganis

Bill McKibben replies: Nuclear energy in general is attractive because of its low carbon output. But in our context - given that we need to shift quickly - its biggest drawback is the enormous cost and time penalty, which will distract us from other, cheaper work. If we are going to do nuclear on a large scale, the French model - one design, close oversight - seems preferable to our jury-rigged system.

Nuclear Power
NRG, a merchant power company based in New Jersey, just filed to permit a new nuclear facility in Texas. As a merchant generator, they do not have a guaranteed buyer for their power, so this is a clear statement about where NRG leadership thinks the market is going. How do you feel about this, and do you think nuclear power is a good idea?
-- Peter Hennessy

Bill McKibben replies: See my comments above re France. My guess is that they have less confidence in where the market is going than in where government subsidies are going, since that's the real fuel for nuclear power.

Acceptable Energy Consumption
Your article is a nice piece of diplomacy. However, from what I've seen of Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in The New Republic, they talk a double game: we have to give people a vast increase in energy consumption because they won't settle for anything else; and, they're right not to. So we have no choice but to somehow go from fifteen terawatts of consumption in 2007 to sixty in 2100. Maybe they're right about what's politically possible, but are they right about what's desirable? Is it, in your opinion, possible to have environmentally acceptable energy consumption at that level, considering what that energy is used for, and what it takes, under the most benign assumptions, to produce it? If not, shouldn't we at least not reinforce illusions while bowing to realities?
-- Willem Vanden Broek

Bill McKibben replies: My most recent book, Deep Economy (Times Books, 2007), tries to answer this question in great detail. Suffice it to say, it seems to me that we would be wise to start asking deeper questions about the economy than 'how can we make it larger'. Like, how can we make it more durable, and more satisfying. The answers to both, I think, point towards less energy use instead of more.

CAFE Standards
What is your opinion of CAFE standards as a tool to reduce greenhouse gases?
-- June Harner

Bill McKibben replies: It's an important tool in the toolbox. As they say, if you're looking for oil, drill under Detroit, not the Arctic. Frankly, at this point increased auto mileage falls into the no-brainer category.




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Bill Totten


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