The “Rebound” Ricochet

As I noted yesterday, the recent fiery debate over the merits of energy efficiency is becoming increasingly acrimonious. The latest public skirmish was triggered earlier this week when Jon Koomey, a consulting professor at Stanford University, wrote on his blog:

Over the past few weeks I’ve been engaged in an email conversation with about 30 energy analysts and environmental reporters about the rebound effect.  That conversation has had many threads, but one of particular interest is a specific example I asked the rebound advocates to create.  After some resistance to the idea, someone from the Breakthrough institute took up the challenge, but has thus far failed to respond to technical critiques of his example that reduce the projected rebound effects by an order of magnitude or more.

[Just as a quick aside, I'll mention that none of what has transpired during this ongoing email exchange has yet been written up by any of the reporters (I am not on the email list), so this is an interesting case where one of the non-journalist participants is first out of the box with his interpretation of the discussion.]

Koomey then writes:

I summarized where we stand in a memo that I sent to the group today, which is downloadable here.

In the remainder of his post, Koomey provides a condensed, bullet-point version of that summary.

I asked Koomey earlier today if he had told the group that he was publishing his summary online. He responded via email:

I didn’t tell the group at the time that I was posting it, but should have. I just recounted the train of events for the group today.

One train of events triggered by Koomey’s post was Joe Romm’s republishing of it yesterday in his own unique style, which I discussed here.

Since Romm has amplified Koomey’s summary of the discussion, giving it wide exposure, I thought I’d give The Breakthrough Institute (TBI) an opportunity to respond, since they are the recipients of Koomey’s critique.

From Ted Nordhaus, chairman of TBI:

I’m pretty well resigned in this day and age that anything I write to a large group of email correspondents may as well be on the record. What is really sleazy is how Koomey represents the debate. The reality is that Harry [Saunders] and Jesse both cited published research to support their assumptions, Koomey, [Amory] Lovins, and their colleagues gave anecdotal examples from their own experiences, cited studies that didn’t actually show what they claimed they showed, and stretched to find pretexts to attack the actual data and studies that Jesse and Harry cited in order to ignore it. Koomey represents the debate as exactly the opposite - as if he and his colleagues had provided hard evidence and we failed to refute it. These are the tactics of scoundrels. They know they can’t win the argument and that forced to actually deal directly with the evidence, their long-standing claims that rebound is negligible will be debunked. So this is what you get.

From Michael Shellenberger, President of TBI:

This is what energy efficiency advocates have been doing for thirty years in order to avoid dealing with the rebound issue – obfuscating the issue, misrepresenting the debate, and smearing anyone who dares challenge them on this question. Koomey’s “summary” blatently misrepresents the conversation and was clearly written with the intent of attacking our forthcoming review of the peer-reviewed literature on rebound effects. [That review will be officially released tomorrow.//KK] Against his claim that those of us who believe there is strong evidence for large rebounds failed to make our case, the reality is that Jon and his colleagues repeatedly refused to engage with the overwhelming evidence in the peer-reviewed literature for large rebound effects at the macro-economic level, instead citing selectively from studies of direct rebound effects in end use sectors of developed economies and offering anecdotal examples from their experience as energy efficiency consultants to claim that rebound effects are insignificant.

After receiving these responses (via email) from Nordhaus and Shellenberger, I then asked Koomey if he wanted to address TBI’s charge that he had misrepresented the discussion. He wrote back:

My memo makes this crystal clear.  We asked for a specific example, which they resisted supplying.  Jim Sweeney showed them one, then Jesse Jenkins finally made one of his own.  When Amory and Jim showed serious errors in that example, Jesse refused to defend it.

If they really understand rebound they can create a specific example and work it through.  The dialog is continuing and Harry Saunders is working on another example, so we’ll see (and you should point out that the discussions are continuing),  But as my memo points out, this complaint about us not looking at the literature is a distraction. Please look again at my memo and read the parts [which he highlights for me//KK] where I respond to this issue.
Jesse Jenkins, the Director of Energy and Climate Policy for TBI counters via email:
In a discussion between analysts and journalists, Jon Koomey requested a sample explanation of the mechanisms driving rebound. I provided that example, with mechanisms and approximate values drawn from economic literature on rebound. The economic mechanisms at work behind rebound effects are quite clear and well understood: elasticity of demand and substitution in response to changing prices of energy services, re-spending of net energy cost savings, and the contribution of productivity to economic growth. Koomey and colleagues responded primarily by citing anecdotal experience from their work as energy efficiency consultants that is entirely inconsistent with the body of peer reviewed literature, a whole field of academic research that Koomey and his colleagues have so far ignored. Koomey’s now-public misrepresentation of the discussion to date gives the impression that he would actually prefer to avoid debate over the evidence.
Finally, I asked Nordhaus to address Koomey’s response from earlier today. Nordhaus emailed:
I think that the crux of this is that Koomey claims that Amory and Jim showed “serious errors” in Jesse’s analysis. They did no such thing. Jim’s critique was irrelevant and Amory just asserted a bunch of stuff from his experience as a consultant. The whole specific example thing is a canard they are using to distract attention from the fact that their claims about energy efficiency are completely out of touch with the peer reviewed literature. If that sounds familiar it should. This is, of course what Romm does all the time on everything, and he learned from the master, Amory is his guide and mentor.
Regardless of which side is right, one thing seems clear: this venomous battle over energy efficiency is yet the latest rhetorical cage match in the climate wars.

Category: Energy, energy efficiency

Peddling Irrational Food Fears

Mark Bittman, the popular NYT food writer, has offered up a column chock full of biotech scare mongering. It’s such a half-baked concoction that I can’t imagine he’d ever serve a meal based on such flimsy ingredients.

Let’s inspect just a few of the numerous questionable assertions. He writes (my emphasis):

G.E. [genetically engineered] products may grow faster, require fewer pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, and reduce stress on land, water and other resources; they may be more profitable to farmers. But many of these claims are in dispute, and advances in conventional agriculture, some as simple as drip irrigation, may achieve these same goals more simply. Certainly conventional agriculture is more affordable for poor farmers, and most of the worlds’ farmers are poor. (The surge in suicides among Indian farmers has been attributed by some, at least in part, to G.E. crops, and it’s entirely possible that what’s needed to feed the world’s hungry is not new technology but a better distribution system and a reduction of waste.)

Notice how there’s no cite for the “many” disputed claims.  But further down he provides a link to a dubious 2008 story in the Daily Mail about the GMO-linked “genocide” of Indian farmer suicides.

On to the next graph:

To be fair, two of the biggest fears about G.E. crops and animals — their potential to provoke allergic reactions and the transfer to humans of antibiotic-resistant properties of G.M.O.’s [genetically modified organisms] — have not come to pass. (As far as I can tell, though, they remain real dangers.)

As far as I can tell, that last statement is not rational.

I should point out here that Bittman’s column is an argument for why foods made from GMO’s should be labeled as such, and is framed around the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent approval

of three new kinds of genetically engineered foods: alfalfa (which becomes hay), a type of corn grown to produce ethanol), and  sugar beets. And super-fast-growing salmon — the first genetically modified animal to be sold in the U.S., but probably not the last — may not be far behind.

(Cue the requisite Frankensalmon headlines.)

Now let’s jump to the end of his piece:

A majority of our food already contains G.M.O.’s, and there’s little reason to think more isn’t on the way. It seems our “regulators” are using us and the environment as guinea pigs, rather than demanding conclusive tests. And without labeling, we have no say in the matter whatsoever.

I gotta say that I’m more worried about the cumulative toll from the countless bowls of Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes that I’ve slurped up since I’ve been able to hold a spoon. Not to mention the Twinkies and Hostess cupcakes that fell out of my lunch box every day at school.

I digress. For a science-based perspective of genetically modified food controversies, let’s head over to a highly regarded scientist for some straight talk on GMO’s:

What we do know is that after 14 years of consumption there has been not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment (and many indisputable benefits).

But who are we to stand between a foodie and his irrational fears?

Category: biotechnology