The above is a link to a transcript of a forum conducted by the Society of Environmental Journalists. Panel members included Jason Grumet, environmental adviser for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Todd Stern, adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and James Woolsey, environmental adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
One of the journalists in attendance, Constance Holden of Science Magazine finally asked one of the most important questions of the political campaign thus far and, predictably, the candidates’ advisors ducked for cover! Notice that each candidate’s advisor immediately turned the answer away from the original question and sought refuge in technological solutions. If only the journalists had more time to probe deeper.
The critical exchange occurs about two thirds of the way through the transcript. I’ve excerpted it below for your convenience:
“Constance Holden: Constance Holden, Science magazine. As we all know, the driving force behind all these problems, environment, food, energy, is population growth. I know that’s not something anybody wants to directly address, but I thought it might help illuminate differences among the candidates if we could find out how your candidate thinks about this problem and whether they have any ideas about addressing it.
Jason Grumet: Sure and, as you point out rightly, I think that is fundamental when it comes to a question of global resources, the fundamental challenge. And it’s not just a question of population growth, but it’s also a question of the rest of the world beginning to aspire to the comforts that we have come to take for granted here.Sure and, as you point out rightly, I think that is fundamental when it comes to a question of global resources, the fundamental challenge. And it’s not just a question of population growth, but it’s also a question of the rest of the world beginning to aspire to the comforts that we have come to take for granted here.When people achieve an annual income of about $5,000 a year they start to buy cars and you are going to see somewhere between 3 and 500 million people in China find themselves in that position in the next decade. And so, I think, Senator Obama is very attentive to the fact that we’re not going to be able to fix this problem just around the edges, nor are we going to be able to go pat the rest of the world on the head and say, you know, we realize that refrigeration thing was really overrated. Why don’t you all just sweat it out?
So, fundamentally, it is going to be about profound changes in technology. The U.S. has not taken the kind of global leadership that I think we can in doing that.
One of the reasons why Senator Obama is committed to investing here in technologies which are controversial, like clean coal and like advanced nuclear, is based on the view that not only must we have those technologies here, but that it’s hard to imagine China deciding not to use their coal. And if we don’t play a role in developing what is truly zero carbon coal by making sequestration real, there’s not much we’re going to be able to do here. This isn’t American warming. It’s global warming.
And so I think I’m speaking somewhat maybe elliptically to your question, but fundamentally there is a recognition that we have to invent solutions that enable the rest of the world to prosper while not causing the whole place to cook.
Susan Feeney: Todd?Todd?Todd Stern: I don’t have an absolute direct answer on the population question, but let me make a point that’s perhaps relevant, which is that the controlling of CO2 and greenhouse gases in developing countries is going to be increasingly critical.I don’t have an absolute direct answer on the population question, but let me make a point that’s perhaps relevant, which is that the controlling of CO2 and greenhouse gases in developing countries is going to be increasingly critical.I think 75 percent of emissions growth in the next 25 years is expected to come from developing countries and China is, far and away, the lead among them. And 40 percent is coming from China and India and China together is 55 percent.
Now, what is going to be critical I think both from a political point of view and from a substantive point of view, and perhaps even in ways that relate to population, is that ways are going to need to be found in which developing countries can control the release of carbon in ways that do not require them to sacrifice their underlying development goals.
So, for example, if you think of China as an example, China is facing an environmental debacle right now. It’s not climate change, just ordinary pollution. The same kinds of policies that would help to control that would also greatly limit their greenhouse gases.
Now, again, the point is, as countries develop more, generally, I think it’s the case that population growth levels off to some degree. And so the nexus is we’ve got to find ways in which developing countries continue to develop, but develop in a way that leapfrogs in essence the high carbon base of the economy that developed countries rely upon.
Jim Woolsey: I’d like to pick up on that.I’d like to pick up on that.Susan Feeney: OK, one minute to follow please.OK, one minute to follow please.Jim Woolsey: I’m somewhat jaundiced on this because I drive two-thirds of the way to my office every day on sunlight. I have photovoltaics on the roof, batteries in the basement, and A-123 just converted my Prius to be a plug-in.I’m somewhat jaundiced on this because I drive two-thirds of the way to my office every day on sunlight. I have photovoltaics on the roof, batteries in the basement, and A-123 just converted my Prius to be a plug-in.It gets about 20 miles, essentially all electric. It’s not pie in the sky. These technologies are coming. The photovoltaics are radically improving in efficiency and dropping in cost. The batteries are getting better and better. And we shouldn’t assume that just because the Chinese young couple who have finally kind of made it into the middle class want to buy an automobile, that for the foreseeable future it’s always going to be an automobile propelled by carbon emitting sources of one kind or another.
The technology is changing. It’s changing partly because of things the U.S. government is doing, partially for market pressures, partly for a lot of reasons. But I think we should keep our eye on the possibility that with some of these technologies, particularly with respect to solar and particularly with respect to photovoltaics and batteries, we may be moving into an era in which we are going to be able to do to oil and to some extent to coal, what refrigeration did at the end of 19th-century to salt.
Salt was the only way to preserve meat at the end at the late 19th century. Countries fought wars over salt mines. It was a big deal. Within a relatively few years refrigeration destroyed salt’s monopoly. If you had some on the table today, where you use salt independent, where did it come from? You don’t care. I don’t care. It’s just a commodity. We need to do that to oil.”
Is it any wonder that we’re making no progress toward a national population policy? None of the candidates’ advisors has the courage to address the issue or enough knowledge of the issue to discuss it intelligently. Kudos to Constance Holden of Science Magazine for asking the most important question of our time.