All posts by Erik Conway

Will 2050 be The End of Civilization?

Naomi on creating our story of the end of civilization. May Day seems a good day for this kind of story.–437081155860

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Merchants of Doubt trailer debuts!

Sony Classic Pictures has finally released the trailer for Kenner’s upcoming Merchants of Doubt.

It’s on YouTube as well:

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Merchants of Doubt Release Schedule

We finally have a release schedule for Robby Kenner’s documentary version of our book, Merchants of Doubt!

The film will show at Landmark theaters in many American cities in March and April. The release schedule is on the TakePart website.

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How Neoliberal Economics killed Google’s Clean Energy plans

Once upon a time, the company which promised to “do no evil” was trying to do good by climate change. Google had a program to reduce its own emissions by implementing today’s renewable energy technologies and to invest in the development of tomorrow’s energy technologies.

And then, in 2011, Google shut it down.

Two of the program’s managers explained why (at considerable length) in a new article posted to the the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Spectrum magazine website. Titled “What it Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change,” it recounts their efforts and then a set of modeling studies that, in the end, convinced them that there was no feasible solution with today’s technologies. Nothing less than “disruptive” technological transformation could solve the problem, and they didn’t see one on the horizon. (But, they cast as nearly an aside, a fusion technology miracle could occur!)

Yet a closer reading undermines their argument. Here’s where they go wrong:

Across the board, we need solutions that don’t require subsidies or government regulations that penalize fossil fuel usage. Of course, anything that makes fossil fuels more expensive, whether it’s pollution limits or an outright tax on carbon emissions, helps competing energy technologies locally. But industry can simply move manufacturing (and emissions) somewhere else. So rather than depend on politicians’ high ideals to drive change, it’s a safer bet to rely on businesses’ self interest: in other words, the bottom line.

Here’s the thing. This might be a viable claim if there were a free market in energy. But there isn’t. US subsidies for fossil fuels exceed $15 billion per year routinely. Worldwide, they exceed $400 billion. Put in terms the glibertarians populating Silicon Valley might understand, that’s the heavy hand of government tilting the playing field strongly in favor of fossil fuels and the pollution they cause . And unsurprisingly, Google’s engineers couldn’t find a technofix that could clear that hurdle. No new technology can overcome that (intentionally) high barrier without help.

So is there a way to overcome both the non-level playing field AND the problem that “industry can simply move manufacturing somewhere else?” Sure!

We can:

1) Remove fossil fuel subsidies and apply them to renewables instead

2) Implement a carbon price (I favor a revenue neutral carbon tax, personally) to mitigate the social cost of carbon

3) Implement a carbon tariff  on goods imported from countries that don’t implement a carbon price

But these policy changes require us to admit that neoliberal economics, what @naomioreskes and I call market fundamentalism, is wrong. And we mean both historically wrong (free markets do not, and have never, existed) and ethically wrong.

These two Silicon Valley engineers failed in their ambitious quest for clean energy because they couldn’t see past their own ideological blinkers. And that’s why our Collapse of Western Civilization had to be written. There are not, in fact, solutions to many of the problems society faces within the framework of neoliberalism. It needs to be put on the same ash-heap of history that the West dumped communism on a generation ago.

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Merchants Movie News

Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote a wonderful review of Robby Kenner’s movie adaptation of our 2010 Merchants of Doubt a few days ago, “‘Merchants of Doubt’ Shows how Public Opinion is Manipulated.” 

It follows on the heels of a not-so-good review on Southern California Public Radio (where I’m a sustaining member), by RH Green: “Merchants of Doubt is the Lord’s Work, Done Badly.”

The crux of the review is that there’s not much new in the film:

“Kenner, who should be praised for scoring some pretty frank interviews with prominent members of the Denial Industrial Complex, has done enough original research that there’s probably some new material in this movie, but if so, then it’s invisible to the naked eye. “

In actuality, 2/3 of the movie’s material isn’t drawn from our book Merchants of Doubt, and 1/3 of it traces events that happened after we finished writing it. The new material is seamlessly integrated–a good thing, in my opinion.

My dissertation advisor, historian of technology Arthur Norberg, once told me that one often learns more about a reviewer from a review than one learns about the book being reviewed. Norberg’s Rule of Reviewing applies to movies as well.

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Naomi Interviewed in the Science Times

Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times has written a wonderful interview of Naomi. She tells the origin story of our earlier work, Merchants of Doubt, very nicely.



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Deconstructing Denial

This is an old video, but it’s a fine, short example of @NaomiOreskes dismantling climate change denial.

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Collapse in the Rutland, VT, Herald

There’s a very nice mention of the Collapse of Western Civilization in an Op Ed by Elizabeth Courtney in the Rutland, VT, Herald. Vermonters are justly proud of their efforts to move off fossil fuel, as shows in this letter.

I have to mention a quibble, though.

The image caption says the West Antarctic Ice Sheet’s disintegration would raise global sea level by ” several inches.” Well, 5-7 meters is the correct range, which translates into a range of 197 inches to 275 inches. Typically Americans use the word “several” as a substitute for “four to six,” not 197. That’s a lot of inches (it would, for example, drown the Back Bay region of Boston where @NaomiOreskes teaches), and stating it the way the Herald has works to downplay the true risk. Who’s afraid of a mere “several inches”?

Here’s glaciologist John H. Mercer’s famous 1978 paper on the potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (abstract free, text paywalled). And here’s historian of science Will Thomas’s discussion of that paper’s legacy. (Part I, Part II).


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Merchants of Doubt Film News

Robby Kenner, the director of the upcoming film adaptation of our book, Merchants of Doubt, did an interview with the Examiner at the New York Film Festival recently. Here’s a Q&A with Robby from the Festival website, too.

David Morgan at CBS News also gave Merchants a wonderful review after the New York Film Festival.

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Screening at the Online News Association!

Participant Media, the production company behind the film Merchants of Doubt, is hosting a screening at the annual meeting of the Online News Association in Chicago. The Poynter Institute will also hold a panel discussion after the film.

If you’re attending the ONA 2014 meeting, go see it!

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