Holdren’s “Nuanced” Energy Problem (1998): Aging Badly

““A ‘business as usual’ energy future … is so likely to be massively problematic economically, environmentally, and politically that it cannot be achieved even [if] it is attempted.” (John Holdren, 1998) [1]

Energy: Asking the Wrong Question ( ).

Lomborg’s chapter on energy covers a scant 19 pages. It is devoted almost entirely to attacking the belief that the world is running out of energy, a belief that Lomborg appears to regard as part of the “environmental litany” but that few if any environmentalists actually hold.

Comment: Holdren’s rebuttal begins with a major history-of-though error. Running out of food, running out of topsoil, and running out of mineral resources (oil, gas, coal) has been a vital, even defining, part of the “environmental litany” from the beginning.

What environmentalists mainly say on this topic is not that we are running out of energy but that we are running out of environment–that is, running out of the capacity of air, water, soil and biota to absorb, without intolerable consequences for human well-being, the effects of energy extraction, transport, transformation and use.

Comment: Holdren’s

They also argue that we are running out of the ability to manage other risks of energy supply, such as the political and economic dangers of overdependence on Middle East oil and the risk that nuclear energy systems will leak weapons materials and expertise into the hands of proliferation-prone nations or terrorists.

That “the energy problem” is not primarily a matter of depletion of resources in any global sense but rather of environmental impacts and sociopolitical risks–and, potentially, of rising monetary costs for energy when its environmental and sociopolitical hazards are adequately internalized and insured against–has in fact been the mainstream environmentalist position for decades.

It was, for example, the position I elucidated in the 1971 Sierra Club “Battlebook” Energy (co-authored with Philip Herrera, then the environment editor for Time). It was also the position elaborated on by the Energy Policy Project of the Ford Foundation in the pioneering 1974 report A Time to Choose; by Amory Lovins in his influential 1976 Foreign Affairs article “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken”; by Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich and me in our 1977 college textbook Ecoscience; and so on.

So whom is Lomborg so resoundingly refuting with his treatise on the abundance of world energy resources? It would seem that his targets are pundits (such as the correspondents for E magazine and CNN cited at the opening of this chapter) and professional analysts (although only a few of these are cited, and those very selectively) who have argued not that the world is running out of energy altogether but only that it might be running out of cheap oil.

Lomborg’s dismissive rhetoric notwithstanding, this is not a silly question, nor one with an easy answer.Oil is the most versatile and currently the most valuable of the conventional fossil fuels that have long provided the bulk of civilization’s energy, and it remains today the largest contributor to world energy supply (accounting for nearly the whole of energy used for transport,besides other roles).

But the recoverable conventional resources of oil are believed (on substantial evidence) to be far smaller than those of coal and probably also smaller than those of natural gas; the bulk of these resources appears to lie in the politically volatile Middle East;much of the rest lies offshore and in other difficult or environmentally fragile locations; and it is likely that the most abundant potential replacements for conventional oil will be more expensive than oil has been.

For all these reasons, concerns about declining availability and rising prices have long been more salient for oil than for the other fossil fuels. There is, accordingly, a serious technical literature (produced mainly by geologists and economists) exploring the questions of when world oil production will peak and begin to decline and what the price of oil might be in 2010, 2030 or 2050, with considerable disagreement among informed professionals on the answers.

Lomborg gets right the basic point that the dominance of oil in the world energy market will end not because no oil is left in the ground but because other energy sources have become more attractive relative to oil. But he seems not to recognize that the transition from oil to other sources will not necessarily be smooth or occur at prices as low as those enjoyed by oil consumers today.

Indeed, while ridiculing the position that the world’s heavy oil dependence may again prove problematic in our lifetimes, he shows no sign of understanding (or no interest in communicating) why there is real debate among serious people about this. Lomborg does not so much as offer his readers a clear explanation of the distinction–crucial to understanding arguments about depletion–between “proved reserves” (referring to material that has already been found and is exploitable at a profit at today’s prices, using today’s technologies) and “remaining ultimately recoverable resources” (which incorporate estimates of additional material exploitable with today’s technology at today’s prices but still to be found, as well as material both already found and still to be found that will be exploitable with future technologies at potentially higher future prices).

And, while noting that most of the world’s oil reserves lie in the Middle East (and failing to note, having not even introduced the concept, that a still larger share of remaining ultimately recoverable resources is thought to lie there), he placidly informs us that it is “imperative for our future energy supply that this region remains reasonably peaceful,” as if that observation did not undermine any basis for complacency. (At this juncture, one of his 2,930 footnotes helpfully adds that this peace imperative for the Middle East was “one of the background reasons for the Gulf War”!)

Holdren JP (2002). “Energy: Asking the wrong question.” Scientific American, 286(1), 65–67, quote on p. 65.

The Naive Environmentalist (2002). Frank Cross

Some Realism About Environmental Skepticism (2003)

John Holdren, “Energy: Asking the Wrong Question,” in Scientific American, January 2002, p. 65.

Quoted in Bradley, The Heated Energy Debate. Assessing John Holdren’s Attack on Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist By Robert L. Bradley, Jr. Competitive Enterprise Institute (June 25, 2003).

Holdren integrates three arguments as part of the “nuanced” energy problem that he claims Lomborg fails to grasp. One is the aforementioned depletionist argument that we are running out of affordable oil. The second argument is that we are running out of secure oil—a classic national security argument with petroleum that emerged in the 1950s and gained many adherents following the 1973/74 Arab embargo. Holdren argues, “The bulk of [crude oil] resources appears to lie in the politically volatile Middle East; much of the rest lies offshore and in other difficult or environmentally fragile locations; and it is likely that the most abundant potential replacements for conventional oil will be more expensive than oil has been.”51Holdren then adds a third argument of environmental externalities/policy correction when he defines the energy problem as being “environmental impacts and sociopolitical risks” that could involve “rising monetary costs for energy when its environmental and sociopolitical hazards are adequately internalized and insured against.

Holdren’s tripartite energy sustainability problem belongs in the “litany of our ever-deteriorating environment” that Lomborg systematically challenges. We are not running out of cheap oil, as argued above, or “secure” oil, as argued below. Increasing energy usage is not worsening the environment so that growing externalities must be internalized via expanding government intervention. The good news about environmental impacts, as Lomborg documents, is that significantly higher and continually increasing (hydrocarbon-dominated) energy usage has nevertheless resulted in less air and water pollution in the developed world. Lomborg is very clear on this point,53 as are the statistics from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other sources. Lomborg also indicates how rising living standards in the developing world can be expected to result in the same air quality improvement.54 Only a lack of appreciation of trends (time series data) and institutional factors (capitalism and rule of law) can lead to Holdren to complain about “acute air pollution … in the outdoor environment of the world’s cities (to which problem the hydrocarbons and particulates emitted in burning fossil and biomass fuels are invariably major contributors, albeit not the only ones).”55A less alarmist and more constructive approach would be to champion openly the progress made in U.S. air quality56 and to at least consider the link between affordable, plentiful energy, societal wealth, and environmental progress. To do so, however, would cast a new harsh light on activist energy policies and put Holdren at odds with himself. 2002, p. 65.

Holdren’s “sociopolitical risks” relating to oil are more imagined than real in a world where market-based institutions are functioning. Lomborg documents the positive price trend with oil, which does not indicate any historical trend toward increasing “sociopolitical risk.” This partly reflects the fact that non-OPEC oil production and reserves are not depleting but expanding rapidly. It also reflects the aforementioned fact that new oil varieties are being commercialized make the crude oil “bell curve” obsolete. OPEC crude oil is facing new competition from the aforementioned crude oil substitutes—a development that Lomborg can develop further in his future writings.

The Skeptical Environmentalist lives on. But this master work should be a beginning rather than an end. Bjørn Lomborg should perfect and expand his analysis to examine thoroughly Holdren’s “energy problem” and to consider more explicitly an alternative paradigm of energy thought and action for the 21st century—the continuing forward march of the sustainable enhanced hydrocarbon energy age.

[1] John Holdren, “Federal Energy Research and Development for the Challenges of the 21st Century,” in Lewis Branscomb and James Keller, eds., Investing in Innovation: Creating a Research and Innovation Policy That Works (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998), p. 309.

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November 4, 2021 at 11:42AM

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