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On Turning Down the Heat

In response to:

The Scientist Who Made a 'Total Turnaround' from the October 11, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Energy for Future Presidents, Bill McKibben failed to disclose his rather severe conflict of interest [NYR, October 11]. In Energy I am properly harsh on his 350 movement, the organization through which Mr. McKibben established his fame and national recognition, an endorsement by Al Gore, and his presumed credentials to review my book. It is certainly in his own best interests and in those of the 350 movement to try to dissuade people from reading what I have to say.

In Energy, I point out that according to the IPCC projections (the UN-sponsored agency that formulates the international consensus), most of the increase in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide will come from the developing world. Indeed, US emissions are currently at their lowest level in twenty years, while the emissions of China are now twice those of the US and growing by 10 percent per year. Even if the US were to cut its greenhouse emissions immediately to zero, China alone would return the world to the same emissions levels in four years.

Thus the main goal of McKibben’s 350 movement, to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million while putting no restraints on the developing world, is nonsensical. Here is what I say in Energy for Future Presidents:

Former Vice President Al Gore and the “350” movement that he endorses (to bring the carbon dioxide level down from the current 392 parts per million to 350) say that whatever treaty we sign shouldn’t put constraints on developing nations. But a West-only approach doesn’t even address the emissions reduction issue, except to the extent that we will someday be able to say, “At least the warming wasn’t our fault.” In fact, to favor dropping carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million, while arguing for no restraints on the developing world, is inconsistent, as Figure I.17 shows. [This figure illustrates the fact that future carbon dioxide emissions come dominantly from the developing world.] It is ironic that a movement named after a number actually ignores the numbers.

At best, The New York Review should have chosen as a reviewer someone whose program isn’t ridiculed in the book. At worst, the reviewer should have disclosed that there was a personal reason why he would not want people to read what I wrote. I strongly urge The New York Review to choose a nonconflicted reviewer and publish a new and more objective review of Energy for Future Presidents.

Richard A. Muller
Professor of Physics
University of California, Berkeley
Founder, Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project
Berkeley, California

Bill McKibben replies:

I think Professor Muller is right, and I should have included mention of his “ridicule” of me and Al Gore. Not because it triggers some conflict of interest (believe me, both myself and Mr. Gore have been attacked often enough to have developed thick skins, and in any event I clearly identified myself in my contributor’s note as the “founder of 350 .org”). I should have mentioned his remarks because they offer yet one more example of the kind of thought process (and fact-checking) that went into his volume.

For one thing, as I did point out quite clearly in the review, his point about China being crucial to the planet’s atmosphere is not novel. To quote my review, “Everyone who’s written about energy for the last fifteen years has reached the same conclusion; and it’s been a constant focus of, among others, State Department negotiators for the last three presidents.” But unlike Professor Muller (whose knowledge of Asia is such that he misstates China’s per capita GDP by a factor of five), all those experts have also concluded that it’s unlikely China or others will act unless the US, historical source of the greatest emissions, acts too. (Though readers will perhaps be pleased to know that reports in mid-October show China starting to implement a first series of regional carbon-pricing schemes. Business Week summed up the development with the headline “China Carbon Debut Defies Emission Doubters”).

But Professor Muller implies that both Gore and myself have decided, naively, that only the US should act on carbon. In fact, 350 .org was organized globally from the beginning, and it has organized hundreds of demonstrations in China to push for change there (and done the same in almost every other country on earth except North Korea). Not to speak for Mr. Gore, but I believe he too has traveled widely and pressed leaders from every continent, Asia included, to act.

Dr. Muller’s inaccuracies extend into his letter. He supposes that my “fame,” and hence my suitability as a reviewer of his work, rests on the founding of 350.org in 2008. In fact, I wrote my first piece about global warming for this publication two decades earlier, in 1988, a year before I wrote The End of Nature, often regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and I have written extensively on the subject for the Review ever since.

Even had I not disclosed my work for 350.org, the whole “conflict of interest” charge is spurious, since I have always been a volunteer for that and other organizations. Were one searching out conflicts of interest, the main ones in this case might be Professor Muller’s consulting work, unmentioned as far as I could tell in his book, for a variety of oil-rich governments. (I listed a few, taken from the website of Muller and Associates, in my review.) But perhaps that work was done pro bono, and perhaps one should not read book reviews or books as partisan sallies, but as intellectual engagements.

I hope people do in fact read Professor Muller’s book—indeed, I think they should, and judge for themselves its coherence. And I would recommend that they pay particular attention, as I said in my review, to the very fine chapter on the meaning of energy to a physicist. I also hope that in the future he decides to forgo “ridicule” and engage intellectually with his critics, so that we may all enlarge our understanding. Until then I fear that his contention, quoted in my review, that “maybe global warming is good” may stand as his monument.

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