James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Green

  • Why We Need a Quadrennial Energy Review

    Goals to cut emissions don't amount to a plan. We should look to the Pentagon for guidance on how to meet our objectives.

    By Julio Friedmann

    On good days, when I'm more optimistic about achieving our needs in climate and energy, I imagine that we as a country or globe will wake up and realize we need to clean our room (see last blog entry).

    If so, we need a plan.

    Many people discuss this undertaking as something akin to the Apollo project or the Manhattan project. I rather think those are the wrong metaphors. In both those other projects, there was only one client (the US government), the physics was fairly straightforward, and market forces didn't matter. In energy and climate, the situation is opposite. Everyone's a customer, the systems are complicated and non-linear, and all energy and environmental technology competes in the global market.

    A better analogy may be the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt post-war Europe. It laid out goals over time and spent tons of money transforming systems in disrepair, with little immediate direct benefit to the US taxpayer. It was controversial, driven by a moral compass and some sobering economics. It required time, money, and focus.

    But it started with a plan.

    For the most part, we can generally agree as a nation or globe on a few framing goals:

    -- Reduce our dependence on imported oil.
    -- Reduce pollution.
    -- Reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
    -- Improve energy efficiency.
    -- Have a reliable, resilient infrastructure.

    However, goals are not a plan. Even timetables and targets (85% reduction by 2050) do not make a plan. To get there, the nation needs three things we lack.

    First, the U.S. needs internal agreement on the specifics of our goals. While many may agree that we would benefit to reduce oil imports, that's as far as we typically get. How many barrels imported by what date? Should we be only 20% imports by 2050? How much should be achieved through efficiency standards versus established technology (diesel) versus new supplies (compressed natural gas or coal-to-liquids). The same thing is for greenhouse gas emissions (what are good targets for 2030 or 2050?) or efficiency targets (2% improvement per year? 4% which sectors?). Ultimately, Congress will choose the menu and set the table.

    Second (and more importantly), the US needs a program management plan to achieve its goals. Project management 101 -- what's the budget, timetable, milestones, and deliverables? This requires an understanding or priorities, staging, and contingency. What must be done by when? If we run into trouble in 2020, how do we decide on alternate plans? How many wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear plants, or clean coal plants? Why? This kind of program management plan requires concrete metrics and scientifically defensible decisions.

    This takes us to the third point: we need a political consensus on the priority and willingness to pay for those goals. The immense project plan should be scientific, credible, and detailed or else the third piece never materializes. It should also be humble to the extent that we will expect regular course corrections, new technologies, and changing priorities even if our goals do not change.

    Such planning approaches are well suited to the military. In defense matters, the goals of the U.S. are well articulated, scientific, and heavily discussed. In fact, we do this every four years -- it's the Quadrennial Defense Review (QRD). We as a nation map out defense goals and priorities every four years, and the plan is largely supported by both Congress and the country. The Department of Homeland Security does the same (note -- these are expensive -- the QDR costs about $150M and 18 months to do).

    So, why not a quadrennial energy review -- a QER?

    At least two groups think this makes sense. One is the American Energy Innovation Council, led by Bill Gates and including Jeff Immelt, Ursula Burns, and other key innovators and CEOs. The second is the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Both groups suggest that trying to articulate these goals and creating a project plan are worthy of the U.S. (as was the Marshall Plan).

    Ultimately, well articulated goals are required. However, it's still worth starting in the absence of these goals, because technology can also help drive policy decisions. One start was announced last month: Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced a Quadrennial Technology Review led by his Undersecretary of Science Steve Koonin (read more here and here). This effort has the potential to lay the foundation for a QER, and can hopefully stimulate decision makers in industry and government to drive towards concrete goals and a plan.

    And not a moment too soon. I want my two children (ages 8 and 6) to grow up in a world with coral reefs and polar bears. That'll take the U.S. and China working together to make steep emissions reductions. China has a five-year plan that includes these issues. One can also imagine a plan that suits our needs as a nation.

    P.S. It has been a tremendous pleasure to blog here. My deepest thanks and appreciation to Jim Fallows for the honor, and to Justin Miller and John Hendel for their help and guidance.

    Julio Friedmann is the Carbon Management Program Leader for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the technical leader for the clean coal consortium under the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center.

    More »

  • Saving the Planet: Just Like Cleaning Our Room

    Changing human behavior, even for near-term benefits, can be very hard. Reducing greenhouse gases is much harder.

    By Julio Friedmann

    When I think about the climate and the atmosphere and the harsh mathematics of greenhouse gas accumulations, I have good days and bad days.

    On the bad days, I think about how hard it is to get my young children to clean their rooms.

    At heart, people don't like to clean their rooms. It takes time and effort away from fun things and doesn't change the functionality of the room (still has a floor, bed, dressers, door, etc. even when unkempt or unclean). Barring filth and contagion, cleaning the room is a drag.

    In a similar vein, people who are sick don't take their medicine. People who are too heavy won't diet and exercise (this includes me). People who know smoking is bad for you smoke. Changing human behavior, even for near-term tangible benefits, can be very hard.

    Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is much harder.

    1.jpg

    As discussed in my first blog entry, the benefits of reduce emissions and clean energy, no matter how vital and real, are hard to see. They occur in the future, typically are costly, are globally dispersed, and are hotly contested. While the possible, even likely loss of polar ecosystems and Himalayan glaciers is frightening to those who study and understand them, few actually understand the potential impacts and even fewer have seen these things.

    On my darker days, I have three extra worries.

    The monsters behind the door. This is what Princeton climate ecologist Steve Pacala calls the non-linear, high-impact responses to climate change. These include rapid methane losses from the arctic which super accelerate climate change or ocean acidification, which can crash the marine food chain (by some estimates, around 2030). The potential impacts from these events could be staggering, including wide-spread disease, realignment of rain and wind systems world-wide, and permanent loss of key ecosystems.

    Scale-up issues. Every energy technology we have scaled up has problems and unintended consequences. Recently, we saw that with the 2007 ethanol push. The drive to corn ethanol helped create a food crisis world-wide, and ended up increasing global CO2 emissions when soy farmers started plowing under rain forest to grow more soy (what economists euphemistically call "leakage"). It's reasonable to imagine that scale up of wind, clean-coal, biofuels, and solar may also have perverse consequences yet to be mapped.

    2.jpg

    The REALLY inconvenient truth: This is that the technology options we have today aren't as good as they need to be. A famous study by McKinsey's Global Institute helps illustrate the many options we have and their relative impacts and costs (including some low cost options in efficiency). This study changed the debate about the value and costs of abatement. However, by the authors' own admission if one does everything on the chart, we're still short -- we need an extra 9 gigatons of CO2 equivalent abatement each year! In their report and their charts (see below), one finds place-holders for things that don't exist yet or dramatic change in human behavior.

    3.jpg

    While none of this is encouraging, the need and urgency remain. As a globe and as social animals, we are required to begin tackling these issues. Moving forward with purpose requires massive scale-up and coordination, which will come with failures, dead-ends, and painful choices. It also requires a sustained effort over several decades. None of this is easy, and none of this is comforting.

    The good news? At some point, everyone has to clean their room, because it's their room, and the only room they've got.

    Julio Friedmann is the Carbon Management Program Leader for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the technical leader for the clean coal consortium under the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center.

    More »

  • Green China Rising

    Chinese energy consumption may be staggering but so is the country's commitment to wind, solar and other innovations that we can't afford to ignore

    By Julio Friedmann

    I had the pleasure of visiting a clean-energy project just outside of Shanghai last year. The project installed brand new equipment on a large coal-fired power plant to capture 120,000 tons of CO2 each year. Dr. Liu, our guide, impressed us with a few facts

    -- The new equipment was designed, built and made operational in just one year, incredibly fast for this kind of operation.

    -- In fact, it was permitted in three days! It had very low operating costs (still does after one year of operation, too).

    -- Everything we saw was indigenous design.

    plant photo.jpgFor enthusiasts of climate and of energy, China's the main event. They use the most energy, most coal, most steel and most cement of any nation -- with that, they emit the most pollution and greenhouse gases. Pollution from China alone directly affects the earth's climate, both by reflecting some light to outer space (soot and aerosols) and warming the atmosphere with black carbon particles. They're the biggest challenge of the day globally and the whole end game. The only thing that beats a trip to China is working in China, which I've enjoyed now for three years.

    What's hard to impress on people who haven't visited is the scale of the investment made in energy and infrastructure. Roughly 10 million people are moving from the country to cities every year in China -- in some cases, the provincial government will commission a city of 500,000 people and just build it from scratch. A new, large coal plant is built in China every week -- in some years, twice a week.

    But what many miss, even those who visit or work there, is that China's moving beyond simple manufacturing and construction. At center, China is innovating like mad -- and well -- in the energy sector.

    One of my favorite examples is the biggest power company in the world, Huaneng Power Corporation, and its Chief Engineer, Dr. Xu Shisen. It was his technology and plant that we visited with Dr. Liu in Shanghai. Huaneng will install 10,000 MW of wind in the next few years (which almost equals U.S. total wind power) and an equal amount of solar (more than the U.S. total).

    At the same time, Dr. Xu has overseen the development of impressive new technology in its own right.

    While this development is largely for use inside China, Huaneng is looking beyond its borders (like any large multi-national). The company has partnered with a U.S. company (EmberClear and its subsidiary, FutureEnergy) to bring new clean energy technology to India, Kosovo and Pennsylvania. They're also in discussions with North America's two largest power generators, Duke and AEP, around investment and deployment in U.S. plants with Chinese technology.

    They're not alone. ENN (a subsidiary of the XinAo Group), Shenhua, CNOOC and others are all developing clean tech themselves from scratch, both for domestic use and export. This covers solar thin-films, biofuels, coal-to-liquids, shale gas and smart grids, all with U.S. partners. Lishen battery company, one of the world's largest, is embarking on a $7 billion development drive just for battery technology and demonstration.

    The good news -- this will ultimately lead to lower emissions faster worldwide, and cheaper power with it. The bad news -- for some in the U.S. -- is additional competition. While some U.S. companies will benefit, others will encounter aggressive, new competition with credible technology. Some will grow faster; others will lose market share.

    U.S. businesses are quick to benefit from this, and will help us all reach a stable climate faster. U.S. jobs will be created in the process, as is already happening with many who are partnering in China's clean-tech sector right now. They're also critical to laying the foundation of trust between the two countries, absolutely essential for U.S.-China government agreements in trade, climate and other key areas.

    Perhaps the main story is the constancy of the innovation drive. China has built the largest computer in the world (Tianhe-1). It started with U.S. chips, but the next one will be with indigenous chips. While the U.S. has a lead in using these computers well to accelerate innovation, we could lose that edge quickly -- in just two to three years. This same innovation permeates everything: aircraft, biotech, IT.

    But clean-tech is the main event, at over $40 billion per year in government investment. That investment goes to universities, private companies, state-owned enterprises and new research institutes. It funds centers of excellence, large-scale demonstrations, modeling and simulation and bench-top research. It's like the Vannevar Bush innovation model (let a thousand flowers bloom) -- on steroids.

    The U.S. needs to engage. America and China, combined, account for 40% of emissions, 40% of energy consumption, and 50% of global coal use. Nothing other countries do on this issue can match what either the U.S. or China does (or doesn't). We also cannot stabilize climate, even with the rest of the world acing in concert, without the U.S. and China leading the way.

    China's growing green sector will dominate this century's trajectory, in commerce, industry, climate, energy and even issues like human rights and currency policy. The incredible build of transmission and power plants dwarfs everything else on earth in the energy biz. That's good news for the atmosphere, but something that gives pause to the other 5.5 billion people on this planet. The U.S. still must decide how best to marshal its resources -- making progress, making technology, or making excuses.

    Julio Friedmann is the Carbon Management Program Leader for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the technical leader for the clean coal consortium under the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center.


    More »

  • Why It's Hard to Talk About Energy

    To many, power comes from the wall and gas comes from a gas station. Most people don't see or experience oil wells, refineries, power plants and natural gas pipelines.

    By Juilo Friedmann

    When I completed my doctorate in geology, I didn't know that I would spend the next 16 years working on either climate or energy. I've worked in Australia and Wyoming, Ireland and Spain, Alaska and Azerbaijan, California and China. I've been fortunate to act from inside industry (ExxonMobil for five years), to learn from top scientists there and in Universities (including a stint at the University of Maryland), and both learn from and present to world-class scientists. In both gigs, my job was creation of knowledge. In my current gig as Carbon Management Program lead at one of the national Labs, I am honored to serve an additional formal role: providing technical insight and information to government. In 23 years as a scientist, I've learned a tough lesson: Talking to people about climate and energy is hard.

    The fact that climate change is real, man-made and likely to be bad doesn't make talking about it any easier. That we need to act urgently and at immense scale doesn't improve things -- ask Al Gore.

    Communicating even the simple bits in climate and energy is tricky, in part because America has created the energy system it wanted -- cheap, unintrusive and all but invisible. To many Americans, power comes from the wall and gas comes from a gas station. Most people don't see or experience oil wells, refineries, power plants, natural gas pipelines, gas storage facilities, or large transformer sub-stations. In my experience, many folks when asked know neither how much power they use each month nor what their electricity bill is. In part, this is because the value of electricity and gasoline is much, much higher to most people than the cost.

    One thing I find most difficult to convey to people is the scale of the energy enterprise. Energy is the largest economic activity on earth (much larger than agriculture) and the industry with the highest capitalization (much higher than car manufacturing). Energy units are confusing (megawatts, kilowatt-hours, tons of carbon, CO2 equivalents, BTUs and Gigajoules), but the scale of the system makes these units even more remote (terawatt-hours, exajoules, gigatons, quadrillion BTUs). This makes it hard to bring the discussion home -- the discussion starts in a rarified, almost other-worldly place. (Click chart below for larger view.)

    LLNL_US_Energy_Flow_2009.png

    Let's talk gigatons -- one billion tons. Every year, human activity emits about 35 gigatons of CO2 (the most important greenhouse gas). Of that, 85% comes from fossil fuel burning. To a lot of people, that doesn't mean much -- who goes to the store and buys a gigaton of carrots? For a sense of perspective, a gigaton is about twice the mass of all people on earth, so 35 gigatons is about 70 times the weight of humanity. Every year, humans put that in the atmosphere, and 85% of that is power. Large actions, across whole nations and whole economies, are required to move the needle.

    This takes us to the next issue in talking about energy - our current system works pretty well. In the U.S., most power companies keep the lights on 99.99% of the time or better. Usually, there's gas at the corner station. There's a reason we burn stuff -- it's hard to beat! The world uses more coal than it did 10 years ago. It uses more wood than it did, more everything.

    To cut emissions, urgent and critically important, we need new energy supplies (biofuels, solar, wind, advanced nuclear, coal with sequestration) with much lower carbon footprints. But 100 watts is 100 watts however generated -- the swap to carbon free energy raises costs but produces only intangible benefits. We can't start the conversation by saying that everything will cost more, and the benefits are immense but you can't easily see them. It's hard enough to get people to take their medicine or lose weight when it directly improves their health - changing energy systems is a hard sell under any context. (Click for larger.)

    EPRI_PRISM_2008.jpg

    Any action on the challenges we face -- and in the huge, dizzying, active enterprise there are plenty -- starts with a story: a story that's hard to tell easily and well. For this reason, decision makers in both industry and government have a unique need and responsibility to their stakeholders to understand how the climate and energy systems work. They have a unique need to understand the dimensions of the problem and a responsibility to be knowledgeable in the face of uncertain, difficult choices. They need to separate sense from non-sense, and invest in the present and the future with that limited knowledge. Because real solutions that aren't all "eat your peas" or "don't worry -- be happy", narrative is the strongest tool they require to affect enduring change.

    In this context, my research colleagues and I have a special role in bringing narrative to these actors. Climate and energy experts have plenty of facts, often overwhelming, but lack the narrative to compel people to act on their own behalf. Researchers in universities, companies and national Labs have an obligation to cleave to what we really know.

    We also have an obligation to tie our facts, knowledge, expertise and experiences to stories that resonate, that are clear and that bring clarity to those with the money and power to act.

    Julio Friedmann is the Carbon Management Program Leader for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the technical leader for the clean coal consortium under the US-China Clean Energy Research Center.

    More »

Video

Hunting With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

The story of an action figure and his reluctant sidekick, who trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author