Why It's Hard to Talk About Energy

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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.)

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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.)

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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.

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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.
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