Sierra Club Explains Energy Issues Pt 1/2

I’ve spent time hiking with, even volunteering with, Sierra Club, but have never taken a good look at their magazine. Now someone asked me to post on the January/February Sierra. Not because Sierra Club analysis is any worse than that of environmentalists in general, but because it is typical.

Sierra Club volunteers
Sierra Club volunteers

In checking Sierra Club numbers, I have to go to some source or other. This time I chose John Holdren’s The Energy Innovation Imperative. Holdren is president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a major person in climate change policy.

The Sierra Club does its analysis differently:

For the past year, our volunteer leaders and energy experts have been examining the nation’s energy options.

OK, so Sierra Club is off to a bad start, no indication of peer-review publications, or anything written by someone of Holdren’s stature. How does their work hold up from there?

What first emerges is the difference in tone. Sierra Club is optimistic that so many solutions exist for climate change, that we can forego what is currently, along with hydro, the largest source of non-GHG emitting energy in the world. Happy faces practically cover the articles, except when Sierra Club gets to the energy sources it disapproves of.

John Holdren's Nobel speech for Pugwash
John Holdren’s Nobel speech for Pugwash


Global climate change is increasingly recognized as both the most dangerous and the most intractable of all of energy’s environmental impacts-indeed, the most dangerous and intractable of all of civilization’s environmental impacts, period. Distortions of this envelope [the atmosphere] of the magnitude that are underway and in prospect are likely to so badly disrupt the environmental conditions innovations and processes influenced by climate as to adversely affect every dimension of human well-being that is tied to the environment, including:

__ the productivity of farms, forests, and fisheries;
__ the geography of disease;
__ the prevalence of oppressive heat and humidity;
__ the damages to be expected from storms, floods, and wildfires;
__ the property losses to be expected from sea-level rise;
__ the expenditures that must be made on engineered environments (e.g., dams, dikes, air-conditioned spaces); and
__ the distribution and abundance of valued species as well as pests.

It is becoming clear, nonetheless, that the current level of anthropogenic interference is dangerous.

So Holdren says is that reducing GHG as fast as possible is best, and that nuclear power problems don’t begin to compare to climate change.

Sierra Club:

Americans have gotten ourselves out of tough jams and overcome big obstacles before. We cured polio, put a man on the moon, and ended segregation. If we set our minds to it, we could also meet the enormous challenge of global warming. We already have the know-how. Unleashed, American ingenuity.. etc

Americans go to the moon
Americans went to the moon, but most people believe that climate change will be a much more difficult problem to solve.


The multiplicity of challenges at the intersection of energy with the economy, the environment, and international security–led by the oil-dependence and climate change challenges just described–add up to a need for policies designed for two ends:

__ to help society find and implement a satisfactory compromise among competing economic, environmental and security objectives–which includes trying to leave the biggest margins of safety against the biggest dangers–given the resources and technologies available at any given time, and
__ to accelerate the processes of energy-technology innovation that, over time, can reduce the limitations of existing energy options, can bring new options to fruition, and thereby can reduce the tensions among energy-policy objectives and enable faster progress on the most critical ones.

These ends cannot be achieved by markets alone, without supplementary policies, because many of the goals relate to public goods (such as national security and meeting the basic energy needs of society’s poorest members) and externalities (such as air pollution and greenhouse gases) that are not priced in markets unless policies achieve this.

A further implication of the characteristics of today’s energy challenges is that society will do better to pursue a broad portfolio of improved energy-supply and end-use options, rather than putting its eggs in too few baskets. The merits of such diversity are manifold: it provides flexibility to respond to changing conditions and new information (an insurance policy for an uncertain world), including providing the possibility of discarding options that ultimately prove unsuitable; it takes into account that, even after all plausible technological improvements, there comes a point in the expansion of any energy option where rising marginal costs and/or risks make further expansion unattractive (meaning a broad portfolio is likely to have lower costs and risks overall than a narrower set of options wherein each has to bear too much of the load); and by combining the growth of multiple new or improved options–each drawing on different types of material resources, skills, and firms–it can replace status quo technologies more rapidly than would be possible by one or two new options alone.

In The Fix, Sierra Club describes, with no supplementary explanations, a 2050 where efficiency displaces all energy growth and then some (in the US, where there is much inefficiency). Nuclear stays the same — hard if plants that close are not replaced. Renewables displace coal and oil. Natural gas use remains about the same.

Some questions: how can we use no oil, no coal (to liquids) and not increase nuclear (to power plug-in hybrids?) No peer review analysis, no matter how optimistic, assumes that biofuels and Smart Growth alone can completely replace today’s oil by 2050, let alone the growth in oil. No idea of energy security as presented by Holdren — what if one of the eggs cracks? No explanations supplied to justify the graphs.

US Electricity 2004
US Electricity 2004
Sierra Club acts does not address problems that might arise in depending on currently marginal sources of electricity.

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