Their minds full from an all-morning briefing on climate science from some of the nation’s leading experts, 18 top news executives from some of America’s leading news organizations reconvened after an outdoor lunch at Stanford University’s on-campus Dohrmann Grove, where they sat under the redwoods and an observant red-tailed hawk perched nearby.

From a morning of world-class science, they would now turn to an afternoon dialog on “solutions” to the climate change challenges – with a particular focus on the nation’s energy options and on costs and feasibility of making substantial cuts in the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions over the next several decades.*

“There are no silver bullets,” Stanford economist James L. Sweeney, director of the university’s new Precourt Institute for Energy Efficiency, quickly advised the editors. “Only silver birdshot.”

View the Slideshow
Slideshow with scenes from
the September 5, 2007 Roundtable

He said an early goal of the nation’s energy program should be to remove pressures on the global oil market and make the nation less vulnerable to its fluctuations. Sweeney suggested a political consensus could even exist for such a goal.

Sweeney told the editors that three factors will drive the nation’s energy future: environmental protection, and in particular climate change; security, including volatility of international oil prices and vulnerability of infrastructure to terrorism, natural disasters, and human errors; and volatility of prices and prices of electricity, oil, and natural gas.

Sweeney said he thinks it important to focus energy objectives in areas where gains can do the most to help control carbon dioxide emissions. He said annual U.S. energy use of roughly 100 quads consists of 40 quads from oil and 23 and 22 quads respectively from coal and natural gas. “Almost all of the carbon dioxide” comes from these supplies – oil, coal, and natural gas – and Sweeney said it “blows the mind” to see some in the media over-emphasize the potential for solar and wind energy simply because they may be the “fastest growing.”

“When you’re starting from near zero, you don’t have to grow much to have a large growth rate,” he said. Solar and wind combined account for about 1/3 quad out of the 100 consumed annually in the U.S., Sweeney said. “They probably will be important 30 years from now, but the energy problems over the next 30 years have to do with oil and fossil fuels.”

More Media Focus on Energy Efficiency

From Sweeney’s perspective, the media should concentrate more attention on energy efficiency. Progress in vehicle efficiency, commercial and residential lighting, and air transport efficiency could lead to a savings of more than eight quads of energy annually, he said. Such a savings compares well with the much less likely short-term prospect for doubling domestic nuclear power, he said. It would be tantamount to a 25-fold increase in wind and solar power.

With the world’s oil market currently at full capacity, nations can no longer pick up the slack when another nation’s oil market is interrupted, Sweeney warned. He challenged the editors to name large oil companies, and they responded with the usual list of names – Exxon/Mobil, Shell, and BP.

Not until you get to number 14 do you find Exxon/Mobil among the world’s largest oil companies, Sweeney replied. He listed the top tier as including Saudi Aramco, National Iranian Oil, and Gazprom, illustrating, he said, that the largest oil companies in the world share in common that they are state-controlled. “The private sector owns the smaller companies,” like Exxon/Mobil, he said. (Sweeney contrasted Aramco’s 302 billion barrels of reserves with Exxon/Mobil’s 23 billion.)

He encouraged editors to look at global oil supply through a “geopolitical overlay,” with security dependent on where the oil is produced and who controls the oil reserves.

Sweeney advised editors not to pursue stories involving “draconian measures,” but rather to focus on “getting what we want and doing it in a more economically attractive way that uses less energy” and involves increased energy efficiency. He said the media should focus more on how society uses energy. “You can do a real service of bringing in much better information to the public,” he said.

Easy or Hard? Profitable … or Expensive? Contrasting Views

So what will it cost to bring carbon dioxide emissions under control and avoid damaging climate change? And how difficult might the transitions be?

The editors got diametrically opposed answers to those questions from two highly regarded experts – Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Kan Caldeira of the Stanford University Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology.

So at odds were the two experts’ perspectives that one roundtable participant later commented, “It looks like economists are going to need their own IPCC.”

Lovins went first, telling the editors the American public is being presented a false choice in having to choose between death from climate change, oil wars, or nuclear holocaust.

“We can use energy in a way that solves the problems at a profit,” Lovins insisted. He pointed to some leading private-sector companies, some of them his clients, as proving his point over and over. Measured relative to dollars generated, Lovins told the editors (a seldom-told story here?), the nation has cut energy intensity in half since 1975 … and that notwithstanding “stagnant” light-vehicle fuel efficiency requirements and “perverse” incentives toward electricity efficiency.

Making optimum use of current end-use efficiency could deliver the same or better services with half the oil at one-sixth the price, half the natural gas at one-eighth the price, and three-fourths of the electricity at one-eighth the price, according to Lovins.

“Investing to achieve savings would cost six times less than buying the energy, and provide for less volatility,” Lovins said. “Saving energy works when it’s allowed to.”

However, the public discourse focuses largely on costs, burdens, and sacrifice, Lovins said, claiming that “practitioners” instead find profits. “It’s cheaper to save fuel than to buy fuel,” Lovins told the editors.

“The incorrect assumption that climate protection will be costly is the biggest obstacle to it,” Lovins said, “and it’s reinforced every day in the media.” He said journalists should instead focus on climate protection as generating profits, rather than costs.

Lovins pointed to what he sees as several “heresies” impeding progress on climate change:

  • Solutions must await global agreements. Why? he asks. “If it’s in the self interest of business and people,’ why not proceed now?
  • Only public policy and government action can trigger needed efforts. “Public policy is playing catch-up,” Lovins said. “The private sector is a lot faster at making this profitable.”
  • Pricing carbon will be valid and helpful. But it’s not necessary, Lovins counters, and it won’t be sufficient or, most likely, even important.
  • Climate protection costs a lot. Rubbish, he maintains forcefully. It’s profitable.
  • Stanford’s Ken Caldeira expressed a much different perspective. He called Lovins “incredibly brilliant and incredibly optimistic.” But he just wasn’t buying the line that Lovins was selling.

While absolutely necessary, Caldeira emphasized, efforts to protect the climate from harmful changes will be difficult and costly. He estimates roughly an annual expense of perhaps $800 billion to capture carbon from centralized power plants. “Less than the cost of medical care, and a bit less than the global military budget, but still a lot of money. We could do it, but it’s a major investment.”

Caldeira urges increased efforts on energy efficiency and cautions that the “real emissions curve will come in the second half of the century from the industrialization of the developing world.”

“We need an energy infrastructure that can provide for the energy needs in the second half of the century, without huge outputs of carbon dioxide,” he said. “The time scale of change for that infrastructure takes place over 50 years, so we need to start building now.”

To begin to stabilize the climate, Caldeira urged the editors to look closely at carbon capture and storage technologies, renewable energy including biomass, wind, and solar, and other potential energy sources such as high-altitude wind power.

His “take home points” for the editors:

  • The scale of transformation is truly enormous for the global energy system;
  • The real challenges become most apparent in the second half of this century;
  • Construction must get under way now to meet those coming challenges; and
  • New large-scale energy systems are essential now.

“With China sitting on huge amounts of coal, how can we make it in their self-interest to not burn that coal?” Caldeira asked. He offered a “personal view” in response to his question:

“We put a carbon tax on ourselves and we refuse to import goods from countries that don’t have a tax. Then we might pressure China to do the same.

“We need to make it in everybody’s self interest to participate.”

*This is the second of a two-part series on a September 5, 2007, news executives roundtable held at Stanford University at the start of the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, SEJ. The first part of this series was published in the launch issue of The Yale Forum.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...