Is Ecomodernism the third way on climate change?

The headline here is the title of a blog post on “The Hill” by Julie Kelly. It contains three terms that seem likely to annoy any thoughtful conservative. Ecomodernism is a term used for toasters, pants, lampshades, etc. that have some vague elements of the ecologically friendly and a trendy design. It is more recently the new green credo – long on rhetoric but short on detail and it is not a new idea. Third way is an attempt to co-opt the high moral ground of democracy and capitalism. Climate of course always changes. Abrupt climate changes have repeatedly affected the planet, including local changes of as much as a 10°C in a decade and changes in hydrology by a factor of two. It is in the nature of a complex and dynamic mechanism – as revealed to us by the US Academies of Science among others.

In Kelly’s view Democrats have a plan on climate change – that is just like the one from Ecomodernists – and Republicans don’t. The plan involves economic growth, nuclear power, fossil fuel use in the interim and increased agricultural productivity. This in fact doesn’t sound too dissimilar to views from either the center or the right of politics. Most of us can get behind economic growth and technology.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto says that prosperity and environmental conservation are compatible. Increasing production efficiency uses less materials and produces fewer harmful by-products. Higher agricultural productivity allows land to return to forests. Progress in energy technology enables a transition to cost effective, low carbon energy sources. Societies are more peaceful and productive than ever in history. They take a pragmatic view of fossil fuel use in the interim – especially in the developing world where the cheapest energy is a key to economic growth and social progress. They have an optimistic view of human capacities to solve human problems and to conserve ecologies at the same time.

If you have not heard the buzz around this – you will. It instinctively appeals to a broad demographic. It provides a positive narrative of the future that people are looking for – people naturally want a better future for their children and grandchildren. As such it creates an opportunity to gain tremendous political capital – and Republicans risk missing the boat unless they can grasp the significance of this ideological sea-change. My view is that the right of politics has failed to articulate a coherent, practical, positive vision. The left is replete with tales of impending catastrophe. So where are effective responses to early 21st century problems to be found?

Nuclear energy is a cornerstone of this new view emerging in green left circles. It is something the right has championed for a long time. It is far less problematic these days in that the new nuclear designs make great strides in efficiency, cost reduction and safety. US designs are being fast tracked to generic approval by the Obama administration. Bill Gates is investing his money in China. One of the most interesting new designs – in my view – is the General Atomics Energy Multiplier Module. EM2 is a technology evolution designed to a performance specification that included cost, safety, fabrication, installation and operation that give it outstanding potential to change the energy landscape. It is perfectly safe and provides an opportunity to recycle existing nuclear waste into hundreds of years of energy. Total global nuclear fuel resources – for this high temperature, gas cooled, fast neutron design – are some 300 times global oil reserves. Essentially unlimited energy. General Atomics data suggests that the EM2 becomes cost competitive with natural gas in the United States at a gas price of $6-$7/MMBtu. Natural gas prices are about half that at this time. Rational economics suggests a transition in the US from natural gas fired generation to advanced nuclear generation sometime after the year 2025. This is far from a novel suggestion of course. In the rest of the world ¬– the market may just be waiting for commercialization of the technology.

The old idea was to tax energy to bring a transition forward – but costs of currently available alternative technologies are much more than the projected costs of advanced nuclear designs. It would seem as well to be not merely impractical and unlikely but unethical to expect the developing world to follow suit. Ecomodernists agree – nations should be free to choose the energy source that best meets their needs. Nobel Prize winning economists from Bjorn Lomberg’s Copenhagen Consensus agree – doubling solar and wind power in the developing world would have costs higher than benefits.

That doesn’t stop Oxfam America, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and the Methodist Church jointly lobbying US politicians to prevent investment in coal, oil or gas projects in Africa. This is very short sighted. A lot of greenhouse gases – and black carbon which is a particularly nasty health concern as well as a large climate forcing – come from destruction of forest and woodland for cooking fires and to grow food. Economic growth – using the cheapest available energy source – is a key to progress on these and many other problems. What these organisations could usefully do is encourage the focusing of existing commitments of aid and philanthropy on smart development goals of the Copenhagen Consensus – and ignore the miss by the UN last month of an historic opportunity to actually make a difference.

I have followed Ecomodernism for several years now – from well before the name was coined. It began with “The wrong pants: radically rethinking climate policy.” This publication from the London School of Economics suggested that oblique ways of approaching problems of development and the environment would succeed where taxes and caps on carbon dioxide failed. Multiple approaches and multiple goals rather than a one size fits all idea. Here it can get a little confusing because there aren’t simple solutions to complex problems.

A promising approach is to build productivity on agricultural lands – another key Ecomodernist idea. Scientific interventions that make people better off are increasing global agricultural productivity. It is happening on both large and small holdings – and includes the potential for genetic engineering to play a part. It includes also precision agriculture – reducing inputs for increased productivity and less environmental impact – and conservation farming. It includes ordinary people and such things as “food forests”. The latter do not just achieve exceptional productivity and diversify nutrition sources but conserve the genetic diversity of our food crops and animals. Rebuilding the organic content – and thus productivity – of soils in cropping and grazing lands conserves soil and water, drought proofs communities, reduces downstream flooding and erosion, restores environments and biodiversity and enhances food security. This happens to be the best way to make significant inroads into rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere – if that’s a factor. It succeeds with vibrant, diverse, prosperous and autonomous cultures in landscapes.

Agricultural productivity, increased downstream processing and access to markets build local economies and global wealth. Economic growth provides resources for solving problems – conserving and restoring ecosystems, better sanitation and safer water, better health and education, updating the diesel fleet and other productive assets to emit less black carbon, developing better and cheaper ways of producing electricity, replacing cooking fires with better ways of preparing food thus avoiding millions of deaths annually, etc.

The movement from some on the left towards more rational and morally and ethically defensible positions is to be welcomed. Now if only they would recognize that climate always changes. It makes a difference. The risk of climate change is from the known unknowns – abrupt climate change for whatever reason – and the solution first and foremost is to build prosperous and resilient economies.

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