The Wall Street cherry picking festival

A textbook example of cherrypicked data from Bret Stephens.

Fruit picking, Cao Quan-Tang  Source

You would have thought Mr. Bret Stephens, the up-and-coming climate-confusionist hack hired by the New York Times to general scorn, would have been on his best behaviour after the virulent reaction to his first column. Well, here’s the second, and it’s no better. Stephens uses the alleged failure of three climate policies – corn ethanol, the European Emissions Trading Scheme, and the German Energiewende – to undermine the idea of climate mitigation. Imagine such coward’s reasoning – this may not work, let’s do nothing – applied in medicine or war.

Of course, qualified climate activists have been criticising corn ethanol and the ETS since before Stephens got his first job. The problem is that they have been structured as giveaways to capitalists, though you won’t find Mr. Stephens saying so. But on the Energiewende, there is a truly amazing example of cherry-picking. Stephens (my emphasis):

There’s also been some acknowledgment that Germany’s Energiewende — the uber-ambitious “energy turn” embarked upon by Angela Merkel in 2010 — has been less than a model for others. The country is producing record levels of energy from wind and solar power, but emissions are almost exactly what they were in 2009. Meanwhile, German households pay nearly the highest electricity bills in Europe, all for what amounts to an illusion of ecological virtue.

First, a fact-check digession. “Embarked upon by Angela Merkel in 2010”? It took me under a minute to find the Wikipedia article on the Energiewende. The term dates back to 1980; “in its present form it dates back to at least 2002.” The first feed-in tariff dates back to 1991, though it wasn’t very successful. The key legislation, the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) , was adopted in 2000 at the instigation of the Greens, then junior partners in a coalition government. It has been revised several times since. The Energiewende has been multipartisan German policy for over 17 years.

That’s mere ignorance and carelessness [CORRECTION: see footnote]. The dishonesty is in the claim that “emissions are almost exactly what they were in 2009”. I thought I would have to spend another minute or two with Google to find the data, but they are right there in the link he provides in the online version.

Here is Clean Energy Wire’s chart of German GHG emissions since 1990.

Notice the dip in 2009? That was the global recession following the great financial crisis. The trend is of a smooth, gradual decline. If you smooth roughly by averaging the three years 2008-2010 and 20014-2016, the decline over 9 years is from 941 GT to 904, or 4%, or 0.4% a year. The uptick in 2016 is an outlier for different reasons: it was an unusually cold winter, 890,000 refugees arrived in the country (over 1% of the population), and it was a leap year, which alone increased consumption of everything by around 0.3%.

Here’s a comparable chart for the USA from the EPA up to 2013. Emissions did not fall at all over the period, and they only peaked in 2007.

I don’t think I have ever seen a more blatant example of cherry-picking in my life. It’s not a sophisticated error: Stephens consciously chose the one outlier.

He could have made almost a strong a point without lying. “For all the billions spent on renewables, German emissions have only been falling at [0.4% or whatever the trendline is] and the country is on track to overshoot its 2020 emissions target by [100 million tonnes a year or whatever]”. But no, the shiny lie is a bit stronger and will get a few more clicks, so I’ll go with that. Faugh. Falsus in unum, falsus in omnia, as the man said.

There are several inferences to be drawn from this.

1. The NYT fact-checkers are either asleep at the wheel or else operating on an absurdly restrictive rule of literal truth-telling, allowing both suggestio falsi and suppressio veri. So much for the advertised commitment to truth. Many readers of the column only had the print version, without access to the self-refuting link, so the excuse that readers can always follow it is unsound.
2. Stephens would not have lasted long in the shops of Cold War propagandists like Willi Münzenberg or Melvin Lasky. They had standards of rigour and effectiveness that ruled out mere adolescent sophistry.
3. The climate realists have won the argument, if Stephens is the best the Kochintern can muster.
 

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There are things to be criticised about the Energiewende from a conservative free-market perspective, and much more from a social-democratic climate hawk one: but Mr. Stephens no longer deserves the presumption of good faith, so I’m not addressing him.

My short takes for my readers:

  • Yes, current German policies are not ambitious enough. That goes for almost all countries. Germany has a stronger consensus than most, and a more robust policy framework, for doing better.
  • The FITs (plus no residential permitting and streamlined paperwork) worked fine as subsidies for early deployment of wind, solar and biomass, since they were neutral between suppliers and left incentives for efficiency and cost reduction intact. The FIT reductions were pretty predictable and tracked the fall in costs quite well. Germany, like most countries, has since shifted to auctions for utility-scale projects. Auctions work even better, except for cooperatives who face unacceptable project risks. This is a big drawback for proponents of energy democracy, a significant part of the consensus coalition.
  • German ratepayers paid for the great German solar boom of the 2000s that drove world prices down to grid parity, and will keep paying until the high early FITs expire after 20 years. This was and is a great gift to the rest of humanity. We would not have 3c/kwh solar in the Gulf today without it. Current residential solar FITs are about a third of retail electricity tariffs, so there is next to no subsidy looking forward.
  • Armchair policy logic suggests that Germany should, like everybody else, have kept their nuclear reactors going until they become unsafe or too expensive to repair. The premature closure of the reactors has kept coal burning unnecessarily high, extending the life of many coal plants by perhaps a decade.

    This critique ignores political realities. The Energiewende, and its political patron the Green party, started out as an anti-nuclear movement, later extended gingerly to opposition to fossil fuels. The solid political consensus for the Energiewende rests on an equally solid consensus against nuclear. Second, the coal lobby remains strong (channelled through the SPD with its ties to unionised miners). Renewables were deliberately slowed down in 2014 to protect miners and incumbent coal generators, or at least give them a soft landing. A fast coal phaseout would have been politically very difficult regardless of the nuclear policy. Commenters: please avoid relitigating this. No German is listening.

  • The policy has a gaping hole on transport. Incentives for electric cars are negligible, charging infrastructure is still poor. There is little awareness of the health costs of air pollution, and SFIK no German cities are in the van on fighting it through low-emission zones or diesel bans or electric buses. The powerful German carmakers have ambitious electric vehicle plans but few models in production. They amble forward with the young St. Augustine: “O Lord, make me electric, but not yet”.
  • I have been predicting that super-cheap wind and solar upends the statist logic of German policy, and that of other European countries. The idea was for technocrats to steer the volume of renewables, first through FITs, more recently through auctions. This was inevitable when they were expensive and depended on subsidies to move ahead at all. But onshore and even offshore wind is now competitive without subsidy in many places. Solar soon will be, once residential batteries become cheap enough for large-scale self-consumption. At least one British solar developer has subsidy-free projects aimed at large consumers like airports. How can governments keep control of renewable volumes in future? EU law requires open access to markets. They could walk this back, but the policy would be very contentious and unpopular. The Energiewende is going to speed up.
  • ***********************************

    Footnote – a correction
    I realise that I was too generous in describing Stephens’s 2010 starting date for the Energiewende as merely incompetent and ignorant. It has a critical rhetorical role in the paragraph, for it appears to justify the hand-picked 2009 start date for the emissions data. It should really have been 2010, which gives a decline,but what’s a year between suckers? I can’t prove this, but it’s a sensible inference that the “mistake” was carefully designed as a supporting lie.

    I also have to retract my jibe that Stephes would have been been turned down by Münzenberg and Lasky. Willi might well have decided that the lad had real potential and signed him up.

    Author: James Wimberley

    James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

    22 thoughts on “The Wall Street cherry picking festival”

    1. Solar energy, coupled with greatly improved batteries/energy storage, generally seems to me to be the best hope of mankind. Energy storage, after long being the laggard of the industrial and electronic revolutions, is finally moving encouragingly. (I think Elon Musk's efforts on that, not car manufacturing or Mars travel, will be the first paragraph of his obituary.) As to photovoltaics, I would welcome an update of your analysis of prospects for continued improvements.

    2. Is progress going to hit a wall when intermittent sources become a large enough fraction of the grid that large-scale storage is necessary to keep it stable? The US approach seems to be to couple them with natural-gas plants to even out supply, but obviously there's a limit to how small that approach can make the total carbon footprint.

      1. Have a look at slides 70ff in Liebreich's presentation to the 2017 BNEF Energy Summit (pdf download). These are based on sophisticated modelling not experience, but suggest that the total amount of gas generation required in a high-renewables system will be quite low, especially if you throw in a lot of demand response and better interconnectors. The volume of rarely used gas capacity will be high, but that imbalance is true today. At first sight, it looks as if we should be able to get to 90% renewables generation with not too much trouble. The last 10%, 5% and 1% will be more expensive.

        One idea is to stick with gas but have it generated from biomass, or from catalysed hydrogen (P2G) made using the copious volumes of excess electricity generated by wind and solar farms on their good days. Since the gas infrastructure is already there and paid for, it looks a better bet than building giant batteries or more pumped storage dams. And don't forget thermal solar (CSP) with hot salt storage: you can put in as many hours of this as you want, up to 14 hours for 24/7 running at a contracted plant for a mine in Chile. Only good in very sunny deserts and near-deserts, but these exist in the US Southwest and California.

        PS: Not to mention that wind and solar at an LCOE of 3c/kwh, which is about the best price now and will become standard, is equivalent to a still acceptable 6c/kwh at a massive curtailment of 50%. I doubt if it will ever get that far, but it’s financially perfectly acceptable to curtail a lot at solar and wind peaks in order to extend the shoulders.

        1. 90% is remarkable–I'd been hearing lately that it would be not too hard to get up to 25% or 30% or so, much harder after that, but that might be in the context of the existing US grid.

          I remember when people were insisting that it'd be impossible to get it into double digits. (Including some who actually argued that work on renewables needed to be stopped immediately, because it was a dangerous political distraction from building the nuclear plants we needed for civilizational survival.)

    3. "The NYT fact-checkers are either asleep at the wheel or else operating on an absurdly restrictive rule of literal truth-telling,…"

      Do columnists​ even get fact-checked?

      1. Yes, at least at the NYT. Editorial page editor James Bennet, cited by Public Editor Liz Spayd on her blog:
        "Yes, we expect our columnists to work with the same regard for fact and truth as the newsroom. We edit and fact-check columnists and ask them to provide sources for their facts."
        This assertion is plainly untrue.

        1. Considering some of the things they've published in the news columns, it might be true, alas. It's also a bit misleading, even if true, as jjramsey suggests. A good fact-checking department (which I was sometimes pleased, sometimes annoyed to work with in my active years as a news writer) would use the sources offered by the writer as a starting point for research rather than an authoritative answer. But that can take serious time, expertise and cooperation. And is exactly the kind of "unnecessary" expense that tends to get cut.

    4. The problem with hiring a conservative to present the "other side" on an allegedly liberal editorial page, as opposed to hiring a smart, thoughtful person who happens to hold conservative views on some issues and letting him/her write honest columns, is that if you do the latter, you haven't hired a conservative. (It's not much of a stretch to say that you've hired another Friedman or Kristof or Bruni.) A conservative writer who accepts climate change wouldn't/couldn't be a movement conservative; the movement's position on action to combat climate change has to be uniform for gaslighting to be effective. If global warming were a matter of reasonable dispute, with some respected conservatives on one side and others on the other side, then "climate hysteria" couldn't be a liberal pathology cooked up for the sole purpose of immiserating decent people in order to increase the power of the State. (Or hubris run amok or a conspiracy by scientists or the Chinese or whatever other substance-free assaults on climate science individual deniers happen to use.)

      Besides, the NYT does run columns by conservatives who dissent from the party line, in guest op-eds; there's one from George Schultz today, and I'm pretty sure they've run columns by Bob Inglis (former Sen.) and maybe even some congresspeople actually in office. Of course, that's seen not as input from the "other side" but as validation for the liberal position. So, it's not really conservative. It's viewed by conservatives the way liberals used to view "even The New Republic" arguments.

      One more thing. If you're looking to hire an honest writer skilled in making good faith arguments to attempt to persuade people who don't already agree with the writer, instead of a writer skilled at denigrating and provoking doubters while feeding red meat to folks who already agree with him/her, the WSJ editorial page isn't the place to look. Trying to persuade doubters is not in their playbook. Insults, hyperbole, ad hominem and strawman arguments, half-truths and innuendo are their specialty. Forget it Jake, it's movement conservatism.

      1. The target of pieces like mine or Kevin Drum's is not Stephens but the NYT editors, who should already be squirming. They don't want to be laughed at.

      2. My hobbyhorse has just emerged from the stables and is taking his place at the starting gate: why is there such a plethora of columnists in a newspaper anyway? (Indeed, as Goneril said in another context, "What need one?") What they think isn't news, and even a good essayist will not produce quality work if s/he has to write a column a week, let alone two or three. Most editorial page columnists have little or no expertise in anything besides journalism, and, while extremely valuable for what it does, it doesn't provide them with the training in thoughtful and/or in-depth analysis that should be the value of a good opinion column. The great journalist Helen Thomas, when hired as an opinion writer, described the job as essentially getting up in the morning, deciding what she was mad about on that day and writing about it.

        The model I'd like to see is something like the New York Times' hiring of biologist Olivia Judson to write a column translating her specialty for nonspecialist readers. I don't know whether it was originally intended to last only a limited period of time, but she herself withdrew from the column when she realized that both it and she needed a break.

        And with a nod to James Wimberley's response to snideissue's comment, I wonder if it may not at this point be the case that most regular columnists at this point function to a large degree as point-and-laugh fodder for people who disagree with them.

        1. Addison's and Steele's Spectator, at the origin of the modern periodical (1711), came out three times a week. There were two authors, so it meant one-and-a half pieces each every week. Extended hat tip here in an old post.

        2. I agree 100%. When Bob Herbert left the Times and people were bandying around Ta-Nehisi Coates to replace him, at first I thought it was a great idea, but soon realized that the need to do regular columns would diminish his work. He probably wouldn't have taken the job for that reason. I like opinion pieces (I guess I wouldn't be at RBC otherwise), but it would be better if people wrote only when they had something important to say. It would also help the "diversity" of the op-ed page if they didn't commit real estate to regular columnists but welcomed high-quality work from a broad range of people, some of whom might appear fairly regularly, some irregularly. No apologists for either "side."

          1. "It would be better if people wrote only when they had something important to say." Wow. AlI I aim for is is interesting; important, with self-flattery, a couple of times a year. You need to have some faith is the serendipity of the discussion. Mediocre ideas on important subjects can spark better ones.

            An example I saw the other day. Bitcoin is a crank libertarian project, as fiat money created by the state plus regulated bank deposits works just fine to run the payments system. But part of it is blockchain technology, allowing secure distributed databases and transactions of any type. This has been taken up by major energy companies (Statoil, Shell, Tepco …) as a solid prospect for grid management.

            1. Your formulation is better. "Important" sounds like something someone promoting a news outlet would say. (At least I didn't say "goes behind the headlines to give you the real story.") Interesting, and not overly repetitive of what others are doing is better. Whether or not your posts are always important, I'm never sorry I read them.

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