Straight Up

By Bryan Walker 27/06/2010

’I joined the new media because the old media have failed us. They have utterly failed to face unpleasant facts.’ So writes Joseph Romm of blogging, in his new book Straight Up, a themed selection from the thousands of posts on his widely respected blog It’s as direct, lively and unequivocal as its title suggests. Romm, an admirer of George Orwell, knows how to express himself with admirable clarity and to satisfy what he describes as ’a great hunger out there for the bluntest possible talk’.

The ’status quo media’ receive a drubbing. Romm is critical of their giving the same credence to a handful of US scientists, most receiving funds from the fossil fuel industry, as they give to hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists. Senior political reporters are writing more and more pieces as the issue becomes political; most know little about global warming and haven’t bothered to educate themselves. They stick with the ’horse-race perspective’, measuring only who is up and who is down. In one post he criticises even Andy Revkin of the New York Times for suggesting that catastrophe is a marginal possibility and that campaigners for carbon dioxide curbs are suppressing the uncertainty in their picture. Revkin, says Romm, should know that catastrophe is not at the edge of the debate. The Washington Post he accuses of publishing unmitigated tabloid nonsense on climate change.

On the science Romm considers that the IPCC 2007 summary report underestimated likely climate impacts by not giving sufficient weight to positive feedbacks that accelerate warming and by assuming there would be aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The book includes a stunning post written in March 2009, where he reports on more recent scientific literature. Under five headings he relentlessly lists the evidence that points to catastrophic impacts this century under business-as-usual conditions — temperature rise of 5-7 degrees, sea level rise of 5 feet or more, dust-bowlification in the Southwest US, high loss of species on land and sea, and likely further unexpected impacts difficult to foresee. So we must stabilise at 450 ppm or below, or risk humanity’s self-destruction. The cost of action is maybe 0.12 percent of GDP per year or a little higher if we aim for 350 ppm. This is the reality that the scientific community and environmentalists and progressives need to start articulating cogently.

The solution is clean energy, a strong focus of Romm’s blogging. For a number of years in the mid-1990s he worked in the Department of Energy on energy efficiency and renewable energy. He considers that the US has all the clean energy technology it needs to start reducing emissions aggressively and cost effectively now. Deployment is the key. Electricity efficiency is high on his list. He points to McKinsey’s estimate that one third of the US greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 could come from electricity efficiency and be achieved at negative marginal costs. California is a model: if all America adopted their energy efficiency policies the country would never have to build another polluting power plant. Concentrated solar power is the technology on which Romm places most hope, because it generates primary energy in the form of heat which can be stored 20 to 100 times more cheaply than electricity –and with far greater efficiency. If all the renewable technologies that are commercial or nearly commercial today are deployed they will be enough to see the US through to 2050. He emphasises the steadily declining cost curve, due to economies of scale and the manufacturing learning curve.

As peak oil approaches it’s crucial that we avoid the strategy preferred by most in the oil industry of ramping up unconventional oil. Oil from tar sands and shale will make global warming worse. Coal to diesel will be catastrophic. The way forward for vehicle transport is better fuel economy standards and a move to plug-in hybrids which he discusses in some detail.

Romm has two key questions for the US. Will they voluntarily give up fossil fuels before they are forced to do so after it is too late to stop the catastrophe? When they do give them up will they be a global leader in the new technologies, or will they have been overtaken by other countries, especially China?

Romm was an advocate of the ’flawed’ Waxman-Markey climate bill which finally made it through the House of Representatives in June 2009. How can his climate politics realism be reconciled with his climate science realism? He replies that the bill was the only game in town and its passing a staggering achievement. It didn’t do enough, but it began a process and established a framework that can be strengthened over time as the science warrants. His political realism is also on view in his optimistic take on the result of Copenhagen. High level negotiations by the senior leaders of the big emitters seems to him a more likely way forward than the consensus process of the UN.

In right-wing US circles politics and climate disinformation have become entangled. Romm sees the conservative think tanks, media pundits and politicians as driving the disinformation campaign. He observes that while they can stop the country from taking the necessary action to avert catastrophe, they can’t actually stop the climate from changing. And some of the congressional conservatives are pushing policies that will lead to unimaginable planetary horror. Why? A post on a Krauthammer article in the Washington Post finds the heart of US conservatives’ hatred of climate science in the fact that it requires action by government, which is the same as socialism (except when it comes to government action on behalf of the nuclear and fossil fuel industries).

Misinformation has had a field day in the US. In part this is due to the organised campaign and the repeated broadcast of its messages by conservative pundits and politicians like George Will and Rush Limbaugh and Sen. James Inhofe. The ’balanced’ presentation favoured by the media hasn’t helped. But there are messaging failures from progressives in general and scientists in particular. Romm strongly opposes the notion that the impacts of global warming should be downplayed in communication to the public. Doing that would amount to unilateral disarmament in the battle to have the public understand what will happen if we continue on the path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. People need to know the truth.  However he considers that some of the simple rules of rhetoric need to be better used in getting the message across. He identifies three of them as simple language, frequent repetition, and skilful use of figures of speech, especially metaphor and irony. The posts discussing better techniques of communicating the science are well worth attention and clearly underly his own practice.

Romm’s industry as a blogger is phenomenal, as anyone who follows Climate Progress will know. The selection of posts that he has chosen for this book testify that quantity doesn’t rule out quality. They have translated well to the printed page. Many of them repay close reader attention and together they serve to highlight the major themes which guide his work. The urgency displayed in his 2007 book Hell and High Water is undiminished.

[Available from Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK)]