Bryce Hyped Focus

It’s too easy to find writing online that is either unintentionally poorly thought out or intentionally rhetorically abusive, and when it comes to issues related to climate change, one of my go-to temptations for such content is Robert Bryce, on Substack. In previous posts (here and here and here) I’ve critiqued his thinking, but I found myself wondering, too, if his writing is in service as a fossil fuels shill. I’ve been told by one of his readers that Bryce is a believer in climate change—something increasingly similar to believing that water is wet, considering all the scientific consensus around the issue—but I’m hard-pressed to see it in his writings. His latest piece, on May 7, 2024, is “What The Media Won’t Tell You About The ‘Energy Transition’,” which runs with the tagline “The hype, and the reality, about the energy transition in 10 charts,” doesn’t help me see he’s much for climate progress.

Indeed, Bryce seems upset by all the talk about transitioning away from fossil fuels for energy production. He doesn’t bother to reveal whether or not he thinks such a transition is a worthwhile idea, but he does take the whole article to complain that the media and some politicians and climate activists use the phrase “energy transition” a whole lot. His conclusion is that the phrase is getting used way too much, especially considering how coal remains well-entrenched in non-Western nations, and, at that, in nations with huge populations, with China and India the leading examples.

Bryce is a nuclear energy proponent, and I don’t have a problem with that. India and China are indeed building a whole lot of coal plants, and I do have a problem with that.

I don’t have any beef with this last point since it reflects reality. Coal power plants are continuing to be built or planned in large numbers, such that the extremely modest greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions reductions the West has managed in the last couple of years looks nearly pointless in the face of projected growth in GHG from coal in so many high-population nations. This is very discouraging. This is an important fact. Progress addressing the climate crisis must account for this reality. Bryce’s main point seems to be that there is not enough coverage of this point.

So stipulated.

Now what might be interesting about this point is what counters might be considered, including economic arguments or shifts in economic fundamentals and/or international economic sanctions and/or new funding mechanisms for clean energy transitions away from coal. It might be interesting to talk about the climate change ramifications of continuing and expanding coal power generation. It might even be interesting to consider how the geopolitical tensions the conflict between the West’s GHG reductions and the developing world’s increasing such emissions might play out (as I do, especially—shameless plug!—in the third book of The Steep Climes Quartet, Over Brooklyn Hills, due out the end of 2024; Book Two, Dear Josephine, is due out at the end of Spring 2024).

Instead, his complaint is that “we are inundated with news reports about climate change and claims that we are in the midst of an energy transition that will eliminate our need for hydrocarbons.”

Well, of course Bryce should point this out, since, as he states, his “job is to spotlight the trends and the numbers and to separate the hype from the reality. Unfortunately, much of the media coverage about the energy transition is just that: hype.”

And, of course, he’s got charts to prove his point.

What he doesn’t have is a useful or interesting perspective on the big problem he points to as proof that “much of the media coverage about the energy transition is just that: hype.” Somehow, as such charts will show, he argues, “the hype has soared during the Biden administration.”

This focus on what is “hype” is hapless. I’m no fan of today’s media landscape, where, like most every other business category, the focus is on short-term profits, not public service, with monopolistically fewer outlets under the control of fewer and fewer owners. Obviously, today’s media affects the quality of climate change coverage. Media generally has done a poor-to-middling job of it. There’s very little coverage about the resistance to a clean energy transition in politics (e.g., dark money PACs) and business (e.g., Big Oil). There’s a general failure even assessing the practical requirements of such an energy transition with the who and how and why and when and where, and this despite the common understanding of climate change as an existential threat, so go figure.

But, no, the big problem that Bryce points out is summed up nicely as follows:

The punchline here is obvious: We are not in the midst of a major energy transition. Instead, what we are seeing is the media echo chamber at work. Media outlets are giving undeserved credibility to the idea of the energy transition despite a metric ton of evidence that shows no such transition is happening, particularly in developing countries like Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Indeed, the surge in the use of the phrase by the Biden administration — and its many allies in big media outlets — shows that we’re being bombarded by a public relations campaign that’s designed to convince the public and policymakers that an energy transition is happening and that we should be spending staggering sums of money on it.

First, a telling point: that Biden’s administration has “many allies in big media outlets.” This is a bullshit “truism” not supported by facts, but a dining out point of the Trump right.

What’s obvious—by way of the Bryce-referenced media and the Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the growing percentages of clean energy and storage for electrical generation—is that we are underway in North America and Europe (with its own spending) with clean energy transition. See a recent post, “Pay Now, Pay Later, or Really Pay Much More Later,” for more perspective and references.

The beloved Winnie the Pooh enters the energy transition hype debate. Yay!

What’s not surprising is that “energy transition” is much more frequently mentioned in the media during the Biden administration, not, as is argued in Bryce’s Chart 10, because of The Woozle Effect (yes, the reference is to Winnie the Pooh, so there’s that to appreciate), but because the energy transition is a major undertaking by the Biden administration, and the media, being the cheap lazy bastards so many are, tend to rewrite press releases instead of doing their own research and Biden’s huge—and hugely welcome—push for an energy transition means a lot of press releases on the very topic.

Still, there are two important takeaways from Bryce’s article. The first is the sobering picture of the volume of coal power production in the developing world and the consequences in GHG emissions. The second, which is buried in the last paragraph, is the quote from Vaclav Smil, explaining that “for any new energy source to capture a large share of the market require[s] two to three generations: 50 to 75 years.” I’m not convinced that this is a hard and fast rule like the law of gravity, but, yes, big transitions in human culture take time, including for such fundamental things as power generation. One could, of course, argue that we’ve been working on clean energy transition for a couple of decades, which makes 2050 not so far away.

Considering the stakes, I’d much rather see Bryce talk about how this transition might be speeded up, rather than whine about the level of hype about it. There are a lot of important elements of the energy transition, fast or slow, and one such element is that there are significant costs involved, both directly—grid capacity buildout, for example, or clean energy production and storage buildout, for another—and indirectly, such as assessing the true cost of fossil fuels in terms of pollution and climate change, not to mention the absurd inefficiencies and significant ongoing capital investments required to find, extract, refine, and transport those “molecules” the big fossil fuel companies love to talk about.

Considering that Bryce’s credo is “Energy realism is energy humanism. Spotlighting the essentiality of affordable energy and power to modern society is my purpose and my passion,” his complaint about “hype” about the energy transition seems irrelevant. Affordable energy is very important, but the whole point of the clean energy transition is to have people continue as a modern society, and a world full of coal and fossil fuel power production is quickly becoming a world that will cost us far too much. That is “energy realism.”

Pushing for a world where society is supported and humans are thriving, that is “energy humanism.” The interesting topic is how we get from here to there, so I’m not bothered by a focus on “transition,” hyped or not.



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