WSJ, 350.org Scuffle On Renewables Math

If a guy denouncing a climate change activism group’s campaign to get colleges to quit their fossil fuel investments is himself funded by fossil fuel interests, well, that sort of hurts his credibility, no?

This is the charge 350.org is making in the wake of a dripping-with-sarcasm attack from Robert Bryce, the Manhattan Institute scholar regularly granted access to Rupert Murdoch’s opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal to pooh-pooh climate change and renewable energy.

wind and solar

image via Shutterstock

Bryce wrote that 350.org and its leader Bill McKibben, just off a “Do the Math” college tour intended to spur divestment in fossil fuels, were clueless as to the mathematical realities of becoming “fossil-free.”

Presenting math that he called “college-freshman obvious,” Bryce said that “just keeping up with the growth in global electricity demand – while not displacing any of the existing need for coal, oil and natural gas – would require the countries of the world to install about as much wind-generation capacity as now exists, and they’d have to do so every year.”

Bryce has a bit of a point here: Ending our reliance on fossil fuels will be hugely challenging. But he’s being disingenuous in saying he’s schooling 350.org on its math, because in fact the organization’s math is of an entirely different nature. Here’s what 350.org says:

We can burn less than 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. The only problem? Fossil fuel corporations now have 2,795 gigatons in their reserves, five times the safe amount. And they’re planning to burn it all — unless we rise up to stop them.

If Bryce really wants to take on the math of an all-renewables future, he should tell us where Stanford’s Mark Jacobson has gone wrong in his work.

Jamie Henn, 350.org’s communications director, admitted in a Huffington Post reply to Bryce’s charges that “the transition to renewables is going to be hard” – “made all the harder,” Henn wrote, “by the constant lobbying of the fossil fuel industry. But hard does not equal impossible.” Among other things, Henn pointed to a study we reported on just the other day, which called 90 percent renewables by 2030 the lowest-cost option for electricity production (although it would take an extraordinary degree of acceptance of wind turbines, in particular). But Henn also had some math of his own for people to consider:

According to Media Matters for America, the Manhattan Institute, where Bryce is a Senior Fellow, has received over $600,000 from Exxon Mobile since 1998, including $95,000 in 2011. The institute has also received funding from the Koch Brothers and the Olin Foundation, a foundation started by energy titan John Olin. (To be fair, the institute hasn’t always gotten its money from oil companies — back in the 1990s, it used to get major support from Philip Morris to help “improve the image of the tobacco industry). In the end, it’s simple arithmetic: $600,000 = serious conflict of interest.

Henn pointed out, as well, that these ties aren’t noted by the Journal alongside Bryce’s pieces.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.