Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How to recognize a "green" concern troll

When someone says that we need to develop nuclear power instead of rather than in addition to other kinds of alternative energy technology, it's a strong sign that person is ill-informed, gratuitously querulous, and indifferent to the environment, and writes on the subject principally for the emotional gratification he gets from believing himself to be skewering the pieties of left-leaning greens.

Either that, or he is simply negligent about language to the point of being unintelligible.

The proper way to reward this behavior is to subtract a few points from your estimate of Tabarrok's credibility. I suggest that all Marginal Revolution readers do so.


  1. "Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle"

    according to that article he is not advocating development of nuclear power instead of "other kinds of alternative energy", but rather instead of a single kind of alternative energy (i.e. wind) that is demonstrably inefficient and unsuitable for widespread base-load requirements.

  2. I suggest the following two exercises in reading comprehension:

    1. Describe the difference between the following two statements:

    (a) The efficiency of wind power varies depending on circumstances such as power transmission distance and variation in power demand.

    (b) United States energy policy should abandon wind power in favor of nuclear power.

    2. Describe the difference between the following two statements:

    (a) Green concern trolls suggest we should develop nuclear power instead of other kinds of alternative energy technology.

    (b) Green concern trolls suggest we need to develop nuclear power instead of every other kind of alternative energy technology.

  3. ok, i'm willing to play.

    1. Statement (a) is entirely true. Statement (b) is true insofar as it goes, but implicitly ignores other forms of energy.

    2. Statement (a) and statement (b) differ only by degree, as they both explicitly refer to multiple forms of alternative energy. In addition statement (b) is an absolutist stance that is difficult to sustain in any reasonable debate. Statement (a) is easier to argue, but is only applicable in this case if the article you referenced mentioned any other form of alternative energy in addition to wind.

    Your original criticism was about advocating nuclear against "other kinds" (plural) of alternative energy, whereas the article you reference is makeing a direct comparison between nuclear and wind (i.e. one other kind of power).

    In essence, you have generalised beyond the scope of the evidence you provide. So here is some homework for you:

    1. Describe the difference between the following two statements:

    (a) Nuclear power is a superior option to wind power.

    (b) Nuclear power is a superior option to other forms of alternative energy.

  4. You have numbered your exercise in a way that will make this discussion confusing, so I will refer it as (3).

    Regarding your contention that Tabarrok was only favoring nuclear over a single form of alternative power, Tabarrok's exact words are as follows: "If President-Obama is serious about green energy it's not wind he needs to look at but nuclear."

    Tabarrok could have said, "If President Obama is serious about green energy, he should direct national energy policy towards a diverse portfolio of technologies, including nuclear, instead of subsidizing wind." This is a reasonable thing to say. It is not, however, what Tabarrok said.

    So the question arises: why did Tabarrok say what he did? A couple of explanations are possible, depending on how you read Tabarrok's statement.

    One interpretation is that he wants the exact subsidies currently lavished on wind power to be directed towards nuclear power instead. Given Tabarrok's ideological orientation, I would be very surprised if this were his argument.

    A broader and more probable way of interpreting his claim is to break it into two pieces: (i) We should eliminate subsidies for wind because they are harmful, and (ii) of all the alternative energy technologies currently available, nuclear is the most efficient option for the marginal investment dollar, and should receive special government attention. You will notice that (ii) is a fancy way of saying your 3(b), i.e. that nuclear power is a superior option to other forms of alternative energy.

    This opinion is sometimes sincerely held, but I think that the evidence for it is weak; see comments in the original MR thread. And in my experience, speaking this opinion with no mention of caveats is strongly correlated with being exactly the type of person that my post was about: namely, someone who enjoys pushing lefty greens' buttons more than advancing the discussion.

    Your experience might differ. I doubt it.

    Incidentally, you may believe 1(b) (that wind power should simply be abandoned in the U.S.) but it's hardly a slam dunk. As far as I can tell, arguments for this proposition rely on a double standard for the drawbacks of wind vs. other forms of power: viz., that wind's need for technological advances & infrastructure investment for storage and transmission count as fatal weaknesses, whereas the need for high up-front capital investments and better nuclear lifecycle management count merely as reasons to invest more money in nuclear energy. But this is incidental to my main point.

    Finally, for the record, I support an emissions tax instead of direct subsidies to particular alternative energy producers.

  5. Not being familiar with either the MR site or Tabarrock's writing I cannot comment on his general ideological position, and so I could only take his statements at face value (i.e. that he favours nuclear over wind). On that interpretation alone, your post appeared to be doing exactly that of which you accused him.

    References to Tabarrock's wider writings would have modified that impression, and the further explanation you provide above certainly clarifies your point.

    Also for the record, I don't favour governments trying to pick winners in any technological or economic sense because the market itself will generally find the best cost-benefit option. Government intervention usually skews in favour of immediate political expediency rather than long-term best interests.

    The problem with alternative energy debates is that the incumbent technologies are by far the cheapest for the consumer, so every other option is measured by that yardstick. Nuclear power will inevitably play some part in the future despite up front costs due to its obvious capacity for base load generation, but it will first require an education campaign to combat the fear factor.