Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Al Gore's speech

This post was originally going to be an analysis of Al Gore's energy challenge speech and some of the criticism of it.

If you view the speech as a logical or rhetorical argument, it has its share of problems. For example, when talking about the falling price of silicon for solar cells, Gore says, "the same thing happened with computer chips--also made out of silicon. The price paid for the same performance came down by 50 percent every 18 months--year after year, and that's what's happened for 40 years in a row." This conclusion doesn't follow: the price per unit of performance for computer chip drops because transistors keep getting smaller, but making the features on a solar cell smaller will quickly run out of steam because you're fundamentally limited by the amount of sunlight per unit area. Even if you increase efficiency by 50% every 18 months, and in a few years you get darn close to 100%, you still hit the limit imposed by the sun. That's not to say that solar cells won't get cheaper, but microchips' cost per unit performance is not the right model. Also, Gore has the annoying habit of not citing his sources, even in the transcript, which makes the speech very hard to fact-check.

The criticism is worse. It opens by saying "Al Gore wants you to do as he says, not as he does" and spends fully a third of its length calling Gore a hypocrite. But that doesn't follow either: the validity of Gore's contention that we need this energy challenge, and the underlying reasoning he presents, have nothing to do with his personal energy consumption habits. It could just as easily come from, for example, T. Boone Pickens. The next third of the criticism is devoted to an argument that says, essentially, it's impossible because we're not doing it now: renewables are a tiny percentage of our current energy production, therefore it is unreasonable to expect that they could reach 100% in ten years. But at its core, this argument is a simple assertion that change is impossible, which we know by experience to be false. Finally, two thirds of the way down, the criticism brings up a scientific paper that denies human impact on global temperature change, which is at least fodder for debate. (More background on that paper here and here.)

But you know, my heart just isn't in the analysis. Deep down, the reason is that I missed the last Apollo project and want one I can be a part of. And this is a cause I can get behind. It's big, it's inspiring, it'll create some fantastic spinoff technologies, and it'll produce great results. Even on the (exceptionally remote) chance that the IPCC is wrong and the paper the criticsm cites is right, that anthropogenic global temperature change is an illusion, it's extremely hard to deny that much of U.S. foreign policy is driven by a dependence on foreign oil, that even if we tap all our domestic sources they won't meet our demand, and that shifting to domestically produced renewables would give us a ton of new flexibility in foreign policy. So, yeah, I hope this thing takes off. And if it does, I want in.

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