Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Economist Debate - Round-up.

Hi Chris –

Thanks for your post on The Economist’s Online Debate Series on solving the world’s energy crisis. Since the debate is ending this week, I thought you might want an update on the results to date in case you wanted to update your readers on the debate and/or rally them to vote.

Currently, 57 percent of Economist readers agree with the proposition, “This house believes that we can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations.” Does this surprise you? With just three days left to vote and comment, it’s still possible to affect the outcome of the debate. Closing statements post tomorrow, August 27th, and a winner will be chosen by the community on Friday, August 29th.

We’ve included a sneak peek of moderator Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran’s closing statement which will post tomorrow. To use his words, “will you remain a MugWump, to invoke an old American folk saying, sitting on the fence with your mug on one side and your wump on the other? Or will one of our debaters persuade you to vote with the Pro or Con team? In real life, as in energy policy, we have to make hard choices. The time has come for you to make yours, by voting now.”

Best wishes and may intelligence prevail!

Jeff

Sparkpr for The Economist

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Moderator, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran’s Closing Remarks:

All good things must come to an end, including our lively debate on energy technology. It remains a closely run match thus far, with a slight edge to the Pro team running up to today’s closing statements. Many readers have posted thoughtful, often technically detailed, comments suggesting the debaters have done their jobs well in provoking thought.

However, not all of you punters are perfectly pleased. Though some readers appreciate the civility and nuanced debating styles on offer from both teams, others are still lusting for blood. Taiglin finds “both sides of this argument to be in grey areas around the same viewpoint. I do not see a major contrast.” Other readers fault the organisers, not the debaters, for the boxers hugging so often in the centre of the debate ring. Kerry E. O’Neill offers a crisp version of this critique: “The premise of this debate is flawed, as others have noted. Why are we debating deploying existing technologies today vs. investing in breakthrough innovations to solve the energy crisis?” We need both, goes the argument.

It does seem the two teams are bending over backwards to be conciliatory rather than go for the jugular. That, of course, is the prerogative of the debaters. As for the question about the debate’s premise, the reason the debate proposition was posed as a clear choice between rapid deployment in today’s technologies and aggressive investment in tomorrow’s inventions is this: the first rule of economics (well, the first rule that matters) is that you cannot spend the same dollar twice.

When debating airy topics like energy policy, it is all too easy for armchair pundits to conjure up infinitely large pots of money that can be spent on all good things, on today’s needs and tomorrow’s wishes, on choice A and choice B. In real life, and especially in government, hard choices have to be made because resources are, in fact, finite. Sensible tools of economics like cost-benefit analysis as well as a willingness to make difficult choices is essential. Hence, The Economist’s decision to pose a provocative question that was certain to upset those who wish to have their cake and eat it too.

Turning to the closing arguments, it is clear that some of the conciliatory tone seen thus far remains. However, Joseph Romm does strike a direct blow, claiming that the side opposite is “in complete agreement with me.” His remarks expand on his line of argument that technologies that are ready or which recombine old, established technologies can solve the climate and energy problem. As an example of the latter, he trumpets the potential of concentrating solar thermal plants, which he calls “perhaps the most important renewable” because it can be used for baseload power on the power grid.

Peter Meisen closes the Con team’s case by issuing a warning: “If we continue building and funding the world’s energy needs as we did in the last century, we deserve the consequences.” In addition to the technology-boosting approaches discussed already in the debate, he emphasises one that he believes got short shrift: “government policies that provide the grease to accelerate this transition.” With adequate greasing, he is convinced that “investments in clean energy solutions will flourish and dominate the 21st Century.”

So will you remain a MugWump, to invoke an old American folk saying, sitting on the fence with your mug on one side and your wump on the other? Or will one of our debaters persuade you to vote with the Pro or Con team? In real life, as in energy policy, we have to make hard choices. The time has come for you to make yours, by voting now.

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