Princeton profs drive 'wedges' into policy debate
Brace yourself for a long series of congressional hearings on global warming.
There'll be climate models sprawling over decades, emissions inventories that go from coal-burning power plants to grass-munching cows, calculator-crushing economic impacts that soar into the trillions and dueling experts.
So many numbers, so many dollar signs. No wonder so many Washington wonks are wild for climate "stabilization wedges."
Two Princeton professors coined the term a couple of years ago as the simplest way to deconstruct what must be done to avert catastrophic climate chaos. Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala, who outlined the concept in the journal Science, didn't invent the idea of an energy portfolio, but their way of linking it to global warming and all its complications seem to have hit on something big.
Here's how it works: Start with a toolbox of 15 energy technologies and lifestyle choices. Choose seven to implement. If these "wedges" -- as the profs call the emission-cutting tools -- are all carried out with gusto around the world for 50 years, the soupy mix of gases heating the earth's atmosphere may be on the way to slowing, stopping or even reversing their current trajectory.
Critics of the wedges warn they are an over-simplified academic exercise unconstrained by price tags or real-world politics. But a growing number of politicians, teachers, lawyers, industry lobbyists and environmentalists consider the concept a great way to identify and articulate their climate strategies.
"The wedges concept is sort of the iPod of climate policy analysis," said David Hawkins, climate director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's an understandable, attractive package that people can fill with their own content."
Wedges are the backbone of climate solutions offered by former Vice President Al Gore at the end of the Oscar-nominated documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." Ken Connolly, who was staff director for former Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), tacked a wedges poster on his office wall as he worked on global warming legislation during the 109th Congress.
And leading Democrats and some Republicans have suggested the wedges fit into their legislative plans.
"Don't expect one giant bill on energy or one giant bill on global warming," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, in a recent interview. "More than likely, there'll be a number of bills that address the question of global warming."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) referenced the concept during a speech earlier this month at the National Press Club. He said his committee leaders would work on bills that expand the federal fleet of renewable vehicles, establish mandates for buildings that use energy efficiently and increase fuel standards for motor vehicles -- all of which fit into the Socolow-Pacala philosophy.
"I find it astonishing, even without acknowledging where they got it, people talk about wedges," said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute.
The wedges have also become a role-playing game, giving people with diametrically opposing points of view a chance to sit at the same table and come up with solutions to combat climate change. Socolow and Pacala are working with designers on a version of the game for teachers (see sidebar).
"It gets people talking and having conversations about their own ideas," said Sarah Wade, a consultant in Washington who has helped organize a half-dozen wedge games around the country. "It forces you to put on someone else's shoes."
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