Unscientific American

by William Yeatman on March 29, 2011

in Blog, Features

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I almost choked on a complimentary pretzel during a recent flight when I read the final page of the April edition of Scientific American, this country’s premier science periodical for mainstream audiences. The page was titled “Clean Tech Rising” and the subtitle read, “China outshines the U.S. as the top investor, while Europe is a close third.” It featured bar graphs indicating what different nations are spending on so-called clean energy, like biofuel, wind, and solar power. The attendant text warned that “The U.S. has been a major player in clean energy technologies, but China is now the leader.” It recommended that, “…stepping up U.S. investment could enhance the country’s competitiveness…”

Now, it might or might not be true that China is spending more than the U.S. on “clean” energy. The ruling Communist government is not known for openness and transparency, so I take “official” investment data with a grain of salt. However, it is unequivocal that the Chinese are building coal power plants at an unprecedented rate. Estimates vary, from 4 new coal plants every week to 1 plant every week. All we know for sure is that coal, and not renewable energy, is powering the Middle Kingdom’s meteoric economic growth. This is why China, which became the world’s number one emitter of greenhouse gases only three years ago, now has a carbon footprint 40 percent bigger than the next largest emitter (the United States).

The task of science is to present the truth, no matter how it might offend one’s sensibilities. By highlighting only China’s clean energy investment, Scientific American’s presents an unscientific half truth. It then compounds this error by making a policy recommendation (“Stepping up U.S. investment [in renewable energy] could enhance the country’s competitiveness…”) based on this half truth. The whole truth is that China’s competitiveness is predicated on its building coal power faster than has ever been done in human history.

Using Scientific American’s logic, the inescapable conclusion is that the U.S. should embrace coal, too, in order to enhance our competitiveness on the international market.

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