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Moomaw, Everett Exchange Views in Ninth Round of Acclaimed Debate Series

February 8, 2012

Over one hundred students from The Fletcher School and Tufts University gathered in the ASEAN Auditorium last week to attend the ninth installment of what has become an anticipated yearly classic, the debate featuring Professors William Moomaw, CIERP Director, and Bruce Everett, Adjunct Associate Professor of International Business. Over the course of 90 minutes, the two “international energy heavyweights,” as the event organizers referred to them, discussed today’s most salient energy-related issues and debated topics ranging from the promise and value of renewable energy to the role of government in setting the course for technology development.

Professor Everett’s opening statement described renewable energy sources as uneconomic, explaining how it is very unusual for new technologies to have steeply declining cost curves that make them affordable quickly. “Research is a gamble,” he stated, and the government putting money in an uncertain technology is an unwise investment. He argued that the “decarbonization” of the economy would kill growth, and that either way, what the United States does is irrelevant because economic giants like India and China are not switching to less polluting sources of energy.

In his first set of remarks, Professor Moomaw explained that part of the reason there has been little progress on climate change mitigation is the “steady drumbeat of misinformation” that floods the media. Meanwhile, as the debate is politicized and brought to a stalemate, 2011 ended with the largest number of major weather-related disasters since insurance companies started keeping records. He argued that Professor Everett’s cost calculations didn’t include key externalities, such as these natural disasters and community damage due to fracking, as costs. If these were considered, as they should be, then the notion of “cheap coal” and “cheap oil” would have to be reconsidered, making alternative sources of energy more palatable economically.

As the two debaters initially made their way to the stage – wearing boxing gloves and capes – and throughout the duration of the debate, the auditorium was buzzing with vivacity, creating an atmosphere akin to an orderly sports arena. Students in the audience cheered, held signs expressing their views on energy issues and live tweeted from the event using the hash tags #campmoomaw and #campeverett.

This year’s debate coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit, adding a unique angle to the conversation. Asked by the moderator what grade he would give the international community for its effort in mitigating climate change, Professor Moomaw answered, “a D, and that is being generous.” When Professor Everett got the word back, he stated that he agreed with his opponent on this topic: he would give the international community a D as well, but for starkly different reasons.

The question of whether the world’s leading economies are ready for a significant transformation away from carbon and towards renewable energy was a major topic of debate.  Professor Everett argued that if a transition were to be made, it would have to come gradually, led by the market. He posited that as of now, a shift away from carbon would destroy Western economies, and that research will fail to make renewable energy technologies cost-effective. Professor Moomaw, on the other hand, countered that humanity has been through much more significant transformations before, as recently as in the early 20th century with the advent of the automobile. He pointed out that governments paid for research in oil exploration for fifty to sixty years before petroleum was guaranteed to work effectively, and that today’s investments in renewable energy could be even more lucrative. He labeled “a myth” the notion that the United States would have to degrade its economy in order to switch away from carbon, saying that the country would make the necessary changes over the next 40 to 60 years, not overnight.

Following three rounds of back-and-forth, moderated debate, the event concluded with questions from students in the audience.

-Article by Elia Boggia, MALD candidate F13

See also the event summary for the Fletcher student pre-debate showdown.