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Pielke's Weekly Memo #8
A defense of Alex Berenson, geopolitical risk in clean energy supply chains and some recommended reading
In this week’s newsletter I start off with an unexpected defense of provocateur Alex Berenson, raise some issues related to geopolitical risks associated with clean energy supply chains and provide a potpourri of assorted links for further reading. I sign off for the week with an absolute screamer of a soccer goal.
An unexpected defense of Alex Berenson
For those who do not know of him, Alex Berenson is a former New York Times reporter, turned successful thriller writer (I really enjoyed his John Wells series) and in the past few years has been an influential and widely-read provocateur on all things pandemic. I had followed him on Twitter early in the pandemic and then stopped when he became a bit much. This morning Berenson shares a remarkable story of the Biden White House seeking to use its influence to deplatform him from social media.
Andrew Slavitt, senior advisor to President Biden’s Covid response team, complained specifically about me, according to a Twitter employee in another Slack conversation discussing the White House meeting.
“They really wanted to know about Alex Berenson,” the employee wrote. “Andy Slavitt suggested they had seen data viz [visualization] that had showed he was the epicenter of disinfo that radiated outwards to the persuadable public.”
According to an interview he gave to the Washington Post in June 2021, Slavitt worked directly with the most powerful officials in the federal government, including Ron Klain, President Biden’s chief of staff, and Biden himself.
This episode is not surprising. In his book on his role in the pandemic response, Preventable, Andrew Slavitt proudly boasts of making threats against 3M corporation — specifically that he would turn the power of the White House against the company if they did not do what he wanted with respect to the production of masks.
Slavitt recounts his threat made to the 3M government affairs division (p. 187):
“Look, the reason I’m calling you is I think you’re about to be in the barrel … It’s about to be your turn. I hate to see this happening to a good Minnesota company … Right now the country is focused on ventilators, but you’re next up. The White House is about to come after you… Probably a Trump tweet as well”
Slavitt was not an official of the Trump White House, but he was, by his own account, seeking to use his access with the White House to the threaten a company. Slavitt next called a contact at the White House and suggest that “pressure” be “applied” to 3M. Trump subsequently threatened 3M in a Tweet, and soon thereafter 3M accepted a government contract to produce masks. In his book, Slavitt proudly took full credit for the heavy-handed tactics, apparently blind to the associated ethical and professional issues.
Based on this anecdote I find it eminently plausible that the internal correspondence shared by Berenson today reflects the bullying of Twitter by the Biden Administration and Andrew Slavitt in particular. If true, and I have no reason to doubt Berenson’s account, this would be an incredible abuse of authority by the White House in an effort to silence an inconvenient voice.
I have myself been targeted by the White House and Congress for my writing and speech (you can read a bit about that here). I was also a staunch defender of climate scientist Michael Mann when members of Congress and state officials in Virginia sought to bully and silence him. I have the same view with Berenson — agree or disagree with him, believe his views to be helpful or harmful — there is absolutely no place for the White House to try to deplatform him by pressuring a social media company.
Now on to clean energy supply chains and some recommended readings . . .
Geopolitical risk in clean energy supply chains
I came across the figure above this week, and have spent a lot of time contemplating it (from this IEA report). The figure shows for a number of commodities a simplified picture of supply chains in terms of different, dominant countries in mining, processing and consumption. There are a few key points that I think are particularly important, from a US perspective:
The US is well represented in the oil and natural gas supply chains from extraction to refining/processing to consumption. Achieving this sort of balance has been a US national priority for generations. This balance is not just good for domestic security, but also is a geopolitical resource to the extent that other countries have a necessary dependence upon the US.
Supply chains for “clean energy” — e.g., batteries, wind and solar — show no such balance. In fact, Europe and the US are in particular heavily dependent upon China for the processing of so-called rare earth metals that are fundamental to these technologies. This dependence is a source of geopolitical risk.
The figure below shows the overwhelming dominance of China in the global supply chain related to clean energy technologies.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the consequential effects on Europe’s energy supply should offer a powerful lesson on the risks of reliance on commodities, processes energy supply, expertise and technologies from potential geopolitical adversaries. Addressing these risks can lead to some uncomfortable conclusions — such as the need for much more domestic mining and processing here in the US.
For those wishing a much deeper dive, I have found these papers to be particularly useful:
Lee et al. 2021, The material foundations of a low-carbon economy (link)
Watari et al. 2020, Review of critical metal dynamics to 2050 for 48 elements (link)
Mulvaney et al. 2021, Progress towards a circular economy in materials to decarbonize electricity and mobility (link)
But the first place I’d start is with the IEA report from which I took the figures above — The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions (link). As the US expands reliance on wind and solar, as well as on electric cars, the issues associated with the geopolitical risks of clean energy supply chains will only become more important.
Some other recommended reading, and a rocket soccer goal
Enjoy the goal above. I sure did.
Some other items that crossed my desk this past week and worth sharing:
A more realistic view of the emissions reductions potential of the IRA —Modeling ‘IRA’ carbon cuts: Caveats, uncertainty and luggage (link)
I’ll have a future post on fears of climate vs. fears of nuclear — An Unjustified Fear Of Nuclear Energy Is Holding The Industry Back (link)
On the limits of so-called “integrated assessment models” that dominate climate policy discussions — Our imaginations can help create new climate possibilities (link)
Short answer = Nope — Are Republicans and Conservatives More Likely to Believe Conspiracy Theories? (link)
As many of you know, I have been experimenting with other interesting features of Substack, including the direct email function, which I used this past week to send an email to my most engaged readers (thousands of you, thanks!). Next week I will — current events allowing — finally get to that promised post on what the science of climate and flooding actually says.
Meantime, have a great weekend!