The Joe Romm Treatment

A fierce debate on the merits of energy efficiency, triggered last month by David Owen’s article in The New Yorker, has perhaps entered an ugly phase today, with this post by Joe Romm. And that’s too bad, because the thorny questions raised in Owen’s piece deserve to be judged on the basis of reasoned argument.

On that note, let me say that part two of this post (tomorrow) will discuss the broad outlines of the current debate. For the moment, I’m going to focus directly on the style of argument waged by Romm in his post today, because he has a large, devoted following and has the ear of influential pundits in the media.

I’m just going to ask a few simple questions. Romm fans are invited to respond and maybe Joe will stop by himself, as he is wont to do from time to time.

So my first question is: Does Romm’s latest bashing of The Breakthrough Institute (TBI) qualify as an “attack”? I’m asking because in his post, Romm says that TBI recently

launched a major attack on energy efficiency.

Romm then explains how TBI has waged this “major attack”:

They used talking points that right-wing think tanks have pushed for years (see The intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism: Heritage even opposes energy efficiency).  This shouldn’t be terribly surprising to longtime followers of TBI.  After all, last year they partnered with a right-wing think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, to push right-wing energy myths and attack the most basic of clean energy policies, a clean energy standard.

Second question: Is there a term for this style of argument? (Oh, one other thing–that partnership also included the Brookings Institution.)

Romm’s methodology continues in the same vein:

This year, Breakthrough’s attacks on clean energy were used by the Republican National Committee as part of their overall attack on Obama’s clean energy agenda.  Again, not a big surprise.  TBI’s work is consistently cited by those who want to attack environmentalists and climate scientists, “George Will embraces the anti-environmentalism “” and anti-environment “” message of The Breakthrough Institute.”

Third question: is there a term for this style of argument?

Romm’s critique (this is just a critique, right, not an attack?) continues:

Yes, I know, The Breakthrough Institute will insist it’s purely a coincidence that they are the darling of the anti-science, pro-pollution right-wing disinformers.  The fact that they push right wing myths and even partner with right-wing organizations to push those myths has nothing to do with it.  Nor does the fact that they spent the past two years dedicating the resources of their organization to help kill prospects for climate and clean energy action “” and to spread disinformation about Obama, Gore, Congressional leaders, Waxman and Markey, leading climate scientists, Al Gore again, the entire environmental community and anyone else trying to end our status quo energy policies (see “Debunking Breakthrough Institute’s attacks on Obama, Gore, Waxman, top climate scientists, progressives, and environmentalists“).  Nor does the fact that they even attacked Rachel Carson, who died decades ago after helping launch the modern environmental movement!

Fourth question: is there a term for this style of argument? BTW, in case you were wondering, Romm helpfully tells us that

some in the media have started to see through this shtick.  For an excellent debunking by the media of a typically flawed TBI analysis attacking the clean energy bill, see Markey spokesman: “The Breakthrough Institute seems to believe, much as the Bush administration did, that technology will solve all, even without a market.”

The link is to a 2009 Romm post that references a single Greenwire story of the same year, that coincidentally, heavily quotes Romm. It’s also worth mentioning that this citation, like all the previous supporting links offered by Romm, are to his own posts.)

In conclusion, Romm reminds us that he’s “debunked” TBI multiple times in 2008 and 2009 and that

I have mostly ignored the nonstop disinformation coming from TBI founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, as well as TBI’s Jesse Jenkins, for as long as possible.

Fifth question: Is there a term for this style of argument?

Finally, Romm explains that he can no longer “ignore” the “confusion” TBI is trying to spread.

Last question: was his post an “attack”?

31 Responses to “The Joe Romm Treatment”

  1. Steven Sullivan says:

    Most of the Romm post is taken up by Joe Koomey’s 8-page analysis of the Rebound Effect argument.
    You’d hardly know that from this C-A-S post.
    Is there a term for this style of argument?

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    No, that was the second half of his post. Also, you seem to have ignored what I said at the outset my post, in terms of what I was focusing on.

    Nice reflex reaction, though. And pretty typical.

    Now how about answering my basic questions?

  3. LCarey says:

    I agree with Steven Sullivan – the real substance in Romm’s post was Koomey’s discussion.  And the previous posts that Romm linked to contain a number of links to non-Romm sources.  So where’s the discussion of Koomey’s analysis??
    James Barrett at Real Climate Economics had a good go at the Breakthrough position on “robound” recently as well.

  4. LCarey says:

    Keith, don’t forget to attack Joe Romm’s subsequent post – three stories (2 in the NYT and one in Bloomberg) had the audacity to cite officials and experts who suggest that climate disruption might have negative effects on current agricultural production.

  5. Keith Kloor says:


    So what my post is an attack, too?

    Feel like taking a stab at those questions? They’re ever so simple.


  6. John Fleck says:

    I believe the term you’re looking for is “ad hominem”. 🙂

  7. RickA says:

    Are you looking for guilt by association?
    Or some more technical debate term?
    I sense that your repeated question is a joke, but I didn’t get it.

  8. Sashka says:

    Enlighten me: what’s the point of talking about this clown? Everyone who is capable of understanding that he is clown have already understood that and pay no attention. The rest of them cannot be helped.

  9. Keith Kloor says:

    @6 & 7

    I believe those two terms cover the Romm methodology applied in that post. But Romm loyalists are welcome to argue otherwise.

  10. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Romm loyalists?

  11. Marlowe Johnson says:

    TBI overstates the importance of valid concerns (i.e. Jevon’s paradox) for rhetorical (i.e. political) purposes.  This is what Romm and others have pointed out repeatedly.  If TBI and Co. were the energy/economy experts that they claim to be I might pay more attention, but the fact is that they aren’t, so why bother?  Much more useful to listen to the Lee Schipper’s of the world, and yes, Joe Romm (since he’s actually served in a department with ENERGY EFFICIENCY in it’s title…)

  12. Keith Kloor says:

    That’s all you got, Marlowe? I was referring to the usual objectors in the thread, who as usual gloss right over anything remotely critical of Romm.

    I can only imagine that you guys wouldn’t be so forgiving of me if I used such rhetorical devices.

  13. Marlowe Johnson says:

    I find debates about tone tiresome.  I’m more likely to give a pass to someone that gets the facts right IMO (Romm) but is bitchy about it than someone who is polite but wrong.  I’m sure we’ve had this conversation before.  why is that you  almost always want to focus on tone and not substance?
    Could it be that’s all y’all got (I’m in Texas atm)?
    p.s. stopped by Ken Green’s office at AEI a while  back and he was speaking from the TBI playbook the whole time.  No problem with that, but it is interesting that they were the only group to have done so in my travels through the U.S. recently.  IOW I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that the TBI folks are saying what right wing think tanks want to hear…

  14. Keith Kloor says:

    Marlowe, could you point me to the substance of Romm’s original contribution to that post?

    This debate may be tiresome, but I find your rationale extraordinary. Your characterization of my focus is also wrong. But then when I tackle something of his that isn’t written baldly as an ad hom or guilt-by-association, then I’m accused of “attacking.”

    Unbelievable. You know, your opponents have their ends-justifies-the-means rationale, too, which sounds like a justifiable strategy in your playbook–as long as it’s done by your side, right?

  15. Marlowe Johnson says:

    it’s not about ends justifying the means.  it’s about correct vs incorrect.   Given that, I’ll concede that Romm muddies the water by playing the TBI/right wing link. TBI’s arguments can be judged on their merits (rather than who promotes them)…
    OTOH, it is nevertheless interesting to see which side of the partisan divide is receptive to their ideas and consider why this is so…

  16. Andy says:

    Reading the excerpted quotes above I was struck by how often “right wing” was used.  So, since I like word clouds I fed his post (minus Koomey’s contribution) into Wordle.

  17. Andy says:

    I don’t know who is right or wrong in this debate.  I’m genuinely uninformed on that score. All I can say is that the methods Romm and other partisans use to make their arguments (ie. liberal use of “right wing” and such) does not give me much confidence that they will characterized the science correctly or fairly.  It belies an agenda that perhaps isn’t wholly based in scientific truth.

  18. Marlowe Johnson says:

    I agree that the hyper partisan tone that Romm contributes to is unhelpful for many people, and in a perfect world we would all self-edit out this kind of language in blog posts.  However, on this particular issue, Romm is right (in my not quite expert opinion) and the TBI folks are wrong.
    This is an important question to get right one way or another because energy efficiency would appear to be the most cost-effective GHG mitigation ‘wedge’ out there.  If it doesn’t exist,as TBI is wont to suggest, then the challenge becomes that much more difficult.  On the flip side, if they’re wrong, and yet manage to convince policy makers otherwise, then the mitigation challenge becomes much more difficult but needlessly so.
    I’m sorry but I genuinely don’t get the point that you’re trying to make in this post.  Could you clarify?

  19. keith kloor says:


    Your declarative assertion that TBI is wrong is about as meaningful and persuasive as Romm’s argument in his post. Here’s another way to look at things: if it were that glaringly obvious that TBI are the villians that Romm makes them out to be, I have to think he wouldn’t rely on ad homs and guilt by association to make his case–as he has done in all those supposed “debunkings.”

    That you don’t see the point of my post is obvious. It’s not deemed “helpful.”

  20. Tom Fuller says:

    Keith, I can’t for the life of me see why you are singling out this post by Joe Romm. It is how he has operated for years, and his attacks are just as fierce and his tone is just as shrill when he goes after Roger Pielke Jr. (He doesn’t care much about TBI, it’s TBI fellow Pielke who… must… be… crushed…) as he is about you.

    As the guy who had to apologise to Romm (for putting into his mouth a bunch of rabid quotes that he just published), I counsel you to be vigorous in your description of him.

    Romm is a paid propagandist, just like Morano. But Morano is more polite. And I can’t wait for the Rommulans to descend…

  21. harrywr2 says:

    #18 Marlowe,
    Nice chart on the NHSTA fuel economy report on page iii.
    In 1975 the US consumed 18 million barrels of oil, today we consume 20 million.
    Interesting as to what has happened to efficiency – up from 13.5 MPG to 22.5 MPG, horsepower-up from 137 HP to 220 HP and acceleration – 14.1 seconds to 9.5 seconds for 0-60 MPH.

  22. kdk33 says:

    Cut Romm some slack. 

    Clean energy is just decarbonization disquised as… well clean energy.  The new moniker isn’t fooling enough people to matter, so the argument just circles back to the same one he’s been having all along.  What could he possibly say now that he hasn’t already (and losing as of late).

    He’s only option is to bang the table harder than before.  Eventually he’ll break his table; or he’ll get tired, fold his table and go home.  Either way works.

  23. Tom Fuller says:

    Just a quick time out to announce something that I think was as important as landing on the moon–The IBM computer just won on Jeopardy. I’m not joking and I don’t believe I am exaggerating. Ray Kurzweil must be dancing a jig.

  24. Bill says:

     As a propagandist, Morano is far more effective than Romm, because Morano just lets the idiots in the opposition camp speak for themselves, Especially if they own 6 mansions and 3 private jets.

     Romm makes the mistake of thinking he’s some sort of scientist, and just becomes an unreadable boor.


  25. Marlowe Johnson says:

    fuel economy is one of my areas of actual expertise, so i’m happy to engage in dialogue on the subject.  it’s one of the few examples where the jevons paradox is strongest, but even in this case it’s less than 30% long-term (closer to 10% in most jurisdictions).  this makes sense if you consider that there is only so much additional utility that one derives from driving, particularly when you add congestion and the opportunity cost of lost time to the mix.
    off to catch a plane but will follow up as it’s a tangible example that I think helps to illustrate the fundamental problems with the TBI thinking on the subject….

  26. JD Ohio says:

    Romm is a 100% nutjob.  It is hard to imagine anything more juvenile than his Judith Curry jumping the shark post or his claim that a personality piece on Lindzen might have been one of the “Worst news article ever published on global warming?”  (article was about Lindzen and colleague not global warming)  See links


  27. Menth says:

    Oh whatever Keith, you’re just jealous because Joe totally evisceratedâ„¢ the anti-scienceâ„¢, pro-pollutionâ„¢, earth hating breakthrough institute and now you’re totally jumping the sharkâ„¢. Don’t be a confusionistâ„¢.

  28. toto says:

    Keith, seriously:
    Guilt by association fallacy: “I vaguely remember seeing A within a mile of  B, so A must be just as as bad as B.”
    <b>Not</b> guilt by association fallacy: “A’s arguments are carbon copy of those used by B.”
    Pretty much all of the passages you cite are of the latter type.
    Obviously this doesn’t mean Romm’s argument is correct. The latter statement may be true or false. Also, the arguments in question may be valid or invalid. But it has nothing to do with the “guilt by association” fallacy. It’s just a series of statements  that must be evaluated in their own right.

  29. Shub says:

    You forgot the ‘head exploding’ and the ‘head vises.

  30. BobN says:

    I am not sure that I would call it an argument but perhaps preaching to the choir, though I guess quilt by association is apt as well.  The reason I say preaching to the choir is that, if I am of a moderate or conservative bend, or even hold a mixture of views, some which might be considered liberal and some which might be considered conservative, I would not read past the first or second reference to right-winged talking points or whatever phrase he uses.

    The whole thing really seems more of an appeal to the move-on/thinkprogress crowd than a substative exposition of the reasons that the breakthough institute is wrong on the rebound effect.  If he simple posted the other writers piece with a short intro it would have been more effective in my opinion.  As it was, I had to force myself to get that far (He should considered shortening nearly all of his posts) 

  31. Menth says:

    Lol, my bad.

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