Did Princeton Prof's "Wedges" Theory Oversimplify Cutting Carbon Emissions?


In 2004, Princeton professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala introduced a strategy that made the large-scale reduction of carbon emissions actually seem feasible. Rather than looking for one big fix, their process, called stabilization wedges, broke the solution down into incremental pieces (increasing alternative energy, reducing energy use, improving efficiencies) that together could prevent billions of tons of new emissions over the next 50 years.

But in a new National Geographic article, Socolow is quoted saying that the wedges approach oversimplified the problem in the minds of many:

“With some help from wedges, the world decided that dealing with global warming wasn’t impossible, so it must be easy,” Socolow says. “There was a whole lot of simplification, that this is no big deal.”

“The job went from impossible to easy” in part because of the wedges theory. “I was part of that.”

Doug Struck, the author of the article, writes that:

[Socolow] said his theory was intended to show the progress that could be made if people took steps such as halving our automobile travel, burying carbon emissions, or installing a million windmills. But instead of providing motivation, the wedges theory let people relax in the face of enormous challenges, he now says.

But in an email exchange with Andrew Revkin over at the Dot Earth blog on The New York Times, Socolow takes issue with claims that he now believes the wedges approach made people relax, or that he even thinks it was a mistake. Revkin lays out the story in greater detail here, and includes Socolow’s email responses here.


Scott Templeman

Climate Scientist oversimplifying an issue in order to get press coverage, and ultimately admits they're wrong? Shocking.

Joshua Northey

When you have long term problems with large costs involved for mitigation, you will have a very hard time solving them in a representative government. People simply don't care that much about tomorrow, much less 100 years from now.

Peter Gibbons

You see, Josh, It’s not that I don’t believe in climate change, it’s that I just don’t care.

Don’t care you ask?

It's a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my tail off and the earth is spared a few extra tons of carbon, I don't see another dime, so where's the motivation?

Jason Collins

I've been relaxed since I read Superfreakonomics.