Politics & Policy

An Environmentalist Sues over an Academic Disagreement

Mark Jacobson at a TedxYouth event in 2014 (image via YouTube)
Meet Stanford’s $10 million man.

Leonardo di Caprio’s favorite renewable-energy promoter, Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson, has set a new record in thin-skinned-ness. Jacobson has filed a $10 million defamation lawsuit against the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and Chris Clack, the lead author of a paper NAS published in June that roundly debunked a previous paper of Jacobson’s. The earlier paper had claimed it would be possible for the U.S. to run entirely on renewable energy by 2050.

Even when Jacobson implied in an email to Clack that he was going to sue, a development I noted here in July, I didn’t believe he would actually do it. Nevertheless, on September 29, he did. Jacobson’s 42-page lawsuit, filed in federal court, hinges on the fact that Clack — and the 20 co-authors of the paper, who are not named as defendants — refused to accept the Stanford professor’s numbers on the amount of hydropower available in the U.S.

Clack’s paper found that Jacobson had overstated hydropower’s potential by a factor of ten or so. The land-use requirements for wind power were equally cartoonish. Clack determined that Jacobson’s all-renewable scheme would require covering more than 190,000 square miles with turbines — an area larger than the state of California. Given the burgeoning coast-to-coast backlash against Big Wind, such a notion is absurd on its face.

Rather than admit any errors, Jacobson claims that Clack — a Ph.D. mathematician who has worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and taught at the University of Colorado, and now has a consulting firm — and the National Academy damaged his reputation and made him and his co-authors “look like poor, sloppy, incompetent, and clueless researchers.”

In an email, Clack told me that it’s “unfortunate” that Jacobson has “chosen to reargue his points in a court of law, rather than in the academic literature, where they belong.”

Despite the many flaws in his plan, Jacobson made himself the patron saint of America’s richest and most powerful green groups by claiming a fully renewable energy sector was possible. His papers, many of them peer-reviewed, lent a patina of credibility to the all-renewable-no-fossil-fuel-no-nuclear dogma that Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other groups have been feeding their math-challenged disciples for decades. In 2013, Jacobson even appeared on David Letterman’s show.

Jacobson’s claque includes the Hollywood elite. In September, the Leonardo di Caprio Foundation announced $20 million in grants that will be distributed to a variety of groups. The first grantee listed: the Solutions Project, a nonprofit group that was founded by Jacobson along with actor and anti-fracking activist Mark Ruffalo, as well as director and anti-fracking filmmaker Josh Fox, to promote the all-renewable religion. Since 2014, the Solutions Project has made $1.5 million in grants to activist groups across the country that are “leading the charge for 100 percent renewable energy.”

Jacobson’s political acolytes include Senator Bernie Sanders, who in late 2015 adopted the all-renewable scheme as the energy platform for his presidential bid. Bill McKibben, perhaps America’s most famous climate activist, has repeatedly touted Jacobson’s claims, including in a recent cover story for The New Republic. Does McKibben, the founder of 350.org and a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, support Jacobson’s lawsuit against a fellow academic? I emailed McKibben twice with that question. No reply.

Michael Shellenberger, the founder of the pro-nuclear, Berkeley-based group Environmental Progress, who broke the news about Jacobson’s lawsuit, calls it “an appalling attack on free speech and scientific inquiry.”

Jacobson made himself the patron saint of America’s richest and most powerful green groups.

What about Stanford? Jacobson is a senior fellow at the school’s Precourt Institute for Energy. I emailed Sally Benson and Arun Majumdar, the institute’s co-directors, asking if they support Jacobson’s litigation and what effect it might have on academic speech at Stanford and elsewhere. Benson responded with “no comment.” Majumdar did not reply. Thus, Stanford stands mute as one of its professors sues a fellow academic, a lawsuit about little more than a disagreement over a spreadsheet.

A final point: As mentioned above, Jacobson didn’t sue any of the other authors of the Clack paper. That’s notable because nearly all of Clack’s co-authors have affiliations with big institutions, including schools such as Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, that would likely pay for their lawyers in a case like this. Clack doesn’t have institutional backing. He’s an independent consultant who now faces tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills for the sin of publishing an academic paper in one of America’s most prestigious scientific journals that refuted some of the silly claims being made by the climate crusaders.

Such is the parlous state of academic speech in America when it comes to climate change and energy policy. The next filings in this shameful abuse of our legal system are due on November 27.

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