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How the "60 Minutes" Clean-Tech Takedown Missed the Bigger Picture

CBS clean energy piece forgets about climate change.

Shutterstock / Maxx-Studio

Last night, “60 Minutes” aired a piece on the “Cleantech Crash” that has inflamed clean tech advocates and environmental groups.

Its thesis: “Despite billions in taxpayer dollars invested by the U.S. government in so-called ‘Cleantech’ energy alternatives to fossil fuels, Washington and Silicon Valley have little to show for it.” The program took particular aim at clean tech investor Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures.

On Twitter and elsewhere, critics called it a hit piece and another in the news program’s recent string of journalistic embarrassments. Energy reporters and organizations have been busy picking apart the details. Among other things, they’ve noted that the show conflated the failures of Silicon Valley venture capitalists with flubbed public funding bets and brushed past many of the successes in the sector.

But some observers think the CBS program botched the story in a more fundamental way. By failing to ground the piece in the stark challenges of climate change, it could leave the average viewer with the false impression that we have a choice about whether or not to invest public dollars into clean energy technology.

“The fact they didn’t mention climate change is deeply troubling,” said Jeremy Holden, director of research at Media Matters, a progressive research group. “That’s the crucial context. Without that, CBS’s viewers are left misinformed as to the consequences of not investing in clean energy.”

Many environmentalists and climate researchers argue the government needs to pour resources into clean energy, whatever the near-term returns or losses.

Scientists stress that the globe has already passed dangerous thresholds for greenhouse gas emissions, so reductions aren’t adequate. We need to get them as close to zero as possible as fast as possible, many contend.

“The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster,” said James Hansen, the longtime NASA climate scientist, according to Rolling Stone.

Yet studies show that available clean energy options, even if ramped up aggressively, can’t get the world to that point.

California, one of the few states taking serious steps on this issue, passed a 2006 law that mandates cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. A 2011 report by the California Council on Science and Technology found even that goal isn’t achievable with existing clean energy options like solar and wind power.

That means more capital — public and private — needs to funnel into the messy process of discovery, including areas that will turn out to be false paths. It’s no small feat to overhaul an entrenched sector and achieve fundamental breakthroughs in energy technology, the report makes clear.

“All of these solutions would require intensive and sustained investment in new technologies plus innovation to bridge from the laboratory to reliable operating systems in relatively short timeframes,” it said.

The program defended its coverage, saying in a statement provided to Re/code: “’60 Minutes’ has a rich history of reporting about climate change. Last night’s story focused on the effectiveness of some of the biggest energy tech efforts to combat it.”

(Full disclosure: NBCUniversal News Group, a competitor of CBS, is an investor in Re/code.)

Prominent climate scientist Ken Caldeira — who didn’t see the “60 Minutes” program and wasn’t commenting on it specifically — said the government does need to be thoughtful about its support for clean energy.

He points to the example of Solyndra, the solar company that went bankrupt after receiving more than half a billion dollars in federal loan guarantees. “There are interesting questions about what sorts of investments and vehicles governments should use to spur innovation,” said Caldeira, who works at the Carnegie Institution on the Stanford campus, in an email. “That said, we need to be thinking in terms of a portfolio and expect some individual investments to go bust.”

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