Asking ‘Rude’ Questions at the Aspen Forum

The final day of the Aspen Environment Forum opened with a session entitled “Rio + 20 and the Making of a Global Green Economy,” (see video) which looked ahead to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development set for June of next year in Brazil. Panelists discussed the prospects for that conference and what needs to be achieved.

Toward the end of the session, Hari Sreenivasan of PBS NewsHour sent out this tweet: “Perhaps a rude question for this panel on Rio — are there any metrics that prove these global meetings ever matter?”

I’m not sure the question was answered in that Thursday session (or on Twitter) but it was a provocative one. Do big, well-publicized climate summits ever matter? For that matter, do small environment conferences at tony mountain resort locales ever matter? And what would the metrics for measuring that progress look like?

At one point a (half-serious) suggestion was posed about AEF taking place in the smog of a sprawling city, rather than in the crisp air and plentiful trees of Aspen. Taking that idea further, it’s not hard to imagine that an event held in, say, Bangladesh or Haiti might produce very different types of exchanges — and a lot more rude questions.

Considering the number of different interests represented at AEF, the discussions have been remarkably civil. Moderator David Owen made a joke about the panoply of troublemakers on “The Great Energy Challenge” panel Tuesday (video here):

“We have representatives of the major groups that are usually blamed for the world’s problems sitting right on one stage,” Owen cracked. “We have a politician, we have an academic, we have the head of a major electric utility, we have an executive of an oil company, and we have a member of the media. A single swipe of the arm could clear all the problems away.” This earned a hearty laugh from everyone, even the panelists.

Civility isn’t a bad thing. Civil discussion is the only way opposing interests will learn to understand each other (unless one brutally crushes the other, but hey, we are in Aspen). It’s how we perhaps make incremental moves toward unified action. It can be harder to actually face the “enemy” and include them in the conversation than to demonize them and shut them out.

But sometimes, difficult — if not rude or uncivil — questions need to be asked. Oil and gas subsidies, fracking, problems with environmental darlings such as wind power, government inaction and family planning particulars were all subjects that caused some fidgeting and/or nervous laughter at times over the last three days. They are also topics that demand to be addressed when considering issues of climate, energy and population.

In one such moment, Jigar Shah of the Carbon War Room made a pointed query to the panel on “Natural Gas: Methane as Methadone?” (at the 1:06:55 mark in the video above), which featured experts from Shell, NREL and the USGS.

Noting that Japan has made huge strides in renewable energy in a very short time as a necessary response to the tsunami aftermath, Shah voiced frustration at delays elsewhere in implementing renewable technologies, an indirect allusion to the frequent characterization of natural gas as a “bridge to renewables.” Moderator Marianne Lavelle helped out with framing the question: “Do we need a bridge at all?” Others in the room applauded in response.

As has happened many times this week, there was a pause as the panelists waited to see who would respond, and eventually two of them did. Of course, real answers to tough questions like the ones that came up at AEF likely won’t be formulated on the spot during a panel. In this context, sometimes it’s just about asking the question.

In this way, at an event with so many talkers and so much information, the value of simple “rude questions” — and the ensuing awkward silences — becomes clear.

You can see more highlights and video from the Aspen Environment Forum on this page; search #aef2011 to join the conversation on Twitter, or comment below with your take on whether conferences and rude questions matter.