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.


  1. sherlva
    September 23, 2013, 4:20 pm

    Know thou schedule publication serials, date, time and day of the week publication series, names of TV channels, where they are published.

  2. Laura
    Ithaca NY
    June 14, 2011, 10:21 am

    – It might be possible to lower GHG impact of generating electricity from natural gas, either by taking the carbon out before it’s burned, so hydrogen is burned; or by removing CO2 from the gas that is produced by burning natural gas. I wonder how close to practical that is.
    – It sounds like natural gas may be a permanent adjunct to renewable energy, since it’s use to make up for times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. At least until better battery technology is developed.
    – Renewable energy has a huge disadvantage, in the land area that it takes up for the amount of energy produced. Generating all the United States energy requirement from concentrating solar power would require a solar farm roughly the size of Arizona. Wind is even worse that way. Renewable energy doesn’t look very green when it’s scaled up.

  3. David J Cadenhead
    North Metro Atlanta, GA
    June 10, 2011, 12:39 pm

    A Hundred year supply of Natural Gas based on what?-What era, current or circa 1911? -Use in an ecologically aware or oblivious manner? 100 years is possible, given certain constraints, if followed, but what are they? Is this not a nice imaginary number for the sake of discussion? What are the “givens” upon which this “theoretical consumable (non-replaceable) volume” has been determined? Are these” given constraints Facts or Fantasies, Utopian or Reality? Just concerned when I hear supposedly irrefutable facts that address use of non-replaceable resources intended for use by who?

  4. Nate Whilk
    June 5, 2011, 2:44 pm

    Let’s make that question even more pointed: How much CO2 was produced to get everyone to that meeting? Can’t you get someone to set up teleconferencing? Like Al Gore? After all, he invented the Internet. (Yes, I know, he didn’t exactly say that.)

  5. David Gardner
    United States
    June 4, 2011, 11:07 am

    Why do we not hear more about Thorium? It is as good as Uranium for generating power without the side effects, such as long life radioactive waste. In addition, in the event of a major problem the reactor shuts down automatically. It is also one of the most common elements on earth.