Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

What are the pros and cons of reducing CO2 vs other warming agents?

December 15, 2011

That is the question I’ve been pondering earlier this year and which’ pontifications you can now read on Planet3.

The difference is mainly in the timescale: CO2 lasts a lot longer in the atmosphere than most of the other warming agents (e.g. black carbon, ozone, methane). This means that the temperature will decrease faster when the emission of shortlived compounds is decreased, as compared to that of a longlived compound such as CO2.

The other side of the coin is that for long term warming, the cumulative emissions of CO2 are dominant, even if in the short term changes in its emission are relatively ineffectual. Other important aspects in this discussion are health effects from air pollution (e.g. soot and ozone) and political practicability (gridlock in global climate negotiations).

So the question is: Are you more concerned about the short term or the long term effects of climate change? Which is a similar question that is often implicitly present in climate debates: Weighing the right of this generation to economic wellbeing (through cheap fossil energy) with the right of future generations to a pleasant planet to live on (through us not using too much cheap fossil energy). Strangely enough, that central and deeply ethical question is usually embodied in the discount rate (as used in economics when comparing investments with the expected rate of return).

My conclusion:

It’s clear that for long term climate stabilization, cumulative CO2 reductions are paramount, and that for the short term, reducing other forcings can offer faster results and offer other benefits as well. So the answer to the question “what should we focus on” is “all of the above”. I would applaud more attention to the non-CO2 forcings in the International policy arena. However, let’s not forget that there’s a hefty price and/or climate tag to pay in the end for delaying CO2 emission reductions.

You can read the whole thing over at P3.

Planet3 is a community new(s) blog, aptly described by main driving force Michael Tobis (in an interview with Andy Revkin) as
opinionated yet skeptical, informed yet passionate
Conflict of interest statement: I live on the planet in question.
(via Elmar Veerman)

Sense of urgency is needed to get political action on climate change

May 4, 2011

What is needed for serious action to be taken on climate change? Looking back at other environmental issues (that admittedly were not as “wicked” as climate change), a few conditions can be identified that have to be met:

- Strong evidence of negative consequences

- Realistic solutions (technically, economically and socially)

- Political pull: Key figure(s) taking the lead

- Sense of urgency

There is widespread agreement amongst experts on the first condition, at least on long timescales. However, climate change doesn’t rank very high on conditions 2 to 4: Yes, we have the technology to produce zero carbon electricity, but it’s deemed too expensive by the powers that be. Plus what about space heating or transport? There are low carbon alternatives for those too, but they aren’t anywhere near full scale deployment.

There clearly is no political pull to speak of; many had hoped that Obama would step up to the plate, but he hasn’t (admittedly his hands are tied behind his back by congress).

A sense of urgency is totally lacking. The problem is that it’s not our problem, but rather that of future generations. However, due to the long timescales in the climate system, the solution is in our hands; not theirs. Quoting mt:

Between recognizing the necessity for a policy, the replacement of the required infrastructure, and the net impact on the cumulative nature of the carbon dioxide forcing in particular means that the gap in time from the moment we decide to take the matter seriously to actually stopping its further deterioration is perhaps forty years. The problems we see now are, roughly speaking the ones we bought in 1970, not the ones we have acquired since. Nothing we do now will have much effect until 2050 or so. If catastrophes really start in 2050, we will be looking at things getting still worse until 2090 or so.

I.e. our actions -or inactions- only take effect decades into the future. That has at least two very different consequences:

  • Since we don’t bear the full consequences of our actions, our motivation to solve the problem becomes smaller: This decreases people’s sense of urgency.
  • The big delay between action and consequence means that we have to act on the problem sooner rather than later if it is to be mitigated: This increases the actual urgency.

Note the discrepancy between the actual urgency to deal with the slowly ensuing problem and the perceived urgency. That is why I agree with e.g. Homer-Dixon and Stavins that some sort of dramatic event is needed to increase people’s sense of urgency. This could be seen as a form of loss aversion: The strongest driver for behavioral change is a sudden or looming negative impact (as in the example of a long time smoker who stopped cold turkey after the doctor gave him an ultimatum along the lines of “your legs will have to be amputated unless you quit smoking right now!” – Ben Tiggelaar).

Of course, such a dramatic event by itself is not enough to spur action (there’s other conditions that are still to be met), as e.g. Gilligan points out over at Kloor’s ClimateCentral blog. But the required sense of urgency is hard to achieve without precipitating events.

Should we therefore hope for climate related misery to fall upon us? Of course not. We should hope for and if possible contribute towards people gaining enough understanding and awareness of the issues without such misery to occur.

Benefit of environmental regulations generally outweighs cost

January 6, 2011

Steven Cohen writes in the Huffington Post:

EPA has historically been quite careful about gradually phasing in environmental rules to minimize economic disruption. (…)

According to this [OMB] analysis, EPA issued 30 major regulations from 1999 to 2009 at an estimated cost of $25.8 billion to $29.2 billion against estimated benefits ranging from $81.9 billion to $533 billion. As a society we have really not taken leave of our senses. When we make policies, the benefits generally outweigh the costs. Of course, for any given corporation or particular factory in any given financial quarter, the costs may be far higher than the benefits. And the costs might be borne by one group while the benefits may be felt by another. Still the idea that environmental rules kill jobs and destroy our quality of life is deceptive propaganda. It is part of a subtle and symbolic political campaign with the goal of delegitimizing government’s role in protecting the environment.

The rest of the article is well worth reading as well, in which Cohen fulminates against the “fact free climate policy debate” and the inconsistent position of the antiregulatory zeal that’s been getting more political momentum:

We seem willing to ensure [via government regulation] that the food we eat and the toys we give our children are free of poison, but seem reluctant to keep our land, air and water free of toxics.

(Hat tip Paul Luttikhuis)

Mike Hulme on the impacts of “climategate”

November 19, 2010

Mike Hulme has an editorial in the Guardian about “climategate”. It is a thoughtful piece, where he tries to take some distance from the events and see what impact they’ve had, focusing mostly on the positive:

I believe there have been major shifts in how climate science is conducted, how the climate debate is framed and how climate policy is being formed. And I believe “climategate” played a role in all three.

How climate science is conducted

As to the first, “climategate” may indeed have spurred the inevitable transition to more open source computer code and increased transparency. With the increased public and political interest, it is only natural to expect increased openness and transparency, to the extent possible and desired by scientists themselves (that last addition is not unimportant). The hope is that this could aid in the understanding of and respect for science, though that may be a little naive.

Efforts to re-examine the surface temperature record don’t signify a major shift in how climate science is conducted; they are replication exercises which, unsurprisingly, come to pretty much the same results as CRU or GISS do.  This seems merely a response to the misplaced decrease in trust in the temperature record. Overall, I don’t think the way climate science is conducted has changed dramatically as a result of this affair. It probably made a lot of scientists more afraid to speak out or more defensive when they do, neither of which is a good thing. That is the most significant impact as I see it.

How the climate debate is framed

Second, there has been a re-framing of climate change. The simple linear frame of “here’s the consensus science, now let’s make climate policy” has lost out to the more ambiguous frame: “What combination of contested political values, diverse human ideals and emergent scientific evidence can drive climate policy?”

The ‘ambiguous frame’ as Hulme calls it makes a lot of sense, and it always has. Does that signify a change? I don’t think so. Isn’t it common wisdom that there is more than just science that influences what policies are enacted? Consider e.g. this quote from the late Steve Schneider via mail to Andy Revkin:

To be risk averse is good policy in my VALUE SYSTEM — and we always must admit that how to take risks — with climate damages or costs of mitigation/adaptation — is not science but world views and risk aversion philosophy.

And as I wrote in a comment at the polarization and ideology thread:

One’s value system and circumstances influence how this risk is perceived. (…) How do you value the future vs the current (encapsulated in the discount rate), how is your sense of responsibility vs freedom, how do you weigh small probability – high impact events, those are the issues there, and they are inherently tied to one’s value system.


The events of the past year have finally buried the notion that scientific predictions about future climate change can be certain or precise enough to force global policy-making.

This is puzzling to me, as it seems to imply a straightforward relation between scientific certainty and policy making, whereas he just made the obviously correct point that there are other things that influence this relation. Update: I think I misinterpreted what Hulme said. Even if the science were 100% certain (which it will never be of course, by its very nature), it would still not ‘force’ a particular policy, exactly because contested values and human ideals will still enter the picture of decision making.

In effect, the big picture of what we know is clear, at least as to the ‘needed’ direction and thrust of policies (paraphrasing Herman Daly). But this direction and thrust apparently clashes with the values and ideals of a not unimportant segment of society.

The increased polarization between supporters of science and contrarians over the past year did probably contribute to putting this ‘ambiguous frame’ more into focus:

The meta-framing of climate change has therefore moved from being bi-polar – that either the scientific evidence is strong enough for action or else it is too weak for action – to being multi-polar – that narratives of climate change mobilise widely differing values which can’t be homogenised through appeals to science.

Very true.

How climate policy is being formed

Hulme’s third point, the lack of faith in reaching a global agreement on emission reductions, has much more to do with the failure of Copenhagen than with “climategate”, I think. During CoP 15 in Copenhagen, the overhyped expectations collided with the harsh reality of nations thinking mostly about their own short to medium term self interest. This classic tragedy of the commons on a global scale proved much too viscous to be easily solved.

Hulme argues that

with scientific uncertainties and complexities about the future proliferating (…) further policy fragmentation around climate change is inevitable.

Here again, Hulme seems to suggest that scientific uncertainty is the primary cause for the differences in opinion about the policy direction, in apparent contradiction to him stating earlier that contested values and ideals are also important. Is lack of scientific certainty really the limiting factor in reaching political agreement? I don’t think so. Policy fragmentation will be inevitable because people will continue to have different values and ideals and live in different circumstances, not because of scientific uncertainty (which concern the details rather than the big picture anyway).

Hulme continues:

But if such fragmentation reflects the plural, partial and provisional knowledge humans possess about the future then climate policy-making will better reflect reality. And that, I think, may be no bad thing.

Here I’ll quote a comment by Lcarey over at CaS, which captures my take quite well:

My conclusion is a little different.  IF the prevailing conclusions in a number of related fields within climate science are broadly correct, then humanity faces a global scale problem beyond the power of any given nation or small group of nations to address [except perhaps by geoengineering as a risky bandage-type strategy. BV].   In that case “fragmentation” translates into “pursuing our own short term interest, and not doing anything of great significance regarding CO2 emissions anytime soon”, which translates into “we’re screwed”

Science ignored by politics

October 3, 2010

We have known what we know for several decades now (it’s warming; it’s due to us; it’s bad), and serious policies to tackle the problem aren’t even in sight. Of course I’m aware that there is more that influences a political decision than ‘just’ scientific expertise about important societal issues (i.e. that the “linear model” of science and politics is not realistic, to use Pielke Jr’s terminology). But still, the disconnect is just huge. Warnings based on science are ignored at our peril.

But perhaps this is more common that I’d thought? Listening to the radio the other day, I heard someone making the case that economists have warned for years that the Dutch housing market is unsustainable (economically speaking), referring to the large tax-rebate you get on your mortgage (“hypotheekrente-aftrek”).

Politicians don’t want to touch that rebate though, for fear of losing a lot of voters.

Richard Tol wrote over at Judith Curry’s

economists strongly agree that carbon taxes are superior to tradable permits

whereas often I hear that a carbon tax and rebate is politically infeasible, probably because fear of losing a lot of voters (and/or because of strong lobbying against it?).

I remember a professor (of soil science I think it was) once describing his frustrations in trying to tell politicians about important issues regarding his field of expertise, where politicians were doing things that according to him didn’t make any scientific sense.

Is there a pattern there?

And the more difficult and more important question: What can we do about it?

What makes scientific sense doesn’t necessarily make political sense. If the scientists are right though, the bill and/or regret will come sooner or later. When will we learn?

Or to quote Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland (referring then to ozone depletion):

What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions, if in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?

Innovation, implementation and efficiency

September 14, 2010

Often, innovation (of new/improved energy technologies) and implementation (of existing energy technologies) are presented as if they are binary choices. Lomborg is a champion of that kind of rhetoric.

They are not: Both are needed, and both serve a different purpose (or at least, they are different, and complementary means towards the common goal of transforming our energy system towards a more sustainable one).

Innovation doesn’t actually reduce emissions. Rather, it is expected to allow for deep, fast and/or cheap emission reductions in the long term. Its pay-off though is inherently uncertain.

Implementation is needed to get started on emission reductions. It’s the cumulative emissions that are of concern, so earlier cuts in emissions are more useful to climate stabilization than similar cuts made later.

Counting on innovation as the only mitigation strategy risks postponing doing anything until a silver bullet comes along that may never will. Hence this strategy is sometimes referred to as fairy dust.

Counting on implementation as the only mitigation strategy risks high costs to achieve needed emission cuts (or an effective inability to reach needed emission cuts, if we don’t want to pay for it). [edited for clarity]


Implementation could pave the way for innovation, by giving a sign that society is clearly embarking on a low carbon path. It makes investing in innovation more worthwhile. The opposite is also possible: Innovation could be stalled if easy (e.g. subsidized) money is made on implementation of current, relatively inefficient technology. That is the pitfall we need to prevent.
OTOH, innovation could make people/businesses hesitant to employ current tech (waiting for next year’s tech may be better, but if you keep saying that until eternity, nothing ever changes).

Some kind of carbon pricing structure (preferably a straight tax and rebate) would spur both innovation and implementation. It could avoid the pitfall mentioned above, which is more prevalent in subsidies.

Technology transfer

It should also be kept in mind that it’s not enough to just support basic innovation research and expecting that society can readily bear the fruits:

The key to this process lies in transitioning from R&D to the market–a stage in business development so perilous that it’s often called the Valley of Death. Transversing it requires an intelligent blend of public and private sector investment, targeting the most promising innovations. (Forbes)

Many promising technologies die in this valley of death, to the ultimate detriment of society who misses out on its benefits. If one pays attention to the whole sequence of technology transfer, it becomes clear that innovation and implementation are different stages in this sequence. For a successful final result both (and what’s in between) are needed, otherwise there’s either no head or no tail.

Postponing implementation risks a “lock-in” situation. Every new power plant that is being built will be used for multiple decades: We are now building the energy infrastructure for the next 50 years. What’s it gonna be? Inertia in the energy system, in the carbon cycle, and in the climate system works against us. The longer we wait, the harder it’s gonna be.

The speed of emission reduction influences the costs: The faster, the more expensive (and/or the more intrusive). There’re limits to how fast we can decarbonize the economy without creating havoc. Since postponing emission reduction means that faster reductions will be needed later on (to achieve the same target), it will add to the costs (and/or the havoc). At the very least, this would offset some of the benefits of (hopefully) having cheaper technology available later on.

Putting all your money on innovation with the expectation of a breakthrough is risky. Energy technologies are improved only gradually, and what it comes down to is a gradual reduction in energy production costs. A reduction of comparative costs could also (and much more swiftly) be achieved by putting a price on carbon (a.k.a. internalizing the real costs of carbon, or getting rid of the hidden subsidy for carbon), and then let the market decide who the winners are going to be.

Implementation versus energy saving

It makes much more sense to put energy savings on the one hand and implementation of sustainable energy on the other hand as interchangeable choices: They both lead directly to lower emissions. As I wrote in a previous blog about population growth and the Kaya identity:

Don’t want to use (and pay for) sustainable energy? Then use less energy.

Don’t want to use less energy? Then use (and pay for) sustainable energy.

Don’t want to do either? Go find another planet.

Note that the last line does not read: “Then throw some money at R&D and hope for the best.” Of course, the optimal course of action is to both reduce energy consumption and increase the use of sustainable energy (and do rigorous R&D); it still wouldn’t make much sense to put all your eggs in one basket.

The result of innovation is almost by definition unknown, as Ken Boulding wrote:

The great uncertainties here are in the area of the future of human knowledge, know-how, and skill. There is a nonexistence theorem about prediction in this area, in the sense that if we could predict what we are going to know at some time in the future, we would not have to wait, for we would know it now. It is not surprising, therefore, that the great technical changes have never been anticipated, neither the development of oil and gas, nor the automobile, nor the computer.

In preparing for the future, therefore, it is very important to have a wide range of options and to think in advance about how we are going to react to the worst cases as well as the best.

And John Mashey has the price winning quote:

Never schedule breakthroughs.

With mt as the runner up, making the case that “insufficient funding slows things down, but excessive funding certainly does not speed things up” regarding innovation and technology transfer:

Ten scientists cannot get a decade’s worth of one scientist’s work done in a year any more than nine women can make a baby in a month.

Based on a comment I made at collide-a-scape (teofilo) on the same topic.  For a different perspective, see e.g. this comment by Heiko on a previous post. He argues that we should invest the limited resources we’re willing to spend on this there where it’ll do the most good, and that R&D fits that bill better than rolling out a bit more of current technology. He does have a point, though to my mind it’s a bit akin to admitting we’re screwed and hoping for the best. I think we still ought to try.

Should energy policy be linked to climate change?

July 3, 2010

There is nothing against emission reductions for other reasons than climate change (and there are many good reasons).

That said, I think it would not be wise to entire decouple energy policy from climate policy and climate science. The issue of climate change has more urgency to it than many of the other reasons for decarbonization (though I don’t know the ins and outs of all these issues of course). Besides, it strikes me as odd and counterproductive to leave aside a very important reason for doing something. There are more and more voices that claim that it would actually be productive to do so, but I remain unconvinced. The endless argument about whether climate change is serious enough to warrant energy policies would indeed stop, but at the cost of lowering the incentive for such policies.

The risk of doing something for the ‘wrong’ reasons is that the ‘real’ reason will not be sufficiently addressed. E.g. other solutions may be found for the ‘other’ problem and then the problem that really needs addressing, but that was strategically left out of the reasoning, is left unchecked. It carries the risk that not enough is done, or not fast enough, or that it will be stopped if other solutions are found for the ‘other’ problems (e.g. new fossil reserves; better filters for pollution; improvement of the geopolitical situation, etc).

Which issues are more urgent is a valid question of course. About the fossil reserves (and the associated ‘peak oil’), it’s worth noting that the conventional supplies of oil will likely still last for, what is it, 50 years or so. There’s still plenty of coal (which could technically be transformed into a liquid, alleviating the problems of ‘peak oil’, though it would be environmentally and climatologically disastrous). Then there are unconventional fossil fuels, including oil. I don’t see how the fossil reserves could carry the same sense of urgency that I think climate change has. Socio-economic impacts of peak oil, maybe, I don’t really know. Declining fossil fuel reserves are a very important motivation for technological innovation, but not so much for starting seriously with emissions reductions by deploying existing technology.

The ‘no-regret’ options for dealing with climate change are a good start (which have been postponed for long enough already), but not enough to get us on a climatologically safe trajectory. Climate change is too important of a reason to be left out of the energy policy debate.

[Update: Picture added (again) as it seems to fit the topic of this post just too well.]

Copenhagen climate change conference

December 9, 2009

The following editorial was published on December 8th by 56 newspapers around the world in 20 languages:

‘Fourteen days to seal history’s judgment on this generation’

Well, that’s perhaps putting on a little too much pressure on this one meeting, but it’s clearly going to be very important what the leaders of the world agree on in Copenhagen. The talking and negotiating, and our shared responsibility to deal with this problem, won’t stop after this meeting however.  

Some excerpts, my emphasis in bold:

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year’s inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.


The science is complex but the (basic) facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years. A bigger rise of 3-4C — the smallest increase we can prudently expect to follow inaction — would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, untold millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea. The controversy over emails by British researchers that suggest they tried to suppress inconvenient data has muddied the waters but failed to dent the mass of evidence on which these predictions are based.


At the deal’s heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided — and how we will share a newly precious resource: the trillion or so tonnes of carbon that we can emit before the mercury rises to dangerous levels.

Rich nations like to point to the arithmetic truth that there can be no solution until developing giants such as China take more radical steps than they have so far. But the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere – three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within a decade to very substantially less than their 1990 level.

Developing countries can point out they did not cause the bulk of the problem, and also that the poorest regions of the world will be hardest hit. But they will increasingly contribute to warming, and must thus pledge meaningful and quantifiable action of their own. Though both fell short of what some had hoped for, the recent commitments to emissions targets by the world’s biggest polluters, the United States and China, were important steps in the right direction.


The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.


The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

Comment on Pielke Jr’s main conclusions

November 4, 2009

Roger Pielke Jr invites comments “from his loudest critics” on his views regarding climate change and response strategies. I’m not even close to being his loudest critic (e.g. he’s often got interesting analyses on the policy), allthough the occasional badmouthing of scientists gets on my nerve. Anyway, here are my replies, each directly following Pielke’s point in italics.

1. There is no greenhouse gas signal in the economic or human toll record of disasters.(Pielke)
I don’t know; his work in this area appears quite robust at first sight, though many conflicting results have also been reported. The PDI (power dissipation index, a measure of hurricane power) has increased though, at least in the North Atlantic. Overall, the jury is still out on the hurricane question it seems like. It’s however not an area that I’ve looked at in detail.

2. The IPCC has dramatically underestimated the scale of the stabilization challenge. (Pielke)
I don’t know, but see also 8.

3. Geoengineering via stratospheric injection or marine cloud whitening is a bad idea. (Pielke)
At this point in time, intentionally cooling the Earth via large scale intervention is definitely a bad idea, because of the risks involved. But we may reach a point where the climate risks start to outweigh the geoengineering risks. So I think it prudent to investigate geoengineering schemes in case of climate emergencies. I agree with Ken Caldeira: “I hope I never need a parachute, but if my plane is going down in flames, I sure hope I have a parachute handy,” Caldeira said. “I hope we’ll never need geoengineering schemes, but if a climate catastrophe occurs, I sure hope we will have thought through our options carefully.” I contributed to an assessment of “other” climate reduction possibilities, for which I wrote chapter 6 on geo-engineering and air capture. In Section 6.4 the context and associated risks are discussed. In short, geoengineering should absolutely not be considered as an *alternative* to emission reduction, since the long term risks would increase to intolerable levels in such a case, and problems such as ocean acidification would continue unabated. I plan to write more about geoengineering here in the near future.

4. Air capture research is a very good idea. (Pielke)
Agreed (though it’s not a holy grail; it’s not even close to large scale implementation). I would perhaps single out biochar application as especially promising, since it appears to have numerous co-benefits. Its global scale climate mitigation effects seem to be limited though.

5. Adaptation is very important and not a trade off with mitigation. (Pielke)
Both adaptation and mitigation (emission reduction) are important, but I would emphasize the latter, since it dominates the long-term risk we expose future generations to (CO2 has a very long lifetime). Over-emphasizing the former risks de-emphasizing the latter, so it’s a tricky balance. The four basic response strategies (emission reduction – air capture – geoengineering – adaptation) are not mutually exclusive, but each of them lowers the (perceived) necessity for the other measures to be implemented (if the long lifetime of CO2 is ignored, which is well beyond the average political radarscreen).

Roger claims that “adaptation is a trade-off with mitigation just as mitigation is a trade off with military spending.” I think that a Euro spent on adaptation competes more strongly with spending it on mitigation than that it competes with spending it on the military. If anything, adaptation and mitigation are decided upon by the same department, with one overall budget. The military budget is separate (unfortunately, I may add).

It may be worthwhile to investigate potential win-win situations: Adaptation measures that simultaneously mitigate climate change, and vice versa (see chapter 4 of the same document as mentioned above for some examples, e.g. green/white roofs, reforestation, spatial planning, etc). Black carbon (soot) reduction is an example of a measure with both health and climate benefits. Those may be the politically speaking low hanging fruit.

6. Current mitigation policies, at national and international levels, are inevitably doomed to fail. (Pielke)
It all comes down to what is being decided in the political process. I am however pessimistic about the politics coming up to speed with what is known scientifically (short version) and what is possible technologically (which is a lot more than what is on the political table, see also 8). But let’s try to avoid self fulfilling prophecies.
David Keith made some pertinent comments to this:

However when people and the political community hear technical people say “can’t be done” they assume we mean that technically can’t be done and that is untrue and destructive.
It’s destructive because it hides the central moral choice: we could cut emissions if we want to, we could have started decades ago when the scientific warnings about climate change were first raised, but we decided not to. It was a choice, implicit or not. A choice that, in effect, we cared more about current consumption than we did about preserving our grandchildren’s chances to enjoy a climate like the one in which our civilization developed.

Nothing is “doomed to fail”; we have the choice.

7. An alternative approach to mitigation from that of the FCCC has better prospects for success. (Pielke)
I don’t know. Depends what the proposed alternative is I guess.

8. Current technologies are not sufficient to reach mitigation goals. (Pielke)
Perhaps that is the case for the long term, but I think it bears stressing that current technologies are hopelessly underused. David Keith, Joe Romm and others have pointed out that even with current technology we could decarbonize the entire electricity production for a few % of GDP. The per capita emissions in the US are double those in the EU. The per capita electricity use in California is a bit over half of that of the rest of the US. There’s clearly a lot more we can do with current technology and other (efficiency) measures than we are currently doing. That doesn’t negate the importance of R&D, but it’s the point I would like to stress. R&D is still needed to make emission reductions cheaper, and to make bigger and faster reductions possible. But it shouldn’t be an excuse for not doing more with the possibilities we currently have. See for a longer argument somewhat along these lines (rebutting Lomborg) here.

9. In their political enthusiasm, some leading scientists have behaved badly. (Pielke)
Without specifics, this is impossible to answer, and is bound to lead to even more misunderstanding. I could try reading your mind of course. You probably have some of your critics in mind, notably some RealClimate scientists as well as Hansen, who you have criticized. I find this very problematic. In most instances that I followed (involving Gavin Schmidt, Michael Tobis, Eric Steig, Hansen, Briffa at different occasions), I have found your and others’ criticisms off base, besides the point, largely irrelevant to the bigger picture and having the smell of a smear campaign (science-bashing). As I commented regarding the latest McIntyre affair (see my review here): “A lot of scientists are getting understandably frustrated with self-proclaimed auditors of science (and their supporters) who cast doubt about a whole scientific field by blowing minor flaws out of proportion and insinuate accusations of scientific misconduct”. Against this backdrop of a lot of people ready to embrace any little nitpicked criticism as if it overthrows the whole scientific consensus, and ignore the mountain of evidence in favour of this consensus, I can perfectly well understand that a lot of scientists (and their supporters) are getting frustrated having to deal with this behavior and (mostly) fake arguments. In the grand scheme of things, the big problem as I see it is the contempt of science and its practitioners by a sizeable segment of the general public and some high profile bloggers; if a scientist responds to faux criticism in a frustrated tone, I find that a minor flaw in comparison. Granted, they (climate scientists) are your subject of study, so you naturally focus on their behaviour, but at the same time, please consider the context in which they operate, as well as the main message they are trying to convey. In light of this, your claim that “bad behavior by the folks at Real Climate does more to hurt the cause for action than the political actions of the skeptics” is preposterous. William Connolley brought up Fred Singer as the most obvious example.

10. Leading scientific assessments have botched major issues (like disasters). (Pielke)
I don’t know.

The bottom line is that I don’t strongly disagree with Pielke Jr on many points, but that I find his choice of ‘problem areas’ to focus on peculiar and often unhelpful in light of the much bigger problems just adjacent to them (e.g. 9, 8, 5). Excluding that context risks giving a false impression of what’s going on, especially to those who are not in the loop and to those wishing to see their pre-conceived notions confirmed.

Bjorn Lomborg’s eternal postponement

September 14, 2009

(Nederlandse versie hier)

Lomborg suggests we keep on gambling with the planet’s climate by postponing measures far into the future. Not a good idea.

The problem with CO2 is that a large part of our emissions stays in the atmosphere for centuries or even millennia. On top of that, the climate responds slowly to changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. This combination leads to great risks for the future climate if we don’t curb our emissions soon. This is being consistently ignored by Lomborg’s analyses.

If big changes, such as melting of the great icesheets, are initiated due to elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases, they are not necessarily reversible. The costs of taking measures now is lower than the costs of cleaning up our mess later; that is the conclusion of e.g. McKinsey ( here and here), the Stern review, and the International Energy Agency. The bottom line of these studies is that for about 1% of global GDP the most dramatic consequences of climate change can be prevented. The costs of unlimited global warming are much greater.

Unfortunately risks that only materialize far into the future are underestimated and undervalued by people, with respect to the cost of limiting those risks. Take smoking: For many people, stopping that ‘nice’ habit is too large a price to pay in order to limit future health risks. And it’s addictive of course. Just like our high energy use is, apparently. In contrast to smoking, actively decreasing climate risks is complicated by the ‘tragedy of the commons’, which Lomborg frequently (ab)uses in his argument. Another one of his favorites is to put up a false dilemma.

Let’s indeed look for solutions that keep the consequences of global warming within acceptable limits (and outside of the dikes). A precondition for that is of course that we base ourselves on the scientific insights about the climate system. Lomborg seems to have another view.

(For more background on how Lomborg bends the science, see here)

A few cost estimates:

IEA: The investment required to prevent dangerous climate change is “an average of some 1.1% of global GDP each year from now until 2050. This expenditure reflects a re-direction of economic activity and employment, and not necessarily a reduction of GDP.” In fact, this investment partly pays for itself in reduced energy costs alone (not even counting the pollution reduction benefits)! (via Joe Romm)

Stern: “Using the results from formal economic models, the Review estimates that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more.
In contrast, the costs of action – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year.”

McKinsey: “The macroeconomic costs of this carbon revolution are likely to be manageable, being in the order of 0.6–1.4 percent of global GDP by 2030. To put this figure in perspective, if one were to view this spending as a form of insurance against potential damage due to climate change, it might be relevant to compare it to global spending on insurance, which was 3.3 percent of GDP in 2005.”


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