Comment on Pielke Jr’s main conclusions


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.

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12 Responses to “Comment on Pielke Jr’s main conclusions”

  1. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Cross-posted reply!

    -59, 60-Bart

    Thanks for the very thoughtful set of replies.

    With respect to Kerry’s PDI, please do have a look at this paper, which explains why an increasing PDI in the NATL is not inconsistent with lack of trend in damage, and as well you’ll find another surprise;-)

    Click to access resource-2786-2009.47.pdf

    As far as whether or not studying the role of scientists in society is a “peculiar” focus. Well, I guess guilty as charged. People in universities study many subjects other than climate change, and I suppose most are “smaller problems.” There is a community of scholars who study science, for better or worse.

    I laid out my case for why the politicization of science by scientists matters in a book (THB). You may choose disagree with the arguments in that book. I’d welcome such a discussion. But to call such work a “smear campaign” or “science bashing” is to dodge the arguments I actually make in a rather ironic fashion.

    So I guess if you want to object to the study of scientists in society as illegitimate or unworthy, fine. But if you want to engage the arguments made in this area of scholarship, I’d ask that you engage the arguments on the terms that they are made. Fair enough?


    Click to access resource-2786-2009.47.pdf

  2. Bart Says:

    Roger, you wrote: “As far as whether or not studying the role of scientists in society is a “peculiar” focus.”

    That was not my point. E.g. I think it is peculiar to call RealClimate’s behavior more damaging that that of “skeptics” (such as Fred Singer, Pat Michaels, etc. Also scientists, so also your subject of study, I guess?) I think it’s peculiar to blame scientists for correcting plain falsehoods with too strong words, and leave those falsehoods unchallenged.

  3. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Another cross-posted reply …


    What can I say other than sometimes research leads to counter-intuitive conclusions?

    If someone says to you that they find the idea that humans can influence the giant Earth system, you’d point them to research that shows this is so. In my area as well, there is research.

    The issue is not strong words, but waging a political battle through science. I’m happy to discuss.

  4. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    This old post may also be relevant:

  5. Deep Climate Says:

    I might be a “louder” critic than you, but not one of the “loudest” I would think.

    Anyway, FWIW, some comments on your comments:

    #1: A couple of the conclusions of the 2006 Munich Re “consensus” are based on setting IPCC TAR 2001 in amber. But IPCC AR4 goes further in attribution of extreme events, as do a couple of key recent publications.

    #3-5: Aren’t geoengineering/air capture mitigation too? And where does CCS fit in for you?

    #6-7: I’m with you there.

    #8: There’s lots of low-hanging fruit in efficiency in Canada and the U.S. – so I could not agree more. I have been working on a college project where we are approaching 20-30% reduction in natural gas consumption via procedural initiatives and retrofit. Very minimal investment and time so far, and huge payback.

    #9: Romm is a scientist, no? Add him to Pielke’s bad-guy scientist pantheon.

    Obviously this is the area of biggest concern. You said it all very well, I think.

    But not only does Pielke denigrate scientists, he also supports their skeptic attackers like McIntyre and exaggerates their accomplishments to say the least. A low point was calling Pat Michaels sidekick Chip Knappenburger’s analysis of temperature trends “fair”.

    #10: Rehash of #1 when you boil it down. Which scientific assessments? I know he doesn’t like CSSP. But what else? AR4?

    There’s an annoying lack of specificity in many of these conclusions. Oh well, slippery is better than sticky.

  6. Bart Says:

    Your opinions about scientists’ behavior seems to be more a blog activity than a research activity, and more based on opinion than on research.
    It’s a little more than counterintuitive if you’d claim (you haven’t yet, but you haven’t refuted the claim either, so it’s still in the air) that Gavin has done more harm than Singer? What is your take on that?
    I think I gave plenty of substance in my full length reply.

  7. Bart Says:

    Deep Climate,
    Thanks for your feedback.
    Mitigation doesn’t seem to be strictly defined. Even in the IPCC reports, it remains unclear whether mitigation refers to emission reduction only or to the whole pallette of trying to minimize the effects of climate change. However, to prevent confusion, we named the assessment we did “between adaptation and emission reduction”.
    Joe Romm is a physicist by training afaik. 9 is the hot potato for sure. You’re right, Pielke has a tendency to support those who do the ‘real’ attacks. That’s a big part of what I take issue with.

  8. Deep Climate Says:

    I laid out my case for why the politicization of science by scientists matters in a book (THB). You may choose disagree with the arguments in that book. I’d welcome such a discussion. But to call such work a “smear campaign” or “science bashing” is to dodge the arguments I actually make in a rather ironic fashion.

    I didn’t read the book nor do I intend to. But obviously the smears referred to were in the blogs. … sigh …

  9. Eli Rabett Says:

    On # 8, since greenhouse forcing is cumulative any reduction in their emission is a positive step.

  10. Jim Bouldin Says:

    Bart, your answer to #9 was one of the best, succinct summaries of the situation from the scientist’s point of view that I’ve read anywhere. It’s this insinuation of incompetence and/or fraud, from those who don’t even really understand the issues they talk about, that leads to most of the problems.

  11. Bart Says:

    Thanks Jim!

  12. willard Says:

    The link:

    is now dead. Besides, Bart’s question above:

    > It’s a little more than counterintuitive if you’d claim (you haven’t yet, but you haven’t refuted the claim either, so it’s still in the air) that Gavin has done more harm than Singer? What is your take on that?

    has yet to be answered, for more than a year now.

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