The End of Nature … at least for me

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"The End of Nature … at least for me"

Yes, I recently had a (lame) letter in Nature. Yes, I haven’t blogged on it because of its lameness. But since nothing escapes the blogosphere, I will explain this sorry episode.

I think it safe to say that with this post I won’t be appearing in Nature again. No great loss, actually, as will become clear.

Once upon a time I received an e-mail out of the blue:

[I am putting the rest of this post after the jump, and posting this on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, since I suspect many readers have had their fill of this particular subject. I share your ennui. I am only bothering to do this at all because I think what is interesting about this affair is not the Pielke stuff, but how Nature has set up rules for letter writing that make legitimate disagreement with their published articles all but impossible.]

Dear Dr Romm: You will have noticed that this week (April 3) Nature published a Commentary article entitled ‘IPCC underestimates challenge of global warming’, by Roger Pielke Jr, Tom Wigley and Christopher Green. The press release for this is pasted in below, and a PDF of the full article is attached as a reminder.

[I did notice! And I'm so glad Nature noticed I noticed.]

We would be pleased to consider any response you would like to make to this article for publication in our Correspondence (‘Letters to the Editor’) section. We expect the Commentary to provoke debate, and we hope to reflect the different arguments in a timely and authoritative way in an upcoming page of Correspondence.

[Wow! Never been solicited directly by a science journal to write a letter.]

If you would be prepared to take up this invitation, you will find details of Correspondence format and of how to submit your letter in our author guidelines on http://tinyurl.com/373jsv; we would need up to 350 words by around April 17.

[Hmm, 350 words is not bloody many....]

We hope very much that you will be in a position to respond to the Commentary and look forward to hearing from you.

[I'm so there! This is what I send in the best I though I could do given space limitations was to focus on the flawed conclusions.]

SIR — The commentary by Pielke et al. (“Dangerous Assumptions,” Nature 452, 531-532, 2008) has very flawed analysis and incorrect conclusions. The article asserts

… the IPCC implicitly assumes that the bulk of the challenge of reducing future emissions will occur in the absence of climate policies….

The IPCC plays a risky game in assuming that spontaneous advances in technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions.”

Those statements are so misleading as to be inaccurate. The Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES), which the Commentary cites, makes clear that while the SRES scenarios don’t technically have climate policies, they can and do have energy efficiency and decarbonization policies, which are the same thing. That’s clear from examining the B1 scenario, which includes aggressive policies that help limit total global warming to about 2°C:

Incentive systems, combined with advances in international institutions, permit the rapid diffusion of cleaner technology…. Land use is managed carefully…. Cities are compact and designed for public and non-motorized transport…. Strong incentives for low-input, low-impact agriculture. These proactive local and regional environmental measures and policies also lead to relatively low GHG emissions, even in the absence of explicit interventions to mitigate climate change.

So the advances that reduce emissions are policy-driven, not “spontaneous.”

The authors say the IPCC is “diverting attention from policies that could directly stimulate technological innovation,” and conclude “Enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels.” But the article provides no evidence for these conclusions. In fact, the IPCC report makes clear we have the necessary technologies, or soon will, and focuses on creating the conditions for aggressive technology innovation and deployment:

There is high agreement and much evidence that all stabilisation levels assessed can be achieved by deployment of a portfolio of technologies that are either currently available or expected to be commercialised in coming decades, assuming appropriate and effective incentives are in place for their development, acquisition, deployment and diffusion and addressing related barriers.

So the Commentary’s conclusions are neither proven by its analysis nor are they accurate.

Finally, I was surprised that in the related article (“Are the IPCC scenarios ‘unachievable’,” 508-509), you quote Marty Hoffert in support of Pielke et al. (“This analysis is long overdue”) – without pointing out Pielke and Hoffert are colleagues, Fellows at the Breakthrough Institute. [http://www.thebreakthrough.org/fellows.shtml]

[You can read the longer version of this debunking here and here, if you're a masochist. Yes, the final paragraph was sure to be cut, but they always want to cut something, so I figure why not make it easy for them. Then I get this unexpected response]

Subject: FW: Romm correspondence

Dear Dr Romm

Thank you very much for your submission to Correspondence, and my apologies for the delay in getting back to you.

We would be happy in principle to publish your differing view, but as Pielke et al. already acknowledge in their Commentary much of what you complain about, we feel that a more distinct point is needed for publication in Correspondence. For example, the authors acknowledge that the IPCC do indeed state that the scenarios include these assumptions, their point being that the assumption isn’t sufficiently highlighted in the summary and wider public awareness.

[What? How is it possible that Nature believes the authors have acknowledged that their two primary conclusions are wrong? True, the Nature piece says, "Built-in emissions reductions were discussed briefly in AR4 by Working Group III (ref. 4), but are not reflected in its Summary for Policymakers or elsewhere." I would urge anybody to actually read the Working Group III summary (here) to see just how misleading a statement that is. The Summary says, for instance,

The range of stabilization levels assessed can be achieved by deployment of a portfolio of technologies that are currently available and those that are expected to be commercialised in coming decades. This assumes that appropriate and effective incentives are in place for development, acquisition, deployment and diffusion of technologies and for addressing related barriers.

So again, the IPCC does not assume magical "built-in" reductions or spontaneous technological gains, but rather explains that a variety of strategies and policies are needed to bring about reductions and gains. The summary has three pages that detail these strategies and policies. As I had suspected from the beginning, Nature didn't really understand what the Pielke et al. article was actually saying.]

We hope that you will be prepared to redraft your letter in defence of the IPCC accordingly. If so, we would need your revised letter by Friday morning (London time) this week (April 25th).

Regarding the last paragraph in your letter, we suggest that you detach this from your letter and enter it as an online comment on the News item concerned. To do this, please see www.nature.com/news and follow the links to the publication: you will find a window at the bottom of the article into which you can add your comment.
Thank you very much for your help.

[I was very puzzled. If a debunking (albeit a brief one because of the word limit) of the two central conclusions of the Nature piece were not acceptable, what could I possibly write? Frankly, I figured at this point they would reject anything I sent. So I hastily wrote back:]

Subject: I am a bit confused

My letter explains why the Pielke et al article is incorrect. If what I say is true, and I certainly believe it is, then their analysis and conclusions are completely wrong. I guess I need you to be more specific as to what you think in my letter is already in their piece.

Their core argument is that the IPCC assumes a bunch of changes are going to occur spontaneously and or automatically — and that simply isn’t true.

I am happy to redraft the letter, but I guess I need a bit more clarity on which specific parts of it you think are not germane.

Joseph Romm

[Then, because I thought that was a tad strong and time was short to meet their deadline, I sent]

Subject: Addendum

I do want to submit a letter. I’d just like a little more specificity about what needs to be cut or changed.

Joseph Romm

[And then I got this reply]

Dear Dr Romm

Thank you for your prompt replies. I have attached an edited version of your letter that would in principle be acceptable for publication as a useful clarification of assertions made by Pielke et al. while spiritedly defending the IPCC.

You will see that the letter has been shortened by removing quotes, in accordance with Nature style.

[Actually, I didn't see it in the letter policy any statement that I couldn't quote the IPCC in defense of an attack on the IPCC. Well, that certainly makes this excercise largely pointless.]

Please could you let me know *by return* whether this letter is acceptable to you? If so, and if you could also let me have any minor corrections, we will send you a note of formal acceptance later today.

Thank you for your help.
With best wishes

[And here is Nature's revision.]

In the Commentary ‘Dangerous assumptions’ (Nature 452, 531-532; 2008), Pielke et al. suggest that the IPCC underestimates the challenge of global warming. I find their analysis misleading.

They criticize the IPCC for implicitly assuming that the challenge of reducing future emissions will mostly be met without climate policies. But the IPCC’s Special Report on Emission Scenarios makes clear that, although the scenarios don’t technically have climate policies, they can and do have energy-efficiency and decarbonization policies, which amount to the same thing (see IPCC reference emission scenario B1, which includes aggressive policies to help limit total global warming to about 2 °C). So advances towards reducing emissions are indeed policy-driven.

The authors also caution the IPCC against assuming that spontaneous advances in technological innovation will be instrumental in cutting future emissions. They claim that the IPCC is actually diverting attention away from policies that could stimulate technological innovation, pointing out that enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide to acceptable concentrations. This claim is unjustifiable: in fact, the IPCC report makes clear that we have the necessary technologies, or soon will, and focuses on creating the conditions for rapid technological innovation and deployment.

[Lame! Still what can I do at this point, withdraw it entirely? OK, that's what I should have done in retrospect once they neutered it and set up rules that would never allow me to strengthen it. But I never had a letter published in Nature, so I swallowed my pride and wrote]

Subject: RE: Romm correspondence

One change, I would prefer that in the final line you delete “innovation and” so it would read “and focuses on creating the conditions for rapid technological deployment”

Otherwise, the revised letter is fine. Thank you

[So what happens after this lame, neutered article appears.?Pielke dances on it.]

Interestingly, with a letter in Nature Romm, who has been a strong critic of our paper on his blog, had a perfect opportunity to explain what might have been incorrect in our technical analysis, and did not. We can assume that he was unable to find any flaws and thus chose to focus on the implications of the analysis, which he does not enagage, choosing simply to restate a position that he held before our paper came out.

[Anyway, you read the exchange that followed on the comments section of Pielke's blog if you have too much time on your hands would like to increase your chances of being committed to a mental institution. I was rather surprised that economist Richard Tol decided to defend Pielke, but you learn something new about people every day. Anyway, as can be seen, even Tol doesn't seem to understand what Pielke was saying in the Nature piece.]

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14 Responses to The End of Nature … at least for me

  1. Arne Marco says:

    Interesting to see how Nature is manipulating … and I thought it was serious about science. Why are they so in favour of Pielke’s view? What is the connection here?

  2. David B. Benson says:

    Arne Marco — I fear that Roger Pielke Jr. is viewed as Establishment and Dr. Joesph Romm is viewed as Disestablishment and the Editor’s Antidisestablishmentarianism has come to the fore. :-)

  3. Roger Pielke, Jr. says:

    Joe-

    Thanks for posting this exchange. Nature was correct to ask you to correct your error of interpretation. I explain what you have mixed up in this post:

    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/archives/climate_change/001443ipcc_scenarios_and_s.html

  4. Joe says:

    Roger — No mix up, but I’ll spare my readers of my response. The three remaining people who might be interested in this (and that doesn’t include me) can go to Pielke’s blog to see my response.

  5. Jill says:

    Thank you for writing this. It is a good reminder for us to be alert to the manipulation and editing on all fronts. I am surprised at the dialogue with Nature and will read letters in all magazines with more healthy skepticism now. I guess I was one of the three who went on to see the dialogue between you and Roger on his blog, to see the way it all unfolded. I am most concerned that good scientific debate is stifled by our government (that’s being kind), and now by supposedly scientific publications.

  6. Richard Tol says:

    Joe,

    Your IPCC quote “There is high agreement and much evidence that all stabilisation levels assessed can be achieved by deployment of a portfolio of technologies that are either currently available or expected to be commercialised in coming decades, assuming appropriate and effective incentives are in place for their development, acquisition, deployment and diffusion and addressing related barriers.” is about STABILIZATION scenarios, while PGW are on about BASELINE scenarios.

    Richard

  7. Actually, Joe, “Dangerous Assumptions” is quite dangerous and I much appreciate the work you have been doing in exposing its sophistry. I believe “Nature’s” uncritical acceptance of the piece has to do with the article’s positioning as a form of populism for scientists: most scientists will support appeals for more research dollars, so the article was not vetted in a rigorous way. So please don’t tire of hammering away at this. I’m trying to write a piece that gets at one of the main points of your disagreement which I believe goes beyond a simple clash of personalities or the idiosyncrasies of your or Pielke’s positions.

  8. Joe says:

    Michael — Thank you for your comment.
    Be sure to read the back and forth on Pielke’s blog if you are writing on this.

  9. Joe says:

    Richard Tol:

    Your comment is not correct. The Nature article is on all 35 SRES scenarios, many of which are stabilization scenarios, such as B1.

    Again, my point is that the IPCC simply did not make any dangerous assumptions (at least not the ones Pielke et al claim). The only dangerous assumption would have been if they assumed stabilization could be achieved without aggressive policies, which is what the Nature article seems to be saying. But, as my excerpts from the report show, that is not the case.

    Joe

  10. Richard Tol says:

    B1 is a baseline scenario, not a stabilisation scenario.

  11. Joe says:

    And yet it stabilizes concentrations.

    If the IPCC calls that a baseline scenario, then I suppose it is one more example of why nobody I know has ever really used those scenarios — too many, too confusing.

  12. Richard Tol says:

    “why nobody I know has ever really used those scenarios” — so you never mingled with the SRES using crowd, yet you profess to understand these scenarios better than people who do use them at a daily basis, and compare notes with one another on a weekly basis?

  13. Joe says:

    Richard:

    I am stunned to learn you are so touchy about these scenarios. Pielke trashes the scenarios, calls them the source of “Dangerous Assumptions” and you lap it up and strongly defend him. I say a slightly negative thing, (they are “confusing”) and you mock me.

    What I was trying to say is “nobody I know has ever really used those scenarios for any serious analysis outside of the IPCC.”

    It is entirely possible to study and understand scenarios — and then conclude they are of little practical value.

    Given how you have been defending Pielke’s effort to disembowel the scenarios, I can’t understand the above comment.

  14. Patrick Roche says:

    Joe:

    Thank you for this post. I will have to read the articles in Science. But have read your and Mr. Pielke’s blog posts. Given the deplorable policies of the previous, G. W. Bush, administration I am wary of calls for more research (I favor research but I want to to see our emissions growing smaller NOW).

    I had the opportunity to speak with some of the people involved with General Motors pilot fuel cell project, and made the point of asking where the hydrogen is coming from. And the answer, of course, was not one that pleased me. There is some advantage on a local scale for places like New York City in terms of air polution, though in terms of cost per vehicle it seems that electric vehicles, hybrids, or internal combustion vehicles burning natural gas would solve the problem of local air polution without spending fedreral research money on a losing game (fuel cells).

    What is strange to me is why Mr. Pielke is addressing what he perceives as faults in the IPCC report. Indeed if he were correct in stating that it is going to be exceedingly difficult (more so than is already thought to be the case) to achieve the goal of stabalizing atmospheric CO2 levels (as well as other GHGs) I would think he would be calling for a redoubled effort to build more carbon free energy now. Am I correct in thinking that Mr. Pielke is not already doing so? To me the issue seems quite simple. You build all the carbon free energy (including everything: wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, hydroelectric) that you can, with a priority towards what is cheapest. While at the same time increasing efficiency, and scaling up CCS to see if it is workable. And most importantly we must close and replace all non CCS coalburning power plants. Which I believe means all of them. If we are going to cut U.S. emissions by 80% from present levels by 2050 we have to be doing so at a rate of 2% per year. If we were to do this by building nuclear power plants we would be talking aproximately 1,600 billion dollars to build the plants. Assuming the same power capacity as the existing 104 plants (20% U.S. electric capacity) and so building 416 plants at 4 billion a pop, and assuming demand remains stable. Demand for power will not get smaller or stabalize without some policy intervention. And thats just America. And I have not even thought about all the none electric power use. Or the rest of the world.

    Still it seems do-able.

    Who has done work on this subject?