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.
[Then, because I thought that was a tad strong and time was short to meet their deadline, I sent]
I do want to submit a letter. I’d just like a little more specificity about what needs to be cut or changed.
[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.]