The Nieman journalism ‘watchdog’ at Harvard reposted my initial critique of Matthew Nisbet’s Climate Shift report with the headline, “Killing a false narrative before it takes hold.”
What’s been interesting to me is to see two kinds of reactions. Many journalists have posted long discussions of the report, welcoming the debate without taking sides on all of the issues. And that may be a reasonable role for journalists.
But scientists and science bloggers have generally taken a different view about what I do think are the many “false narratives” in the piece. Here’s Tim Lambert (Deltoid) with his piece on “Ozone revisionism”
Matthew Nisbet’s contrarian “Climate Shift” report has been rightly criticised for claiming that green groups outspent opponents of climate action, that the era of false balance in the media was over and for his own falsely balanced coverage.
Ted Parson, who wrote the book on protecting the ozone layer corrects another false statement from Nisbet, who wrote:
According to climate scientist Mike Hulme and policy expert Roger Pielke Jr., climate change remains misdiagnosed as a conventional pollution problem akin to ozone depletion or acid rain– environmental threats that were limited in scope and therefore solvable. In these cases technological alternatives were already available and the economic benefits of action more certain–both conditions that allowed policymakers to move forward even in the absence of strong scientific consensus.
Yes, the claim that Montreal Protocol was easy because there was a substitute in hand is simply wrong, and the detailed evidence showing why and how it’s wrong is in my ozone book. (Protecting the ozone layer: science and Strategy, Oxford Press, 2003) This is one of the half-dozen major things that “everyone knows” about the stratospheric ozone case that are simply erroneous.
They kept shouting this until early 1988 — i.e., throughout the entire period of negotiating the Montral Protocol and the first few months afterwards — even while they ramped up their alternatives development programs at high intensity. There were no major breakthroughs in proving the viability of alternatives in any major CFC application through this period, nor were there by March 1988 when Du Pont reacted in panic to another high-profile scientific risk assessment (the Ozone Trends Panel) by announcing it would cease production of CFCs. The key breakthroughs – of which there were many, pertaining to particular chemicals in particular applications, no single blockbuster — came from early 1988 through the following couple of years, then kept on coming.
As soon as CFCs came under suspicion in 1974, any competent chemist could, and many quickly did, figure out that there are a couple of dozen similar chemicals that would be plausible alternatives less destructive of ozone — the 1, 2, and possibly 3-carbon HCFCs and HFCs. A few years of research allowed labs at Dupont, ICI, Allied, Atochem, and a couple of other CFC producers to verify that there were possible synthesis routes for these, and to do preliminary investigation of the thermodynamic and other properties that would determine their suitability for applications formerly served by CFCs (e.g., to identify the vapor-pressure curves for those that were not already established). Du Pont issued a report in 1979 that said, more or less, that “these are possible in principle, but there are serious problems and obstacles with every one of them, they would cost twice as much as CFCs or more, and developing any of them as a serious CFC alternative would require ten years of research.” Most relevant audiences heard this message, as DP intended, as equivalent to “this would be really hard and uncertain of success”. The brief threat of comprehensive CFC regulation (which reared its head for a few months near the end of the Carter administration) receded in 1979-1980, and Du Pont and all the others stopped their alternatives research programs within a year.
The threat of comprehensive regulation came back in 1986. DuPont, asked to present what it knew about alternatives at an EPA workshop in mid-1986, repeated exactly the same message as they said in 1979 — after all, they had done no more research in the interim. But this time, due to some skilful spinning by environmental advocates and EPA officials, most people heard the message as “with several years of further development effort and a higher price, we could probably make some of these work.” This was not a big part in the forces that contributed to enabling serious control negotiations to proceed, but it did help a little. Du Pont and the other major US CFC producers and users also, through their industry association, cautiously endorsed mild international controls in an August 1986 announcement – something resembling a freeze at current emissions levels – but this was ALL about responding to scientific evidence for the risk, not a bit about availability of alternatives.
So the negotiations took off, with the US delegation advocating elimination of CFCs, and within 18 months we got the first Montreal Protocol with its 50% CFC cuts. Throughout this period, DP and the other US firms that had cautiously said “maybe a freeze would be OK” screamed bloody murder that they had never said anything about elimination or even 50% cuts, and that alternatives were not proven, let alone fully developed for specific applications. The industry perception through this period was very much that they were being punished for their good deed of accepting the need for some limited degree of regulatory control.
Key point: The crucial technological advances that demonstrated the viability of alternatives all came after, not before, the political decision to impose 50% CFC cuts — and the effort to generate these advances was motivated by the imminent threat of these regulatory restrictions — not the reverse. This is widely misunderstood and misrepresented — not just by those who are careless with the truth, but also by many who have read or heard the contrary claim and remember it because it just makes sense given people’s priors about regulation and corporate strategy. (For what it’s worth, the original in-print claim of the false alternative came from a 1993 paper in the journal International Environmental Affairs, in which a couple of researchers investigated the factors leading to the Montreal Protocol by interviewing executives at the British CFC producer ICI, and uncritically repeated what their sources told them — that DuPont had a secret breakthrough, so the US delegation pushed the Protocol through to use international regulation to advantage DuPont relative to its European competitors.)
It is also worth noting that the technological alternatives to get us very far along the path of cutting greenhouse gas emissions deeply either exist today or, in a few cases, are near the end of the commercialization pipeline — and rapid deployment is what is needed to bring their costs down (see “The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm” and “Must read IEA report, Part 1: Act now with clean energy or face 6°C warming. Cost is NOT high“).
I generally agree with the IPCC’s detailed review of the technical literature, which concluded in 2007 that “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.” The technologies they say can beat 450 ppm are here.
Technology Review, one of the nation’s leading technology magazines, also argued in a 2006 cover story, “It’s Not Too Late,” that “Catastrophic climate change is not inevitable. We possess the technologies that could forestall global warming.”
I also agree with McKinsey Global Institute’s 2008 Research in Review: Stabilizing at 450 ppm has a net cost near zero. For a longer discussion on cost, see “Introduction to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost.”
Delay, however, is very risky and expensive. In releasing its 2009 Energy Outloook, the executive director of the International Energy Agency said last year, “The message is simple and stark: if the world continues on the basis of today’s energy and climate policies, the consequences of climate change will be severe.” They explain, “we need to act urgently and now. Every year of delay adds an extra USD 500 billion to the investment needed between 2010 and 2030 in the energy sector”.
The analogy of the ozone layer and the Montreal Protocol to global warming and the UNFCCC process from Kyoto to Copenhagen is far from perfect — greenhouse gases are more integral to modern life than CFCs ever were. But one thing is very similar — had we failed to act quickly on the scientific warnings, we would have faced devastating and potentially irreversible loss of the ozone layer. If we fail to act quickly on the scientific warnings of climate change — especially after after some three decades of dawdling — then we face devastating and potentially irreversible loss of a livable climate.