The crucial climate strategy is aggressive deployment of every last bit of available low-carbon technology starting ASAP. Anyone who isn’t in favor of that strategy understands neither climate science nor the current state of clean energy. Sadly, that covers most of the traditional media and so-called intelligentsia.
Even the traditionally staid and conservative the International Energy Agency explained two years ago that “The world will have to spend an extra $500 billion to cut carbon emissions for each year it delays implementing a major assault on global warming.”
Princeton Professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala became leading champions of the “deploy now” strategy with their 2004 in Science paper, “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies.”
A wedge is a strategy and/or technology that, over a period of a five decades, ultimately reduces projected global carbon emissions by one billion metric tons per year (see Princeton website here). “The 2004 wedges paper assumed that the objective of global mitigation would require a flat emissions rate for 50 years, followed by a falling rate. Making the same heroic assumption today would result in substantial additional emissions.”
The abstract of the Science paper read:
Humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century. A portfolio of technologies now exists to meet the world’s energy needs over the next 50 years and limit atmospheric CO2 to a trajectory that avoids a doubling of the preindustrial concentration. Every element in this portfolio has passed beyond the laboratory bench and demonstration project; many are already implemented somewhere at full industrial scale. Although no element is a credible candidate for doing the entire job (or even half the job) by itself, the portfolio as a whole is large enough that not every element has to be used.
Socolow’s views were misreported back in May, and I interviewed him at length for a post (which he reviewed): “Breaking: Socolow reaffirms 2004 ‘wedges’ paper, urges aggressive low-carbon deployment ASAP.”
He made clear he stands behind every word of that abstract — and the carefully-worded title. Indeed, if Socolow were king, he told me, he’d start deploying some 8 wedges immediately.
Socolow has updated that now to deploy 9 wedges starting immediately — in a paper titled “Wedges Reaffirmed,” published this week by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Climate Central. You can find a number of interesting responses to the new paper at those links.
I have spent a lot of time talking to Socolow over the years. We agree on the vast majority of things, but take a slightly different view of the science, which I’ll discuss below.
First, though, the wedges look simple, but they aren’t, and if you don’t spend time reading the supplementary material and talking to Socolow, you’ll probably get it wrong. Folks like Roger Pielke, Jr., who has teamed with the hard-core anti-science crowd to spread disinformation, have misanalyzed them completely (see here).
I have written a great deal about the wedges over the years because, despite their analytical complexities, they simplify the process of describing what needs to be done.
If there is any doubt as to what Socolow believes today, he wanted me to remind people he is a signatory to the recent National Academy of Science report that calls on nation to “substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions” starting ASAP.
Socolow told me we “need a rising CO2 price” that gets to a serious level in 10 years. What is serious? “$50 to $100 a ton of CO2.”
I asked Socolow point blank if he still believed “existing technologies could affordably limit warming” — and he said yes. Of course he supports more on R&D, as he always did (see below). Everybody supports more R&D (well, other than most top conservatives politicians), and some of us have spent decades pushing for it.
The issue is whether, in addition to R&D, you understand that limiting global warming requires aggressive deployment of every last bit of low-carbon technology that you have today starting now — and that this is really more important than the R&D since if you don’t do it, all the R&D in the world can’t help you. Also, deployment is probably as important if not more so for lowering the cost of low-carbon technology than basic research. Learning by doing is faster than learning in the lab — and many “breakthrough” aspects of cost-reduction, such as innovative financing, only come after mass deployment, after a technology has reached a certain level of maturity in the marketplace. More on that in a future post.
It’s important to remember what Socolow and Pacala wrote in 2004:
The debate in the current literature about stabilizing atmospheric CO2 at less than a doubling of the preindustrial concentration has led to needless confusion about current options for mitigation. On one side, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has claimed that “technologies that exist in operation or pilot stage today” are sufficient to follow a less-than-doubling trajectory “over the next hundred years or more” [(1), p. 8]. On the other side, a recent review in Science asserts that the IPCC claim demonstrates “misperceptions of technological readiness” and calls for “revolutionary changes” in mitigation technology, such as fusion, space-based solar electricity, and artificial photosynthesis (2). We agree that fundamental research is vital to develop the revolutionary mitigation strategies needed in the second half of this century and beyond. But it is important not to become beguiled by the possibility of revolutionary technology. Humanity can solve the carbon and climate problem in the first half of this century simply by scaling up what we already know how to do.
Socolow told me the only word he would delete in the paper is “simply.” As he writes in his new paper:
The wedge concept fosters parallel discussion of alternatives and encourages the design of a portfolio of responses. Each wedge is an immense activity. In talks about this work, I like to say that we decomposed a heroic challenge into a limited set of monumental tasks.
In short, in addition to a hopeful message that humanity is not helpless, the paper contains the sobering message that the job ahead is daunting.
No argument here. I try to avoid using the word “easy” to describe what needs to be done. I prefer the word “straightforward.” It isn’t easy to do this, but it is straightforward.
The original paper stated:
What Do We Mean by “Solving the Carbon and Climate Problem for the Next Half-Century”?
Proposals to limit atmospheric CO2 to a concentration that would prevent most damaging climate change have focused on a goal of 500 ± 50 parts per million (ppm), or less than double the preindustrial concentration of 280 ppm (3-7)….
In confronting the problem of greenhouse warming, the choice today is between action and delay. Here, we presented a part of the case for action by identifying a set of options that have the capacity to provide the seven stabilization wedges and solve the climate problem for the next half-century. None of the options is a pipe dream or an unproven idea…. Every one of these options is already implemented at an industrial scale and could be scaled up further over 50 years to provide at least one wedge.
So Socolow and Pacala were shooting at 500 ± 50 ppm CO2 with his 7 wedges. Now he would be over-delighted with 9 wedges and staying below 550 ppm.
His priority back in 2004 — and still today — is avoiding the catastrophic warming we face on our business-as-usual emissions path of 5°C to 6°C (9 to 11 °F). That’s why he says we need to start aggressive technology deployment now, along with a CO2 price that rises within a decade to serious levels of “$50 to $100 a ton of CO2.”
He strongly supports R&D. That’s why the article says, “We agree that fundamental research is vital to develop the revolutionary mitigation strategies needed in the second half of this century and beyond.” But he scoffs at the notion that we should delay deployment now waiting for those revolutions — and, as noted, called those who see those hoped-for revolutions as a replacement for action now as members of a “cargo cult” [who, as Wikipedia notes, believe in "obtaining the material wealth (the 'cargo') of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices"].
Indeed, he called this view “doubly deceptive.” It requires believing the “pie in the sky” stuff will be available sometime soon and that if it becomes available, “we can take the other stuff off the table.” He said that was “quadratically unlikely.”
One key point Socolow makes that the breakthrough bunch don’t understand is that “very few people working on zero-carbon solutions, like fusion or air capture, expect it to be cheap.” Again, let’s all hope there are breakthroughs and let’s all push to invest more money in them, but we can’t take our eyes off the prize of deployment, deployment, deployment.
Finally, let me touch on the one area where we disagree a bit. Socolow thinks that a 3°C target is the only realistic one that we can achieve now. That may well be true politically. I have tried to make as clear as possible that what is required to stabilize at 2°C is not currently politically possible (though that is also true of the 3°C target). Remember, 1 wedge of nuclear power would require adding globally, an average of 14 new plants each year, while building another 7 plants a year to replace those that will be retired, sustained for five decades. The scale is staggering for any wedge — one million large (2 MW peak) wind turbines. Again, I know of nobody who said that deploying even seven wedges would be easy.
Socolow believes we can afford to pursue the 3°C target until we know with far greater confidence that it is untenable. I don’t really buy that. He is it certainly aware of the risks of the carbon-cycle feedbacks, but his knowledge about the degree of difficulty of achieving even 9 wedges in the coming decades leads him to believe that pressing for substantially more may be counterproductive. He acknowledges that is primarily a political judgment, but notes that recent events at the national and international level would seem to support his view.
If you want a 2°C target, then the world needs to do some combination of the dozen or so wedges laid out here: “The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm.” Not bloody likely, for sure, but a report by the International Energy Agency came to almost exactly the same conclusion as I did, and has relatively similar wedges, so I view that as a vindication of the overall analysis. Note: My wedges are accelerated to four decades, rather than Socolow’s five. Again, time is of the essence.
Finally, in practice, my differences with Socolow are, as we both agreed, closer to counting angels dancing on the head of a pin — especially compared to our mega-differences with the do-little crowd. I would gladly have ‘settled’ for pursuing 7 wedges starting in 2005 as Socolow and Pacala proposed then, but which the deniers and the breakthrough bunch opposed fiercely. And while I’d love to start 12 accelerated wedges now, I would again be utterly overjoyed if the world started 9 regular wedges now, since it gives the world a fighting chance, something that the cargo cult strategy does not.
Similarly, while Socolow would start with 9 wedges now, he views the interaction between science and deployment policy as “iterative.” If the scientific case for more rapid deployment becomes significantly stronger, he’d quickly start adding wedges. My guess is that he would be adding wedges pretty darn soon — certainly by the time the tundra actually starts emitting significant amounts of methane (see “NSIDC bombshell: Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100“). Again, if we start with 9 wedges now, then we aren’t hopelessly lost in the 2020s as we are likely to be if we keep doing nothing.
Deployment, deployment, R&D, deployment, deployment.
Much of Socolow’s new paper is taken up with a discussion of why he thinks the nation and the world have failed to act, including a discussion of messaging. Long-time Climate Progress readers will quickly realize that I don’t agree with much of his analysis. Rather than repeating my views on the subject, I’ll repost the comments by someone in the front-lines of the fight to pass a climate bill, one of the people in this field I respect the most:
David Hawkins, Director of Climate Programs, Natural Resources Defense Council:
Rob Socolow and his colleague Steve Pacala did the world a great service with their 2004 paper setting forth the “wedges” framework for understanding how to tackle the problem of greenhouse gas emission reduction. In his above essay, Rob muses about the reasons for the failure of action (at least action by the Congress of the United States), and he offers some suggestions as to how advocates for forceful action might change the dynamic by talking about the need for action in different ways.
Rob is a friend and a mentor, but I disagree on several counts with his arguments.
First, Rob attributes the lack of action (presumably the failure of Congress to pass a federal cap-and-trade bill) to “public resistance.” I disagree. Based on my observation of the process, the failure of the Senate to take up the House-passed climate bill (or some variant of it) was not due to “public resistance,” but rather due to a very aggressive and organized opposition led by the Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute (API), and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). The senators influenced by this opposition were primarily Democrats (the Republicans having decided well in advance of the interest group opposition campaign that they would oppose legislation as a matter of political strategy). The Chamber/API/NAM opposition convinced wavering Democrats that anyone who voted for a climate bill would be attacked aggressively for that vote in the 2010 campaign and elections. Those senators were unconvinced that supporters of the legislation would be able to mount a sufficient counter campaign to offset these attacks. So I regard the failure of climate legislation as due more to a lack of strong calls for action by the public rather than public resistance to action. This is an important distinction, because it has implications for what messaging, if any, can turn this situation around. I am skeptical that there is any way for supporters of action to talk about climate protection so as to generate a general public demand for action that is intense enough to cause swing politicians to vote for legislation if it is as aggressively opposed as were the cap bills in the last Congress. Removal of this impediment to action may lie not in efforts to get the public to demand action, but in efforts to ease the opposition of those who are fighting action.
There is also the efficacy of Rob’s call for more nuanced descriptions of the climate problem. Rob’s essay appears to suggest that it is uncertain members of the public who are the target audience, and his three message suggestions appear to be aimed at persuading that audience that supporters of climate protection action are not unreasonable zealots. To do this he suggests we should 1) not suggest that protecting the climate involves only good news; 2) acknowledge that the range of consequences from increased greenhouse gas concentrations is large and uncertain; and 3) that there are dangers presented by cutting emissions too fast.
While I share his discomfort with the message that fighting climate change means nothing but good news for everybody, I don’t see any evidence that a more nuanced message would do anything to increase the demand for action from the public or reduce the opposition from groups like the Chamber, API, and NAM. We should acknowledge that protecting the climate is hard work, but we should not do so with the expectation that this will produce a consensus for action.
On the issue of describing the uncertain range of outcomes, I think that most advocates who are influential already do acknowledge this fact. We do not argue that science proves a particular set of disastrous impacts are certain to occur at some particular level of greenhouse gases. Rather we argue that the higher the concentration, the greater the risks are of significant damages, and that we cannot rule out that many of these impacts could be truly catastrophic. That risk profile warrants action now.
The most puzzling aspect of Rob’s essay for me is his treatment of the issue of how fast to reduce emissions. He appears to argue that resistance to action will diminish if supporters acknowledge that some climate protection actions could have negative consequences. But the three examples he mentions –too rapid an expansion of nuclear power; wholesale conversion of lands to bio-energy production; and geoengineering to block sunlight – all have been the subject of substantial warnings and even opposition by strong advocates of climate protection. Ironically, an aggressive embrace of nuclear power has been argued by politicians like senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham as essential to get support for action from conservative politicians.
On this last question of how fast to cut emissions, Rob goes beyond advice about communication and presents conclusions about what level of emission reduction is advisable. He says the lowest global emission target for 2050 that he is comfortable endorsing is a level equal to today’s emissions. And he concludes, “[g]iven present knowledge, that goal is probably ambitious enough; pursuing tougher goals could lead us to opt for cures that are worse than the disease.”
This is a very provocative statement, and I would expect someone who is careful with analysis as Rob is to provide some support or citation for the proposition that setting a tighter target for 2050 will create significantly higher risks that unwise mitigation approaches will be pursued. But he provides no such support. Indeed, I believe that in connecting ambitious targets with unwise implementation actions, Rob is linking two aspects that need not and should not be linked. The proper response to the risk of taking stupid actions in the pursuit of appropriate goals is not to weaken the goals to inappropriate levels; it is to make the case that certain actions are stupid and should not be in the portfolio of responses unless modified to avoid the risks that they present.
The recent scientific literature makes clear that inaction eliminates much of the uncertainty about our future (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).
The single biggest failure of messaging by climate scientists (until very recently) has been the failure to explain to the public, opinion makers, and the media that business-as-usual warming results in simultaneous, ever-worsening impacts that, individually, are each beyond catastrophic, but combined are unimaginablly horrific .
- Lonnie Thompson on why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization”