The usually thoughtful journal Nature has just published a pointless and misleading if not outright dangerous commentary by delayer-1000 du jour, Roger Pielke, Jr., along with Christopher Green, who, as we’ve seen, is another aspiring delayer.
It will be no surprise to learn the central point of their essay, ironically titled “Dangerous Assumptions” (available here or here with a subscription) is “Enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels,” which is otherwise known as the technology trap or the standard “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah” delayer message developed by Frank Luntz and perfected by Bush/Lomborg/Gingrich.
The Pielke et al. analysis is certainly confusing , which is not surprising given the subject matter is arcane — what the appropriate baseline is for emissions scenarios in climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). What is surprising is that Nature would run a piece that comes to a conclusion that is not only completely at odds with its own analysis, it’s a complete reversal from the conclusion of standard delayer analyses just a few years ago:
Five years ago the American Enterprise Institute “proved” that the lowest IPCC emissions projection is too high, and they backed up their conclusion with actual 1990s data, whereas Pielke, Wigley, and Green have “proven” that the highest IPCC emissions projection is too low, and they backed up their conclusion with actual data from this decade.
Hard to believe, but true. And they say you can’t make this stuff up. Well, maybe you can’t. But the delayers can.
This piece is an embarrassment to Nature‘s reputation as a leader on climate issues, and it suggests that the editors (and reviewers) didn’t actually understand what they were reading.
In this post I will endeavor to explain what’s so incredibly pointless about the piece, flawed about the analysis, embarrassing and misguided about the conclusion — all the regular readers of this blog know why the technology trap is dangerous (it leads to delay, which is fatal to the planet’s livability). This can’t be done briefly. You should probably read my recent posts “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible?” and, possibly, “The adaptation trap 2: The not-so-honest-broker” first. Oh, and you should actually read the Pielke article. Come on, you know you are hot for this baseline analysis stuff. Trust me, you won’t believe what these guys try to get away with.
Actually, it is pretty easy to explain why the piece is pointless, much easier than, say, explaining why Nature published it. First, the authors never bother to explain what greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration target they believe is needed to avoid dangerous warming. We are many years past the time anybody needs to read another essay on why stabilizing atmospheric GHG concentrations is really, really, really hard — with no discussion whatsoever of 1) why failing to stabilize well below, say, 700 parts per million of CO2 ppm is really, really, really suicidal and 2) what is in fact an appropriate target and how do we get there. So what is the point of the piece? To convince people the situation is hopeless? [Nature actually runs a side piece on the commentary titled, "Are the IPCC scenarios 'unachievable'? (subs. req'd) -- and people call me an alarmist!]
Second, what’s “new” about the piece, at least in the authors’ minds, is that “the size of this technology challenge has been seriously underestimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), diverting attention from policies that could directly stimulate technological innovation.” But the first half of this sentence, to the extent it’s true, is well known by every energy and technology modeling expert I know. I myself blogged on this very point two days ago in the 450 ppm post. This is a tough friggin’ problem, and the IPCC is a body that inherently understates things. Alert the media! No, seriously, alert the media because they don’t seem to know the IPCC understates things.
Third, the authors never bother to explain why the clause I put in boldface is true, probably because they know it isn’t. The IPCC’s recent report, though an understatement of the climate problem certainly does NOT divert attention from the policies needed to avoid castrophe. This clause by itself is an embarrassment to Nature (and nature, for that matter)–the IPCC authors are literally begging for action, far more genuine action than Pielke et al advocate (see here and here)! Indeed, Pielke et al. seem to be begging for inaction, but I digress. If the clause were true and if Pielke et al. did explain why, the piece might have a useful point to make. But, as we’ve seen and we’ll see again, this is characteristic of Pielke’s work — he doesn’t define terms specifically enough to make policy-relevant conclusions. “Innovation” can potentially encompass aspects of both R&D and deployment (see below). Since this paper doesn’t define the word “innovation,” it is very hard to tell what precisely the authors’ point is (other than to lead us into the technology trap).
So what does the article say? The article focuses on the nearly three dozen (!) reference scenarios of future GHG emissions that the IPCC uses. These reference scenarios imagine very different worlds, with varying degrees of economic and population growth, energy technology, fossil fuel use, and sustainability efforts. [Note: This is probably one of the dumbest things the IPCC ever did -- it confuses the heck out of everybody, and I myself have to go to a reference book every time I see someone modeling a different scenario, like A2 or B1 or A1F1 -- yes, A1F1.]
Let me also repeat their definition of a key term:
Decarbonization of the global energy system depends mainly on reductions in energy intensity and carbon intensity. These result from technological changes that improve energy efficency and/or replace carbon-emitting systems with ones that have lower (or no) net emissions.
[Actually, most people I know separate "energy efficiency" (achieving the same energy services using less energy) from "decarbonization" (using fuels that generate less carbon per unit of energy provided), but that is a small point, and, in fact, Pielke et al. mostly treat them separately.]
The central analytical finding of the article: