Energy policy is NOT “perhaps largely irrelevant” to reducing climate impacts, and adaptation is NOT a better or cheaper strategy than mitigation

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"Energy policy is NOT “perhaps largely irrelevant” to reducing climate impacts, and adaptation is NOT a better or cheaper strategy than mitigation"

Why do I keep criticizing Roger Pielke when he keeps saying we agree? Because we don’t agree. This is not a semantic difference or a small difference among people who share core beliefs. It is a fundamental disagreement that goes to the heart of our exceedingly different views of how serious the threat is and about how best to address it.

First, in March 13, 2002 testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works committee (see here), Pielke talked about his work on adaptation:

An implication of this work is that policy related to societal impacts of climate has important and under-appreciated dimensions that are independent of energy policy. It would be a misinterpretation of this work to imply that it supports either business-as-usual energy policies, or is contrary to climate mitigation. It does suggest that if a policy goal is to reduce the future impacts of climate on society, then energy policies are insufficient, and perhaps largely irrelevant, to achieving that goal. Of course, this does not preclude other sensible reasons for energy policy action related to climate (such as ecological impacts) and energy policy action independent of climate change (such as national security, air pollution reduction and energy efficiency). It does suggest that reduction of human impacts related to weather and climate are not among those reasons, and arguments and advocacy to the contrary are not in concert with research in this area.

His research says that reducing future human impacts related to weather and climate are not among the reasons for energy policy action, and that such policies are perhaps largely irrelevant to reducing those impacts — though, in fairness, he isn’t opposed to a different energy policy, just not one whose primary justification is reducing climate impacts on human.

I simply could not disagree more, as I have explained at length here where I discuss “LIVING/SUFFERING IN A 1000 PPM WORLD.” I believe the reverse is true — if we don’t have an aggressive energy policy then adaptation policies will be grossly insufficient to prevent billions of people from suffering untold — but preventable — misery. Yes, Pielke is now on record saying he would like to see 450 ppm. I believe such a sentiment is utterly odds with his testimony above. Achieving 450 ppm would take an enormous amount of effort — indeed, avoiding 800 ppm would takes a lot of effort, too — and it is certainly only possible if the public and policymakers realize that failing to do so will have catastrophic impacts that render the word adaptation meaningless.

Anyone who argues we shouldn’t embrace energy policy primarily to reduce or avoid climate impacts — anyone who argues that energy policy is perhaps largely irrelevant to reducing those impacts — is, in my mind, undercutting the primary reason for going to all the trouble of adopting the necessary policies.

Congressional testimony is a statement of your beliefs that will be entered into a permanent record and designed to influence national policy at the highest level. One’s words are typically chosen with great care to avoid misunderstanding.

I should add that lots of people share Pielke’s view and lots of people share my view. You need to decide which view you hold — but I don’t think you can hold both views. I would add that most of the people who publically assert Pielke’s view — people like Bj¸rn Lomborg and Michael Crichton and many if not most conservative policy analysts and policy makers — use it to undercut arguments for taking strong action today. That does not, of course, inherently discredit that view, but … well … maybe it does.

Okay, but that was six years ago. Maybe he has changed his views given the myriad studies and scientific evidence showing that climate impacts will be more dangerous and come much faster than most scientists feared back then. Well, just last month, the L.A. Times explained Pielke’s views this way (see here — the first line is the article’s subhead and the term “non-skeptic heretic” is one Pielke uses to describe himself):

The ‘non-skeptic heretic club’ says it would be easier and cheaper to adapt than fight climate change….

Pielke’s analysis, published last month in the journal Natural Hazards Review, is part of a controversial movement that argues global warming over the rest of this century will play a much smaller role in unleashing planetary havoc than most scientists think.

His research has led him to believe that it is cheaper and more effective to adapt to global warming than to fight it.

Instead of spending trillions of dollars to stabilize carbon dioxide levels across the planet — an enormously complex and expensive proposition — the world could work on reducing hunger, storm damage and disease now, thereby neutralizing some of the most feared future problems of global warming.

Is this in fact accurate reporting on what Pielke believes? Well, last night, after I had written a post (here) quoting the italicized line, Pielke angrily wrote in the comments section (here):

This statement in this post is a completely misleading fabrication on your part: “MSM journalists who talk to me for a few minutes don’t get my position completely backwards over and over again.” Please cite just one example of a MSM journalist who has gotten my position on anything “completely backwards over and over again”.

I take that to mean that Pielke is asserting that the L.A. Times report got his views completely right over and over again — and that all four paragraphs above are accurate, particularly the repeated point. If that is what Pielke belives, I withdraw the offensive line and apologize for it. I had thought he said he was misquoted (see here).

That said, if in fact Pielke is asserting this is an accurate representation of his beliefs and his work:

The ‘non-skeptic heretic club’ says it would be easier and cheaper to adapt than fight climate change….

… global warming over the rest of this century will play a much smaller role in unleashing planetary havoc than most scientists think.

His research has led him to believe that it is cheaper and more effective to adapt to global warming than to fight it.

Then he and I very strongly disagree.

[If those lines are not accurate representations, then my original post was correct and his attack was wrong.]

So I think Pielke is spreading views that are very wrong and that, if listened to by policymakers, will undercut efforts to avoid catastrophic climate change.

I am trying hard here to avoid wasting time focusing on small issues — we all say things poorly or that we wish we could retract — Just ask Obama or Clinton. I’m trying to focus on core disagreements that have substantial policy implications. As readers know, I happen to think this issue of mitigation versus adaptation is one of the core climate issues of our time.

I am also trying hard to not get into the name-calling business in this exchange, not call him a delayer or anything like that (as I had promised back on April 8 here) no matter what comes my way.

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18 Responses to Energy policy is NOT “perhaps largely irrelevant” to reducing climate impacts, and adaptation is NOT a better or cheaper strategy than mitigation

  1. Roger Pielke, Jr. says:

    So Joe, you admit that our policy preferences are similar, but that our reasons for them are different:

    “he isn’t opposed to a different energy policy, just not one whose primary justification is reducing climate impacts on human”

    So what if we come to the same conclusions for different reasons? Politics is all about building coalitions of people who think differently but choose to act alike. It is not about getting everyone to think the exact same.

    Thanks for highlighting my 2002 Congressional testimony. Your readers might also be interested in my views offered in testimony in 2006 as well:

    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/resource-2466-2006.09.pdf

    Yes I think my views are defensible, and yes I appreciate that other people think differently about these issues. And I think that is OK.

  2. Joe says:

    I didn’t say our policy preferences were similar, just that you aren’t opposed to a different energy policy. I’ve never seen you spell out how you would get to 450 ppm.

    I can’t see why one would go to the trouble of stabilizing at 450 ppm if not to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. I wouldn’t cut U.S. emissions 80% in four decades for any other reason. I can’t imagine most people or policymakers would otherwise.

    But I’m glad we’ve clarified our differences.

  3. john says:

    The bottom line on Pielke, BI, Lomborg et. al. is that their positions keep showing up as justification for doing little or nothing or for relying on market forces to spontaneously deliver fundamental changes in the market. Indeed, much of what they advocate is virtually indistinguishable from Bush’s nothing burger speech last week on climate.

    Until they can counter serious work like Sterns (who upped the ante on the cost of a changing climate last week) with something more than mere assertions, they should not be taken seriously. Until they address how we can get to 450ppm and what we can do while we’re waiting for their miracle technologies, they should not be taken seriously. Until they peddle something other than the siren song of “learn to love it,” or cross your fingers and spend, they should not be taken seriously.

    BI, Pielke and Lomborg seem to have tapped into a lucrative field — climate iconoclasts who have a knack for appearing to be rational. The press positively craves such folk. So do many politicians and ordinary citizens. No one wants to believe that they can’t simply go on as they have. People who play to this tendency are dangerous in the extreme, even if they are sincere in their beliefs.

  4. russ says:

    It seems to me that if this is true:

    ” So Joe, you admit that our policy preferences are similar, but that our reasons for them are different:

    “he isn’t opposed to a different energy policy, just not one whose primary justification is reducing climate impacts on human”

    So what if we come to the same conclusions for different reasons? Politics is all about building coalitions of people who think differently but choose to act alike. It is not about getting everyone to think the exact same.”

    then the main difference is that anyone who 1. claims to care only about “impacts on human” society, and 2. doesn’t want ANY change in energy policy, can legitimately cite Roger in defense of such do-nothingism.
    That’s certainly a big difference.

  5. Nylo says:

    “BI, Pielke and Lomborg seem to have tapped into a lucrative field — climate iconoclasts who have a knack for appearing to be rational. The press positively craves such folk. So do many politicians and ordinary citizens. No one wants to believe that they can’t simply go on as they have. People who play to this tendency are dangerous in the extreme, even if they are sincere in their beliefs”

    Oh my… Already in the “people dangerous in extreme” phase. I wonder how much we will wait to see the “shall be punished” phase. Oh wait… I think some people in the USA already suggested something similar against denialists, punishing those who downplay the IPCC reports. This is becoming so similar to a religious fundamentalism. Spread fear. Don’t let the others talk. Blame the infidels for any catastrophe. Punish the infidels.

    And all of this comes BEFORE any of the actually predicted terrible consecuences show even a little bit. The sea level rise, which exists, is really far from causing even the smallest of the problems, and even if it started to speed up, it would be nothing that can’t be dealt with, given the very long time scale of the process. Same goes with temperatures or the melting of ice. Yes, it is happening (10 years lapse), and no, it is not a problem, so far, and also there is no definitive proof that all of it is because of us. But fundamentalists want us to change all of our lifestyle, or else. And there is no glimpse of the else.

    You alarmists are not the owners of the destiny of mankind nor are your views any more valid than anyone else’s. It is one of the basic principles of democracy. You cannot stop someone for saying anything just because you think he is wrong, and no matter how sure you think you are that he is wrong. You can only try to convince more people of your views. If your point is strong enough, it will prevail. If it is not, and if you do worse than your opponent and people sides with him, then say hardluck, and find a good place for yourselves to face what, in your opinion, is to come.

    If something I am sure about is that, may the global warming be as terrible as predicted here, none of you would be among the most damnified, much in the same way that I am sure that I will survive any energy policies that could be implemented in the future because of AGW alarmism. At this level, and as far as we are concerned, we are only discussing what will be less unconfortable in the short-middle-long term. Your catastrophic views of the future mostly affects the third world. Considering that you think that one of our biggest problems is that the world is largely overpopulated, that should be more of a concern for us denialists than for you alarmists.

  6. Paul K says:

    This is still the silliest contretemps imaginable. Joe is so passionate about the unless we destroy the CO2 catastrophe to come. He accepts the Hansen “end of creation” forecast except where Hansen is “too conservative.” That he can’t see the path to alliance is a minor fault. It does make him a bit of a delayer, but aren’t we all.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    “Out of Gas”

    CO2 emission rates will go down, willy nilly, due to Peak Oil and Peak Coal.

  8. Paul,
    In calling this dispute silly, you are underestimating the power of inertia in human psychology. Anything that tells people, “Sit back and relax and let the technologists solve the problem” will feed into complacency and undermine readiness to do and pay more to solve the problem. Bush has his own flavor of this and the Breakthrough folk have their, greener flavor.

    To mitigate GHGs in a serious manner will require paying more money upfront either in investments, rates, energy prices and/or through tax revenues. This will require some sacrifice, though it is definitely affordable for people in the developed world and will eventually pay off in more and better jobs, investments, a cleaner environment. Efficiency investments already pay for themselves within a short time in many cases but still require getting up off the couch and working out the details.

    Daily routines may change which for some is a challenge and for others an opportunity.

    In any case, there is a big qualitative difference between Joe’s call to action (and my own position that we should pay more through targeted electric rates to scale up renewable generators in addition to a carbon price) and that of the people that he most often criticizes who are telling people that they justifiably should sit back and let the scientists do the work.

  9. Paul K says:

    Michael Hoexter,
    Inertia is more of a force than a power. There is no one in this discussion who says “Sit back and relax and let the technologists solve the problem”. Contending that some do is what I call inane.

    Yes, mitigating GHGs will require paying more money upfront either in investments, rates, energy prices and/or through tax revenues.

  10. Ken Levenson says:

    my suggestion would be to simply kick this argument down the road a bit:

    1. because arguing with Breakthrough reminds me of arguing with my conservative father – always redefining and shifting directions in mid-argument, an intellectual game and a supremely illogical one at that….a devilish carrousel. Ultimately not very productive.

    2. Put out your solution Joe! Let’s see the wedges – they have no wedges, no plan.

    3. I’d suggest in the spirit of equanimity to just put in the $30 billion for R&D or whatever the amount is that Breakthrough wants – into your solution. It is a trivial amount in the scheme of things and it isn’t “the answer” one way or the other.

    4. Let’s argue about the ground game. Breakthrough can yell about how a Hail Mary is the only way to win the game now – but it’s just the two minute warning right now. If I’m betting on the way to win I don’t just start throwing for the end zone. I want to see a strong ground game.

  11. Eli Rabett says:

    First of all, I advocate replacing adaptation and mitigation with amelioration.

    Amelioration infers that an effort is being made to correct or at least make more acceptable conditions that are difficult to endure.

    The word “amelioration” is compounded from the Latin “ad”,-”, to or toward + “”melior”, better = toward better = improvement.

    Using amelioration accepts that there will be major damage.

    Second, Pielke refuses to accept that there are huge procrastination penalties to be paid if his advice is followed. He and the “I want a pony for Christmas” BI are the current leading advocates of the lay back and enjoy it school of climate policy.

  12. Ken Levenson says:

    Joe,
    Why does Roger Pielke Jr. get so upset about you criticizing his father?
    Those BI guys are really unfathomable.

  13. Paul K,
    You seem to be splitting semantic hairs. The point is when faced with something new that requires change and effort, maybe even a little pain, people are inclined NOT to do it. Call it inertia, habit, whatever you like.

    The difference between Joe’s attitude and Pielke/BI’s attitude is like night and day…not an inane discussion. Joe sometimes picks on small details of their differences which I think distracts from his overall message.

    Go over to the Breakthrough Institute website and click around a bit….you get the distinct impression from these folks that there is not such a great deal of urgency and if there is any urgency at all, it is in the matter of how much money goes into scientific research. Ted Nordhaus, when he posts comments here starts to seem a little more…worried…but that is as far as it goes. It’s basically scientists and inventors that are going to do the heavy lifting, not policy makers or people in their daily lives making changes. Yes, they have an association with the Apollo Alliance which has some good ideas but BI seems to be focused on small subset of what the Apollo Alliance proposes.

    Joe on the other hand gives readers here a distinct sense of the urgent need for action on many levels, not just in the area of research. I don’t agree with every prescription he makes in terms of policy but he is basically right on most issues, in my book.

    The reason why this difference in tone and prescriptions for action makes such a difference is that given the choice, most people who don’t spend much time and effort in this area are going to go with inertia. If supposedly climate-savvy experts are telling them “wait for the good, cheap future technologies” most people will take that option.

  14. Paul K says:

    Michael Hoexter,
    While I don’t agree at all with Joe’s catastrophic 6C+ 21st Century warming projections, I do mostly agree with his solution to the problem which I prefer to approach as replacing fossil fuels. I had never heard of BI before it was brought up here and have no interest in carrying their water. I do agree with them that it is better to focus on bringing down the cost of alternatives rather than artificially increasing the cost of carbon. (The market is doing a pretty good job of carbon price raising on its own). There needs to be some mechanism by which the consumer can exert more influence in the process. As you say, “Joe sometimes picks on small details of their differences which I think distracts from his overall message”.

  15. Roger C says:

    Look at this from my perspective. If Pielke is thinking like I am then I can understand where energy policy could be largely irrelevant to reducing climate impacts.

    Many believe that all the observed climate impacts are primarily driven by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. I believe that there are real observed global warming impacts but I do not ascribe to the “primarily driven by man-made greenhouse gas emissions” reason. GHG concentrations are part of the problem but I suspect that climatic cycles could be part of the reason. However, I am convinced that man-made land use changes are at least as important as GHG concentrations as the driver of global warming impact observations.

    Because I don’t believe that GHG concentrations are the cause of all the global warming observations I cannot expect that energy policy is going to eliminate those impacts. Even if I do believe it then the cold facts of energy use indicate that trying to reduce specific impacts by the draconian measures needed to turn around global energy use fairly (e.g. US has to reduce much more than other countries) then the costs are so high that adaptation and mitigation solutions to specific impacts are more cost effective.

    Nonetheless people like me can believe that a long-term energy policy that reduces fossil-energy use, promotes energy conservation and energy efficiency and specifically encourages renewable energy sources is a good thing.

  16. Earl Killian says:

    Roger C, what part of physics don’t you agree with? And what “climatic cycles” might be responsible for what we observe (which is far outside of the pattern for the last 1,000,000 years)?

    The first calculation of warming from CO2 in the atmosphere was done in 1896 by Svante Arrhenius. Obviously this is long before computers, so while the calculations may have been tedious, they were based upon basic physics. There were unresolved issues with Arrhenius’ calculations (e.g. whether the absorption bands of CO2 and H2O overlapped, the fact that he ignored changes in cloud cover from increasing temperature, and how quickly the oceans would absorb CO2), but those issues were later resolved (the absorption bands have distinct components and the oceans take a long time to absorb CO2). In 1952 Kaplan did computer calculations that showed that in the upper atmosphere, adding more CO2 must change the balance of radiation significantly. In 1956 Plass extended the Kaplan’s result to the lower atmosphere. In 1955 Suess used carbon isotope data to indicate that fossil carbon is not immediately taken up by the ocean, and later with Revelle, Bolin, and Eriksson the ocean rates were clarified. At this point Keeling started his measurements of CO2, and we could begin to see exactly how quickly CO2 was increasing. Radiation balance suggests immediately that temperature should increase. In the 1960s then climate science started to have everything it needed to more accurately make calculations, and there was a flurry of activity and reports by the National Academy of Sciences and such groups. In the 1970s came still more accurate computer models. In the 1980s came the ice core data, showing the clear relationship of CO2 and temperature oscillating at approximately a 100,000 rate (CO2 went from about 180 ppm to 280 ppm), related to tiny variations in the Earth’s orbit called Milankovitch cycles. (With current CO2 levels at 383 ppm due to fossil combustion, and rising at 2 ppm per year, we’re far outside of the 1,000,000 year pattern.) Because the Milankovitch cycles are so small, there had to be an amplifying effect. This was later found to be CO2temperature feedback. Small changes in temperature increase CO2, which increases temperature, which increases CO2, and so on around the loop until the feedback dies out (which it does if the feedback coefficient is

  17. Roger C says:

    Earl,
    I did not say that the greenhouse effect of GHG was not a factor in global warming. However, I don’t believe it is the only factor and don’t even know if it is the predominant factor.

    The disconnect is between predictions and observations of particular weather events and the greenhouse effect. My experience with atmospheric models (by the way I am a meteorologist with over 30 years of experience) is that the fact that we have more variables than equations means that someone has to parameterize a whole lot of relationships that can affect the results. I am uncomfortable with the GCM results because they cannot resolve the factors that affect weather particularly well. For example could global warming cause more La Nina events than “normal” and what would that mean to climatic averages.

    Now consider a particular weather event such as the latest high temperature record at your local airport. Let’s say the new record high is 90 and the old record was 85. How much of the increase was caused by global warming? No question that it is in there but how much is due to normal observational statistics (the longer the observation period the higher the expected value at some statistical level), and how much is due land use changes (e.g., urban growth around your local airport).

    Nonetheless, I believe that that a long-term energy policy that reduces fossil-energy use, promotes energy conservation and energy efficiency and specifically encourages renewable energy sources is a good thing for many reasons and one (but not the primary reason to do it) is because it will reduce any negative impacts of GHG emissions and the greenhouse effect.

  18. Earl Killian says:

    Roger C, thank you for your explanation. Given your weather expertise, please consider the post
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/04/butterflies-tornadoes-and-climate-modelling/
    especially the paragraph that begins “But how can climate be predictable if weather is chaotic?”

    On land use changes, you might check out
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/urban-heat-island-effect.htm
    and the references it cites. However, I think that was a side point you were making, and not the main thrust.

    I would like to return to my original point, which I may have put too flippantly. The global average temperature should not be much affected by weather, as it is primarily a radiation balance issue. An analogy might be a sealed container. The average pressure is determined by the equation PV = nRT. One can change the average pressure by changing an external parameter: temperature. Now if the container is large enough, nothing says it cannot have local variation in pressure (analogous to weather). These variations could be very chaotic, but they would not affect the average pressure.

    My analogy is oversimplified, as weather can in fact affect radiation balance in the short term (e.g. a hurricane can change the albedo of a region). However, I hope I’ve given some basis to consider that a global average temperature might be more predictable than you might have thought.