A new take on the climate fix

Refocusing policy on causes rather than consequences shows more promise than Kyoto-style approach, prof contends

By Clint Talbott

Left: Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. Right: Pielke's new book, "The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming."

Roger Pielke Jr. boils it down to a question: How long will the world embrace climate policies that have failed? More precisely, when will it embrace policies that are more likely to lower greenhouse-gas emissions and meet the world’s growing energy demand?

Pielke, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado and an expert on science policy, has long been a maverick—variously seen as a tireless contrarian or clear-eyed pragmatist—in the world of climate science and policy.

Pielke is fine with that, believing that diverse views are as beneficial to science as to politics. When the science and policy meet, as they did in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, Pielke measures the policies with a simple metric: did they work?

Under Kyoto, many of the world’s nations agreed to set targets for emissions reductions. Nations that ratified the protocol committed to reducing their emissions of six greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2 percent under 1990 levels by 2012.

Carbon dioxide is viewed by most climate scientists as the most important (though not the most potent) greenhouse gas. By this measure alone, Kyoto’s efficacy is plain. In 1990, worldwide atmospheric concentration of CO2 was 354 parts per million. By last year, the concentration had risen almost 9 percent, to 388 ppm.

Pielke says this is no surprise, given that the Kyoto Protocol sets targets but only a few ineffective mechanisms for hitting them. “Saying we’re going to reduce emissions is still a step removed from the things you need to do to reduce emissions,” Pielke intones.

Support for the Kyoto approach was maintained in part by wishful thinking, Pielke suggests. “You can go a long time thinking that success is right around the corner. Now it’s pretty hard to keep up the illusion that Kyoto is accelerating decarbonization.”

In a new book, “The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming,” Pielke advances an argument he has been honing for two decades: The current approach to climate politics isn’t working, and it’s time to try a different strategy.

Decarbonizing too slowly

Wind energy might be one source of decarbonized energy, but the scale of new energy needed is vastly greater than what many people realize, Pielke argues. Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

While total emissions are rising, Pielke notes that many nations around the world are steadily, if slowly, “decarbonizing,” which he defines as reducing CO2 emissions per GDP. Pielke also notes that the rate of decarbonization among nations with very different climate policies is remarkably similar.

For instance, Germany, which ratified the Kyoto Protocol and which has adopted explicit GHG-reduction strategies, is decarbonizing at about the same rate as the United States, which declined to ratify the treaty and which has no national GHG-reduction plan.

The means tried thus far to reduce GHG emissions “all but certainly” can’t meet the targets set in climate policies around the world, Pielke argues, adding:

“Rather than serving as policy targets against which politicians expect to be held accountable, emissions-reductions goals advanced to date are thus to be viewed as aspirational targets that set forth a desirable but practically unachievable goal, like ending world poverty or achieving world peace.”

Not only have Kyoto-inspired policies failed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions; they also are very likely to accomplish little because of powerful competing forces: economic growth and commensurate growth in energy demand.

For the world to achieve a 50-percent reduction in its emissions from a 1990 baseline, it would need to do the following, Pielke estimates, using nuclear power to illustrate the magnitude of the challenge: First, eliminate all coal and natural-gas consumption and replace it with nuclear power stations. That would require the equivalent of 2,800 new nuclear power plants.

The world would also have to replace petroleum consumption, perhaps with electric cars, necessitating another 750 nuclear plants. If global energy consumption keeps growing by 1.5 percent a year until 2050, that would require another 5,000 nukes. All told, meeting the emissions reduction goal would require upwards of the equivalent of 12,000 nukes of carbon-free energy.

But there’s more. If the world provided electricity to the 1.5 billion people who lack it—and who need energy to meet their basic needs—thousands more nuclear plants would be needed. What kind of effort would this be?

“It is, in round numbers, about the same as one new plant coming online every day between now and 2050,” Pielke observes, noting that other scientists have made the same calculation.

In other words, if greenhouse-gas reduction is the destination and a Kyoto-style policy is the path, the world almost certainly can’t get there from here.

‘Politicized’ science

Officials from the Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study a three-dimensional depiction of world energy sources broken down by nation. The illustration is projected onto Science on a Sphere, room sized, global display system that uses computers and video projectors to display planetary data onto a six-foot-diameter sphere, analogous to a giant animated globe. Pictured are, left to right: Doug Arent, NREL senior scientist and executive director of the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis; Melinda Marquis, NOAA-ESRL renewable energy program manager; Andy Karsner, former DOE assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy; Alexander E. MacDonald, director of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory and deputy assistant administrator for research laboratories and cooperative institutes; and Dan Arvisu, director of NREL. Photo courtesy of NREL.

Pielke contends the failure to act effectively is partly due to the fact that climate science has become unduly politicized, meaning that people argue about science rather than policy options. “The reality is that a lot of people in the debate are mapping the issue onto their partisan preferences,” a fact reflected in surveys showing that fewer Republicans than Democrats believe that average global temperatures have been rising over the last 50 years, or that humans are a significant cause of that warming.

At the same time, he says, the climate issue is not unlike other issues in which there are widely accepted larger truths but honest disagreement among scientists about some particulars.

All the climate science one needs to know are the large issues, Pielke says: Humans have an impact on the climate system; predictions are hard, but many say the consequences of business as usual could be negative. “That should be enough to get us into the (political) decision space.”

Additionally, U.S. public opinion on the seriousness of greenhouse gases and global warming has remained relatively stable over the past two decades; the percentage of Americans worried about climate change was 63 percent in 1989 and 60 percent in 2009, Gallup poll data show.

Meanwhile, the portion of the populace favoring “some” or “drastic” action on the issue has hovered around 80 percent since 1996. “Put another way, public opinion on climate change is not a fundamental limiting factor holding back action,” Pielke writes. “Political will is not lacking.”

Yet while the public is theoretically open to climate legislation in the United States, Congress has not obliged. The most recent attempt, cap-and-trade legislation, died in the U.S. Senate this summer.

“Part of the problem of cap and trade is that most people don’t know what it is or what it means.”

As Pielke observes, there’s no shortage of ironies in the climate-change debate. The legislation would have given more subsidies to fossil fuels than to renewable energy. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth opposed the legislation, while more centrist environmentalist groups supported it.

“You have the free-market, libertarian crowd saying we don’t like this (market-based) solution and the environmental crowd saying we support this policy that would provide subsidies for fossil fuels,” Pielke notes.

Causes rather than consequences

A nuclear power plant sits near rows of solar panels. Using the example of nuclear power to illustrate the scale of the challenge of a world powered by decarbonized energy, Pielke notes that matching supply with demand would require that one new nuclear power plant come online every day between now and 2050. Photo courtesy of NREL.

Pielke suggests reframing the climate issue as an energy issue. Much time is spent arguing about whether the world should strive to stabilize CO2 concentrations at 350, 450 or 550 ppm (based on uncertain projections of climate under each scenario). But according to Pielke’s analysis, the policy options under any of these targets are virtually the same.

Similarly, there’s been scientific debate about whether the intensity of extreme weather events such as hurricanes has been increasing along with global average temperatures and, if so, if that change can be attributed to humans. Pielke himself has been engaged in that debate.

He cites evidence that rising levels of hurricane losses over more than a century is due entirely to development along coastlines, which has placed more buildings in harm’s way.  Pielke’s research conclusions have been supported by a range of studies. Nonetheless, some present the link between climate change and the rising costs of disasters as settled science; a movie poster for Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” for instance, depicts the eye of a hurricane swirling out of a smokestack.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a consequence of human action, “and consequences are extremely difficult to modulate directly via policy,” Pielke says, adding, “Policies are more effective when they focuses on causes, not consequences.”

The primary cause of GHG emissions is energy use, which is driven by economic activity. Regardless of how much worldwide energy demand grows, nothing alters “the basic calculus that to reach low (carbon) stabilization targets implies a massive transition to a nearly carbon-free energy supply.”

Among others, Pielke suggests starting with a relatively low carbon tax, on the order of $5 per metric ton. A tax at that level has been proposed by ExxonMobil’s CEO, a fact Pielke says indicates the possibility of political consensus.

The purpose of the tax would not be to change people’s behavior, to restrict economic activity, or to make fossil fuels more expensive than alternative energy. “The purpose of a low carbon tax is to raise revenues for investments in innovation.”

Like the interstate-highway tax imposed under President Eisenhower, the public would see the results of government-sponsored energy-innovation projects. Those results would include new jobs and the potential to tap a burgeoning worldwide energy market.

Such a tax could raise $30 billion annually in the United States. “By explicitly connecting carbon pricing with energy innovation, a virtuous cycle is enabled that allows those asked to pay the tax to see its benefits, and thus build the support necessary to sustain investment over decades and longer.”

By thus de-emphasizing the role of science in the political arena, politicians could help depoliticize climate science, “as it would no longer serve as the fulcrum on which action is to be judged.”

Pielke frames this approach as one that would place human dignity at the center of climate policy, which he says raises the odds of sustaining political support over time. Disaggregating climate policy into its component parts would better align short-term costs with short-term benefits, he argues.

“Besides that, placing human dignity and democratic ideals at the center of climate policies is also the right thing to do.”

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