In May 2007, I did a Q&A with Roger Pielke, Sr. a professor emeritus of meteorology at Colorado State University who is now a senior scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Pielke has become one of the best-known critics of the approach taken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Through his blog, Climate Science , Pielke has also made it clear that he’s stands apart from other scientists on the issue of carbon dioxide. “I don’t mean that carbon dioxide isn’t a problem. What I mean is that, unfortunately, it may not be our worst problem.”
Pielke’s son, Roger Pielke Jr., is also a noted scholar. He’s a professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado and the director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. Through his blog, Prometheus , the younger Pielke focuses on science policy, and his work has attracted a lot of attention. His book, The Honest Broker was the focus of a recent column by John Tierney of the New York Times. Tierney sums up Pielke’s book as “arguing that most scientists are fundamentally mistaken about their role in political debates. As a result, he says, they’re jeopardizing their credibility while impeding solutions to problems like global warming.”
With regard to climate change, Pielke argues that more attention must be paid to adaptation. Instead, nearly all of the focus has been on trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In 2006, in testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform, Pielke said “even if society takes immediate and drastic action on emissions, there can be no scientifically valid argument that such actions will lead to a perceptibly better climate in the coming decades. For the foreseeable future the most effective policy responses to climate-related impacts (e.g., such as hurricanes and other disasters or diseases such as malaria) will necessarily be adaptive.”
The younger Pielke has been on the faculty at the University of Colorado since 2001. Prior to that he was a staff scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. A graduate of the University of Colorado with degrees in mathematics, public policy, and political science, he lives in Boulder.
RB: You and your father appear to agree on many issues regarding climate change and the scientific issues around the discussion. On what aspects of this discussion do you disagree?
RPJr.: Like any two academics we tend to debate all sorts of topics ranging from those more in his areas of expertise to those more in my area of expertise. And even though we are in different areas of research we also understand each other’s work pretty well. I can give a good recent example of how such a debate has led to a research paper as a consequence.
My father has argued for a while now that the surface temperature record has a warm bias in it, due to boundary layer effects that are not addressed in the creation of long-term records (see http://www.climatesci.org/publications/pdf/R-302.pdf). In our discussions of this work I challenged his argument by asserting that if this were the case, then temperatures measured at the surface should show a divergence in their trends as compared to those measured above the boundary layer. We decided to test this proposition with data and with John Christy, Dick McNider and Phil Klotzbach we found that this divergence in trends between surface measurements and those from higher in the atmosphere actually occurs in the data, thus supporting his assertion. As a result, we’ve co-authored a paper now under review (as submitted version can be found here in PDF). So in this case we turned a debate into a paper.
We’ve had similar debates and discussions for many years, and as you might expect, his views have had a profound influence on my own thinking.
RB: The potential economic consequences of limiting carbon dioxide emissions are obvious. Given that, it’s no surprise that the scientific issues around climate change are divisive. What are the other reasons for the contentiousness of this debate?
RPJr: I think that you’ve made the right connection with the question. The political debate over climate policy is contested and a lot of this heat spills over into debates about science. Many people on all sides of this issue think that winning a scientific debate will somehow compel certain political outcomes – whether that be some desired action or limiting any action at all.
RB: You book, “The Honest Broker,” argues that scientists need to be more careful in how they discuss political issues like carbon dioxide emissions. And you’ve been critical of James Hansen, the NASA scientist who has been a vigorous advocate for shutting down coal-fired power plants. You call his approach “scientific authoritarianism.” Please explain what you mean.
RPJr: It is not Hansen’s overt advocacy that I object to – it is the implication that he has made, and others as well, that climate change is either too complex or too urgent for the public to be involved in decision making, and thus decisions must be made because they are dictated by science or simply because scientists say so. I do believe that scientists are correct when they claim that the risks of climate change are worthy of significant action, but at the same time I don’t think that action on climate change means giving up on democracy. I applaud Hansen’s decision to protest at a coal fired power plant recently in Washington, DC -- this is democracy in action. But when Hansen complains that world leaders haven’t followed his advice, I am less sympathetic.
RB: I asked your father why so few younger scientists have been willing to criticize the IPCC. He said that many of them are worried that it will have a negative impact on their career. Do you agree with that? And given that you are relatively young, do you believe that your stance on the climate issue has had a negative impact on your career?
RPJr.: Of course there are strong incentives against saying anything outside of mainstream views on the climate issue, whether scientifically or politically. I can cite my own recent experience when I criticized Al Gore for making fairly obvious overstatements about the relationship of greenhouse gas emissions and disaster losses. I was criticized by a few prominent (and a few less so) commentators on the Internet, who sought not to debate the issue but to go straight for my integrity and credentials. Upon seeing this reaction, a number of my colleagues, including some junior colleagues, told me that such headaches aren’t worth the trouble, and I assume that for many people this is the case. The climate issue is so politicized that of course it creates incentives for some people to speak out or not, as a function of how their views will be received in the political debate. To believe otherwise would be pretty naïve.
RB: You have advocated an approach to climate change that focuses more on adaptation. Why has the need for adaptation been so overlooked?
RPJr.: Adaptation was once overlooked. I don’t think that it is anymore, although challenges certainly remain in the area of implementation. There might be a few mitigation purists out there, but they are now a marginal voice. Once the developed countries emphasized the importance of adaptation, it became largely untenable for developed countries to ignore adaptation. There are still policy issues to deal with of course, such as the fact that the Framework Convention on Climate Change contains an institutional bias against adaptation, as well as the (incorrect) argument by some that effective adaptation planning requires regional climate predictions. But I see the larger battle over the importance of adaptation in climate policy to have largely been won.
RB: You recently posted an item on your blog about a report from the National Academy of Sciences which supports your stance about the need for societal adaptation to climate change. You titled your blog entry “Fifteen Years Too Early.” Another recent report by Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, “Climate Change: Adapting to the Inevitable?” also pointed to the need for adaptation. Are you feeling a bit of vindication? Do these reports presage a more widespread realization that we need a broader focus on the topic of climate change, one that moves beyond the near-total focus on carbon dioxide emissions?
RPJr.: While it would have been nice if the community had recognized the importance of adaptation sooner, the important thing is that it is now a key part of the climate policy agenda. I think that mitigation policies should be completely decoupled from adaptation policies and they should proceed on separate tracks. They are not trade-offs but complements. Adaptation serves broader goals of sustainable development. Decarbonization of the global economy also makes sense at the exact same time. We can and should “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
RB: It appears that Obama and Congress will pass a cap-and-trade bill. What’s your position on that idea? Would a carbon tax be a better idea?
RPJr.: I think that cap-and-trade is doomed to failure with respect to reducing emissions. It might lead to some new revenues for the government, but it can never succeed at limiting carbon dioxide emissions. The reason for this is that a hard cap on emissions would inevitably lead to increases in the costs of energy, which will lead to increasing costs throughout the economy. If these costs are felt by consumers (which is of course what such a policy is supposed to do) then they will complain. Unhappy consumers are very often also voters. No elected official will want unhappy constituents, so they will work hard to help consumers avoid increasing costs. This will consequently turn the idea of a hard cap into a very soft cap that has backdoors and safety valves and such that allow the cap to be evaded in order to reduce the effect on costs, defeating the purpose of the policy.
Putting a price on carbon however makes good sense. A straight carbon tax, at whatever level that would be politically acceptable is a far better place to start than with a fully gamed cap and trade system. The point of such a tax would not be to change behavior, but to start the process of pricing carbon directly and to raise some revenue for clean energy investments. With progress in decarbonizing the economy, a steadily rising carbon tax should be politically possible.
RB: I have been writing a good bit about coal lately. For all of the opposition to coal, it appears that the US and the rest of the world will be using coal for a long time to come. What’s your stance on coal?
RPJr.: The first thing to recognize is that coal will be with us as an energy source for decades, regardless of its emissions. So we really have only two choices if we want to phase out emissions from coal. First, we could work to perfect carbon capture and storage from coal plants, which is technically possible but practically theoretical at present. The only way to test its viability would be to actually prototype the technology in practice. We should thus be supporting such programs. The second option would be to work to advance and deploy alternative sources of power that are cheaper than coal. Putting a price on carbon can be a part of this process, but that alone won’t ever be sufficient to fully transition away from coal on short time scales.
RB: Let’s assume that you are appointed US “climate czar.” What five policies would you advocate?
RPJr.: Thanks for asking.
1. A carbon tax at the highest level politically possible. I’d guess that this is about $5 per ton of carbon dioxide but perhaps it could be higher. The only way to know would be to have the political debate. With Exxon Mobil calling for such a tax, I think that the claims that it would be unsellable are unfounded.
2. A national (and indeed global) industrial policy focused on decarbonization of the global economy with three elements:
a. A commitment to rapid increases in energy efficiency, perhaps following the Japanese model of benchmarking industry leaders and then implementing policies to bring other industry performers to the benchmarked standard.
b. A commitment to decarbonizing energy supply, by removing incentives for fossil fuels and creating incentives for carbon neutral sources, including both nuclear and renewable.
c. A massive commitment to research, development, deployment and the entire “ecosystem” of activities associated with transformation of the global energy system. Such a system has technical, social, and political elements. Good models for what it might take are the efforts spent fighting the Cold War or improving public health over many decades. The point of such investments would be to creating an ever-advancing frontier of energy efficiency, leading to a virtuous circle with (a) above, and also to accelerate advances in carbon neutral energy supply, supporting (b) above.
3. A focus on adaptation to the combined effects of climate and society, particularly in the developing world, with a goal of making societies more resilient and less vulnerable.
4. A major investment in the air capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide as a backstop technology, in case other forms of mitigation don’t succeed. All forms of capture should be explored including chemical, geological, and biological.
5. A commitment to the sustainability of science and expertise in support of climate policy making. This would mean the institutionalization of more honest brokers (as described in my book by this title) and less stealth advocacy by experts. We are going to need climate science for many decades, so we should take care that it maintains its credibility.
Even the most successful policies will require many decades of effort to achieve goals of decarbonization. There will not be a single treaty or law that is passed that will lead to success, but a long-term sustained commitment over many decades.
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