by Judith Curry
Robert Socolow of Princeton University has written and essay “Wedges Reaffirme,” that examines the impact of his 2004 paper with Stephen Pacala, entitled “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies”.
Its core messages are as valid today as seven years ago, but they have not led to action.
Let’s review the messages in our 2004 paper. The paper assumes that the world wishes to act decisively and coherently to deal with climate change. It makes the case that “humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century.”
The paper is probably best known for having introduced the “stabilization wedges,” a quantitative way to measure the level of effort associated with a mitigation strategy: a wedge of vehicle fuel efficiency, a wedge of wind power, and a wedge of avoided deforestation have the same effect on the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Filling the stabilization triangle required seven wedges.
Today, nine wedges are required to fill the stabilization triangle, instead of seven.
Given that delay brings the potential for much additional damage, what is standing in the way of action?
Familiar answers include the recent recession, the political influence of the fossil fuel industries, and economic development imperatives in countries undergoing industrialization. But, I submit, advocates for prompt action, of whom I am one, also bear responsibility for the poor quality of the discussion and the lack of momentum. Over the past seven years, I wish we had been more forthcoming with three messages: We should have conceded, prominently, that the news about climate change is unwelcome, that today’s climate science is incomplete, and that every “solution” carries risk. I don’t know for sure that such candor would have produced a less polarized public discourse. But I bet it would have. Our audiences would have been reassured that we and they are on the same team – that we are not holding anything back and have the same hopes and fears.
It is not too late to bring these messages forward.
From the section on “Incomplete climate science:”
It would be productive for advocates of prompt action also to concede that the message from climate science is not only unwelcome but also incomplete. Feedbacks from clouds, ice, and vegetation are only partially understood – thwarting precise prediction of future climate. The best and worst future climate outcomes consistent with today’s science are very different.
Why, at the intersection of climate science and climate policy, is there more discussion of average outcomes than nasty ones? As I have speculated in a recent paper, one reason is that average outcomes are safer to talk about, because the science is more solid; there is less risk of being accused of alarmism. Also, acknowledging terrible outcomes of low probability requires acknowledging the other tail – a world with rising emissions but little change for quite a while. I often hear that any concession to benign outcomes (or, more accurately, outcomes that remain benign for a relatively long time) will foster complacency. I don’t understand that fear. In my experience, when I tell someone “we could be lucky,” and then I pause, the listener completes the sentence for me: “or we could be unlucky.” The listener does not hear a lullaby.
Arguments for action based on what we don’t know reinforce those based on what we do know. To build a case on what we don’t know, however, takes courage, because it requires revealing how much experts disagree. There are many contending views about sea-level rise, for example. Advocates resist calling attention to the coexistence of contending expert views – far more certain than I am that lay audiences translate such conflicts into justifications for procrastination. I think it should be possible to convey that earth systems science is an evolving human enterprise where discordant views are the norm, and then to explain why certain issues have proved hard to resolve. My working assumption is that candor creates trust.
Andy Revkin has two very interesting posts on Socolow’s essay [here and here], where he posts lengthy reactions from various experts. I’m extracting comments that relate to “Incomplete climate science.”
From Michael Levi, Council on Foreign Relations:
Rob’s assessment of the climate community’s missteps is excellent. I’ve long encouraged people to be more forthright about uncertainties – indeed it is the ugly uncertainties, not the likely outcomes, that should concern people most. (Likely outcomes are fine for explaining why 1000 ppm is unwise; they are less persuasive when it comes to deciding whether, say, 550 is too high or not.) I suspect that he is also correct to assert that the “win-win-win-win-win” formulation of recent years is counterproductive: if you insist that climate policy would be a wonderful thing even if climate change weren’t real, people are going to suspect your motives for claiming to believe climate science. (It’s interesting that Nick Stern at once claims to accept this critique and promotes the “innovation will propel the economy forward” meme. Nothing in economics says that innovation for its own sake is an economic boon.) It may be that embracing uncertainty and acknowledging the challenges involved in climate policy don’t tip public support the way Rob would like. But there’s a good case to be made that it would, and I have a hard time seeing the harm in trying.
The bulk of Rob’s new paper is actually about why the “community” of activist scientists has failed to push governments to do much on climate change. That’s the right question (if oddly buried under the headline “wedges reaffirmed” since the simplicity of policy claims such as “wedges” is actually part of the problem). Before we do a lot of self-flagellation let’s remember that this is a really hard problem to solve. When you look at real economics (as opposed to fantasy visions that deep cuts are possible just with a few mouse clicks) and real geopolitics you have a problem that is structured to fail—it requires near-term policy efforts that are costly with uncertain future benefits, it depends on sustained action when the reality is that governments waver as issues come and go, and it requires international collective action. My view is that better policy strategies can help a bit, but the fundamentals [predispose] a policy outcome that is a lot less aggressive and much slower than most people would like.
Rob’s diagnosis is that the community has failed on three fronts: a) we are doing badly in conveying the dangers of climate change; b) the science is incomplete; and c) every solution carries risk. I don’t understand where these diagnoses come from; they might be right, but they wouldn’t be at the top of my list of priorities. But I commend Rob for putting the diagnosis out there starkly because perhaps a debate leads to some practical actions.
I think the community of policy advocates is generally doing better than Rob claims with his list of three action points. For example, the community is doing a decent job of talking about the dangers from climate change. In fact, there has been a big shift away from talking about “most likely” outcomes (which are, as Rob says, easier to discuss yet duller) and a lot more attention to possible extreme outcomes—dragons in the closet, catastrophes, etc. Nor do I think the scientific community is doing a bad job of talking about uncertainty and the incompleteness of the science. In fact, the polling data suggest that the public has over-reacted to that message. The new Stanford/Reuters poll shows that the public is more convinced than ever that climate warming is happening and LESS convinced that humans are to blame. And the new Yale/George Mason poll, which is the first I have seen to prove the views of Tea Partiers, shows that Tea Party members (12% of the public) feel they are very well informed about climate science and more than half think global warming will never hurt anyone. Just 1% of Tea Partiers think that there is a more than 80% chance that humans are primarily to blame for climate change (ie, an IPCC-like statement of attribution).
I have a different diagnosis about things we have done badly. 1) we have failed to talk about coincidence of interests; 2) we have failed to keep costs in perspective. And 3) we haven’t talked enough about international strategy. A few words on each.
JC comments: Most of the reactions to Socolow’s essay has been about the wedges. I think that in principle the wedges are a useful concept, provided that the whole thing is not over simplified. The more interesting discussion to me has been the discussion on incomplete climate science and uncertainty. The bolded statements made by Socolow are music to my ears.