by Judith Curry
On the politics of global warming policy.
Here is a good topic for Sunday’s discussion:
Roger Pielke Jr. has published an interesting essay in Foreign Policy, Climate of Failure. Excerpts:
The heady days of early 2009, when advocates for global action on climate change anticipated world leaders gathering later that year around a conference table in Copenhagen to reach a global agreement, are but a distant memory. Today, with many of these same leaders focusing their attention on jumpstarting economic growth, environmental issues have taken a back seat. Leaders’ attention to climate policy is not coming back — at least not in any form comparable to the plans being discussed just a few years ago. A rising GDP, all else equal, leads to more emissions. But if there is one ideological commitment that unites nations and people around the world in the early 21st century, it is that GDP growth is non-negotiable.
Stabilizing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would require more than 90 percent of the energy we consume to come from carbon-free sources like nuclear, wind, or solar. Policymakers often discuss reducing annual emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels. But emissions today are already more than 45 percent higher than in 1990, so that higher level implies a need to cut by more than 90 percent from today’s levels. Put another way, in round numbers, we could keep at most 10 percent of our current energy supply, and 90 percent or more would have to be replaced with a carbon-free alternative. Today, about 10 percent of the energy that we consume globally comes from carbon-free sources — leaving a long way to go.
Consider this: If the goal is to stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a low level by 2050 (in precise terms, at 450 parts per million or less), then the world would need to deploy a nuclear power plant worth of carbon free energy every day between now and 2050. For wind or solar, the figures are even more daunting.
For several decades, the dominant view among climate specialists was that imposing a high price on carbon emissions — whether through a tax or a traded permit system — would create the economic incentive necessary to stimulate the green energy innovation needed. Unfortunately, the track record of such schemes is not encouraging. Any policy that depends for its success on creating economic stress on consumers (or voters) to motivate massive change is a policy doomed to fail. Voters typically respond to higher energy prices by voting out of office any politician or party who is perceived to be working against their economic interests. Supporters of carbon pricing have no good answer for the politics.
Science and nature provide enough varied data to paint anyone’s political ink blot, ensuring that the debate over the weather sustains without end. In this debate ostensibly about the science, the opposing camps have created names for one other — “alarmists” (who say the costs of inaction will be high) and “deniers” (who say that the costs of inaction will be low or even zero). The end result has been neither to win the debate nor secure a political mandate, but to politicize the science itself.
So what’s the next step? For years — decades, even — science has shown convincingly that human activities have an impact on the planet. That impact includes but is not limited to carbon dioxide. We are indeed running risks with the future climate through the unmitigated release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and none of the schemes attempted so far has made even a dent in the problem. While the climate wars will go on, characterized by a poisonous mix dodgy science, personal attacks, and partisan warfare, the good news is that progress can yet be made outside of this battle.
The key to securing action on climate change may be to break the problem into more manageable parts. This should involve recognizing that human-caused climate change involves more than just carbon dioxide. This is already happening. A coalition of activists and politicians, including numerous prominent scientists, have argued that there are practical reasons to focus attention on “non-carbon forcings” — human influences on the climate system other than carbon dioxide emissions. The U.N. Environment Program argues that actions like reducing soot and methane could “save close to 2.5 million lives a year; avoid crop losses amounting to 32 million tons annually and deliver near-term climate protection of about half a degree Celsius by 2040.”
Some of these opportunities are political. For instance, in the United States, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a loud and theatrical opponent to most action related to climate, supports action on non-carbon forcings, particularly efforts to reduce the amount of particulates in the air. As he explained to the Guardian ”Al Gore probably would be against automobile accidents and I am too. This has nothing to do with the CO2 issue.” The lesson here is that if Gore and Inhofe can find common political ground on one important aspect of the issue, then there is plenty of hope for progress. [T]he global demand for huge amounts of energy in coming decades provides a compelling rationale for energy technology innovation independent of the climate issue.
Natural gas is not a long-term solution to the challenge of stabilizing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, because it is still carbon intensive, but the rapidly declining U.S. emissions prove an essential policy point: Make clean(er) energy cheap, and dirty energy will be quickly displaced. To secure cheap energy alternatives requires innovation — technological, but also institutional and social. The innovation challenge is enormous, but so is the scale of the problem. A focus on innovation — not on debates over climate science or a mythical high carbon price — is where we’ll make process.
The vast complexity of the climate issue offers many avenues for action across a range of different issues. What we need is the wisdom to have a constructive debate on climate policy options without all the vitriolic proxy battles. The anger and destructiveness seen from both sides of this debate will not be going away, of course, but constructive debate will move on to focus on goals that can actually be accomplished. To paraphrase the great columnist Walter Lippmann, politics is not about getting people to think alike, but about getting people who think differently to act alike. The climate issue will never be solved completely, but it’s still possible for us to make things better or worse.
JC comments: Pielke makes a strong argument for the existence of two constraints on climate energy policy:
- there is one ideological commitment that unites nations and people around the world in the early 21st century, it is that GDP growth is non-negotiable.
- Make clean(er) energy cheap, and dirty energy will be quickly displaced.
Given these, Pielke argues that there are two overall solution strategies related to climate/energy policy:
- To secure cheap energy alternatives requires innovation — technological, but also institutional and social.
- focus on goals that can actually be accomplished and getting people who think differently to act alike.
Well, this makes alot of sense to me. It constrains the politically viable solution space quite a bit. Focusing on non-CO2 components of the problem (e.g. methane, black carbon) would be a good place to start; in fact that strategy received JC’s 2012 story of the year Climate Fast Attack Plan.
This post also serves as a lead in to tomorrow’s post on Professors, Politics, and Public Policy.