by Judith Curry
[P]ublic support for the environment is at more than 30 year-low, cap and trade is dead, perhaps for good, and global warming has become as partisan and polarizing an issue as abortion and gun control.
Climate Pragmatism offers a framework for renewed American leadership on climate change that’s effectiveness, paradoxically, does not depend on any agreement about climate science or the risks posed by uncontrolled greenhouse gases.
The above quotes are from the Breakthrough Institute’s web site regarding a new report entitled “Climate Pragmatism: Innovation, Resilience, and No Regrets” by the Hartwell group (discussed on Climate Etc. previously here):
[The Hartwell group is] an informal international network of scholars and analysts dedicated to innovative strategies that uplift human dignity through mitigation of climate risk, enhancement of disaster resilience, improvement of public health, and the provision of universal energy access. Previous publications include The Hartwell Paper (May 2010) and How to Get Climate Policy Back on Course (July 2009).
The old climate framework failed because it would have imposed substantial costs associated with climate mitigation policies on developed nations today in exchange for climate benefits far off in the future — benefits whose attributes, magnitude, timing, and distribution are not knowable with certainty. Since they risked slowing economic growth in many emerging economies, efforts to extend the Kyoto-style UNFCCC framework to developing nations predictably deadlocked as well.
The new framework now emerging will succeed to the degree to which it prioritizes agreements that promise near-term economic, geopolitical, and environmental benefits to political economies around the world, while simultaneously reducing climate forcings, developing clean and affordable energy technologies, and improving societal resilience to climate impacts. This new approach recognizes that continually deadlocked international negotiations and failed domestic policy proposals bring no climate benefit at all. It accepts that only sustained effort to build momentum through politically feasible forms of action will lead to accelerated decarbonization.
A new climate strategy should take a page from one of America’s greatest homegrown traditions — pragmatism— which values pluralism over universalism, flexibility over rigidity, and practical results over utopian ideals. Where the UNFCCC imagined it could motivate nations to cooperatively enforce top-down emissions reductions with mathematical precision, US policymakers should acknowledge that today’s global, social, and ecological systems are too messy, open, and complicated to be governed in this way. Whereas the UNFCCC attempted to create new systems of global governance, a pragmatic approach would build upon established, successful institutions and proven approaches. Where the old climate policy regime tried to discipline a wildly diverse set of policies under a single global treaty, the new era must allow these policies and measures to stand—and evolve— independently and according to their own logic and merits. And where the old regime required that everyone band together around the same core motivation and goals, policymakers today are likely to make the most progress to the degree that they refrain from centrally justifying energy innovation, resilience to extreme weather, and pollution reduction as “climate policy.”
This pragmatic strategy centers on efforts to accelerate energy innovation, build resilience to extreme weather, and pursue no regrets pollution reduction measures — three efforts that each have their own diverse justifications independent of their benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation. As such, Climate Pragmatism offers a framework for renewed American leadership on climate change that’s effectiveness, paradoxically, does not depend on any agreement about climate science or the risks posed by uncontrolled greenhouse gases.
Pielke Jr. describes pragmatism in the following way:
Pragmatism is about taking the first steps on a long journey and not a comprehensive plan for how the last steps will be taken. That is how we fight disease, manage the economy and win wars. Climate change will be no different.
Reactions from the climate hawks
Joe Romm writes a 3900 word screed in response to the Climate Pragmatism report entitled “The Road to Ruin: Extremist Climate Pragmatism Report Pushes Right-Wing Myths and a Failed Strategy“. Some excerpts:
First the report doesn’t just ignore everything we have learned about climate science in recent years. It doesn’t even specify what level of emissions it is aiming at. One can’t even call it rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It is more like saying we must not talk about the iceberg looming in the distance – since that makes some of the more conservative folks on the ship uncomfortable — and we can’t slow down the ship or change course, so we should invest in developing a new ship, but really there’s no hurry because … well, we know how that movie turned out.
MEMO TO PEOPLE WRITING AND REVIEWING CLIMATE REPORTS: Let’s stipulate that if a report doesn’t spell out what your greenhouse gas concentrations target is for the planet, it is just handwaving — and we’ve really had enough of that for two decades now.
David Roberts at Grist has a more thoughtful post entitled “Balancing climate pragmatism with moral clarity.” Some excerpts:
It seems clear enough that going big — getting everyone to accept binding targets and timetables — hasn’t worked in either the U.S. and the UNFCCC. What is not as clear as the authors seem to think is exactly why those efforts have failed and what, if any, might succeed in their place. It comes down to how much you think those failures are attributable to policy and process vs. interests and power. There’s always the possibility that nothing could have worked, that the imbalance of power between energy incumbents and their challengers has simply been too steep.
I’m all for policy pluralism, if only because we don’t know what (if anything) will work. I’m also for opportunism, taking gains wherever they can be found and regrouping around strategies that show promise. I’ll happily admit that the climate movement has suffered from a deficit of both and would benefit from more pragmatism. But the rest of the Breakthrough policy and messaging recommendations do not follow from that.
Accepting paralysis on climate as a fact of life is incredibly myopic. In many ways, the dysfunctions of elite politics, in both the U.S. Congress and the UNFCCC, have obscured tectonic shifts beneath the surface. The climate crisis has captured the attention of large swaths of the business world, the U.S. military, the world’s great faiths, and a growing global youth movement. Things are changing in rapid, complex ways that are unpredictable and won’t be clear until the history books are written.
Michael Tobis began discussing this at Collide-a-scape, and then was challenged by Pielke Jr. to engage over on his thread (Pielke’s thread is pretty interesting). Note to Michael Tobis: do your homework.
The “cool dudes” don’t seem to be saying anything about this report?
Climate pragmatism from James Hansen
Jim Hansen has posted a new essay entitled “Baby Lauren and the Kool-Aid.” Once you get past the grandchildren stuff, Hansen makes some interesting points. Some excepts:
Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future? It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.
Because they realize that renewable energies are grossly inadequate for our energy needs now and in the foreseeable future and they have no real plan. They pay homage to the Easter Bunny fantasy, because it is the easy thing to do in politics.
Many well-meaning people proceed under the illusion that ‘soft’ renewable energies3 will replace fossil fuels if the government tries harder and provides more subsidies. Meanwhile, governments speak greenwash while allowing pursuit of fossil fuels with increasingly destructive technologies (hydrofracking, mountaintop removal, longwall mining, drilling in the deepest ocean, the Arctic and other pristine environments) and development of unconventional fossil fuels4.
It will be a tragedy if environmentalists allow the illusion of ‘soft’ energies to postpone demand for real solution of the energy, climate and national security problems. Solar power is just a small part of the solution. Subsidies yielding even its present tiny contribution may be unsustainable.
The main conclusion is to keep an open mind. China and India will increase nuclear power use; they must if they are to phase out coal over the next few decades. It behooves us to be objective.
So what’s not to like about Climate Pragmatism? The no regrets aspect of this implies that nothing is lost and there are still benefits if the threat doesn’t materialize. If it becomes increasingly apparent with time that the threat is of a serious magnitude, then we have taken the first steps towards addressing the threat. David Roberts and Jim Hansen seems to get this (although his carbon fee approach is not no regrets but relatively low regrets , and whether it is feasible to implement and would actually work is debatable). Doesn’t sound like Joe Romm or Al Gore will see the light; it seems that they are prepared to continue to wage an idealistic war that they have no political, economic or technological chance of winning.