by Judith Curry
Last week I conducted an extensive interview with Max Allen of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation.
Here is the e-invite I received:
I’m producing two hour-long programmes called DEMON COAL for broadcast on March 12 and 19. The title is partly ironic, and arises from the Ontario government’s decision to close all coal-fired generating plants in the province, with a consequent effect on cost and system reliability – and more recently statements by Andrew Weaver and others asserting that coal is public enemy number one. The programmes look at the British Columbia revenue neutral carbon tax, carbon offsets generally, work by economists around the world on the feasibility of geoengineering and other technical approaches, decision-making under uncertainty, and a range of other ideas. But that’s not what I want to talk to you about.
Climate Etc. is strikingly even-tempered and mostly free of what the IISD’s Dave Sawyer in Ottawa calls “brawling.” (JC comment: !!!)
So I’d like to conclude the two radio programmes by having you talk about the three best (or three OF the best) climate ideas you’ve come across (or seen demonstrated).
I don’t have simple response to the three best climate ideas I’ve come across. My main concern is that the wicked climate change problem and its solution have been vastly oversimplified.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, scientists provided a simple theory for how the Earth’s climate could warm from increased greenhouse gases. By 1992, we had the UNFCCC treaty, and the precautionary principle for preventing dangerous anthropogenic climate change. In hindsight the treaty seems premature, since it wasn’t until 1995 that the IPCC argued that “the balance of evidence now suggests a discernible human influence on human climate.”
By 1997 we had the Kyoto Protocol. The end result of all this is that the scientific problem of climate change has been framed to address only anthropogenic influences, all but ignoring solar, volcanoes, and multidecadal ocean oscillations. The search has been for dangerous impacts of warming (not for beneficial impacts). And the policy response has focused on a single strategy: stabilizing greenhouse gases to a model-determined target.
In 2012, we find ourselves in a position where the IPCC consensus is being challenged, particularly on how the climate might vary during the 21st century. The key scientific issue being debated is the relative magnitude of the human impact on climate, compared to natural variability. With regards to dangerous climate change: there is the growing realization that we have just begun to scratch the surface in terms of understanding the benefits and dangers of climate change in the context regional vulnerabilities. And finally, the precautionary principle has led us to focus on policies where the negative economic impacts of the proposed energy policies are arguably worse than what the policies are intended to prevent.
A metaphor for uncertainty
Max Allen sent me a link to this youtube video of two sheets of fabric continuously flying in and out of a vortex of air, which he thought was a way of visualizing the difficulty of modeling weather and climate. Watch the video, it is mesmerizing.
I thought the video was a good metaphor for the uncertainty in predicting future climate. While we can’t predict the position of the fabric at any instant, we can put bounds on the possible locations of the fabric. We also see certain different configurations that generally get repeated and certain patterns persist in a region with smaller bounds.
So, similar to climate change projections for the 21st century, we can put some plausible bounds on the future states and we can articulate some scenarios of future states and say something about the nature of transient regimes. We can’t predict the actual future states.
So where do we go from here?
When faced with deep uncertainty, decision makers can adopt a range of different strategies. To date, the debate has been between the precautionary principle versus the strategy of do nothing, or wait and see. Other decision making strategies when faced with deep uncertainty include adaptive management and building societal resilience through economic development. Another strategy that seems to be gaining traction is to broaden the knowledge base and perspective to include other issues. In the context of energy policy, this broadening is occurring in the context of considerations of clean air and public health, and energy security and economics.
In the short term, I like policy options that are “low regrets”, i.e. ones that are robust even if the future dangers from climate change are not materialized. Some examples of low regrets policies related to climate:
- Increase energy efficiency of buildings, appliances, and transportation
- Manage black carbon and the short-lived greenhouse gases such as methane, which are relatively easy to control and have ancillary economic and human health benefits
- Regional strategies for reducing vulnerability to extreme weather events, climate variability, and change.
Value of information
During the interview, I was asked the question about what is the value of information in decision making regarding climate change. We need to reframe the climate change problem, and break out of the simplified framing of the IPCC and UNFCCC. We need to broaden the scientific research and open up the debate. In effect, we need to stop trying to manufacture a consensus on a scientific problem that is very complex and poorly understood.
I framed my response re the value of additional information in context of decision making under deep uncertainty, whereby deep uncertainty is characterized by:
- phenomena are characterized by high levels of ignorance and are poorly understood scientifically
- modelling and subjective judgments must substitute extensively for estimates based upon experience with actual events and outcomes
- ethical rules must be formulated to substitute for risk-based decisions.
With regards to #1: We need better understanding of natural climate variability, on timescales from seasons to centuries. We need to conduct more comprehensive analyses of regional vulnerabilities.
With regards to #2: “Better” climate models aren’t going to really help here, although better climate models can contribute to #1. We need to acknowledge that our ability to predict 21st century climate variability and change will remain irreducibly uncertain.
With regards to #3: We need to develop a broader range of policy options in the context of the broader issues of energy policy, food security, and economic development. Specifically with regards to energy, valuable information would be
- Comprehensive impact assessments and cost/benefits of nuclear power, biofuels, wind and solar.
- Research to develop geoengineering options, including assessment of unintended consequences.
- Research in alternative energy technologies, including the fundamental research that may lead to unanticipated applications
When asked about the investment in further information and innovation, I said its hard to know what best spurs innovation, there are people that spend their careers studying this. Government funding isn’t the sole answer; private sector and venture capital are important in spurring innovation.
I was finally asked: “Is coal the demon?” My answer had two parts.
If your concern is carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and health impacts of the particulates, then coal is the worst of the fossil fuels.
I live in the southeast U.S., where coal is the primary power source. Our power providers Georgia Power/Southern Company tell us coal is the key to regional prosperity by providing abundant, cheap energy (our power costs are much lower than many other parts of the U.S.).
So there you have it: the enduring conflict between the environment and public health vs economic prosperity and development.
The program will air in two parts, on March 12 and 19:
Monday, March 12
DEMON COAL, Part 1
Coal is dirty, toxic, abundant and cheap. Mining it disfigures the earth. Using it for fuel or electricity generation is unsustainable. Burning it emits deadly pollutants and greenhouse gases, and is the major cause of global warming. Right? Max Allen talks with environmentalists and energy scientists about why much conventional wisdom about coal in the 21st century is just plain wrong. Part 2 airs on Monday, March 19.
Monday, March 19
DEMON COAL, Part 2
Coal is dirty, toxic, abundant and cheap. Mining it disfigures the earth. Using it for fuel or electricity generation is unsustainable. Burning it emits deadly pollutants and greenhouse gases, and is the major cause of global warming. Right? In this new two-part series, Max Allen talks with environmentalists and energy scientists about why much conventional wisdom about coal in the 21st century is just plain wrong.
The IDEAS show airs at 9:05 – 10:00 p.m.
You can hear the show via:
- on the radio (as per above)
- via the Internet (On Real Audio)
- Streamed (from our IDEAS website)
- Podcast (from our IDEAS website)
Here is the [link] for the various options.
JC comments: Based upon past IDEAS shows and on the interview itself, I think this should be a very interesting series on Demon Coal, and about Ontario’s struggles with green energy. Lets listen and find out (note, I think my portion of the show landed in Part I).
This interview breaks new ground for me, in terms of talking about what makes sense from my perspective in terms of energy policy. I have hitherto avoided such issues, but I’ve spent the past three years focusing on the climate science-policy interface. I’m developing a perspective that I hope is consistent with Pielke Jr’s honest broker idea, in terms of articulating challenges at the science-policy interface and broadening the range of policy options to be considered. I’m starting to engage more with the energy policy community, in the hopes that sanity in energy policy can somehow prevail, and the postnormality of climate science can be relaxed.