Stern et al. offer “The challenge of climate-change neoskepticism” as a Policy Forum piece in the August 12 issue of Science magazine (hereafter SPSK; paywalled here).
From the summary:
Opponents of policies to limit anthropogenic climate change (ACC) have offered a changing set of arguments—denying or questioning ACC’s existence, magnitude, and rate of progress, the risks it presents, the integrity of climate scientists, and the value of mitigation efforts. Similar arguments have characterized environmental risk debates concerning arsenical insecticides in the late 1800s, phosphates in detergents in the 1960s, and the pesticide DDT in the 1960s and ’70s. Typically, defenders of business as usual first question the scientific evidence that risks exist; then, they question the magnitude of the risks and assert that reducing them has more costs than benefits. A parallel rhetorical shift away from outright skepticism led us to identify “neoskepticism” as a new incarnation of opposition to major efforts to limit ACC . This shift heightens the need for science to inform decision making under uncertainty and to improve communication and education.
The authors claim to identify an emerging “neoskeptic” stance that “advocates against urgent mitigation efforts” on the grounds of uncertainty in climate projections. They further offer ways of countering that “challenge.”
I write to comment upon SPSK because the authors raise (but also conflate) two important issues in the climate/energy discussion and also because they identify my essay in the September 19, 2014 edition of the Wall Street Journal (hereafter WSJ14; annotated version here) as an archetype of neoskepticism. (This blog’s hostess is similarly implicated for her WSJ op-ed.)
As a first issue, SPSK note that societal responses to the possibility of anthropogenic climate change are largely an exercise in risk management under great uncertainty, and that better science is needed to inform adaptive risk management. They bemoan that “the science needed to integrate information about decision options and climate risks has not been well represented in the IPCC process” and remind us that values and tradeoffs are an essential aspect of deciding upon societal responses.
I am in full agreement with that thinking, as I wrote in WSJ14:
Society’s choices in the years ahead will necessarily be based on uncertain knowledge of future climates. That uncertainty need not be an excuse for inaction. There is well-justified prudence in accelerating the development of low-emissions technologies and in cost-effective energy-efficiency measures.
But climate strategies beyond such “no regrets” efforts carry costs, risks and questions of effectiveness, so nonscientific factors inevitably enter the decision. These include our tolerance for risk and the priorities that we assign to economic development, poverty reduction, environmental quality, and intergenerational and geographical equity.
Individuals and countries can legitimately disagree about these matters, so the discussion should not be about “believing” or “denying” the science. …
My reading of SPSK is that they would largely agree with these thoughts (and much else in WSJ14). Most importantly, I think we agree on the need for a values discussion informed by a complete, rigorous, and faithful representation of the certainties and uncertainties in projections of climate changes, in the net impacts of those changes, and in the net costs and efficacies of various societal responses. But what apparently distinguishes a neoskeptic in their view is a willingness to acknowledge that different values might support different decisions. While this stance is neither “neo” nor even “skepticism,” I can see how SPSK might find it challenging.
Unfortunately, SPSK conflate their laudable call for a science-informed values discussion with a claim to know that urgent mitigation is THE answer, stating that persuasive factors in their analysis are
… the risks of extreme and damaging outcomes are continually increasing, so that waiting for certainty has increasing costs; that inertia in the system may result in its crossing major tipping points without timely warning; and that there is value to insuring against worst cases, especially when they are likely to be worse than those of the past.
Perhaps. But this thinking rests upon credence in projections of future climates by models that today are demonstrably not up to the task and upon an unsupported conviction that the net benefits of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions outweigh the net benefits of increasing access to affordable, available, and reliable energy for the majority of the world’s people. We can expect that in the coming decade climate observations will become more precise and complete, that understanding and projections of the climate will improve, and that putative anthropogenic impacts will (or will not) become less uncertain, despite the current IPCC’s ill-supported assertion of 95% confidence. Further, we can expect that future societies will be more resilient and that there will be benefit to taking the time to develop better technologies that can slow or even reverse growing GHG concentrations, should that be needed. All of this to say that SPSK’s certainty can be credibly questioned. In any event, all actions beyond “no regrets” will have drawbacks (by definition) so that these caveats must be folded into anyone’s risk/benefit calculation, which will further suffer the essential subjectivity of the choice of long-term discount rate.
In summary, SPSK raise important points but err in decrying a diversity of values, an essential feature of the very process they advocate. Their polarized framing, including an insinuation that so-called neoskeptics are financially motivated, is inconsistent with the kind of informed, thoughtful, and nuanced discussion of climate and energy that the world so badly needs.
Well, the Science article is interesting in the sense that SPSK attempt to define a new ‘tribe’ in the climate debate – neoskeptics. The definition of of ‘neoskeptic’ seems to be scientists who are well-versed in climate science, acknowledge the many uncertainties in climate science, and comment publicly about concerns that current climate policies may not have the desired impact on changing the climate and human welfare for the ‘better’ and are not commensurate with level and types of uncertainties in climate science, societal impacts, and unintended consequences of proposed policies. Well ok, but why do SPSK think that neoskepticism is something that needs to be combatted?
The most important article in the past year that could be labeled as ‘neoskepticism’ is Michael Kelly’s paper Is much of our efforts to combat global warming making things worse? Well, the answer seems to be an unequivocal ‘yes’. Ah, now I see why SPSK think that neoskepticism needs to be combatted — it threatens the global imperative of carbon mitigation policies at any cost, even if the policies are futile in changing the climate, are damaging to economic and human development, and have other unintended negative consequences.
The mainstream media is showing some hints that they are starting to get it:
- NYTimes: Another Inconvenient Truth: It’s Hard to Agree How to Fight Climate Change [link]
- WaPo: ‘Let’s get some perspective’: Researchers say species face bigger threats than climate change [link]
The irony of this article is that SPSK seem to support carbon mitigation imperative at any cost, which is inconsistent with their understanding of uncertainty management. A quote from their article:
The decision sciences suggest broad principles for uncertainty management, such as (i) adopting policies that will perform robustly across various plausible futures, (ii) pursuing a variety of policy strategies to increase the likelihood that some will yield good results, and (iii) organizing decision-making processes for flexibility and responsiveness.
What Steve Koonin is saying, and what I am saying, and what Michael Kelly is saying, is completely consistent with the tenets of decision making under uncertainty. Chapter 2 of the IPCC AR5 WG2 Report Foundations for Decision Making is a good document that outlines the basic principles.
Policies that make sense to me: adaptation to extreme events, energy technology R&D, dealing with real pollution of air/water/soil, and efforts to increase access to affordable and reliable energy. Policies that don’t make sense to me: emissions reductions goals that are infeasible and destined to be futile in having any significant impact on 21st century climate.
The really inconvenient truth is that we have absolutely no idea of how we can reduce carbon emissions to avoid a 1.5C or even 2C warming on the timescales predicted by climate models. A new paper was published last week What would it take to achieve the Paris temperature targets? From the abstract:
The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit warming to 2 or 1.5°C above preindustrial level, although combined Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) are likely insufficient to achieve these targets. We propose a set of idealized emission pathways consistent with the targets. If countries reduce emissions in line with their INDCs, the 2°C threshold could be avoided only if net zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) are achieved by 2085 and late century negative emissions are considerably in excess of those assumed in Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 2.6. More aggressive near-term reductions would allow 2°C to be avoided with less end-of-century carbon removal capacity. A 10% cut in GHGEs by 2030 (relative to 2015) could likely achieve 2°C with RCP2.6 level negative emissions. The 1.5°C target requires GHGEs to be reduced by almost a third by 2030 and net zero by 2050, while a 50 year overshoot of 1.5°C allows net zero GHGEs by 2060.
This level of reductions/negative emissions is impossible with current technologies, not to mention the sociopolitical impediments. Its time to acknowledge this, and start having a real discussion of a range of policies that could reduce our vulnerability to climate change, in whatever direction and whether natural or human caused. Focusing our efforts on policies that are a priori woefully inadequate for a highly uncertain future climate simply doesn’t make policy or political sense. THIS is the really inconvenient truth.