Author Archive - Roger Pielke, Jr.

Top 10 Things I liked about Prometheus

June 29th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A Guest Post by Sharon Friedman

1. We could keep up with the latest in the “big” climate science (as in GCM, IPCC) world in minutes a day. This comes in handy at work “hasn’t the A2 emissions scenario been proven to be way underestimating current conditions?”. Cocktail parties- not so much.

2. We could have discussions only other science policy wonks are interested in.. My model estimates the density of science policy wonks in the US is about 1 per 100 square miles. So without a virtual meeting place, we are likely to never interact except in hubs such as D.C. Those of us who spent time in D.C. can fondly remember our time worshipping at the Temple of Science (the NAS building) through virtual wonkhood.

3. We could interact between science policy practitioners in the real world and academics. What if medical researchers never spoke to actual doctors or got feedback on their research and how it applies in the real world? Whoops, forgot, most sciences do operate that way. This is actually pretty rare, and immensely mutually beneficial.

4. People were civil and respectful and dialogue led to deeper understanding. People would call each other on questionable claims and assumptions without the called upon leaving in a huff. I have tried to comment on some natural resource issues in online newspapers and magazines; the dialogue there seldom has to do with the exchange of ideas but rather clobbering people with accusations about their motives. Our level of civility is darn rare, in my experience.

5. One of my personal pet peeves is a project I am working on at work that is consistently portrayed incorrectly in the press. I have a hypothesis that the more invalid claims, the less likely it is that a venue provides an opportunity to comment below the story.. I like Prometheus because any claims are subjected to discussion and validation.. always. Including stories where comments are not a part of the orginal site.

6. I could find kindred spirits about downscaling not being the essential approach to think about the future; how can downscaled climate models be essential when downscaled economic models are not? Where else could you talk about whether knowing you don’t know is better than thinking you know and really not knowing?

7. People from all disciplines engaged and brought their perspectives. One of the discussions I thought was great was when economist, chemists and other started talking about how they deal with modeling and testing the results of models in their fields.

8. We could talk about science policy being about more than how much money is in the NSF, NIH, DOE and DOD research budgets (who else is supremely tired of hearing about this?)

9. Roger calling people on how they can be purveyors of “objective science” and deal snarkily with those who disagree: where else could that happen?

10. My fellow Prometheites.. respectful, thoughtful , insightful, questioning and contributing to my knowledge and thought development.

Here’s a virtual glass of Golden City Brewery Legendary Red Ale against a virtual background of Einstein’s Statue to Roger and all you fellow Prometheites!

Some Changes to Announce

June 15th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

There are some changes to announce.

Prometheus is going to be retired. It has been a while in coming, but the fact that our center website is due for a comprehensive overhaul, necessitating a significant redesign and likely extended downtime makes the timing appropriate. I would like to thank CU and CIRES for their support of the blog 100% and without reservation since its inception.

Center leadership has offered to invest what it takes to keep the blog going, but I have decided that it is time for a change. Our plan is to keep the Prometheus archive up and available. There will be no new posts after July 31.

For my part I will be blogging at my new site effective immediately. That site is

Please update your bookmarks accordingly, and I look forward to hearing from you at the new site.

Finally, many thanks to our readers, old and new.

Not What a Sensible Person Should Do

June 11th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

FEMA is attempting to do the impossible, and that is to predict future flood losses in a way that will allow changes to be made in the federal flood insurance program. E&E Daily reports:

Federal officials are struggling to calculate the fiscal impact that climate change could have on the nation’s troubled public flood insurance program, amid predictions of intensifying downpours and more potent hurricanes. The mission is proving extremely difficult, according to one researcher, who said the effort so far has failed to reveal even “squishy assumptions.”

The project’s lead researcher suggested that the entire effort was misguided (emphasis added):

Researchers are using data from the IPCC and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program to determine the climate risks to the insurance program. But there are glaring omissions in the overall knowledge needed to accurately depict the effects, says David Divoky, an expert with the consulting firm AECOM and the study’s lead researcher.

Detailed information about population growth is unknown, for example. So are the frequency, severity and location of future hurricanes, all of which can create large variations on the impacts on the flood insurance program. “There may be no solid projections. We’re not even coming up with squishy assumptions,” Divoky told an audience at the floodplain managers conference. “This whole thing is not what a sensible person should do.”

Once again I am reminded about a vignette from Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow (PDF):

As a weather forecaster in the Second World War, Arrow and his colleagues were told that their commanding officer needed a long-term forecast. The forecasters knew from experience that such forecasts had little scientific basis, and related this up the chain of command. The reply that came back was this: no matter, the general needs the forecast for planning purposes.

One prediction for the FEMA study seems spot on:

“The results could produce controversy regardless of the outcome”

Policing Carbon Corruption

June 11th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Imagine a cap and trade regime in place, and a company decides to shave off a few percentage points on its emissions accounting in order to generate a few tens of thousands more allowances. What happens then?

Australian Climate Change Minister Penny Wong explains the policing of carbon corruption via the Herald Sun (and for those like me needing some translation from Australian, here is the definition of “rort”):

Interpol has warned the carbon market will be irresistible to criminal gangs because of the vast amounts of cash to be made. Possible rorts include under-reporting of carbon emissions by firms and bogus carbon offset schemes.

“If someone is rorting it by even 1 per cent a year, we’re talking about many, many millions of dollars,” Mr Torr said.

Ms Wong’s office said AFP [Australian federal police] agents would be expected to enter premises and request paperwork to monitor firms’ emissions reductions. They would act on the 30-strong Australian Climate Change Regulatory Authority’s orders.

It said the authority could appoint staff members or police as inspectors.

She said the Department of Climate Change had spoken to the AFPA [Australian Federal Police Association] and the parties would talk again. Carbon trading involves carbon emissions rights buying and selling. Businesses can offset emissions by investing in climate-friendly projects, or carbon credits.

Ms Wong’s office said provisions had been made to ensure compliance. “Inspectors may enter premises and exercise other monitoring powers,” she said. “The inspectors may ask questions and seek the production of documents. There is provision for the issue of monitoring warrants by magistrates.”

The AFP’s 2855 sworn agents are involved in law enforcement in Australia and overseas, investigating terrorist threats, drug syndicates, people trafficking, fraud and threats against children.

Mr Torr said breaking carbon trading laws would be like breaking other laws. “These offences will constitute another federal crime type, along with narcotics importing, people smuggling and all the rest of it, that the AFP will be expected to police,” he said. “I can see very complex, covert investigations . . . a lot of scientific expertise required.”

Narcotics, human trafficking, carbon corruption. Wouldn’t a carbon tax be easier?

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

June 10th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Japan announced a target for emissions reductions, that by all accounts is based on what the Japanese government thinks is actually possible.

In reaction to this announcement, the Japanese government was criticized for not playing along with the charade that most every other country is playing:

Yvo de Boer, general secretary of the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, said emission reduction plans submitted so far leave industrial countries “a long long way from the ambitious reduction scenarios” that scientists say are needed. He appeared taken aback by the limited scope of the Japanese announcement.

“For the first time in 2-1/2 years in this job, I don’t know what to say,” he said.

Why makes Japan’s proposal more responsible than that of Europe, the US, or any other country? Prime Minister Taro Aso explains:

Mr. Aso was quick to point out that unlike targets set under the Kyoto Protocol, which allowed countries to use emissions offsets and other methods, the 15 percent decrease would come from actual cuts. The government recently introduced subsidies that encourage the use of solar power in Japanese homes, as well as incentives on low-emission cars.

The 15 percent target, Mr. Aso stressed, was a compromise he had reached after consulting extensively with scientists and economists, as well as with members of the public.

To meet the target, Japan will pursue breakthroughs in environmental technology, as well as expand the use of nuclear energy. Mr. Aso has said Tokyo aimed to expand solar output by a factor of 20 and put more “green” cars on Japanese roads. He said he believed Japanese companies could increase efficiency even further.

In other words, Japan is focused on actually changing the carbon intensity of its economy, and not with playing accounting games with allowances, credits, and offsets. The Japanese economy is the second most carbon efficient large economy (after France) and thus additional progress comes at a correspondingly more costly price. Consider that if the world economy was as carbon efficient as Japan’s economy, then carbon dioxide emissions this year would be about 33% less.

Of course, Japan could have gone along with Europe and now the U.S. in making fictional commitments to fictional targets and timetables, and everyone would have praised their commitments. We have seen how well that approach has worked out in Australia.

Sincere efforts should be rewarded, and Japan is showing leadership on a difficult challenge. While it is true that Japan’s proposals do not represent a complete solution to the challenge of decarbonization — far from it — they do point toward a way forward, which is much more than can be said for other nations or the actions under the Framework Convention.

What does Japan get for its leadership? Criticism.

Such is the up is down world of climate policy where no good deed goes unpunished.

Climate Rorshach Test as News

June 10th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Apparently an AP news article out today on how we don’t know if global warming is making the winds blow with less gusto is not a parody, despite all indications to the contrary. For benefit of readers I have condensed it as below:

Not so windy: Research suggests winds dying down

By SETH BORENSTEIN – 6 hours ago

WASHINGTON (AP) — The wind, a favorite power source of the green energy movement, seems to be dying down across the United States. And the cause, ironically, may be global warming — the very problem wind power seeks to address.

The idea that winds may be slowing is still a speculative one, and scientists disagree whether that is happening. . .

Still, the study, which will be published in August in the peer-reviewed Journal of Geophysical Research, is preliminary. There are enough questions that even the authors say it’s too early to know if this is a real trend or not. But it raises a new side effect of global warming that hasn’t been looked into before. . .

Even so, that information doesn’t provide the definitive proof that science requires to connect reduced wind speeds to global warming, the authors said. In climate change science, there is a rigorous and specific method — which looks at all possible causes and charts their specific effects — to attribute an effect to global warming. That should be done eventually with wind, scientists say. . .

One of the problems Pryor acknowledges with her study is that over many years, changing conditions near wind-measuring devices can skew data. If trees grow or buildings are erected near wind gauges, that could reduce speed measurements.

Several outside experts mostly agree that there are signs that wind speed is decreasing and that global warming is the likely culprit.

The new study “demonstrates, rather conclusively in my mind, that average and peak wind speeds have decreased over the U.S. in recent decades,” said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.

A naysayer is Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate scientist in New York who said the results conflict with climate models that show no effect from global warming. He also doubts that any decline in the winds that might be occurring has much of an effect on wind power.

Has global warming reduced windspeeds with potentious implictaions for wind power?

Well obviously we don’t know, but if you’d like to believe that it does, you can justify that belief by citing Michael Mann. And if you’d like to believe that it does not, you can justify that belief by citing Gavin Schmidt.

Climate science as Rorschach test, film at 11.

Collateral Damage from the Death of Stationarity

June 10th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In recent years climate scientists have come to understand that the climate system may not be stationary – meaning that the fundamental statistics of climate vary and change over timescales of relevance to people. For those who consider that the phrase “climate change” is redundant, this will be no surprise. However, decision makers in a wide range of settings, including flood mitigation, reinsurance and insurance, and even aspects of carbon policy, operate from a framework where climate is perceived to be a stationary process.

In a new essay in the GEWEX Newsletter I argue that if indeed stationarity is dead then collateral damage of the new philosophy of climate necessarily must be the notion that we can ever evaluate the skill of climate predictions using empirical methods. That leaves us relying on a few remaining methods of forecast evaluation, among them political expediency and simple faith.

Here is an excerpt from my essay:

Here I suggest a far more consequential implication of the death of stationarity for the role of science in water management decision making than a need for better models and observations. Rather than basing decision-making on a predict (probabilistically of course) then act model, we may have to face up to the fact that skillful prediction of variables of interest to decision makers may simply not be possible. And even if it were possible, we would not be able to identify skill on the same time scales as decisions need to be made. The consequence of this line of argument is that if stationarity is indeed dead, then it has likely taken along with it fanciful notions of foreseeing the future as the basis for optimal actions. Instead, it may be time to rethink how we make decisions in the face of not simply uncertainty, but fundamental and irreducible ignorance. Rather than focus on optimal decisions guided by prediction, we may need instead to focus on robust decisions guided by recognition of the limits of what can be known.

You can read the entire essay, which includes an excursion into how the “guaranteed win scam” conspires with the “hot hand fallacy” to defeat efforts to judge predictive skill in the context of nonstationarity, at the link below.

Pielke, Jr., R.A., 2009. Collateral Damage from the Death of Stationarity, GEWEX Newsletter, May, pp. 5-7. (PDF)

A Plea From a Policy Maker

June 9th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark explains to the scientific community what he needs from them leading up to the Copenhagen climate conference later this year (PDF):

But understand me correctly; at the end of the day, here in Copenhagen, we have—as politicians—to make the final decision, and to decide on exact figures, I hope. And this is a reason why I would give you the piece of advice, not to provide us with too many moving targets, because it is already a very, very complicated process. And I need your assistance to push this process in the right direction, and in that respect, I need fixed targets and certain figures, and not too many considerations on uncertainty and risk and things like that.

The problem, of course, is not that a politician would offer such advice, rather it is that many scientists have decided to follow it.

ICAT Damage Estimator

June 9th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I have not been this excited about a web app for a long time if ever. ICAT is an insurance company located here in Boulder, Colorado and I have been working with them over the past year to develop a new website called the ICAT Damage Estimator which builds upon our research on normalized hurricane losses. The website is now live in beta mode here.

You can view a brief tutorial below, and I encourage you to do so as it has a lot of interesting functionality. In the coming weeks we’ll be rolling out some additional functions that will be mightily impressive. Stay tuned for that. Meantime, please explore the site, share it around, and use the feedback options on the site to let us know what you think.

“A Con for Our Time”

June 8th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

[UPDATED: See below]

Writing at the FT, London School of Economics economist William Buiter calls the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (otherwise known as Waxman-Markey) “a total con”:

[Under ACES] emissions will not be reduced. But that is inconsistent with the supposed desire to reduce emissions to 83 percent of their 2005 level by 2020 and to 17 percent of the 2005 level by 2050. Except that is it not inconsistent if there is no intention to reduce emissions at all, but instead every intention to permit them to be raised above their 2005 levels. And that is of course what is going on.

Here I go beyond Buiter’s cogent critique to add a few quantitative details to how offsets under the bill will allow emissions to rise essentially indefinitely.

First, lets start with some assumptions.

1. The scheme begins in 2012.
2. The scheme covers 85% of US emissions.
3. 85% of 2012 emissions are 6,078 million tonnes
4. The scheme has a goal of reducing emissions to 5,056 million tonnes by 2020 and 3,533 by 2030.
5. 2,000 tonnes of offset credits are available each year of the scheme
6. Unused offsets roll over and can be used in subsequent years

Under these assumptions we can reach a few interesting conclusions.

First, to achieve the 2020 emissions reduction goal under a scenario of 2.0% annual GDP growth requires decarbonization of the U.S. economy of about 4.0% per year. Under the faster rate of economic growth in the Obama Budget that rate of decarbonization needs to be 5.2% per year.

Second, to achieve the 2030 emissions reduction goal under a scenario of 2.0% annual GDP growth requires decarbonization of the US economy of about 5.0% per year. Under the faster rate of economic growth in the Obama Budget that rate of decarbonization needs to be 5.7% per year.

Since no one knows how to decarbonize an economy at rates of 4% or above per year over a period of decades, the authors of the ACES bill have provided the opportunity for the generous use of “offsets” — which means that credit can be claimed toward the ACES goals for reducing emissions (or more likely, reducing hypothetical future emissions) both inside and outside of the U.S. economy.

I was curious as to how many offsets would have to be used for the U.S. to maintain its historical rate of decarbonization of about 2% per year. So I have conducted the following exercise:

1. I projected US emissions at a 2% rate of decarbonization of the economy coupled with assumed economic growth of 2% per year.

2. I then compared this scenario with emissions reductions consistent with the targets in ACES for 2020 and beyond. [UPDATE: The first version of the graph I showed below used a rate of decarbonization faster than required by ACES to 2020, but consistent with a 2030 trajectory, the second graph shows a rate consistent with the 2020 trajectory.]

3. I assume that the difference between the 2% decarbonization scenario and the ACES scenario will be made up for entirely through use of offsets.

The question I want to answer is, what percentage of available offsets would be necessary to use to sustain a 2% rate of decarbonization? The answer surprised me and can be seen in the following graph.


What this graph shows is that only a small portion of available offsets would need to be used to sustain the historical rate of decarbonization of the U.S. economy [UPDATE] consistent with the ACES 2030 trajectory. Economic modelers like to call this “business as usual.” Whether the 2% rate results from business as usual, the effects of ACES, or a combination of both is irrelevant to this exercise.

[UPDATE} The graph below shows the rate consistent with the 2020 emissions reduction trajectory. The rates are different to 2020 and 2030 under ACES, which is why the graphs look different

(Methodological notes: I ignore the phase in of covered entities from 2012 to 2016 under ACES, making my exercise a bit conservative. Using a faster rate of growth, such as under the Obama Budget would increase the values for 2020 by about 3%.)

What this exercise shows is that it it would be possible under an offsetting scheme like that in ACES to avoid achieving decarbonization rates of 4% or greater by using only a small fraction of available offsets, and thus do absolutely nothing to change, much less transform, the U.S. energy system. William Buiter is correct — offsets are a “con for our time.”