Archive for October, 2007

The Problems with Calling for a Science President

October 30th, 2007

Posted by: admin

The cover article in the current (October 2007) issue of Seed magazine is titled “Dr. President.” It’s the clearest example of what I see as a fair amount of optimistic thinking about the intersection of science and presidential politics. Written by Chris Mooney, who tread a lot of similar – but more partisan – ground in his book The Republican War on Science, the article reads like many laundry lists of policy prescriptions for the next president that tend to appear (and are typically ignored) in the months leading to a Presidential election. I helped put together one such list while working at the National Academies. Carl Zimmer, writing in The Loom, noted a similarly idealistic call for a Presidential debate on science issues. (And like he said, why is it in a section called “On Faith”? Because Matthew Chapman – the one making the appeal – is an atheist? A science debate will be narrow enough without restricting it by framing it with religion)

Working in Washington, I’m encouraged by the optimism (due to its scarcity here), but really feel the need to temper this optimism about having a ’science president’ or a public debate on science issues by critiquing some of the underlying assumptions common to the arguments, and others, that often come with calls for a science president, or presidential leadership on science. Mooney and Chapman aren’t the first, nor will they be the last, to make these arguments. But they will fall on deaf ears, much like Senator Clinton’s recent outline of her science and technology policy goals (note what ended up dead last).

Here are a few notions that need a re-assessment:

Good science underlies sound policy, so it should matter politically

It’s been at least two presidential election cycles since any serious discussions of policy choices were a significant part of political campaigns. Watch a Sunday morning news show. It’s never about what would be best for the country, but what is best for whichever campaign is the topic of conversation. If the importance of science policy choices is to be made part of a presidential campaign, the question, or dare I say it, the framing, should be how to make science something that gains valuable endorsements (nobody is going to care who Scientist and Engineers for America will endorse, if for no better reason than maybe 200 people know of the group, much less who leads it). So the arguments for “reason, logic, a consideration of fact, and healthy skepticism” Mooney makes may guide someone to better governance, but they won’t do a thing for political accomplishments, absent some demonstration that it will increase political capital or poll numbers. Candidates need to be convinced of how science and technology policy can get them the job before they can be bothered with how they can help them perform the job.


A Range of Views on Prins/Rayner

October 30th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Here are a few reactions, and my comments in response, to the Prins/Rayner piece in Nature last week, which has generated a good deal of healthy discussion on climate policies.

At his new DotEarth blog Andy Revkin notes perceptively that debate over greenhouse gas reduction policies is emerging between those who think that setting a price for carbon is the most important action to be taken, versus others who think that setting a price for carbon can only have modest effects on efficiency, and by itself will not stimulate a transition to a post-fossil fuel world. Most everyone nowadays, including Prins/Rayner, would seem to agree that putting a price on carbon makes good sense. The debate is over the degree to which setting such a price will lead to a significant change in the trajectory of emissions paths. Prins/Rayner are not optimistic (and I agree), and others are more sanguine.

At Nature’s Climate Feedback, a number of informed commenters respond to Prins/Rayner by raising questions about the effectiveness of Kyoto mechanisms. Prins/Rayner emphasize the symbolic importance of Kyoto, but criticize its practical results. They suggest that more of the same – feel-good symbolism over actual, large emissions reductions – is not what the world needs at this point. On this point reasonable people will disagree, but ultimately atmospheric concentrations will arbitrate the debate.

The Wall Street Journal Energy Blog does a nice job identifying where Prins/Rayner agree with and disagree with the policies of the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, the role of technology in the climate debate has been caught up in partisan bickering. Some argue that all of the technologies that are needed to stabilize emissions (or at least make a big forward step in that direction) are already available. I find this argument unconvincing at best, and more likely just plain wrongheaded. Others, such as Nordhaus/Shellenberger suggest that a massive investment in new technologies are needed, a point on which I, and Prins/Rayner, agree. Many environmentalists do their arguments (and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) no favors by taking an anti-technological investment stance, which seems more like a reflexive reaction to be against anything that the Bush Administration might be for — Note however that while the Bush Administration often uses the word “technology” in the context of climate change policy, they have never advocated the sort of investment advocated by Prins/Rayner/Nordhaus/Shellenberger.

There will be more to discuss when Prins/Rayner release the long version of their analysis, hopefully soon. We’ll link to it here when available.

Sustainability: John Stossel versus Anderson Cooper

October 26th, 2007

Posted by: admin

During the past week, ABC and CNN both tackled global environmental issues — but in completely different ways. In a 20/20 segment, John Stossel weighed in on global warming in predictable fashion, using half truths and complete nonsense to make the case that “when the Nobel prize winner says, ‘the debate’s over,’ I say, ‘give me a break!’” Meanwhile, over at CNN, Anderson Cooper, Jeff Corwin and Sanjay Gupta did a shockingly good job with a four-hour documentary titled Planet-in-Peril.

In his 20/20 segment, Stossel copied and pasted the usual exhausted arguments about global warming, including that old one about atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide rising hundreds of years after temperatures began to increase when the Earth was emerging from past ice ages. I guess he was trying to convince viewers that greenhouse gases don’t actually warm the planet, almost putting him in the same company as flat Earthers.

Of course he is either willfully ignorant or willfully misleading. At risk of annoying those Prometheus readers who generally don’t want to waste time on issues like this… Scientists have long known that CO2 and other greenhouse gases lag climate change in the ice core record, and they offer a widely accepted explanation. Changes in Earth’s orientation to the sun are believed to initiate the rise in temperature that heralds the end of an ice age. This rise in temperature, in turn, causes greenhouse gases to be emitted into the atmosphere — for example, as permafrost melts, methane is released. And this accentuates the warming. (For an excellent explanation of this idea, see this RealClimate post.)


News on science and world poverty

October 25th, 2007

Posted by: admin

The Council of Science Editors (includes editors of many scientific publications around the world) has organized this week to focus some page space on the theme of research on poverty and human development. For some good news on the topic, see some of the amazing data visualizations of Hans Rosling, who argues that many countries that we used to think of as experiencing mass poverty are now developing by many standards at a rapid pace. There are still some bleak spots—many of the countries in Africa unfortunately are not yet on target to meet the Millennium Development Goals. One of the interesting tidbits is a project that is using randomized testing to study the effectiveness of various anti-poverty measures. It seeks to combine sensible, tailored solutions on the ground with a research protocol to rigorously test how well the measures work. While this might seem to be “mundane science” to some, I think it’s a great example of usable science working to help the world’s poor.

Prins and Rayner in Nature

October 24th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Gwyn Prins, of the London School of Economics, and Steve Rayner, of Oxford University have a brave and challenging piece in the current issue of Nature on why we need to rethink climate policy. Here is how it begins:

The Kyoto Protocol is a symbolically important expression of governments’ concern about climate change. But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth. And it pays no more than token attention to the needs of societies to adapt to existing climate change. The impending United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Bali in December — to decide international policy after 2012 — needs to radically rethink climate policy.

Kyoto’s supporters often blame non-signatory governments, especially the United States and Australia, for its woes. But the Kyoto Protocol was always the wrong tool for the nature of the job. Kyoto was constructed by quickly borrowing from past treaty regimes dealing with stratospheric ozone depletion, acid rain from sulphur emissions and nuclear weapons. Drawing on these plausible but partial analogies, Kyoto’s architects assumed that climate change would be best attacked directly through global emissions controls, treating tonnes of carbon dioxide like stockpiles of nuclear weapons to be reduced via mutually verifiable targets and timetables. Unfortunately, this borrowing simply failed to accommodate the complexity of the climate-change issue.

Kyoto has failed in several ways, not just in its lack of success in slowing global warming, but also because it has stifled discussion of alternative policy approaches that could both combat climate change and adapt to its unavoidable consequences. As Kyoto became a litmus test of political correctness, those who were concerned about climate change, but sceptical of the top-down approach adopted by the protocol were sternly admonished that “Kyoto is the only game in town”. We are anxious that the same mistake is not repeated in the current round of negotiations.

The Kyoto Protocol was always the wrong tool for the nature of the job.

Already, in the post-Kyoto discussions, we are witnessing that well-documented human response to failure, especially where political or emotional capital is involved, which is to insist on more of what is not working: in this case more stringent targets and timetables, involving more countries. The next round of negotiations needs to open up new approaches, not to close them down as Kyoto did.

Read the whole thing free on the Nature site.

Water in the west

October 22nd, 2007

Posted by: admin

In case you missed it, the NY Times Sunday Magazine cover story yesterday was the western water problem. Brad Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment, which is closely affiliated with our Center, got a lot of ink, as did other CU and NOAA affiliates.

One thing (among many) hinted at in the article that deserves highlight: Western agriculture is done. Not tomorrow, not even in the next decade or two, but eventually. Without a check on urban expansion and with every drop of water spoken for, the economics are obvious: people in urban areas need water and have the cash to buy it from the agricultural senior rights holders.

Over on the Post-Normal Times, Sylvia adds the variable to the west’s water equation that the Sunday Mag article left out: the ecosystems and endangered species angle (here and here).

Citing carbon emissions, Kansas rejects coal plants

October 19th, 2007

Posted by: admin

Hard to say what John Marburger would say about this (more on him in a minute), but yesterday Kansas’ Secretary of Health and Environment cited carbon emissions in rejecting the application to install two 700MW coal plants in western Kansas.

The move may be more about politics than about climate, but whatever the reasons, the decision was sold on climate and that’s as important as it is surprising. It’s also another loud declaration that the states aren’t going to wait around for a national-level policy to move on climate mitigation. Here’s hoping that the losers on this decision give more thought to developing a profitable wind project on the plains than to giving lawyers millions to argue the coal case. (The quote from the coal plant developer’s spokesman, “We are extremely upset over this arbitrary and capricious decision” invokes the legal key phrase that spells l-a-w-s-u-i-t.)

News on the Kansas move comes on the heels of some bizarre statements on climate change from Mr. Marburger. I’m not sure what his agenda is, exactly, but the Washington Post today has him saying


NFIP reauthorization moving along

October 18th, 2007

Posted by: admin

In what could become the most significant change to the National Flood Insurance Program since it started in 1968, yesterday Senate Banking unanimously passed out of committee its markup of H.R. 3121, which passed the House on September 27. H.R. 3121, the Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act of 2007, pushes through a small but significant number of changes to the NFIP, including some to address the biggest problem with the NFIP: that it does not (and cannot, because it is not isolated from political interference) charge actuarially-sound rates on the policies it writes.

The bill has 36 sections so I’m not going to pick it apart here, but here are a few things I latched on to (the Senate bill isn’t available yet so the section numbers refer to H.R.3121.EH):

- Quite a few authorizations for studies or reports (yea, I know, I know, but it’s something) on charging actuarially-sound rates, increasing policy holding, including building codes in flood management criteria (go figure); and the creation of a National Flood Insurance Advocate whose main purpose is to write reports.

- Section 4 specifically phases in actuarially-sound rates for non-primary residences and nonresidential properties. This is a great start, but of course specifically and purposefully leaves out setting actuarially-sound rates for most policy holders! It also caps the increase for buildings built before 1974 (known as “pre-FIRM” properties) at 20% and 25% for nonresidential and non-primary residences respectively.


Al Gore and the Nobel

October 12th, 2007

Posted by: admin

Former Vice-President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) share this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. In doing so, they join the ranks of previous winners such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and many other internationally recognized figures working on human rights and global security issues.

I was personally surprised by this decision by the Nobel Committee on many levels.


J.B. Ruhl on The Honest Broker

October 3rd, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Florida State law professor J.B. Ruhl writes:

There is plenty of excellent scholarship on science, technology, and society, but this is hands down the best treatment of the topic I’ve seen. . .

In Honest Broker, which takes only a few hours to read, he provides an incredibly concise and insightful assessment of the role of science (and scientists) in policy and a framework for evaluating the fit between the two as well as for identifying cases of “stealth advocacy.” The thrust of the book resonates particularly well with environmental policy and its administration through agencies with science-policy missions, such as EPA, Fish & Wildlife, and the Forest Service, although by no means is it limited to that context in either content or usefulness.

Read the review here.