Archive for March, 2008

Setting a Trap for the Next President

March 29th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

An editorial in todays New York Times reports that the Bush Administration (and specifically the U.S. EPA) is considering some action on climate change:

On April 2, 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act clearly empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to address greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. The ruling instructed the agency to determine whether global warming pollution endangers public health and welfare — an “endangerment finding” — and, if so, to devise emissions standards for motor vehicles.

One year has passed, and despite repeated promises from President Bush and the E.P.A. administrator, Stephen Johnson, nothing has happened. And it seems increasingly likely that nothing will happen while Mr. Bush remains in office. Last week, Mr. Johnson notified Congress that he had discovered new regulatory complexities and decided against immediate action. Instead, he planned to offer an “advanced notice of proposed rule-making,” which requires a lengthy comment period and a laborious bureaucratic process that would almost certainly stretch beyond the end of Mr. Bush’s term.

The NYT fails to see one important aspect of this strategy. Issuing an “Advanced Notice of Proposed Regulation” (ANPR) is in fact a significant step in the regulatory process. Importantly, in the regulatory process it turns the burden of of proof around from the need to show harm in order for regulation to occur, to the need to show safety for the regulation not to occur. Proving that a substance is safe, under the assumption that it is harmful, is a much more difficult challenge than the opposite.

So if the Bush Administration were in fact to issue an ANPR it would be a fairly significant act, especially for this administration. It would signal that greenhouse gas regulations are in fact coming.

But the important question is when. The Times notes correctly that the regulatory process would stretch beyond Bush’s term. And of course this might be precisely the point of issuing an ANPR. It would saddle the next Administration with the challenge of figuring out how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from autos. As we have recently seen in Europe, creating and implementing such regulations is a messy affair.

Not long ago I wrote of this possibility in my column for Bridges (PDF):

So if a Democrat is elected in November 2008, which appears likely, it seems eminently plausible that the Bush Administration would help the new administration get off to a running start by leaving them with a proposed rule, under the EPA, for the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. Even the possibility of such a
late-hour action is probably enough for the declared Democratic presidential candidates to be very careful about calling for dramatic action on climate change, lest – if elected – they find themselves getting what they asked for.

Because no one really yet knows how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by any significant amount, a strong proposed rule on climate change issued in the final months of the Bush Administration would create all sorts of political difficulties for the next president, just as those late-hour rules proposed by President Clinton did for President Bush. If reducing emissions indeed proves to be easy, as some have suggested, President Bush would get credit for taking decisive action. If it proves difficult and costly, as many suggest, then the next administration would bear the political backlash.

Common wisdom that the Bush Administration will not act meaningfully on climate change may in the end prove to be correct. But, at the same time, remember that lame ducks are unpredictable creatures.

My guess — and it is nothing more than a guess — is that the announcement of an ANPR on automobile emissions will occur — if it is to occur at all — after the November election, and only if a Democrat is elected. Of course, if McCain wins the election and the Bush Administration still announces the ANPR, then you can assume that there is still little love lost between the two, as the ANPR would saddle McCain with some sure problems during his presidency.

Finally, if you’d like to read the story of how Jimmy Carter’s late-hour ANPR on stratospheric ozone eventually paved the way for domestic regulations and then international accords, please have a look at the following paper:

Pielke, Jr., R. A., and M. M. Betsill, 1997: Policy for Science for Policy: Ozone Depletion and Acid Rain Revisited. Research Policy, 26, 157-168. (PDF)

Those Nice Guys at Grist

March 27th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Gristmill Blog is an interesting place, not least because of the heaps of scorn they frequently direct my way. In their latest rant Dave Roberts takes issue with a poorly-worded story by Alan Zarembo in yesterday’s L.A. Times (which we’ve discussed and clarified here) by attacking me.

Dave now says that my views on climate change are in fact the mainstream:

In short, the solutions [Pielke] advocates are the same ones pushed by just about everyone in the climate debate: a mix of adaptation and mitigation.

Of course it was not so long ago that Dave himself said quite bluntly of adaptation in June, 2006:

There’s one way to directly address climate change, and that’s reducing the GHG emissions that drive it. In the context of the climate-change debate, advocating for adaptation means advocating for a non-response. It means advocating for nothing. I, for one, am not going to provide that kind of political cover for those who are protecting their corporate contributors.

Unfortunately the anti-adaptation views that Dave held in 2006 are still widely shared in the policy and advocacy communities. For example, less than a year ago Tim Flannery called adaptation “morally repugnant” and a “form of genocide.”

[UPDATE: A reader suggests that a fuller quote from Tim Flannery is more appropriate. I do not disagree. Here is what the reader pointed to from Flannery: "I think that adaptation, except in the more trivial ways, is a very dangerous route to go down.... I see adaptation, if we take it too far, as really a form of genocide."]

Al Gore is notably against adaptation as well. And several of us characterized the continuing policy challenges in a Commentary in Nature last year (PDF).

So while it is good to see that Dave appears to have mostly come around on adaptation and now sees it as an essential part of responding to climate change, there still is a lot of work to do. It is pretty bizarre that he has to go on the attack when his main point seems to be that he agrees with my views. Its about time. Now if only we can get Grist’s Joe Romm straight on energy policy. We’ll tackle that next week;-)

LA Times on Adaptation

March 26th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Pielke LA Times.gif

The image above is from a LA Times story by Alan Zarembo and is based on some of our reserach on future hurricane damages under changes in both climate and society. Zarembo provides a perspective on a group of scholars and advocates that I once called “nonskeptical heretics.” Nonskeptical because they accept the science presented by the IPCC (as noted by Zarembo), and heretics because they take strong issue with many of the closely held assumptions that have come to frame the debate over climate policies.

Zarembo characterizes one of the most insidious assumptions — that support for adaptation necessarily means a loss of support for mitigation:

Other scientists say that time is running out to control carbon dioxide emissions and that the call to adapt is providing a potentially dangerous excuse to delay. . . Although most scientists agree that adaptation should play a major role in absorbing the effects of climate change, they say that buying into the heretics’ arguments will dig the world into a deeper hole by putting off greenhouse gas reductions until it is too late.

Well, no. It is a strawman to argue that strong support for adaptation means that one cannot also provide strong support for mitigation. A problem arises for mitigation-first proponents when they invoke things like hurricanes, malaria, and drought as justification for mitigation when clearly adaptive responses will be far more effective. Those who persist in linking mitigation to reducing such climate impacts will always find themselves on the wrong side of what research has shown — namely, climate change is a much smaller factor in such impacts than societal factors (compare the graph above). It is true. Get over it.

The best arguments for mitigation were presented by Zarembo coming from Steve Schneider, who rightly pointed to the uncertain but highly consequential impacts of human-caused climate change:

“You can’t adapt to melting the Greenland ice sheet,” said Stephen H. Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University. “You can’t adapt to species that have gone extinct.”

If advocacy for action on mitigation emphasized these very large scale long-term impacts, rather than disasters, disease, etc., then there would be no need for adaptation and mitigation to be presented as opposing approaches. Consider that none of the people quoted in the Zarembo story who I know (including me) have suggested that adaptation can replace mitigation, particularly for issues like sea level rise and specifies extinction. So the argument that adaptation can’t deal with sea level rise over a century or more is somewhat of a strawman as well.

The reality is that whatever the world decides to do on mitigation, we will have no choice but to improve our adaptation to climate. Humans have been improving their adaptation to climate forever and will continue to do so. Since we are going to adapt, we should do it wisely. And this means rejecting bad policy arguments when offered in the way of substitutes for adaptation, like the tired old view that today’s disaster losses are somehow a justification for changes to energy policies. Misleading policy arguments and should be pointed out as such, because they hurt both the cause of adaptation, but ironically the cause of mitigation as well.

If mitigation advocates do not like being told that their misleading arguments poorly serve policy debate, well, they should probably try to come up with a more robust set of arguments. Arguing that support for adaptation undercuts support for mitigation is a little like making the argument that support for eating healthy and getting exercise (adapting one’s lifestyle) undercuts support for heart surgery research (mitigating the effects of heart disease). Obviously we should seek both adaptation and mitigation in the context of heart disease.

If the case for action on energy policy is so overwhelmingly strong (and again, I think that it is), then there should be no reason to resort to misleading arguments completely detached from the conclusions of a wide range of analyses. Misleading arguments may be politically expedient in the short term, but cannot help the mitigation cause in the long run. And dealing with the emissions of greenhouse gases will take place over the long run. Meantime, we’ll adapt.

Why adaptation is not sufficient

March 25th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Just after I post suggesting that it would be more constructive to get out of the zero-sum construction of adaptation and mitigation, the LA Times has a story featuring Roger Pielke, Jr. and others saying we should give up on mitigation and focus on adaptation: “His research has led him to believe that it is cheaper and more effective to adapt to global warming than to fight it.”

[Correction: Roger informs me that this quotation mischaracterizes his position as posing a dichotomy between adaptation and mitigation. I apologize for taking the reporter's words at face value without checking their veracity first. The comment that follows, then, does not refer specifically to Roger's views, but I leave it because the false perception that we must choose between adaptation and mitigation is common and I wish to make clear that it's wrong.]

That’s just not going to do it, in part because it ignores the value of ecosystem services. I would like anti-mitigationists to address how adaptation will address ecosystems, particularly the effect of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems.

I am also very concerned about the economic effects of disrupting terrestrial ecosystems on agriculture. I have a hard time believing anti-mitigation arguments based on cost-benefit analyses that set a zero value on threats to ecosystem services simply because they don’t know how to quantify those.


Why no candidate positions on adaptation?

March 24th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Over at the NY Times, Nicki Bennett makes a guest post on Nicholas Kristoff’s “On the Ground” blog about climate change and Dhaka Bangladesh. After some fairly boilerplate stuff about how climate change is likely to affect people there, she raises an important point that we don’t see reported sufficiently:

Back at the office, feeling curious, I decide to conduct a quick (and totally unscientific) experiment to check how much people in the United States actually care about the issue: I log onto the websites of the main U.S. presidential candidates to see if they have a position on climate change. Some of them talk about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. None talk about paying money into the climate change “adaptation” fund. And none are talking about the impact of climate change on poor people – or what they might do about the fact that places like Bangladesh and New Orleans are already being bashed by climate-related disasters and slowly losing land to rising sea levels.

This makes me think about how we seem to hear from many proponents of adaptation policy only when they are setting mitigation and adaptation against each other as slices in a zero-sum climate policy pie.

It would be nice to hear more discussion of adaptation independently of mitigation. I wonder whether separating the two issues more in public discourse would make it easier to press for adaptation policy by making it harder for candidates to say in essence, “I gave at the office with my mitigation policy.”

New Paper on Climate Contrarians by Myanna Lahsen

March 24th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I’d like to alert readers of this blog to an article of mine just out
in this issue of Global Environmental Change. It analyzes a prominent
subset of US climate contrarians, providing a more multi-faceted and
complex account than generally available of why they chose to join the
anti-environmental backlash. One of them, Frederick Seitz, died recently, making this a poignant time to examine him as well as his
similarly influential colleagues in historical perspective, as I do in
this article. Below is the reference and the abstract of the article:

Lahsen, Myanna. “Experiences of Modernity in the Greenhouse: A Cultural Analysis of a Physicist ‘Trio’ Supporting the Conservative Backlash Against Global Warming.” Global Environmental Change (2008), Vol. 18/1 pp 204-219. (PDF)

In the context of President George W. Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto
Protocol intended to combat human-induced climate change, it appears
important to improve understanding of powerful efforts to reframe
global climate change as a non-problem. This paper draws on
ethnographic research among U.S. scientists involved with climate
science and politics to improve understanding of the U.S. controversy
over global climate change by attending to structuring cultural and
historical dimensions. The paper explores why a key subset of
scientists – the physicist founders and leaders of the George C.
Marshall Institute – chose to lend their scientific authority to the
“environmental backlash,” the counter-movement that has mobilized to
defuse widespread concern about perceived environmental threats,
including human-induced climate change. The paper suggests that the
physicists joined the backlash to stem changing tides in science and
society and to defend their preferred understandings of science,
modernity, and of themselves as a physicist elite – understandings
challenged by recent transformations in American science and society
that express themselves, among other places, in the widespread concern
about human-induced climate change.

6 Days in 2012: Effect of the CDM on Carbon Emissions

March 19th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

This is a somewhat technical post on a fairly narrow issue. This week in class we had the pleasure of a visit by Wolfgang Sterk from the Wuppertal Institute (in Germany), who provided a really excellent presentation on the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol and the European Emissions Trading Scheme.

His presentation discussed, and also raised some further questions about, the effectiveness of the CDM. So out of curiosity I have asked, and answered below, the question: What effect does the CDM have on carbon dioxide emissions to 2012?


You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

March 18th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Now according to Grist Magazine’s Joe Romm I am a “delayer/denier” because I’ve asked what data would be inconsistent with IPCC predictions. Revealed truths are not to be questioned lest we take you to the gallows. And people wonder why some people see the more enthusiastic climate advocates akin to religious zealots.

I am happy to report that it is quite possible to believe in strong action on mitigation and adaptation while at the same time ask probing questions of our scientific understandings.

UK Emissions

March 17th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

UK CO2.png

The graph above is from a report (PDF) of the UK government’s National Audit Office, which explains some of the difficulties in accounting for carbon emissions at the national level.

The report has received some attention for this figure and what the following passage means for emissions reduction targets currently under consideration by the UK Parliament:

Figure 13 demonstrates that there have been no reductions in UK carbon dioxide emissions if measured on the basis of the Accounts rather than on the basis of the IPCC/Kyoto reporting requirements.

One point worth making is that the difference between UK Environmental Accounts and Kyoto accounting stems from international aviation and shipping (not included by Kyoto) and the treatment of tourists and nonresidents in the UK. These sort of issues obviously play a large role in the ability of countries to meet Kyoto targets. One wonders what the effect on the ability of countries to meet Kyoto targets would be if carbon emissions were accounted for on an UK Environmental Accounting Basis.

It would seem that the passage of ambitious targets and timetables for UK emissions reductions has been made less likely by this report, and yet at the same time it can’t be good news for those wanting that third runway at Heathrow.

Update on Falsifiability of Climate Predictions

March 15th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.


UPDATE 2:40PM 3-15-08: Within a few hours of this post, as we might have expected, rather than contributing to the substantive discussion, a climate scientist chooses instead to tell us how stupid we are for even discussing such subjects. We are told that “until the temperature obviously and unambiguously turns up again, this kind of stuff is going to continue.” Isn’t that what this post says? For the “stuff” read on below.

Regular readers will recall that not long ago I asked the climate community research community to suggest what climate observations might be observed on decadal time scales that might be inconsistent with predictions from models. While Real Climate has decided to take a pass on this question other scientists and interested observers have taken up the challenge, no doubt with interest added by the recent cooling in the primary datasets of global temperature.

A very interesting perspective is provided by Lucia Liljegren, who has several interesting posts on observations versus predictions. The figure above is from her analysis. Her complete analysis can be found here. She has several follow up posts in which she discusses other aspects of the analysis and links to a few other, similar explorations of this issue. She writes:

No matter which major temperature measuring group we examine, or which reasonable criteria for limiting our choices we select, it appears that possible that something not anticipated by the IPCC WG1 happened soon after they published their predictions for this century. That something may be the shift in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation; it may be something else. Statistics cannot tell us.

It may turn out that this something is a relatively infrequent but climatologically important, feature that results in unusually cold weather . Events that happen at a rate of 1% do happen– at a rate of 1%. So, if recent flat trend is the 1% event, then 30 year trend in temperatures will resume.

For what it’s worth: I believe AGW is real, based on physical arguments and longer term trends, I suspect we will discover that GCM’s are currently unable to predict shifts in the PDO. The result is the uncertainty intervals on IPCC projections for the short term trend were much too small.

Of course, the reason for the poor short term predictions may turn out to be something else entirely. It remains to those who make these predictions to try to identify what, if anything, resulted in this mismatch between projections and short term data. Or to stand steadfast and wait for La Nina to break and the weather to begin to warm.

Those wanting to quibble with her analysis would no doubt observe that the uncertainty around IPCC predictions for the short term is undoubtedly larger that then IPCC itself presented. Lucia in fact suggests this in her analysis, making one wonder if uncertainties are indeed larger than presented, why didn’t the IPCC say so?

In 2006 my father and I wrote about the possible effects on the climate debate of short-term predictions that do not square with observations:

predictions represent a huge gamble with public and policymaker opinion. If more-or-less steady global warming does not occur as forecast by these models, not only will professional reputations be at risk, but the need to reduce threats to the wide spectrum of serious and legitimate environmental concerns (including the human release of greenhouse gases) will be questioned by some as having been oversold. For better or worse, a failure to accurately predict the changes in the global average surface temperature, global average tropospheric temperature, ocean average heat content change, or Arctic sea ice coverage would raise questions on the reliance of global climate models for accurate prediction on multi-decadal time scales.

In one of the comments in response to that post a climate scientist (and Real Climate blogger) took us to task for raising the issue suggesting that there was no really reason to speculate about such things given that, “I’ve pointed out that in the obs, there is no sign of > 2 yr decreasing trends.”

Another climate scientist commented that climate models were completely on target:

Re the possibility that the Earth is acting in a way that the models hadn’t predicted, I must say I’m pretty relaxed about that. Let’s wait a few more years and see, eh?

I have not yet seen rebuttals to Lucia’s analysis, or others like it (she points to a few), which are not peer-reviewed analyses, yet certainly of some merit and worth considering. There continues to be good reasons for climate scientists to begin more openly discussing the limitations of short-term climate predictions and the implications for understanding uncertainties. They have these discussions among themselves all of the time. For example, with a view quite similar to my own, Real Climate’s Gavin Schimdt suggests that if the full context of a prediction from a climate model is not understood, then:

model results have an aura of exactitude that can be misleading. Reporting those results without the appropriate caveats can then provoke a backlash from those who know better, lending the whole field an aura of unreliability.

None of this discussion means that the basic conclusion that greenhouse gases affect the climate system is wrong, or that action to mitigate emissions do not make sense. What it does mean is that we should be concerned about the overselling of climate predictions and the corresponding risks to public credibility and advocacy built upon these predictions.