Arguing Both Sides at Climate Progress

August 27th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I haven’t engaged much with Joe Romm of late, but I can’t let this one pass. When Tom Wigley, Chris Green and I published our analysis of the spontaneous emissions reductions built into all IPCC scenarios (PDF), Joe Romm put up a post titled: “Why did Nature run Pielke’s pointless, misleading, embarrassing nonsense?”

It turned out in subsequent discussions that Romm didn’t even understand our analysis, failing to appreciate the difference between a reference scenario and a mitigation scenario.

So it was with some surprise that I read over at the Cato-Unbound climate policy debate Joe invoking our Nature paper as evidence in support of the idea that the IPCC scenarios have built in assumptions about aggressive reductions in carbon and energy intensities. I have long argued that Joe and I differ in our interpretation of the significance of the Nature paper’s findings, not the analysis itself.

However, Joe never posted up an apology for mistakenly trashing our paper or a correction noting that in fact, he finds the analysis sound. This leads to the embarrassing circumstance in which Joe Romm is over at the Cato site using our paper to support his arguments while his Climate Progress guest blogger Ken Levenson is arguing on Joe’s behalf at another online debate at the Economist arguing against the analysis in the Nature article, explaining that “Joe actually throughly debunked that Nature article too” linking to several of Joe’s many articles trying (unsuccessfully) to “debunk” our analysis.

Those guys at Climate Progress seem to want things both ways — the analysis in our article is both “debunked” and an authority. Maybe Joe Romm should set the record straight?

19 Responses to “Arguing Both Sides at Climate Progress”

  1. Jim Manzi Says:


    Thanks for drawing attention to this discussion.

    I have addressed this issue of reference scenarios vs. mitigation scenarios in the last few paragraphs of my latest reply to Mr. Romm:

    (As an aside, the first part of this reply addresses the question raised by some of your commenters to your ealier post about how Mr. Romm justifies his assertion that the IPCC has a business-as-usual forecast of 5.5C temperature increase by 2100.)

    Jim Manzi

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  3. kenlevenson Says:

    A simple point: I don’t speak on Joe Romm’s behalf. I wouldn’t presume. Please, you shouldn’t either.

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    You guys at Climate Progress have an interesting gig. Joe says two different/opposing things at different times and you cherry pick the one most convenient for the argument that you are in, while disavowing responsibility for what Joe has said. Clever. To bad the Bush administration is over, you guys might have helped in their PR machine ;-)

    But seriously, how about a direct question for you (since you aren’t speaking for Joe), do you accept the analysis in our Nature paper, yes or no? If no, why not?

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  7. kenlevenson Says:


    Perhaps my use of the word “thoroughly” in exuberance is the problem.

    What Joe was debunking, as I referred to it in the context of the Economist debate was the central conclusion of your Nature report – that of alleged IPCC assumptions of spontaneous decarbonization, and the resulting need for breakthroughs. The IPCC argues for aggressive policy action and technology deployment – logical enough unless we’re all insane. So by thoroughly I merely meant the central point.

    However, even with your central point debunked, I don’t think that excludes the possibility of your report containing useful analysis.

    Therefore, on the other hand, at Cato, Joe seems to be referring to your Nature report in regards to the rates of energy intensity and CO2 levels. Joe may or may not be right – that detailed scientific discussion, I readily admit, is way above my pay grade.

    Yet it seems plausible that your paper in Nature while being wrong about the need for breakthroughs may still be correct regarding potential emissions projections.

    The two takes on your Nature report don’t seem mutually exclusive to me.

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  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Well Ken, while I appreciate the olive branch in the form of pleading “no contest” the technical arguments, if you have a look at what I was arguing at The Economist and that you were suggesting has been “debunked” it was exactly the technical analysis that you now seem to accept (indeed the links to Joe’s work that you provided also critique the technical arguments):

    “We published a paper on this subject in Nature earlier this year. We found that the energy technology challenge has likely been grossly underestimated by the IPCC and most analyses that assume large amounts of spontaneous decarbonization of the global economy.

    You can see our paper online here:

    Pielke, Jr., R. A., Wigley, T., and Green, C., 2008. Dangerous assumptions. Nature, Vol. 452, No. 3, pp. 531-532.

    To provide the world with vastly more energy, while at the same time limiting carbon accumulation in the atmosphere will require every tool at out disposal, and almost certainly a few not yet in existence. To argue against further R&D is just a bad idea.

    Roger Pielke, Jr.
    Professor, University of Colorado”

    I don’t see the work “breakthrough” in there anywhere, and I clearly distinguished what we found from what I conclude from that analysis.

    Increasingly, it looks like Romm and his followers are simply anti-R&D, whereas the folks you find at this site are all for aggressive deployment of existing technologies AND R&D. As I said at The Economist, to argue against further R&D is just a bad idea.

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  11. kenlevenson Says:

    No one is arguing against R&D and innovation, nor deployment – it’s simply a matter of emphasis and priorities.

    You say you’re for deployment but make R&D breakthroughs a prerequisite for success.

    From my perspective R&D is acknowledged as an absolute must but would argue that deployment of existing technology is the key to success.

    And because R&D is used as a crutch for many to argue against taking action now – I believe the emphasis is rightly placed on deployment.

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  13. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Maybe next time rather than using the phrase “thoroughly debunked” to characterize our work, you might consider instead using the fine nuanced prose you wrote in #6.

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  15. Saint Says:

    Roger, correct me if I’m wrong, but simply put your Nature paper said that projected BAU emissions would be considerably larger except for certain assumptions about energy efficiency and technology improvements, that these assumptions may be optimistic, and that as a result the stabilization challenge could be larger than the IPCC models lead us to believe.

    Why your analysis is in need of “debunking,” thorough or otherwise, is anyone’s guess. Indeed, on the very first page of the IPCC WGIII SPM, it states “The long-term trend of a declining carbon intensity of energy supply reversed after 2000,” so it’s clear you’re on solid ground to pose the question, uncomfortable as it may be to Romm & Co. (Romm’s “energy supply carbon intensity” vs “economy carbon intensity” distinction is a bit of a red herring).

    I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations of the three models in the CCSP 2.1 report on stabilization to see how much “spontaneous decarbonization” is in these models. If the carbon intensity remained at the 2000 level, projected CO2 emissions would be about 27 to 42 gigatons higher (7.4 to 121.5 gigatons Ce) in 2050–that’s a lot of wedges.

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  17. kenlevenson Says:

    Again, I don’t think it’s the analysis per se that’s being criticized – it’s the conclusion. It’s agreed, that yes, if the world continues the insanity of the Bush/Cheney decade we are doomed. It’s clear that China went on it’s binge following Bush/Cheney’s abandonment of Kyoto. It’s not a particularly useful conclusion unless you think we are doomed to Bush/Cheney World indefinitely.

    But it is completely rational to assume that the Bush/Cheney nightmare will end and with it China will resume it’s decarbonization efforts as it had prior. If this is a reasonable assumption – it’s not a dangerous assumption.

    Of course we need to work like heck to move beyond Bush/Cheney – and it seems to me, that to succeed in that we need to emphasize deployment.

    My fear is that misplaced conclusions of doom, like that in “Dangerous Assumptions”, will inhibit our will to fight climate change through aggressive deployment and instead it’s all R&D all the time….we’ll just want the pill fix.

    And to the extent that “Dangerous Assumptions” is pulled out to argue for breakthrough technologies, like at the Economist – it feeds inertia, not action.

    So let’s invest in the R&D – as it will be hugely beneficial. But the prerequisite to success are not breakthroughs per se. The prerequisite to success is rapid/aggressive deployment.

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  19. solman Says:


    You seem to believe that:

    1. Chinese energy policy is a reaction to Bush/Cheney

    2. Chinese suspended decarbonization efforts that were in effect prior to Bush/Cheney.

    At least outside of Beijing, the Chinese who are planing and building new energy infrastructure would strongly disagree with both of these statements.

    Pressure to move towards cleaner generation has increased enormously over the past eight years, and it is perceived as being almost entirely in response to internal pressures.

    What leads you to believe otherwise?

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  21. Saint Says:

    Ken: I must confess a get a little tired of the Bush bashing when it comes to the climate change issue, especially when it is so ill-informed.

    Let’s put things in some perspective, starting on the domestic side. In 2006, the most recent year for which we have data, U.S. net GHG emissions were 3% lower than they were in 2000, the year before Bush took office, and it is not an analytical leap to suggest that over the full eight years net emissions will be flat. In contrast, over the first six years of the Clinton-Gore era, net GHG emissions jumped 11%, and after eight years were 17% higher—and this from the administration that set as a goal returning U.S. emissions to 1990 levels in 2000. The Bush administration also scores better on improving emissions intensity and emissions per capita (the latter of which actually went up on Clinton-Gore’s watch). Now that’s inconvenient. (I’ll also note that in 2007 wind accounted for about 35% of new generating capacity. That’s not bad for an administration that doesn’t care about technology deployment.)

    If Bush-Cheny is insanity, what does that make Clinton-Gore?

    Further, why Bush should get the blame for the Kyoto Protocol’s many and varied faults is a mystery. Kyoto was a corpse when the Byrd-Hagel Resolution passed the Senate on a 95-0 vote (which is why Clinton sat on it for three years). What’s the point in maintaining the fiction that it was a politically viable treaty? It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.

    But to suggest that the U.S. view on Kyoto led to an emissions binge by China is, well, risible. China, like many developing countries, has very little interest in pursuing decarbonization—unless, that is, someone else pays for it, a point that it never tires in making. The Chinese, Indians, South Africans, etc. are much more interested in providing cheap energy for their economies, and they are not particularly fussy about what fuel is used. For them, it’s energy access and security first, with reducing GHG emissions well down the list (though reducing air pollution is quite high because it has an almost immediate economic benefit). To believe developing countries will change these priorities with a new administration in Washington is wishful thinking.

    (And I’m not sure what you mean when you say it’s “rational to assume” that the Chinese will resume their mitigation efforts once the “Bush/Cheney nightmare” ends. China has a climate change plan. It was released in . . . June 2007. Oh well, never mind.)

    The irony is that it is the principles espoused by the Bush administration are beginning to resonate abroad, even with the regulation-will-solve-everything Europeans. I know it’s not popular to say, but whoever comes after Bush will owe his administration a debt of gratitude for injecting a degree of realism and, yes, sanity heretofore lacking in the international discussions.

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  23. kenlevenson Says:

    The Chinese were decarbonizing prior to 2000. Of course these things are complicated and don’t exist in isolation – yet with Bush/Cheney walking away from Kyoto, yes the Chinese saw no reason to aggressively pursue decarbonization. So by-and-large they loosened their grip, letting the provincial powers do as they wished to disastrous effect. I believe that if the US had made a real effort with Kyoto, the Chinese would have felt great pressure to continue decarbonizing and I think they would have continued on the path.

    A stark example of international pressure is the Olympics, where they radically slashed emissions in Beijing….and now are looking for ways to maintain the reductions they’ve achieved by forcing plants to upgrade prior to reopening.

    I’d wager that if the new American administration demonstrates real effort in decarbonizing the Chinese will follow with gusto. They are poised to lead renewables – and we’ve seen all too well that when Beijing decides the country will undertake certain action, it does.

    Needless to say – the energy plan the Chinese released last year is an interim plan.

    And Bush/Cheney deserve nothing less that to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity for their inaction/obfuscation and lies regarding climate change. The past 8 precious years may be the biggest lost opportunity in fighting the disastrous effects of climate change headed our way.

    I see you, like Bush/Cheney like to cherry pick info, out of context to try to confuse….better luck next time…

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  25. Saint Says:

    Ken: So the Chinese plan–which is, needful to say, China’s “National Climate Change Programme,” not its energy plan–is an interim plan that goes through 2010. The Chinese are big on short-term plans. So what?

    You claimed that China suspended its decarbonization efforts once Bush decided not to become a party to Kyoto and you claimed further that it would resume those efforts once Bush left office. Each of these claims was made without a shred of evidence, not even anecdotal evidence. I’ve shown that these claims are at odds with the facts (the Chinese report itself provides plenty of discussion on what China accomplished from 1990 to 2005 and what it hopes to accomplish through 2010). And I shouldn’t have to remind you that, regardless of the U.S. position, China remains a party to both the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol and has obligations under both. So please, Ken, stop digging.

    While you accuse me of cherry-picking the facts and taking them out of context (without specifying where I’ve done so), what we get from you is overheated rhetoric sprinkled with “it’s clear,” “I believe,” “may be,” and “I’d wager.” If my facts confuse you, Ken, it’s probably because you’re just not accustomed to dealing in them.

    And you still haven’t answered my question: If Bush-Cheney, with flat net GHG emissions over eight years, is insanity, how would you describe Clinton-Gore, with a 17% increase in net GHG emissions over eight years? Maybe Clinton and Gore should be put in the dock, too, eh Ken? (It could get pretty crowded in there!)

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  27. PaddikJ Says:

    I read Roger, et al’s clear, concise report, and slogged through Romm’s “analysis,” and, like others, was struck by the degree of misinterpretation. Worth noting here is that about a quarter of the posters at Climate Progress also agreed w/ Roger, and a few even went so far as call Romm hysterical.

    The faux-debate on R&D vs. rapid deployment of existing technology continues to rage. Why not both? As Roger noted in another article (sorry, can’t remember which), it was intense R&D that produced the alternate refrigerant to traditional chlorofluorocarbons; a fixation on mitigation-only could have delayed that.

    Given that the US is close to a market economy, the activists who continually claim that present technology is sufficient for a carbon-neutral* energy infrasctructure, if only we would use it, might ask themselves why it hasn’t happened. They might check with a few of the people whose job it is to design, build & maintain safe & reliable energy systems; that is, the people who actually have to deliver on their promises, as opposed to the bloviating Al Gores of the world.

    Roger is a recognized authority on science policy issues, so I suppose he’s obligagted to correct the more egregious distortions, but I think he’s wise not to engage; from previous ones, it’s clear that they produce a lot of heat and very little illumination (although Roger is to be commended for mostly keeping his cool). It is an obvious truism that activists tend to be excitable, but a perhaps not-so obvious truism that several science degrees (Wiki says Romm has a Physics Ph.D) appear to have little effect on this tendency. Maybe it’s genetic.

    Saint, the stats you listed were surprising & interesting. Could you please provide sources? These are the kinds of hard data I like to have handy.

    *Pielke Sr. has long questioned the childish fixation on CO2 as the sole driver of humn-induced climate change (caveat – “childish” is my take). And even if it were, that rashly assumes that modestly elevated CO2 levels would be a bad thing. I’m not convinced; I’m first not convinced that CO2 has much influence, and even if it did, what is this magically ideal CO2 concentration that we’re supposed to stabilize? Pre-industrial? Surely you jest. Pre-industrial was the Little Ice Age. Anyone who wants to return to that should be stuffed in a time machine & sent packing. It is entirely possible that a little more CO2 could be precisely the stabilizing agent we need for a prosperous, humane future.

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  29. kenlevenson Says:


    Regarding the Clinton vs. Bush years – decarbonization proceeded per historical trends – there was essentially no difference. See:

    Given that fact what makes it particularly damning for Bush is this:

    While Clinton fought for the Kyoto agreement and signed it and then fought for its ratification, as well as the consolidation of scientific understanding, and a road map for tackling the rising crisis.

    One the other had, Bush, in typical fashion said one thing and did the opposite.
    From The New Yorker:

    “Running for President in 2000, George W. Bush called global warming “an issue that we need to take very seriously.” He promised, if elected, to impose federal limits on CO2. Soon after his inauguration, he sent the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, to a meeting of environment ministers from the world’s leading industrialized nations, where she elaborated on his position. Whitman assured her colleagues that the new President believed global warming to be “one of the greatest environmental challenges that we face” and that he wanted to “take steps to move forward.” Ten days after her presentation, Bush announced that not only was he withdrawing the U.S. from the ongoing negotiations over Kyoto — the protocol had left several complex issues of implementation to be resolved later — he was now opposed to any mandatory curbs on carbon dioxide. Explaining his change of heart, Bush asserted that he no longer believed that CO2 limits were justified, owing to the “state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change,” which he labelled “incomplete.” (Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who backed the President’s original position, has speculated publicly that the reversal was engineered by Vice-President Dick Cheney.)” see full text here:

    Guilty as charged.

    But let’s not blame it all on Bush – I’m happy to put a great deal of the blame on Reagan too. Jimmy Carter made great efforts toward a renewable energy policy, yet Reagan immediately and systematically dismantled them. Joe Romm describes here:

    The fact is, that starting in a hole left by Reagan/Bush the Elder, and despite a Republican controlled congress hampering Clinton/Gore at every turn – there was progress on the science, technologies and on the policy. In 2000, the moment was ripe for a leap forward to far exceed the historic trends of decarbonization, but Bush/Cheney put a stop to it. Relentlessly, systematically and perversely, against the obvious logic of The War on Terror which would be to rapidly decarbonize – Bush/Cheney have intentionally mislead. They walked away from Kyoto and made it clear that the U.S. was going to do nothing meaningful to help solve the problem. The fat man was going to continue to pig-out and to hell with all the malnourished.

    Now China was decarbonizing in the 1990s which stopped and reversed itself in the late 1990s. But this unfortunate trend significantly accelerated from early 2000s on.

    While I don’t have the Communist Party Central Committee’s notes on the matter – it seems quite plausible that upon seeing the voracious United States saying to hell with decarbonization – the Chinese relaxed their efforts at control further and let the provinces develop at will, to disastrous effect: (From )
    “The authors also pointed out that after 2000, China’s central government began shifting the responsibility for building new power plants to provincial officials who had less incentive and fewer resources to build cleaner, more efficient plants, which save money in the long run but are more expensive to construct. “Government officials turned away from energy efficiency as an objective to expanding power generation as quickly as they can, and as cheaply as they can,” said Carson. “Wealthier coastal provinces tended to build clean-burning power plants based upon the very best technology available, but many of the poorer interior provinces replicated inefficient 1950s Soviet technology.””
    So I’ll grudgingly admit that while I’d like to place the blame for all the world’s problems on Bush/Cheney the initial halting of Chinese decarbonization isn’t one of them. However, if we did ratify Kyoto and if we did make a good faith effort to tackle the problem, (if Al Gore was elected president), I believe the Chinese would have made much greater efforts to halt the recarbonizing and at a minimum could return to the historic rate of declines. Why do I believe this?
    1. They had previously demonstrated that they could modernize and decarbonize simultaneously.
    2. They’ve made great advances in all aspects of sustainable development, if in limited scope, despite no binding requirements for them to do so.
    3. They’re revealing their commitment (if still inadequate) on the issue, in their “National Climate Change Programme”. This action didn’t appear out of nowhere.

    And if we do the right thing in the next Congress, I think the Chinese will be encouraged to take much greater steps toward what needs to be done in 2010 and beyond.

    Finally, while decarbonization under Clinton and Bush held to historical trends (noted at top) – your insistence that Clinton is also somehow a “climate criminal” akin to Bush because absolute emissions grew more under Clinton than Bush is misplaced. They grew less under Bush because Bush had worse economic growth – not because of any decarbonizing energy policy. (Joe Romm has a rundown on it here: )
    Again, nice try! ;)

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  31. kenlevenson Says:

    Forgot to include this link regarding Clinton vs. Bush:
    Interesting read.

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  33. kenlevenson Says:

    Seems my long winded response is “awaiting moderation” – my additional link above will seem more purposeful when you get the whole screed. Cheers.

    You really should have left off that ending piece – it undermines the credibility of everything you wrote above it.

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  35. PaddikJ Says:

    “You really should have left off that ending piece – it undermines the credibility of everything you wrote above it.”

    Only to the Carbon-obsessed.

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  37. Saint Says:


    The GHG data are available the EPA website here: These are the official data submitted by the USG to the UNFCCC. (And they’remore recent than the EIA figures Ken cites.)


    I never said Clinton is a “climate criminal,” whatever that is. I only raised the point that Clinton’s GHG emissions record is much worse than Bush’s, but he seems to get a free pass from you. You still haven’t explained why (other than you think Clinton’s intentions were good).

    Your argument that emissions fell under Bush because he had a worse economy fails to take into account emissions intensity, the measure of emissions per unit of GDP. The average annual net GHG intensity improvement under Bush, you will not be surprised to learn–actually, maybe you will be–is better than it was under Clinton: -2.8 vs. -1.7% over first 6 years of their presidencies (Clinton’s 8-year net GHG intensity was -1.6%). Bush’s numbers are superior for gross CO2 emissions intensity, too: -2.2% vs. -1.7% (-1.8% over 8 years). A slower economy can’t explain this.

    And like I said earlier, emissions per capita went up under Clinton, down under Bush.

    Emissions in 2007 almost certainly will come in higher than the 2006 level (largely due to increased electricity demand and a roughly 13% drop in hydro output), but 2008 emissions are running a fraction below where they were in 2007 at the same time. As I said, it is not an analytical leap to suggest that net GHG emissions in 2008 will be no higher than–maybe even a bit lower–than they were in 2000, the year before Bush took office (compared to a 17% increase over Clinton’s 8 years).

    And Clinton fought so hard for ratification of Kyoto that he never sent it to the Senate.