March 17, 2006
Politicization 101: Segregating Scientists According to Political Orientation
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Science Policy: General
A reporter I know sent to me a press release yesterday titled “Scientists Dispute Link Between Hurricanes and Global Warming.” The press release was disseminated by the TCS Science Roundtable. TCS – Tech Central Station – is often a very useful and informative site for analyses and opinions from a self-described perspective that values “the power of free markets, open societies and individual human ingenuity to raise living standards and improve lives.” As such TCS is very much a special interest group. People can choose to agree or disagree with TCS analyses, or share its values. But in this post I want to highlight the role that university and some government scientists play in the unhealthy politicization of science through their willing association with advocacy groups (like TCS, but also, e.g., environmental advocacy groups), and the increasing tendency for organizations that should serve as “honest brokers of policy options” to transform themselves into advocacy-like groups.
The scientists cited in the TCS press release with information on contacting them to discuss hurricanes are the following:
William Gray, Colorado State University
Call me a rocket scientist, but it seems that these scientists in particular are included in this press release because their perspectives, which they may hold very strongly and have good support for scientifically, align in some way with the special interests of the group promoting them. Interest groups have a great deal of power in such situations, because they can selectively assemble experts on any given topic to basically support any ideological position. This is a function of what Dan Sarewitz calls an “excess of objectivity” or the not-so-tongue-in-cheek principle that for every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD.
Let me emphasize that it would be utter nonsense to claim that this is only a phenomenon that occurs on the political right, where TCS is coming from. For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists routinely uses university and government scientists to legitimize its views, generally viewed as coming from the political left. However, as we’ve discussed here before, the political right has been more successful at marshalling experts to their causes, but the left is rapidly closing the gap.
Let’s take a look at this behavior from two perspectives. First, from the perspective of the individual scientist deciding to align with an interest group, it should be recognized that such a decision is political. There is of course nothing wrong with politics, it is how we get done the business of society, and organized interest groups are fundamental to modern democracy. Nonetheless, an observer of this dynamic might be forgiven for thinking when they see scientists self-select and organize themselves according to political predispositions that different perspectives on scientific issues are simply a function of political ideologies. We can see how contentious political debates involving science become when filtering science through interest groups is the dominant mechanism for connecting science to policy.
It is this condition of dueling special interest scientists that leads to a second perspective, and that is an institutional approach to providing science advice in a way that is not filtered through a particular special interest agenda. It is this very condition that gives legitimacy to government science advisory panels, National Academy committees, and professional societies. But the role such groups as honest brokers is in my view endangered. For instance, consider a congressional staff briefing organized by the American Meteorological Society last fall on the subject of hurricanes and global warming (see this PDF). This briefing included the perspectives of:
Kevin Trenberth, NCAR
All distinguished scientists, but undoubtedly a subset of scientific views (and on its policy significance) on hurricanes and climate change. The AMS took on the characteristics of TCS when putting together this briefing by selecting participants to represent a narrow perspective that was all but certainly shaped by political considerations. In discussing this general issue with colleagues and here on Prometheus, some make the claim that such unbalanced perspectives are needed from the scientific community in order to balance what is considered to be the greater ability of the political right to get its message out. Whether or not the right does in fact have a louder voice, it is important to recognize that efforts to restore some universal balance in public debate and discussions by picking a side in political debate have the ultimate effect of turning organizations like the AMS into what appears to be (or actually is) just another ideologically motivated interest group. Such threats to the legitimacy of scientific committees, assessments, advisory groups, and professional organizations are more and more common.
What we lose in this process are honest brokers. For the more ideologically motivated, such a loss may be no big deal. But for those of us who think that perspectives on science and policy are not purely a function of ideology, then there is a very real threat to the positive role of science in policy and politics.
Today, where does one go for the presentation of a comprehensive perspective on scientific views and their implications for policy? There are increasingly few outlets for such honest brokering, meaning that we all fall back on ideological filters, which means that science is increasingly subsumed to pure politics as a tool of marketing competing ideological agendas.
My advice to scientists:
1. Affiliate yourself with interest groups with open eyes. Recognize what you are doing, and if it makes sense for you then go ahead and affiliate.
2. But at the same time demand of the community’s scientific institutions that they reflect a broad perspective on science and policy. If you agree to participate in an event, a committee, an assessment, etc. look for people with different views than your own, and if you don’t seem them, demand that they be included.Posted on March 17, 2006 09:00 AM
There is an interesting side issue with this related to scientists blogging. I have realized trying to be a scientist and a blogger that I have a lot of difficulty keeping an open mind and keeping my politics out of my science blog. It is nearly impossible because you tip your hand even in the articles that you link to.
Blogging can be a great boon to science because it can facilitate openmindedness and interaction between people of opposing point of views, but it can also have an ugly side if you get pigeonholed (or a pigeonhole yourself) by only publicising one side of the issue.
I think that the issue sort of parallels the problem that scientists have trying to be impartial. You are trying to get your point of view out, but at the same time you recognize that you have a vested interest in the other guy getting his out too.
In that sense I think your practical advice is excellent. Be selective about what organizations you affiliate yourself with, and when you interact with others try and do so in a context where other points of view are published.
Posted by: Jake Young at March 17, 2006 12:00 PM
There is some nuance missing in this that I can perhaps best illustrate with my own experience of having staffed committees at the NAS/NRC - as staff, we did our best to put together committees with diverse perspectives but, would you include someone on a committee that is tasked with evaluating priorities for land acquisition under the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), who is opposed to government ownership of land at all? That was where I drew the line when identifying appropriate potential committee members for a particular study - those on the committee had to at least buy into the policy objective that was being addressed, which was established in law. If they disagree with the policy, then they should take up their cause with Congress rather than seek to derail the work of a scientific committee that is charged with evaluating effectiveness of the program. Procedures may have changed since I worked there (about 15 years ago) but, at the time, the first committee meeting always began with a bias discussion to see if the committee was in fact well balanced, and whether any crucial areas of expertise were missing. In the case of this particular study, the committee did decide to add someone with more expertise on land ownership issues, and the issues related to inholders and compensation for what are today called ecosystem services were well considered. But it was not someone ideologically opposed to the entire purpose of the LWCF who was looking to use science as a fig leaf. So in the case you mention, I would start by questioning whether those at TCS and other so-called skeptics share the same objectives and whether they are being intellectually honest.
One of your frequent commenters, one Benny Peiser, does not know the difference between consensus and uncertainty, and confuses disagreement on climate change with disagreement on climate policy (as explained here: http://www.postnormaltimes.net/blog/archives/2005/05/rules_of_the_sc_1.html. Or, more likely, lumped it all together for purposes of obfuscation. And to my knowledge, has always avoided responding to these criticisms while contnuing to stick to his unjustified conclusions. I refuse to waste my time in what is not even an honest debate but little more than a food fight aimed only at garnering headlines.
Posted by: Sylvia S Tognetti at March 17, 2006 01:34 PM
In other words, you promote spinning and gambling over honest and truth. Right. Got it. Thanks!
Posted by: Thomas Lee Elifritz at March 17, 2006 02:57 PM
The link in Sylvia S Tognetti post is:
i.e. no "." at the end.
Posted by: Greg Lewis at March 17, 2006 03:37 PM
Jake and Sylvia, thanks for those valuable perspectives. (Sylvia, that link seems not to work.)
I wanted to expand a little on one point made by Sylvia regarding the honesty of TCS. Many of the pieces they run by scientists are nothing more than editorials and so not subject to scientific criticism (not be confused with the incredulity expressed by scientists when Spencer use his TCS pulpit to endorsed Intelligent Design), but many TCS articles that contain at least some science are essentially fraudulent. Sometimes this takes the form of direct falsehoods, although much more often it's a matter of non-sequiturs or gross misinterpretation of data that a lay person might be excused for but look very strange coming from someone with scientific training. Lumping UCS together with TCS (or AEI, CEI etc.) is bending over backwards to find an equality that simply isn't there.
Regarding the AMS, if they believe it's clear that the Gray/Landsea/Mayfield axis is likely wrong, why provide them space in such a venue? Maybe the Bell and Chelliah paper will put them back in the game, but I have my doubts. We should also bear in mind that of course the views of G/L/M are being flogged very effectively around Capitol Hill by the likes of CEI and AEI, so if the AMS were simply interested in providing balance in that context without making any judgement as to which view is correct, it would still have made perfect sense to give more exposure to the side of the debate with less.
Finallu, and this suggestion is only somewhat tongue in cheek, why don't you try calling up George Taylor and interviewing him about what he actually knows about hurricanes? That would make for an interesting post demonstrating how TCS is very much scraping the bottom of the barrel on this one. "We don't need a weatherman to tell which way the convection flows." :)
Posted by: Steve Bloom at March 17, 2006 04:12 PM
"Finding acceptable policies to protect the environment or to achieve any other goal is ultimately about resolving conflict.". Amen! This was taken from Sylvia's paper at the above link and dovetail's in with what Roger has said here. It seems to me that honest brokers for the great scientific issues of the modern world must be established somehow. From GW to pandemics, the potential outcomes are too scary to trust just muddling through.
I believe that the scientific communities must establish these groups and they must be divorced from the political community. The case of Global Warming is instructive. The IPCC is a good theoretical model but the actual result is not. There are too many shadows over that group and it smells too much of the the political world that created it.
Once such bodies are established and accepted, there is no doubt that politicing will go on within them but at least those politics will be "peer reviewed". But according to Mr. Kuhn there is nothing new about that.
Posted by: Paul Dougherty at March 17, 2006 05:09 PM
Expanding on Steve's excellent comment and false equivalency point, Steve sez:
"Sometimes this takes the form of direct falsehoods...more often it's...non-sequiturs or gross misinterpretation of data that a lay person might be excused for but look very strange coming from someone with scientific training."
The essays there and elsewhere are consistently formulaic in their appeal to emotion and nominal appearance of rationality.
False equivalencies to UCS are ridiculous on their face, as the TCS-type essay that contains a little anecdote at the beginning to get the rube to nod their head yes and feel as if they can believe the author. Further on in the essay, the half-truths, mendacicizations and obfuscations are inserted after the belief in the author is established in the rube's mind.
This construct is nonexistent in UCS position statements.
Posted by: Dano at March 17, 2006 05:19 PM
Jake- Thanks for these comments!
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 17, 2006 09:18 PM
Thanks much for your comments, they provide a very valuable perspective.
It seems to me that if the goal of an advisory committee is to serve as an "honest broker of policy alternatives" then I don't see why a perspective that disagrees with the policy ought not be included. If the committee considers a comprehensive range of policy options then the obstructionist perspective would be one of many, and probably stand out by its ideological basis.
I think that such committees get into trouble when they seek to limit discussion to some preferred outcome. But as you suggest the job of narrowing alternatives into a final decisions lies with elected officials.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 17, 2006 09:25 PM
Thanks for your comments. You indeed make one of my points when you assert:
"We should also bear in mind that of course the views of G/L/M are being flogged very effectively around Capitol Hill by the likes of CEI and AEI, so if the AMS were simply interested in providing balance in that context without making any judgement as to which view is correct, it would still have made perfect sense to give more exposure to the side of the debate with less."
You are in effect asking the AMS to take sides based on political criteria. This will turn the AMS into the equivalent of an advocacy group. For folks who happen to fall on that side of the issue, they likely won't see much wrong with this. But when the next issue arises and they happen to be on the other side they will very likely get religion about honest brokering.
You ask, "Regarding the AMS, if they believe it's clear that the Gray/Landsea/Mayfield axis is likely wrong, why provide them space in such a venue?"
To this I would simply reply that Emanuel, Holland, Knutson, and Landsea participated in a joint statement which said the following:
“The research issues discussed here are in a fluid state and are the subject of much current investigation. Given time the problem of causes and attribution of the events of 2004-2005 will be discussed and argued in the refereed scientific literature. Prior to this happening it is not possible to make any authoritative comment.”
If the experts agree that this is the case, then it seems mighty inappropriate for the organizer of AMS congressional briefings (with no expertise on hurricanes) to decide who is right and who is wrong on this issue. More likely, the decision about who to invite was based on political not scientific factors, along the lines that you have described. The AMS is in no position to adjudicate scientific debates, it has no expertise other than the scientists who are its members and these people publish in the peer reviewed literature. AMS has convening power, which it should use to provide a view of the diversity of perspectives in the scientific community.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 17, 2006 09:35 PM
What are the reasons that the "consensus" issue is taking on such an inflated role in the climate change debates? As I have tried to argue, this particular controversy has little to do with science as such (which gives equal weight to attempts of verification and falsification).
If science would only tolerate obedience to the dominant paradigm of the day, if science would deter or obstruct doubt, skepticism and outright criticism of scientific theories, no matter how solid the consensus, there would be little hope for any progress at all. So, from a purely scientific point of view, the emphasis on the current consensus is completely irrelevant.
Why then the whole fuss? The consensus controversy on global warming is essentially a political squabble about policy options. The wide-held belief is that the existence of a scientific consensus would automatically translate into political action. Of course, this is wishful thinking given that the global economy is growing steadily and CO2 emissions are continuously rising as a result. There is simply no realistic prospect that this growth rate is going to be come to a standstill or is going to be reversed soon.
In view of relentless economic growth and the inherent rise in CO2 emissions that goes with it, climate alarmists have been trying to reframe the debate in terms of climate catastrophism. Their main focus is no longer whether or not climate change is man-made (although there remain strong pockets of resistance to the consensus).
Climate alarmists now maintain that there is also a consensus about catastrophic climate change, i.e. that global warming will before long trigger vast destruction and costly disasters if not societal collapse. Yet, despite the metamorphosis of the climate change debate into scare-mongering and doomsday predictions and regardless of claims of an undisputed consensus on climate catastrophism, the public appears to remain much more sceptical than generally thought, as the following post seems to indicate.
I recently sent off for review an analysis of the publicly available polling data on climate change, summarizing the results of polling questions culled from 70 surveys administered over the past 25 years. I examined poll results historically across key dimensions including a) public attention generally to global warming and to the Kyoto Protocol specifically; b) public understanding of the causes of global warming and the details of the policy debate; c) public perceptions of the certainty of the science and the level of agreement among experts; e) public concern about the impacts of global warming; f) public support for policy action in light of potential economic costs; g) public support for the Kyoto climate treaty and recent domestic legislation; and finally, h) public evaluations of the George W. Bush administration's handling of the topic.
I will have more to report on this paper once it winds through the review process, but one of the more interesting findings is that the public appears to still be confused about the nature of scientific consensus when it comes to the existence of global warming and the threats it might pose.
In the table above (click on for larger image), across Cambridge Energy Associate and Gallup surveys, the percentage of the public answering that “most scientists believe that global warming is occurring” increased from 28% in 1994 to 48% in 1997 and then to 61% in 2001. This growing public certainty in the science mirrors the messages from the scientific community, as statements from the IPPC shifted in 1995 from a tentative “balance of evidence” view that humans were influencing global climate to a much stronger consensus view issued in 2001. Yet in 2004 and 2005, when PIPA asked about the perception of consensus slightly differently, they found that still only 43% and 52% of the public across the two years believed that there was a “consensus among the great majority of scientists that global warming exists and could do significant damage”
Posted by: Benny Peiser at March 18, 2006 04:39 AM
Ben, you'll notice my comments in one of your linkies - to Nisbet's post.
I mentioned the prominence of FUD phrases from some circles.
Reading your comment above, it is filled with FUD phrases.
Posted by: Dano at March 18, 2006 12:05 PM
Somehow an analysis of any thing from you is not something any intellectually honest person can look forward to learning from considering your outrageous excuse for an analytical response to Naomi Oreskes paper. Have you ever posted anywhere what rationale you used for categorizing this abstract as "rejecting or doubting" the consensus position on climate change?
"relationship of global climate change to plant growth and the role of forests as sites of carbon sequestration have encouraged the refinement of the estimates of root biomass and production. However, tremendous controversy exists in the literature as to which is the best method to determine fine root biomass and production. This lack of consensus makes it difficult for researchers to determine which methods are most appropriate for their system...[snip]...Until the different root methods can be compared to some independently derived root biomass value obtained from total carbon budgets for systems, one root method cannot be stated to be the best and the method of choice will be determined from researcher’s personal preference, experiences, equipment, and/or finances."
Near as I can tell from this and most of the others you similarily categorized all you did was look for the word "controversy" or phrase "lack of consensus".
If you show similar techniques in analyzing public opinion I fear there will be nothing to gain from your work.
Posted by: coby at March 18, 2006 12:41 PM
I think Benny's numbers are probably accurate. However, I have a different interpretation. Rather than a repudiation by the public of scaremongering by the mitigation community, I think the numbers represent the success of the Lunzt strategy of emphasizing uncertainty in the debate. Luntz argues that uncertainty can be used as a tool to stop action on climate change --- even in the face of an overwhelming consensus that the earth is warming, humans are to blame, and we will see several degree C warming over the next century --- and I think these numbers bear him out.
Posted by: Andrew Dessler at March 18, 2006 03:51 PM
re: "Regarding the AMS, if they believe it's clear that the Gray/Landsea/Mayfield axis is likely wrong, why provide them space in such a venue?"
A defender of the Law/Theory/Concept of Group Polarization, until his last breath...
Posted by: McCall at March 18, 2006 04:17 PM
McCall, as NASA is in the midst of reassessing their approach to such things in the aftermath of L'affaire Deutsch, this would probably be a good time for you to lean on them to start including Flat Earth science in their scientific activities.
Posted by: Steve Bloom at March 18, 2006 04:37 PM
Polling is a tricky thing, and one way in which it's especially tricky is the phrasing of the poll questions. Let's deconstruct that last polling phrase Benny quoted: "consensus among the great majority of scientists that global warming exists and could do significant damage." It looks reasonable on the face of it, but really it creates a strong double barrier to an affirmative answer. Not only does the respondent have to agree both that there is a "consensus" (not an everyday vocabulary term for many people) but that this involves a "great majority" of scientists. Not to go on about this in too much detail, just contrast the above phrase with "agreement among most scientists (etc.)" The latter, more neutral phrasing would give a rather different result. As a social scientist, Benny knows better than I exactly what the problem with that phrasing is, but decided to put it forward without comment.
Posted by: Steve Bloom at March 18, 2006 04:53 PM
The are not Benny's numbers they are reported by Matt Nisbet. And far from showing the success of the Luntz strategy the data shows that a marjority of Americans believe (a) that there is a scientific consensus, (b) that anthropogenic climate change is real, and (c) that action is warranted. And these numbers have if anythng gotten stronger.
Sorry but you are going to have to look elsewhere to explain why the policies that you want in place aren't in place. Blaming the ignorance of the public or those nefarious contrarians is convenient, but misplaced. More likely such blame is a better option than admitting the reality that the problem has been misframed from the start!
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 18, 2006 04:58 PM
Steve- You are reacting to the words of Matt Nisbet, not Benny who was excerpting Nisbet's post on this, apparently realted to a forthcoming paper, see his discussion here:
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 18, 2006 05:01 PM
Roger, you intentionally misinterpreted the point I made about the AMS. I think they actually did make a judgement about the science. Obviously you disagree that the G/L/M view has so quickly shifted from consensus to outlier, but it appears that the AMS and many others who are in a good position to judge the science think otherwise.
Regarding the hurricane researcher joint statement, if you see it as anything more than a temporary papering-over of differences to try to minimize embarassing public debates every time one of the new round of papers comes out over the next few months, I think you're reading way too much into it.
Finally, thanks for your thoughtful response to the refutations of your conflation of UCS with TCS. :)
Posted by: Steve Bloom at March 18, 2006 05:17 PM
Roger, I didn't misunderstand that. My point was that Benny was quoting with approval something that his own professional training demonstrates to be problematic. Note that the polling phrase I discussed was the only evidence contained in the quoted post that Benny prefaced by saying "Yet, despite the metamorphosis of the climate change debate into scare-mongering and doomsday predictions and regardless of claims of an undisputed consensus on climate catastrophism, the public appears to remain much more sceptical than generally thought, as the following post seems to indicate."
Posted by: Steve Bloom at March 18, 2006 05:30 PM
AMS didn't make a judgment. AMS is the membership and they didn't ask us. I certainly hope that someone at AMS headquarters isn't making a decision on the science in the hurricane debate. I wouldn't want them making decisions like that on my behalf as an AMS member on this or other issues. Some of the staff there have been scientists in the past, but they're observers of science, at best, now. None of the headquarters' staff who are meteorologists did tropical staff in their careers, nor did the moderator of that session.
Given the composition of the AMS STAC Committee on Tropical Meteorology and Tropical Cyclones, I doubt if the organizers even contacted the committee, if they were wanting a scientific judgment. The chair is a lead forecaster at the hurricane center. One of the members is at the Hurricane Research Division.
Posted by: Harold Brooks at March 18, 2006 05:44 PM
I'm perfectly comfortable with what I wrote about UCS: "For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists routinely uses university and government scientists to legitimize its views, generally viewed as coming from the political left." This is completely accurate, no? Conflation? Hardly.
If time and interests are aligned I'll occasionally respond to such silliness, as I am now, but not always. In general when people try to create false equivalencies far from the point of my post, I suppose that means that they accept (or can't effectively refute) the more important points being made;-)
On hurricane science, I am also very comfortable with my comments here, and the peer reviewed work I've participated in on the subject. Your speculations about motivations etc. are fine to post here, but perhaps some focus on the substance of the issues being discussed would also be worthwhile. E.g., how do you determine what science is consensus and which is outlier when the scientists performing the work haven't done this?
Have a look at Harold Brooks comment, if you are interested in how things really work!
Thanks for keeping things interesting in the comments!
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 18, 2006 06:09 PM
Roger, you wrote above, regarding Sylvia's post on National Academies studies:
"It seems to me that if the goal of an advisory committee is to serve as an "honest broker of policy alternatives" then I don't see why a perspective that disagrees with the policy ought not be included. If the committee considers a comprehensive range of policy options then the obstructionist perspective would be one of many, and probably stand out by its ideological basis."
Here's another situation where "consensus" is an issue. (I'm speaking from my experience working at the Academies.) The Academies reports are consensus reports. Every volunteer member of the commmittee/panel/study group must sign off on the report. While having an obstructionist perspective would be more inclusive, it runs headlong into the Academies' goal of producing consensus documents. Dissents can be written and included with reports, but it is rare (I didn't work there long enough - 4 years - to even have second-hand knowledge of an example).
Posted by: David Bruggeman at March 18, 2006 08:09 PM
My friend and professional pollster Mark Blumenthal said in response to my query:
Only about 35-40% are "completely convinced," see global warming as responsible for an increase in the severity of Hurricanes, etc.
These data tell me that there are roughly 15-20% of Americans who have a vague sense that "global warming" is a problem, but either have doubts or don't know enough to have a strong opinion. A political strategist like Luntz is always thinking about how to win, e.g. how to get to "fifty percent plus one." So he's intensely focused on how to win over that 15-20%.
The reason we don't have a coherent policy on AGW is that support for it from the general public is insufficient to overcome strong opposition from the administration. The real question therefore is why is support weak? It seems reasonable to me that Luntz's strategy of arguing uncertainty is contributing to the softness, although I admit I cannot quantify the impact. On the other hand, I'm quite confident you cannot quantify it and show that it's negligible.
But a good example of the effectiveness of the uncertainty argument can be found right here on Prometheus. Review a few recent posts and look at what happens when AGW-denying human-echo-chamber Steve Hemphill makes the argument "the atmosphere is too complex to understand, therefore any effort to stop AGW is worthless." That comment totally hijacks the thread --- pretty soon the entire argument is about his ridiculous assertion and not about whatever it was people were discussing before. If the thread were a policy debate, the result would be gridlock. Just like the real policy debate. Coincidence?
PS: I think the polling numbers Mark was looking at can be found at http://www.pollingreport.com/enviro.htm
Posted by: Andrew Dessler at March 18, 2006 08:31 PM
Thanks, a good point.
However, seems to me that a "consensus" can be defined narrowly as a measure of central tendency of perspectives, thereby eliminating some fraction of views not aligned with that central tendency.
Alternatively a "consensus" could also be defined as the entire distribution of views, and the characteristics of that distribution.
There is some empirical evidence that decision making is in some cases improved through the latter approach, but this would especially seem to be the case when the issue that a consensus is to be reached on is policy options. OTA reports typically were consensus documents of the latter sort.
An aside - are you aware of anyone who has studied the NAS? I know of Boffey's book, now dated, but studies of the NAS seems to be a huge gap in the science studies literature.
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 18, 2006 08:34 PM
Why Mr. Bloom -- please try to stay focused.
With your non sequitur response to my post, and your failure to recognize the obvious scientific result of your exclusionary position with respect to Dr. Landsea (and other experts who don't currently subscribe to "AGW linked to storms" theory -- 1), "group polarization" and other social science theories are also beyond your grasp?
Posted by: McCall at March 18, 2006 08:35 PM
To the extent that the "uncertainty argument" is successful, is that due to the people who raise the issue or those who take the bait and respond? ;-)
Dan Sarewitz and I described these exact dynamics in our 2000 Atlantic Monthly article, and how to get past them.
Here is more, FYI:
Poll: 75% of Americans Want More Federal Action on Global Warming
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 18, 2006 08:42 PM
That statistic you cite, 75% in favor of action on global warming, seemed a bit high to me compared to other polls. When I read further, I understood why: that fraction felt the "the federal government is not doing 'enough to address global warming and develop alternative energy sources in order to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.'" By combining AGW with alternative energy in the same question, I think that explains why their number is so high.
All in all, I think your insistence that the Luntz strategy is ineffective is somewhat irrational, considering you don't have any evidence to back it up. Let's assume for a moment that your number of 75% is right --- we don't know that it wouldn't be 95% in the absence of a concerted effort to push uncertainty, do we?
PS: I recognize that I cannot *prove* the Luntz strategy is effective, beyond the anecdotal evidence provided in my last post. But it just seems reasonable to me that it is having *some* significant effect on the debate.
Posted by: Andrew Dessler at March 19, 2006 12:16 AM
Prometheus commenters are by far the best in Blogistan. Keep up the good work, all.
Andrew - You might be right, but "blaming" Luntz for the public's indifference to action on AGW strikes me as both an overestimation of the power of deliberate obfuscation and an underestimation of the public's body of knowledge of the science at large.
I've argued in a few posts on scienceblogs that the public is constantly bombarded with news in the popular media (from USA Today to Time to SciAm to the NY Times and on and on) with a consistent message that AGW is here, is real and poses a threat. There is simply no body of popular stories out there that could be reasonably viewed as sowing doubt. I threw it open and asked for examples and nobody could come up with even one. Even FoxNews's and the WSJ's news articles on AGW discuss it in "it's real" terms (even if their editorials then try to contadict their own feature writers).
Point is, I think the public is as well-educated on climate change as on any major scientific issue. So why don't they support policy action? Maybe because the threat isn't well-defined. And that's not Luntz's fault -- you can't even get two climatologists to agree on the magnitude or specifics of the "threat" other than windows of variability on possible sea level rise.
In the face of this, what's John. Q. Public to do? To answer, first you have to understand who J.Q. Public is and how s/he might be affected by climate change. Hell, I'm a climatologist and even I have only a vague idea of what AGW might do to the Front Range of CO. What's your average Oklahoman/Marylander/Oregonian need to do and know about climate change? I'd argue that these are real people, living real, local lives and anything they might need to know about AGW certainly isn't known well enough to urge them to alter their lives.
I think this is the real lesson of policy inaction on AGW. It's not that Luntz has caused enough people to doubt the science. It's that the science hasn't given the People enough concrete information to cause them to view their current situation as one at peril. Until that happens, there won't be much urging of Senators and Reps to make change.
Posted by: kevin v at March 19, 2006 12:16 AM
Quick addition: I think there is in fact some evidence to support my argument. The table in the Nisbet post that Peiser linked to shows that in 6/05, 39% of the people thought there was no consensus. That's a huge number, comparable to the 52% that think that AGW is a certainty. This seems to me some proof that the uncertainty argument is having an effect on the debate.
Posted by: Andrew Dessler at March 19, 2006 12:21 AM
Thanks for these comments. I can't vouch for the numbers in the aritcle I shared, I just thought they were worth adding to the mix.
Consider the following except from a column in the Pittsbrugh Herlad-Tribune:
"Wonder why Fox News polls show 60 percent of Americans think global warming is either a crisis (16 percent) or a major problem (44 percent)? It's because for almost 20 years Americans have been effectively brainwashed by mainstream liberal media."
Just as you can bemoan the 40% yet to be converted to your views, the author of this column, obviously a conservative, can complain about the 60% who dsagree with his views.
You can huff and puff about certainy. He can do the same about uncertainy. But no one is talking about policy here.
The reality is that in the US system of government policies are routinely passed by Congress that have wide ranges of public support, and even wider perspectives on the underlying science.
So when you say you think (but cannot prove) that Luntz' strategy has been effectve from the standpoint of affecting a few people's opinions, I guess I'd grant you this speculation.
However, when I say that the Luntz strategy has been a complete failure, I am saying that it has not prevented public opinion from enering the zone in which policy action is not only possible, but in many cases probable. Compared to many, many issues on which action takes place (e.g., abortion, Iraq war, tax cuts) public opinion on the issue of climate change is by contrast consolidated and strong.
Do you have any evidence that major environmental policies enacted in the past required higher levels of public opinion consensus than we see on climate change? No you don't, because they did not.
So long as you frame the climate issue as one in which it is the duty of morally responsible scientists to wipe out the last remaining pockets of unbelievers in our ranks as a prerequisite for policy action, we will see gridlock persist.
Sometimes, I'd like to think that the real Luntz strategy has been to lay out the bait of scientific uncertainty, not to convince the public of this or that, but to get the scientific community all worked up and forgetting about how politics and policy making actually work, and in the efforts of these scientists to secure universal consensus on science, they actually do the dirty work of creating a gridlock! If this was the real strategy, then yes it has been extremely successful. But I think that would give Luntz et al. too much credit ;-)
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 19, 2006 07:10 AM
I think we are in basic agreement here. I agree that present support is sufficient to pass regulations. The reason we don't have GHG regulations is the active hostility of the present administration. If Bush et al. felt the same way about GHG mitigaton that they did about regime change in Iraq, then we'd have a GHG mitigation policy right now. No question about it.
The goal of any administration is to enact policies they support and make sure that those they don't support aren't enacted. I suspect the uncertainty argument is a useful tool that the administration uses to help public opinion low enough that GHG regulations can effectively be shelved. If 95% of the public supported GHG regulations (instead of around half), it's likely that the administration would be forced to enact something by congress --- which the administration clearly does not want to do. In this way, uncertainty helps them achieve their objective, although it does not stand alone.
Posted by: Andrew Dessler at March 19, 2006 10:28 AM
Thanks, though I do see a big difference in our views. You refuse to give an inch on the possibility that advocates for greenhouse gas emnissions could do any better in their efforts, instead chosing to place blame anywhere but at home -- a list which now includes the public, contrarians, industry, and elected officials.
As an alterantive, consider CFC regulations which we largely put into place while the US was led by Ronald Reagan, who was if anything more hostile to regulation than the present administration and scientific uncertainy was very large. Further, CFC regulations were not pursued with anything like the intensity of the Iraq war, and were far from the top of public concerns. Why did CFC regulations go forward in this context? Because (a) everyone agree to pursue of "no regrets" approach first, focused on "non-esential uses" of CFCs under the TCSA of 1976, and (b) for "essential uses" a third way was found in CFC substitutes that allowed industry and environmentalists to agree on a course of action. There is a lesson here.
The current gridlock will perssit do long as the entrenched two sides believe that the primary obstacle to what they want implemented lies on the other side, rather than at home. And guess whose policy preferences this situation favors?
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 19, 2006 10:56 AM
I would disagree with this. Science has done the best it can. The community simply cannot provide more accurate regional predictions, at least not until more powerful computers become available. And because future climate depends on imperfect predictions of future emissions, there will always be some (perhaps significant) uncertainty in the long-term predictions.
Rather, I would argue that the present lack of action on GHG mitigation is a failure of policymakers. There's clearly enough evidence out there, even with the uncertainty, for us to take action to reduce GHG emissions. After all, we invaded Iraq, despite lots of uncertainty about the outcome. However, the present administration is deeply opposed to mitigation. And given the relatively weak support for GHG mitigation (approx. 40-55% support), they can use their considerable powers to make sure that nothing gets accomplished. One tool they have it the Luntz uncertainty argument (and I agree that we should not overestimate its effectiveness, but we have to recognize that it does play a role).
Picking up on something that Roger said. I think that the problem is how the AGW problem is presented to the public (e.g., framed). I think that by framing the problem differently, public opinion could be moved to providing overwhelming public support for mitigation, despite today’s lingering scientific uncertainties. Just look at how public opinion to invade Iraq was moved by a concerted effort to frame the issue in terms of WMDs. However, I contend this is not something that scientists have any control over. It is policymakers that frame debates.
Posted by: Andrew Dessler at March 19, 2006 11:21 AM
The big difference between the climate change policy problem and all the other examples thrown up here is the amount of pain directly felt by your average citizen. Did the Montreal Protocol have a direct impact on the average life? Absolutely not, and so it's that much easier to establish and implement. The Iraq war? It has a direct impact for the families of the 0.04% of the population over there.
Since agreeing to enter WWII, I can think of nothing we have done in the policy sphere that would so dramatically affect every citizen of the U.S. as would mitigating GHGs to the point of making a difference in avoiding "dangerous interference." I think every single national politician in this country senses that.
It's not to say it shouldn't be done. It is to say that the fundamental reason of why we aren't doing anything about it, even in the face of almost information overload on it, is because of how much it's going to touch everybody.
Posted by: kevin v at March 19, 2006 01:13 PM
Roger, your comparison with the CFC issue overlooked one key point and that is that it was a simple problem to explain and a simple problem to solve. The explanation was that there was a single man-made pollutant causing the problem while the solution only affected a couple of manufacturers. The public was only slightly inconvenienced. When we are chasing CO2, we are not fingering a pollutant and we cannot see the trees for the forest.
When Jim Hansen suggested going after other gases a few years ago, he gave a good explanation why CO2 mitigation could wait. I clapped my hands for his proposal. Those gases could be easily fingered as pollutants and the sources were more limited. The effects could be seen quicker and paths would be cleared for later CO2 mitigation.
Unfortunately it was the lack of support from special interest groups on the left, including UCS, that squashed the idea. Strange paradox that, in my opinion, the best idea for immediate mitigation of GW was thwarted by those who wanted something done about it. That same certainty has the potential to do more harm in the future particulary if some half-baked scientific conclusion is proved wrong. Problems due to obfuscation from the right can be easily overshadowed by arrogance on the left.
Posted by: Paul Dougherty at March 19, 2006 01:20 PM
I accept that it was a mistake to include the abstract you mentioned (and some other rather ambiguous ones) in my critique of the Oreskes essay. It certainly deflected attention from my main criticism, i.e. that her claim of a unanimous consensus on AGW (as opposed to a majority consensus) is tenuous.
One of the reasons why the general public does not believe in the existence of a unanimous scientific consensus on climate change has to do with a simple fact: it doesn’t exist. Despite all claims to the contrary, the community of climate sceptics remain extremely active, both in the scientific literature and in the media. Hardly a week goes by without a new paper or report that questions part of even the core of the AGW paradigm. To underline my point, here are a couple links to media reports about such researchers that were published in recent days:
Now - before anyone starts screaming and shouting - let me put it to you that it is totally irrelevant whether others agree or disagree with these claims. What is important to bear in mind is that climate scepticism is alive and kicking, that eminent and respected researchers are among the sceptical community, and that this kind of scepticism is unlikely to go away either.
Undoubtedly, it is a small minority of scientists; but unless it can be silenced for good, or intimidated into submission, the general public as well as the interested media will always keep an eye on the scientific opposition to the AGW majority consensus.
There are even more contentious debates among the scientific community about the prospective impact of climate change. It is one thing to claim a consensus on AGW; it is much more problematical to claim a similarly stout consensus on the possible affects of climate change. This piece illustrates nicely the preponderance of disagreement:
“Scientists divided on why Arctic ice is failing to grow again”
Expect more of these controversies on other climate change impact issues.
In short, I would argue that many people are weighing up the potential risk of economic damage and decline with the potential risk of climate change. And since the economic risks are perceived as a direct threat or felt more personally than the hypothetical risks of long-term climate change, it is only reasonable that the general public will remain more concerned about economic failure and job losses rather than hypothetical climate catastrophes.
Posted by: Benny Peiser at March 19, 2006 02:11 PM
Roger, that this statement of yours shows an extreme bias almost goes without saying: "For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists routinely uses university and government scientists to legitimize its views, generally viewed as coming from the political left." For one thing, it ignores the fact that UCS has its own scientists. More importantly, it implies that there is some cabal of leftists at UCS who first develop views for non-scientific "leftist" reasons and then have science done after the fact to legitimate those views. That's a hell of a charge, and says much more about you than UCS. Personally, I'd say it goes way past silly and well into slander territory. The fact that you are happy to characterize a mainstream environmental group like UCS as "leftist" ia a little mind-boggling, and all too consistent with the views of Frank Luntz.
I'm still waiting for an actual example that justifies your comparison of UCS with TCS.
Posted by: Steve Bloom at March 19, 2006 05:00 PM
Don't take my word only on this, how about Chris Mooney's:
"... the Union of Concerned Scientists, a liberal-leaning group based in Massachusetts ..."
Any comments on the substance of the post, or just that one sentence? ;-)
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 19, 2006 05:32 PM
(This might be better spun off into a separate post or an off-blog discussion.)
This makes sense to me, but I think the Academies (and AAAS for all I know) feels that the message of their reports is stronger if it is unfettered by outlying perspectives. I don't know if this is institutional conventional wisdom, or if it was influenced by other factors (such as the terms of the contracts and grants that fund much of the Academies work). They may just feel better drawing the line at no outlying perspectives than somewhere in between there and all outlying perspectives.
As for literature of the Academies, I must admit that I was unaware of Boffey's book. All I was familiar with was the institutional history published in 1978 covering the Academies' first 100 years. As you might expect, it's pretty internalist, and light on contextual analysis
The National Academy of Sciences: The First Hundred Years, 1863-1963.
There's also a 50 year history, which predates the formation of the National Research Council. There was a committee appointed for that history, but most of the work was done by an Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian.
A History of the First Half-Century of the National Academy of Sciences (1913).
A casual search has found a similar paucity of literature regarding AAAS, though their extant institutional history is more recent (1999) and was written by three established historians of science. While there is more on the OTA, I think a more detailed work or works could be useful.
Posted by: David Bruggeman at March 19, 2006 06:27 PM
In response to a few questions raised in relation to my previous comment regarding the NAS - Roger, the charge to the committee that I made an example of was not to be an "honest broker of policy alternatives" but to evaluate whether the use of the Land and Water Conservation Fund by the 4 land management agencies were effective for meeting the diverse objectives of the LWCF - objectives also given in existing laws that give the agencies their authority to acquire land for conservation purposes. That said, conservation is a term of many meanings and the extent to which one gives priority to various objectives (e.g., protecting endangered species, providing urban recreational opportunities) is also a policy matter. If you included on that committee, those who don't believe that government should even own land, you would never even get a draft of a committee report - much less a "consensus" on anything. But that wasn't what the Congress asked the committee to evaluate. The study was also requested in legislation. A tight review process usually weeded out remaining obstructionist arguments because all comments had to be responded to with defensible arguments, and there were layers above who review the responses to review... On climate issues, the skeptics are similarly using science as a fig leaf to diguise that they have a different objective - or that they give greater priority to maintaining the economic status quo than to other kinds of consequences. Benny Peiser more or less says as much. Given that consequences are never evenly distributed, perhaps they think they, personally, will be able to dodge them.
In hindsight, what is most interesting to me about the NAS is the diversity of perspectives that were able to be brought together on some of those committees, which makes for a very different product. I often wonder if all of the current discourse and research on human dimensions of environmental problems would have made as much progress as it has without the discourse generated by some of those early interdisciplinary efforts. The committee I discussed above was probably the first to be composed of an almost even split of natural and social scientists who, at first, weren't sure why they were sitting at the same table. I got a lot of suspicious looks at the first meeting but more appreciation of my role later in the process. In a prior study I worked on, the social scientists were mostly on a separate panel for a multi-panel study, but still managed to put some often overlooked social issues up on the radar screen - particularly with regard to coastal Louisiana.... (late 1980s).
Regarding uncertainty - I'd better not get started - I'm on deadline - maybe I'll write another post on that later in the week. But in short, maybe we need some policy jujutsu. "Of course there is uncertainty! By not doing anything, we are creating more of it, duh..." Maybe then there would be more public understanding of how that term is getting abused. Not to be alarmist but, when does anything change gradually, according to some "average."?
Posted by: Sylvia S Tognetti at March 19, 2006 07:41 PM
Roger, had you just said "liberal-leaning," I wouldn't have squawked at all. "Left-leaning" would have gotten a bit of a squawk due to the Limbaugh-esque conflation of liberalism with leftism, something that sets my teeth on edge if for no other reason than its complete ahistoricism (and you have a polisci degree, right?).
The big squawk came because of your implication that UCS's scientific work is tainted by their leftism. Absent examples, that's a pure canard. If all you're saying is that they choose to work on issues where science has found human activities to have negative environmental effects and where further scientific exposition of those effects will be useful to resolving them, I would happily agree with you.
Posted by: Steve Bloom at March 19, 2006 09:52 PM
To get back to the original essay. There is a wonderful site showing how the radical right has organized and funded its scientific support http://www.exxonsecrets.org/ which demonstrates both the small number and multiple linkages among both the organizations and their scientific supporters. TCS, of course, plays an important role and is a major nexus. I am surprised that Roger did not provide a link to the site in his essay. You could, for example, look at how those he named as being associated in the TCS press release are connected to each other.
I do want to disagree with Roger's implication that the situation is symmetric. It is not, which accounts for the curious lack of depth on the radical right side, where you find a limited number of *scientists* reappearing to comment on every environmental issue. This is an issue I have been commenting on for some time.
Posted by: Eli Rabett at March 20, 2006 01:59 AM
Eli: yeah - some of the same people playing the role of sceptics on climate change are the same people who were ranting about "wise use" and opposing government land acquisition, and the NAS study that I used as an example in my previous comment.
Posted by: Sylvia S Tognetti at March 20, 2006 07:21 AM
"It certainly deflected attention from my main criticism, i.e. that her claim of a unanimous consensus on AGW (as opposed to a majority consensus) is tenuous. "
"What is important to bear in mind is that climate scepticism is alive and kicking, that eminent and respected researchers are among the sceptical community, and that this kind of scepticism is unlikely to go away either. "
To which the best reply, IMO, is
The Nisbet survey has a change in wording that may, in my view, contribute to the decline you mention.
Posted by: Dano at March 20, 2006 09:35 AM
I disagree. The Luntz memo was *instrumental* in fomenting gridlock in the U.S. climate policy debate by encouraging GOP leaders to focus public discussion of the issue on "uncertainty."
Two quotes from 2001:
2) Bush reading from a prepared statement after rejecting Kyoto:
"Scientists can extrapolate all kinds of things from today's data, but that doesn't tell us anything about tomorrow's world... After all, just 20 years ago scientists were worried about a new ice age."
By the way, I'm totally baffled by your suggestion that scientists have somehow taken "the bait" by responding with outrage to factually misleading or false statements made by leaders in government. When we have good reason to believe that our leaders are deliberately misleading us (spewing double-speak)... should we be silent?
Posted by: Mitch at March 20, 2006 12:43 PM
Mitch- Thanks for your comments, good questions all, and ones we've discussed at length here. My best advice is to browse the archives!! Thanks!
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at March 20, 2006 01:05 PM
I'm a regular reader of Prometheus and familiar with your archives. Thanks!!!!
I appreciate that you would like to see scientists and others spend more time engaged in debate over policy issues and less time dwelling on wrongs of the "other side." However, the people who write research the science and comment at this blog are not the people whose job it is to write and pass legislation... that is the job of incumbent politicians, particularly those in the majority.
So, while strict adherence to "non-biased" and "non-partisan" discourse is a noble ideal for productive debate (assuming each "side" of each argument is equally valid and UCS is really the opposite side of the same coin as TCS – though I'm dubious on these points), there *has* to come a point were facts trump truthiness. So, at this point, I see no problem at all with laying blame for U.S. inaction on policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions squarely at the feet of the leaders who have actively obstructed such policy -- through stalling tactics, including rhetorical tools a la Luntz. This is a group of individuals who, rather than educating themselves and other lawmakers on the salient facts of the issue, are more inclined to use congressional hearings to treat with science fiction writers than to solicit informed opinions from the likes of you or Dr. Dressler. Some would call that willful ignorance.
Just because the party at fault happens to be Republican does not make this a willfully partisan observation, unless one is inclined to see it that way.
Posted by: Mitch at March 20, 2006 08:28 PM
Mitch- Thanks for your comments. You write, "blame for U.S. inaction on policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." OK, I'll take the bait, what proposed policies are those that you'd like to see implemented? What concrete actions are those that you see as being held up by stalling politicians?
BTW, I agree with you 100% on the partisan point, as climate policy was not much different under Clinton/Gore, except perhaps for the window dressing.
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at March 21, 2006 07:13 AM
How about the Climate Stewardship Act? With the exception of few nuclear phobic Dems... it was mostly Republican Senators who killed that bill (exceptions: Chaffe, Gregg, Lugar, McCain, and Snow).
Posted by: Mitch at March 21, 2006 07:51 AM
There can be little doubt about the partisan split in the US about climate change policies. Nevertheless, one should not ignore that the opponents of the Climate Stewardship Act have provided reasonable arguments for their rejection.
Democratically elected representatives, not only in the US but elsewhere too, are concerned about the economic stability and international competitiveness of their country. They have a duty to weigh up the costs and benefits of any proposed bill. It would appear that one key reasons for its rejection was that the potential costs of the Climate Stewardship Act was considered too high.
According to the US Government's Energy Information Administration, the estimated macroeconomic impacts of the Act would be extremely costly - to the tune of "cumulative losses in actual GDP of about $776 billion (1996 dollars)"
While the accuracy of estimate may be questioned, advocates of the Act nevertheless still have to address the question whether the billions of dollars the bill would cost is outweighed by the economic benefits. As long as the economic loss appears to outstrip the potential benefits, it will be very difficult to convince decision-makers to potentially risk the economic wellbeing of their electorate.
Posted by: Benny Peiser at March 21, 2006 08:26 AM
Mitch- Does the CSA really qualify as "action" on climate change? Is "action" about good intentions or practical outcomes? I'm not convinced at all by the "but its a first step argument". If I need to be in Boston by tomorrow, I can start walking east today, and those are indeed steps in the right direction, but they aren't going to get me where I need to go.
I've yet to see a roadmap to "action" beyond the general calls for a commitment to act, supposing I guess that the hard work of actually figuring out what to do will come after the commitment. Of course, the lessons of environmental policy are often exactly the opposite -- we figure out what to do (practically effective, politically acceptable), and then secure the commitment, cf. CFCs and ozone.
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at March 21, 2006 08:39 AM
I really appreciate your time and attention. I don't have time to get into this today... but you have given me something to think about and I hope to get back to this in the evening.
Posted by: Mitch at March 21, 2006 08:50 AM
Say, Ben, what's the cost of an ecosystem flipping?
Posted by: Dano at March 21, 2006 09:16 AM
"what's the cost of an ecosystem flipping?"
1. define "ecosystem flipping"
Now do the sums.
Posted by: Benny Peiser at March 21, 2006 10:27 AM
Benny Peiser writes,
1. define "ecosystem flipping"
It would be good to know, even further, whether this "flipping" is thought to be likely to occur in the *next* 50 years, or the 50 years after that.
It's standard economic practice to discount costs the further they are out in time.
Posted by: Mark Bahner at March 21, 2006 10:31 AM
Ben, 'flip' is a standard ecological term.
A consequence of such an occurence might be, say, a fraction of the mid-latitude plains of central Europe could no longer support row crops. Or the North Atlantic fisheries collapse.
No wonder you don't want to calculate it!
Anyway, as I suspect you know, lack of data precludes probabilistic forecasts of ecosystem change. So, while it's easy to try to cram the concept into the narrow box of things you know, I suspect that you are not a manager, since it is easy for you to want to quantify materialistically these probabilities.
If you were to throw in a 'moral' or 'ethical' component in your reply, it might be easier to take your answer seriously; but your implicit marginalization of precaution (i.e. 'care for future generations') is, in a sense, an answer, although not the one I initially asked for.
Posted by: Dano at March 21, 2006 11:52 AM
"lack of data precludes probabilistic forecasts of ecosystem change"
That, in a nutshell, answers your question about calculating the probable cost of hypothetical ecosystem "flipping."
I suggest to stick to the scientific literature on the economics of climate change. This, rather than speculative flip-flopping, will ultimately inform policy making on global warming.
Posted by: Benny Peiser at March 21, 2006 12:31 PM
No, Ben, I asked what's the cost of an ecosystem flipping. Remember? Sure you do.
I didn't ask about calculating a cost. I added words like 'moral', 'ethical', 'care for future generations' to help you get around your difficulty (in this case, likely from lack of knowledge rather than malintent) in answering the question.
And what will inform policymaking on AGW is not only economics, but sociology, ecology, and all kinds of other stuff that gets wrapped into adaptive management.
Lastly, your having to modify 'flip' with 'hypothetical' is a great response and helps a lot. Thanks for that. Hope you don't mind if I refer to it if I need to.
[Roger: bandwidth concerns end here]
Posted by: Dano at March 21, 2006 01:32 PM
You write, "Mitch- Does the CSA really qualify as "action" on climate change? Is "action" about good intentions or practical outcomes? I'm not convinced at all by the "but its a first step argument". If I need to be in Boston by tomorrow, I can start walking east today, and those are indeed steps in the right direction, but they aren't going to get me where I need to go."
That's very interesting, because that is *exactly* the same point I was trying to make about your comment that "GHG reductions make good policy sense."
When I tried to ballpark the cost for the U.S. to reduce emissions by 20% (which would only reduce CO2 concentration by 2 ppm in a decade relative to business as usual) you emphasized that the "no regrets" reductions you advocate wouldn't be nearly that steep.
So it seems to me that your advocacy of "no regrets" reductions is not--aa a practical matter--any different from advocating "business as usual" (i.e., no action).
Or do you think the U.S. pursuing "no regrets" options will create more than 1 or 2 ppm of CO2 concentration reduction over the next 2-3 decades?
Posted by: Mark Bahner at March 21, 2006 06:00 PM
What a thread. Dogma continues though. Let's see... "flip" could be the regreening of the Sahara (as it was during the Holocene Max). Here's an interesting meta-study of what we've actually *seen* so far:
But, the most important thing in this thread is the division between the people capable of understanding this quote from the TAR (obviously not from the "Summary for Policymakers):
“Feedbacks between atmospheric chemistry, climate, and the biosphere were not developed to the stage that they could be included in the projected numbers here. Failure to include such coupling is likely to lead to systematic errors and may substantially alter the projected increases in the major greenhouse gases.”
and those who ... aren't???
Posted by: Steve Hemphill at March 21, 2006 06:56 PM
It seems that most proponents of action on climate change -- and I am one -- are embracing CSA because it would at least put an emission permit trading system in place. Even if the resulting (initial) emissions reductions would be small, this would get the ball rolling on the establishment of a National Greenhouse Gas Database (to keep track of emissions and emissions reductions) and the Climate Change Credit Corporation (to facilitate allowance trading and organize an effective system for aiding disproportionately affected consumers, workers and industries). It would also get the big polluters familiar with a new carbon market system... which wouldn't even get started until 2010.
In the mean time, climate researchers will continue to make progress in terms of better understanding regional impacts most likely to result from this emissions pathway or that emissions pathway... and "as the science justifies" the emissions targets called for under the legislation could be adjusted. There is a section in both the House and Senate versions of CSA that calls for a biennial re-evaluation the total emissions allowances to determine if the targets are adequate to "prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" -- with consideration to UNFCCC, etc.
So, I don't see a big problem with the "first step argument." I'd be interested to learn more specifics regarding your objections to this. Is it the emissions permit trading framework that you object to? Because that seems like an appropriate, market-based flexible system that is more likely to help us meet lower emissions cost-effectively than any other solution that I have seen proposed. It worked for reducing sulfate emissions under the clean air act... etc. Plus, this is an economy-wide program... so I'm not sure if the CFC analogy is totally appropriate. It could take YEARS to realistically get a permit trading system up and running (with possible court challenges, etc).
Posted by: Mitch at March 22, 2006 11:30 AM
The basic problem with the CSA, as I have tried to outline above, seems to be that its estimated negative impact on the US economy - and thus the detrimental effects on the US population as a whole - far exceeds any tangible benefits.
Any climate policy that fails to address this crucial problem is doomed to failure, sooner or later. That's why a growing number of people in Europe and in other countries are beginning to regret the "no-regrets" Kyoto Protocol that is costing taxpayers billions of Euros
The key issue, in my view, is no so much whether or not to take political action on climate change. I, for one, am all in favour of taking political action. However, the crux of the matter is that any *effective* climate policy has to make political, social and economic sense.
People interested in such cost-effective actions might wish to read up on Jonathan Adler's market-approach to this thorny issue
"No insurance policy is worthwhile if the cost of the premiums exceeds the protection purchased. For greenhouse insurance to be worthwhile, it must either reduce the risks of anthropogenic climate change or reduce the costs of emission reductions designed to achieve the same goal, without imposing off-setting risks, such as those which would result from policies that slow economic growth and technological advance. Currently proposed precautionary measures, such as the Kyoto Protocol, call for government interventions to control greenhouse-gas emissions and suppress the use of carbon-based fuels. Such policies would impose substantial costs and yet do little, if anything, to reduce the risks of climate change. Such policies cannot be characterized as cost-effective greenhouse “insurance.”
Rather than adopt costly regulatory measures that serve to suppress energy use and economic
Posted by: Benny Peiser at March 22, 2006 01:15 PM
Mitch- Thanks for these further thoughts. I do think that Benny has very accurately handicapped the political dynamics.
It seems to me that a dynamic of what some academics call "goal substitution" is going on here. GHG emissions reductions are properly thought of as a means to other ends, but political dynamics being what they are, for many people GHG reductions have become the end in themselves, and the greater ends have been lost. So for some advocates of GHG reductions the reduction itself is the benefit, but for the vast majority of people, they ask, what do I get for this reduction? If you can argue (properly) - jobs, money, tangible environemntal benefits, then you are on much more solid ground than something as abstract as "dangerous anthropogenic interference"! I am sure people will complain about my stating this, but this is a reflection of how the world works, not how any of us might like it to be.
I wrote here in a post last fall the following:
"The asymmetry in the timing of costs and benefits makes it incredibly hard to justify action on mitigation - my tongue-in-cheek characterization of this approach to mitigation is "Please bear these costs but you personally will never see any benefits, other than the psychological benefits of aiding future generations." Such arguments don't work for social security and they won't work here. . .
Again, the point here is not to throw up our hands and do nothing. But the asymmetry is costs and benefits suggest that we might think about different strategies, particular ones that have more of symmetry between the timing of costs and benefits. We've discussed such options frequently here as "no regrets" on both adaptation and mitigation - see these posts (here, here, here. I doubt that much action (i.e., actual emissions reductions, not aspirations) will happen on mitigation until action on decarbonization is framed in terms of its short term costs and benefits."
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at March 22, 2006 04:32 PM
"but for the vast majority of people, they ask, what do I get for this reduction? If you can argue (properly) - jobs, money, tangible environemntal benefits, then you are on much more solid ground than something as abstract as "dangerous anthropogenic interference"! "
We were taught that if you can't deliver WIFI, your plan's going nowhere.
WIFI = "What's Innit For I". The English is bad, but you get the point.
Posted by: Dano at March 22, 2006 06:19 PM
Roger Pielke Jr wrote, "but for the vast majority of people, they ask, what do I get for this reduction? If you can argue (properly) - jobs, money, tangible environemntal benefits, then you are on much more solid ground than something as abstract as "dangerous anthropogenic interference"! "
Dano responded, "A-men brother.
We were taught that if you can't deliver WIFI, your plan's going nowhere."
Well, you both can view the subject of climate change that way, but the facts of the matter are:
1) Limiting CO2 and methane emissions have no substantial benefit even for FUTURE generations,**** because
2) "Business as Usual" will probably result in less than 2 degrees Celsius warming during the 21st century, and
3) Such a warming will result in "no net significant harm" (i.e., problems created won't substantially exceed benefits created) even for FUTURE generations.****
So people who advocate for governments requiring their citizens to sacrifice to reduce CO2 emissions today not only harm their current citizens, they don't even generate any meaningful benefits for future generations.****
The whole "climate change game" is based on a lie. The "projected" increase of "1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius" is a lie...it should be "0 to 2.5 degrees Celsius." If that truth were told, people would understand that their sacrifices in reducing CO2 emissions now will mean absolutely nothing in terms of the quality of life of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.****
****P.S. This is not to say that absolutely no one will be harmed in future generations. People who love polar bears, for example, may suffer. But the number of people harmed versus helped will "net out" at close to zero.
Posted by: Mark Bahner at March 22, 2006 07:20 PM
Roger Pielke Jr. writes, "If you can argue (properly) - jobs, money, tangible environmental benefits,..."
Care to debate the question, "Do reductions in CO2 or methane create 'tangible environmental benefits'?"
Reductions CO2 and methane do NOT create any "tangible environmental benefits," because CO2 and methane are not in any meaningful way harmful...to humans, plants, or animals. (In fact, CO2 is very beneficial to plants.)
Mark Bahner (environmental engineer)
Posted by: Mark Bahner at March 22, 2006 07:35 PM
Thanks to all who responded.
Roger, I'm not exactly clear what you mean by "goal substitution..." but I definitely get the main point (reiterated artfully by Dano :) ) about jobs, money, and tangible environmental benefits. You can't just mandate carbon emissions reductions without having zero- or low-emissions substitutes ready to go online. I hope to see nuclear (among other things) pick up some slack in the near future... we'll see. Also, adaptation has to play a bigger role... and that, if done right, can be a win-win for reasons that Roger has argued very persuasively.
I also agree that "dangerous anthropogenic interference" is a hopelessly vague term... but that's the wording in the bill, so I threw it in my post.
All this being said, I'm frustrated (and annoyed) by the rhetoric from those (e.g., Benny) who promise us that a strong economy, fewer government regulations and technological miracles will provide adequate solutions to avoid any threat from climate change. That "no-regrets" strategy is really a business as usual strategy; that is what we have been doing and it's obviously not working (atmospheric concentrations continue to rise... as they will indefinitely under this approach). The idea that no one will have to make any sacrifices (in lifestyle, not life quality) to prevent environmental degradation sounds an awful lot like Bush's suggestion, after 9-11, that Americans should stand up the terrorists by going shopping at the mall (Army recruiters will be standing by).
Roger, thanks again for your thoughts and for providing this excellent forum for quality discussion. Hat's off to you and others at this site.
Posted by: Mitch at March 22, 2006 08:14 PM
Roger... ok, now I understand "goal substitution." Point well taken. Thanks - Mitch
Posted by: Mitch at March 22, 2006 08:19 PM
I've been following this blog (and your comments) for quite a while and it looks like this is the first time you've finally come out of the closet and revealed your climate skeptic inclinations (leaving aside your 1000+ posts on IPCC scenarios). Who cares what projections they use--climate change is a hoax! Congratulations -- it must feel liberating.
All kidding aside, I'm curious to know how you can ask "Do reductions in CO2 or methane create 'tangible environmental benefits'" with a straight face given your oft-stated training as an environmental engineer. Because you surely know that one of the easiest ways of reducing CO2 emissions is fuel switching, for example from coal to natural gas-fired power plants. In addition to reducing C02, such a switch leads to lower NOx, SOx, and PM emissions. In other words, less smog-forming emissions, which are known to have serious health impacts.
In policy circles this type of happy coincidence is known as a "co-benefit" because you get to reduce your CO2 AND your smog precursors all in one go!
Now we can argue whether or not such activities lead to "net benefits" in an economic sense, but as I'm sure you know this sort of question leads to all sorts of debate about discount rates, value of human life, magnitude of impacts from climate change, and market valuation of ecosystem services, to name but a few.
Have I misunderstood your question? Also, I'm curious to hear why you think we'll experience less than 2C over the next century AND this will have minimal impacts...evidence?
Posted by: Marlowe Johnson at March 23, 2006 11:30 AM
Posted by: Dano at March 23, 2006 02:11 PM
Marlowe Johnson writes, "'ve been following this blog (and your comments) for quite a while and it looks like this is the first time you've finally come out of the closet and revealed your climate skeptic inclinations..."
You can call me all the names you want. The simple fact is that I'm an extremely rare commodity in the climate change debate: I actually know what I'm talking about, and I'm honest. (Honesty being an expecially rare trait in the climate change debate.)
"Who cares what projections they use--climate change is a hoax!"
Please go to my global warming website, and show me where it says, "Climate change is a hoax!"
"All kidding aside, I'm curious to know how you can ask "Do reductions in CO2 or methane create 'tangible environmental benefits' with a straight face..."
I don't believe I asked whether they do...I said they don't. Reductions in CO2 and methane emissions don't create tangible environmental benefits, because CO2 and methane are not harmful.
"Because you surely know that one of the easiest ways of reducing CO2 emissions is fuel switching, for example from coal to natural gas-fired power plants."
Yes, and surely you know that I can reduce my CO2 emissions (according to the IPCC) from heating my house to zero...by switching from my natural gas/hot water heating system to using many cords of wood in my fireplace.
Now, which do you think is more dangerous to my health and my neighbors' health? In other words, which neighborhood would have higher levels of particulate (including carcinogenic polycyclic organic matter) and carbon monoxide...a neighborhood where everyone was heating their homes with fireplaces and wood stoves, or everyone was using natural gas furnaces?
In case you don't know, you could look at the research of my former professor of Thermodynamics (way back when):
"In policy circles this type of happy coincidence is known as a "co-benefit" because you get to reduce your CO2 AND your smog precursors all in one go!"
You can get virtually the same benefit simply by putting very stringent particulate, SO2, and NOx controls on the coal-fired boiler. Or by building a coal-fired IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle) plant. And the side benefit would be that you would not be vulnerable to extreme rises in the cost of electricity when natural gas prices climbed. (Do you have any idea what would have happened to electricity prices this past winter, if we didn't generate >50% of our electricity with coal...and instead used natural gas to generate all that electricity?
"Now we can argue whether or not such activities lead to "net benefits" in an economic sense,..."
Yeah, you take the "yes they do" side. I'll take the "no they don't" side. And we can get any 11 economists specializing in energy pricing as a jury. You'd be destroyed.
"Have I misunderstood your question?"
Like I wrote, it wasn't a question. It was a simple statement of fact: CO2 and methane are not harmful to the health of humans, plants, or animals.
Roger Pielke Jr. constantly--and correctly--points out that the best way to reduce hurricane damage is not by reducing GHG emissions. But for some reason he doesn't seem to acknowledge the other fact...that CO2 and methane are not harmful to the health of humans, plants, and animals. Ergo, reducing CO2 and methane emissions are NOT the best way to protect the health of humans, plants, or animals.
"Also, I'm curious to hear why you think we'll experience less than 2C over the next century..."
NOTE: In the ~3 years since I wrote that, I've revised my "50 percent probability" prediction up to approximately 1.2 degrees Celsius.
Then go to Slide #43 here:
Notice how the "Forcing Growth Rate" is ALREADY below the level of James Hansen's "Alternative Scenario" that results in his projection of ***1 degree Celsius*** warming.
"...AND this will have minimal impacts...evidence?"
Go to "Global Crises, Global Solutions" (Bjorn Lomborg's book on the "Copenhagen Consensus"). Even William Cline--a ridiculous climate alarmist--acknowledges that research indicates that there may even be net economic *benefit* from a warming of up to 1.2 degrees Celsius.
Why do you think a warming of less than 2 degrees Celsius WOULD have significant impacts? That's less difference in annual temperature than going from Albuquerque to Roswell, NM.
Posted by: Mark Bahner at March 23, 2006 08:47 PM