29 July 2009

On "Magical Solutions"

I have a commentary up over at Yale Environment360. Here is how I begin:
Fifty years ago, political scientist Harold Lasswell explained that some policies are all about symbolism, with little or no impact on real-world outcomes. He called such actions “magical solutions,” explaining that “political symbolization has its catharsis functions.” Climate policy is going through exactly such a phase, in which a focus on magical solutions leaves little room for the practical.
Please visit Yale e360 and read it, and then come back. You are welcome to leave comments (positive or negative) here or there. I'll be happy to answer any questions.

PS. Some of the data in the essay about Japan's climate policy proposals comes from a paper of mine just submitted. If you would like a copy, please send me an email request:

Pielke, Jr. R. A. 2009 (under review). Mamizu Climate Policy: An Evaluation of Japanese Carbon Emissions Reduction Targets, Environmental Research Letters.


  1. The first comment at the E360 blog says it all. ;-)

    Roger: when they take you away and send you to the denier re-education camp, I'll write a letter to the NY Times in you support. Anonymously.

  2. -1-NWB

    Isn't that remarkable? Someone would admit to willfully not reading a piece before passing judgment on it?

    I keep waiting for someone to explain what it is I am denying ;-) Maybe Joe Romm will explain one day.

  3. Roger,
    In your support for a carbon tax instead of cap and trade you are denying Billions of dollars of profits to the traders such as Al Gore and GE.

    In your description of green shoots as symbolism you are attempting to deny a reasonable return on investment for the unions and other special interests that helped elect the President.

    In revealing that the cap and trade bill is more Byzantine than effective you are denying that President Obama’s rhetoric about the bill was honest.

    In denying that symbolism is important you are denying the central belief of the political class.

    In denying the true cap and trade benefit of transferring wealth from the center of the country to the coasts you are denying money from people who don’t want to create wealth for themselves.

    Since you are so vilified by people who you agree with on the science, their agenda is something other than science.

  4. Maurice Garoutte's final sentence says all that needs to be said on this matter.

    Well done.

  5. Good article Roger, Do you think the NY times would let you do an Op-Ed piece? It would be nice to have a counter point to Friedman and Krugman.

    I was disappointed by the comments over at E360. I added mine:

    Is anybody reading what he is saying? He says we need to set achievable and realistic emissions goals and have a plan for reaching them if we want to deal with climate change. Setting feel-good fantasy goals that can't be met is not constructive.

    What he is saying seems to be nothing more than common sense, unless you think climate change isn't a problem and we don't need a solution.

  6. Roger,

    I wrote an entry about your article in my blog.

  7. Roger:
    Your article made perfect sense. Joel and a couple of other commenters seemed to get the point - though it really isn't hard to get.

    In a sense your characterizing current targets as "Magical Solutions" is both accurate and incomplete. Incomplete in so far as there is an actual playbook full of "magical solutons" - it is part of rules for radicals. These rules are designed not to generate truth but for control. Your reference to Magical Solutions is too benign: My dim recollection is that Lasswell also understood the role of Magical Solutions in enabling autocratic groups to gain and hold power through propaganda. In this sense "Magical Solutions" = "Big Lie".

    I find the purposeful misreading of your article by a number of commentators alarming and symptomatic of a extreme lack of tolerance.

  8. Dr. Pielke,

    Respectfully, until you explain your views on why (and over what time frame) we need to be de-carbonizing our economies, it seems to me that you are putting the cart before the horse with respect to policy response.

    I presume you have -- somewhere -- articulated these views.

    Please let me know.

    Any reasonable person would agree that -- over some time frame -- we need to shift more of our energy consumption away from fossil fuels. To me, the critical questions are:

    1) Why?

    2) Over what time frame?

    My evidence indicates that climate change is not a valid answer to “why?”.

    My evidence indicates that many decades from now is the valid answer to “over what time frame”.

    Clearly, you have more confidence in government policy of any sort than I do. I would strongly prefer for government bureaucrats to make no efforts what-so-ever direct the outcomes. If we leave some semblance of a free market intact, smart individuals will see the needs and develop the solutions -- but, only if we leave the profit motive intact.

    At the moment, the profit motive is under withering assault -- and, that means the future of civilization is also under withering assault.

    Cross posted at http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2175

  9. Roger,

    Your "Magical Solutions" theory seems quite related to "False Hope Syndrome":

    People appear to behave paradoxically, by persisting in repeated self-change attempts despite previous failures. It is argued, though, that self-change attempts provide some initial rewards even when unsuccessful. Feelings of control and optimism often accompany the early stages of self-modification efforts. In addition, unrealistic expectations concerning the ease, speed, likely degree of change, and presumed benefits of changing may overwhelm the knowledge of one's prior failures. It is thus important to learn to distinguish between potentially feasible and impossible self-change goals in order to avoid overconfidence and false hopes leading to eventual failure and distress.


    Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001 May;25 Suppl 1:S80-4
    Polivy, J, Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Erindale Campus, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada

    thank you for having a level head and thinking deeply about such matters.