09 December 2009

Up, Down or Sideways

In an earlier post I made the case that one needs to know only two things about the science of climate change to begin asking whether accelerating decarbonization of the economy might be worth doing:
  • Carbon dioxide has an influence on the climate system.
  • This influence might well be negative for things many people care about.
That is it. An actual decision to accelerate decarbonization and at what rate will depend on many other things, like costs and benefits of particular actions unrelated to climate and technological alternatives. In this post I am going to further explain my views, based on an interesting question posed in that earlier thread. What would my position be if it were to be shown, hypothetically, that the global average surface temperature was not warming at all, or in fact even cooling (over any relevant time period)? Would I then change my views on the importance of decarbonizing the global energy system?

And the answer is ... no!

My concern about the potential effects of human influences on the climate system are not a function of global average warming over a long-period of time or of predictions of continued warming into the future. A point that my father often makes, and I think that he is absolutely right, is that what maters are the effects of human influences on the climate system on human and ecological scales, not at the global scale. No one experiences global average temperature and it is very poorly correlated with things that we do care about in specific places at specific times.

Consider the following thought experiment. Divide the world up into 1,000 grid boxes of equal area. Now imagine that the temperature in each of 500 of those boxes goes up by 20 degrees while the temperature in the other 500 goes down by 20 degrees. The net global change is exactly zero (because I made it so). However, the impacts would be enormous. Let's further say that the changes prescribed in my thought experiment are the direct consequence of human activity. Would we want to address those changes? Or would we say, ho hum, it all averages out globally, so no problem? The answer is obvious and is not a function of what happens at some global average scale, but what happens at human and ecological scales.

In the real world, the effects of increasing carbon dioxide on human and ecological scales are well established, and they include a biogechemical effect on land ecosystems with subsequent effects on water and climate, as well as changes to the chemistry of the oceans. Is it possible that these effects are benign? Sure. Is it also possible that these effects have some negatives? Sure. These two factors alone would be sufficient for one to begin to ask questions about the worth of decarbonizing the global energy system. But greenhouse gas emissions also have a radiative effect that, in the real world, is thought to be a net warming, all else equal and over a global scale. However, if this effect were to be a net cooling, or even, no net effect at the global scale, it would not change my views about a need to consider decarbonizing the energy system one bit. There is an effect -- or effects to be more accurate -- and these effects could be negative.

Of course, not mentioned yet is that action to improve adaptation to climate doesn't depend at all on a human influence on the climate system, warming or cooling or whatever. Adaptation makes good sense regardless. So clearly my policy views on adaptation are largely insensitive to any issues related to global average temperature change.

The debate over climate change has many people on both sides of the issue wrapped up in discussing global average temperature trends. I understand this as it is an icon with great political symbolism. It has proved a convenient political battleground, but the reality is that it should matter little to the policy case for decarbonization. What matters is that there is a human effect on the climate system and it could be negative with respect to things people care about. That is enough to begin asking whether we want to think about accelerating decarbonization of the global economy.

To fully assess whether accelerated decarbonization makes sense would require us to ask, are there any other good reasons why accelerated decarbonization might make sense? And it turns out, there are many. And that discussion will have to await a further post.

48 comments:

jstults said...

It's tough to beat the energy density (by mass and volume) of a liquid hydrocarbon, for transportation uses (planes, ships, trucks, etc) what would you suggest as a replacement? Just from a back-of-the-envelope engineering perspective anything else looks pretty bad, you always end up with a less capable, heavier, and less efficient vehicle when you go from hydrocarbons to anything else (batteries, flywheels, hydrogen, name your poison). Are you saying we should just accept the performance hit for the sake of being 'carbon free'?

Nature figured it out a long time ago, hydrocarbons are a great way to store and transport energy (fats and sugars), the only thing we've come up with that's better and in wide use is nuclear. De-carbonizing just to de-carbonize seems like expensive foolishness to me.

DeWitt said...

Batteries have come a long way, but they're still about an order of magnitude short in energy density (kWh/kg) compared to hydrocarbon fuels even when you factor in the higher efficiency of electric motors.

Skip said...

"Is it possible that these effects are benign? Sure. Is it also possible that these effects have some negatives? Sure."

You are leaving out the third possibility, that the effects of CO2 might be net positive. There's certainly a case to be made for that, that moderate increases in CO2 will result in increased plant growth, providing many benefits. Lengthening of the growing season. Reduction of deaths from extreme cold.

To me those are at least as plausible as the very hypothetical negatives. And if accelerated decarbonization results in locking in a significant fraction of the worlds population into perpetual poverty from which they cannot be rescued, then it would be a moral imperative to oppose it.

Raven said...

Roger,

My disagreement with anti-CO2 policies is two-fold:

1) They depend on magical thinking - i.e. the setting of targets when there is no plausible way to meet them.

2) The policies put on the table appear to be primarily designed to hand out trillions to politically influencial groups. If they happen to reduce CO2 it would be a result of chance - not planning.

Those realities make it nearly impossible to support legislation designed to curb emissions.

What are your thoughts on the disconnect between good policy and political realities?

Jerod said...

You post that the effects of increasing CO2 may be "benign" or "negative", but you haven't addressed the possibility that the effects might be "positive", according to whatever criteria we're using.

By this are we to infer that you are convinced that increasing CO2 cannot result in a net benefit? A 0% probability?

Paul Biggs said...

The assumption here seems to be that CO2 is the biggest human influence, but we have re-engineered the planet - we've built houses, cities, transport infrastructure, factories, power stations, cut down trees, planted crops etc. We've created a human habitat. Humans dominate the environment and are an integral part of it - not a 'disease' as environmental extremists believe.

Global average temperature trends are indeed a nonsense - not meaningful and impossible to measure accurately - plus the Earth doesn't have a 'set' temperature.

Decarbonisation comes down to having viable, affordable alternatives. The rate of decorbonisation depends on the rate of technological development.

Andrew said...

There is one teeny problem with your argument (apart from the fact that it's wacko)-there is no way to "accelerate decarbonization". There just isn't.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Roger, this is brilliant!
Your thought experiment is spot on and exposes the flaw of global managerial approach taken by the IPCC. If anything, their focus on sensitivity analysis and sources and sinks has hampered political action.

jgdes said...

I think you'll find that most folk around the world are far more concerned about water availability. If we were worried about things people actually care about rather than minor issues that people might possibly care about in 100 years time then policy debates would be much more fruitful.

It's not really that difficult to sell gross lies to a gullible public though. All you have to do is control the media and appeal to prejudice. Anthrax and Arab dictators clearly works as a scare (in the USA at least) but benign CO2 produced by everyone just doesn't and never will work. That's likely why Friedman is using the scary dictator line again. But is it smart to listen to anyone who has a track record of being wrong all the time about everything?

Meantime if the politicians were actually worried about planet earth they'd have introduced a carbon tax a long time a go. That they haven't just tells us that they, like the 20,000 delegates at Copenhagen, merely enjoy the feeling of hypocritical, self-righteousness and bountiful opportunities to get their snouts in the trough.

If we're going to debate energy options then let's debate them by all means but let's call it by it's name. So far the CO2 farce is bringing us subsidies for a mythical clean coal, greenwashing of nuclear power and carbon trading to further enrich idiotic bankers.

Rich said...

But "carbon" isn't the only medium for human impact on the environment or on other humans. Once you've started thinking about becoming more responsible inhabitants of the planet why would you start with carbon?

Malcolm said...

re: "In the real world, the effects of increasing carbon dioxide on human and ecological scales are well established, and they include a biogechemical effect on land ecosystems with subsequent effects on water and climate, as well as changes to the chemistry of the oceans. Is it possible that these effects are benign? Sure. Is it also possible that these effects have some negatives? Sure"

If you added, "Is it also possible that these effects have some psitives? Sure", that would have given a certain degree of balance to your arguement about decarbononization.

eric144 said...

I have always believed that global average temperatures were pretty well meaningless. Not that I am qualified to have a view I would have confidence in.

"However, if this effect were to be a net cooling, or even, no net effect at the global scale, it would not change my views about a need to consider decarbonizing the energy system one bit."

That's certainly a rational view from a social scientist who makes a living analysing public policy vis a vis the effect of humans on the climate.

No problem, no research grants.

eric144 said...

By the way. I have an extremely positive view of sustainable techology, simply because it is superior to carbon based technology. I also have a very positive view of state sponsored research into their development, at historical levels.

Emission trading is nothing more than a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

Lacan's Cat said...

Roger, I think that your thought experience demonstrates well the folly of worshipping at the totem pole of globally averaged temperature records. If we can add this to the folly of attempting to see a human signature in weather events, we might start to remove some of the distortion in policy responses to a genuine concern.

What worries me greatly is that the policy response is based on a fantasy that if we tune the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, it will act as a thermostat to the globally averaged Earth's temperature. This helps generate large degrees of scepticism in the general public given all the other failings of politics and politicians. Scientists acting as politicians merely associates themselves with a tainted product.

I would add that humans already live in a "net negative" world. It is our ability to adapt and manage resources in a hostile world that has allow the human population expansion into the billions. A carbon-influenced change in the biogechemical composition of the environment merely shifts this equation - it is not a new equation being imposed.

I fully agree that we don't know whether the effects will be positive, negative or insignificant. Uncertainty should be welcome into the debate as it is the only sensible position to develop policy response.

econyonium said...

Prof Pielke:

If you believe decarbonisation is desirable for a number of reasons, do you mean Mankind should regress to a pre-industrial era and put up with the hunger, disease, poverty and misery of those times, or do you mean carbon to be replaced with new technologies as/if they become available?

In the latter case how can you know whether these technologies will lead either directly or indirectly to a situation better, worse or no different to the present?

Back then could you have foreseen that the discovery of new technologies such as the wheel, fire, smelting, steam power, internal combustion engine would end up boiling the Planet?

Should we have de-wheeled or de-fired or de-steamed society all those years ago?

So what is our Brave New World to be - a sort of Planet of the Apes?

Nor you, Professor Pielke, nor anyone can know where decarbonisation will lead - war probably. Do you not recall WWI was about rivalry and jealousy between Nations over the rate of development and industrialisation?

Now have a think about the 'Danish text aka Circle of Commitment" then take a good look at India and China both with big armies and nuclear weapons.

We live in strange times, wherein scientists have lost their way. They forget that the greater their knowledge, the less it shows they know. Instead they proclaim they know all - the science is clear, settled and beyond dispute - and can tell the future.

The climate "science" non-debate is suchlike: assumption, assertion, the logical fallacy of correlation to prove cause, conflation of cause with effect, a closed shop, and a loss of reason and humility, all peddled as science instead of the hubris it is.

I suppose we could have seen it coming. Science has displaced religion in explaining much of the mystery about our life and existence - only a matter of time before it took over controlling us and telling us how we should lead our lives.

The Cardianals of the Church of Climate Change gather in the land of the birth of Canute the Great to control the elements - Obama for Pope?

Frontiers of Faith and Science said...

Thanks. Focusing solely on CO2 is still not likely to accomplish any of the alleged policy goals, but you are at least more rational than basically any of the AGW promoters.
The problem I still see is that the hysteria generated by what has become a major promotional industry, based on apocalyptic predictions, is not leaving much room for rational approaches.

CoRev said...

Roger, give us a supportable measurement of the carbon impacts, and then we should talk. Until then, everything is an appeal to emotions and not science.

I agree with most of what you and your father have said about CC, but I do not agree with the use of the precautionary principle to support unlimited action. So let's do that ole cost/benefit. Until then wild shots in the dark with the exception of sheer luck inevitably miss the target.

Stan said...

1. The automobile has influence on the lives of human beings.
2. Some of this influence may have a negative impact for things many people care about (e.g. not being killed).

That's all we need to know to start having a conversation about getting rid of the automobile. Of course, we can make the same two statements regarding pretty much every single activity that human beings engage in, including eating and breathing. So unless we want to spend our entire lives debating the role of government in regulating every single aspect of human existence, we might want to require a higher threshold before we enter the conversation about the desirability of government's role into any particular sphere of our lives.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18-

Each of these comments are about policy, many questioning thedesirability or worth of decarbonization. They are fair questions. They are not dealt with in this post, however. And if you at least accept the argument in this post, arguments for decarbonization cannot be settled based on this post (or science in general).

-5, 11, 14-

Yes, there could be some net positives from human influences on climate. There are also a distribution of "winners and losers" from change. However, the possibility of net positives does not change the argument I've made here.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-17-CoRev

I am not a fan of the PP, except in circumstances where values are widely shared (i.e., tornado politics as described in THB), and it is not invoked here.

Jonathan said...

Similarly, whether it might be a good idea to lose weight depends on two questions from medical science: adipose tissue has an influence on the body system and this influence might well be negative for things many people care about.

An actual decision to lose weight and how much weight to lose will depend on many other things, such as costs and benefits of particular actions (diet, exerciser...) unrelated to medicine and technology.

I agree with what you say here, but the way you say it minimizes the important role of climate science in providing useful information about the "costs and benefits" of decarbonization, just as medical science provides useful information about the costs and benefits of dietary choices and exercise.

It seems to me that if you would agree with me that climate science has a central role in assessing costs and benefits of decarbonization, then the question you pose in this post is something of a straw man, whereas if you disagree that climate science is central to assessing costs and benefits, then you're kicking the real matter for debate down the road, to the forthcoming post about how to assess the benefits of decarbonization without knowing their effects on climate (by "knowing," I don't mean certain knowledge, but knowledge of possibilities and uncertainties).

In either case, I don't get the point of restricting this post to the limited question "whether accelerating decarbonization of the economy might be a good idea." This question seems to have been so thoroughly settled as to be uninteresting. The interesting question is whether to decarbonize and how much, and I look forward to your clear statement of the role of climate science in assessing the costs, benefits, and other considerations (e.g., equitable distribution of those costs and benefits) of different potential decarbonization policies.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-21-Jonathan

In an earlier post I wrote:

"Any decision on what action (if any), when, at what costs will result from many factors beyond climate science and different people who decide to act together will necessarily have vastly different views about the state of the science and its importance."

So if climate science is important to you or me as a factor in evaluating costs and benefits, then great. My point is that it need not be so for everyone. So I guess I disagree with you that climate science has to have a central role in decarbonization politics for everyone in the debate.

Climate policy should not be about the political authority of climate science (which you do not say, but which I infer). The bottom line is that there are many reasons to decarbonize, climate science among them.

gmcrews said...

Roger, I want to make sure I understand you when you said: "No one experiences global average temperature and it is very poorly correlated with things that we do care about in specific places at specific times."

Everyone experiences about the same CO2 concentrations at the same times. Isn't the whole idea to correlate global CO2 concentrations to this abstract global temperature measure? And then correlate the global temperature to regional and overall risks? In the engineering world we call such things "figures of merit." So such an approach can be useful.

Do I understand correctly that you are saying this approach should be abandoned for climate change risks?

lkdemott said...

Your premise is reasonable, but I don't think it takes one very far as to what policies make sense, a point that I think many of the other comments make.
The next question is how much does decarbonization cost and how do its costs and benefits compare to the costs and benefits of acheiving other desirable goals? That is where the debate exists.
One general observation that I would make regarding this question is that those who are most concerned about the effect of CO2 on climate tend to believe that the costs associated with decarbonization are relatively low, while those who think that the costs of decarbonization are extremely high tend to think the effects of CO2 on climate are relatively low.

Jonathan said...

I realize I might not have been sufficiently clear in my previous post:

I agree that global average temperature is not, per se, directly relevant to the costs and benefits of decarbonization, but it is a handy summary of myriad details of climate change. I note the similarity between what you and your father say about this and Susan Solomon's very similar point, when she wrote last summer on the dangers of evaluating albedo engineering based only on average temperature without considering the great uncertainty of its other possible effects, such as altering precipitation patterns.

However, sometimes it's useful for discussion to summarize a large amount of data in a single representative number, and so average temperature can be a useful summary of the large number of regional changes (in average temperature, temperature variability, precipitation, etc.) that we're directly concerned with.

Now does it matter whether that average number is going up or down? Not directly, as you say, but to the extent that climate science is relevant to the costs and benefits, and if our theories of climate suggest that global average temperature is a scientifically relevant quantity (that is, if the theories attempt to explain this temperature) then if the average temperature behaves consistently with our theories this reinforces our trust in those theories, whereas if it behaves inconsistently this reduces our trust in those theories.

Thus, the question whether the global average temperature is rising or falling over some relevant time period depends on whether (a) the climate theories attempt to account for temperature trends over that time period and (b) whether agreement or disagreement between those theories and that temperature record is relevant to our trust in those theories to provide useful information on the costs and benefits of potential decarbonization policies.

I suspect you may disagree with the answer I would give to (b), based on your previous writings about the role of prediction and theoretical uncertainty about climate, but I think that matter, not the matter whether it's useful to even begin asking about decarbonization, is where the attention to temperature record comes in.

Jonathan said...

Roger,

Responding to your post (my clarification about average temps was posted before I read your response):

I'm not arguing about the political authority of climate science. I'm just saying that for someone to whom the benefits of decarbonization have nothing to do with climate science, then the initial question is irrelevant.

You write, "The influence might well be negative for things people care about," but how is this relevant if we don't use science to assess how likely it is to be negative, or how negative it's likely to be.

Turning on the Large Hadron Collider might have negative influence on things we care about (microblack holes or strangelets destroy the earth) but we look to science to provide (uncertain but useful) guidance on how likely the negative influence is and how severe it's likely to be.

I remain puzzled how we might assess the consequences of decarbonization without referring to its effects on climate. If we could do so, then wouldn't the initial reference to climate as a reason to consider decarbonization be irrelevant?

I'm NOT saying that there's a linear path from knowing the climatic effects of decarbonization to the choice to decarbonize or how much. Trading off economic opportunities of burning fossil fuels or cutting down forests against future benefits of reducing (uncertain) hazards in the distant future is a normative question, but climate science has a role, in my opinion, in clarifying the consequences of different courses of action, and thus has a very important role in framing the policy decisions.

jstults said...

Roger: "arguments for decarbonization cannot be settled based on this post (or science in general)"

Fair enough on the post, but not using our understanding of physics (gained by using the scientific method) to guide our reasoning about what is a desirable course of action and what isn't? That seems downright medieval.

Roger:"The bottom line is that there are many reasons to decarbonize, climate science among them."

I see, so you've decided a priori that decarbonizing is good, and sound physical reasoning just happens to be along (or not) for the ride. That's a treacherous knifes-edge on which to balance.

That sort of argument would be stronger, if instead of focusing on 'possible negative effects of CO2', you focused on something like 'strategic benefit of not being dependant on foreign oil'. That's a rational, non-science benefit to decarbonizing (but it's a benefit that could be achieved with many different policy choices).

Bradley J. Fikes said...

Under every scenario you give, your answer is to decarbonize. This looks like reasoning back from from a preselected answer. Are there any scenarios in which increased carbonization would be good? (Ice Age, etc?)

And as other commenters have pointed out, there are more pressing problems to worry about now than a hypothetical danger in the distant future, of an unknown magnitude, presented by a highly inexact science.

Stan said...

Roger,

You didn't respond to my point. It isn't about policy. It's that your analysis is so basic that it can be applied to every aspect of human behaviour. Your argument doesn't do anything to distinguish CO2 from anything and everything than humans do. You might as well say that we need to talk about the possibility for government policy regulating everything that humans do. And that isn't particularly helpful.

The question you don't address is the critical one: Why limit your inquiry to CO2? What is it about carbon that makes it different from all the other aspects of human behavior than might have possible negative consequences? That's the key issue and you don't address it at all in this analysis.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-29-Stan

Who said anything about limiting policy to CO2? It is a topic people are debating, and I'm writing about it here. At the same time people are debating Afghanistan, health car, cell phones in cars, and the limits of following around athletes looking for dirt.

Just because there are many issues that people think require action, doesn't mean that we are paralyzed on any one of them.

As far as the human impact on climate, I wouldn't limit the focus to CO2 -- black carbon and other aerosols, methane, land surface change, nitrogen loading, etc etc all deserve some attention for the same reasons.

However, this post and discussion is about CO2.

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

Roger writes:

In the real world, the effects of increasing carbon dioxide on human and ecological scales are well established, and they include a biogechemical effect on land ecosystems with subsequent effects on water and climate, as well as changes to the chemistry of the oceans. Is it possible that these effects are benign? Sure. Is it also possible that these effects have some negatives? Sure. These two factors alone would be sufficient for one to begin to ask questions about the worth of decarbonizing the global energy system. But greenhouse gas emissions also have a radiative effect that, in the real world, is thought to be a net warming, all else equal and over a global scale. However, if this effect were to be a net cooling, or even, no net effect at the global scale, it would not change my views about a need to consider decarbonizing the energy system one bit. There is an effect -- or effects to be more accurate -- and these effects could be negative.

Of course, not mentioned yet is that action to improve adaptation to climate doesn't depend at all on a human influence on the climate system, warming or cooling or whatever. Adaptation makes good sense regardless. So clearly my policy views on adaptation are largely insensitive to any issues related to global average temperature change.


I think this is precisely why you get singled out for such abuse. Adaptation as a strategy to deal with any climate issues is something skeptics could live with because it still leaves open the processes of prioritization and contextualization, costs and benefits.

On the other hand adaptation is largely incompatible with catastrophism, which has increasingly presented the world in starkly Manichean or Gnostic terms. You are either in the camp of goodness, light and wisdom or you are in the camp of evil, darkness and ignorance. As a result it doesn't matter that you agree with them on specific issues, such as the desirability of decarbonizing the economy. Your willingness to engage seriously with all sides on this multi-faceted issue is really alien to many, and their reaction is often to lash out at you in disproportionately harsh terms.

In my view, the catastrophists have really hijacked what should have been an important discussion about how we should prioritize decarbonization, and as such they have hindered our ability to develop politically realizable policies (if not "solutions".)

(And, yes, I realize their are free-market ideologues, who are almost as difficult to deal with... but the last time I checked, they never kept policies from coming about. We did create an EPA, and acts protecting water and air from pollution, as well as the endangered species and wetland preservation legislation. Largely that was because the free-markey ideologue, though a potent faction, didn't represent anything like hegemonic powers over the political and scientific landscape. Today, the catastrophists are attempting to present themselves as just such a hegemonic power. This is why we are bombarded with the term "consensus" all the time, used in such a bastardized fashion from what it actually meant in pragmatic terms that it would be unrecognizable to a Peirce or a Popper. But I'm pretty sure Gramsci would undertand it perfectly well.)

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-27, 28-

On decarbonizing the economy, guess what? It has been going on for over a century. The question is indeed not whether to decarbonize, but how fast and whether to actively seek to manage that process.

I do think it is a different sort of argument to say (Bradley) that (a) there are more important topics than decarbonizing the economy (most of the global public agrees), as compared to (b) I am opposed to efforts to decarbonize.

Jstults- You write, "... rational, non-science benefit to decarbonizing" -- that is where this discussion is headed.

Stan said...

Roger,

Ok. Your point can be summarized as follows: CO2 might possibly be a problem so we should talk about it. Just like we should talk about anything and everything else that might possibly cause a problem some day. Big whoop-de-do.

Of course, that takes all the air out of the monstrous Copenhagen extravaganza. Talking about something that might possibly be a problem some day (according to an unproved theory) isn't really a justification for convening a massive circle jerk under the pretense of preserving the planet and saving the human race from extinction.

Jerod said...

-19-Roger

But there are also a "distribution of 'winners and losers'" from averting change. It seems to me that a heavy bias towards preserving the status quo is preventing us from even considering the possibility that change would be a net benefit.

And so I think that substantially impacts the argument you make here, because as you currently frame the issue, decarbonisation is the default "safe" option. If we consider the possibility that steady carbonisation, or even accelerated carbonisation would actually yield net benefits, possibly even averting a catastrophe (averting or moderating another coming Little Ice Age, perhaps?), then the default "safe" option becomes to maintain current levels of carbonisation.

Here's a revised version of your summary of the issue:

- Carbon dioxide has an influence on the climate system.
- This influence might well be negative for things many people care about.
- This influence might well be positive for things many people care about.

I think the most natural response to this version is to decide we need to find out more, to determine whether the results would be positive or negative. That is, at least partly, a question for science. In your formulation of the question, a rhetorical thumb is placed on the scales.

MIKE said...

Isn't it becoming clear that the geo-engineering should be the main focus? In particular those things that can remove CO2 from the air.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-33, 34-

It is perfectly reasonable for you to look at the issue and claim that you prefer business as usual. You are not alone in such a position. At the same time, many others are not happy with that course of action, and many for reasons that go well beyond the science of climate change.

Those who oppose action on climate change simply based on how they see the science are just as guilty of seeing the larger context as those who argue that science dictates action. Which I suppose is why the debate is often waged in terms of science.

markbahner said...

"Batteries have come a long way, but they're still about an order of magnitude short in energy density (kWh/kg) compared to hydrocarbon fuels even when you factor in the higher efficiency of electric motors."

Yes, but a far more important question is, "What is the cost per vehicle mile travelled of batteries versus gasoline?"

The operational cost of batteries versus gasoline is lower, but the capital cost (to the car buyer) is higher for batteries than for gasoline. So the ultimate answer is complicated.

Don't forget that the average commuting distance one way in the U.S. is approximately 16 miles. (For me, it's 5 miles.) So energy density is a consideration...but so are many other things.

P.S. My prediction is that, by the middle of the century, there will be more plug-in hybrids or straight-electric passenger cars than gasoline/diesel/natural gas cars on the roads of all developed countries.

Jerod said...

-36-Roger

But I HAVEN'T claimed that I prefer business as usual. I've only stated that a rudimentary but fair consideration of the full spectrum of possible outcomes, without respect to their related probabilities, results in "business as usual" being the default "safe" option, which is a different result than that reached by Friedman and (possibly) you using the same decision criteria.

If "business as usual" is the default option, then no, the science is not settled enough for us to begin asking whether we need to "decarbonize", any more than it is for us to begin asking whether we should pursue a course of "hypercarbonisation".

I think Friedman was trying to do a bare-bones cost-benefit analysis without considering 1/3 to 2/3 of the potential benefits... which means it's useless even as a first pass at a CBA.

I don't think anyone opposes or supports climate change simply based on how they see the science. I think, at a minimum, everyone considers what are the implications of the science as they understand it for their individual interests, even if they don't (seriously) consider how others might be impacted. The science itself is value neutral.

Sam said...

Nice post, Roger. It does a nice job of laying out how the non-scientific majority of humanity could cut through the Gordian knot of the energy and environment and economy nexus. I think putting costs and benefits in terms that speak to shared values, and using science as a way to speak to probable costs and probable outcomes would go a long way towards calming the tone of the discussion. While it is not likely that accelerating environmental change will wipe out human civilization as we know it, the possibility creeps into every discussion as the intensity escalates. While it is not likely that highly accelerated de-carbonization will cause economic and human catastrophe, the possibility creeps into every discussion as the intensity escalates. This would be like trying to plan a road trip, and being paralyzed from discussing possible routes because the passengers kept bringing the discussion around to the possibility of a car wreck. Thanks for trying to focus the discussion on potential routes, and not solely on potential wrecks.

MIKE said...

to MarkBahner

There are about 250 million passenger vehicles on the road in the USA. Average age is over 9 years. This almost twice as old as in the 1960's. The avg. continues to go up. That's a lot of inertia for a switch to electrics in 40 years.

jstults said...

Roger said: "On decarbonizing the economy, guess what? It has been going on for over a century."

By what measure? Carbon intensity? Fraction of power generated by non-carbon fuels? Please share some links if you've got them, I haven't been able to dig up much on Google to confirm or deny this.

Will Howard said...

Listening to news coverage of Copenhagen this morning I was struck by the debate over global temperature targets: Tuvalu wants a commitment to a 1.5-degree temperature rise rather than the 2-degree target under negotiation. Even when I was listening to the 2-degree discussion in Copenhagen in March it struck me how setting goals or thresholds on the basis of a set global temperature change from a (still somewhat uncertain) baseline put policy goals at least two steps away from variables we can actually control.

Let me start from the temperature anomaly end of the "chain." We don't know precisely what level of temperature change might trigger "dangerous" or "catastrophic" effects. And in any case words like that are not scientific terms but are defined in the context of social and economic values. And because there are transient effects we would need to know the temporal trajectory of temperature change as well as the "final" equilibrium state (if any - which I for one rather doubt) to which the system might come over time, because some of the impacts we are concerned about could arise from responses of systems with long time constants, e.g. ice sheets.

We are talking about global temperature change, and we'd need to know the regional distribution of climate impacts to really understand who would be affected most and in what ways. Defining a set global temperature threshold raises some thorny equity questions - what if those who anticipate benefits for themselves actually *want* AGW (back to those non-scientific value questions)?

Secondly, we have imprecise understanding of climate sensitivity, so there are a range of GHG trajectories, both in terms of concentration and rate-of-change which might result in, say, a 2-degree temperature rise or other climatic or biogeochemical responses.

Finally we have uncertainty in the emissions trajectories which we would have to achieve to end up with any given GHG concentration (final peak, or temporal path), because of uncertainties in the current and future behavior of natural carbon sources and sinks. And of course there may be feedbacks between the carbon cycle and climate, such as the ocean solubility pump response to warming, which present their own uncertainties.

My point is this: there are a lot of uncertain links, processes, nonlinearities between the targets I hear policymakers committing to deliver on in Copenhagen, and one of the variables we *can* control, namely carbon emissions. In that sense it's not a "climate" conference but an "emissions" conference. So I'm concerned that the commitments to global temperature change limits *sound* like concrete policy goals but are actually a lot more vague than they appear.

John Courage said...

Apparently with a lot of other readers I see you missing the largest part of the equation with your "carbon might be bad for some things people care about = must decarbonize" call to arms.

1) Carbon is KNOWN to be GOOD for some things people care about.
2) Carbon is KNOWN to be NECESSARY for some things people rely upon including food, clothing and shelter.

You cannot pretend that the necessity of heating oil and insulated homes in the winter for Michiganders is frivolous and voluntary and has no value!

You ignore everything that has occurred since the first step in human expoitation of carbon fuel, which begins with the ability of humans to maintain and control fire.

The first part of your equation above should be weighing the costs and benefits of carbon. (Not possible future costs and benefits from carbon in the atmosphere, rather the benefits obtained throughout human history in establishing shelter, advancing agriculture, development of transportation, manufacturing, electronics and communication.)

You have more than a few things to offset before declaring, "might be bad, must stop using."

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-43-John

Please cite where I said the following:

"your "carbon might be bad for some things people care about = must decarbonize" call to arms"

If you re-read this post (and others) you'll find that I explicitly object to this sort of argument.

John Courage said...

-44-
Of course I was paraphrasing, but you did state:

"In the real world, the effects of increasing carbon dioxide on human and ecological scales are well established, and they include a biogechemical effect on land ecosystems with subsequent effects on water and climate, as well as changes to the chemistry of the oceans. Is it possible that these effects are benign? Sure. Is it also possible that these effects have some negatives? Sure. These two factors alone would be sufficient for one to begin to ask questions about the worth of decarbonizing the global energy system."


Respectfully "these two factors alone" are not sufficient, unless we choose to ignore human history.

MichaelC58 said...

Prof Pielke, with respect, your attempt to not just move the goal posts but to take them away all together is surreal. The world is economy is about to be taken over by an unelected, incompetent and corrupt UN because science is settled that we will drown/burn/die of thirst in 20/50/100 years if we don't decarbonize. This is either a global emergency or the biggest moral catastrophe since WWII. You need to say clearly which side you are advocating and not try to weasel out with irrelevant philosophy.

Jean-Paul Moratin said...

Why not organize a global petition to demand real transparency of data and calculations on the climate ?
Transparency International exists for financial corruption (http://www.transparency.org/about_us), why not for climate which is a common good ?

davidbaer said...

Influence can be defined as the power exerted over the minds and behavior of others. A power that can affect, persuade and cause changes to someone or something. In order to influence people, you first need to discover what is already influencing them. What makes them tick? What do they care about? We need some leverage to work with when we’re trying to change how people think and behave.

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