05 August 2010

Frank Press, President of the NAS, 1989 on Climate Policy

The essay that I excerpted at length in the previous post was written in 1989 by Frank Press, President of the US National Academy of Sciences (1981-1993) and former science advisor to President Jimmy Carter (1977-1980).  There he is above shaking hands with President Obama.  It was published in the Fall, 1989 issue of EarthQuest, newsletter of the Office for Interdisciplinary Earth Studies at UCAR. I find the essay interesting for several reasons.

First, the tone and deference to policy makers sounds like it is from another era.  Press clearly distinguishes the evaluation of science from the challenge of decision making, and advice from advocacy.  Since Press' time, on the climate issue the NAS has become much more advocacy focused with respect to climate, issuing statements such as (PDF):
It is essential that world leaders agree on the emission reductions needed to combat negative consequences of anthropogenic climate change at the UNFCCC negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009.
I find it notable that most of today's leading climate scientists visible in the political debate have zero experience in actual policy positions.  The president of the NAS today is Ralph Cicerone, a very well respected scientist, who went directly from academia to the NAS.  Press took a very different route to the NAS.  Today, many climate scientists feel comfortable lecturing on policy and politics with neither experience nor expertise -- and it shows.  Also, Press was not a climate scientist, but a geophysicist, which meant that he had some professional distance from the field.  At the time no one complained that his expertise disqualified him from rendering judgments on the science.

When I interviewed Press as part of our science advisors series in 2006 he related an interesting story about the perils of advocacy and credibility.  Here is how I summarized it then:
[T]he Academy, during his tenure, never saw fit to undertake a study on Ronald Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (or “Star Wars”). Dr. Press’ response was interesting. He said that there was a petition circulating among the scientific community expressing opposition to the program and that something like 60% of the members of the Academy had signed the position. Dr. Press suggested that this had compromised the ability of the Academy to lend an independent voice to the debate and that any report that the Academy did would therefore be dismissed in the political process. It seems to me that the nation would have benefited from such an independent review by the Academy on this issue.
Press saw clearly that overt advocacy (rightly or wrongly)  tended to delegitmize efforts to offer independent advice on science and policy.  Today's scientific leaders in the climate community appear to have forgotten such lessons, with only a few exceptions.

Second, the summary of climate science offered by Press offered a description of the state of the science that would remain accurate and compelling today -- with one exception (discussed below).  His assessment of the technological challenge was prescient:
Substantial reduction of CO2, which is responsible for half of the temperature rise, will require a change in the energy economy of the world at a cost of hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars and may not be technically possible over the next 40 years.
He was right.  In fact, such a statement might still be right.  Press' discussion of costs, after being scaled up for inflation and the fact that he was discussing them at the national level were also prescient.

The one comment that he made about science that would likely not stand up today was on sea level rise:
Sea level is likely to rise by one meter beyond 2050.
As I have documented, sea level rise predictions were much higher at this time than they are today (a little know past of the climate debate).  While Press says "beyond 2050" (which could mean anything, really) more than 20 years after his prediction, the world remains a long way from a one meter sea level rise.  Consider that in the twenty years since Press wrote that piece global sea level has risen by about 6 centimeters.  That is a long way from 100 centimeters, and implies an average sea level rise of about 24 mm per year to 2050 to get to 1 meter.  One meter by 2050 does not seem very realistic, based on trends in the past two decades.  It is not surprising that climate scientists no longer offer predictions for sea level rise to 2050, preferring instead to discuss 2100 and beyond.

Third, Press' policy recommendations-- which were not favored by the climate science or advocacy communities -- offer a glimpse into an alternate universe.  We can only speculate as to what would have happened if the world had adopted an approach recommended by Press, focused on taking first steps on a wide range of issues that can be justified on a basis broader than just CO2.  Arguably, we'd be much further along in decarbonization and adaptation, and science would be less politicized.  I can dream anyway!

It is only now, several decades later, that the world is actually finding the wisdom in approaches like those recommended by Press, as top-down regulation has failed repeatedly, most visbly in Copenhagen in 2009 and in the US in 2010.  And yet, the insanity of climate policy means that many will try and try again.

When future historians look back on climate policy of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, they will find that the failure to act with effect occurred not due to a lack of good ideas.  Rather, good ideas were systematically disfavored in the political process in favor of options that were doomed to fail.  Regrettably, we have not yet fully emerged from that situation, but there are signs of progress.  There are lessons yet to be learned from our recent history that might help improve policy making.