Tuning Out the Latest NAS Report is Misguided

By Keith Kloor | May 13, 2011 3:25 pm

Some regular readers might be surprised to learn that I think this latest National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, called “America’s Climate Choices,” should inspire more than a collective yawn from the media. But as Charlie Petit explains, there are institutional reasons for this:

The news business is about what’s new. If a prestigious body says something new and very important, it’s big news the first time. The second or third or fourth it’s gets attention but fades from the front page. It gets what old-timers at a newspaper I once worked for called DBI status. Dull but important. So one dutifully may cover it. Or not.

Mostly not, as seen by the coverage of the US National Academy of Sciences ““ via its National Research Council ““ issuance yesterday of a  report called America’s Climate Choices. Bad enough that much of its contents has been previewed as much as a year ago, with four volumes already published. All this new one says is that that if we don’t do something fast the world as we know it will probably end and the next one won’t be fun. Well, not in so many words, but blah blah blah. One might as well write a report about overpopulation, or the soul-destroying impacts of extreme poverty, or the scientific emptiness of astrology, homeopathy, or a search for Big Foot. True, but not new.

Charlie’s larger point is well taken. Look at this NYT headline from a year ago, and this AP headline from yesterday. Still, the latest NAS report contains seven recommendations related to mitigation, adaptation, and future research that I think are deserving of coverage. Here is the NAS summary, containing those recommendations, if you want to take a look. It’s true there’s not much actual news in the report, but I thought some of those recommendations would have made for good story pegs (even at the local/regional newspaper level) and fodder for more climate blog discussion than I’m seeing.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, climate science
  • Tom Gray

    I’ve read the summary and I can see why it is being ignored. It is just a set of nostrums. I suppose that the report would have something useful in it

  • Tom Gray

    from the NY Times article:
    The new reports recommend cutting emissions swiftly by setting a price on carbon. That could take the form of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade plan.


    And just what evidence is there that a carbon tax will cut emissions?

    I see people driving V8 trucks, SUV’s , minivans, muscle cars etc. These people have imposed a voluntary carbon tax on themselves. They are still driving and the roads would seem to be filled with a majority of these types of vehicles. This voluntary carbon tax (i.e. half the fuel efficiency of a small sedan) is far greater than any tax that could be imposed politically

    As a serious suggestion and to set an example, I would propose that all climate conferences and IPCC meetings now be done by teleconference. These systems are quite capable and likely would be donated by the vendors to get the publicity.  Of course there is absolutely no possibility that this would happen. The weather and beaches in Cancun are nice. The excuse for not doing this would be that teleconferences cannot replace face to face meetings. The same sort of answer would come from people who would rationalize why the could ot give up their SUV.

  • Tom Gray

    Who said that climate science is useless

  • http://skepticalscience.com grypo

    Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation.”  ~George Bernard Shaw

    h/t  mt, gfyre

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    As usual the churnalists are more interested in entertainment than reality.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    If you think that carbon taxes have no effect on consumption, just consider the difference in the average amount of fuel used per mile used between Europe and the US for a factor of two difference in cost of gasoline.  There are also substantially registration taxes on larger cars in Europe.

    Yes, Virginia, it makes a difference

  • Tom Gray

    re 6

    Eli — why don’t you answer my point about the current prevalence of large vehicles with large engines. We have larger registration taxes on larger vehicles here is Canada too. The streets are full of V8 trucks with crew cabs. These trucks are shiny and covered in chrome. There is not a scratch in their paint. these trucks have never done a dau’s work.

    However I don’t expect much from Eli beyond loud yelling

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    US prices are half those in Europe, actually a bit less.  Canadian prices track US prices  Pay attention.

    and Tom, stop being tiresome.

  • kdk33

    Carbon taxes “work”, until the tax is high enough that the market chooses “alternative” energy over the “tax”.  At that point there is no tax revenue to provide nice things to offset that bad thing that is the tax.  In the end, you simply have a goverment mandated switch from low cost energy to high cost energy.  That destroys wealth.  Period.  And you have to justify that.  Which bring us back to where we started.

    Complicating the calculation are varous rent seeking enterprises – corn ethanol, for example.  So, the actual carbon reduction will be less than anticipated because choices will be made politically – exempting corn ethanol from a carbon tax, for example.  This is what carbon tax advocates fail ro recognize.  In theory, the tax can achieve what they want (destroyed wealth aside); in reality, once choices are made by government, not markets, they become political and tend to deliver less than and different than expected.

  • Tom Gray


    Canadians buy very large vehicles. They have the choice of buying vehicles with much better fuel efficiency. They chose not to. They thus subject themselves to a voluntary carbon tax.  Why do you think things would change if a carbon tax is applied?
    And Eli, Canadian gasoline prices are much higher than American gasoline prices and the Canadian standard of living is lower Gasoline prices in Canada would now be about $5.50 US per US gallon

  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    The “destroyed wealth” argument is a classic question-begging. If markets were perfect, any interference in them would destroy wealth. It’s easy enough to prove, given the assumption, but that’s because the assumption, really, is what you are proving.

    Specifically, nobody would be advocating a punitive tax on carbon if the carbon itself weren’t destroying wealth at an impressive rate. If you count only one side of the ledger you can argue against anything.


  • Tom Gray

    Canadian gasoline prices are about $1.30/US gallon higher than American gasoline prices. Canadians like Americans show a decided preference for large fuel inefficient vehicles

    What does this imply for a carbon tax of $1.30/gallon in the US. Canadians are already paying this in higher consumption and excise taxes. Would a proposal fro a federal carbon tax of that amount be politically salable in the US?

  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    Regarding the recommendations, perhaps the single most important step is resolving our problem is tangentially alluded to in the preamble to recommendation # 6

    America’s climate choices affect and are affected by the choices made throughout the world. U.S. emissions reductions alone will not be adequate to avert dangerous climate change risks, but strong U.S. emission reduction efforts will enhance our ability to influence other
    countries to do the same. Also, the United States can be greatly affected by impacts of climate change occurring elsewhere in the world, and it is in our interest to help enhance the adaptive capacity of other nations. Effectively addressing climate change requires both contributing to and learning from other countries’ efforts.

    Which is fine, but the ensuing recommendation in a cowardly fashion ducks the question altogether:

    The United States should actively engage in international level climate change response efforts: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through
    cooperative technology development and sharing of expertise, to enhance adaptive capabilities (particularly among developing nations that lack the needed resources), and to advance the research and observations necessary to better understand the causes and effects of climate change.

    Like all the other recommendations, that’s all fine and dandy as far as it goes. But a binding international treaty among the principal emitter nations is the single most important step to avoiding the absurd catastrophe we seem so committed to causing. This is the only section that even acknowledges the existence of other countries, and mention of treaties and international agreements is notable in its absence. That the academy report does not mention anything of the sort is likely a conscious decision.

    It would be interesting to know more about the debates leading to resolution 6. Perhaps that would do for a “news hook”? Just why is the NAS leaving the “global” out of “global warming”?

  • kdk33

    So, MT, I think you are arguing for an externality:  “if the carbon itself weren’t destroying wealth at an impressive rate”

    I daresay there is less than unanimous agreement on this point.  Perhaps, even, it is the crux of the argument.  Absent this externality, there is no justification for a wealth destroying government intervention.

  • Tom Fuller

    #11, that is one of the strangest statements I have ever heard. Really. If carbon were destroying wealth, we would all be running away from it and wouldn’t need a tax on it.

    There are elements to this argument that are so twisted they have to be embedded in the world view of their proponent, needing no real justification. Carbon is destroying wealth? Only in the same way oxygen is.

  • Tom Gray

    re 15

    The point is that carbon may be destroying the wealth that is in the environment. I grew up in the 50s next to Lake Ontario. lake Ontario was so polluted that there were barriers in the public parks so people would not be able to go near the water. It took a law that mandated sewage treatment and its related costs to restore the value of a pure Lake Ontario

  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    Tom, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality

    kdk33, “I daresay there is less than unanimous agreement on this point. Perhaps, even, it is the crux of the argument.”

    Yes. To those uninitiated in the science, the issue boils down to whether the scientific community is sufficiently incompetent and corrupt that the unanimity of major scientific bodies worldwide on this exact point can reasonably be called into doubt. I think this boils down to a conspiracy theory no more plausible than the fake birth certificate or the fake moon landing etc. but of course your opinion on this may differ.

    “Absent this externality, there is no justification for a wealth destroying government intervention.”

    Yes, obviously. But if a large negative externality does exist, not only does the justification for policy intervention exist. Additionally, the policy can no longer reasonably be called “wealth destroying”.

  • kdk33



  • Tom Fuller

    Despite the very real negative externalities associated with emissions of CO2, the period in which man has emitted large quantities of it have seen huge growth in numbers, health, quality of life and yes, wealth. These have outweighed the real externalities by an incredible margin.

    And yes, there is a price to pay for these externalities, and yes, we should shift the payment from the future to the present in order to lessen emissions. But to prattle on wildly about what CO2 has cost us is to leave the rest of the world staring at you as if at a loon.

    It is your expectation of future payments to mitigate or adapt to negative externalities that have yet to appear that you are advocating. It is the very fact that those externalities have not been seen to date that makes it a hard argument. You only make it harder by ignoring that.

  • Tom Fuller

    What are the negative externalities you have to show us for CO2 emissions to date? You had better not prattle on about the weather–whether it is drought in your adopted home state or fires in Russia or floods in Pakistan. Save that for your website. It’s all just weather. The 0.8C temperature rise of the past century has not affected human health or productivity. We live longer, healthier and better lives, despite the growth of our numbers.

    The fact that there are no current negative externalities associated with human emissions of CO2 has led to two things: First, a resistance on the part of the general public to pay for damages that have yet to be incurred. Second, the willingness to make stuff up about polar bears, Himalayan glaciers, etc., etc., in order to scare people into thinking that the future is now.

  • Tom Gray

    re 20

    Tom Fuller writies:


    The 0.8C temperature rise of the past century has not affected human health or productivity. We live longer, healthier and better lives, despite the growth of our numbers.


    That is an anthropocentric view. Benefits are seen in terms of human welfare. Others have an “ecocentric” view. They see benefit in terms of what they see as an ecosystem. So one sees development as beneficial to human well being and the other sees it as the destruction of the natural wilderness. Humanity’s increased fottprint on the earth is the problem. The idea of carbon footprint is an expression of this ecocentric view.

    My own impression is that the virulence of the controversy around AGW is based on the distinction between these two value systems.  Ecocentrists view mitigation as the preservation of the wealth that they see in the ecosystems. Adaptation is merely its continued destruction. Anthropocentrists see mitigation as wasting human wealth which could better be preserved by adaptation

  • Tom Gray

    One example of the ecocentric viewpoint is the destruction of the Atlantic cod.

    European governments are continually lecturing the world on AGW and their own virtue and leadership in addressing it. However it was Europeans,  with their governments and technology, who destroyed the Atlantic cod stocks and perhaps irreparably changed the North Atlantic ecosystem. They over fished the cod and as the cod stock declined they changed technology to preserve their yield. Finally there was no place for a cod fish to hide without being netted by a European trawler and the cod stocks collapsed. They then moved on to destroying other species.

    Scientists, with their peer reviewed studies, proposed a moratorium on cod fishing to allow the stocks to recover. (They had previously produced  peer reviewed studies that supported the increasing exploitation as “sustainable”.) They didn’t. Cod were the dominant species because they were the dominant species and could restain the growth of others. With the destruction of the cod, other species assumed dominance and prevented the cod stocks from increasing.

    So there we have it. The Europeans could point to an increasing human benefit with the advance in technology to exploit the cod stocks. Then the cod stocks collapsed. An ecocentrist would use this as an example of the danger of the proposal to address AGW with technology and adaptation

  • Tom Gray

    The anthropocentrist, in reply to the ecocentrist’s cod stock tipping point, could point out the Great Depression. People were starving while food was being left to rot.  It resulted in a great war. There are tipping points in the economy as well. The ecocentrist cliche of humanity doing a great experiment with the one world it has could be answered with a similar cli6he that humanity is doing a great experiment with the one economy that it has. Unbridled tinkering with the economy, even for a virtuous cause, can be very dangerous. And that this had better be better justified than by a periodic literature survey of academic journals and activist publications.

  • Tom Fuller

    Tom Gray,

    I was not advancing an anthropocentric world view as either my own or an ideal world view. I was responding to Tobis’ assertion that ‘carbon’ had reduced ‘wealth.’ He didn’t say ‘carbon’ had had a negative impact on biodiversity or other aspects of the environment.

    Although it has been asserted that the 0.8C rise in temperatures has affected biodiversity and that species have gone extinct as a result, there is very little evidence of that in the real world. This is primarily because the other anthropogenic contributions to stress–habitat loss, hunting, introduction of alien species, etc., have been powerful enough to explain what has happened in the world without any need to resort to climatic effects, which in any event have proven difficult to tease out in terms of attribution.

  • Tom Gray

    I was responding to Tobis’ assertion that “˜carbon’ had reduced “˜wealth.’ He didn’t say “˜carbon’ had had a negative impact on biodiversity or other aspects of the environment.

    And ecocentrists view the natural diversity as “wealth”.

    I am not trying to put words into anybody’s mouth. I am merely trying to understanding the meaning behind statements. Ecocentrists do not see an increase in human population and an increase in the human standard of living as the generation of wealth in and of itself. They see it as the destruction of natural wealth to consumption and consumerism. They would see an advance in human well being as the adoption of a life style that had less of an effect on the environment

    Maybe everyone understands this but all I personally see in this issue is people talking past one another

  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    While it’s undoubtedly true that climate change is damaging ecosystems, and that a mere generation ago there was universal support for the idea that we ought to stop doing that, that isn’t my basis for the claim of externaities; I am resigned to the fact that undisturbed natural ecosystems on the whole are no longer an issue because there aren’t any left. Consider that every place on earth has had a plant-physiologically meaningful increase in CO2 which continues to increase. Natural ecosystems are just a sunk cost.

    Still, there is plenty at stake economically in the survival of natural forests, or the non-combustion of natural grasslands. But let’s neglect that for now, since it has an “eco” flavor.

    Fuller’s insistence that I not mention “weather” in the context of climate is an amazing constraint. Just because it is meaningless to attribute any individual weather event to climate change in the same sense that it is meaningless to attribute any individual job loss to a recession, doesn’t mean that one can’t examine the totality of job loss as a feature of the economy. It simply makes no sense. But suppose we pretend that because they are individual events, the recent astonishing anomalies in France, Australia, Russia, Pakistan, China, and at this very moment in the US are simply not worthy of consideration, and stipulate (a bot too generously I think) that the statistics of more ordinary extraordinary events  inconclusive.

    What the heck, I’m still game.

    Consider the likelihood that most sea life is going to be severely impacted because the rapidity of the carbon pulse will lead to unprecedented or near-unprecedented (the competing candidate being the PETM) ocean acidification. This balances thousands of years of fishing against a few more decades of fossil fuel use. That alone seems sufficient to argue for slowing the use of the fossil fuel resource.

    Some people do not seem to understand what a small fraction of the coming disruption is already evident, and how stunningly irrational speeding up the use of fossil fuels is. The basic picture is not that complicated, but somehow it remains incorrectly perceived. The straw men we find ourselves arguing about seem to hopelessly miss the point.

    The reason people are talking past each other is because some people just won’t do their homework.

  • Tom Gray

    re 26
    Tobis writes
    Some people do not seem to understand what a small fraction of the coming disruption is already evident,

    And somebody could say that just as well about the effect of climate policies on the economy

    The province of Ontario has made a very big bet on FITs for renewable sources of electricity. These FITs are raising the price of electricity. Some people are saying that this makes Ontario uncompetitive. Other people say that it is the basis for a new industrial economy in Ontario.

    Tipping points at dawn


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Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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