Of Climate Pragmatists and Climate Moralists

By Keith Kloor | July 26, 2011 3:07 pm

Last week, when news broke about NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s $50 million donation to the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign, I noted that his rationale was based largely on public health considerations and NOT global warming. I wrote:

Imagine that. Leaving climate change out of the argument. I wonder if the climate moralists will beat their chests in indignation, just as they did when President Obama chose the same approach.

One of the climate moralists I cited in that passage was David Roberts of Grist. He’s become a favorite target of mine for his sneeringly sanctimonious droppings. What a shame, too, because he’s obviously smart and is a gifted writer.

Anyway, after Revkin tweeted my Bloomberg post, Roberts sent Revkin a disapproving message:

@Revkin Kloor’s vapid, snotty point was refuted by the VERY PRESS RELEASE HE CITED. Don’t get why you give that guy so much exposure.

No it wasn’t.

Regardless, let’s turn to today’s article in Time magazine by Bryan Walsh, who writes (my emphasis):

[W]hen I spoke to Bloomberg before his donation became public, climate change wasn’t foremost on his mind. He saw coal pollution first and foremost as a public health issue, one that is directly hurting Americans through higher rates of asthma and heart disease. He was certainly worried about the greenhouse gases those coal plants were spewing “” coal is responsible for about 20% of global carbon emissions “” but what really motivated him were the mercury emissions, the particulates, the arsenic and all the other conventional poisons created by burning coal. “Coal kills every day,” Bloomberg told me. “It’s a dirty fuel.” So it is with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which has succeeded more by motivating individual communities over the local health effects of coal pollution than by appealing to the broader risks of global warming.

If we’re smart, this approach might be the new way to attack climate change: by identifying actions that can provide a wealth of benefits “” including on carbon emissions “” rather than simply focusing on global warming alone. That’s the message of a new paper called “Climate Pragmatism” that’s being published today by a bipartisan range of thinkers on energy and climate issues. The best way to deal with climate change, as it turns out, is not to deal directly with climate change. As the authors write: “Policymakers today are likely to make the most progress to the degree that they refrain from centrally justifying energy innovation, resilience to extreme weather and pollution reduction as ‘climate policy.’”

Let me stop there for a second and just remark that very smart people can sometimes be rigid, dogmatic moralists. Now back to Walsh:

It sounds a bit confusing “” if we’re going to deal with climate change, why not just directly deal with climate change? The answer is simple: we can’t, or at least, we refuse to. Over the past several years, even as the scientific case on manmade climate change has gotten stronger, the international system has failed again and again to reduce carbon emissions. The effort to produce a global carbon deal failed decisively in Copenhagen in 2009. In the U.S., a carbon cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate a year ago, and there’s little chance it will be revived. Even Europe “” home to the governments and citizens that seem to care about climate change the most “” has gradually scaled back its ambitions on reducing carbon as the cost and complexity of those policies has become clearer.

The failure of the global deal is an inevitable consequence of what Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental science at the University of Colorado and one of the authors of the “Climate Pragmatism” paper, calls “the iron law of climate policy.” Any climate policy that is viewed as obstructing economic progress will fail “” especially in large developing countries that are counting on rapid economic growth to lift citizens out of poverty. Take China, for example “” while the country has emerged as a world leader in terms of clean energy investment, its leaders remain reluctant to sign onto any kind of meaningful carbon reductions. The economy comes first, with renewables supplying just a tiny portion of China’s overall energy mix. Coal is and will be far more important, with coal imports in China and India slated to grow 78% in 2011.

In case you haven’t gotten the gist of the article, it’s titled

Fighting Climate Change by Not Focusing on Climate Change

Here’s a link to that Climate Pragmatism paper, which I’ll do a separate post on later this week.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate bloggers, climate change
  • Harlin

    Standard for David Roberts. Just preached to Walsh about him referencing Pielke Jr. who Roberts also despises because he isn’t on the Romm-train.
    http://twitter.com/#!/drgrist/status/95936580518297601
    He is quite familiar with energy/enviro issues but pretends to be some objective arbiter of truth on general political commentary when he is little more than a raging liberal

  • Dean

    Keith – Scrubbers can clean coal plants of the more traditional pollutants without doing anything about coal’s contribution to AGW. Or do you think that people will stop using coal because of mercury?

  • Jack Hughes

    “… Europe “” home to the governments and citizens that seem to care about climate change the most …”

    In Europe the ruling elites are out of touch with the people. In the UK all the big parties  march in lockstep on several subjects – like “climate” – and see themselves as superior to the people.

    The EU itself is an extreme example of a disconnected elite. It is profoundly un-democratic. And staffed with people constantly searching for some new aspect of life to meddle in. 

  • Tom Fuller

    Lukewarmers win. 

  • Paul Kelly

    ” identifying actions that can provide a wealth of benefits “” including on carbon emissions “” rather than simply focusing on global warming alone”
    This is pretty much like my comments here. Even uses some of the same words. Those who don’t like Pielke jr should note this approach is not decoupling. This is the variety of equally valid reasons approach. This pragmatic approach focuses on the goal and the most effective way to achieve it.

  • Jack Hughes

    Meanwhile a UK official survey finds people more concerned about their local park today than “the environment” in some future decade…

    “we expected people to talk about the environment, but the majority of comments about this were focussed on the importance of access to good quality local green spaces rather than wider environmental issues.”

    Straight from the govt stats office
    http://www.statistics.gov.uk/articles/nojournal/ns-report-eng.pdf

     

  • edG

    This pragmatism would have been a great idea two decades ago. But the cat is already out of the bag. You know, like this:

    “Climate policy has almost nothing to do anymore with environmental protection,” says the German economist and IPCC official Ottmar Edenhofer. “The next world climate summit in Cancun is actually an economy summit during which the distribution of the world’s resources will be negotiated.”
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/11/18/ipcc-official-%e2%80%9cclimate-policy-is-redistributing-the-worlds-wealth%e2%80%9d/
    The first problem is that ‘fighting climate change’ was never about ‘fighting climate change.’ That was just the cover story. Now the gang will have to be very careful on what they choose to focus on, or that will be too obvious.

    For what they had in mind it will be pretty tough to replace this ‘Planetary Fever’ that threatens and causes everything. That had exceptional One World Watermelon Inc potential.

  • Roddy Campbell

    There’s a recent Romm post giving Obama an ‘F’ for climate, complaining that even with a D president and D congress still nothing happens.  But he can’t join the dots that it won’t, it has to be tackled obliquely, the economy comes first.  So stop ranting, it demonstrably doesn’t work.

  • andrew adams

    Hmm, I can never remember whether AGW is a huge plot to enrich developing countries by redistributing the wealth of us in the West, or a huge plot to impoverish developing countries by denying them access to affordable electricity.

    But snark aside, of course there are huge economic implications of action on climate change and any serious discussion about co-ordinated international action to tackle AGW can’t ignore these. And given that there is broad international agreement on the scientific question of whether AGW is indeed a threat it is not surprising that the economic questions are becoming more central to such discussions.

    And the questions are very difficult ones – clearly it is desirable for poor countries to develop their economies and improve the welfare of their people, but it is undesirable for them to increase their GHG emissions. Western countries bear the large bulk of the responsibility for current increased GHG levels and this is not unconnected to their relative wealth, therefore there is surely a moral case that they should bear a large share of the costs of reducing emissions. And China, India are somewhere in between the two extremes and pose their own particular questions.

    So it’s not surprising that  getting meaningful international agreement on emissions reduction is proving to be very difficult politically. But, to get back to the original point of Keith’s post, are we therefore supposed to give up trying? Are we really supposed to give up trying to achieve something of this importance because it is politically difficult? What if we had taken this approach throughout human history?   

    Of course that doesn’t mean that we should not in the meantime support particular policies or actions which would reduce GHG emissions, regardless of the rationale behind them. And of course where there are wider benefits of GHG reducing actions we should stress these – we do after all have to persuade people, and governments, of the overall merits of action to tackle AGW from a cost/benefit perspective. And of course the benefits of, say, burning less coal are very real aside from the impact on emissions.

    But there are future costs associated with AGW in addition to the environmental and political costs currently associated with our reliance on fossil fuels. And meaningful action to mitigate AGW will incur some costs which do not have mitigating short term benefits. To put it in the simplest possible terms – actions which can be justified without reference to climate change will not in total be sufficient to tackle climate change, if we are serious about  tackling climate change it is going to require policies specifically targetted at tackling climate change. And we are not going to get such policies if we don’t talk about climate change.

  • jeffn

    Andrew: Yes, I think you should give up the current approach to AGW because it demonstrably doesn’t work and it never made much sense.
    You wrote: “clearly it is desirable for poor countries to develop their economies and improve the welfare of their people, but it is undesirable for them to increase their GHG emissions. Western countries bear the large bulk of the responsibility for current increased GHG levels and this is not unconnected to their relative wealth, therefore there is surely a moral case that they should bear a large share of the costs of reducing emissions.”
    The first part of that argument has left the station- developing countries need energy – cheap, reliable energy – you tried to make them do that with windmills but those don’t work so they build nukes, dams and lots and lots of coal-fired plants. The second part of the argument is a big “so what?” Feeling bad about the industrial revolution and redistributing wealth isn’t going to affect the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by one single molecule. Either you solve the need for cheap, reliable energy world wide or you lose the battle for AGW.
    By-the-by, looking at wind power in Europe, just how does it benefit the world that places like the UK hand out subsidies to all the right people for “solutions” that don’t work? Seems to me that is a selfish move rather than an egalitarian one- Europeans pick wind, which doesn’t work for China’s need to develop but does work for European’s need to skim tax money via rent seeking. Why do you want that policy here and, more importantly, how long do you think they can keep it going in Europe?

  • Matt B

    @ Andrew Adams:

    Are we really supposed to give up trying to achieve something of this importance because it is politically difficult? What if we had taken this approach throughout human history?    

    I like your optimism but as I see history, that is exactly the approach our species has takes throughout human history.

    WWII? The US needed Pearl Harbor in order to address a clear & present danger in Europe.

    Clean Water Act? From a Cleveland perspective, the river burned in 1969. The Clean Water needed 3 more years to get passed. 

    Montreal Protocol? This is the gold standard that is used to show forward thinking & cooperation to face a looming, not yet realized threat. But, there were already usable (& profitable) freon substitutes available from Big Chemical so the inconvenience & expense of this agreement was relatively low. If the result of Montreal was that people had to forego air conditioning, it would have been a much different story.  

  • grypo

    Keith’s post covers two ideas.  I’m unsure what coal/Bloomberg/Grist episode has to do with the Breakthrough paper, but let’s focus on one thing at a time, getting to the paper in the future thread .  Bloomberg believes, and with some conviction, that tackling the sulphates and mercury from coal, that this will be a backdoor, so to speak, into fighting climate change.  And by mentioning the paper, I assume that Keith believes this to be a pragmatic approach to fighting climate change.  Now, pragmatism uses logic, yet the pragmatic approach to fighting climate change by attacking other harmful emissions by thinking “The best way to deal with climate change, as it turns out, is not to deal directly with climate change,” fails some pretty basic logic tests.

    Before I get into that, I’ll just say I fully support the Mayor’s intentions to fight coal and it’s harmful non-CO2 emissions.  But, if part of the plan is to also drive down CO2 we have little choice but to make that a major part of the message.  You can remove sulfates and mercury from the air with several strategies.  You can replace coal with other carbon intensive energy.  How does one drive down CO2 without focusing on CO2?  If it is Bloomberg’s interest to kill coal with an intention of fighting climate change, then he has to kill coal, and tar sands, etc.  He needs to have a solid message, CO2 can’t be just a minor player.   It will difficult to switch your reasons in the view of the public’s eye when it turns out your message had downplayed an important piece of favored outcomes.  OTOH, if CO2 is not a reason for trying to kill coal, then his message is fine.

    Perhaps this makes me a “climate moralist” whatever that is, but I’d think it would be important to use both reasoned logic and be pragmatic, and I believe downplaying climate change fails the logic test, if enacting decarbonization policies is a major part of the goal. 

  • andrew adams

    Jeff,

    If at first you don’t succeed,  give up eh? So if we do give up our current approach to AGW what do we replace it with? What other strategy do you suggest which actually has a chance of reducing GHG emissions by a significant amount?
    Of course we need to develop cheap (as far as possible) and reliable alternatives to fossil fuels, that’s not an alternative to our current approach, it’s an essential part of it. I’m not sure why you are fixating on wind power – it will no doubt play some part in the overall picture but no one is claiming it will even come close to solving the problem by itself. Having said that, it does already make a significant contribution in Denmark, Portugal and Spain and China is currently making a substantial investment in wind power so it obviously does think it works. We are not forcing them to do this any more than we have tried to make other developing countries use windmills. And people will make money out of wind power, just as they do from generating power from gas, coal, oil and nuclear.    

  • Edim

    Soon the times will come when people will be ashamed to have belonged to the AGW cult. They will say “I never believed that”.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    What Andrew and grypo said. You climate pragmatists are pretty good at beating up strawmen…

    Can you point me to the climate ‘moralists’  that focus exclusively on the climate benefits of policies they advocate?  Or is it a matter of parsing the emphasis one uses in your communications strategy? 60/40 air-quality/climate change is no good but 80/20 is? 

    Incidentally, here in Ontario — where over half of our air quality problems can be traced back to our good neighbors to the south west — we are well on our way to completely phasing out coal-fired electricity.  When the current government pledged (in 2003) to close all coal plants it did so primarily on the basis of the clean air benefits rather than climate change.  Guess they were avant garde climate pragmatists… 

  • andrew adams

    Matt B

    Yeah, fair point. It’s essentially the same argument that John Houghton made (which was so badly misrepresented) – it often takes some kind of catastrophe to spur us into collective action however clear the threat is beforehand.

    OTOH there have been occasions when individuals campaigning for change have persevered against great odds  and those were the kind of historical precedents I was thinking of.  

  • Keith Kloor

    Andrew Adams,

    I just want to clarify one thing: I’ve never argued that people should stop making climate change part of the debate over how to decarbonize our economy.

    What I have done is give space to arguments that suggest climate change should not be the central plank or the driving force… 

    Unlike some of the ideological corners of the climate blogosphere, you won’t ever see me trying to shut down debate on an idea put forth simply because I don’t agree with it. That’s been Romm’s modus operandi and Roberts is his wingman. 

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Keith,

    Isn’t calling people names like ‘climate moralists’ and using language like ‘sneeringly sanctimonious droppings’ a means of personalizing the issue and therefore shutting down debate?

  • Keith Kloor

    Hardly.

    But when you start seeing the kind of ad hom, guilt-by-association screeds appearing on this site that the climate ideologues are known for, you’re welcome to take me to task.

    Because I know that your disapproval of such tactics would be evenly applied to all… 

  • http://rustneversleeps.wordpress.com rustneversleeps
  • Menth

    Wait a minute…there are still people who think it’s worthwhile to fight for a global carbon treaty?
    And how will Brazil, China, India, Nigeria etc be persuaded to limit economic growth?
    And how will it be ensured that wealth transferred to developping nations is spent appropriately and not weaseled away into the coffers of despots?
    And how will emissions from specific countries be transparently monitored?
    And how will this be enforced? What will happen if countries violate their commitments? Sanctions? The penalities will have to be greater than the benefits of cheating.
    Of all the dumb, top-down economic flights of fancy of the 20th century, this is one of the dumbest. As Walter Russell Mead said recently, the whole idea is akin to the Kellog-Briand Pact that attempted to outlaw war in the 20s.
    From his essay

    “They don’t want anybody to reflect on the obvious truth that a GGCT will be either ludicrously weak, unratifiable in the US Senate or unenforceable.  (Like the Kyoto Protocol it could well be all three.) They are building a bridge to nowhere, and attacking anybody who disagrees as a flat earther.”
     

  • Stu

    Plans to decarbonise by focusing on health and reducing potential toxins may work somewhat, but will bring up potential conflicts such as the problem of mercury in energy saving light globes, for example. I didn’t follow it up but apparently the EU plans to exempt the production of solar panels from new chemicals regulations, chiefly as solar is seen as a means to combating climate change. Seems to me you need the climate change angle because hazardous stuff is involved in all forms of energy production, both green and non green.

  • harrywr2

    grypo Says:
    July 27th, 2011 at 10:00 am
    <i>”The best way to deal with climate change, as it turns out, is not to deal directly with climate change,” fails some pretty basic logic tests. </i>
    Rarely in the history of the world has a single justification been sufficient to motivate substantial action.

    The Energy Policy Act of 2005 passed the US Senate 74-26. Many of it’s provisions were ‘climate friendly’.
    The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 passed the US Senate 86-14.  Many of it’s provisions were ‘climate friendly’.
    The Clean Energy Act of 2009 (commonly referred to as Waxman-Markley or the Climate Change Bill) didn’t even make it to a vote in the Senate.
    What’s more rational to believe?
    A) Concerns over climate can influence energy policy?
    B) Concerns over climate can drive energy policy?



     

  • grypo

    I’m not not saying to use “a single justification”.  In fact, I agree climate should be part of a larger picture in regards to human health, security, sustainability, etc.  I am saying it should be a major part because without it you lose justification for fighting carbon emissions.  What I mean is – to defeat sulfates you can still use cleaner coal, or other CO2 intensive energies.  There needs to be some other element that ensures these other carbon options are not used, if one of your goals is to lower carbon, to make a logical argument for ‘climate pragmatism’.   The only element that I know is to include climate change as a major part of the message.

  • edG

    #13. andrew adams says:

    “China is currently making a substantial investment in wind power”

    Yes, sort of, but that oft repeated comment is rather misleading.

    “Most of mainland China’s electricity is produced from fossil fuels (80% from coal, 2% from oil, 1% from gas in 2006) and hydropower (15%). Two large hydro projects are recent additions: Three Gorges of 18.2 GWe and Yellow River of 15.8 GWe. Rapid growth in demand has given rise to power shortages, and the reliance on fossil fuels has led to much air pollution. The economic loss due to pollution is put by the World Bank at almost 6% of GDP.1 In 2009 power shortages were most acute in central provinces, particularly Hubei, and in December the Central China Grid Co. posted a peak load of 94.6 GW.
    Domestic electricity production in 2009 was 3643 billion kWh, 6.0% higher than the 3,450 billion kWh in 2008, which was 5.8% more than in 2007 (3,260 billion kWh) and it is expected to rise to 3,810 billion kWh in 2010. Installed capacity had grown by the end of 2009 to 874 GWe, up 10.2% on the previous year’s 793 GWe, which was 11% above the previous year’s 713 GWe.2 Capacity growth is expected to slow, reaching about 1600 GWe in 2020. At the end of 2007, there was reported to be 145 GWe of hydro capacity, 554 GWe fossil fuel, 9 GWe nuclear and 4 GWe wind, total 713 GWe. In 2008, the country added 20.1 GWe of hydro capacity, 65.8 GWe coal-fired capacity, and 4.7 GWe wind.”
    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf63.html

  • Tom Fuller

    China’s investment in wind power is mostly for export. They’ve got a lot of European manufacturers in on the ground on joint ventures / technology transfer deals.

    A depressingly large number of turbines erected in China itself have not yet been connected to the grid… 

  • jeffn

    #26 Tom Fuller- I think that makes sense for the Chinese- if the plan to “address” energy needs is to build 10 million windmills that cost too much for their power produced- the blades and towers will be made in China where mass production of uncomplex items is cheapest. China likes wind because China is happy to make you stuff. Incidentally, if any part of the goal is to create a “green” economy in the US and Europe, then going nuclear makes the most sense- a smaller number of more precise and expensive components with a ROI that makes sense because the plants actually produce electricity.
    andrew @13: “If at first you don’t succeed,  give up eh?”
    At first? Really? The green movement has been banging on the exact same set of policies at least since the 1992 Rio summit. Modify your statement to “If at the 19th attempt you fail even more spectacularly than ever before, then deny, deny, deny the need to change strategy!”
    Somebody once said that was the very definition of insanity.

  • Pingback: Climate Change: Wealth redistribution or making the poor even poorer? « My view on climate change

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »