Will Sidelining Science Help Advance the Climate Debate?

By Keith Kloor | February 4, 2014 3:17 pm

From the Department of Counterintuitive Thinking:

The debate about climate change needs to become more political, and less scientific.

That is from climate researcher Mike Hulme, in a provocative essay at The Conversation. The above quote makes more sense when you read the sentence that follows:

Articulating radically different policy options in response to the risks posed by climate change is a good way of reinvigorating democratic politics.

I’m all for this, but you can only have a robust debate about potential solutions if enough people feel strongly that there is a globally significant threat worth discussing and acting on. But the nature of the climate problem–its complexity and timescale–make it hard for us to wrap our minds around. For a recent explanation on why that is, read this piece by Bryan Walsh in Time, headlined:

Why we don’t care about saving our grandchildren from climate change

The biggest stumbling block, as Walsh notes, is that “climate policy asks the present to sacrifice for the future.” Even western Europe, which has perhaps the most climate-concerned citizenry, is now less inclined to do this.

So context is everything in the climate debate. Hulme argues that we should proceed from this framework:

What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely); nor whether future climate change brings additional risks to human or non-human interests (it does)…in the end, the only question that matters is, what are we going to do about it?

No, what matters equally is just how much we feel threatened (right now) by the risks of climate change. This is what David Ropeik gets into when he talks about our “risk perception gap.” (See here and here.) Several years ago, Andy Revkin helpfully summarized a body of behavioral research:

a large part of the climate challenge is not out in the world of eroding glaciers and limited energy choices, but inside the human mind.

There’s the “finite pool of worry” (Did we pay the rent this month?). There’s “single action bias” (I changed bulbs; all set.) There are powerful internal filters (dare I say blinders?) that shape how different people see the same body of information.

And of course there’s the hard reality that the risks posed by an unabated rise in greenhouse-gas emissions are still mainly somewhere and someday while our attention, as individuals and communities, is mostly on the here and now.

I agree with Hulme when he says that debates about climate change “will not be settled by scientific facts,” but rather will turn on “debates about values and about the forms of political organisation and representation that people believe are desirable.”

This is why I’ve said numerous times that the symbolic importance of the Keystone pipeline is under-appreciated by many commentators. In of itself this one pipeline isn’t going to affect the trajectory of climate change, but climate activists have effectively used it as a means to build a larger movement that is very much values-oriented, as in: Should we continue supporting an energy infrastructure that reinforces societal dependence on fossil fuels ?

That is an important question to take up in the context of climate change. And it’s likely more productive to engage it from a values–rather than a risk–perspective.

  • mememine

    How silly do you remaining climate blame “believers” and news editors and politicians look telling your own children to “believe” what science says and all the while not knowing their consensus was nothing beyond; “could be” and not one IPCC warning has ever said; “will be” or “inevitable” like they love to say comet hits are. But you didn’t know that, now you do. Or do you hate neocons so much you are willing to act like one?

    If science can’t be certain after 31 years, YOU certainly can’t be certain that the end is near for billions of innocent children.

    And get up to date:

    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians, taxing the air we breathe to tame the weather and make it colder at the same time.

    *Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit) and you remaining “believers.”

  • Tom Scharf

    Sounds like people are giving up on the “science” argument. While the science supporting some warming due to CO2 is supported, the attribution science supporting the conclusion of clear and present danger is weak, weak, weak.

    Models that are already performing badly 15 years out, and speculative attribution doom and gloom based on these models, that is constantly exaggerated by the media, has resulted in a credibility crisis for climate science. Don’t even get me started on how misleading and false most of the claims on extreme weather are.

    And Keystone is a PERFECT example of the incoherent policy strategies that the greens support. Who cares if the strategy is meaningless and ineffective? Everyone else but the greens apparently, including rational adults. They demand their political pound of flesh for what? What a misguided effort this is.

    These Sally Fields like crying articles on “saving the grandchildren” are shamelessly transparent appeals to emotion. The greens have tried every psychological manipulation in the book (deniers, tobacco, Nuremberg, Big Oil, etc.) and have gotten nowhere.

    It’s desperation time, and has been for a while. Maybe more exaggeration, demonization of their critics, incoherent policy, and increased political polarization will solve the problem. Maybe not.

    • NameNotGiven

      Precisely. keystone opposition is massively damaging to serious climate change policy.

      The US right has its flat earthers for sure. Climate change deniers and deniers of some partial AWG. And some small number 4,000 year earth creationists.

      But the left has just as many flat earthers. Look at the anti GMO movement. So to on gun control. When 65% of Democrats think gun murder is up, when it is half of what it was two decades ago (Pew). The anti vax movement is more left than right. Even the anti flouride movement, which was right wing a couple of generations ago, is now a left wing cause.

      For those of us in the middle, with some knowledge of logic, science and statistics, and a concern for the future, and are looking or ways to ameliroae the amage and disruption, either side is offering rational thoughts.

      Nuclear is tehe no briande rsolution. How about the Preisdent announcing a paln to put our shoulder to th wheel in a naitomnal priority to greatly reduce the risks of nuclear? Anti nuclear is anit sicnce. Why not plot a first rate national academic research program in coal country wiht the aim of vastly reducing the risks?

      lets get natural gas onstream it is a very singificant reuction of greenhouse/BTU comoared ot oil or coal.

  • Thomas Fuller

    The problem with focusing on policy is that, from the analyses done to date, proper policy is pretty clearly too little to satisfy the political arm of the Consensus Brigade. After all, 5% of GDP isn’t really that much. It doesn’t hint at 300 million climate refugees, the invincible spread of malaria, 5 meters of sea level rise, etc.

    As Tim Worstall is fond of pointing out, from the evidence gathered to date, the most appropriate policy is imposition of a global carbon tax adequate to compensate society for the negative externalities of climate change… and that’s it.

    I advocate doing more, as my personal vision of global energy consumption is much darker than official forecasts–I think we will consume six times as much energy in 2075 as we did in 2010 and that will have an impact on our climate if climate sensitivity has any positive value. But I don’t think the impacts of climate change will be disastrous–just a very expensive pain in the butt for the regions affected.

    And the much-maligned Bjorn Lomborg has sponsored risk benefit analyses by groups of respected economists that show clearly that mitigating climate change need not be at the top of our to-do list.

    The most correct policy responses at this point in time are: a carbon tax, revisited regularly to see if it is still at the right level, government encouragement of new technology initiatives in the sector and Sunstein-like ‘nudges’ that favor generation fuels other than coal.

    I guess those aren’t dramatic enough…

    • David Skurnick

      A worldwide carbon tax will include some aspects of euthanasia. In the UK alone, tens of thousands of people die of cold each year, mostly the elderly. Driving up the cost of energy worldwide will mean many more deaths due to cold. Tom, are you confident enough of the climate models to justify a policy of euthanasia? I’m not.

      • Thomas Fuller

        Hi David,

        I’ve been writing about fuel poverty in the UK here at Collide a Scape for three years, so I’m familiar with what you are saying. I lost a neighbor to fuel poverty in 2007, so I’m sensitive to the subject.

        My post above doesn’t go into detail–I believe that a carbon tax should be revenue neutral, with the taxes returned to the citizenry via reduction in other taxes. In the U.S. perhaps social security taxes. In the UK, perhaps VAT.

        For the very poor, any tax can be construed as euthanasia. Taken to the extreme, so can charging them for food and shelter.

    • Tom Scharf

      I’m not sure I get the revenue neutral part. It seems like if you take the money with one hand, and give it back to me with the other, you haven’t accomplished much.

      And of course the guv’ment will raid that pile of cash in a heartbeat.

      • Thomas Fuller

        Hi Tom, Happy New Year and how are you?

        Put most bluntly, I advocate taking money from emitters based on their emissions and giving that money to other people by reducing their taxes. No new net revenues. Pure socialistic redistribution. But then, I’m pretty durn near a socialist, so what else would you expect from me?

        • Tom Scharf

          Pretty good. Hope China is treating you well. Plenty of need for environmental work over there. Yeah, I understand the punish the carbon sinners and redistribute it to the poor policy. It kills two liberal policy birds with one stone, so to speak. And of course a big enough carbon tax will certainly reduce emissions.

          Global carbon taxes / global emissions agreements are examples of coherent policy options that stand a chance of making a dent in temperature increases if carbon sensitivity turns out to be high, although likely a small dent in the end.

          I think UN based emissions agreements have zero chance. The small countries just want a cash grab, and everyone else wants the US to pay most of the bill. Maybe if you got the big 5 emitters to the table without any activists you might stand a chance. The US handing over any sovereignty to a UN based emissions court or wealth transfers to other countries for alleged climate sins will never pass muster in the US Senate. I can’t believe people even talk about these things with a straight face.

          I’m for R&D on cheap clean energy, and until then, wait and see how accurate the forecasts are.

          • Thomas Fuller

            Well, as a liberal I am in favor of killing two birds with one stone–but I don’t want to punish emitters, I just want them to reduce emissions more quickly than they intend to at present.

            And I am in favor of giving money to the poor–but this isn’t even doing that. I’m advocating taking less money from them. Is that an extra bird or an angry one?

          • mtobis

            “This is not a formula for eliminating CO2 emissions–there is nothing that can do that save mass depopulation and a return to hunter gathering (and even then the survivors would have to quit burning forests to drive game off a cliff).” implies that burning forests is a CO2 emission. But in the long run, biofuels are carbon neutral, so small scale use by nomadic hunters would not really count as an emission. Just a quibble.

            Was fire really involved in that technique? I hadn’t (ahem) herd that.

          • Thomas Fuller

            Yes, they did burn off forests to drive game ahead of them. When the Brits colonized Australia they found aborigines still doing it. It’s a very old practice, goes back to before the current interglacial.

        • mtobis

          “This is not a formula for eliminating CO2 emissions–there is nothing that can do that save mass depopulation and a return to hunter gathering (and even then the survivors would have to quit burning forests to drive game off a cliff).”

          Then are we doomed once the fuels run out? Is it fair to conclude that not just capitalism but any form of civilization ends when the carbon fuel runs out, according to that hypothesis?

          Biofuels are carbon neutral (in the long run; there are caveats in practice). Burning plant matter does not introduce extra carbon into the system. (That includes human respiration as an instance.) That’s a pretty basic fact.

          So if your prescription is to burn the fossil fuels a little more slowly and thus reach 6 or 8 times background CO2, but in two centuries rather than one? And then we will die off even if there is no climate change at all? Because anything else is “impossible”?

          Because if so, you have succeeded in finding somewhere that we disagree.

          • Matthew Slyfield

            “Biofuels are carbon neutral (in the long run; there are caveats in
            practice). Burning plant matter does not introduce extra carbon into the
            system. (That includes human respiration as an instance.) That’s a
            pretty basic fact.”

            None of this is scalable to current, much less future energy needs.

            The only currently existing viable alternative for electric generation is nuclear. However, most but not all environmental activists are rabidly opposed to nuclear.

            The big stumbling block though is transportation. There are no currently existing alternatives that are sufficiently scalable. Electric is not an alternative for transportation for Three reasons. Electricity can not be stored efficiently. It would require scrapping and replacing too much of the existing hardware and infrastructure. And the existing US electric grid could not handle even 1/10th the load of converting the entire US auto/truck fleet to electric.

            Until you can come up with an alternative that is cost competitive with oil as a transportation fuel at scale will will continue to exploit all the oil we can.

          • mtobis

            Oh, biofuels cannot be a major source of power, I agree.

            It’s just that for someone who’s been writing about this issue for years to get this wrong, an error like this a bit disconcerting.

            I hope that eventually we go for lightweight battery powered cars on a separate transportation grid, distinct from freight, which will run on some advanced version of externally powered electricity, like the electric commuter heavy rail lines around Chicago.

            The interesting thing about this, meanwhile, is that a large enough fleet of electric cars solves the storage problem by itself! Think about it.

            Yes, we have to scale up, but the more parked, grid-tied electric car batteries there are, the better intermittent renewables like wind work.

          • Thomas Fuller

            As someone who worked in the solar industry and has both reported and championed its progress, I wonder what mistake you think I made?

            Solar power added 37 GW in capacity in 2013, a 20% increase over the previous year. Twelve of those GW were built in China where I now live. Solar will continue to grow and will become a real factor in energy calculations within the decade. But it still won’t displace fossil fuels, as the developing world is building their infrastructure today and has no interest in waiting a decade for solar to become available to them.

          • mtobis

            And I wonder what I said, and what you think I meant, when, according to you, I said something as alarmist as anything McPherson says.

            Fancy a trade?

          • Thomas Fuller

            Well, Keith has made it clear that he doesn’t want our relationship to clutter his comment section.

            I am in principle willing to show you your catastrophic climate comments, although why you can’t remember them is beyond me. But: you censor comments at your blog and I do not trust you to restrain yourself. I cannot access my weblog from China. So where?

          • Thomas Fuller

            Well, like Charlie Brown and Lucy, I went to your blog and posted a few of your past comments there. We’ll see if you have the courage to post them.

            Your turn. What mistake did I make? I’m always happy to learn.

          • Matthew Slyfield

            A large enough fleet does not solve the storage issue. All existing batteries lose power over time even with no power draw.

            Battery tech has a long way to go and the infrastructure costs are high enough that it will never be cost competitive until oil is within a few years of running out. By then it will be too late to build the necessary infrastructure in time.

            It is highly unlikely that battery tech will ever develop to the point where it could compete with any form of liquid fuel for transportation use.

            We would be better off with some form of synfuel using a CO2 + H2O + energy (from nuclear) which would allow us to continue using existing hardware/infrastructure.

          • mtobis

            “All existing batteries lose power over time even with no power draw.” So? The point is that most of them are grid-connected when parked, which is most of the time.

            A little charge decay is an efficiency cost, but not a huge one, as evidenced by the fact that my ordinary car usually starts up just fine.

            http://articles.latimes.com/2013/dec/29/business/la-fi-electric-cars-20131229

            “It is highly unlikely that battery tech will ever develop to the point where it could compete with any form of liquid fuel for transportation use.”

            huh.

            http://www.chevrolet.com/volt-electric-car/faq.html

            http://www.teslamotors.com/

          • Matthew Slyfield

            “A little charge decay is an efficiency cost, but not a huge one, as
            evidenced by the fact that my ordinary car usually starts up just fine.”

            In terms of charge delay, in over 100 years of development there as been little to no improvement over the lead acid battery. In fact most newer battery technologies do significantly worse. The focus has been on making batteries smaller, lighter and higher capacity for consumer electronics.

            The problem is you can’t run a practical electric car off of lead acid batteries. They are too heavy and too bulky.

            As to Tesla and the Chevy Volt. Tesla’s founder has a political/eco agenda and Chevy was pushed into building the Volt by the government. If they were cost competitive with ICE based cars, they wouldn’t need the massive subsidies they get just to capture a tiny scrap of market share.

          • Thomas Fuller

            Umm, actually I think that we will thrive, using nuclear and renewable energy to power us to a better life than we can imagine, using biotechnology, computing, robotics and a better understanding of genetics to bring us to a really good space.

            I think growth becomes infinite as it shifts from buildings to circuits, from war to computer games, from

          • Tom Scharf

            Come on Tom, you know that optimism is never welcome in climate discussions. Have you been reading about the singularity lately, ha ha? I pretty much agree with you here.

            Let me give a prediction that probably has 99.9% chance of coming true. The world will expend the cheapest sources of energy in the order they are available. All efforts to artificially change this equation with taxes and subsidies will fail because cheap energy is a zillion pound locomotive to society. The only good strategy to win the game is making clean energy cheap, and the problem takes care of itself with the 2 zillion pound locomotive of market forces.

            The focus of the “carbon sinners must pay now” for their future climate crimes is a major distraction that only slows down winning the game the right way.

            I really don’t understand the green movement’s lack of pushing hard for “what do we want? cheap clean energy now!”. The cynic in me says that there are too many people in the movement that are simply against a high energy world, for mostly naturalistic reasons. This group has co-opted climate change for their goals. This makes realistic and coherent policy almost impossible.

          • Thomas Fuller

            You’re probably right, Tom. But I’m green, I want clean energy to be cheap and I want the market to get us there. People do change from less dense fuels to more dense fuels as soon as they can afford to, as long as they can actually afford it.

            So let’s make everybody rich!

          • Thomas Fuller

            I note that Judith Curry picked up the Economist and read that livestock produce 18% of our CO2e emissions.

            So, that’s 18%. We know that cement produces 30%. We know that deforestation produces between 20% and 25% (it fluctuates).

            That adds up to between 68% and 73% and of course is an approximation.

            But it would seem that monomaniacal fixation on fossil fuels is at best a wasted opportunity–but now that scientists have last year ‘discovered’ that black soot is more potent than we all thought, perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway.

  • Joshua

    debates about climate change “will
    not be settled by scientific facts,” but rather will turn on “debates
    about values and about the forms of political organisation and
    representation that people believe are desirable

    –snip–

    A false dilemma (also called false dichotomy, black-and/or-white thinking, the either-or fallacy, the fallacy of false choice, the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses, the fallacy of the false alternative or the fallacy of the excluded middle) is a type of informal fallacy that involves a situation in which limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option.

    -snip–

  • NameNotGiven

    This is really poorly done essay, it is awash in logical fallacies.

    I think the author is going to find the politics IS the problem with the core center and left as well.

    The following statement is illustrative of the author’s errors:
    “The biggest stumbling block, as Walsh notes, is that “climate policy asks the present to sacrifice for the future.” Even western Europe, which has perhaps the most climate-concerned citizenry, is now less inclined to do this.”

    False. Neither the author nor Walsh have an iota of evidence that this is the problem withe Europe going off the carbon tax scheme. The attrition of support in Europe, and polls show it, is that the socialist parties there, like the Democrats in the US, are suggesting a hugely disproportionate burden on the citizens of developed nations -bear the cost burdens. And that new massive, wasteful and habitually corrupt government bureaucracies which will be robbing the middle classes and sending the funds to corporate friends in regressive wealth transfers by which nothing in history so far can compare — be created.

    And the Keystone opposition is flat earth and the science shows it. For the author to spin what he himself knows is a flat earth reaction shows cynicism about fooling the people. Political science is a science too, and there is NO scenario whatsoever whether the tar sands will not be completely extracted, refined and utilized. Anyone saying otherwise is going against settled social science. Canada’s single payer health care is funded in huge part by oil exports. No political scientist in Canada is even suggesting any major party will stop it.

    The damage the US Keystone opposition is doing to climate advocacy is self wrought. Keystone actually represents a net reduction of carbon emissions,

    It already moves to the US refineries though a 3/4 built pipeline keystone is a part of, and in the Keystone portion it is offloaded and trucked or taken by rail and placed back in the US pipelines — that burns more carbon than the a pipeline, and both trucking and rail are objectively and proven higher risks of spills.

    Stopping keystone would just raise cost to the working class — and do nothing. Perhaps it is a good example of climate change solutions because that is all they will do as well.

    Humans are the adaptable species. It is what we evolved for. teh malaria projections have been debunked because the trends show we will have much much cheaper prophylaxis in a decade and a cure in 2o years. Other species and especially megafuana are threatened by something other than climate change which is lack of corridors to move N/S. That can be addressed. The root issue is a combination of population growth and GOVERNMENT created economic growth requirements to fund social programs that rob future generations in a way that climate change never directly will. Obamacare, as well as the entire set of US and other governments welfare nets all require massive growth. As governments, the least efficient actors, become more and more of each nation’s GDP demand for inexorable growth will continue. Exploitation of the earth will get WORSE.

    Suggesting bigger government through carbon bureaucracies is harmful to the planet

  • bobito

    If we talk solutions, and the solutions make sense, the science is moot.

    Any plan that makes sense will need a significant investment in hydro, nuclear, and natural gas. Show me a plan that includes a dozen Hover-scale dams, and nuclear reactors, I’ll listen.

    • mtobis

      Well, there’s not much hydro left. Natural gas is part of the solution in the short run problem only if it is viewed as part of the problem in the long run, as net emissions must go to near or below zero to stabilize the planet’s energy balance.

      I think nuclear should be considered. There are other promising alternatives; fossil fuels with carbon capture and sequestration, deep geothermal, improved energy storage systems including solar-thermal, and eventually maybe someone will put orbital solar back on the table.

      But that is off topic. The topic is whether KXL is a useful rallying cry or a tactical error; my position which Keith did not consider for a moment is that the punditocracy has it wrong; it is not symbolic at all. Allowing KXL to proceed adds momentum to the problem, not to the solution.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

        MT: “Allowing KXL to proceed adds momentum to the problem, not to the solution.”

        KK: “Should we continue supporting an energy infrastructure that reinforces societal dependence on fossil fuels? That is an important question to take up in the context of climate change.”

        • mtobis

          That doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion, even if answered in the affirmative.

          It’s bigger than whether we should keep drinking though; it’s about whether we should uncork a new bottle. This is not business as usual; this is a new line of business of exactly the wrong kind. It is of a kind that, if we had a sane policy in place, would not be viable.

          So, given that we want eventually to have a workable policy and a workable treaty, and given that no workable policy would permit this line of business to exist, we should do whatever we can to prevent the momentum of a huge new industry to already be in place once the policy is finally implemented.

          • mtobis

            “we” = the whole world. There is only a collective global future that is worth thinking about. Nations are hopelessly interdependent in a world where climate is largely a human artifact.

            In this particular instance, anyone thinking the US has no influence over what Canada does has not paid a lot of attention to Canada.

            (Interestingly, in the past the Conservative party was the bulwark of resistance to Americanization while the Liberal party was eager for it. But as I always say, there are no real Tories left.)

            For a detailed analysis of the pipeline issue from a Canadian perspective, see this excellent article by Andy Skuce:
            http://planet3.org/2013/03/26/keeping-the-cork-in-the-oil-sands-bottle/

        • Tom Scharf

          “KK: “Should we continue supporting…”

          We = Canada?

          The fact that the oil is coming out whether the US likes it or not seems to be a pertinent point here? This is why you call it “symbolic” I assume, and Tobis is conveniently ignoring this fact for the hard line position that all fossil fuel energy = poison.

          All I see here is unicorn chasing.

      • bobito

        What do you mean “not much hydro left”?

        Are you saying that in the practical sense? i.e. There is not much hydro left because greens are more interested in tearing down dams than building them?

        • mtobis

          Most viable hydro power in the US is already tapped as I understand it, and most viable reservoirs are already built for that matter. The US has no significant capacity for new dams.

          Ontario, Quebec and Labrador can still build out as I understand it. The environmental footprint of those ongoing projects is indeed enormous, but on balance I for one still support hydro. One issue is that if large wooded territories are flooded, there is a significant one-time carbon release from the drowned forest. But amortized over a very long time this shouldn’t be decisive.

          On the other hand, these projects may make a modest dent in the carbon problem but even at full tilt they will be too small to solve it.

          But this is off the top of my head and I won’t swear by it. Maybe I have got this wrong. Do you have any reliable info to the contrary?

          • Thomas Fuller

            I live in a country that is building 100 large dams now for hydroelectric, as well as helping other countries in Asia and Africa build 170 more. I have been reading for a decade that hydro is tapped out. It’s not true outside of the U.S. and Europe. It wouldn’t be true inside the U.S. and Europe if environmentalists could actually consider the consequences of their opposition to hydroelectric power.

          • Thomas Fuller

            As for your request for numbers Dr. Tobis, in 2010 the world consumed 523 quads of energy. 52 of those quads were from renewable sources. Of those 52 green quads, 50 came from hydroelectric power (and included about one-third the rated capacity from Three Gorges Dam).

          • Thomas Fuller

            To continue on hydro, the last time I looked, with current policies in place hydro will not proceed much further in Europe and the U.S. Global potential therefore is about triple current production, hence about 150 potential quads annually when built out.

            If you accept the Department of Energy’s EIA projections for 2035, the world will consume 721 quads in that year. Hence, 150 hydro quads make a real difference if built. I remain the outlier (joined by Dan Nocera and Roger Pielke Jr.) in forecasting much higher energy consumption. My figures (explained at 3000 Quads), show 913 quads annual consumption by that time. (Figures approximate as I am working from memory.)

            150 quads from hydro is significant and we should work to attain it.

            My projections for nuclear at given build-out rates show a rise from 2010′s total of 56 quads to about 63 by 2035. This is mostly due to China’s ambitious plans.

            As for wind and solar, they should be contributing in the 10 quad range by then.

            The point is that if most of the difference between the 523 of 2010 and whichever total you accept for 2035 will be produced by coal, we are in real trouble.

          • bobito

            Thanks, Thomas. I was just going common sense with that quandary on hydro being tapped out, your expert input was welcome.

            I live near the Hudson River, you can’t tell me there isn’t a place for a large scale dam that can service the NYC area.

  • JH

    *sigh*

    Climate people just don’t get it.

  • mtobis

    The point about Keystone is that it uncorks a new source of carbon that at best is no cleaner than coal. It should be discouraged on that basis, pending a workable tax or cap.

    If there were adequate constraints on carbon, it is obvious that this resource would not be developed. In fact, that practically defines adequate.

    It really is a special case because of the vast new infrastructure that it implies; Keystone is only the first of many pipelines for this energy source which makes no logical sense in the 21st century. Letting this go forward because we remain incapable of setting a fair policy is crazy, because any fair policy whatsoever would kill the tar sands industry dead.

    So, no, I disagree with the thesis here. I believe that whatever its symbolic resonances, KXL is a very real and substantive issue, not mere environmentalist caprice.

    • Thomas Fuller

      Dr.Tobis seems oblivious to the growing need for energy throughout the world. We already know that if Americans refuse Keystone Karbon the Chinese will gladly take it. They need it, with or without a pipeline. They would probably send people with buckets to come and get it if they could. They have 5 million people in Africa working hammer and tong to get resources out of the ground and over to China. Canada would seem like a vacation to them.

      If Dr. Tobis is adamant about leaving the oil in the ground, he should talk to the owners, not the prospective customers. I have seen no-one call for compensating the owners of the tar sands oil in exchange for leaving it in the ground. And yet they are the ones most immediately damaged by any action to do so.

      • mtobis

        Compensating the owners of fossil fuels is something I for one would consider.

        Tom Fuller continues to misunderstand me.

        I mostly agree with him that “The most correct policy responses at this point in time are: a carbon tax, revisited regularly to see if it is still at the right level, government encouragement of new technology initiatives in the sector and Sunstein-like ‘nudges’ that favor generation fuels other than coal.”

        Where we seem to disagree in general is whether such a policy can be effective if emissions rates are merely slowed down, such that fossil “resources” are abandoned. In this matter, understanding that an emitted unit of carbon is roughly a permanent half unit residing in the atmosphere, is a question of fact, not of opinion or preference. Any policy which doesn’t actually lead to effectively zero or negative net emissions at best delays most of the severe climate related problems anticipated in coming decades. It cannot avoid them.This is an inevitable logical consequence of physical facts, and my trying to explain it has led Fuller among others to believe that I am some sort of a radical.

        But that is neither here nor there. For present purposes we would seem to be agreed coal should be phased out and that policy nudges are called for. This being the case, and tar sands being more or less comparable in damage to coal, permitting the KXL and establishing the tar sands industry at scale is a very substantial nudge in the wrong direction.

        • Thomas Fuller

          Your assertion that tar sands oil is equivalent to coal in terms of emissions is off by about 18%. Even with the extra cleaning of the oil it is significantly preferable to coal.

          We disagree on where we disagree. I find your ‘willingness to consider’ compensating the owners of a resource for your expropriation of it (for that is what you propose at the end of the day) a bit smarmy.

          Where we actually disagree is in our philosophical approach to the future of the human race. You believe that it is better to shut down fossil fuels (with all the consequences that implies for the people who currently depend on it and the people yearning for the material comforts fossil fuels can bring to them) in an attempt to stop a phenomenon that is poorly quantified and inaccurately portrayed to legislators by people like yourself.

          I believe you have forfeited any claim on society’s attention for your draconian plan by being part of the problem. You have contributed to the generation of hysteria that has consumed this debate. I am not kidding when I say that Guy McPherson is saying now what you have said for years.

          Your eagerness to demonize people like Keith Kloor, Bjorn Lomborg, both Pielkes and Judiith Curry have more or less put you outside the scope of reasoned discourse on this subject.

          You have earned the horseshoe. You should keep it for yourself.

          • mtobis

            “I am not kidding when I say that Guy McPherson is saying now what you have said for years.” I can’t imagine any way in which that could be true. Either you are just saying that to make me angry or you misread me even more severely than I expected.

            (The McPherson business refers to

            http://planet3.org/2014/01/26/whither-the-golden-horseshoe/

            and
            http://planet3.org/2014/02/03/birds-of-a-feather/ )

            Nor have I demonized Keith. I rather like him, though we often disagree.

            The Pielkes and Curry are not demons either; they just aren’t, at least not reliably, very good at what they do.

            It’s necessary to refute logically insupportable, indeed silly, but inaccessible technical arguments lest the general public take them too seriously.

            Nobody with a semblance of a scientific career in climate dares to be frank about these colleagues in public (it’s a small fraternity), but these are not opinions in which I am alone. I have the luxury of a lack of personal ambition, and so it falls to me to be frank about it.

          • Thomas Fuller

            ‘luxury of a lack of personal ambition’ translates into ‘knowing I cannot be held accountable for libel, slurs and insults.’

          • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

            Tom,
            You are once again allowing your prior (and personal) history with Michael Tobis to take what could have been a productive exchange off kilter.

            The topic was Keystone and you injected something about Guy McPherson (how is anyone else supposed to know what you’re referring to there) and then in another comment you made an accusation about personalization (pretty ironic).

            Couldn’t you just have debated Keystone with him and not allowed your own personal grudges against Michael to influence the conversation?

          • Thomas Fuller

            You’re right, Keith. I’m sorry for letting myself get sidetracked.

          • mtobis

            Anyone can be held accountable for libel, Tom.

          • Thomas Fuller

            “It is necessary to refute logically insupportable” etc. You don’t refute any of them. You just disagree with them and then call them incompetent, stupid, evil or worse… such as your hint that Andrew Revkin’s writings are equivalent to supporting genocide.

        • Tom Scharf

          “Compensating the owners of fossil fuels is something I for one would consider.”

          I imagine you are quite generous with other people’s money in many areas, no?

          So here we would pay twice, once for more expensive renewable energy (ask the Europeans about this), and twice for compensating the oil industry. Economic consequences be damned, full speed ahead. This “theory” that economics shouldn’t matter in this ideological crusade is what gets people relegated to the fringe activist category.

          But keep beating your head on that wall, I’m sure it will break through anytime now. Hasn’t RPJ’s Iron law proven to be correct in almost every instance so far? Best to try to work within these confines if you value effectiveness over eco-thought-purity.

          • mtobis

            Well, for some reason it is futile for me to point out points of agreement with Fuller.

            But yes, if carbon capture doesn’t work (which is just a smaller version of spending other people’s money anyway) the only sensible choices are to buy out the fossil fuel companies (spending the public’s money) or to shut them down(spending the shareholders’ money).

            The choice of doing neither is so much much much more expensive in the long run that it is idiotic. It amounts to spending wealth in various other ways. For example, it is a huge tax on low-lying real estate.

            The thing is, the piper will be paid one way or the other. Somebody’s going to get hit. The question is only who and how much. I’m just looking for the best bargain.

            As for iron laws, iron laws of physics are far less flexible than iron laws of politics. If physics and politics disagree, eventually the politics will change to accommodate the physics, no? Again, the real questions are whether this is done well or badly, in a timely way or too late.

            There’s no thought-purity as far as I know. This is purely pragmatic, which is why I would be willing to support a policy to buy out the fossil fuel companies, who at this point hardly deserve it.

          • Tom Scharf

            The assertion “The choice of doing neither is so much much much more expensive in the long run that it is idiotic.” is something that should be prefaced with “I believe”. This is not semantics, it is a continuous purposeful misrepresentation on your part.

            I understand the argument, I understand that you believe it, but that doesn’t turn it into a fact that is supported by the science. If you can convince everyone this is a high probability event, then you will get more traction. Until then, you lose credibility by continuously stating this low probability outcome as a scientific fact.

            Tobis thought purity = stop all fossil fuel now or disaster. Anything else is denial, right?

          • mtobis

            You’re arguing against a straw man. “stop all fossil fuel now or disaster; anything else is denial” is not my opinion.

            In fact I would agree with you that that’s crazy talk. But in fact only handwringing amateurs say this. You don’t get that opinion from people who are seriously engaged with the problem, even Hansen or McKibben, much less myself.

            “Stop all net emissions as soon as feasible” is what we say, and it is a different kettle of fish entirely. The usual target that reasonable people proffer is something like 80% cuts by 2050 and 100% by 2080.

            The problem with this, the thing that doesn’t square with our current means of conducting ourselves, is that most of the carbon has to stay in the ground. It is not a real resource – it is a way to steal from our descendants.

            “If you can convince everyone this is a high probability event, then you will get more traction.” That is certainly true. I am doing my best, as are many others, because in fact it is extremely unlikely that the business as usual scenario will be benign.

          • Thomas Fuller

            Dr Tobis, I refer to 2010 because the numbers are really easy to remember. In that year, global expenditure on primary energy supply was roughly $5 trillion. That included expenditure on (building, using and supplying) $500 billion for renewable energy sources.

            What government or combination of governments will be able to finance the buyout of fossil fuel providers (including compensation for their expected future earnings) and simultaneously ramp up renewables to supply the 90% of energy currently provided by fossil fuels?

  • mtobis

    Peter Sinclair’s excellent essay at http://climatecrocks.com/2014/02/04/keystone-and-the-national-interest/ reports that Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs also takes the position that KXL is not about symbolism. Sachs, rightly, says:

    ===>
    “The urgent planetary need is clear. The world has to wean itself from fossil fuel dependence in the coming 20-40 years. We simply can’t go on drilling, excavating, and burning every ton of coal, oil, and gas the fossil fuel industry finds. If we do so, the basic “carbon arithmetic” of CO2 buildup spells disaster. …

    “Using climate science, it is possible to calculate the tolerable limits on total future fossil fuel use. The basic idea is the need for the world to adhere to a “carbon budget,” meaning the total amount of fossil fuels that can be burned while avoiding global warming by more than 2-degrees C.

    “The State Department Environmental Impact Statement doesn’t even ask the right question: How do the unconventional Canadian oil sands fit or not fit within the overall carbon budget? Instead, the State Department simply assumes, without any irony or evident self-awareness, that the oil sands will be developed and used one way or another. For the State Department, the main issue therefore seems to be whether the oil will be shipped by pipeline or by rail. The State Department doesn’t even raise the possibility that the pipeline should be stopped in order to keep a lid on the total amount of unconventional fossil fuels burned around the world.”
    <===

    • Thomas Fuller

      When Sachs says ‘the world has to wean itself from fossil fuels in the next 20-40 years’ he is saying something that he knows will not occur. Cannot occur. It is not going to happen.

      So where does intelligent discussion go after such a non-sequitur? I believe that we are sleepwalking into an era where we will pay dearly for dramatically increased emissions of CO2 and I am eager to fight this. But it is clear that prohibition of fossil fuels is not only impossible, but would create more damage than climate change, more misery, greater loss of life.

      What infuriates me about the arguments from Sachs and yourself, Dr. Tobis, is that the solution exists and is available for implementation. Natural gas as a bridge fuel while we construct as many nuclear power plants as needed, using modern design and construction techniques. What France did in 20 years we can do in 40.

      Instead we waste our time protesting fracking on specious grounds, fighting adoption of nuclear power, moaning about mythical extreme weather and fighting an irrelevant pipeline.

      You deserve the horseshoe, Dr. Tobis. Just keep it.

      • mtobis

        ” Natural gas as a bridge fuel while we construct as many nuclear power plants as needed, using modern design and construction techniques. ”

        You seem to think I have an objection to this plan. Why? I do not.

    • Tom Scharf

      You should really be protesting against the evil greedy corporate owned Canadian government, not the US, right? The pipeline isn’t what the source of the problem is. It’s like blaming global warming on oil tankers.

      I don’t think anyone in Canada is seriously considering shutting down development there.

      So I guess the right plan is to invade Canada, take it over, and prevent the development of the tar sands? That gives Eco-warrior a whole new meaning.

      And your “disaster arithmetic” is not nearly as certain as you state, and you know this. The over statement of certainty of negative carbon effects is part and parcel of what gives the greens a credibility problem. You simply don’t know this answer, nobody does. This isn’t science, it is propaganda.

    • J M

      “We simply can’t go on drilling, excavating, and burning every ton of coal, oil, and gas the fossil fuel industry finds.”
      Really?? Even the Danes with their windmills do it. They are still an oil and gas exporter. And Norway, while donating more than 0.7% of their national income as development aid and paying subsidies for Tesla buyers, drills and explores for oil and gas fervently.

    • Matthew Slyfield

      “The State Department Environmental Impact Statement doesn’t even ask the
      right question: How do the unconventional Canadian oil sands fit or not
      fit within the overall carbon budget? Instead, the State Department simply assumes, without any irony or
      evident self-awareness, that the oil sands will be developed and used
      one way or another.”

      This is just laughable, The US State Department correctly assumes that the oil sands will be developed and used one way or another,

      1. The US government has no authority to stop the development of Canadian oil sands.
      2. The Canadian government has no interest in stopping the development of the Canadian oil sands.
      3. The Canadian oil sands are already being developed and the oil is being shipped by far less safe means than a pipe line.
      4. The Canadian government has plans for a pipeline to the Canadian west coast and will ship the oil to Chin if the US doesn’t want it.

  • mem_somerville

    So, this made me laugh over my coffee:

    On many mornings, I wake up and think, “You know what this country
    needs? More culture war.” As I scramble up a couple eggs, I find myself
    wishing—fervently wishing—that we could spend more time reducing
    substantive issues to mere spectacle. Later, as I scrub the pan, I’ll
    fantasize about how those very spectacles might even funnel money toward some of the country’s most politicized religious groups.

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/05/the-bill-nye-ken-ham-debate-was-a-nightmare-for-science.html

  • David Skurnick

    Suppose Rush Limbaugh had written, “The debate about climate change needs to become more political, and less scientific.” We’d have shaken our heads and characterized the comment as typical of Limbaugh’s know-nothing-ness. IMHO the statement makes no more sense when made by Mike Hulme.

  • Asok Asus

    It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Progressive Socialist Democrat
    Party has now assumed the cloak of nuevo-witch-doctorism as a means of
    “explaining” and pretending like they can affect the weather (Climatism)
    in order to control the ignorant peasantry. This is nothing more than
    reversion to ancient tribal practices of aboriginal peoples..

  • J M

    “Why we don’t care about saving our grandchildren from climate change?”

    Roger Pielke Jr had an interesting post on another perspective:

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.fi/2014/01/reduce-ghgs-or-increase-energy-access.html

    President Obama’s Power Africa initiative aims providing access to electricity to poor Africans. US OPIC with 10 billion budget could provide 20 million Africans with access to electricity by going 100% renewable. Or 90 million by using natural gas.

    So: Should we continue supporting an energy infrastructure that reinforces societal dependence on fossil fuels ?

  • Buddy199

    “Why we don’t care about saving our grandchildren from climate change”

    Well, for one thing, many of us aren’t buying into the catastrophism in light of the softness of the climate model predictions we’ve heard for the past 20 years.

    Also, we’re more concerned about the possible immediate economic and societal damage caused by the solutions of our genius central planners than that of possible 2 or 3 degree temp increases decades from now.

  • PluviAL

    I have yet to see an article that makes this critical argument more clear. Pluvinergy is a solution that asks that we take effective action.
    It details the mechanics, and the implications of building tools to effectively control climate. It is the only concept which allows economic growth to continue, at the same time it rebuilds a verdant world. Who would despise that?
    The greens refuse to consider it on the grounds that it will not work and that they will not consider such a solution because it gives credence to the deniers. The deniers, don’t believe in science or solutions, they just want to keep the status quo.
    The book was written to provide a point of discussion, so that the science can be advanced ASAP, yet neither side will consider it.
    Meanwhile, time is wasting.

  • JH

    The biggest stumbling block, as Walsh notes, is that “climate policy asks the present to sacrifice for the future.”

    Yes, it’s the biggest stumbling block in the minds of the Climate Concerned, but in the real world it’s completely irrelevant.

    Keith, Mike Hulme, Walsh, mtobis: it’s the cost. It’s the cost, OK? Carbon mitigation looks like another pie-in-the-sky government program, because that’s what it is. Carbon mitigation looks like a disaster waiting to happen because that’s what it is. Like all such whims, any major carbon program will miss it’s mark and miss it badly. It’ll wind up a disaster, a huge cost, with no benefit whatsoever.

    All these theories (trading the present for the future; cognitive dissonance; it’s in people’s minds) about why climate change is not first thing people vote to address are just a bunch of bullshit. They come and go like new names for climate change (Global Warming, AGW, Climate change, climate disruption). Every year or so a new one emerges in hopes of being the silver bullet that tells the Climate Concerned why most people aren’t Climate Concerned. But they’re based on nothing but ideas and wishful thinking.

    The reality that most people intuitively understand what the Climate Concerned seem unable to grasp: forecasts of the future climate are all almost certainly wrong – just like the forecasts of great famine; the forecasts of peak oil; the forecasts of peak everything; the Limits to Growth, and on and on and on.

  • Matthew Slyfield

    “Should we continue supporting an energy infrastructure that reinforces societal dependence on fossil fuels ?”

    Until there are viable cost competitive substitutes, absolutely yes.

  • dljvjbsl

    The attractiveness of Keystone XL to American activists is that the oik sands are in Canada. Its demise will affect no American interests directly and so American politicians and activists face no impediment in opposing it. Opposing fracking or unconventional oil in the US would have the same effect as opposing Keystone XL environmentally but would have political consequences for politicians and activists.

    More to this, Keystone XL appeals to the American sense of exceptionalism as expressed in their practice of what they see as benevolent imperialism. in their view, everyone in the world internally wishes to be American and they are puzzled why everyone in the world doesn’t accept that self-evident fact. The neocons believed that all they had to do was show the American flag and the people in the middle east would rush to take up American values We all saw how that has worked out. How many people have died because of this expression of American exceptionalism? Keystone XL is a green expression of the same American hubris. America is a light unto the world and it is up to the US to show the rest of the world the errors of their way. This is an accepted tenet across the American political spectrum.

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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.

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