Want to fix the climate? Cut the carbon obsession

Roger Pielke Jr, author of The Climate Fix, tells spiked why it’s wrong to focus on cutting emissions.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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This time last year, the world was looking forward to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen: a two-week jamboree where politicians, surrounded by activists, would hammer out the details of a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. This time, many hoped, there would be really strong targets set on reducing carbon emissions that tied both developed and developing countries into the long-term process of decarbonising society and saving the planet.

Then the wheels came off. In November, thousands of emails and other files from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England were leaked, including embarrassing discussions between high-profile researchers about tweaking data and excluding critics from peer-reviewed journals. In December, the Copenhagen summit ended with just a weak, stitched-up deal between the US and the bigger developing countries. Even Europe, chief cheerleader for a climate deal, was left in the cold. In January, it became apparent that one of the most alarming claims in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – about the Himalayan glaciers melting within 30 years – was utterly wrong. In addition, another very significant claim had, it turned out, been based on a campaign group report rather than peer-reviewed research.

There is now little prospect of a global, Kyoto-style deal on emissions targets, and the IPCC – the body supposedly providing unbiased assessments of the world’s climate future – has been fully exposed for the political operation it always was.

Yet it is also still the case that the majority of scientists in this area do think that humans are influencing our climate in potentially negative ways, even if most of them would distance themselves from the hysterical claims about eco-geddon that were made in the past. If the policymaking process has hit a brick wall, is there a way to tackle that possible problem of climate change that might actually make some headway?

This is the question that lies at the heart of Roger Pielke Jr’s new book, The Climate Fix. Pielke’s CV puts him in a unique position to assess the pros and cons of climate policy today. His father, Roger Pielke Sr, is one of the world’s most widely cited geoscientists, and growing up in an academic household, Pielke Jr was, he tells me, ‘always in the mix with top atmospheric scientists’.

However, he was struck by a particular mantra that scientists would often repeat while he was working as a student assistant at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado: ‘I heard all these scientists there saying “If only all these politicians understood science, the world would be a much better place”. This was during the time of the “ozone hole” issue, so it wasn’t in the climate context.’

Intrigued, he took a master’s degree in public policy and, by good luck, ended up working at the very heart of the Washington policy world. ‘I got the chance to go to Washington DC and work for the House Science Committee for a guy called Rad Byerley. I saw the world from a very different perspective, the world of policymakers looking at scientists. They had exactly the opposite view: “If only the scientists understood the political process, the world would be a much better place.” That for me was a real “aha!” moment, that there was something really important here at this intersection between the expert scientific community and the political community.’

Pielke has long been a critic of the political process around climate, and in The Climate Fix he lays out why he thinks it was always doomed to failure. In particular, he argues, there are three significant assumptions that underpin climate policy. Unless they are tackled, he argues, no serious progress will ever be made.

The first assumption is that the public is the stumbling block to climate action. In fact, poll after poll shows that most people would like to do something to prevent climate change. ‘What I show in the book is that if you compare public opinion on the climate issue to public opinion on any of a range of other difficult policy issues, public opinion is in that zone that doesn’t present any problems to action taking place.’ As he points out, a lack of unanimity hasn’t stopped austerity measures being introduced in the UK, nor did it stop the bank bailouts in the US. ‘So the idea that there’s something wrong with the public is, in my view, flawed. It says something more about experts than it does the public.’

The second assumption is what Pielke calls The Iron Law of Climate Policy: that in order to reduce emissions, you also need to reduce economic growth. A quick glance at reality shows this is a non-starter. Even if voters and businesses in the developed world were willing to make such a trade-off – and there seem to be few indications that they are – such an assumption implies that the developing world should continue to live in poverty. As Pielke notes, ‘if we are to decarbonise we have to design policies which are consistent with continued and sustainable economic growth. This has been said so many times by China and India, by Angela Merkel and even Barack Obama, it would seem to me to be so obvious as to be not worth debating, yet it is continuously a point of debate.’

The third assumption is that ‘we have all of the technologies we need to meet these really aggressive emissions reduction goals’. Pielke uses the example of the UK: ‘In the case of Britain, just to meet the short-term requirements of the Climate Change Act would require the equivalent of 40 new nuclear power plants worth of carbon-free energy by 2015. Nuclear power plants do exist, and we can imagine a world in which 40 of them are built in four years, but in a practical sense we just don’t have the technology.’

This makes a farce of the whole process. If we don’t have the low-carbon technologies to replace current energy sources cheaply and effectively, and we are not willing to restrain or even reverse economic growth in order to reduce emissions, something has to give: the emissions targets. The result, says Pielke, is that ‘we engage in elaborate mechanisms or accounting tricks to make it look like we’re doing something when in reality it’s business as usual’.

So is that it? Do we simply cross our fingers and hope that the gloomy scenarios about climate change turn out to be wrong? Not according to Pielke. In fact, he argues that it is perfectly possible to sidestep the issue of emissions reductions because there is another crucial policy issue at play: ‘The world is going to need vastly more energy going forward – particularly because there are 1.5 billion people who lack access to electricity – and if we’re going to expand access and enhance energy security we’re going to need to find a way to make energy cheaper.’

Those new energy sources – solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal and all the ideas still to come – have the helpful by-product of being low carbon. A hell of a lot of new energy infrastructure is going to be needed around the world in the next 50 years, so it also makes sense for countries to get in on the act by developing the technology and expertise that they can sell to others during this energy gold rush. In striving to meet our other energy and economic goals, we can ultimately achieve the aim of decarbonising society in a ‘no regrets’ fashion.

What is required to square the circle, says Pielke, is a massive programme of energy innovation – an argument that echoes a range of other thinkers, from ‘skeptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg to the contributors to The Hartwell Paper (a policy statement produced by a group of researchers earlier this year, including Pielke) and James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, co-authors of Energise. Forget the hairshirts: we need research and development (R&D).

As Pielke tells me, while the policy spotlight has been on the post-Kyoto process, many countries have been getting on with the serious business of innovating. India has put a small tax on coal – 50 rupees (roughly one US dollar) per tonne – to fund energy research because the government doesn’t think that fossil fuels alone will be able to meet the country’s needs. China will be investing $750 billion over the next decade. Germany has extended the life of its nuclear power plants, but has put a levy on them to create a fund for energy R&D.

There are plenty of hurdles to be surmounted. Pielke’s approach, for example, means accepting that we won’t know for some time how decarbonisation can be achieved. Some of the technologies we try to develop will be dead ends. This is a messier, but more honest, approach in contrast to the screechy demands for certainty about emissions reductions put forward by activists. But as he tells me, we wouldn’t treat the problem of human health in this way: ‘We don’t set a goal for expanding human lifespans, what we can control is progress on certain diseases and public health issues… and lifespans slowly move forward.’ Nor should we say we will reduce emissions by X amount by a certain date. When we have the right technologies in place – and it may take time – the emissions reductions will fall into place.

Pielke sums it up like this: ‘I wouldn’t start with climate. I would start with how governments perceive their own national self-interests and competitiveness concerns.’ This seems a more optimistic and rational direction to go in than moralising about how much we drive and fly or what temperature we set the thermostat at.

This would all leave the political class bereft of one thing, however: a grand historical mission that justifies the elite’s existence. But if we are to take the various problems of energy security, economic progress and climate change seriously, the elite will have to look elsewhere for something to crusade about.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. He is chairing a debate at the Battle of Ideas called Economists behaving badly? in London on Saturday 30 October.

The Climate Fix by Roger Pielke Jr is published by Basic Books (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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