Current Climate Policy A ‘Failure,’ Says Pielke, Jr.
A University of Colorado Boulder professor is calling for a reset of “business-as-usual climate policy” that is “not working,” according to a new paper.
Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado Center for Science & Technology Policy Research, called the status quo assumptions and policy framework of the past thirty years a “failure.”
His paper, “Opening Up the Climate Policy Envelope” in Issues in Science and Technology takes on the “[b]usiness-as-usual climate policy” with its “large and powerful political, economic, and social constituency.”
The periodical is published in part by the National Academy of Sciences.
“What the world is doing is not working,” Pielke writes. He told Western Wire that the paper is not written from a political, left-right or Democratic-Republican point of view.
“The short version is, ‘the emperor has no clothes,’” Pielke said, describing his newest effort an attempt to “lift the curtain” on a climate policy approach he says has failed to deliver meaningful outcomes.
“Policy action is required to mitigate and adapt to human-caused climate change, but current efforts to develop a global climate policy cannot fly,” Pielke begins his paper. “What the world’s leaders have been able to agree on will not prevent the steady increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the risks of climate disruption that will result.”
Pielke’s assessment of a “failure of global climate policies to date” and call for outside-the-box reevaluation and expansion of policy offerings is an attempt to address what he concludes is avoided scrutiny by entrenched, moneyed interests in the “scenarios and assumptions that underlie the authoritative policy assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”
In other words, the policy recommendations made by an “international process” is flawed if the assumptions and policies that flow from that operational framework are flawed.
“It is Policy Analysis 101 to consider the consequences of alternative policy interventions, and economic and other types of models can often help us to productively understand these consequences and associated uncertainties. But in addition to supporting insight, models and scenarios can obstruct understanding and discourage critical thinking,” Pielke writes.
Pielke points to scenarios put forward that include a heavy reliance on non-existent bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology, spontanenous decarbonization (due to technology and efficiencies rather than deliberate climate mitigation policies), and “outlier status” Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5 in various analyses to reach a 2.0 degree Celsius reduction in temperature by 2100.
“Take away the speculative technology embedded across scenarios and models and the entire policy architecture of the Paris Agreement and its parent, the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], falls to pieces, just as would an aircraft fatally outside its flight envelope,” Pielke writes.
Pielke told Western Wire the technology is nothing but “science fiction” at this point.
“It doesn’t exist and it would need to exist at scale, but critically, we’re not investing R&D money or trying to mobilize the creation of that technology,” Pielke said. “We’re not acting like we want it to exist,” he said, estimating that it would require many billions to bring technology to scale at the level necessary to have meaningful impact.
Overemphasis on BECCS or spontaneous decarbonization, according to Pielke, can be used to serve policy scenario assumptions.
“Moreover, spontaneous decarbonization and BECCS serve a sort of Goldilocks role in climate policy,” Pielke writes. “More aggressive assumptions about each of them can make the emissions problem largely or entirely go away on its own. Less aggressive assumptions would indicate the impotence of current approaches and suggest potentially higher costs in the future to mitigate emissions,” a less than desirable outcome for those hewing closely to the policy envelope of the past three decades.
Avoiding negative policy outcomes—in cases such as estimating costs that would hurt cost-benefit analyses—is not the only “failure of climate policy,” according to Pielke. Another is the “business-as-usual” practice of insisting on the RCP 8.5 scenario for emissions projections.
“Yet RCP 8.5 remains a scenario favored in most climate impacts studies published in the academic literature. One reason for this is obvious: because the scenario generates very high carbon dioxide emissions, the associated climate impacts projected in climate models can also be very large, and thus lend continued urgency to calls for emissions reductions, and supporting economic models that show very high costs of future climate change impacts,” Pielke writes.
While using the scenario can help climate policy experts to grasp a “potential worst-case scenario,” Pielke argues, “using it as a generic business-as-usual scenario thus contributes to the toxic politics of climate policy.”
All of these assumptions have led to a “policy envelope” that is narrow in scope.
“The IPCC is supposed to support policy-making,” Pielke told Western Wire. “It assumes the policies we have in place are going to work so that it doesn’t have to come up with ‘what if?’ exercises.”
“Kyoto crashed and burned,” Pielke said, referring to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. “One of the things that policymakers might want to know is, ‘what are the alternatives? What is plan B?’”
There is no “high nuclear” scenario, for example, according to Pielke, and an overreliance on BECCS because “BECCS doesn’t have politics, because it doesn’t exist.”
“If I say BECCS, you’ll get blank stares. But if you say nuclear, then all of a sudden it’s political, it’s geopolitical, it’s NIMBY [not in my back yard],” Pielke continued. The insistence on using BECCS for underlying assumptions is easier, and why it persists in a “restricted policy space,” he said.
Pielke defended his criticisms of the current operational framework and deep-seated assumptions embedded in what he repeatedly calls the “business-as-usual” approach.
“I’m writing this very explicitly as someone who, for 25 years, has argued number one for the importance of climate policy, but number 2, for a policy that can work,” Pielke said. “A lot of the debate gets hung up on that first part.”
“I’m trying to shake things up. I also think the burden of making good arguments and coming up with good policy is on the shoulders of those who want action,” Pielke said, lamenting the partisanship and politicization that has overshadowed the process for decades.
“If you don’t want action to occur, you don’t have to do much, you can just sit back and watch the current system implode,” Pielke said. Calling people names isn’t helpful, he added.
“If climate policy is going to work, then not only are you going to have to be able to work across the aisle, you’re going to have to come up with arguments that people across the aisle will champion and say, ‘this makes a lot of sense,’” Pielke noted. Policies have to survive “generations” and can’t be subject to shorter, 2 or 4 year political cycles.
Pielke said climate scientists like former NASA Director James Hansen “has actually done the math, taken a look at the issues.” In becoming a nuclear advocate, he has been ostracized, Pielke said.
In late June Hansen wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe that called for a “change in our approach to climate change.” Hansen writes, “[t]he notion that renewable energies and batteries alone will provide all needed energy is fantastical. It is also a grotesque idea, because of the staggering environmental pollution from mining and material disposal, if all energy was derived from renewables and batteries.”
“Worse, tricking the public to accept the fantasy of 100 percent renewables means that, in reality, fossil fuels reign and climate change grows,” Hansen continued. Instead, he urges advocates to push “next-generation safe nuclear power, the principal alternative to fossil fuel electricity.”
“Everybody is happy to celebrate his 1988 Senate testimony, but few in the environmental movement want to embrace his policy approaches,” Pielke said. “Part of the pushback I’ve seen is the same sort of thing. There’s a lot of pressure to maintain this restricted policy space. If you deviate, you’re not so welcome.”
No Stranger To Controversy
Questioning “policy lock-in” and momentum, along with “moneyed and political interests,” after many decades is a difficult but important task, Pielke said.
“There’s a lot of folks who understand these issues and get that climate policy is not working,” Pielke said. At the same time, there are others “who like the way the system’s not working, because it benefits their interests, are perfectly happy to let it ride.”
In its “Denier Roundup” email, Climate Nexus attacked Pielke for defending President Trump, “skew[ing] to the denier side” in asking his questions, and ultimately called his new article “another piece of fantastically unhelpful radical centrism—attacking the left while letting the far greater sins of the right go unmentioned.”
The email says Pielke’s criticisms are “perhaps not even offered in good faith” and that the solution, “a Green New Deal, a WWII-scale effort to address climate change” offered by “a certain democratic socialist who isn’t a million years old,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—according to Climate Nexus—who then asks if “Pielke isn’t a denier at all, but actually a closet socialist?”
“They’re big hitters, they have a huge megaphone,” Pielke said. “It was just an unhinged rant.”
Climate Nexus is funded by the MacArthur Foundation, Skoll Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Energy Foundation.
“They said I’m a climate denier, but I want more aggressive climate policies. They said I’m a Trump supporter and I’m a closet socialist, all in the same essay. Pick and choose what epithet you want,” Pielke said.
In a Twitter thread, Matthew Nisbet, Professor of Communication Studies and Affiliate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, called out Climate Nexus for suggesting people ignore Pielke’s latest work.
“In an anonymous ‘Denier Roundup’ email sent to thousands of subscribers today, @ClimateNexus outrageously tells readers to ignore @RogerPielkeJr‘s new essay at @ISSUESinST, the magazine published by @theNASEM,” Nisbet tweeted.
“But instead of engaging w/ ideas, the anonymous @climatenexus e-mail attacks @RogerPielkeJr personally, slurring him as fellow traveler of deniers and evil personified,” Nisbet added. “@ClimateNexus‘ mission is to shift climate conversation from ‘argument to constructive search for solutions,’ but the anonymous attack on @RogerPielkeJr is equal to a political robocall, spreading under-the-radar vitriol abt highly cited expert writing in his area of expertise,” he writes, amounting to “anti-Enlightenment tribalism, trading evidence & reason for attacks on expertise in the service of sacred visions of 100% renewables & Democratic socialist movements.”
Nisbet called on Climate Nexus to issue an apology to Pielke.
In an exchange with Nisbet on Twitter, Jeff Nesbit, Executive Director of Climate Nexus, said he was “in favor of robust discussions” and acknowledged that Pielke’s paper “is well worth reading.”
Nisbet’s recent study of more than $556.7 million in “behind-the-scenes” grants distributed by 19 deep-pocketed environmental foundations from 2011-2015 were highly concentrated to fewer than 2 dozen organizations in total. Pielke told Western Wire in June that Nisbet’s analysis demonstrated a lack of “intellectual diversity on the climate issue.”
Instead of funding carbon reduction technologies, Nisbet found, funding was directed towards non-profit journalism, communications, and political campaigning. Despite more than $150 million targeted in this fashion, polls have shown climate policy has failed to become a top-tier policy concern for many Americans.
Nisbet attributed some of the stagnation in climate policy to issue polarization, a conclusion that Pielke hints at in raising concerns about toxicity of certain assumptions within the framework he outlines that further push entrenched, rival camps into their intellectual foxholes.
Pielke, who has tenure at CU Boulder, told Western Wire “the administration level all the way up to the Regents have been fantastic” in their support, saying it was “heartening to see the positive response.” Pielke said the CU Regents’ unanimous vote to reaffirm academic and intellectual freedom for students and faculty in 2016 was encouraging.
In 2015 Pielke was targeted by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee as part of an inquiry—what Pielke called at the time a “politically-motivated ‘witch hunt’”—seeking whether his research was funded by fossil fuel interests.
“For instance, the Congressman and his staff, along with compliant journalists, are busy characterizing me in public as a ‘climate skeptic’ opposed to action on climate change. This of course is a lie,” Pielke wrote in February 2015. “I have written a book calling for a carbon tax, I have publicly supported President Obama’s proposed EPA carbon regulations, and I have just published another book strongly defending the scientific assessment of the IPCC with respect to disasters and climate change. All of this is public record, so the smears against me must be an intentional effort to delegitimize my academic research.”
Grijalva’s investigation sparked an immediate backlash.