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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

David vs. Goliath: The Emerging Climate Fault Line

A new fault line has emerged in the climate movement amidst a firestorm of debate over the past week. On one side is a group of old-guard and well-known environmentalists, and on the other is a newly forming alliance of climate and energy scientists who are challenging traditional beliefs held at the highest levels of the environmental establishment. What is happening should invigorate young activists to continue challenging conventional wisdom – and serve as an alarm to the entire movement.

It all began last week when a commentary by three scientists called “Dangerous Assumptions” was published in Nature, one of the most prominent scientific journals in the world. The article challenged the IPCC for being too timid in its call to climate action and for holding a set of rosy-eyed assumptions about the climate challenge. These respected scientists – Roger Pielke Jr, Tom Wigley and Christopher Green – demonstrated that the IPCC has assumed up to 96% of total world emissions reductions (to achieve 500 ppm CO2 stabilization, a level which we now know is too high) will be achieved regardless of policy change through “spontaneous” decarbonization and technological advancements.

IPCC: Dangerous Assumptions? (blue represents "spontaneous" decrease)

Dangerous Assumptions

The danger, they argue, is that the IPCC has seriously underestimated the scale of policy efforts needed to transform our global energy systems – and that it may inadvertently be offering comfort to those who believe we possess all the solutions and do not need to invest in technological development.

How could this be? The heart of the issue rests in an assumption about global energy and carbon intensity. For the past hundred years, the carbon intensity (measured by carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP) of the global economy has been slowly but steadily declining. The IPCC assumes this trend will continue and has incorporated this into its scenarios for emissions stabilization.

But all indicators suggest this trend has reversed. Rapidly developing countries like China and India, in an effort to lift their populations out of poverty, have set the world on a new energy development path in which hundreds of coal plants are being constructed and global emissions are dramatically increasing. According to the analysis, these trends stand “in stark contrast to the optimism of the near-future IPCC projections."

The IPCC scenarios for 2000-2010 drastically underestimated observed emissions growth.

Here’s what the commentary concludes:

Enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels… The IPCC plays a risky game in assuming that spontaneous advances in technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions, rather than focusing on creating the conditions for such innovations to occur.

One might expect the environmental establishment to applaud these scientists for their efforts to challenge a set of beliefs that could inhibit new policies to develop clean energy technology. But believe it or not, several prominent environmentalists have sharply attacked their work – some going to the extent of comparing these scientists to President Bush and labeling them climate “delayers,” “deniers,” and “destroyers.”

Take Joe Romm, for instance – a well-known climate writer and former Clinton political appointee who is now at the Center for American Progress, runs, and is harbored by Grist – who has launched a set of hysterical attacks against Pielke et al. He calls their analysis “a pointless and misleading if not outright dangerous commentary” and paints the scientists as “standard delayers” – or even more outrageously, “climate destroyers.” The absurdity of his attacks is illustrated by an erroneous and malicious comparison of these scientists to the skeptics at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank:

For years, people like Pielke (I call them delayers, you can call them climate destroyers, or, if you like, "people who are very wrong") have been arguing that the IPCC's emissions models were too pessimistic. That's right, the climate deniers/delayers/destroyers have been saying that the IPCC was scaring people into unnecessary action by assuming emissions growth was higher than in fact it was. Yes, I know, if you actually read the Pielke et al piece, that seems hard to believe. They never bother pointing this out. But after a mere 10 seconds on Google, I found a classic example, an essay from the conservative (read denier/delayer/destroyer) American Enterprise Institute titled ... wait for it ... "New Doubts about the Dominant Climate Change Models."

But neither Pielke, Wigley, or Green have ever had a relationship with the American Enterprise Institute or had any involvement with this essay. Pielke has published for the past fifteen years in support of action on climate change. And in this case, their conclusion is precisely the opposite of the “standard delayers,” as they conclude the IPCC is being too timid.

Can this truly be happening? Are leaders of the environmental establishment really trying to discredit, quash, and destroy evidence and debate that calls for bolder climate action? Take a look at Romm’s attacks and judge for yourself:

Read Joe Romm's attacks against Pielke et al.

The truth is that major public investment in clean energy technology development isn’t controversial. It is supported by a large and ever-growing number of energy and climate experts. Romm and other old-guard environmentalists are simply reacting to evidence that challenges the conventional policy approaches they have clung to for years.

But as young activists we cannot afford to tolerate such behavior. Time and again, whether in climate debates or the 2008 elections, we’ve seen how such ruthless and divisive tactics harm the political landscape. We have to ensure that substantive and constructive debate about our course of action is welcomed. And we need to be intentional about what kind of movement we’re creating and what kind of behavior we want to allow.

The overarching issue here is much larger than unacceptable tactics, though. What is at stake is the future of the environmental establishment as we know it. If we, the next generation of climate and environmental leaders, care about the future of our movement and wish to see it not be reduced to irrelevance, we have to continually challenge traditional thinking and demand that today’s environmental leaders take these challenges seriously. We can afford nothing less.


WattHead said...

It appears Joe and Ted have buried the hatchet - for now - and are engaging in an excellent debate on the policy substance at Climate Progress now.

I highly recommend people head here to check it out.

I can't believe how much digital ink Romm wasted attacking Pielke - and eventually dragging the entire Breakthrough Institute into it - often times (heck, frequently!) in an overly personal and vicious, almost obsessive way, before getting to this point - and how much time Breakthrough staff had to spend in response. This debate has waged on all week.

And how long would it have taken to get down to substance if Romm had just started with the honest questions and critiques in his latest post, or if Ted and Breakthrough had responded by clearly articulating their policy position and (very valid!) concerns, as Ted succinctly does here?

Thanks to both Joe and Ted for getting down to business. There's nothing more important to be debating than what it's really going to take to solve the climate crisis. We simply have to get this right!

Phil Mitchell said...

Jesse, thanks for reining this in a bit and trying to keep it focused on constructive discussion.

As a 24/7 climate activist, I object to sensationalizing these kinds of disagreements. "David vs Goliath?" "Fault line in the climate movement"? Please tone it down. It's distracting and disheartening. We need to gel as a climate movement, not implode in ridiculous divisions.

Shellenberger & Nordhaus seem to go out of their way to make it sound like their suggestions (such as highlighting the need for massive investment in clean tech R&D) are "paradigm shifts" that no one else has thought of.

Let's keep our eyes on the ball, and recognize that both carbon pricing and a new Apollo Project are necessary, and that both depend on coming together of a climate movement that has so far been elusive.

in solidarity,


Anonymous said...

Can't tolerate such behavior!

Substantive and constructive debate about our course of action only!

We need to be intentional about what kind of movement we're creating and what kind of behavior we want to allow !

Sounds like a mutual admiration society.

No debate, no questioning or objective thinking, allow no creativity of thought unless it is yours.

Sorry folks,not my cup of tea. I think a guy named Adolph beat you to the punch about 75 years ago

Anonymous said...

Sitting on the sidelines watching the discussion develop has been fascinating. It started out as a shouting match, then has slowly developed into a very substantive, meaningful dialog. Would Joe Romm have gotten the attention of the guys at BI if he didn't go off like he did? Hard to say. But it seems to have worked. I hope it continues -- and remains constructive.

Anonymous said...

Here's a more reasonable approach to this issue. Global warming is not happening. And EVEN if it were, it really is not a big problem at all.

This article says it all.

See you in the funny papers,