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Divorcing Climate Science

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMarch 30, 2010 4:28 PM


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It's only a matter of time before "America's fiercest climate change activist blogger" let's one rip on this essay by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Above all, Joe Romm will vehemently object to the essay's central thesis--that energy policy should be divorced from climate science. Doing this would deprive Romm of his main arsenal, which he wields like a gladiator in a daily death battle with evil denier/delayer forces. But amidst this intractable war, here's the gauntlet that N & S throw down to climate advocates, particularly someone like Romm:

Efforts to use climate science to threaten an apocalyptic future should we fail to embrace green proposals, and to characterize present-day natural disasters as terrifying previews of an impending day of reckoning, have only served to undermine the credibility of both climate science and progressive energy policy.

No doubt Climategate and the recent run of bad press for the IPCC has played a big part. Still, I think the two authors overreach with this blanket assertion, made right out of the gate:

The 20-year effort by environmentalists to establish climate science as the primary basis for far-reaching action to decarbonize the global energy economy today lies in ruins.

That implies something more than what has occurred. Sure, climate science has had a bad stretch of publicity since late last year. But it's not as if the underlying science is in doubt. Still, N & S use the recent controversies to argue:

Now is the time to free energy policy from climate science.

Shouldn't we be careful not to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater? After all, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a legion of scientists offering advice on regulatory issues involving everything from ozone thresholds to water pollution. Sure, that has proven a combustible arrangement, but policymakers have to take their cue from something science-based, however imperfect it may be. To be fair, N & S do believe there is a place for climate science at the table:

Climate science can still usefully inform us about the possible trajectories of the global climate and help us prepare for extreme weather and natural disasters, whether climate change ultimately results in their intensification or not. And understood in its proper role, as one of many reasons why we should decarbonize the global economy, climate science can even help contribute to the case for taking such action.

They also get points for addressing the uncertainty wild card, though I think their argument falls short:

For 20 years, greens and many scientists have overstated the certainty of climate disaster out of the belief that governments could not be motivated to act if they viewed the science as highly uncertain. And yet governments routinely take strong action in the face of highly uncertainty events. California requires strict building codes and has invested billions to protect against earthquakes even as earthquake science has shifted its focus from prediction to preparedness. Recently, the federal government mobilized impressively and effectively to prevent an avian flu epidemic whose severity was unknown.

The example of California fails to persuade, given the state's history of earthquakes, which many residents have experienced. As for the Avian flu, well, the government did do its part, but that was to ward off an epidemic this year, something pretty immediate in people's minds. In contrast, as N & S admit earlier in their essay, the threat from climate change

is distant, abstract, and difficult to visualize.

In light of this, selling uncertainty is no slam dunk, and certainly not as doable as N & S make it out to be. But these are quibbles. As usual, the Breakthrough leaders offer a compelling alternative blueprint to ponder as we head into the next phase of the climate debate.

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