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Of Climate Pragmatists and Climate Moralists

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJuly 27, 2011 12:07 AM


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Last week, when news broke about NYC Mayor Bloomberg's $50 million donation to the Sierra Club's anti-coal campaign, I noted that his rationale was based largely on public health considerations and NOT global warming. I wrote:

Imagine that. Leaving climate change out of the argument. I wonder if the climate moralists will beat their chests in indignation, just as they did when President Obama chose the same approach.

One of the climate moralists I cited in that passage was David Roberts of Grist. He's become a favorite target of mine for his sneeringly sanctimonious droppings. What a shame, too, because he's obviously smart and is a gifted writer. Anyway, after Revkin tweeted my Bloomberg post, Roberts sent Revkin a disapproving message:

@Revkin Kloor's vapid, snotty point was refuted by the VERY PRESS RELEASE HE CITED. Don't get why you give that guy so much exposure.

No it wasn't. Regardless, let's turn to today's article in Time magazine by Bryan Walsh, who writes (my emphasis):

[W]hen I spoke to Bloomberg before his donation became public, climate change wasn't foremost on his mind. He saw coal pollution first and foremost as a public health issue, one that is directly hurting Americans through higher rates of asthma and heart disease. He was certainly worried about the greenhouse gases those coal plants were spewing "” coal is responsible for about 20% of global carbon emissions "” but what really motivated him were the mercury emissions,the particulates, the arsenic and all the other conventional poisons created by burning coal. "Coal kills every day," Bloomberg told me. "It's a dirty fuel." So it is with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which has succeeded more by motivating individual communities over the local health effects of coal pollution than by appealing to the broader risks of global warming.If we're smart, this approach might be the new way to attack climate change: by identifying actions that can provide a wealth of benefits "” including on carbon emissions "” rather than simply focusing on global warming alone. That's the message of a new paper called "Climate Pragmatism" that's being published today by a bipartisan range of thinkers on energy and climate issues. The best way to deal with climate change, as it turns out, is not to deal directly with climate change. As the authors write: "Policymakers today are likely to make the most progress to the degree that they refrain from centrally justifying energy innovation, resilience to extreme weather and pollution reduction as 'climate policy.'"

Let me stop there for a second and just remark that very smart people can sometimes be rigid, dogmatic moralists. Now back to Walsh:

It sounds a bit confusing "” if we're going to deal with climate change, why not just directly deal with climate change? The answer is simple: we can't, or at least, we refuse to. Over the past several years, even as the scientific case on manmade climate change has gotten stronger, the international system has failed again and again to reduce carbon emissions. The effort to produce a global carbon deal failed decisively in Copenhagen in 2009. In the U.S., a carbon cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate a year ago, and there's little chance it will be revived. Even Europe "” home to the governments and citizens that seem to care about climate change the most "” has gradually scaled back its ambitions on reducing carbon as the cost and complexity of those policies has become clearer. The failure of the global deal is an inevitable consequence of what Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental science at the University of Colorado and one of the authors of the "Climate Pragmatism" paper, calls "the iron law of climate policy." Any climate policy that is viewed as obstructing economic progress will fail "” especially in large developing countries that are counting on rapid economic growth to lift citizens out of poverty. Take China, for example "” while the country has emerged as a world leader in terms of clean energy investment, its leaders remain reluctant to sign onto any kind of meaningful carbon reductions. The economy comes first, with renewables supplying just a tiny portion of China's overall energy mix. Coal is and will be far more important, with coal imports in China and India slated to grow 78% in 2011.

In case you haven't gotten the gist of the article, it's titled

Fighting Climate Change by Not Focusing on Climate Change

Here's a link to that Climate Pragmatism paper, which I'll do a separate post on later this week.

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