Scientists struggle to motivate US politicians and public to act on climate change

No 300 Posted by fw, October 15, 2011

In the August 2004 issue of Science*, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow of Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative published a paper identifying 15 existing “stabilization wedge” technologies that could each prevent 1 billion tons a year worth of carbon emissions by 2054. Their findings provided a strong counter to the argument that major new technologies need to be developed before significant mitigation of emissions can begin. (*Access to articles in Science is for subscribers only or on a pay for view basis. As an alternative, in the October 15, 2004 issue, The Climate Group published an interview with Stephen Pacala which provides an excellent introduction to the main ideas of the Pacala-Socolow proposal).

A couple of weeks ago, Socolow updated the Science paper in a brief commentary piece, Wedges Reaffirmed, (September 27, 2011 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), which shows where we are seven years later. The results are not encouraging: rather than decreasing the emissions rate, the lack of implementation of these strategies has been accompanied by an accelerated rate of emissions.

In his introduction to Wedges Reaffirmed, Socolow identifies “shortcomings in the way advocates of prompt action on climate change have presented their case.” The purpose of his article, which is presented below, is to address these shortcomings in the hope of putting the world back on the course identified in the 2004 paper. In the process, Socolow reveals how hard it is for climate scientists to sell a proposal to politicians and the public.

(Notes — 1) The beginning of this post is somewhat technical. I suggest that readers skip over technical parts and stay focused on parts that support the primary thesis — how hard it is for climate scientists to communicate a proposed solution to climate change to non-scientists. 2) I have inserted into Socolow’s essay — from another source — a list of the authors’ 15 strategic wedges. 3) As well, I have added subheadings. 4) Finally, owing to the length of this post, I’ve added a Contents list to facilitate browsing for main ideas).

Wedges Reaffirmed, by Robert Socolow, 27 September 2011

Contents

1.   2004 paper countered Bush’s assertion that new technologies were required to address climate change
2.   The Wedge Stabilization Strategy for emission reductions – a formidable challenge to get it right
3.   To make up for 4 lost years, the number of stabilization wedges was increased from 7 to 9
4.   What is standing in the way of an emission reduction action?
5.   And more openness might have helped reduce “polarized public discourse”
6.   Environmental science has brought “unwelcome news”—climate change is man-made
7.   Human beings shoot the messenger when they don’t like the message – e.g., Galileo, Darwin, climate scientists
8.   Given the circumstances, is effective communication with the public even possible?
9.   Climate science message is not only unwelcome, it’s also incomplete
10.  The worst climate change impacts – “monsters behind the door” — are yet to come
11.  By talking to policy makers about less threatening outcomes, scientists reduce the risks of being accused of alarmism
12.  But will talking solely about benign outcomes foster complacency? Not necessarily
13.  Disagreements about the science are translated into “justifications for procrastination”
14.  Climate scientists can’t proclaim “with certainty” either benign outcomes or imminent disaster
15.  Managing climate change risk — Should we “slam on the brakes” or “brake carefully”? It depends.
16.  We need a Goldilocks braking solution – not too slowly, not too quickly
17.  Pacala and Socolow favour “iterative risk management” using 10-year targets
18.  But in international politics, diplomats focus on poorly defined multi-century targets
19. Iterative targets more easily allow for target revisions based on advances in climate science
20. “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw
21. Lessons learned

1. 2004 paper countered Bush’s assertion that new technologies were required to address climate change

Let’s review the messages in our 2004 paper in Science. The paper assumes that the world wishes to act decisively and coherently to deal with climate change. It makes the case that “humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century.” This core message surprised many people, because our paper arrived at a time when the Bush administration was asserting that, unfortunately, the tools available were not suited for addressing climate change. Indeed, at a conference I attended at that time, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham insisted that a discovery akin to the discovery of electricity was required.

Our focus on “the next half century” was novel; the favored horizon at the time was a full century — and still is. We argued that “the next fifty years is a sensible horizon from several perspectives. It is the length of a career, the lifetime of a power plant, and an interval whose technology is close enough to envision.”

2. The Wedge Stabilization Strategy for emission reductions – a formidable challenge to get it right

In a widely reproduced Figure (see below) we identified a Stabilization Triangle, bounded by two 50-year paths. Along the upper path, the world ignores climate change for 50 years and the global emissions rate for greenhouse gases doubles. Along the lower path, with extremely hard work, the rate remains constant. We reported that starting along the flat emissions path in 2004 was consistent with “beating doubling,” i.e., capping the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration at below twice its “pre-industrial” concentration (the concentration a few centuries ago).

Stabilization wedges strategy reaffirmed. Illustration by Climate Central.

 The 2004 “wedges” paper assumed that the objective of global mitigation would require a flat emissions rate for 50 years, followed by a falling rate. Making the same heroic assumption today would result in substantial additional emissions. 

The paper is probably best known for having introduced the “stabilization wedges,” a quantitative way to measure the level of effort associated with a mitigation strategy: a wedge of vehicle fuel efficiency, a wedge of wind power, and a wedge of avoided deforestation have the same effect on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Filling the stabilization triangle required seven wedges. The wedge concept fosters parallel discussion of alternatives and encourages the design of a portfolio of responses. Each wedge is an immense activity. In talks about this work, I like to say that we decomposed a heroic challenge into a limited set of monumental tasks. In short, in addition to a hopeful message that humanity is not helpless, the paper contains the sobering message that the job ahead is daunting.

START INSERT  – The 15 stabilization wedges of existing mitigation technologies:

  1. Doubling fuel efficiency of 2 billion cars from 30 to 60 mpg
  2. Decreasing the number of car miles traveled by half
  3. Using best efficiency practices in all residential and commercial buildings
  4. Producing current coal-based electricity with twice today’s efficiency
  5. Replacing 1400 coal electric plants with natural gas-powered facilities
  6. Capturing and storing emissions from 800 coal electric plants
  7. Producing hydrogen from coal at six times today’s rate and storing the captured CO2
  8. Capturing carbon from 180 coal-to-synfuels plants and storing the CO2
  9. Adding double the current global nuclear capacity to replace coal-based electricity
  10. Increasing wind electricity capacity by 50 times relative to today, for a total of 2 million large windmills
  11. Installing 700 times the current capacity of solar electricity
  12. Using 40,000 square kilometers of solar panels (or 4 million windmills) to produce hydrogen for fuel cell cars
  13. Increasing ethanol production 50 times by creating biomass plantations with area equal to 1/6th of world cropland
  14. Eliminating tropical deforestation and creating new plantations on non-forested land to quintuple current plantation area
  15. Adopting conservation tillage in all agricultural soils worldwide

END INSERT

3. To make up for 4 lost years, the number of stabilization wedges was increased from 7 to 9

Today, nine wedges are required to fill the stabilization triangle, instead of seven. A two-segment global carbon-dioxide emissions trajectory that starts now instead of seven years ago — flat for 50 years, then falling nearly to zero over the following 50 years — adds another 50 parts per million to the equilibrium concentration. The delayed trajectory produces nearly half a degree Celsius (three-quarters of a degree Fahrenheit) of extra rise in the average surface temperature of the Earth. (Note that there is a three-year lag in the posting of authoritative global data. We used 2001 data in our 2004 paper, and 2008 data are available now. Thus, available data do not yet reflect the recession. Between 2001 and 2008, the emissions rate climbed by more than a quarter.

4. What is standing in the way of an emission reduction action?

Worldwide, policymakers are scuttling away from commitments to regulations and market mechanisms that are tough enough to produce the necessary streams of investments. Given that delay brings the potential for much additional damage, what is standing in the way of action? Familiar answers include the recent recession, the political influence of the fossil fuel industries, and economic development imperatives in countries undergoing industrialization.

5. And more openness might have helped reduce “polarized public discourse”

But, I submit, advocates for prompt action, of whom I am one, also bear responsibility for the poor quality of the discussion and the lack of momentum. Over the past seven years, I wish we had been more forthcoming with three messages: We should have conceded, prominently, that the news about climate change is unwelcome, that today’s climate science is incomplete, and that every “solution” carries risk. I don’t know for sure that such candor would have produced a less polarized public discourse. But I bet it would have. Our audiences would have been reassured that we and they are on the same team — that we are not holding anything back and have the same hopes and fears. It is not too late to bring these messages forward.

6. Environmental science has brought “unwelcome news”—climate change is man-made

Environmental science has brought unwelcome news — that the actions of our species are capable of changing the planet at global scale. Who wouldn’t much rather live on a larger planet, where our actions mattered less? It is counterproductive for advocates of prompt action on climate change to pretend that the new knowledge has only positive consequences, such as the stimulation of green jobs and elegant new technology. Global prosperity now depends on our species’ success at a totally unfamiliar assignment: to “fit” our many billions of people on this small planet, with its finite resources and finite capacity to withstand pollution. The job will be very hard and will require sustained focus.

7. Human beings shoot the messenger when they don’t like the message – e.g., Galileo, Darwin, climate scientists

Confronted with unwelcome news, human beings often shoot the messenger. Consider two earlier occasions. Galileo argued that the Earth wasn’t at the center of the universe. For this, he was excommunicated.  Darwin argued that human beings were part of the animal kingdom, and he was cruelly mocked.  The idea that humans can’t change our planet is as out-of-date and wrong as the Earth-centered universe and the separate creation of Man, but all three ideas have such appeal that they will fade away only very slowly.

8. Given the circumstances, is effective communication with the public even possible?

In particular, just as steadily stronger evidence for the Copernican model and for evolution only gradually won the day, we should anticipate robust resistance to the message that we are fouling our own nest with fossil fuel emissions and deforestation. Armed with insights from psychology and history, communicators of the climate change threat will more deeply understand the hostility to their message. Perhaps, communication will be more effective when shared concerns are acknowledged.

9. Climate science message is not only unwelcome, it’s also incomplete

It would be productive for advocates of prompt action also to concede that the message from climate science is not only unwelcome but also incomplete. Feedbacks from clouds, ice, and vegetation are only partially understood — thwarting precise prediction of future climate. The best and worst future climate outcomes consistent with today’s science are very different.

10. The worst climate change impacts – “monsters behind the door” — are yet to come

Pacala calls the worst credible climate outcomes “monsters behind the door.” Among the monsters are a five-meter rise in sea level by the end of this century, major alterations of the global hydrological cycle, major changes in forest cover, and major emissions of greenhouse gases from the tundra. The monsters open their door in a world of very strong positive feedbacks, a world that spirals out of control.  Today’s science cannot predict how much atmospheric change would let these monsters in, or how quickly they could enter.

11. By talking to policy makers about less threatening outcomes, scientists reduce the risks of being accused of alarmism

Policymakers assessing the case for immediate forceful action and members of the general public deciding whether to endorse the policymaker’s decisions want to know the full story — both the average outcomes and the extremes (the “tails” of the distribution). In reaching a judgment about whether to act forcefully now, some will give greater weight to best guesses, others to the tails. The more risk-averse will assign greater weight to the tails.

12. But will talking solely about benign outcomes foster complacency? Not necessarily

Why, at the intersection of climate science and climate policy is there more discussion of average outcomes than nasty ones? As I have speculated in a recent paper, one reason is that average outcomes are safer to talk about, because the science is more solid; there is less risk of being accused of alarmism. Also, acknowledging terrible outcomes of low probability requires acknowledging the other tail — a world with rising emissions but little change for quite a while. I often hear that any concession to benign outcomes (or, more accurately, outcomes that remain benign for a relatively long time) will foster complacency. I don’t understand that fear. In my experience, when I tell someone “we could be lucky,” and then I pause, the listener completes the sentence for me: “or we could be unlucky.” The listener does not hear a lullaby.

13. Disagreements about the science are translated into “justifications for procrastination”

Arguments for action based on what we don’t know reinforce those based on what we do know. To build a case on what we don’t know, however, takes courage, because it requires revealing how much experts disagree. There are many contending views about sea-level rise, for example. Advocates resist calling attention to the coexistence of contending expert views — far more certain than I am — that lay audiences translate such conflicts into justifications for procrastination. I think it should be possible to convey that Earth systems science is an evolving human enterprise where discordant views are the norm, and then to explain why certain issues have proved hard to resolve. My working assumption is that candor creates trust.

14. Climate scientists can’t proclaim “with certainty” either benign outcomes or imminent disaster

I wish some museum would prepare a climate exhibit with two adjacent displays that show two worlds with the same greenhouse gas concentrations at some future date (say, 50 years from now). One display would show a world in which  human beings have been lucky and the worst manifestations of climate change have not yet arrived; in the other, we have been unlucky and at least a few of the more high-consequence outcomes are already on the scene. With the help of such an exhibit, the public would understand that neither those who proclaim with certainty that the world is facing imminent disaster nor those who seek to convince us that negligible suffering lies ahead can defend their case without going beyond today’s climate science.

15. Managing climate change risk — Should we “slam on the brakes” or “brake carefully”? It depends.

I was asked recently whether the right goal is to stop climate change as soon as possible. I realized that “as soon as possible” is not a simple concept. When driving a car, there are two ways to stop: slam on the brakes or brake carefully. Depending on the circumstances, either can be the right action.

16. We need a Goldilocks braking solution – not too slowly, not too quickly

Braking too slowly, in the context of climate change, creates excessive suffering from heat waves, floods and droughts, species extinctions, and sea level rise. Braking too quickly means implementing “solutions” in ways that create unnecessary distress. Many of the stabilization wedges promoted in Pacala’s and my 2004 paper are ready for vigorous implementation, including ending deforestation, pursuing energy efficiency in all economic sectors (while monitoring actual energy savings), expanding large-scale wind and solar power (while attending to the associated infrastructure), and ramping up carbon dioxide capture and storage projects at coal and natural gas power plants (while radically reducing emissions that affect public health). There is not much risk of braking too quickly in these cases.

For other stabilization wedges, fast implementation seems more fraught. When land is converted to biofuel plantations on a very large scale, the global food supply can be disrupted and bio-diverse ecosystems can be simplified beyond recognition. A global expansion of nuclear power without effective international constraints on uranium and plutonium can make nuclear war more likely (a risk further discussed in Alex Glaser’s and my 2009 Daedalus article). Preemptive programs to compensate for global warming by deliberately reducing incoming sunlight (not on the list of wedges back in 2004 but pressed today by a few analysts as a way to counter slow progress elsewhere) can bring on changes in climate as nasty as those the world is seeking to prevent. All such negative outcomes can be avoided, but only when the pace of implementation is moderated and strict conditions are imposed.

Because everybody wants to brake neither too slowly nor too quickly, those of us advocating prompt action on climate change would develop better rapport with our audiences if we were to concede that the lowest conceivable greenhouse gas emissions targets are not ideal. By definition, such targets throw caution to the wind.

17. Pacala and Socolow favour “iterative risk management” using 10-year targets

In our Science paper, Pacala and I envisioned a world where “policies … would inevitably be renegotiated periodically to take into account results of R&D, experience with specific wedges, and revised estimates of the size of the Stabilization Triangle.” In effect, we were anticipating the concept of iterative risk management, which works forward from the present instead of backward from the distant future, and which features learning as we go. Iterative risk management focuses on targets 10 and 20 years ahead, in addition to targets 50 years ahead. Target updating might occur as often as every 10 years, to incorporate new insights from Earth-system science and lessons learned from wedge deployment.

18. But in international politics, diplomats focus on poorly defined multi-century targets

Right now, especially in international politics, discussion focuses on a poorly defined, multi-century concept, the ultimate rise of the average temperature of the Earth’s surface. There are heated arguments about whether that rise should be capped at 1.5 or 2.0 degrees Celsius (2.7 or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), relative to its pre-industrial value. By contrast, if diplomats were debating the implementation of iterative risk assessment, negotiations would become more hard-headed. Specifically, there would be more attention to decade-scale global emissions targets.

What specific value for the 50-year target would I recommend? Given present knowledge, I would choose the target that is the analog of the one identified in the 2004 Figure in Pacala’s and my Science article, reproduced above. Today’s global emissions rate for carbon dioxide is 30 billion tons per year. For the world to emit in 2061 no more than 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide is as difficult a task as I could endorse today, taking into account the salience of other objectives to which I assign comparable importance, including preventing nuclear war, alleviating global poverty, and protecting the planet’s biodiversity.

19. Iterative targets more easily allow for target revisions based on advances in climate science

To be sure, “present knowledge” will be modified every decade by new insights into our planet and ourselves, which is the reason for iteration. (For more on iterative risk management, see America’s Climate Choices, a report from the US National Academy of Sciences, published last May. I was a co-author of the report.) For iteration to be maximally productive, it must be accompanied by strong global research and development efforts targeted at both the climate problem and innovative responses.

The global greenhouse-gas emissions rate in 2061 is a better focus of attention than targets a century or more in the future. Achieving an emissions rate in 2061 no higher than today’s is a goal that can be achieved by scaling up already deployed technologies. Given present knowledge, that goal is probably ambitious enough; pursuing tougher goals could lead us to opt for cures that are worse than the disease. And an iterative process for resetting goals is essential, in order to take into account both new science and newly revealed shortcomings of “solutions.”

20. “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

I hope this short essay counters an unfortunate report two months ago in the blogosphere to the effect that I now regret Pacala’s and my wedges paper — that I consider it a “mistake” because it created false hopes that climate change could be achieved easily. The blog, in National Geographic News, came from a longtime environmental journalist, Doug Struck, who heard a talk I gave at Harvard University. (I responded the next day.) I must have expressed myself poorly. On the contrary, I believe the messages of the wedges paper are as important as ever.

21. Lessons learned

To motivate prompt action today, seven years later, our wedges paper needs supplements: insights from psychology and history about how unwelcome news is received, probing reports about the limitations of current climate science, and sober assessments of unsafe braking.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing
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