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Book Review: Warm and Fuzzy

Penetrating the fog of the climate campaigners.

Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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The Climate Fix

Book Review: Warm and Fuzzy

Al Gore in Cannes, 2007

valery hache / afp / getty images / newscom

What Scientists and Politicians Won’t
Tell You About Global Warming
by Roger Pielke Jr.
Basic Books, 288 pp., $26

Lionel Trilling wrote of “the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” If Trilling were with us still, he’d likely find the crossroads of science and politics even bloodier. Consider the case of Roger Pielke, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. Like Bjorn Lomborg, Pielke fully accepts the core claim of the climate campaign that the planet faces potentially catastrophic warming several decades from now. But like Lomborg, the Al Gore-style climate campaigners hate Pielke and routinely include him in their ritual denunciations of climate “denialists.”

What did Pielke do to end up on the list of climate criminals? Simple: He did the math. And the mathematics of the chief pillar of climate orthodoxy—suppression of fossil fuels—reveals one inconvenient truth after another. The target of climate orthodoxy—an 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2050—would require reducing U.S. fossil fuel use to a level last seen a hundred years ago. As Pielke quantifies with example after example, this rate and time scale of decarbonization is simply fantastic, and requires magical thinking to maintain with a straight face.

Pielke is brutal in confronting the implications of the adverse math: “Some aspects of such conventional wisdom are, to be absolutely direct, just plain wrong.” But he attributes our dysfunctional climate politics to more than just innumeracy: The entire problem of climate change has been too narrowly conceived from the beginning. The U.N.’s traveling climate circus has, from the first, defined the problem exclusively around human greenhouse gas emissions rather than considering how to make human civilizations more resilient in the face of climate-related changes from any cause. Pielke supports the decarbonization of energy, but he also thinks climate policy should focus on adaptation in the broadest sense (which means chiefly accelerating economic growth in the developing world) as well as research into “air capture” of CO2. 

While his Climate Fix sounds like yet another exercise in magical thinking, Pielke unloads one heresy after another. By conceiving the issue as a morality play, the climate campaign has done great damage to science and policymaking alike. The climate science community has crossed the line from discovery to advocacy and, as the Climategate email scandal showed, corrupted the scientific process. The ideological differences at work in the climate debate cannot be reconciled, but unless the climate campaign gives up on seeing the issue as a means of achieving larger social change, there will be little serious progress.

“Cap and trade sounds great,” Pielke writes. “The problem is that it cannot work. .  .  . Markets cannot make the impossible possible.” We don’t use too much energy, he argues; indeed, we need much more cheap energy—and he doesn’t think fossil fuels are too cheap. He debunks the Kyoto Protocol in two sentences, pointing out how it made no significant difference in the long-term trend of energy efficiency, even in the nations that embraced it:

[Kyoto] did almost nothing to accelerate historical rates of decarbonization of the EU. .  .  . Decarbonization in the EU occurred at an annual average rate of 1.35 percent per year in the nine years before the Kyoto Protocol and 1.36 percent in the nine years following.

These are just a few of Pielke’s refreshing departures from the climate orthodoxy that has stifled original thinking for the better part of the last 20 years, and his central point is what he calls the iron law of climate policy: “When the trade-off is emissions reductions versus economic growth, the economy wins every time.” 

Pielke’s “fixes” may disappoint climate skeptics as well as Al Gore acolytes. He is unenthusiastic about “geoengineering”—that is, schemes to reflect solar radiation such as spraying high-altitude particles to mimic the effect of volcanoes—for the same reason that limits our ability to predict future warming very well: The climate system is too complex and chaotic to judge cause and effect of various geoengineering ideas, even as we try them out. He thinks faster decarbonization of the planet’s energy supply is a very long-term project requiring greater investment in research and innovation by governments. And while this has difficulties, it is a better starting point than hair-shirt suppression of fossil fuels, the exclusive focus of the climate campaign.

Will the climate campaign, chastened by the collapse of cap and trade, be willing to entertain Pielke’s heterodoxy? The answer depends on whether the climate campaigners are as faithful to reason as they claim to be.

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