Among the preachers of climate apocalypse, Roger Pielke Jr. is a heretic. Pielke’s sin: refusing to fall in line and accept the claims that climate chaos is upon us and that the only solution to the pending catastrophe is to implement immediate and drastic cuts to carbon dioxide emissions in every country in the world, including the impoverished ones.
Just as Martin Luther challenged the corruption he saw in the Roman Catholic church by tacking his 95 theses onto the church door in Wittenberg, Pielke here launches a challenge to climate-change orthodoxy. Pielke is no Luther, of course; but given the religious nature of much of the debate, which is often couched in terms of believers-versus-skeptics and catastrophists-versus-deniers, the comparison is apt.
Pielke refers to this religiosity: “The issue of disasters and climate change,” he writes, “is a canonical example of ‘noble cause’ corruption in science.” And therein lies his key issue: Climate researchers, politicians, and mainstream media outlets often claim that extreme weather events are due to global warming—even though there’s no proof for such a claim. And they do so because the end (saving the earth) justifies telling a stretcher or two.
A professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Pielke has been on the climate beat for about two decades, and he has taken plenty of heat, as it were, for his positions. About five years ago, he was the target of a sustained smear campaign by the Center for American Progress; and last year, John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, told a Senate committee that Pielke’s work is outside the “scientific mainstream.”
A few weeks after Holdren’s remarks, Pielke published a piece about climate change and natural disasters on the then-new website of statistician Nate Silver. The gist of the piece was that the rising cost of natural disasters (such as hurricanes) was the result not of an increase in the severity of those events, but of an increase in wealth: “We’re seeing ever-larger losses simply because we have more to lose—when an earthquake or flood occurs, more stuff gets damaged.” Based on that mild-mannered thesis, Slate branded Pielke a “climate-change denialist,” Daily Kos characterized him as a “climate disinformer,” and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called him a “known irresponsible skeptic.”
In making his point about politicians telling stretchers about the weather, Pielke points to a 2013 speech by Obama in which the president said, “In a world that’s getting warmer than it used to be, all weather events are affected by it—more extreme droughts, floods, wildfires, and hurricanes.” Now, we can’t rely on politicians to always stick to the truth; but what motivates Pielke is that statements such as Obama’s (similar claims are available on the White House website) aren’t necessarily supported by the facts. Hurricanes? Pielke has shown that the United States is in the midst of a prolonged hurricane drought.
In truth, Pielke’s stance on climate change is quite orthodox. He believes in anthropogenic global warming and thinks that policymakers should pursue strategies to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions. He’s also in favor of a carbon tax. But Pielke is sober when it comes to the vast scale of global energy use, pointing out that stabilizing global carbon dioxide emissions, in rough terms, would require building one new nuclear plant every day between now and 2050, “while retiring an equivalent amount of fossil generation.” As for wind and solar energy, the challenge is equally daunting, requiring (by Pielke’s estimation) the installation of about a thousand wind turbines or 250 solar-thermal plants every day.
So what’s to be done? Pielke believes that activists should quit trying to scare the public about extreme weather: Efforts to “intensify public opinion through apocalyptic visions of weather-gone-wild, or appeals to scientific authority, instead of motivating further support for action, have instead led to a loss of trust in campaigning scientists.” He further concludes, correctly, that rather than making energy more expensive, the goal should be to make cleaner energy more available—and, more than anything, make it cheaper. To achieve that, we will need a “public commitment to energy innovation” as well as recognition of the “rights of billions of people to energy access commensurate with the richest around the world.”