March 31, 2008
The Cloth of Science: an Interview with Roger Pielke, Jr.
The following is an interview with Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke, Jr. Roger has done pioneering work on proper role of scientists and experts in society. He is an expert on the societal impacts of natural hazards, particularly hurricanes and floods, and a strong advocate of adaptation as a vital part of climate change policy. He is a guest contributer to the Breakthrough blog, and writes his own blog, Prometheus.
You call for greater emphasis on adaptation to protect the world's poor from the effects of global warming. How do you create a politics on that?
Everyone experiences the impacts of climate no matter where they are, rich or poor. There's an enormous gap between how well places are prepared and how well they might be prepared. Take a look around the world, and a lot of the things people are striving for -- wealth, freedom, opportunities -- are associated with being better prepared for the effects of climate.
Is it really true that rich and poor experience climate change equally? I thought the poor, living in substandard housing, living in countries without effective emergency systems and health infrastructure, would be far more vulnerable.
No, certainly not equally. It is true that most of the economic damage is in the rich world and most of the deaths are in the poor world. But not exclusively -- Hurricane Mitch in Central America had relatively small economic damages in total dollars, but a huge impact in proportion to the size of national economies, in some cases as large as annual GDP. Similarly, large losses of life happen in rich countries, more than 1,000 in the US in Katrina, 30,000 in France in the 2003 heat wave, etc.
It's hard to imagine the American people spending billions of dollars to help the people of Bangladesh prepare for rising sea levels or stronger hurricanes. Foreign aid is already fairly unpopular, isn't it?
It can be unpopular, but I wouldn't characterize adaptation as "aid." Much as
Ted and Michael have called for a positive message for environmental policies, we need a similar positive message for adaptation. One part of that message is that we help ourselves by helping others. In a globalized, connected world today's poor are tomorrow's rich, and therefore also our trading partners, suppliers, and customers. There are other parts of such a positive message, involving improving America's relationship with poor countries that serve as havens for terrorism, making good on promises to help sustainable development in Africa, and so on. Adaptation is not charity; it is part of building the modern world.
How about creating a politics specifically here in the U.S.?
Look at Hurricane Katrina -- even a very wealthy country can be impacted. We've been lucky in that we haven't had many extreme disasters, but when we do have them, it reveals that we're not as prepared as we thought we were. Hurricane Katrina wasn't the story of a hurricane -- it was the story of a community with poverty, with aging infrastructure, with inequity and a massive governmental failure. One of the disappointments of the tragedy is that Katrina became a story about climate change and not about all these other things. And there are other places in the U.S. with vulnerabilities that we should be playing attention to.
So you would argue that the climate is already dangerous for poor people, and it's not the strength of the natural disaster but the strength of the infrastructure that matters most. In that sense, isn't adaptation just another word for economic development?
You can have great economic development and still have pretty profound vulnerabilities. This isn't a climate change example, but think about San Francisco and earthquakes. As San Francisco has developed, there has had to be very careful attention to building codes and to structural integrity because if there weren't, all that economic development would just set the stage for disaster. Smart, sustainable development ought to include considerations for being more resilient to hazards, but it doesn't happen automatically just because development occurs, there are smarter and less smart ways of developing.
But aren't things like smarter development and less corruption mostly the function of development? With the exception of Italy, it seems like corruption in Europe is far less of a problem than it is in places like Brazil and Africa.
I'd urge caution in such generalities. Even within countries like the US, there are smarter and less smart ways of developing. Compare Portland and Las Vegas -- both are well developed, but in very different ways. Compare Los Angeles and New York City. Again, very different approaches to development. So while we should encourage sustainable development, we should recognize that there are many different ways that we might develop in the future.
I've noticed that they can be pretty harsh to you over at Grist. What do you think it is about what you write that so triggers environmentalists?
There's some tendency in the more hyper-partisan elements of the environmental movement to say that if you're not with us then you must be against us. And if you start out with a very narrow view as to who is "us", then there are a lot of people who might share your values and have similar views but who you might exclude from your camp for not being pure enough.
For example, I was invited by Republicans to testify on climate change last year, and my thinking initially was that environmentalists would see what a wonderful success this is, that we've been able to convince people on the right that action on climate change makes sense -- so, let's debate what actions. Instead, the reaction among some was that because all Republicans are evil and incorrigible, anyone who associates with them must also be evil and incorrigible. It was a lesson for me that intolerance knows no political boundaries, and there are some for whom political battles are an end in themselves, rather than a means to achieving progress in a society full of people with different values and priorities.
Do you worry about what's been said about you? How do you respond?
I'm not going to play the game of guilt by association. When people do that it's either a tool of either intimidation or unwillingness to engage on the substance of the issue. I think that tactic plays very well with a very narrow set of people, but for most people those tactics speak loudly for themselves and don't need much of a reply. I've been quite open about putting my views out into the public, in research papers and via our blog, so there is plenty of opportunity for people to agree or disagree with my arguments.
Your father, Roger Pielke Sr., has been called a climate skeptic. How have you been influenced by him?
My dad is a practicing climate scientist and he's one of the most widely cited in the world. I've benefited enormously by learning from him about the process of science and a good deal about the substance. His view is that the human effect on climate is more significant than what the IPCC says. He's not a climate skeptic who says that the human effect is less than what the IPCC is claiming. We've both been frustrated by the difficulty of getting new ideas into the climate debate.
Are your views about climate different than his?
We're pretty much in agreement on policy issues. The best policies for climate change don't depend upon some narrow view of what the science actually is. So whether my dad is right that humans have a more varied and dramatic effect on climate, or whether the IPCC or even the climate skeptics are right, then the best policy is still to de-carbonize our energy system for a variety of reasons beyond simply global warming. And we should make communities more resilient to effects of climate. I think that both can be strong, positive messages.
What is the appropriate role for scientists in political matters?
My sense is that in a lot of areas, not just environmental science, experts have taken on the role of being advocates. Advocacy groups love to wrap themselves in the cloth of science. Right, left, and everything in between likes to wave around a scientific study as the basis for why their moral claims are the right ones. They use science as an argument for reducing the scope of options available to decision makers. This turns science into politics. So instead of battles over morals or politics, we battle over science. In my book The Honest Broker, I argue that scientists have a range of choices in relating to decision makers. And one of the most important roles in helping to expand, or at least clarify, the scope of options available.
It is really possible for science to be free from politics? Is that the ideal? Is it even possible to distinguish between what's a scientific question and what's a question of values? To study something is to value it, no?
No, it is not possible to separate science and politics, except in very unique circumstances. This is a key premise of my book!
Where you see this happening in the climate change debate?
You could fully accept the science of the IPCC but that doesn't logically mean you would support Kyoto, or call for emissions reductions. Simply because you accept that the climate is changing doesn't mean you have the values to do something about it. Science is extremely valuable for clarifying the range of choices and the possible consequences of those choices.
So, for example, it's okay for NASA scientist James Hansen to point to the science and say that the earth is warming, that it's mostly due to human emissions, and that it could have serious consequences for humans, but not that the best route is cap and trade or, more recently, halting all coal-burning?
Scientists are people, too. And as such they have values and preferences. So if Jim Hansen prefers a policy focused on halting coal burning, then he should say so. What scientists should not do is say that the science tells us to halt coal burning. In fact, I'd prefer that Jim Hansen engage in explicit policy discussions, which he has done quite explicitly in recent times.
On my blog, I discuss Jim Hansen's calls for scientists to be somehow free from democratic accountability, something I disagree with. Scientists, like everyone else, are bound by democratic principles of governance. Expertise does not make politics go away.
Whose fault is it that scientists often play the role of advocate? Is it those who hold scientists in a certain regard and look to them for answers? Or is the scientists themselves?
Our society puts a lot of authority into experts and scientists. It's easy for them to see that they can have a large influence on important topics. They're just like anyone else -- if you have money you use money to influence politics, and if you have knowledge, you use knowledge.
But it's also the policy makers who say, "We're going to do what the experts tell us to do." It's a way of taking off the responsibility and putting it on the scientific community. That way if something goes wrong, politicians can say that the experts told them what to do.
How is the discussion around climate change changing?
It has undergone what might be called a Christmas tree effect; people come to climate change and hang their ornaments on it, using it as a vehicle for whatever topic they happen to be interested in. If you're interested in growing corn, all of a sudden biofuels become an interest to you. And so on. Climate change is becoming a political vehicle for all sorts of issues. It makes politics very complicated, and it makes it more difficult for new ideas and approaches to be considered. We're fully into the 100 percent politicized world of climate change now and there's no going back, making it more important for people to have the ability to introduce new and innovative options.
You wrote a fascinating piece about air capture, which is the name given to a set of technologies that can suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. You were exploring whether these would be a cost effective way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Can you talk about the response to this piece, both from environmentalists and others?
This paper, which is still being reviewed, is about the economics and politics of the issue, and I wrote it because I was curious. Consider that if you have arsenic in your water supply, you don't go out and create arsenic markets and offsets -- you take the arsenic out. So just from a logical perspective -- setting aside cost and feasibility -- one of the things that might be considered to deal with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to capture it from the ambient air. What I found, surprisingly to me, is that people are working on it, it is technologically within realm of possibility, and the cost is not so high that it should be put off the table.
Given how much more expensive renewables are than fossil fuels, there are some people who argue that we're going to keep burning them until we run out. If that's the case, then technology to suck carbon dioxide out of the air seems like a technology we should be investing in. Is the government doing this already?
Not nearly as much as it should. But it is going to be a part of the discussion I am sure. Recently a Sentor from Wyoming introduced a bill in Congress to create prizes for the development of air capture technology. Air capture of carbon dioxide will certainly be part of our discussions, and also part of our technology R&D investments. The possibility of harvesting CO2 for fuel has also discussed, which raises all sorts of possibilities. So yes this technology, like many others, deserves more attention.
Why hasn't it been getting the attention it deserves?
A small subset of people are critical that I'm even discussing it because it's disruptive to the politics. They assume that if people think there's a technological fix a few decades down the road, they're not going to take the steps they need to be taking to reduce emissions, so we shouldn't even be talking about it.
But I don't think we in the academic or expert community should be deciding what information the public should be allowed to be exposed to; we just put the options out there. I'm trying to present the information about it as clearly as I can, and I don't think concern about how this information will be received is reason enough not to publish this paper. I don't think it should be forbidden knowledge. There is some forbidden knowledge, like how to manufacture a nuclear bomb, but this doesn't fall into that category.
As an expert and an individual, do you ever feel like you're split in two on any of these issues? Do you wear your expert hat and give unbiased options sometimes, and then wear your citizen hat and choose between those options other times?
That's a very good question. And the answer would be no, I don't think it's possible for experts to wear different hats. I don't think there is a citizen hat and an expert hat. That's why I think honest brokering needs to be done by groups of people. When experts want to advocate for certain actions, they should just do so. This is why I'm happy to join with Michael and Ted. I'm happy to support an agenda for change and I want to be transparent about it. I don't think experts should say, "the science says we need to do this," because the science isn't what tells us any of that.
How do you see your work fitting in with the Breakthrough Institute's?
I think Ted and Michael have done something very difficult, which is open us a new space for dialogue in climate change, because for so long it has been viewed as a two-sided issue. The moment people try to bring in a new perspective others try to push them into one of those two sides. I was amused to see Michael and Ted characterized as climate skeptics who must be backed by the Republicans while at the same time being called just two more liberals calling for more government money.
But I think they've done a really nice job of mapping out a third position on climate change. It's not in the middle; it's just different. I've been trying to do something similar with colleagues with much less success, so I think there's going to be shared thinking and strength in numbers. I hope it helps me figure out how to create a space for this new dialogue in these politicized debates.