The Technology-First Climate Fix

October 10, 2010 | Michael Shellenberger,

This week sees the publication of Roger Pielke, Jr.'s long-awaited book, The Climate Fix, which comes at a time when other politically centrist voices are calling for a new focus on technology innovation in the wake of the failure of U.N. treaty talks, and the fourth failure of cap and trade in the U.S. Over the last decade, Pielke, a Breakthrough Senior Fellow, has published a string of peer-reviewed studies of climate change mitigation and adaptation that have altered the debate over global warming.

The oft-told story of environmental progress over the last quarter-century casts the leading role to Science. The discovery of the ozone hole in 1985 resulted in the Montreal protocol in 1987. And growing scientific evidence that sulfur dioxide emissions from coal plants caused acid rain resulted in the 1990 clean air act amendments -- or so the story goes.

As a graduate student in the early 1990s, Roger Pielke Jr. had an inkling that something wasn't right about the conventional story when his mentor, the physicist Rad Byerly, chief of staff to the House Science and Technology Committee, told him that Congress first took action to deal with the risk to the ozone in 1974 -- a full decade before the ozone hole was discovered. The action was modest -- no fundamental remaking of the global chemical sector was demanded -- and was focused on phasing out "nonessential uses for CFCs" for which there were cheap and easy technological substitutes.

Writes Pielke:

As Congress made decisions about the chemicals implicated in ozone depletion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the science of ozone depletion actually became more uncertain, as scientists began to understand the many complexities of the issue. In 1982 the National Academy of Sciences released a report suggesting that the threat of ozone depletion was perhaps less than previously thought, which was seized upon by some in Congress to argue against regulation of CFCs.

Even so, Congress pursued "no-regrets" policies where there were cheap and easy technological fixes available. By the time scientists discovered the ozone hole ten years later, Pielke notes, not only were domestic U.S. and international frameworks already in place, technological progress had continued apace.

The Climate Fix tells a similar story about acid rain. What spurred the passage of the 1990 acid rain law was not scientific consensus but cheap technologies -- smokestack scrubbers and new (rail) access to low-sulfur coal from Wyoming and New Mexico.

"If reducing carbon emissions was as simple as the switch from CFCs to CFC replacements, or installing scrubbers on smokestacks and sourcing Wyoming coal," Pielke writes, "we would not be discussing the issue, as it would have been mostly solved already.

But rather than confront those technological obstacles directly, global warming policy has focused instead on implementing pollution regulations, and policy advocates on climate science.

The Iron Law of Climate Policy

Historians remind us that most events only become intelligible after the passage of a certain amount of time, and climate policy is no exception. After 20 years of failure to reduce emissions through pollution regulations it is today clear that whether or not humankind does anything about human-caused warming turns centrally on the question of whether or not we invent inexpensive alternatives to traditional fossil fuels.

The failure of the U.N. process in Copenhagen, the fourth failure of cap and trade in the Congress, the ineffectiveness of emissions trading in Europe -- these, according to The Climate Fix, were consequences of unworkable public policies colliding with the political economy of cheap fossil energy and the lack of cheap alternatives.

While media attention has tended to focus on the proximate obstacles to climate policy -- fearful politicians, corporate resistance, low public concern -- the heart of the problem, writes Pielke, Jr., is "the iron law of climate policy": no nation is going to sacrifice its economic growth for global warming.

While the iron law might seem obvious, it has, for different reasons, been rejected by both political left and right for much of the last 20 years.

Much of the right never believed in the iron law of global warming, genuinely fearing that national governments -- or, worse, some new global government -- would sacrifice economic growth in the name of climate change. But where governments have put in place emissions controls, such as Europe, they have created loopholes large enough to drive a coal plant through.

The left, for its part, came to believe that there was never any iron law because renewable energy and energy efficiency are cheap replacements of fossil fuels. This view could never explain why coal-burning and plant-building has continued apace, but remained the official line of among advocates of cap and trade.

Against those who believe making global warming a greater public priority is essential, Pielke, Jr. says the majority belief in global warming is high enough for modest policy action -- the key is the right action.

Technological Agreements Amidst Scientific Disagreements

The Climate Fix leads to a set of conclusions about climate policy that will strike some readers as commonsensical and others as counter-intuitive. Pielke, Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado, walks readers through the basic arithmetic of energy, pointing out that reducing emissions 50 percent by mid century, while also meeting growing demand, will require the equivalent of one full-size (1 GW) nuclear reactor to be built every day from now until the 2050. It is an undertaking, Pielke says, nations will reject as too expensive without significant, and consistent, technological innovation.

But if the technological barriers are larger than those that confronted ozone and acid rain, they will be dealt with in a similar way: through strategies that do not require much scientific agreement about the problem.

Pielke is most famous for having successfully challenged Al Gore's discussion of the link between climate change and hurricanes in "An Inconvenient Truth," and Pielke's insistence that no scientific consensus is required before policy action can be taken will bother greens and skeptics who view Science as the appropriate arbiter of policy. The problem is that there are multiple possible future emissions, temperatures, and impacts on earth, Pielke points out. Policies must address a broad range of them without expecting that a resolution to uncertainties.

The Climate Fix arrives at a moment when the science-based framework for dealing with climate change is in collapse, and a new technology-first framework -- like the kind that succeeded with the ozone hole and acid rain -- is increasingly mainstream. Skeptics and warmists need not agree about climate science to support various policies, from energy innovation to urbanization to control of non-carbon greenhouse gases.

If The Climate Fix is an important book for liberals and greens because it challenges their assumptions about the state of the science and the readiness of the technology, it is an important book for conservatives and skeptics because it challenges the notion that climate is the only reason to move away from fossil fuels.

If reasonable liberal and conservative policymakers manage to get serious about the technological challenge then the thinking advanced by The Climate Fix and Pielke's scientific research will be a major reason for it.