Climate Pragmatism in the White House

Obama Advisors Reject Climate Wars


A new report by President Obama’s science and technology advisors calls for a pragmatic approach to climate policy that embraces technology, innovation, and adaptation to extreme weather, in a clear split with the more divisive Greens over the future of US mitigation efforts.

April 02, 2013 | Roger Pielke Jr

In a refreshing break from the polarizing debates of recent years, President Obama’s science and technology advisors have released a new set of recommendations on climate policy that are indicative of a growing consensus around pragmatic, commonsense actions that may offer great prospects for implementing effective policies.

The recommendations mark a sharp departure from many of the divisive and politically toxic proposals that often characterize climate policy discussions and a repudiation of the most divisive approaches, such as found in the misguided campaign against Keystone XL.

The advice by Obama’s advisors is also broadly consistent with the recommendations advanced over the past several years by The Breakthrough Institute, especially its 2011 report “Climate Pragmatism” (PDF), my 2010 book The Climate Fix, and more broadly in the internationally focused Hartwell Paper of 2010 (PDF). It is encouraging to see that despite all of the venom found in the climate debate, good ideas can still rise above the fray.

The White House science advisers have clearly learned from the failures of cap and trade legislation and global climate talks. Those experiences demonstrated that publics are unwilling to back high up-front costs for uncertain and future benefits and, moreover, that an aggressive rhetoric emphasizing fear of environmental collapse is unlikely to be successful. While some, like Bill McKibben and other environmentalists, call for a heightening of the partisan climate wars, Obama‘s advisors evidently understand that achieving real progress will require leaving such tactics behind in service of pragmatic measures that embrace technology, innovation, and adaptation — which is right where the report begins.  

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report starts out with a focus on adaptation, with emphasis on extreme events, pointing out that they “have underscored the Nation’s vulnerability and the urgent need for preparedness.” In “Climate Pragmatism” we also emphasized such a strategy, noting its broad appeal beyond the climate debate and “universal concerns about securing greater resilience to disasters.” Both reports emphasize the importance of infrastructure to efforts to build resilience and robustness.

When it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, PCAST notes that putting a price on carbon makes good sense, as we have recommended. However, PCAST also notes that “given the political resistance to such approaches, there are other policy measures that can also encourage energy transformation and decarbonization.” The focus on what can be accomplished given political realities is central to pragmatic action.

PCAST quite rightly emphasizes the importance of “efforts to ‘decarbonize’ the economy.” Reducing carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP is the proper focus of mitigation policy, as I argued in The Climate Fix.  The science advisers recommend as a first strategy of decarbonization that the Administration “support continuing expansion of shale gas production.” As we argued in “Climate Pragmatism,” “in the short or medium terms, shale gas may relieve global energy supply pressures and help accelerate the decarbonization of the power sector.”

Similarly, PCAST and “Climate Pragmatism” agree that “it is important to secure (and build upon) modest pollution regulations that have public and congressional support.” So PCAST recommends that the Administration “continue implementation of Clean Air Act requirements on criteria pollutants (such as SO2 and NOx) and hazardous air pollutants (such as mercury).” PCAST also calls for US policy to place a greater emphasis on carbon capture and storage, “accelerate efforts to reduce the regulatory obstacles to deployment of CCS, and continue political support for the large CCS projects currently underway” – echoing a similar call found in The Climate Fix, and also put forward in a forthcoming piece that I have written with Dan Sarewitz.

PCAST recognizes the need for significant incentives to stimulate innovation, both in the short and longer terms. The report observes that “it is critical that investments in “game-changing” research and development on advanced energy technologies continue in order to ensure that at least some of them become competitive in the years ahead.”  As “Climate Pragmatism” puts it, “the nation must ramp up today’s paltry national commitment to energy innovation to the scale of a true national priority.”

Someone at PCAST has obvious done some emissions math because the report explains, “achieving low-carbon goals without a substantial contribution from nuclear power is possible, but extremely difficult.”  The authors of “Climate Pragmatism” agreed: “nuclear power, alone among low-carbon energy technologies, has a demonstrated capacity to generate large quantities of affordable, low-carbon, baseload power.” 

There is one topic on which you’ll find differences between our recommendations and those of PCAST, and that is on the importance of non-carbon climate forcings, such as black carbon or soot. Such recommendations were central to both “Climate Pragmatism” and The Hartwell Paper, but do not appear in the PCAST report. We explained, “addressing public health risks associated with conventional air pollutants, including black carbon, methane, stratospheric ozone-depleting chemicals, precursors to tropospheric ozone, and mercury, offer Americans significant public health benefits that are immediate, well known, and often welcome across the political spectrum.” If ignored, non-carbon climate forcings would represent is a big missed opportunity for the Obama Administration.

Overall, while there are a few differences in tone and nuance, the report of PCAST represents an emerging, pragmatic perspective on climate policy that has been years, if not decades, in the making. Perhaps our efforts have contributed in some small ways to helping shape that agenda. Of course, good ideas are the offspring of many proud parents.


Photo credit: The White House


  • “nuclear power, alone among low-carbon energy technologies, has a demonstrated capacity to generate large quantities of affordable, low-carbon, baseload power.”

    The solution is there. Technology developed in the US in the 60’s. Just needs to be updated. Fortunately the Chinese and India (who do and will burn the most coal) are on to it. We can all breath easier.

    Game changer: The “green” nuclear. Molten salt thorium nuclear reactors. Much cheaper, safer, and cleaner.

    Feb 2011

    “China has officially announced it will launch a program to develop a thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor, taking a crucial step towards shifting to nuclear power as a primary energy source.”

    “The project was unveiled at the annual Chinese Academy of Sciences conference in Shanghai last week, and reported in the Wen Hui Bao newspaper (Google English translation here).”

    “If the reactor works as planned, China may fulfill a long-delayed dream of clean nuclear energy. The United States could conceivably become dependent on China for next-generation nuclear technology. At the least, the United States could fall dramatically behind in developing green energy.”

    June 2012

    “The U.S. Department of Energy is quietly collaborating with China on an alternative nuclear power design known as a molten salt reactor that could run on thorium fuel rather than on more hazardous uranium, SmartPlanet understands.”

    “Proponents of thorium MSRs, also known as liquid thorium reactors or sometimes as liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs), say the devices beat conventional solid fuel uranium reactors in all aspects including safety, efficiency, waste and peaceful implications.”

    Jan 2013

    And India

    India is hosting what very well may be the first ever true conference dedicated to Molten Salt Reactor technology. They contacted me several months ago about giving a plenary talk and I was very surprised to learn of their increasing interest in MSR technology which is a bit of a departure from their traditional long term nuclear plans. They now have the website up regarding the conference.

    If you browse through things you’ll see some of their interest is related to the fact that molten salt technology is also applicable to things like processing of solid fuel fast breeder designs. However in my discussions with the organizers and by looking at the subjects they wish to cover at the conference it is clear that they have an increasing interest in true molten salt or liquid fuel concepts. Perhaps this is slightly reactionary to increased Chinese MSR interest but a hopeful sign nonetheless. Please check things out and I’d encourage people to consider submitting papers and/or attending.

    David LeBlanc

    The solution is there. Technology developed in the US in the 60’s. Just needs to be updated. Fortunately the Chinese and India (who do and will burn the most coal) are on to it. We can all breath easier.

    By charles hart on 2013 04 03

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  • Water consumption and pollution is not addressed in this report.  Energy experts ignore the water-energy nexus because they tend to have narrowly specialized interests, and they and their friends in the energy industry would prefer that water be ignored. 

    CCS is not realistic because of the water issues: chemical CO2 capture would double the water consumption of power plants, and underground storage is “profoundly non feasible” and could cause brine intrusion into the groundwater.  But FutureGen 2.0 (a sequestration experiment threatening Illinois) has a $1B budget—that’s half of the $2B research fund that President Obama is asking for, to do everything.

    Coal and nuclear power plants are the biggest of all water consumers, wasting fresh water into the atmosphere in evaporative cooling of turbine exhaust steam.  Even thorium will have this water problem.  Drought will expose the naivite of energy pundits about the water impact of energy activities.  DOE still has not published the report on the water-energy nexus that Congress ordered in 2005.

    Fracking withdraws a lot of water, and what comes out of the hole has to be trucked away to injection wells that cause earthquakes.  Energy pundits coveniently ignore pollution of streams and groundwater by fracking.

    Primitive bitumen extraction technology has blighted the boreal forest of Canada with enormous toxic sludge ponds—a water issue that the Keystone XL pipeline boosters conveniently ignore, along with the impact of spills.

    This report is more “all of the above” indecision that has energy policy stuck in the same ruts.  Trying harder at biofuels, wind, solar, and conservation will be futile because these purported solutions can’t scale to the size of the CO2 problem. 

    ARPA-E is not a model for success, based on its history.  What has it achieved the last 4 years?

    So I’m disappointed that the President has surrounded himself with these advisors, and that there is no way to raise the foregoing water issues in the ignorant clamor to reduce CO2 emissions.

    By Wilmot McCutchen on 2013 04 04

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  • @william
    “Coal and nuclear power plants are the biggest of all water consumers, wasting fresh water into the atmosphere in evaporative cooling of turbine exhaust steam.  Even thorium will have this water problem.”

    Thorium molten salt reactor operate at much higher temperatures than current technology making air cooling effective thus water is not needed in cooling towers. 

    By charles hart on 2013 04 04

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    By megherbi on 2013 06 05

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  • mi ist zolaine und ai have energe solar energe econmece energe ecologece atom solar und atom planten

    By megherbi hadj zohier on 2014 02 22

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About Roger Pielke Jr

I am a professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I also have appointments as a Research Fellow, Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University; Visiting Senior Fellow, Mackinder Programme, London School of Economics; and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes of Arizona State University. I am also a Senior Fellow of The Breakthrough Institute, a progressive think tank.

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