Can the Climate Be Fixed?

A new book offers a clear-eyed view of the technological and economic magnitude of addressing climate change.

The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming, by Roger Pielke, Jr., Basic Books, $26.00, 276 pp.

“If there is an iron law of climate policy, it is that when policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emissions reductions, it is economic growth that will win out every time,” writes University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. in his new book, The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming. The world saw this iron law of climate policy fully in action this past year, as both the Obama administration’s push to adopt a domestic cap-and-trade scheme to ration carbon dioxide and the Copenhagen climate change negotiations over a treaty to follow the United Nation’s Kyoto Protocol collapsed before it.

To illustrate the iron law, Pielke cites a 2009 poll [PDF] of Americans commissioned by the Economist. When no price tag is attached to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, 62 percent of Americans are in favor and 21 percent are opposed. At an annual cost of $80 per household, 53 percent still favor emissions reductions, but support drops to 30 percent at $175 per year, and to just 7 percent at $770 per year. Accepting one popular low estimate that it would cost one percent of GDP per year to cut greenhouse gas emissions over that period, the rough costs for an American household today would be about $1,200 per year. ($14 trillion x 1 percent ÷ 300 million x 2.6 average household size ≈ $1,200)

Pielke also points out that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has built historically unprecedented rates of spontaneous decarbonization into scenarios of future emissions. This is a huge problem because the UN scenarios assume that most of the cuts in emissions will be relatively easy to do, requiring only a little extra policy push in the form of carbon taxes or markets to cut carbon dioxide emissions enough to keep the climate from warming too much.

Pielke convincingly argues that this is not so. For example, the average annual rate of decarbonization implied by a 50 percent reduction in global emissions below 1990 levels by 2050 assuming a 3 percent annual GDP growth is 4.4 percent. The actual rate of global decarbonization between 1980 and 2006 was 1.5 percent while annual average GDP growth was 3.5 percent. In other words, the world would have to nearly triple its rate of decarbonization. And just how effective have the Kyoto Protocol and carbon markets been in accelerating decarbonization? Not very, given the experience of the European Union which signed onto Kyoto Protocol and has the world’s only functioning carbon market. “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,” points out Pielke.

To get some idea of what higher decarbonization rates imply, Pielke parses the Obama administration’s proposed target of reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent below their 2005 levels by 2020. Assuming an increase of energy demand of 0.5 percent per year, this implies that the U.S. would have to shut down just about 60 percent of it coal-fired electric generation plants, and build the equivalent of nearly 350 new 750-megawatt nuclear plants. There are currently 104 operating nuclear plants in the U.S. and 441 total in the world.

Alternatively, the U.S could cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 16 percent if it replaced all of its coal plants with natural gas by 2020. Ignoring intermittency and energy storage issues, the goal could be met by deploying 200,000 2.5-megawatt wind turbines by 2020. The 17 percent reduction target could be met by shutting down the equivalent of 20 750-megawatt coal-fired power plants per year between now and 2020, bringing total energy consumption back to 1980s levels. At the global level, assuming a cut in emissions by 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2050 with energy consumption increasing by 1.5 percent per year implies building 8,500 new nuclear plants. That’s equivalent to about one new plant every two days for 40 years.

Pielke argues that the politicization of climate science derives in part from definitional problems in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In the UNFCCC, climate change is defined as changes that are attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that changes the composition of the global atmosphere and that is in addition to any natural climate variability. Also, signatories to the UNFCCC are supposed to prevent “dangerous interference” with the climate. If there is no interference, then there is no reason to act. “For those wanting to argue a case for action, there are strong incentives to attribute impacts of concern to society (and disasters are of utmost concern) to greenhouse gas emissions,” declares Pielke. “Thus, the policy framework itself creates incentives to view the science in a particular way.”

Pielke provides numerous examples of how these definitions subtly politicize climate science. For example, proponents for action against climate change often claim that losses from climate related disasters are increasing. Pielke acknowledges that it is true that losses are increasing from events like hurricanes. However, he goes on to show that once hurricane data are normalized—that is, frequency, wind speed, population trends, and coastal development are taken into account—there has been no discernible increase in losses in nearly any area of the world. The same trends hold for flood and wildfire damage.

Just how politicized climate science has become was exposed in the infamous “Climategate” episode in which emails from activist climate researchers were leaked to the public. Among other things, the emails revealed efforts to remove journal editors with whom the researchers disagreed and suppress the publication of articles that they disliked. “The emails reveal activist scientists busy extolling the virtues of peer review to journalists and the public, while at the same time they were busy behind the scenes plotting to corrupt the peer-review process in a way that favored their views on the science and politics of climate change,” writes Pielke.

Pielke acknowledges that just how much man-made climate change we can expect remains scientifically uncertain, but he asserts that uncertainty is not a reason for inaction. He argues that the definition of climate change must be broadened to include climate effects caused by changes in land use and pollutants such as black soot. Once climate change policy is no longer just about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Pielke believes that policymakers and the public can consider other policy responses to whatever climate change occurs in the future. For example, efforts at adaptation will no longer be treated largely as costs arising from failed carbon dioxide mitigation, but as economic development. Societies become less vulnerable to whatever disasters might occur as they become richer.

Pielke ends by arguing that the uncertainties about man-made climate change means that the world needs to develop no-carbon energy sources in the future. Given the iron law of climate policy, the new energy sources must be cheaper than the fossil fuels they replace. How can this be accomplished? He proposes that countries levy a $5 per ton carbon tax and that governments use the tens of billions raised to fund research and development for such new energy technologies. Pielke believes that reaching an international agreement on such a course will be far easier than trying to negotiate a comprehensive carbon rationing scheme (which would be ineffective anyway). Such a tax would raise about $30 billion per year in the U.S. Given the past sorry experience of government-funded energy R&D in the United States, Pielke is making a huge leap of faith that federal bureaucrats will get it right this time.

Pielke’s proposals look increasingly likely to garner some bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Ultimately, The Climate Fix is a clear-eyed analysis of how climate science became politicized and of the magnitude of the technological and economic issues that addressing the uncertainties of any future warming will entail.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books. This column first appeared at

Ronald Bailey is Science Correspondent