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This item was posted on December 2, 2009, and it was categorized as CRU email controversy, Climate Change, Global Warming, Global warming skeptics.
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mike-hulmeMike Hulme, author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change, has moved the ball far downfield in an excellent column in the Wall Street Journal.

Hulme is a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia — home of the Climatic Research Unit, which is at the center of the email controversy. And his column crystallizes the overarching issues better than most other things on the subject that I have read.

Climate scientists, he says, “have become proxies for political battles. The consequence is that science, as a form of open and critical enquiry, deteriorates while the more appropriate forums for ideological battles are ignored.”

The hearings today before a House Committee — at which Rep. James Sensenbrenner charged that climate science has begun to look like “fascism” — offer some evidence for his case.

What’s the way out of this mess?

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This thing has 27 Comments

  1. Steve Bloom
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    “Lucid and insightful”? *sigh* Your wind-up question is good, Tom, but unfortunately, rather than addressing it, Hulme’s column amounts to wishing we weren’t in this mess. The fact is that the science does sharply constrain reasonable policy options, and it is inevitable that people like Sensenbrenner who have an economic and/or ideological commitment to sticking their heads in the sand are going to attack the science in order to avoid the needed decisions. Placing a greater focus on uncertainty as Hulme desires would just compound the problem.

  2. Raven
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    Steve Bloom,

    If AGW was really the greatest crisis to face mankind that required an immediate response then the activists would be calling for us to build nuclear plants as fast as we can. They would also be demanding strict population controls.

    We don’t hear anyone talking about those options because they cross a line that people are not willing to cross no matter what the science says.

    What those examples illustrate is science cannot and should not be used to demand actions that go against our values. The climate debate now is not about science – it is about values. The are many people who feel that the oppressive state apparatus required to regulate carbon is too instrusive and threatens personal freedoms. They feel as strongly on this point as many AGW activists feel about nuclear power.

  3. Steve Bloom
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Fortunately, Grackle, yours is a minority view that can be overcome. BTW, the bunny’s current post describes what happened in South Africa when science deniers held sway on AIDS. The South Africans will be dealing with the consequences of that shit storm for decades to come.

  4. Posted December 3, 2009 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Raven,

    First, many activists do say that nuclear power has to be in the mix. James Hansen, who many would place as the leading scientist-activist in the US said as much in a recent interview in the Houston Chronicle:

    “I think you need to include nuclear power in the mix, and you need to do it in a way that allows nuclear to compete economically with coal for baseload electrical power. The truth is the next generation of nuclear power, the third generation which companies are proposing now, is inherently safer than the second generation.”

    So, if AGW activists can move towards nuclear power, can the “Live free or die” side move towards regulations?

  5. Raven
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Richard,

    Hansen is not driving the debate. He also hates cap&trade as much as the Republicans.
    There will be no compromise as long as cap&trade and UN agreements are on the table.

    Steve Bloom,

    There are two huge differences between Catastrophic AGW and HIV:

    There is conclusive experimental evidence that links HIV to AIDs.
    No such evidence exists for CAGW (climate models don’t count as evidence).

    Preventing HIV from spreading is easy to do and inexpensive.
    Limiting CO2 emissions is near impossible and absurdly expensive.

    Also anti-CO2 policies will lead to the deaths of millions because poorer people without access to low cost energy will less able to pay for food, shelter and medical services. The food shortages caused by ethonol policies are just the start of the massive harms that will be inflicted on people if the alarmists get their way.

  6. Posted December 4, 2009 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    Raven,

    The premise you posed had nothing to do with who is driving the debate. That is something different altogether. It was whether activists were proposing nuclear power. They are.

    While Hansen also hates cap & trade/Copenhagen as much as the Republicans, his reasoning is completely different. He dislikes them because he does not think they will work to effectively alter climate change.

    So, what sort of compromise are you willing to examine? Are there any policies to lower our dependence on fossil fuels that you would consider?

  7. Posted December 4, 2009 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    Raven,

    Having worked in immunology for the last 25 years or so, I can say that the HIV story was filled with many years of delay because there was NOT definitive proof that HIV caused AIDS. Much of this delay was politically motivated, just as we see today with climate change.

    Even as the proof mounted, denial of this link persisted. Peter Duesberg still leads the opposition to HIV being the cause for AIDS and has, in fact, published his contrarian views in many respected journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine.

    As Steve Bloom stated, these views were mostly responsible for South Africa’s especially poor response to AIDS, a policy that has only just been reversed. They now have twice as many HIV-infected people as any other country and 300,000 of their citizens are estimated to have died there because of this denial of ‘conclusive evidence.’

    To those of us in science who have spent 30 years or so watching how denial has warped the proper response to a serious disease, the current phase of denial of climate change seems quite familiar. The take home message – There is never enough conclusive proof for denialists. Ever! And when denial plays into political views, it becomes easier to believe in massive conspiracies and political oppression than the evidence. The same phase occurred with the HIV story.

    Most of the world eventually adopted HIV/AIDS policies that have been almost miraculous in their effective treatment of the disease. I expect something similar will happen with climate change. But just as it took the work of activist scientists such as Don Francis to produce the proper public response to HIV/AIDS, it will take the work of activist scientists such as Hansen to accomplish this for climate change.

  8. Raven
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    Richard,

    My middle ground for any action on CO2 is it must be economic, effective and not involve creating complex systems that will be gamed by fraudsters.

    This could include nuclear, hydro, some types of solar, efficiency mandates and carbon taxes.

    This would not include emissions trading, carbon caps, international treaties or most types of renewables like wind/solar (because they are completely uneconomic).

  9. Raven
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    Richard,

    There are two parts of the AIDS issue:

    1) the scientific basis and
    2) the cost of precautions.

    My understanding is there was a pretty strong statistical link early on – i.e. almost everyone diagnosed with AIDS had HIV. This statistical link demonstrated in thousands of cases is a much stronger foundation than the current link between CO2 and catastrophic warming. The main reason is we knew exactly what would happen to people if they got AIDS. With CO2 we do not have prior experience that tells us what will happen. It is nothing but a guess. It is like discovering HIV, realizing that it could have some bad effects on immune system and then starting a panic based on the hypothesis that it could lead to AIDS even though no one has seen an AIDS case before.

    However, it is the relatively low cost of precautions is what makes it possible to justify HIV prevention even if the link was not certain. If the cost was high it would not be possible to justify prevention without really strong evidence (e.g. let’s say preventing HIV required a vaccine that killed `1 in 1000 people).

    There also one other aspect of the AGW debate that makes it different from HIV and that has to do with the policy choices. Right now alarmists insist that immediate and rapid reductions in CO2 emissions are the only possible option. I disagree because adaptation is always an option. The orthodox view on CO2 now is a lot like the Catholic view on abstinence for AIDS prevention. i.e. impossible to achieve in reality even if it makes theoretical sense.

    The bottom line is I think it is ridiculous to compare people who question the need for immediate and rapid reductions in CO2 emissions to the people who refuse to take inexpensive actions to reduce the spread of HIV.

  10. Posted December 4, 2009 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Raven: How about this: A mild carbon tax, with the proceeds used to fund ramped up RD&D (research, development and deployment) efforts to make solar and other renewables cost-competitive, and to help lower income folks weatherize? Also, significantly more vigorous efforts on efficiency, solving the transmission grid issues, etc. We could also talk about nuclear, although this issue is so controversial it could be a deal breaker. Another point in the Yulsman plan: putting aside climate change, we need tighter emissions controls on coal burning because of all the other damages it causes, as well as regulation on coal mining to prevent the environmentally devastating effects of practices like mountaintop removal.

    Overall, would you not agree that even putting aside climate, we should be moving off coal as quickly as possible because of all the other impacts? So wouldn’t making it more expensive (and thus renewables more competitive) be a good thing?

    Steve: If cap-and-trade passes here in the U.S. it will probably be so watered down (in order to get enough votes) that the cost of carbon it imposes would probably be just as mild as a low carbon tax. So why subject ourselves to the Rube Goldbergesque policy contortions of cap and trade — a policy that has already proven itself to be ineffective? Why not move forward on vigorous energy policy funded by a mild carbon tax — one that might just garner support from folks like Raven and probably pass with quite a lot of support? Most Americans do not respond well to fear appeals (let alone appeals to authority). But we do get excited about innovation. Why not harness that spirit?

  11. Raven
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Tom,

    Your plan sounds good to me with only two caveats:

    1) Consumers do not choose the source of electricity they use so a carbon tax would hit some regions harder than others. For that reason an across the board tax on electricity which is used to fund R&D would be better in the short term. Increasing the cost electricity would still reduce consumption and emissions.

    2) I think moving off oil is a higher priority than coal. New coal plants are very clean – much cleaner than your average vehicle. To do this we need to ensure an adequate and reliable source of electricity for a fleet of electric vehicles even if that means building new coal plants. However, nuclear could be used instead if we want to phase out coal.

    3) We would need to be realistic with what can be accomplished with renewables like wind and solar. The capital costs are huge and they require a lot of materials – some of which are in short supply. It is quite possible that increasing in commodity prices will ensure that those capital costs increase over time. On the other hand, one never knows what well funded R&D will produce – we just can’t count on it.

  12. Steve Bloom
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Tom, IMHO there’s no technical barrier to making C+T or a carbon tax strong or weak. Either way, Congress is only going to pass a weak bill, and so the key struggle is to get it *anything* passed while making sure that EPA retains its ability to regulate under the CAA and CWA since even a weak bill will provide sufficient political cover for strong regulatory action. The obvious strategy for the Obama administration is then to lock in the regulations by way of further bilateral and multilateral agreements (with China, India and the EU) *not* subject to Senate confirmation. Every indication is that they’re doing exactly that. Now I’m just waiting for RP Jr. to notice so we can make it official. :)

    Given the foregoing, trying to switch to a tax at this stage would be counter-productive. Anyway, if you think the grackles of the world don’t like C+T, wait’ll the command-and-control stuff (which I’m confident will incorporate plenty of opportunity for innovation) starts coming down the pike.

  13. Steve Bloom
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the informed perspective, Richard.

    Grackle: “The bottom line is I think it is ridiculous to compare people who question the need for immediate and rapid reductions in CO2 emissions to the people who refuse to take inexpensive actions to reduce the spread of HIV.”

    Were they inexpensive from the POV of the South African government? Not so much. The point is that not wanting to commit the resources preceded the denial. That reasoning should sound familiar.

    Grackle: “New coal plants are very clean – much cleaner than your average vehicle.”

    What a breathtakingly stupid thing to assert.

  14. googler
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Steve: “What a breathtakingly stupid thing to assert.”

    Why?

  15. Steve Bloom
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    A) They’re not all that clean (compare to a NG plant), to say nothing of “very” clean.

    B) To say “clean” at all an abuse of the term. “Less polluting only relative to old coal plants” is about as good as we can say, I’m afraid. And of course the extra load from the pollution control equipment results in *more* CO2 being emitted.

    C) Power plant to vehicle is apples to oranges. One cannot be substituted for the other. My coffee grinder is much cleaner than coal since it runs off of NG and nukes, right?

    D) Don’t miss my clever joke.

    Why did you need me to tell you all of that?

  16. googler
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    A) The comparison was to “to your average vehicle”. Do you have any specs. for flue gas emmissions? How do they compare to an average tailpipe?
    B) Yes cleanliness is a relative term – the explicit comparison was to “your average vehicle” and the implicit comparison (via the use of “new”) you seem to understand and agree with.
    C) I don’t understand the relevance of your coffee grinder? Is yours equipped with a “supply source sensor”? (btw – how did the beans get to you? NG powered truck and sailboat? roasted over a wood fire with locally coppiced timber burnt in a high efficiency flue controlled oven? Any thoughts on how decaf would affect the LCA?)
    D)Sorry – blew straight past me. If you point the joke out I’ll take a look.

    “Why did you need me to tell you all of that?” To try to understand your position – obviously, I’d have thought? From your assertion of the “breathtaking stupidity” I’d expect you to have some facts and figures to back it up.

  17. thom
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    I read Hulme’s essay. Twice. I’m still not completely understanding what in the world the guy is saying. And how it’s going to make any difference. It’s quite a muddle. Not understanding why you find it “lucid and insightful.”

    But then I noticed that he published an article with….your friend, Roger Pielke Jr. Then it all made sense to me.

    Why not change this blog’s theme from “News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism” to “Thoughts from the friends of Tom Yulsman”?

  18. Posted December 5, 2009 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    A note to CEJournal readers: For those of you who don’t know him, I’d like to introduce you to Thom, a reader who comes here to get angry. In two years and dozens of comments, I don’t believe he has had a positive thing to say. If I were to say that the sky is blue, he would almost certaintly disagree, saying that I must believe that because I’m friends with Roger Pielke, Jr. If I were to say that Thom’s name is Thom, spelled T – H – O – M, he would sneer and say I only believe that because I’m friends with Roger Pielke, Jr. In fact, if I were to say that I’m friends with Roger Pielke, Jr., he would jump up and down and shriek, “LIAR LIAR LIAR! YOU’RE JUST SAYING THAT BECAUSE YOU ARE FRIENDS WITH ROGER PIELKE JR.!”

  19. thom
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Yulsman, very “lucid and insightful.” It’s what I’ve come to expect from you. I can see now why Eric Steig is a fan.

  20. Posted December 5, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Raven: New coal-fired plants aren’t any cleaner than old coal-fired power plants. They simply move the pollution out of the air and onto the land — which had cataclysmic consequences in Tennessee last year. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go here: http://www.cejournal.net/?p=227

    Here are some facts to ponder: According to a report from the National Research Council, coal fired plants produce 129 million tons of combustion residues every year — enough to fill more than one million railroad coal cars. That’s the second largest waste stream in the United States after municipal solid waste. The two most common methods are to dump it in a landfill or pile it in a surface impoundment like the one that failed in Tennessee.

    The waste stored in these dumps can contain a host of toxic substances, including arsenic (cancer of the bladder, kidneys, liver, lungs, prostate, and skin); boron (harm to male reproductive organs; birth defects); cadmium (kidney damage); chromium (stomach ulcers, kidney and liver damage, increased risk of cancer); and lead (changes in brain and nervous system; learning problems and poor coordination in children).

    While it’s true that all of these elements occur naturally in rocks and soils, burning of coal causes them to become concentrated in the combustion residues. And a 2007 draft report from the Environmental Protection Agency finds that lagoons and landfills filled with coal combustion waste may present a cancer risk that is 10,000 times greater than federal rules allow.

    You can try to argue that it’s possible to manage these wastes and keep them from spilling out of their impoundments or contaminating water supplies. But the Tennessee catastrophe shows that is simply wishful thinking.

    So no, in no way are coal-fired power plants clean or even cleaner than they once were. And there is simply no way to make them clean. Mining and burning coal is dirty business, and you’ve got to put the dirt somewhere.

  21. Steve Bloom
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Tom (he said, using an unreservedly positive tone). :)

    googler, you seem to prefer argument to elucidation. I like argumentation myself, probably too much, but usually I’m trying to go somewhere with it.

  22. Steve Bloom
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Hey Tom, here’s a story idea: Interview Stan Glantz for his perspective on the present “scandal.” I think it would be very informative.

  23. Raven
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Tom,

    Anything we do to produce energy will despoil the environment in some way. It is simply a question of picking your poison. I am perfectly comfortable with nuclear (espcially thorium) and think it is the perfect compromise on the CO2 question but nobody wants to talk about it. What that means is coal or natural gas will be used. I am against using gas for electricity since I think it is better to use it in cars to displace oil.

  24. Steve Bloom
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Grackle, you’d get more respect, perhaps even a provisional promotion to blackbird, if you’d take corrections humbly rather than just shifting ground to a different point.

  25. Posted December 6, 2009 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    Climate scientists should have learn Economics, so that they can come up with convincing $$$ figure about the effect of climatic changes. They can also argue for environment reforms based on the $$$ that the nations will gain. No point being political since money speaks louder than words.

  26. Raven
    Posted December 6, 2009 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    Steve Bloom,

    I was not aware of the coal ash problems. I have adjusted my POV on coal accordingly.

    However, I have not seen any plausible economic analysis which shows that renewables could provide any more than a small fraction of the energy we need. That means the only options are coal, gas, nuclear and hydro. All of these options come with an environmental cost. So it is really a matter of pick your poison. Hydro where possible followed by nuclear is my choice.

  27. googler
    Posted December 6, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Steve – an argument can’t go anywhere without any evidence. Otherwise it is just drive bys of opinion. That’s why I asked you to clarify your position re: coal vs. auto emissions and I’m still none the wiser. Or was your point about fly ash as described by Tom?

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  1. Posted December 3, 2009 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    [...] attempt at logic December 3, 2009 — Richard by David Masters A climate scientist’s lucid and insightful take on ‘Climategate’ [Via CEJournal] Mike Hulme, author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change, has moved the ball far [...]

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