Category Archives: IPCC

Freeman Dyson and irrational optimisim

Via Sullivan, here’s a Freeman Dyson essay (in the form of a twin book review) contemplating technological solutions to the climate-change problem. It is dense and complex and elegant, which makes it easy to miss the fact that its central message is dangerously whacked-out.

The first book the renowned physicist, mathematician and futurist (who’s 84 now, and thus has lived long enough to have to account for some of his predictions) contemplates is economist William Nordhaus’s economic study of various greenhouse-gas mitigation plans, A Question of Balance. Sir Nicholas Stern’s turns out to be very expensive, according to Nordhaus’s model; Al Gore’s is, too. The Kyoto Accord, had it been implemented, would have been slightly profitable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s proposals would be slightly more than slightly profitable, yielding a global economic benefit of $3 trillion compared to business as usual.

But by far the most appealing option is something Nordhaus calls the “low-cost backstop,” which in his models produces a net global profit of $17 billion. The only problem, one that appears not to bother Dyson, is that it’s a fantasy — the “backstop” is any hypothetical technology that could solve the climate-change problem without incurring significant cost, details left as an exercise for the reader. Indeed, Dyson’s complaint is that Nordaus doesn’t actually provide details:

The main deficiency of Nordhaus’s book is that he does not discuss the details of the “low-cost backstop” that might provide a climate policy vastly more profitable than his optimum policy…  Concerning the possible candidates for a low-cost backstop technology he mentions in the sentence I previously quoted—for example, “low-cost solar power”—Nordhaus has little to say. He writes that “no such technology presently exists, and we can only speculate on it.” The “low-cost backstop” policy is displayed in his tables as an abstract possibility without any details. It is nowhere emphasized as a practical solution to the problem of climate change…

[I]f we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” as a low-cost backstop to global warming.

Yes, and if Grandma had wheels, she’d be a bus. But, writes Dyson:

I consider it likely that we shall have “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Ah. Well that’s all right, then.

Look, I’m as big a fan of science and engineering as the next guy, and I do believe they’ll play a major role in sorting out the mess we’re digging ourselves deeper into. I don’t think the catastrophist branch of climate-change thought gives human resourcefulness and ingenuity enough credit. But there’s a vast chasm between respecting the power of scientific advancements and assuming that just around the corner lies science so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic.

Yet Dyson’s piece leads a writer as smart as Andrew Sullivan to say that it’s the most “helpful” thing on the subject he’s read in weeks.

He’s not as dogmatic as some climate worriers and persuasive, I’d say, in arguing that only technology can solve this problem (and government may not help much). But the possibility of genetically-modified carbon-eating trees is what really struck home[.]

The central point Sullivan takes from the piece, that science will provide the answers — possibly in the form of carbon-sucking trees — and politics but the nudge in the right direction, is important. The danger, however, is that people who don’t want the nudging to happen will assume that science is on the case and if only we wait a bit, it’ll supply all the solutions we need on a silver platter.

We’ve seen the effects of high gas prices on consumer and corporate behaviour, and from an environmental standpoint, they’re encouraging. But there’s no connection between those high prices and the climate-change problem. If everyone dials down the rhetoric in the Middle East and just calms the hell down a little, we’ll see the prices fall, and all the incentives to use less fuel and devise alternatives will fade again.

Dyson’s described his many prognostications thus:

When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science.

So let’s hope we get the trees and sort this whole mess out forthwith. But let’s not bet on it.

Playing it safe with climate change

Tim Flannery’s not exactly a distinterested party — not that there are anymore, not among serious people — but this can’t be anything but bad news. Reports the AP:

Worldwide economic growth has accelerated the level of greenhouse gas emissions to a dangerous threshold scientists had not expected for another decade, according to a leading Australian climate change expert.

Tim Flannery told Australian Broadcasting Corp. that an upcoming report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will contain new data showing that the level of climate-changing gases in the atmosphere has already reached critical levels.

Flannery is not a member of the IPCC, but said he based his comments on a thorough review of the technical data included in the panel’s three working group reports published earlier this year. The IPCC is due to release its final report synthesizing the data in November.

That’s the trouble with these many-variable systems. You can argue that the number of factors that go into determining global temperatures is so vast that you can’t possibly predict what’ll be happening 50 years from now, and you’d be right. Maybe, you can say, nothing bad’ll happen if we don’t do anything about the gases scientists are pretty darn sure contribute to climate change. Fair enough — but then again, maybe everything’ll be a heck of a lot worse than anybody predicts now.

Given that unknown, what’s the safest option?

Insiders’ view of the IPCC

Incidentally, the same series of lectures from Stanford’s Woods Institute that included Shai Agassi has a group talk given by Chris Field, Michael Mastrandrea, Terry Root, Steve Schneider and John Weyant, scientists involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on behalf of the United States. I was very struck by how passionate and funny (in a policy-wonkish kind of a way) they all were.

Again, there’s no direct link I can give you, but the path in iTunes is:

iTunes Store → iTunes U → Stanford → Science and Technology → Woods Energy Seminar

Update: Finding anything much in the iTunes Store turns out to be incredibly hard, as things slide on and off the front page and directories change like paths in an enchanted forest. Searching seems to be the way to go. In this case, searching for “Michael Mastrandrea” does the job.

It’s a free download, of course.

Between them, the scientists give an excellent insider’s view of the IPCC’s process — just how the vast array of experts and diplomats locked in a bunch of conference rooms in hotels around the world reach consensus on perhaps the most contentious public-policy issue of our time.

Two major takeaways:

  1. The diplomats negotiating wordings on behalf of their governments are almost all career public servants and subject experts, not political appointees. They get instructions before they leave, but on the ground, they use their own judgment.
  2. Closely paraphrasing one of them: If you asked most of the scientists if they wish the final reports were more hard-hitting, they’d tell you yes, they do. If you asked them whether the final reports accurately reflect the science, the scientists would say they do.

They spoke in April, after the second of this year’s three debate-changing IPCC reports on climate change, but what they had to say was more about the process than the details of the reports, so it’s definitely still relevant.

This is what a climate-change deal looks like

George W. Bush stencilAdmittedly, the agreed-upon wording on climate change from the G8 leaders meeting in Germany is not what climate-change activists would like. Here’s the full communiqué (PDF), courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, and the climate-related stuff starts in paragraph 40, page 13.

The backdrop is that the United States went into the talks on climate change wanting the world’s 15 biggest greenhouse-gas emitters to start talks on cutting their emissions, said talks to take just long enough to get George W. Bush the heck out of office.

The Europeans, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel (the host of the summit) wanted firm wording on a deal committing the rich developed countries to a 50-per-cent cut in their emissions by 2050, which is more or less what most scientific experts on the subject say is needed to keep the earth’s climate from going more blooey than we’re prepared to handle.

The Americans wanted a unique set of talks; the Europeans wanted something basically run by the UN, which has an elaborate set of processes and organizations that have been working on climate change for a long time, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change we’ve heard so much about.

Between them, they came out with this:

We are therefore committed to taking strong and early action to tackle climate change in order to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

Taking into account the scientific knowledge as represented in the recent (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports, global greenhouse gas emissions must stop rising, followed by substantial global emission reductions.

In setting a global goal for emissions reductions in the process we have agreed today involving all major emitters, we will consider seriously the decisions made by the European Union, Canada and Japan which include at least a halving of global emissions by 2050.


We acknowledge that the UN climate process is the appropriate forum for negotiating future global action on climate change. We are committed to moving forward in that forum and call on all parties to actively and constructively participate in the UN Climate Change Conference in Indonesia in December 2007 with a view to achieving a comprehensive post 2012-agreement (post Kyoto-agreement) that should include all major emitters.

So the Europeans got a commitment to the UN and an acknowledgment that this is a big deal we all need to do something about. The Americans got no firm commitment to any particular number. Merkel and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, among others, call this a “huge success.”

The commentary at Gristmill is pretty reflective of the most common sentiment out there:

This is obviously making the best of a bad situation, returning to their expectant publics with something rather than nothing. But make no mistake: other than a vague acknowledgment of the problem and the need to cut some emissions, at some point, somehow, the U.S. basically gave the rest of the world the finger yet again.

I’d say this isn’t really true. Maybe the U.S. stuck its tongue out. But consider the significance of George W. Bush agreeing, in public, that climate change is a serious problem that requires change of the magnitude this communiqué contemplates, even vaguely.

These G8 declarations aren’t legally enforceable, anyway. On the other Big Topic the G8 leaders are discussing, aid to Africa, the biggest topic of discussion is how they’ve all basically done nothing on the commitments they made at the last summit in Scotland two years ago. Remember that one, with Bono and Bob Geldof wandering around the heavily guarded hotel hectoring all the politicians into doubling their foreign-aid contributions? And then saying things like this?

“A mountain has been climbed here,” Bono said. “But it’s worth just stopping for a second and looking back down the valley at where we’ve all come. Doubling aid for Africa has not been easy, and it’s been a very hard sell for us salesmen. And I’m very proud to report that these figures are very meaningful.”

Well, it ain’t happening. And that was a short-term commitment made by people who knew Bono and Bob Geldof would be back hectoring them within two years. A commitment coming due in 43 years — that’s a minimum of six U.S. presidents from now, and if we go back 43 years we get to 1964 and Lyndon B. Johnson presiding over a United States still in agony over the assassination of JFK — is not significantly more meaningful than no commitment at all.

So on the particular number, well, whatever. Think hard on the fact that George W. Bush signed off on a statement that says this:

We are … committed to taking strong and early action to tackle climate change in order to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Taking into account the scientific knowledge as represented in the recent IPCC reports, global greenhouse gas emissions must stop rising, followed by substantial global emission reductions.

Now read it again. Bush signed off on it.

The terms of the debate have changed. The G8 summit didn’t make that happen, but it did bring the change out in the open.

(Photo credit: “Cowboy George W Bush – Glebe, Sydney,” Flickr/Toots Fontaine.)

The vast gap between Canada and the rest of the world

The New York Times has about as thorough a story on the last report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as you can probably get without the reporter’s actually having read it. Despite my skepticism about the usefulness of getting scientists and diplomats to negotiate policy directions this way, there’s a striking number:

According to several authors, the final version estimates that bringing global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 to levels measured in 2000 would require a cost on released carbon dioxide of $50 to $100 a ton, roughly on a par — in terms of fossil fuel prices — of an additional 25 cents to 50 cents for a gallon of gasoline.

Under the Canadian government’s plan, merely excess carbon dioxide will be going for $20 a (metric) tonne up until 2020. It certainly doesn’t get us where the IPCC thinks we need to be.

Third time’s not the charm for the IPCC

Icebergs in Chilean PatagoniaThe first two working groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have produced two extraordinarily useful reports.

The first examined the science behind climate change, reconciling the various models to show what, on a global scale, is likely to happen under different possible concentrations of gases in the atmosphere. (The “summary for policymakers” — link goes to a PDF — is what got all the attention, though some skeptics insisted we needed to wait for the full document before taking it seriously. It’s now out, and I look forward to hearing the skeptics’ comments on it, in all its stupefying detail.)

The second examined specific effects that can be expected in different parts of the world (PDF), from rising sea levels to screwed-up agriculture to animal die-offs. It’s still in the summary-for-policymakers stage.

These groups’ reports are so worthwhile because they represent a consensus, a baseline on stuff that everyone involved in the climate-change issue ought to be able to agree on. Vast panels of scientists have reviewed the work that goes into the final documents, along with vast panels of diplomats from every country in the world, including skeptical governments like those in Canada, China, and the United States. These constitute a sort of agreed-upon statement of facts among parties who might not agree on much else. The governments have signed off on a process in which they agreed to participate; they can’t legitimately say the results are full of it.

You’re free to differ with them yourself, of course, but doing so means challenging the closest thing you’ll ever find to a scientific and international diplomatic consensus. Science isn’t done by consensus, it’s true, but claiming that all these professionals simply have it wrong means challenging the very idea of expertise as the rest of us understand it. We’re not talking here about whether the designated-hitter rule is good for baseball, but the twin edifices of modern science and education.

The third working group is due to report this Friday, on mitigation measures and things we might do to prevent human-induced climate change from getting too bad. An outline of the thing is here (PDF), though it’s not very informative.

It appears, according to the Associated Press’s Michael Casey who’s on the scene in Bangkok, that the scientists are battling very seriously with the diplomats and might not be able to find a consensus.

The report being debated this week in Bangkok stresses the world must quickly embrace a basket of technological options – already available and being developed – to limit the temperature rise to two degrees C. More than 200 delegates will examine the IPCC report and recommend changes before it is finalized.

The U.S. wants clauses inserted saying the cost of current available technologies to reduce emissions “could be unacceptably high,” and calling for a greater emphasis on “advanced technologies,” many of which are aimed at extending the use of coal.

But maybe they shouldn’t really be trying to find a consensus. What they’re doing, in the third IPCC working group, is trying to make policy recommendations — or, if the IPCC’s mandate is to be strictly interpreted, policy decisions, where the first two groups were just making statements of fact. How much warming is too much to bear? What’s a reasonable cost to incur in arresting it? What complex social effects, and unintended consequences, might particular technologies have?

Maybe if the politicians and diplomats got to shove their oars into discussions of the facts, the climatologists and algae biologists should get to shove theirs into discussions of the policy prescriptions, but even if that’s fair, it’s not necessarily helpful. Defining what’s real is the province of science, and if you can get politicians to formally agree with what a thousand scientists come up with, that should form the basis of good policy. Defining what’s good is the province of politics, and there’s no reason to think any scientist has any more to say about that than anybody else does.

Photo credit: Flickr/Steve Deger