It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, May 2, 2011

On Waiting for Catastrophe

Keith Kloor approached me this weekend with a question.

According to Robert Stavins, Keith noted,
“It’s unlikely that the U.S. is going to take serious action on climate change until there are observable, dramatic events, almost catastrophic in nature, that drive public opinion and drive the political process in that direction,” Stavins, director of Harvard’s Environmental Economics Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said today in an interview in Bloomberg’s Boston office.
And with reference to that, he asked:
So my two questions are: Do you agree with this, and if so, then for people who are concerned about climate change and want to stay engaged and help in some way to reduce greenhouse gases, what should they be doing?

Try to keep your answer at modest length, and I definitely would appreciate you not blogging on this Bloomberg article until after my post appears on Monday.

You can see Keith's resulting article on his new blog at Climate Central; it's a short piece, so most of what I said in reply wasn't quoted. I had thought about it long enough that I figure I might as well share my entire response which follows, which I have expanded a bit for clarity.

The first time I heard something resembling Stavins' claim was in the early days of internet conversation, from the keyboard of the renowned computer scientist John McCarthy. We were participants in the usenet discussion group sci.environment before it was taken over by ill-tempered and immature partisan sniping. You might argue that we had polite and intelligent partisan sniping instead.

My first thought in regard to this sort of observation is that it is obviously correct, given that the expression is "unlikely" rather than "impossible" or "violation of an iron law". I strongly object to the latter formulation, as it somehow makes politics a matter of inevitability, rather than of human agency.
Still, one must admit that on present evidence it would be surprising if America rose to the occasion any time soon.

It nevertheless is a matter of great urgency to resist this likely outcome. I suggested to McCarthy that there was an important difference between a description and a prescription. What will most likely happen is not necessarily what ought to happen, and not what we should endeavor to encourage, though we must be prepared to face it.

We probably won't act any time soon, but we are foolish and shortsighted for failing to do so.

The very long time scales of the climate make the likely outcome severely suboptimal. Between recognizing the necessity for a policy, the replacement of the required infrastructure, and the net impact on the cumulative nature of the carbon dioxide forcing in particular means that the gap in time from the moment we decide to take the matter seriously to actually stopping its further deterioration is perhaps forty years. The problems we see now are, roughly speaking the ones we bought in 1970, not the ones we have acquired since. Nothing we do now will have much effect until 2050 or so. If catastrophes really start in 2050, we will be looking at things getting still worse until 2090 or so.

Consequently, the long-term prognosis, in the likely scenario of inaction or inadequate action, is quite alarming. The resulting quandary has a strong ethical component. Many of us who understand the balance of evidence of the situation conclude that there is a moral necessity to try to find a way to a more benign albeit less probable outcome.

I'd also like to point out that the framing of Stavins' assertion, about what America will do, is itself inappropriate. The problem is global and any meaningful solution requires global cooperation. This in practice means cooperation from the main power and population centers, America crucially but not solely among them. Asking what America will do about it is like asking what Nebraska will do about fiscal policy. The problem requires nothing less than a global consensus.

As for what individuals can do, the sad answer is, very little. Becoming engaged with the science and the politics of global sustainability is the most important action in my opinion. After all, arguably the first serious substantive policy step is to abandon the use of coal, but hardly any individual purchases coal anymore.

The playing field is political. Individual sacrifices are of relatively minor importance.



steven said...

I would say there are some things we can do on the local level, not to prevent damage but to diminish it. coastal development comes to mind. Sea level is likely to be 1 meter higher, best start preparing for that now. Its not much.. check out some of the work on adaptive governance

ourchangingclimate said...

About the need for a global consensus, Benedick (chief US negotiator) said the following about the stratospheric ozone case (via RP Jr):

"Another important lesson from the Montreal history was that not all countries need to agree in order to take a substantial step forward."

(referring to the 30% drop in emissions resulting from action by a handful of countries, before the Montreal Protocol) He also noted that "The policy measure drove the agreement on targets in the later ozone protocol, not vice versa."

Btw, I think Stavin's point is unfortunately correct, as is evident from many historic examples.


Lou Grinzo said...

I wrote about this Stavins comment the other day. Rather than re-hash my thoughts, which align more or less with Michael's, I'll impose on his hospitality and post a link:

Dean said...

Climate activists often use the phrase "Pearl Harbor moment" because that particular catastrophe took a country in denial about Nazism and turned it around in a moment.

But that moment was courtesy a country that did something undeniably manmade. What climate-related catastrophe is equivalent? Will a heat wave like Russia's do it?

Political movements do come and go. If the current mood passes, then it could leave more political space for a response. I'm not saying that partisanship would end, just that it could take a different focus, one in which climate change denialism is not a leading litmus test, possibly not sue to anything related to climate change.

One other thing for MT - is that 40-year transition static? Does a 40-year delay from 1970 to now mean there is also a 40-year delay between 2060 and 2100? If tipping points are reached, might that number increase over time?

Deech56 said...

Dean asks, "What climate-related catastrophe is equivalent [to a Pearl Harbor moment]?" I think a tipping point that involves the cryosphere - loss of Arctic sea ice or some form of WAIS collapse leading to an "immediate" sea level rise.

Michael Tobis said...

The forty years is really a very crude approximation to give people the idea that there are long delays. In fact, the total impact of a large CO2 perturbation takes thousands of years to wash through the system.

Abruptness is a matter of scale. On the scale of a snowflake, a second is a long time. Many events can happen to a snowflake in a second. On the scale of a skyscraper, anything major that happens in a minute (recall the twin towers) is amazingly abrupt. On the scale of the whole planet, forty years is very abrupt.

If we kick the climate system hard enough for it to buckle in some way, we may have to wait decades for the tipping point to reach the crashing point. This is the whole problem. We may already have done too much damage. It is hard to know in advance what too much damage is or when we cross that line.

But I'd say that if the damage experienced in 2010 is tolerable, that means that most likely the damage done in 1970 was also tolerable. I would venture that by 2050 we will know if what we already have done by 2010 is also tolerable.

And this is why the experience of disruption and the stubborn conservatism of statistical measures may be at odds. There is no real a priori definition for "starting to look kind of weird". And the time constants are long compared to human lifetimes; memory does not serve well. Finally, the people most suited to really observe these matters are less rooted in place.

For instance, I have only four years of Texas to base my direct observations on. So I'm an unreliable reporter of how weird it is getting around here. It sure seems weird to me, even on days most local people consider normal.

Dean said...

I'd like to tie my comment about shifting politics to Michael's bringing of J McCarthy into this. He once commented way back when that conservatives used to be anti-technology (what we might consider to be true conservatism) and lefties were pro-growth, pro-technology, et al. Think of left-leaning trade unionism, for example, or post-WWII democratic socialism.

If Tea Partyism were to collapse for any of a number of reasons, could genuine conservatism step into it's place in the US political spectrum? This could potentially leave political space for a concerted climate policy. If the Republican Party paid as much attention to climate denialism as British Tories do (or German Christian Democrats or . . .), we would have a starting path. Then we just have to see if the BRICs could follow - a very big challenge of its own.

My cynicism has less to do with whether this is feasible than the related time scales. 40 years may be abrupt on global geologic scales, but our modern society has short time spans. If our actions trigger greater natural releases of GHGs, the effective time to see the response of a policy change could be very long.

Arnaud said...

On the assertion that individuals can do very little, I think that's a total cop-out, Mr Tobis. The old "golden rule" applies, that which we want to impose on others we should impose on us.
That is actually a problem I have with climate scientists and activists (although to be fair many activitists do put their wallet where their mouth is). How do they square, for instance, their awareness of issues with aviation and petrol with their massive AGU-style conferences in exotic locations? In other words, how can you be a climate activist and still drive a car, or fly, or eat meat etc...?
Personally, I am actually trying to change my lifestyle and -then- I realise oh boy this is hard, so I think expecting your president to force you to do it is immature and irrational. Why do we reject the fault on our leaders and expect them to be much better than we are?

Don't get me wrong: Of course solving the climate/energy debate will take a global action driven very strongly at the level of governments and international bodies, but nevertheless it will work much better if individuals accompany and accept it. Also, clearly the start-up effect mentioned by Tom Fuller on CC is very real: If some "hippes" hadn't pioneered Fair Trade, Organic food, or Solar Energy, would these be where they are today?

I do realise that this is mighty hard to do: Who says you can't drive to work any more, or that you can't cross continents for your holidays, or that you have to wear sweaters indoors in winter etc... This is in fact why I, personally, am against a reduction of energy use other than by the obvious efficiency improvements (which is simply reducing waste) but I do in fact seek the solution in "clean" energy, i.e. I don't mind if the planes fly with hydrogen generated by massive solar farms in the Sahara or whatever, but I still want planes! Otherwise to me this is a regression.

Bottom line is, we all have to accept that sorting out the energy/climate problem is going to take a change in lifestyle, decide which we can accept, and go with it. Otherwise it's just hot air, pardon the pun.

Paul Daniel Ash said...

Mosh is absolutely right, as far as that statement goes. However, I think making meaningful changes in coastal development may be actually less politically feasible than a carbon tax. Have you seen what coastal properties sell for?

Arnaud is, I fear, somewhat misconstruing what climate activists are calling for. It's entirely understandable, as a fair amount of misinformation has been put forth in this regard.

I don't know of any significant environmental group that is calling for people to shiver in the cold, swelter in the heat, cycle thirty miles to work every day or only use laptops equipped with a hand-crank to go on Facebook. Rather, the idea is to shift the entire infrastructure of the world away from primarily carbon-based fuels.

In this context, driving less, using CF bulbs and wearing Birkenstocks are not only meaningless gestures, but they are several orders of magnitude less effectual in terms of addressing the problems we face.

Hope this helps.

Tom said...

Adventures in mo ile commenting,part x. Markets respond qutie quickly to signals. If consumers in the rich world show a willingness to spend on conservation and alternative energy, manufacturers and service pro iders will respond, and quickly. Your CFC won't make a difference. A block party to promote solar panels on rooftops will.

Michael Tobis said...

Tom, really? Have you tried this?

Tom said...

Workin' on it.

Paul Daniel Ash said...

A block party won't make a difference, but tens of thousands of block parties throughout the developed world - each ending up with a dozen or so households committing to invest anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 in PV systems - might.

Then there's commercial power use. Then there's transport. Then there's industry.

The point is not that encouraging block parties - or CFCs, or less coastal development, or Birks - is a futile endeavor. It's not. It's just that the problem is bigger than that.

Tom, watch where you're walking.

Michael Tobis said...

Tens of thousands of block parties does not constitute individual action! That is quite explicitly a political

Paul Daniel Ash said...

c'est exactement ce que je voulais dire

Dean said...

Regarding individual action, let's look at the case that was provided: coal.

Let's say that you live in a place where a lot of the electricity comes from coal, and you organize many solar block parties that leads to many people putting solar collectors on their roofs, thus using less coal.

Will this cause the price of electricity to to fall in your area such that other people use more of it? Will the utility recruit heavy industry to come in and use their power?

When people buy higher-mileage cars, do they drive more?

Tom said...

I really don't want this to sound as caustic as it probably does, but you all can just keep on lamenting the size of the problem here in the blogosphere. I'll just kindly ask you to stay out of the way of those of us who would rather spend time solving it.

Anthony Watts drives an EV and has LEDs in his house. And talks about it on his weblog on occasion.

Paul Kelly is trying to start ground roots action--and gets laughed at by the despairing consensus.

Like I said. My actions won't change the physical climate. But I'm not trying to. I'm trying to change the investment climate.

Paul Daniel Ash said...

And I don't want this to sound as dismissive as it probably does, but good luck with that.

The fact that I think it's unlikely that you'll "change the investment climate" with a block party should in no wise be interpreted as an attempt to discourage you from trying. And it won't diminish my happiness if you succeed. I'd gladly eat crow on this if you could bring the cost per kilowatt down.

So I will stay out of your way, whether or not you agree to stay out of the way of people who would rather spend time trying to find a solution to the physical problem.

And that'll be my last contribution on this topic.

Word Verification: unsub

Michael Tobis said...

another argumentagainst putting too much into individual action

Tom said...

Well, I don't intend to sacrifice utility on a broader scale. I did that when I gave up driving, and it really was a life changer. And I'm certainly not looking for anyone's approval--not even Felix Salmon's.

But you're wrong. And you'll see. And someday instead of telling me I'm wrong you'll get around to asking me why.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, you have the advantage of living in a civilized place. I hardly ever drove in Chicago or Madison. There were several occasions in Chicago when I forgot what street my car was parked on. I'd have to bike all around the neighborhood looking for the damned thing.

In many settings having a car is not a net positive utility. But that has nothing to do with anything. If you don't actually want a car, don't have one. That's a personal decision.

But if you want to explain how individual actions can add up to anything remotely adequate, you will need to start by agreeing with me on what remotely adequate is. Since we don't agree on that, asking you the follow-up question doesn't make any sense.

Remember, the consensus position is willing to settle for 80% cuts in US consumption over the next 40 years. That is not going to be easy, but it's not even adequate to stop making the situation worse, presuming most other countries will eventually match the US in per capita emissions!

Let's not have gut feelings. Numbers, or it doesn;'t count.

Tom said...

So how do you get to 80% reduction?

You tried one method. It did not work. Now it seems as though you have given up.

I think there are other methods.

Inferno said...

Just a thought, but many efforts to date to convey the threat of climate change to the public are a bit like old 80s disaster movies. There have been some classics like "The Man with the Clathrate Gun" and "Hey Dude, Where's My Arctic Sea Ice?", but we are left here scratching our heads wondering why the public and politicians aren't sufficiently scared about the threat to accept or demand action. Maybe it is just too difficult to get people distracted by day to day life (economy problems?) to look at a longer term problem.

But I can't help thinking the movie format isn't helping. 80s disaster movies are out-dated and most people aren't scared by that kind of stuff. The public watch an array of scary worse case climate scenarios presented to them, but it's somewhat dampened by society having been filled with worse case scenarios (terrorism, financial collapse, asteroids, etc). How are the public supposed to think climate change is any different?

What about trying a new movie format to convey the threat of climate change? If the idea is to scare the public a little then might a horror movie be more effective? There are scary certainties in climate change, like the hockey stick graph of greenhouse gases over time. The scary part about that is the contrast between the stick and blade. The fact that for hundreds of thousands of years (or millions) the levels of greenhouse gases clearly bounced about in a natural range and then WHAM in a mere few hundred years they've soared. It's quite obvious from such a graph that nature is not too big for man to screw with. Even more scary is to plot how the blade grows if emissions continue. But the blade also represents a sharp change in part of a system we live in. It's the implications of that blade that are scary.

So we come to the obvious question - what are the effects of this sharp rise in greenhouse gases? It's worth mentioning a few more certainties - like how greenhouse gases plug into climate - both as a significant contributor to the greenhouse effect and for CO2 it's link with ocean acidification, but after that this is where the horror movie diverges from the disaster movie.

The disaster movie would mention the uncertainties more in passing, but then would focus on exploring more certain aspects of the effects like presenting projections of probable temperature changes or sea level rises, then perhaps wander into far less certain territory of regional climate projections, weather extreme impacts, refugees, etc.

The horror movie by contrast would largely ignore the certainties and instead present the uncertainties. Shouldn't uncertainty be the domain of "here be dragons", rather than "it will be fine" anyway?

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" - HP Lovecraft

Michael Tobis said...


You know, this is why Watts and McIntyre and Curry host hopelessly boring discussions from the point of view of people with some clue.

For the love of Pete, Fuller, stop waving your hands around. If you have something to say, please actually say it, and use actual numbers.

No more Tom Fuller on this thread unless he tells us how much how much individual action can contribute to cutting CO2, by when, and how, using numbers.

Eventually there has to be some quality control. Please put up or shut up.

Michael Tobis said...

Inferno, it does seem Lovecraftian sometimes, doesn't it?

Inferno said...

Seem to have fudged the point in my last post.

It's the unnatural and largely unprecedented blade of the greenhouse hockey stick graph coupled with the uncertainty of what will happen that should make people think. If you contemplate what the skeptics (on a good day) would have us believe - that the science is too uncertain and we don't know what will happen - then this is quite terrifying:

Paul Kelly said...

To the collectivist, the individual is inadequate. To the individualist, the collective is a deterrent headed in the wrong direction. The collectivist insists on a political solution, yet politics is in essence an aggregation of individual actions. Politics combines many, often competing, agendas. Individuals can focus on just one.

Politics asks us to expend our time, effort and money electing candidates who may or may not make our agenda their priority. Individualism invites us to aim our combined time, effort and money at effecting our agenda.

In 2008, we elected a President with the overwhelming support of the climate concerned. The Democratic Party held an overwhelming majority in the House and a theoretically filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Climate legislation failed.

I can't say for sure that individualism is up to the task, but I can say with certainty that politics is not.

Neven said...

Anthony Watts drives an EV and has LEDs in his house. And talks about it on his weblog on occasion.

All for nought because of the blatant propaganda and lies he actively helps spreading. It's the actual reverse of Reverend Gore who flies around the world but has probably indirectly saved more energy than anyone alive.

But it's a good tactic. I have started to use it too. Whenever I talk to people about AGW I always start by explaining why I'm a libertarian and that even though I'm in no way an environmentalist, I believe AGW (and the broader crisis cocktail) is of prime importance if we want as many people as possible to live in freedom.

But good luck to you, Tom Fuller! We will all admire and adore you once you have saved the day. Maybe you could start by telling your friend Anthony Watts to stop lying.

Paul Kelly said...

Please put up or shut up.

The question is how can we achieve sufficient reductions in CO2 emissions by 2050 without a top down political approach. Let me give it a go with what I hope is not an overly broad definition of individualism.

Electricity generation:
1) A huge commitment to nuclear power. There is no way around this as distasteful as it is to some. Environmentalists must balence the dangers of nuclear against the existentiol threat of uncontrolled CO2 emissions.
2) Scaled up fuel cell technology, now at the beta level
3) Dispersed PV
4) Anticipated advances in CSP and CSS.

The first steps to transformation have already been taken. New automotive technologies take 25 - 30 years to go from innovation to standard equipment, which fits nicely into the 2050 time frame.

Michael Tobis said...

Paul K, failure on the first attempt is dispositive, then?

As I've said all along, without Republican votes there can be no sound American policy. Without a sound American policy, there can be no world policy. The only alternatives I see are therefore 1) the collapse of civilization in the whole world 2) the collapse of America to the point where it doesn't matter what America prefers 3) the right wing in America becoming more realistic on the matters at hand.

I strongly prefer 3; I find 2 very unlikely; on present evidence 1 is the most likely outcome; even in the event of scenarios 2 and/or 3, scenario 1 is by no means excluded. (China or India could also subvert the rest of the world's intentions, for instance.)

But I don't see us avoiding all three of those.

It was because of the lack of Republican participation that the Waxman bill was so nasty; too much had to be given to buy off every precious Democratic senator.

As for the alternative, it seems you and Fuller are just invoking Tinkerbell. How the hell do we get to anywhere near 80% reductions in 40 years without giving up on technology more or less altogether?

Do you really expect everyone to generate their own electricity in their back yard? Come off it, man. Do a little thinking. The reason this problem is hard is because it is really really hard, not because we haven't sent you fifty bucks for your worth cause.

Michael Tobis said...

OK, we crossed in the mail. Now (your 6:24) you are talking about something at least potentially in the realm of the realistic. This is at least the sort of solution space in which a path out of our quandary lies.

But how is "nuclear power" individualistic? It requires huge regulatory and infrastructure commitment which requires government.

CSP and CSS? You mean CCS (I make that mistake sometimes)? And what?

If you mean carbon capture and sequestration, again the regulatory and infrastructure demands are enormous. You can't solve this problem by pretending away the scale of it.

Neven said...

Perhaps we should organise block parties for politicians?

Tom said...

Well, you all can just keep grumbling away. You don't really seem to be worth the work it would take to put numbers in front of you.

Ooooooh. Anthony Watts is evil, so we don't care that he's doing more to fight global warming than I am... Because... he's...EEEEvile.

And if he had a moustache he'd twirl it.

David B. Benson said...

The individual actions taken by the collective to reduce electric power consumption is one factor in making it difficult for power companies to build new nuclear power plants in the USA.

Not that having all of us use more electric power would directly help, becuase then the power companies would simply buy more natgas burners.

Neven said...

Ooooooh. Anthony Watts is evil, so we don't care that he's doing more to fight global warming than I am... Because... he's...EEEEvile.

You really don't get it, do you? You cannot claim that AGW is a serious problem and say Anthony Watts is a great guy at the same time. The contradiction is just too big.

Tom said...

If Tobis hadn't tossed me off the thread, I would explain to you, Neven. Sorrreeeeeeeeee.

Andrew Adams said...

British readers will recognise it as the "Krays were good to their Mum" defence.

Paul Kelly said...

Individual vs collective is perhaps too narrow a construct. I pefer top down vs bottom up. Even better might be those actions which do not require a national or global CO2 suppression regime vs those that do.

Of course, even without "climate legislation" government has an important role in both infrastructure and regulation. And don't forget procurement. Government agencies at all levels buy lots of cars and should be buying as many hybrids and EVs as the can. Some already are.

Government buildings are another opportunity. The biggest impediment to maximizing efficiencies and alternative technologies in residential buildings is that most homeowners don't expect to stay in their houses long enough to break even. Government buildings don't have this problem, so for them it does make economic sense.

Michael Tobis said...

Sometimes Americans don't seem to get the concept of democracy.

In principle, there is no "top".

Tom said...

Choice! Now Watts is a murdering thug, according to Andrew Adams?

Why is he a murdering thug? Because he has an electric car. Before he was just a denier.

Onward to irrelevance!

rustneversleeps said...

If an individual has goals? Sets a budget? Creates incentives and disincentives? Effects change? GOOD!!!

If a business has goals? Sets a budget? Creates incentives and disincentives? Effects change? GOOD!!!

If a democratic society does so? BAD!!! (Also: IMPOSSIBLE!!!)

Michael Tobis said...

Sigh. Fuller, it is an analogy, not an accusation. Please try to be a bit more cerebrum and not so much amygdala if you can manage it. We are aiming at intelligent and interesting here, not at whining and growling.

Watts and his crowd may end up responsible for far more unnecessary misfortune than any ordinary thug. Perhaps it is out of hubris and negligence rather than actual malice, but that's not especially relevant to the outcome. This is why Watts's own individual experiments with energy conservation are utterly beside the point, and why Andrew's analogy strikes me as perfectly sound.

Tom said...

Michael, I thought amigdala was Natalie Portman in Star Wars.

You guys are doing more damange than Watts. First, your lot are the principal recruiting tool for skeptics--more Romm than you, but you are a codependent enabler. You collectively serve as the Guantanamo of climate warming.

Second, your philosophy of despair enervates even those on your own side, leading to a listless shuffle from conference to seminar, where you can chant the tired refrain, "Oh, if only the skeptics would leave us alone..."

Third, your embrace of the extreme positions and papers brought forth by people like Prall and Mashey force those in the same camp as you to be ever more rigid in the face of data, as they cannot admit error and crap gets thrown into the camp behind the wall.

How do you think change happens, Tobis?

Michael Tobis said...

My philosophy of despair?

I am advocating re-empowerment of the collective. The despair that you see around you has been packaged and sold as "liberty" and I'm quite sick of it.

Yes, we can. Emphasis on "we".

Tom said...

Tobis, whatever you call your position, it has left you paralyzed. You and your fellow pessimists... do... not... a... thing.

Or correct me. Maybe you are hiding your good works from the eyes of men.

Michael Tobis said...

Tom, please be just ever so slightly more boring and pointless, so I can just boot you?

Tom said...

Tobis, you don't need an excuse. You don't want me here, I'll go.


Dan Olner said...

Is there some other thread where I can ask Tom F how he justifies defending Watts? This isn't the place, but it seems to me anyone defending Watts immediately puts themselves beyond serious consideration; I'm just ever so slightly curious how Tom explains Watts' serial duplicity. If he can't, I'm also confused about why MT would encourage anyone unable to see Watts for what he is.

Michael Tobis said...

I'm not encouraging anybody.

The conversation tends to be more lively when moderation is off.

But if it's off, and Fuller shows up with one of his marginal comments, I feel like I would need some sort of justification to remove it.

An example of why Blogger is inadequate for a site like this.

Now, I remain convinced that Fuller is not a contrivance of a smarter person, but is in fact someone who thinks he is thinking about a problem when I think he is just feeling at a problem. In short, a classic victim of truthiness as much as a perpetrator. So he is interesting in the abstract.

In the concrete, though, it's (obviously to most of my readers) quite tedious.

While I find him generally dull, I don't like to see him accused of malice. Fuller knows that attacks on his motivations are incorrect, and this just reaffirms the polarization.

I don't want a counter-Watts echo chamber, either. Contrary opinions are extremely welcome if they are intelligent and openminded. Those are just hard to find anymore, for some reason, probably having to do with the fact that the range of opinions most of us here have is essentially correct.

Paul Kelly said...

This site is not at all like climateprogress and should not be compared to it. MT and Romm may be in the same political bloc and share existential climate concerns, but Romm is a paid shill incapable of civility or introspection whose writing lacks an emotional self.

Stavin's statement is an inelegant way of saying success must come in the marketplace of ideas before it can be achieved in the political arena.

susan said...

One place this conversation went off the rails is in calling anyone who buys the denialist canon according to Watts a skeptic. True skeptics question all sides, and the above is proof position that these people are fake skeptics. They are in favor of any argument that promotes their ideas, and against anything, which includes the vast majority of real science, that challenges this belief system.

All good scientists are true skeptics.

Well, almost all. There are a few outliers who sneak by with some of their prejudices intact.

susan said...

oops, that was "proof positive"

Let me be clear. Those few escaping with their prejudices intact include the likes of Lindzen - the very small cadre of official denialist icons.

susan said...

As for Romm being a paid shill, that is one person's assertion, and IMNHSO, incorrect. When you make those assertions, you label yourself. Here's what Roberts said, which I thought was particularly insightful: "“Love him or hate him (and I’m a lover), Joe Romm is not exactly a slick media spin artist. He doesn’t seem to know any way of communicating other than by stating, in the strongest possible terms, what he believes to be correct. He doesn’t couch his criticism in the sort of soothing, this-side, that-side, we’re-all-reasonable-people throat clearing that attracts the admiration of Serious People. He just blasts away, all guns blazing; he can’t help it. Whatever you call that, it’s hardly a devious strategy to control Bryan Walsh’s mind. It’s pretty above board! The guy who really wants to manipulate your narratives, the guy who’s good at it, doesn’t tell you he’s doing it."

One of the problems you guys have with him is that he has excellent technical qualifications, aggregates "all the news that's fit to print" and writes well and with force and fervor about the environment and all the shenanigans that mess up reality and truth with politics and money. For example, in the last day or so, he's written about Sarah Palin's defense of oil subsidies ("We're only taking $4 billion or so"), the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programmes increase in estimated sea level rise; dust storms in Arkansas and the ridiculousness of the NYTimes illustrating it in a way that suggests prayer is a proper approach, meteorological analysis and detailed information about tornadoes, and a host of other issues, big and small.

I can see where you'd rather none of this saw the light of day, but that does not redound to your credit. Romm's indefatigable pursuit of the truth does him great credit, and if he's angry, it's no surprise, as there's lots to be angry about.

Michael Tobis said...

Susan, a bit off topic, but I've always appreciated your comments at Revkin's, and I'm glad you've stopped by. I hope you stick around.

Andrew said...

Oh come on Tom, I didn't neccessarily expect non-Brits to competely get the joke but it's still pretty obvious that I wasn't literally accusing Watts of being a murdering thug. The point is about defending the indefensible.

As for your comment that "You guys are doing more damange than Watts. First, your lot are the principal recruiting tool for skeptics",
when are you, Mosher, Curry, etc. going to accept the simple fact that the "skeptics" are actually responsible for their own actions? When are yu going to start calling them on their bullshit instead of encouraging them?

Andrew said...


I agree with you about Romm - whatever one thinks of his style he writes about a lot of the wider issues around climate change and energy policy which are not always well covered by other bloggers.

Some people are too quick to judge others on their style of argument rather than its content. I'm all for civilised discourse but on important and contentious topics it's also important to tell it how it is. No doubt skeptics find CP not to their taste, so what - it's not aimed at them. Romm preaches to the converted, but sometimes it's ok for us to talk amongs ourselves.

Paul Kelly said...


Romm is paid to blog by the hyper partisan Center for American Progress. That's just the fact and stating a fact labels me as honest.

As to the effectiveness of his style, I suggest you look at public opinion about catastrophic climate change when he first started blogging compared to where public opinion is today. Is there a trend?

As to his accuracy, can you or he name one tax break that is specific to big oil alone and not available to all businesses?

dhogaza said...

"Congress has enacted several tax credits in relation to oil or natural gas production. The enhanced oil recovery credit is applied to certain project costs incurred to enhance a well’s oil or natural gas production. This credit is up to 15% of the costs incurred to enhance production. "

This is specific to oil and gas, and is in addition to expensing the direct costs of operations.

dhogaza said...

"I suggest you look at public opinion about catastrophic climate change when he first started blogging compared to where public opinion is today. Is there a trend?"

Is there causation?

Show your homework, please.

Michael Tobis said...

It's not hard to argue that most of the US military presence in the Middle East is a subsidy of the petroleum industry.

dhogaza said...

"I suggest you look at public opinion about catastrophic climate change when he first started blogging compared to where public opinion is today. Is there a trend?"

Also, Paul, please point to a poll the specifically asks about catastrophic climate change. Given that the phrase is an invention of the denialsphere I suspect you can't.

Andrew said...

Paul -

The replacement of coal fired generation with nuclear electricity - something which should be a no-brainer if we are taking climate change seriously - has to be top-down; there is no realistic way of arranging incentives such that a fully amortized coal plant with perhaps 30 year's life left should be turned off and a nuclear plant built instead. As an aside, it might be possible to retrofit such a station with a reactor instead of combustion unit.. although I can't vouch for how realistic that would be.

As far as 80% goes..

Step 1. Decarbonize the electric grid, totally. That means nuclear plus hydro plus whatever other renewables are useful.

Step 2. Electrify domestic energy useage; i.e. no oil or gas fired heating. This would require serious grid upgrades (especially for the US), but combined with step 1 takes your electricity and domestic emissions to near-zero.

Step 3. Improve car and truck efficiency. The US desperately needs to start using the new generation of diesel engines in SUVs and light trucks; you are talking about a better engine match and a near doubling of economy. Add in EVs for city driving as well as hybrids and the US car based way of life is not impossible. Eventually, synthetic fuels should be available.

Step 4. The hard problems: Air travel; long distance goods transport; industrial usage; shipping. As far as industrial use goes, a large scale supply of cheap zero-carbon electricity may help. For medium distance travel and haulage (200->2000 miles), a very high speed, electrified rail network could be effective; past that you'll probably be looking again at synthetic fuels.

But I cannot see how any of this works without a government mandate to decarbonize the electric grid 100%. Conversely, without this step any attempt to lower emissions is liable to invoke Jevon's paradox.

Neven said...

Romm is paid to blog by the hyper partisan Center for American Progress. That's just the fact and stating a fact labels me as honest.

Has Romm ever hid this. No, he's very straightforward about his work for CAP and his partisanship.

I'm not a big fan of Joe Romm (I'm a small fan), he might not always be right about everything and his no-nonsense style can be over the top, but I'm not doubting his integrity.

On the other side of the mirror: After years of hardcore denying (and still going strong), Tony Watts is now also openly stating that the free market will solve all the problems (that don't exist).

Paul Kelly said...


I haven't questioned Romm's integrity, only his effectiveness and accuracy. That he is open about his employers doesn't alter the fact that he is paid to blog while MT blogs because of personal passion. Watts, who scores high on effectiveness and low on accuracy, has nothing to do with MT vs Romm.

Paul Kelly said...


Close, but no cigar. The time it took to respond to your unattributed out of context quote about the Enhanced Oil Recovery Credit (EOR) was well worth it. EOR uses heated gasses - usually steam, but CO2 with sequestration is in beta - to extract high viscosity oil.

The great majority of extractors using EOR are independents. The big oil companies, with the possible exception of Occidental, don't have many of these types of wells.

Read this carefully. The EOR Credit only kicks in when the price of oil goes below a certain price that started out in 1992 at $28/bbl. The peg price is adjusted every year for inflation and is currently around $40. The credit cannot be taken at all if the price of oil is above the peg price.

You understand this means there is no EOR Credit this year or last year or the year before that. You might have to go back to 2005 or before to find the last time the credit was available. In fact, from the beginning of the credit in 1992 availability has been the anomaly, not the norm.

O horrors! We're giving the oil companies a tax subsidy worth exactly zero.

susan said...

Paul Kelly,

I suggest you read The Republican War on Science and/or Merchants of Doubt and look at sourcewatch, also the New Yorker expose of the Koch networks.

Then come back to me and talk about partisan funding.

The web of funding and web of thinktanks, many of them stretching back to the era of big tobacco, is startling in its size and reach, and many of our congresspeople on both sides of the aisle are bought and paid for.

I am happy that there are a few progressive organizations forward looking enough to fund honest reporting, which is certainly not what we are getting from the "other" side.

mt, thanks for the welcome, hope I don't wear it out!

Michael Tobis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew said...

I don't see why it should be particularly remarkable that people are paid to blog. Peiople are paid to write for the dead tree media or express their opinions on TV, why not on the internet?

Paul Kelly said...

While I think MT prefers that I drop this, may I point out that my comment (May 4, 2011 12:57 PM) objected to Fuller's attempt to insult MT by putting him in the same box as Romm. The reason that Romm's being paid partisan matters to me - but apparently to nobody else - is simply this. I am sure that MT's writing comes from sincerely held positions, unencumbered by other agendas. With Romm, I'm not so sure.

As my comment about Romm contributed to taking this thread away from the relevant topic of Stavin's statement and how we can achieve energy transformation without the cap/trade or tax regime that are not presently politically viable, you have my apology.

Pete said...

Just about any day, Romm has climate & energy news ... I can see how some conservatives would not be pleased, but that's the breaks.

Back to comment # 1:
". Sea level is likely to be 1 meter higher,...." And then another meter, then another ... how high is CO2 going? How far did the tide come in the last time? Does the world end in 2100?

Waiting for disaster? No, don't just wait, keep acting in the meanwhile. Politics? If the newest right makes itself disagreeable enough, perhaps they will experience an electoral disaster.