"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, December 3, 2010

Science, Appropriate and Otherwise

Gavin Schmidt:
the agencies and organizations that bring the science of climate to the attention of policymakers (like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the National Academies) have too often focused on science that is interesting to scientists, rather than the science that would be of most use to policymakers.

This is beginning to change, and far more people in the scientific community are now on board with the idea that science can directly answer questions that policymakers are interested in.
I think this is very true. But I think the emergence of an applied science of climatology remains very much in its infancy at best. But I find the examples Schmidt uses alarmingly Lomborgesque:
Recent work from NASA has shown that reductions in tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks in the United States, resulting from a shift toward more plugin-hybrid vehicles, would help the climate by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, ozone precursors and soot particles (three of the main drivers of global warming). But ozone and soot are also big contributors to smog and its noxious effect on health, and reductions can also have immediate benefits on local populations.

In Asia, using coal and biomass in homes for heating or cooking are important factors in creating the "atmospheric brown cloud" that is damaging the health of Chinese and Indian populations, and causing changes in temperature and rainfall.
I don't think it makes much sense to argue for CO2 cuts for reasons other than cutting CO2.

If this is the best we can do, we are not going to do very well at all. But maybe that's politics. Nobody likes "pollution" and lots of carbon emissions are also polluting in the conventional sense. I don't like it. I'd rather see rational behavior for rational reasons, rather than hoping to feed legislators compensating errors to offset the errors they are already committed to. Call me an idealist.

Applied science needs to be honest. Something which compensates for foolishness with counterfoolishness isn't something that deserves public support. It's hopelessly unstable and unsustainable.

Update: Gavin responds very effectively in the comments.

Update 12/4: Follow-up here


isaacschumann said...

Hi Michael, you say:

"I don't think it makes much sense to argue for CO2 cuts for reasons other than cutting CO2."

I completely agree. I think if the aim is to 'trick' people into cutting carbon by giving some other reason, it is bound to fail eventually, not to mention just a little dishonest. So in this sense I have reservations about Pielke etc.'s 'policy jujitsu'.

I take what Gavin is saying to mean that we should collaborate where possible. To give an example from my own little corner of the world: I live in Indiana, a VERY conservative state as you may know. However, wind power here is universally popular, even amongst republicans (don't ask me why, maybe their out of touch with contemporary conservatism and once they realize all the 'cool' republicans oppose it they will too) There are lots of reasons they like wind power, cutting carbon is not one of them. Most of Indiana's power comes from coal, so I think everybody would agree that it is a good thing we're building wind farms in large numbers even if the intent is not carbon emissions reduction. I'm happy to support it.

This is the value that I see in the breakthrough/low hanging fruit/whatever proposals: do what you can where you can. And, yes, I agree, this will not make the CO2 problem go away, nothing but reducing CO2 emissions will.

I'm not an expert on climate science or public policy, but I was born and raised Quaker and we know a little something about compromise;)


Anonymous said...

Actually I think the IPCC does a pretty good job in answering questions "that would be of most use to policymakers". The problem is that, once the policymakers get the answers, they ignore them!

'If we don't reduce carbon emissions by such and such an amount, random bad things will happen pretty soon' is a pretty straightforward answer -- heck, how much more straightforward can one get?

The problem as I see it is that is that the US (in particular) has been steeped for far too long in a culture of soundbites, bullshit, illogic, inaction, and wilful ignorance.

-- frank

Andy S said...

I think it would make sense to argue that we should focus on doing the right thing for only the right reasons if that strategy was working well, but it's hardly working at all, unfortunately.

An analogy: some people are motivated to give up smoking not only because of the serious health risks but because it makes their teeth yellow and their breath smell. I doubt that health professionals lament the fact that some people are motivated by cosmetic rather than mortality considerations as long as they do the right thing. Perhaps those of us who advocate for reductions in CO2 emissions shouldn't be concerned if part of the motivation for a move away from fossil fuels is because some of the beneficial side effects of such measures are not directly climate related.

There is a risk, though, that shifting the focus away from the fundamental problem could result in people arguing that we can solve the worst effects of our deadly addiction with environmental equivalents of tooth whitening or breath mints.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't know what politics should do. I am just saying what I think science should do.

If science bends too far in service of politics, it ceases to be science. Answering the questions that need answering is great. Saying that proposal A is supported by science S when in fact proposal A is marginally supported by science S and strongly supported by science T is tolerable, I suppose.

But going out of your way to say it that way because politicians do not like science T is not applied science. As politics or jurisprudence it may be seen as legitimate, though I wish it weren't. As science it seems to me plainly corrupt.

For scientists to be encouraged to do things like that is to abandon any serious role for science in democracy. I presume we aren't ready to do that.

I'm not saying Gavin has gone that far but his examples seem to me to lean in that direction.

admin said...

"Lomborgesque"? Ouch... you know how to wound!

However, I think you might be reading a little more into this than is there though. What I am arguing for is science that is based on what real policies can do. I am not talking about targets, or focuses or one component vs another. Rather that any actual, practical thing that a government puts in place should be assessed against a range of benchmarks - including CO2 emissions of course, but also including the impact of short-lived species on climate and air pollution, and on other aspects of life/environment that people care about.

Each individual might value weight the various outcomes differently, but where there are options that can be supported by more than one constituency, it is clearly going to be easier to move forward.

Until now that full 'climate/environment impact assessment' has been lacking in the IPCC literature. Example, why is fig SPM2 interesting to policy makers when it doesn't actually show what the impacts of emissions are, and provides no guidance whatsoever for policy that will impact more than one component?

There is real science that can be done here - for instance, Shindell et al (2009, Science), or Unger et al (2010, PNAS) - and it is high time there was more of it.


Anonymous said...


Can you elaborate what you mean by 'compensating errors' and 'counterfoolishness'? I sort-of get your general point, but that language is a little strange when we're talking about real and demonstrable improvements in public health.

Gavin's point about smog from cooking fires is particularly apposite. Global annual excess deaths from indoor air pollution is comparable to that of unsafe water. It's a real, and a big, problem.

If a policy has multiple independent evidence-based rationales behind it, surely that's a good thing?


Michael Tobis said...

Matt, thanks for your question and your interest.

In weighing a policy, all its costs and benefits must be on the table. If we want policy P for its benefit A, but argue for its benefit B, then we risk exaggerating benefit B. This both weakens our credibility and runs the risk that some counter-A solution will be implemented for benefit B.

For example, we may argue for wind-driven electricity powering electric cars because of the national security aspect of imported oil, when in fact we are interested in the climate aspect. Others may enthusiastically support our argument and then use it to support coal-to-liquids, or Canadian tar sands.

Then suppose we turn around and say, "well we didn't mean *that* because of the climate implications!" This would seem to mean that we were lying about (some of) our motivations in the first place. So we'd get the extra greenhouse gases and the loss of credibility, and only the secondary problem (security of liquid fuel supply) would end up addressed.

No thanks.

See also "green jobs". The reason green jobs are good is because they are green, not because they are jobs. I'm all for government stimulus; I think the current stinginess in government is idiotic. But if we're going to hire people off the street let's have them doing something useful. Green jobs are useful or they aren't. If they aren't useful there are plenty of other activities we can spend the public's dime to have people doing.

Aaron said...

The other problem is that the word “conservative” when used by scientists and engineers means two opposite things. The scientist's “conservative” estimate of the impact of global warming will be what the scientist can prove (with scientific reticence firmly in place). However, the engineer in pursuit of a “conservative” design, will lump everything that he cannot prove into the risk of global warming

As we move from the conservatism of scientists laying out the problem to the conservatism of engineers designing adaption and mitigation, there will be a jump in the numbers that will cause heads to spin, and will leave politicians, the public, and scientists scientists wondering why all the science estimates were so low and why all the engineering estimates are so large.

The engineering for adaption and mitigation of global warming, is going to cause some sticker shock. When you look at that large cost, every little bit of pollution prevention and waste minimization helps, a lot!

Different people will pursue Wmin/P2 for different reasons. Whatever their reason, we can cheer them on if those actions result in less carbon released into the atmosphere.

Aaron said...

We are for wind power because it increases out national security.

We are against anything that puts carbon in the air because it decreases our national security.

(How large a hurricane/storm surge would have to hit NYC to equal the 9/11 damage?)

Steve L said...

But maybe these kinds of effects will get the religious right on-side wrt curbing pollution:
More seriously, why not have a diverse group with arguments that reach a diversity of the public? If some people think national security is the most important thing, then those arguments are the ones most likely to sway them. If some think species extinction, or human health, or even aesthetics are most important, then those arguments are mostly likely to be potent in eliciting a response from them. Hopefully they'll learn about all of the other impacts/reasons once their attention has been captured.

Paul Kelly said...

Political success does require, as Gavin puts it, options that can be supported by more than one constituency. Carbon soot reduction is an example of an option whose primary benefit may be more environment than climate, but which does have significant climate benefits, too. Arguing for multi- benefit policy is not trickery. It is coalition building.

It may not make sense to argue for CO2 cuts for reasons other than cutting CO2, but it does make sense to argue for things that cut CO2 without using CO2 as the main or only reason.

Jim Bouldin said...

Michael, I agree with Gavin that you're making too much out of what he said, and I'm also having difficulty following your science "corruption" argument. I read Gavin's overall point to simply be that we could do a better job at tying together, formally, a number of topics in earth system science that relate to public welfare, so as to at least provide the potential for policy makers to become more aware of them, and (hopefully, big maybe) act accordingly. Whatever they do with that info is their responsibility. But it's our job to make sure they have the opportunity to see the most detailed/comprehensive/wholistic picture possible.

In contrast to those who keep annoyingly claiming that scientists can't communicate, this is one issue where science really DOES need to try to be more effective. It's important. Real important.

Bart Verheggen said...


I don’t really see your issue here. The examples Gavin brings up are typical win-win situations. I don’t see a rational reason to be against those. What is the “counterfoolishness” you’re talking about? It sounds like that may refer to geoengineering (quite Lomborgesque), but that’s not what these examples advocate.

Mind you, I don’t advocate to remove the climate rationale from the policy debate ( http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2010/07/03/should-energy-policy-be-linked-to-climate-change/ ) but otoh, I think we should think strategically about how we’re going to reach the objective of minimizing long term disruption of global climate. And win-win situations are important in that respect, esp. in the current political climate. There’s nothing Lomborginian about that.


Michael Tobis said...

Follow-up here.

Unknown said...

More evidence to me that you're interested in winning an argument, above all.
--Keith Kloor

Michael Tobis said...

I don't like to lose of course, but I thought the argument was resolved to everybody's satisfaction.