Thursday, January 04, 2007

No, *I'm* in the middle

I'm sure I don't need to tell you as you've probably all already read it elsewhere, but there's been an amusing start to the year in the blogosphere courtesy of this Andy Revkin piece in the NYT concerning the "middle ground" in the climate debate. Predictably, RPJr (who was quoted in the article) announces his victory, only to find Gavin Schmidt (in the comments here) insisting that in fact it is he (well, the scientific consensus of people such as James Hansen, who was also quoted) who actually won. In fact the whole RealClimate crew has now responded with a "We are in the middle" post. Just about the only person who isn't proudly proclaming that they are the middle is the ranting David Roberts who responds with "I find it wrong in every empirical detail and utterly wrong-headed in spirit." OK Dave, if you insist, you're a fruitcake who we can safely ignore :-) Just kidding, honest. Well, maybe.

In the article itself, RP is quoted as:
"A lot of people have independently come to the same sort of conclusion," Dr. Pielke said. "We do have a problem, we do need to act, but what actions are practical and pragmatic?"
"What actions are practical and pragmatic" is hardly a conclusion, IMO it's little more than a restatement of the question, although I guess with that choice of words he may be explicitly abandoning any hope of rationality in favour of political expediency.

Anyway, in case there is any doubt about it, I'd just like to point out that in fact everyone else is either on the left of me, the right of me, above, below, in front or behind me. Therefore, I'm in the middle. QED.

17 comments:

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Hi James-

Pithy newspaper quotes can be hard to fathom I can understand. What Revkin didn't report me as saying, understandably because of the complexity, is that the approach embodied in the Framework Convention is neither pragmatic or practical.

To place my views into a bit of context here is what I replied over at RC:

When I first presented the idea of a third "tribe" in the climate debate, partly tongue-in-cheek, I did so to recognize a another political position on climate change. Not science. That political position is characterized by people who accept the IPCC (hence, non-skeptic, i.e., "skeptic" as a noun, as often used in derogatory fashion on this site) but reject the targets and timetables approach that is codified in the Framework Convention. This includes a variety of different, even mutually inconsistent approaches proposed by people as diverse as Steve Rayner, Bjorn Lomborg, Dan Sarewitz, and Gregg Easterbrook. (And inn some quarters -- maybe here -- simply mentioning the name Lomborg is enough to be labeled a heretic, ;-) )

Now, as far as I know you guys have no views on the Framework Convention one way or the other, or at least that is what you say. So this political debate has nothing to do with what you present here, and this third way should not be relevant, right? The reality is that if climate policy is going to move forward, it has to break out of (a) positioning everything in terms of science, and (b) framing everything in terms of alarmists and skeptics/contrarians. And like it or not, RealClimate is a big player in keeping this Manichean view alive, such as with your recent "year in review" and incessant skeptic obsession.

I don't care if this third way on climate policy is called the middle, top, bottom, left, or right. And I have no affinity for the NSH tag. What I do care about is that people engage in serious discussions of actual policy options in manner that is far more diverse that has existed to date. If that is something that RC wants to venture into, we'd all benefit.

Happy 2007!

Anonymous said...

Thank god someone finally found the long lost "middle" (kind of like finding the Lost Dutchman's Mine), bacause without a middle, we'd be likely to come to no good ends.

This whole debate about "who's in the middle" (and who's on first?) is absurd -- and more than a little childish.

EliRabett said...

On the one hand it is absurd, but as in King of the Hill the side on the high ground has a major advantage, in policy, the "middle" is where you want to be, thus the rush to claim it.

Make no mistake this is an important but rediculous debate ONLY for that reason. If the media can be convinced to call your position the middle, you are very close to winning the battle.

The NYT is out there picking winners, rev up your claiming machines.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right, Eli.

The debate is absurd but important.

It is also a little curious (to me, at least) that the Revkin article comes close on the heals of Vranes' statement last week about scientists (in the silent middle?) being concerned about overselling by some members of their group.

James Annan said...

Roger,

Well through reading your blog I'd ascertained your views on the UNFCCCCCC, but you're right I didn't know that in particular was what you were referring to in that quote. However, "X won't work" still very much leaves open the question of what might or even should work...

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

James-

One answer to the question of what will work is that we simply don't know. From a policy standpoint this implies a need to be flexible, to try (and fail) and try again (and fail) until something works. It means learning and adapting. It means taking small, often frustratingly incomplete, steps and evaluating their effectiveness rigorously. It means focusing as much (or more) on means as ends. It also means not becoming too fundamentalist about what policies to support, since policies will come and go, most will fail.

Such fundamentalism can turn into an obstacle to learning and effective action. The negative reaction against Revkin's piece among some illustrates this fundamentalism. How dare anyone suggest that new approaches are needed!! All of this talk about debate being over on climate change, whether focused on science or not, runs the risk of actually succeeding.

What is needed in more perspectives on policy and less focus on where everyone lies on a scientific continuum.;-)

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Roger Pielke says: "The negative reaction against Revkin's piece among some illustrates this fundamentalism."

Painting others as fundamentalists (extremists, alarmists, etc) is what this is about, isn't it?

Thanks for the confirmation!

Steve Reuland said...

"One answer to the question of what will work is that we simply don't know. From a policy standpoint this implies a need to be flexible, to try (and fail) and try again (and fail) until something works. It means learning and adapting. It means taking small, often frustratingly incomplete, steps and evaluating their effectiveness rigorously. It means focusing as much (or more) on means as ends. It also means not becoming too fundamentalist about what policies to support, since policies will come and go, most will fail."

If were to sit down and try to come up with the most useless, pointless answer possible, I would come up with something like this.

Happy 2007!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Steve, after reading that you are a scientist from the bio on your blog I am willing to bet you could not come up with that answer no matter how long you toiled.

You might even hurt yourself trying.

I hear it takes years of political "science" training and should never be attempted by amateurs.

EliRabett said...

Are we trying anything?

Alastair said...

Roger wrote "What is needed in more perspectives on policy and less focus on where everyone lies on a scientific continuum.;-)"

Although that statement is true, it contains a fundamental error which is more important than the current debate. There is not a scientific continuum. There are two camps of scientists; those who believe action is urgent, and those who don't. And those who don't believe action is urgent are those who think in terms of a continua.

But the real world does not work in a linear way of continua, especially not that of politics. 10% of the votes in an election does not win you 10% of the power. 60% of the votes does not win you 60% of the power. It wins you 100%. In the same way, raising the price of fuel by 10% will not reduce the consumption of fuel by 10% because fuel is economically inelastic consumable.

So Roger's plan to take small steps and evalute their effectiveness is not the answer. If the step is too small it may not work because it is too small. We have to be prepared to take bold steps.

Moreover, the climate is not linear either. The scientists who accept that rapid change can occur and that thresholds can be exceeded are those who are calling for urgent action. Those who believe that climate is a continuum are less concerned. It seems that those who see the world in this simple way are those in the majority, even if Roger does want to call them heretics. They are certainly denying the truth that tipping points do exist.

The tragedy is that because in the 2000 presidential election a few thousand voter in one of fifty states of America voted for GWB, Kyoto has been a failure. With Gore a president, and the US signed up to Kyoto we could be advancing on the next effective stage. "For want of a nail the battle was lost." And for the want of timely action the battle against global warming will be lost too!

Anonymous said...

"There are two camps of scientists; those who believe action is urgent, and those who don't."

Actually, I suspect there are three camps, the third being "those who have not really thought much about what the best actions should be."

Lots of (perhaps most) scientists are into doing science, not policy.

Unfortunately, that leaves policy to people who generally know little about the science (and almost all of whom are not scientists themselves). Some policies do not require a knowledge of science but this is not one of them.

I think the whole idea of having to try this that and the other is really so much nonsense. There are lots of things that we know will work to reduce emissions: improved fuel economy for cars and other efficiency improvements, for starters.

This stuff is not "pie in the sky" by any means. Efficieny experts like Amory Lovins have been studying and applying this stuff (with huge success I might add) over the last 30 years.

Much of it could make a very big difference in significantly cutting emissions within a fairly short time frame. Efficiency improvements may be the largest untapped resource around.

When it comes to efficiency improvments, I suspect that we have seen only the tip of the iceberg.

Furthermore, the fact that Kyoto has not worked so far is not proof that a Carbon trading program would not work. Without US involvement, I'd say every carbon trading program is doomed to fail.

Sure, some approaches might not work, but the idea that we are somehow groping around in the dark searching for the light switche(s) is just silly.

Alastair said...

Sure, some approaches might not work, but the idea that we are somehow groping around in the dark searching for the light switche(s) is just silly.

I quite agree! If you switch the bedside light on and find it makes no difference, then you don't switch it off again, and then try the light in the hall to see if that makes a difference. You switch on all the lights, so that you can see your way through the smoke into the kitchen, where you put the fire out!

Lumo said...

Good try, James. But everything in the science blogosphere is on the left from me which is why I am in the middle of all these attacks then. ;-)

James Annan said...

Lumo,

Awareness is the first step to a cure. But don't stop taking the tablets quite yet :-)

Anonymous said...

Revkin's observation is nothing new:

Robert Frost made the same observation over 70 years ago (in 1936)

"We dance round in a ring and suppose, But the Secret sits in the middle and knows." -- "The Secret Sits" by Robert Frost

Anonymous said...

Kyoto is a red-herring. The U.S. isn't in Kyoto because it unfairly punishes them for anything they create but doesn't reward them for the things they contribute to the reduction, while exempting a few of the countries that create more and reduce little or none. No sane country would sign a treaty like that, and even if whoever the leader was were daft enough to do so, the U.S. Senate wouldn't have ratified it.

Question: Is anything being done?

US work on sequestration goes on http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2004/11/65852 (fact check -- water vapor is the principal greenhouse gas -- they should have qualified what they mean by "principal greenhouse gas" if they meant it a different context (as in AGW only greenhouse gasses only))

USDA economics of sequestering carbon http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/tb1909/

Japan plans to bury 200 million tons of CO2 a year by 2020, starting as early as 2010 http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2006-06-26-japan-greenhouse-gas_x.htm?csp=34 (right now it costs $52 a ton but they hope to bring that price down -- I hope so too, that's over 10 billion dollars a year)

Costs of taxing carbon to economies http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/08/16/1092508369366.html?from=moreStories

Pro/Con of sequestration http://pubs.acs.org/hotartcl/est/98/jan/carbon.html

Los Alamos Nation Laboratory on sequestering carbon http://www.lanl.gov/news/index.php/fuseaction/home.story/story_id/2443/view/print