Just saw a Washington Policy Center talk by Roger Pielke Jr. Some thoughts:

  1. I think he had two main points, the first being that policymakers can’t decide what to do about climate change on the basis of climate science alone. This is an excellent point, but: No duh.
  2. His second main point was that reducing carbon emissions (say by 20% by 2020) is going to be incredibly difficult. This is also an excellent point, and is somewhat less “no duh” than the first point. Also, Roger gets extra bonus points for having excellent specifics, e.g., that reducing emissions 20% by 2020 in the UK would require the equivalent of adding 40 nuclear power plants by 2020.
  3. I was struck by how much of his talk (especially addressing the 2nd point) matched what someone from the Sierra Club would say. What Roger said was “reducing carbon emissions 20% by 2020 is going to be a huge challenge, and we’re not going to make it.” What a Sierra Club person would say is “reducing carbon emissions 20% by 2020 is going to be a huge challenge, so we need to start now.”
  4. One other difference between what Roger said and what a Sierra Club person would say is that the Sierra Club person would have talked about the impacts of climate change under business as usual. In contrast, Roger said nothing about the impacts of climate change (under business as usual or anything other scenario).
  5. As an economist, I found Roger’s lack of discussion of climate impacts to be extremely disturbing. If—totally hypothetically—the science said that hitting 450ppm would cause the planet to explode, I’m pretty sure Roger’s talk would have looked different. (At least I hope so!) The economic point here is that cost-benefit analysis has two halves—costs and benefits—and you can’t do it by just talking about one of the two halves. Why Roger failed to talk about both halves has me totally perplexed and leaves me questioning how much he actually knows about economics. (For the record, he’s not an economist, so I think this is a legitimate question, not an insulting one. He’s a political scientist, but his talk was not about the intersection of science and politics; his talk was fundamentally about economics.)
  6. Also perplexing to me is that Roger didn’t even mention (positively or negatively) the IPCC or the scientific consensus about carbon emissions leading to higher global temperatures &etc. This was an important omissions because I would guess that a significant fraction of the audience he spoke to today probably doubts the IPCC conclusion about human activity affecting global temperatures, and if Roger does believe the IPCC (as his Wikipedia page suggests) then he should have come out and said it. He failed to do so even though it would have taken only 30 seconds, and in my opinion that failure is inexcusable for someone whose goal is to educate.
  7. Roger spent a great deal of time focusing on carbon emissions per unit of GDP, a variable that economists don’t usually have much interest in. After listening to Roger’s talk I still don’t have much interest in that variable in terms of either economics or policy, but I do appreciate how it allows him to tell a story about hard it is to reduce emissions: “Here’s the fastest that anybody’s ever been able to reduce emissions per unit of GDP, and reducing total emissions 20% by 2020 will require us to reduce faster than that. Wow that’s going to be hard!”
  8. The hypothetical above about the planet exploding if we hit 450ppm makes it clear by Roger’s story is incomplete from an economics perspective. An analogy will help explain other limitations of his approach: Let’s say we’re talking about global populations of tuna, and that scientists are telling us that tuna are being caught at an unsustainable rate and that we need to cut the number of tuna we catch by 20% by 2020 in order to maintain a stable tuna population. Then Roger comes over and tells us that what we really ought to be looking at is not the number of tuna being caught every year but the consumption of tuna per capita in different countries around the world. Then Roger shows us graphs about rising populations in the developing world and the rising consumption of tuna per capita all over the world and tells us how difficult it will be to reverse this trend: how many more chickens we’d need to raise, etc. Finally, Roger comes to the seemingly inescapable conclusion that the number of tuna being caught every year is going to keep on rising. Anybody with half a brain can see that there is something missing from this story: What happens if there are biological limits to how many tuna we can catch? Anybody with a full brain should see that this analogy casts doubts on the value of Roger’s approach to climate change: What happens if there are physical limits in terms of the quantity of fossil fuels we can consume? What happens if there are biogeochemical limits in terms of the quantity of fossil fuels we can consume before blowing up the planet? This is not the time to pass judgment on these questions—for myself, I worry about the second question but not the first one—but it is the time to be concerned about the fact that these kinds of questions don’t even come up in Roger’s analysis.
  9. Roger’s proposal for dealing with climate change is to have a small carbon tax (on the order of $1 per barrel of oil, which amounts to about $2.50 per ton CO2 or $0.025 per gallon of gasoline) with the revenue going to clean energy R&D. One point worth making here is that this is not a new idea; it goes all the way back to Thomas Schelling’s presidential address to the American Economic Association (“Some economics of global warming“) in 1992. Of course, a point doesn’t have to be novel to be worthwhile (otherwise those of us promoting revenue-neutral carbon taxes would have shut up long ago!) but Roger could have done more to provide context and perhaps to explain why this idea has had such difficulty in gaining traction over the past twenty years. Again, introducing this important idea would have taken only 30 seconds.
  10. A deeper point about Roger’s proposal (which is in line with the folks at Breakthrough Institute, where he was a senior fellow) is that it is deeply government-focused: We’re going to have a carbon tax to fund government programs in clean energy R&D, and those government programs are going to move us in the directions we need to go on climate. This is very different than the usual prescription from economists, who tend to focus on providing incentives for private companies to do R&D. I’m not saying Roger is wrong, but I do think that it’s a surprisingly big-government idea to advocate in front of a room full of folks devoted to “free-market solutions“. The fact that Roger didn’t get any push-back (at least not during the part of the Q&A that I could stick around for) indicates to me that at a fundamental level he was failing to connect to the audience.