The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won't Tell You About Global Warming

  • Roger Pielke
Basic Books: 2010. 288 pp. $26, £18.99 9780465020522 | ISBN: 978-0-4650-2052-2

Roger Pielke Jr is a righteous scold at the intersection of politics and climate-change science. Prominent researchers and the organizations concerned with climate change are the object of his ire in The Climate Fix, in which he argues that they have presented a narrow scientific message to rouse politicians and the public to confront the dangers of global warming.

It will take more than solar cookers to provide energy to the developing world. Credit: T. STALLARD/GETTY

In pursuit of public support and government action, Pielke charges, mainstream researchers in the climate-change community have fudged the science, compromised the peer-review process and encouraged governments to pursue dubious remedies, while neglecting possibilities for averting climate-caused disasters. Unrealistic scenarios for reducing carbon emissions have been pushed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he argues, and the leaked e-mails from the notorious 'Climategate' episode have emboldened sceptics and diminished public confidence in scientific integrity.

Pielke merits admiration for his staunch defence of scientific accuracy and integrity. But his well-argued book ignores political reality. Neither politicians nor the public respond to nuanced, cautiously worded messages from the arcane world of science. Despite alarms being sounded about climate change on Capitol Hill as early as the mid-1970s, the response remains half-hearted and tangled in controversy.

The author is well qualified to contest the established organs for addressing climate change, principally the IPCC and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He has combined scientific and policy studies with service as a staff member for the US Congress en route to his current academic post as professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. All this has made him wary of the misuse of scientific data in pursuit of social and political goals, the phenomenon he chastised in his first book, The Honest Broker (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

In The Climate Fix, Pielke argues that the importance of carbon dioxide has been over-hyped, noting that many other gases contribute to the greenhouse effect, including six cited in the Kyoto Protocol. The focus on CO2, he explains, proceeds from the “hyper-politicized” world of climate politics, in which “nuanced but arguably more accurate scientific perspectives are difficult to advance”. Fright sells, he points out, citing the late Stephen Schneider, the environmental scientist and political adviser who once wrote that, to rouse public support, “we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have”. Schneider later stepped back from that piquant assertion, yet the approach remains widely used.

Although Pielke accepts that the evidence for human influence on the climate system is robust, he stresses that the goal of cutting global carbon emissions is incompatible with economic growth for the world's poorest 1.5 billion people. They desperately need energy, which inevitably will incur greater greenhouse-gas emissions, despite dreams of clean energy coming to the rescue. Meanwhile, he warns, our focus on CO2 is diverting attention from adaptation — taking steps to avoid or alleviate the adverse impacts of climate change.

The obsession with controlling CO2 is damaging, he contends, because it collides with an “iron law of climate policy”. This holds that the public and policy-makers are unwilling to shoulder any great burden in costs or inconvenience to reach emissions-reduction goals. Confirmation of this dour conclusion can be seen in the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate-change conference to agree on international emissions limits, and the US Senate's refusal to enact even a stripped-down climate bill. “To think that politicians are going to willingly impose discomfort or pain on their constituents is fanciful at best,” Pielke warns.

Existing emissions-reduction technologies are not up to the task of curbing climate change, Pielke reminds us, and much more research will be needed to develop them. “Throwing everything we can think of ... at the problem is not nearly enough,” he declares. The vaunted remedial prowess of cap-and-trade schemes is a delusion: “Putting a price on carbon causes economic pain and discomfort to energy consumers.” And geoengineering is a distant hope, fraught with uncertainties.

Pielke is not an apostle of inaction but a pragmatist who repeatedly and deservedly portrays his diagnoses and remedies as common sense. He largely fails to recognize, however, that common sense is frequently unwelcome in climate politics. Measures for countering the effects of climate should be implemented, he says, with emphasis on a massive increase in research and development (R&D) to spur innovation aimed at lowering greenhouse-gas emissions and expanding energy supply. Modest taxes on coal, perhaps US$5 a tonne, he optimistically contends, could finance an R&D boom with little risk of public or business resistance. Anti-tax hysteria, a mainstay of contemporary US politics, suggests otherwise.

Even with these measures, high priority should be given to adaptation to extreme weather events, Pielke suggests. Greater attention should be focused on land-use policies, risk assessment, weather forecasts and warnings, insurance and structural engineering. Citing the difference in death tolls after the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, he observes that “where, how, and what we build are the driving factors underlying trends in losses”.

Pielke illustrates with a personal anecdote how science in the public arena can be filtered and shaped for political convenience. Invited to take part in a climate-change briefing for US senators and the treasury secretary, he relates being counselled by several colleagues to downplay his conclusion that some of the worst impacts of climate change were closely related to land-use patterns and other non-climate factors. The inference, he feels, was clear: don't divert attention from the menace of CO2.

As many researchers would, Pielke gagged on this invitation to dissemble, regarding it as a betrayal of the ethos of scientific enquiry. However, this is naive. When summoned to advise Congress, politically sentient scientists do not innocently assume that the legislators seek enlightenment for wise policy-making. Instead they recognize that legislators seek support for their preconceived positions, which in turn reflect the preferences of constituents and the money-laden lobbies that help finance election campaigns. Contrary messages can be delivered from the congressional committee witness chair, but it is best to slip them in as addenda. Otherwise, scientists can go overboard with the alarmist, dumbed-down messages that Pielke deplores.

The Climate Fix illustrates the dilemma confronting scientists who seek to influence politics. Telling it like it is does not thrive on Capitol Hill. But shaping the message to suit the politics often involves a betrayal of scientific truth and a distortion of public and political understanding.