Roger Pielke Jr. from Prometheus Posts His Congressional Testimony

Roger Pielke Jr. from Prometheus has posted his recent Congressional Testimony before the House Government Reform Committee. I am big fan of him simply because I think he is genuinely looking for solutions in a debate that is stuck in an impasse.

Here are some choice morsels:

Take Home Points

1. Human-caused climate change is real and requires attention by policy makers to both mitigation and adaptation - but there is no quick fix; the issue will be with us for decades and longer.

2. Any conceivable emissions reductions policies, even if successful, cannot have a perceptible impact on the climate for many decades.

3. Consequently, costs (whatever they may be) are borne in the near term and benefits related to influencing the climate system are achieved in the distant future.

4. However, many policies that result in a reduction in emissions also provide benefits in the short term unrelated to climate change.

5. Similarly adaptation policies can provide immediate benefits.

6. But climate policy, particularly international climate policy under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been structured to keep policy related to long-term climate change distinct from policies related to shorter-term issues of energy policy and adaptation.

7. Following the political organization of international climate change policy, research agendas have emphasized the long-term, meaning that relatively very little attention is paid to developing specific policy options or near-term technologies that might be put into place with both short-term and long-term benefits.

8. The climate debate may have begun to slowly reflect these realities, but the research and development community has not yet focused much attention on developing policy and technological options that might be politically viable, cost effective, and practically feasible.

Related to the Kyoto Protocol:

From this perspective, for all of the bluster about the Kyoto Protocol, its implementation is much more about symbolism and setting the stage for future policy action rather than any significant effect on the climate system. Economist William Nordhaus of Yale University wrote recently that "the Kyoto Protocol is widely seen as somewhere between troubled and terminal. . . Even if the current Protocol is extended, models indicate that it
will have little impact on global temperature change. Unless there is a dramatic breakthrough or a new design, the Protocol threatens to be seen as a monument to institutional overreach."

According to Oxford's Steve Rayner the focus on Kyoto has distracted attention from other possible approaches,

Unfortunately, support for Kyoto has become a litmus test for determining those who take the threat of climate change seriously. Between Kyoto's supporters and those who scoff at the dangers of leaving greenhouse gas emissions unchecked, there has been a tiny minority of commentators and analysts convinced of the urgency of the problem while remaining profoundly sceptical of the proposed solution. But their voices have largely gone unheard.

Nordhaus would seem to agree on this point: "Nations are now beginning to consider the structure of climate-change policies for the period after 2008-2012. Some countries, states, cities, companies, and even universities are adopting their own climate-change policies. Are there in fact alternatives to the scheme of tradable emissions permit embodied in the Protocol? The fact is that alternative approaches have not had a serious
hearing among natural scientists or among policymakers."

Experience indicates that even those countries expressing strong support for emissions reductions face difficulties achieving those reductions in practice. Tim Dyson from the London School of Economics has offered a sobering view of such "climate realism":

". . . in the last decade or so virtually all countries have continued to burn greater amounts of fossil fuel. This also applies to those that have arguably been most prominent in supporting the Kyoto process - notably Canada, Japan and those of the EU. Many of these countries are unlikely to meet their CO2 reduction targets agreed under the Kyoto treaty (which finally came into force in 2005). Thus comparing 1990 and 2002, it is estimated that Canada's emissions increased by 22 percent and Japan's by 13. While the CO2 emissions of the EU(15) remained roughly constant, this was mainly due to reductions in Germany and Britain - both of which gained fortuitously from a move away from coal towards natural gas (which emits less CO2 per unit of energy). Of the remaining countries in the EU (15), only Sweden - which relies heavily on hydro and nuclear - registered a fall in CO2 emissions. Of the 36 'Annex B' countries of the Kyoto treaty (i.e. the industrialized countries, including former eastern bloc nations), only 12 experienced declines in emissions: the three in the EU(15), plus nine former eastern bloc nations. If one excludes these, then CO2 emissions among the remaining 24 Annex B countries rose by 13 percent during 1990-2002 (Zittel and Treber 2003). Of course, the United States, the world's largest emitter of CO2, is not a signatory to the Kyoto treaty. And, to complete the list of predictable social reactions, the 'Kyoto process' has involved no shortage of rather bitter recrimination between representatives of the US and EU countries."

The bottom line is that with respect to modulating the behavior of the climate system current greenhouse gas mitigation policies being (discussed or implemented) are more symbolic than substantive. A number of observers believe that focusing on such policies has limited the scope of discussions about alternative policies that might show greater substantive outcomes. Advocates for action have limited discussion of alternatives by asserting that, for all of their flaws current approaches are merely "first steps" and a discussion of options might diminish political momentum for action. Of course, opponents to action don't wish to discuss policy options in the first place. As discussed below, action on adaptation has been a victim of the institutionalization of climate policy, which shows a strong bias in favor of mitigation over adaptation. But even with a pace of emissions reductions that seems practically if not politically inconceivable today, such reductions would have little or no perceptible effect on the climate system for decades.

On the benefits of adaptive policies over the short run:


The figure illustrates how $1.00 in global hurricane damage today will increase by 2050 under assumptions about changing hurricane intensity, societal development, and the relationship between increased hurricane intensity and damage.

The light blue box within the figure shows that for $1.00 in hurricane damage today (grey bar), by 2050 there will be an increase in damage of $0.33 due to the increased intensity of the storms (blue increment), $2.20 due to more exposed people and wealth in coastal locations (green increment), and $0.73 due to the cumulative effects of the increased intensity on the additional people and exposed property (green-blue increment). Adding these increments together ($1.00 + $0.33 + $2.20 + $0.73) results in a total damage in 2050 of $4.26 for every $1.00 today.

The middle two bars in the graph, labeled "Net Contribution of Climate [and] Society," summarize the total effects of changes in climate (increments with blue) of $1.06 and changes in society (increments with green) of $2.93. To get a sense of the relative potential for mitigation and adaptation to reduce the increasing damage requires several
other assumptions. Here I have chosen to illustrate this analysis with the Kyoto Protocol because it will be familiar to most readers, but substituting other policies results in qualitatively similar results.

If we assume that greenhouse gas reductions have an instantaneous (i.e., contemporaneous with the reductions) and proportional (i.e., a 50% decrease in emissions decreases the projected increase in hurricane intensity by 50%) effect on hurricane intensity,16 then full implementation of Kyoto (including U.S. participation) would roughly decrease projected greenhouse gas emissions under the "business-as-usual" scenario by about 10% by 2050.

Under these assumptions the maximum potential effectiveness of Kyoto for reducing future global hurricane damage is $0.11 (that is, 10% of $1.06) and the maximum potential effectiveness of adaptation (i.e., reducing the vulnerability of people and property) is about 40 times greater, or $4.26.18 While it would of course not be costeffective to reduce damages 100% (e.g., by moving everyone away from the coast), this idealized exercise indicates that a 2.5% reduction in vulnerability leads to about the same effect on future damages as 100% success of Kyoto. These conclusions are qualitatively insensitive to the magnitude of the projected increase in hurricane intensity or population scenarios. Consider that if we instead assume that hurricane intensity increases by 40% the ratio of maximum potential effectiveness of adaptation to mitigation is about 14 to 1.

To emphasize, this is not an argument against Kyoto specifically or mitigation of greenhouse gases generally. Instead, this simple analysis under the most favorable assumptions for mitigation indicates that in the short term (decades into the future) any realistically achievable mitigation policies can have at best only an imperceptible effect on global hurricane damage. The same conclusion holds for other extreme events, and I would hypothesize, for the vast majority of society-climate interactions. In fact, I am not aware of a single study that suggests that there will be significant short-term benefits of climate mitigation for climate impacts.

This reality explains why adaptation necessarily must be at the center of climate policy. It also helps to explain why mitigation policies in the short-term necessarily must be focused on their non-climate benefits.

I recommend reading the whole thing. Basically the take-home that I got from it is that while long-term mitigation strategies -- preventing or reversing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- are possible, their benefits will not be felt in the near term. It is highly nonserious to talk about Kyoto as the long-term strategy, and the continued debate over Kyoto distracts from other meaningful strategies that could be forwarded. Some of these strategies -- and they are strategies we need to consider -- are adaptive.

We really need to get past climate politics are start talking about what we are going to do about this. Even if you dispute anthropogenic global warming, the world is getting warmer and we need to do something meaningful about that.


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