Climate Politics

To assure sustainable prosperity, we need the market place to account fairly for the long legacy of subsidy and economic externalities that distort energy markets in favor of incumbent polluting industries. We need to establish public policies that enable such accounting in a direct, transparent and dependable manner.

I have long been an advocate of a tax on incumbent energy resources. There are compelling national security, economic and environmental reasons for a revenue neutral tax that shifts taxation away from productive activities like creating jobs, and instead taxes polluting, non-renewable energy resources. Such a strategy could win broad based support across the political spectrum.

But I believe the focus on climate change, favored by many in the environmental movement, is a significant liability in the political effort to create sensible energy policy. Recently, my apprehensions regarding such focus have been proven well founded.

When it comes to addressing climate issues through public policy, there are a wide spectrum of views which, while not supporting the recent policy orthodoxy of climate politics, are not based on denial of the issue or its potential ramifications. Many people recognize that current politically favored solutions to climate change would not only be ineffective, but could potentially create worse problems then those they are intended to address.

Those advocating for complex convoluted public policy responses to the threats of climate change have seen serious setbacks over the last few months, not the least of which was the failure of the Copenhagen conference to achieve any meaningful results.

It is also becoming more clear recently that the science of climate change is being heavily influenced by political agendas. But contrary to the concerns of many in the environmental movement that it is “right wing” interests which are corrupting the science, it appears that it is largely those pushing an agenda of climate change alarmism who have had the most significant influence on the scientific reporting.  Crony capitalists have been more than willing to go along as the politics of climate have been co-opted by Wall Street interests and others who stand to benefit immensely from the convoluted economic distortions embedded in solutions to climate change now favored by many politicians.

Especially since the release of e-mails and other documents from the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit in November, the press and public have become more skeptical on the issue and there have been increasing numbers of questions raised regarding the quality of the UN sponsored 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report on Climate Change.

Respected conventional news outlets of all political persuasions, many of which have in the past been supportive of an aggressive climate policy agenda, have been publishing articles and editorials with titles like: Climate change: this is the worst scientific scandal of our generation ClimateGate: Was Data Faked? , How Climate-Change Fanatics Corrupted Science , The Death of Global Warming , UN wrongly linked global warming to natural disasters , Conning the climate: Inside the carbon-trading shell game , Alarmists’ credibility melting , How Wrong Is The IPCC? and What happened to global warming?

Though here in the US the traditional press has been less prone to cover the story than in Britain, Australia, India and elsewhere, there is increasing controversy regarding many of the findings in the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, which won its authors the Nobel Prize along with Al Gore. Of most concern in the report are elements of the Summary for Policy Makers.

It has been reported than when asked in advance of publication to review the draft of the summary for Chapter 9  which attributes global warming to man made causes, Dr. Andrew A. Lacis, a climate researcher at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies had this to say:

“There is no scientific merit to be found in the Executive Summary. The presentation sounds like something put together by Greenpeace activists and their legal department. The points being made are made arbitrarily with legal sounding caveats without having established any foundation or basis in fact. The Executive Summary seems to be a political statement that is only designed to annoy greenhouse skeptics. Wasn’t the IPCC Assessment Report intended to be a scientific document that would merit solid backing from the climate science community – instead of forcing many climate scientists into having to agree with greenhouse skeptic criticisms that this is indeed a report with a clear and obvious political agenda. Attribution can not happen until understanding has been clearly demonstrated. Once the facts of climate change have been established and understood, attribution will become self-evident to all. The Executive Summary as it stands is beyond redemption and should simply be deleted.”

Dr. Lacis suggestion was unfortunately rejected. It is now coming out that significant portions of the IPCC report were not based on peer reviewed science at all and several findings of the report have been confirmed to be erroneous.

Public support for action on climate change is waning.  A study from Yale University offers an interesting analysis of attitudes on the subject. The Pew Research Center shows climate change being a very low public priority.

A good friend of mine and passionate advocate for climate change policy action suggested that:

“The surveys and editorials are interesting reflections of public opinion, but they don’t undermine the science.  Don’t forget that a little over half of Americans don’t believe in evolution either.”

But contrary to Al Gore’s proclamations and the views of many people I respect, the science is not settled. Some evidence of that is the Petition Project, which claims the signatures of 31,486 American scientists who have all endorsed a petition that states:

“There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.”

Dr. Judith Curry, the Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology recently wrote:

“No one really believes that the “science is settled” or that “the debate is over.” Scientists and others that say this seem to want to advance a particular agenda. There is nothing more detrimental to public trust than such statements.”

Personally I feel absolutely certain that humans must be having some influence on climate, just based on the scale of influence that 6.8 billion people have on everything on the planet. Very few people would disagree with that premise. But clarifying how the many human and natural factors impacting climate will interact, how those factors will manifest themselves in complex climate systems, how significant our human influence will be and whether changes will have positive or negative impacts on agriculture and other critical aspects of human society, are all determinations that unfortunately are outside any clear understanding or real consensus in the scientific community at this time.

Perhaps most significant of the recent clarifications regarding the science of climate change has been the BBC interview with Phil Jones, who was the director of the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit.

When asked: Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically significant global warming: Dr. Jones answered a qualified “yes”.  In details supporting his answers, he showed that the warming trend from 1995 to 2009 of 0.12 degrees centigrade per decade is matched by the cooling trend of 2002 through 2009 of -0.12 degrees centigrade per decade.

In discussing the warming periods:1860-1880, 1910-1940, 1975-1998 and 1975-2009 Dr Jones states clearly that:

“the warming rates for all 4 periods are similar and not statistically significantly different from each other.”

When asked : when scientists say the debate on climate change is over, what exactly do they mean – and what don’t they mean? Dr. Jones answered:

“It would be supposition on my behalf to know whether all scientists who say the debate is over are saying that for the same reason. I don’t believe the vast majority of climate scientists think this. This is not my view. There is still much that needs to be undertaken to reduce uncertainties, not just for the future, but for the instrumental (and especially the palaeoclimatic) past as well.”

His answer on the so called Medieval Warming Period from 800–1300 AD makes clear that current levels of scientific understanding of historic climate data can’t determine conclusively if warming trends since the industrial revolution are unique or unusual.

Recently, Tom Ward, the publisher of the Valley Breeze, a local newspaper here in Rhode Island, published an editorial entitled Inconvenient truth. In it, he suggested that:

“Climate change, formerly known as ‘global warming,’ is a fraud. The science is junk.”

One member of an environmental organization I am involved with issued a call to respond suggesting:

“Some might say its hopeless to answer such extreme positions, but the far right-wing repeats similar stuff every day on cable, talk radio and the like.”

I pointed out to the group that while his rhetoric is harsh, the important conclusion of his editorial is something we can all largely support when Mr. Ward suggests:

“As Americans, we must embrace energy conservation in the short term, and generate more home-grown nuclear, natural gas and wind power in the longer term, to keep our money here and create tens of thousands of well-paying jobs. With those goals achieved, we can power our cars and trucks with U.S.-made electricity and natural gas, and stop sending $800 billion a year overseas, money that funds our enemies.”

While I strongly disagree with Mr. Ward regarding nuclear power (a subject for another posting), I fully agree with him on conservation, wind energy and on using natural gas as the critical transition fuel on our way to a clean energy future.

If the environmental community embraced the energy independence, national security, economic development, employment and balance of trade arguments that Mr. Ward champions, we could be much further along in addressing the challenges of climate change than we are today.  Instead of condemning them, we should be reaching out to potential strong policy allies like Mr. Ward who, like most Americans, would favor rational energy policy.

As I have suggested here before, everything that Mr. Ward argues for could be achieved through a Pigouvian tax on non-renewable energy resources.  That solution would actually be effective in directly and immediately curbing carbon dioxide emissions, unlike the leading solutions being pushed in Congress. If we all embraced the idea that such tax should be 100% revenue neutral, offsetting payroll taxes and income taxes that discourage job creation and working,  Americans of all political persuasions would support such solutions as prudent economic, jobs  and tax policy.

It is not smart politics to be looking for enemies among our potential friends. Rather than blaming the “right wing” or “a well-funded disinformation machine” for the lack of progress, we should take responsibility for the narrow partisan political strategy of the environmental community on these issues.

If the climate change rhetoric from the environmental community were less extreme, it wouldn’t provide such tempting targets for ridicule and harsh criticism and we wouldn’t see the backlash we have. We don’t need to blow the scariest possible outcomes for climate change out of proportion in order to gain broad based political support for effective measures to curb carbon emissions. In fact, overblown climate rhetoric from the environmental community has significantly set back political prospects for sensible energy and climate policy.

The IPCC  has done significant disservice to those concerned with climate change by becoming an imprudent advocate rather than the professional scientific organization that it was chartered to be.

Environmental scientist, James Lovelock is the author of the original “Gaia Hypothesis”, the theory of how the earth’s interrelated feedback mechanisms act as an integrated single organism. He has been described as “The Prophet of Climate Change” . He offers some important perspective:

“I think you have to accept that the skeptics have kept us sane — some of them, anyway. They have been a breath of fresh air. They have kept us from regarding the science of climate change as a religion. It had gone too far that way. There is a role for skeptics in science. They shouldn’t be brushed aside. It is clear that the angel side wasn’t without sin.”

Phil Jones, Andrew Lacis, Judith Curry, James Lovelock and other reputable climate scientists have come to realize that it is best to clearly and honestly present known facts along with the uncertainties surrounding this very complex science. Its about time the rest the environmental community does too.  We should accept  the political reality that with current levels of actual scientific understanding and consensus, most rational people would be reluctant to totally transform the world economy or create the worlds largest derivatives game for Wall Street in convoluted schemes like Cap, Trade and Offset.

I expect that acknowledging the scientific uncertainties regarding the long held beliefs of many of my friends in the environmental movement may result in some calling my integrity and intentions into question. The best answer I can offer them is that unlike those supporting ineffective convoluted answers currently favored in Washington, I am serious enough in my concern on these issues to advocate for policy solutions like H.R. 2380, The Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act that puts an immediate, real and dependable price on carbon emissions. That bipartisan legislation would also address our economic and unemployment problems as well as our energy and environmental concerns and it wouldn’t add a penny to our monstrous federal debt. That’s the kind of solution the vast majority of Americans would support and that credible politicians should also support if they are really more serious about solving problems than they are about handing out pork to their special interest benefactors.

All the reasons Tom Ward cites in encouraging our nation to move to a clean energy economy have been more than adequate inspiration to spend my career doing green building and renewable energy work for the last three decades. Terrorism funded by our exported petro-dollars, pollution, the economic mess our oil dependency has helped cause, the war in Iraq and our other military adventures to secure oil supplies,  and all the other symptoms of our fossil fuel dependency are plenty of inspiration for good policy.

Effective public policy response to climate change and all those other challenges would be clear, simple and easily understandable by everyone so that everyone participating in the economy can anticipate impacts and respond in rational ways.  All these inter-related issues are too important for the typical corrupt political horse trading between politicians and lobbyists we have come to expect from Washington. We need real leadership at the grass roots level advocating for sensible policy.

Rational climate policy wouldn’t be based on adding vast new convoluted complexities to the economy that are easily vulnerable to the distortions of Wall Street’s financial engineering manipulations. Nor would they be based on legislators and bureaucrats anointing winners and losers in the economy. Instead we need the kind of policy that directly puts a real and dependable price on the “economic externalities” that are currently hidden subsidies for incumbent energy industries – a revenue neutral carbon tax.

Its far past time for everyone concerned with climate change to seek out alliances around sensible energy policy by focusing on the issues that all Americans can readily agree on.  We should align our political agenda with those who are more concerned with other issues like the economy, jobs, trade deficits, national security, terrorism and our government’s unsustainable ballooning levels of debt and unfunded liabilities. Effective solutions to climate concerns can also address all those issues and should be politically framed to do so in a manner that appeals across traditional political boundaries. This shouldn’t be a partisan or politically divisive issue. We need a broad political coalition which will only be achieved by being far less dogmatic about our politics.

The most prudent and sensible advice I have seen regarding the politics of climate policy is from Mother Jones magazine, which quotes a perhaps unexpected ally, Republican pollster Frank Luntz:

“It doesn’t matter whether you call it climate change or global warming,” he said. “The public believes it’s happening, and they believe that humans are playing a part in it.” In fact, Luntz warned that if Republicans continue to dispute climate science it could hurt them politically. Instead, he said, the GOP should be engaging in the debate over how to solve America’s energy problems……….

Luntz suggests less talk of dying polar bears and more emphasis on how legislation will create jobs, make the planet healthier and decrease US dependence on foreign oil. Advocates should emphasize words like “cleaner,” “healthier,” and “safer”;  scrap “green jobs” in favor of “American jobs,” and ditch terms like “sustainability” and “carbon neutral” altogether. “It doesn’t matter if there is or isn’t climate change,” he said. “It’s still in America’s best interest to develop new sources of energy that are clean, reliable, efficient and safe.”

Luntz’s polling suggests  The First Rule of Fighting Climate Change: Don’t Talk About Climate Change.

Comments

  1. “we need the market place to account fairly for the long legacy of subsidy and economic externalities that distort energy markets in favor of incumbent polluting industries.”

    I agree, once the subsidies are removed, the the truth about polluting industries will be exposed for all to see. However, to be fair, the non polluting industries must also shed thier subsidies. Then we’ll all see just what welfare cases the wind, solar and nuclear industries are. Let the public decide what industry they want to continue to support.

    My guess, they’ll opt for coal or oil fired power because it is old technology, it’s cheap to build, cheap to maintain and efficient, but the problem is the carbon emissions. Big problem yes, but not something which cannot be overcome.

    The cleaning up of polluting industries like coal power is cheap compared to the economic basket cases and environmental disasters like nuclear in particular.

  2. Robert Riversong says:

    Why is NESEA giving voice to the flat-earth climate-change deniers?

    Fred Unger uses the criticism of the IPCC4 by Dr. Andrew A. Lacis, with this oft-misued quote: “There is no scientific merit to be found in the Executive Summary.”

    What Dr. Lacis has just published is this: “My earlier criticism had been that the IPCC AR4 report was equivocating in not stating clearly and forcefully enough that human-induced warming of the climate system is established fact, and not something to be labeled as “very likely” at the 90 percent probability level.”
    http://anunexpectederror.blogspot.com/2010/02/andrew-lacis-on-climate-science.html

    It appears that this Fred Unger is just one more person with his own political agenda who has chosen to cherry-pick and misquote experts to suit his prejudice while denying the largest scientific consensus in the history of the scientific enterprise.

    The dead give away was when he used the term “climate alarmists” for those who’s objective research has consistently underestimated the rate of anthropogenic global warming and climate disruption.

    When climatologists and emergency preparedness agencies warn of the danger of an impending hurricane or tsunami, they are not called “alarmists”. So when anyone uses that loaded term in an argument against the science of climate change, it’s clear that they have the same kind of distorted agenda as the Tea Baggers who are yelling “baby killer” at conservative Congresspersons.

  3. Fred Unger says:

    Klem,

    I agree 100% regarding “the economic basket cases and environmental disasters like nuclear in particular.” The economics of nuclear power are outrageous and your comment doesn’t even begin to address the terrorism, national security, health and civil liberties concerns that will ultimately become apparent with the widespread disbursement of nuclear materials. Anyone thinking that nuclear power is an answer to anything at all other than subsidizing one of the biggest corporate welfare schemes in history really needs to think a bit deeper.

    The economics of renewables are a different matter.

    Well sited wind projects are already competitive with coal and natural gas fired generators. If the subsidies for everyone were removed and we taxed carbon or natural resource extraction or pollution to offset currently ignored “economic externalities” of traditional fuels, wind would be our least cost electricity supply.

    Solar economics really depends on regulatory factors. Today, throughout the country even after so called “utility deregulation”, generally utility regulators strictly control retail electricity prices. Resulting blended electrical rates shield customers from the feedback signals of real electricity price signals.

    Past NESEA Board member Dr. Richard Perez published studies almost a decade ago showing that because solar irradiance is coincident with peak demand on the grid, if consumers had to pay the actual spot market electricity prices, solar would have been economical in New York without subsidy even back then. Since that time, the price of solar has dropped dramatically while the price of electricity from the grid has risen.

    Real time-of-use pricing, combined with emerging demand response technology and services, would also have huge beneficial impacts on conservation and energy efficiency.

    Solar and wind also lend themselves to distributed generation, reducing the need for transmission and distribution infrastructure. But those benefits are not directly accounted for in the current economics of electricity markets.

    Bottom line: I agree with you that once “the subsidies are removed, the truth about polluting industries will be exposed for all to see”. And I also agree that we should aim to eliminate subsidies for clean energy as well by working toward a market based regulatory environment which provides real and clear price signals to consumers on both the current real-time costs of electricity and the very real “economic externalities” of incumbent energy providers that are in truth just massive public subsidies for polluting energy systems.

    The discussion about whether we should be taxing carbon, natural resource extraction, consumption generally, or a broad basket of pollution is one that we really should be having in the environmental community. It is pretty clear that any such tax shifting that captures public benefit for the consumption or despoiling of natural resources would provide far more rational and favorable economic impacts than our current system of taxing work, productivity and job creation.

    Of course we will be told that economically rational solutions are not politically feasible. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t advocate for rational solutions. It only goes to prove how corrupt and irrational our politics have become.

  4. Fred Unger says:

    Robert,

    Clearly all of the scientists quoted in my post here have made many other statements on the subject of climate science than those I have quoted.

    If you re-read the quote I used from Dr. Lacis, it doesn’t suggest at all that climate change is not happening, but rather that the IPCC presented the science in an unprofessional manner. I have not seen any indication that Dr. Lacis has actually retracted that statement, only that he clarified his views on the science.

    As Dr. Lacis suggested in his criticism of the IPCC report, extreme rhetoric on climate issues doesn’t help address the problem.

    If you re-read what I wrote:

    “Personally I feel absolutely certain that humans must be having some influence on climate, just based on the scale of influence that 6.8 billion people have on everything on the planet. Very few people would disagree with that premise. But clarifying how the many human and natural factors impacting climate will interact, how those factors will manifest themselves in complex climate systems, how significant our human influence will be and whether changes will have positive or negative impacts on agriculture and other critical aspects of human society, are all determinations that unfortunately are outside any clear understanding or real consensus in the scientific community at this time.”

    My point here is that the politics of how many environmentalists present the issue are unnecessarily divisive and that detracts from the goal of actually addressing the problem.

    Yes, I used the word alarmist in what I wrote. I also used the word skeptic. Perhaps I should have tried to find some new less inflammatory words that describe the varying positions of this debate. The bottom line is that like many others, I think it is past time to be arguing. Its also past time for politicians to be selling out to Wall Street or the nuclear power corporate welfare interests and instead create real solutions to the problem that people of all political persuasions can agree to.

    Others may not embrace the climate issue with the same concern that you do, but will embrace responsible solutions like a revenue neutral carbon tax if we address the solution from a perspective of economic problems, jobs, terrorism, national security, balance of trade and other issues that they do care about.

    Respected responsible scientists like Phil Jones, Judith Curry, and James Lovelock readily acknowledge that significant scientific uncertainties remain in climate science. The point here is that uncertainty really doesn’t matter.

    Nobody responsible is suggesting that the climate is not changing or that human factors have no influence. As I suggested, I anticipated reactions like being called things like a “flat-earth climate-change denier”:

    “I expect that acknowledging the scientific uncertainties regarding the long held beliefs of many of my friends in the environmental movement may result in some calling my integrity and intentions into question. The best answer I can offer them is that unlike those supporting ineffective convoluted answers currently favored in Washington, I am serious enough in my concern on these issues to advocate for policy solutions like H.R. 2380, The Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act that puts an immediate, real and dependable price on carbon emissions. That bipartisan legislation would also address our economic and unemployment problems as well as our energy and environmental concerns and it wouldn’t add a penny to our monstrous federal debt. That’s the kind of solution the vast majority of Americans would support and that credible politicians should also support if they are really more serious about solving problems than they are about handing out pork to their special interest benefactors.”

    As you suggest, I do have a political agenda. I hope that NESEA and other organizations which are concerned with climate issues will help advocate for real and effective solutions like a revenue neutral carbon tax rather than the corrupt solutions currently favored in Washington.

    Cap and Trade favored by the Wall Street interests who stand to benefit most from the scheme would create what US Commodities Future Trading Commissioner Bart Chilton is quoted by the Financial Times as predicting would become “the biggest of any derivatives product in the next four to five years.” We all know how well the mortgage derivatives game worked out.

    White House Budget Director Peter Orszag described some of the challenges of Cap and Trade in his testimony to Congress last March saying: “If you didn’t auction the permit, it would represent the largest corporate welfare program that has ever been enacted in the history of the United States”. Let’s see how the politicians and lobbyists handle that question.

    Its clear that emerging legislation is going to feature massive new handouts for the corporate welfare champions in the nuclear industry. That in itself speaks volumes about the real interests in Washington.

    I firmly believe that a less polarized political debate around climate issues would help lead to responsible solutions that most Americans would favor and that would not only reduce carbon emissions immediately, but could also create jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and address all sorts of real concerns of all Americans.

  5. Hi Fred:

    Nice piece…. to much to respond too as a whole but just one point….
    When the Bureaucratic science spokes people say anything, I tend to take it with a big grain of salt. The easiest way to take a bright engineer or scientist and make them stupid is to turn them into the “B” word…. everything goes down hill from there… anyway, in particular, when the term statistical significance(SS)is used, I always shutter a bit. There are some things or perhaps better said as situations, that are very difficult to show SS without an exact control reference. As example, if we had another earth 180 degrees in space across from us, that was just like us except that humans were not there, we could compare and KNOW exactly the effect ~6.5 billion of us had on the planet. Of course, that is currently unavailable (no parallel control group, or planet in this case) so you have to try and show SS using other means. In many situations where and exact control is absent, SS can not be shown until the end game is basically over. In this scenario waiting that long will probably be way to late. Climate is complex, however, so is putting a man on the moon, but you don’t need a PHD to know that the rocket at least went up and came back down. Simple observation is all that is required…..

    …..Bill

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