The usually thoughtful journal Nature has just published a pointless and misleading — if not outright dangerous — commentary by delayer-1000 du jour, Roger Pielke, Jr., along with Christopher Green, who, as we’ve seen, is another aspiring delayer.

It will be no surprise to learn the central point of their essay, ironically titled “Dangerous Assumptions” (available here [PDF] or here, with a subscription), is: “Enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels.” This is otherwise known as the technology trap or the standard “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah” delayer message developed by Frank Luntz and perfected by Bush/Lomborg/Gingrich.

The Pielke et al. analysis is certainly confusing, which is not surprising given that the subject matter is arcane: the appropriate baseline for emissions scenarios in climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What is surprising is that Nature would run a piece that comes to a conclusion not only at odds with its own analysis, but a complete reversal from the conclusion of standard delayer analyses just a few years ago:

Five years ago the American Enterprise Institute “proved” that the lowest IPCC emissions projection is too high, and they backed up their conclusion with actual 1990s data, whereas Pielke, Wigley, and Green have “proven” that the highest IPCC emissions projection is too low, and they backed up their conclusion with actual data from this decade.

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Hard to believe, but true. And they say you can’t make this stuff up. Well, maybe you can’t. But the delayers can.

This piece is an embarrassment to Nature‘s reputation as a leader on climate issues, and it suggest that the editors (and reviewers) didn’t actually understand what they were reading.

In this post I will endeavor to explain what’s so incredibly pointless about the piece, flawed about the analysis, embarrassing and misguided about the conclusion. Regular readers of this blog know why the technology trap is dangerous (it leads to delay, which is fatal to the planet’s livability). This can’t be done briefly. You should probably read my recent posts “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible?” and, possibly, “The adaptation trap 2: The not-so-honest-broker” first. Oh, and you should actually read the article. Come on, you know you are hot for this baseline analysis stuff. Trust me, you won’t believe what these guys try to get away with.

Pointless piece

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Actually, it is pretty easy to explain why the piece is pointless, much easier than, say, explaining why Nature published it. First, the authors never bother to explain what greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration target they believe is needed to avoid dangerous warming. We are many years past the time anybody needs to read another essay on why stabilizing atmospheric GHG concentrations is really, really, really hard — with no discussion whatsoever of 1) why failing to stabilize well below, say, 700 parts per million of CO2 ppm is really, really, really suicidal and 2) what is in fact an appropriate target and how do we get there. So what is the point of the piece? To convince people the situation is hopeless? [Nature actually runs a side piece on the commentary titled, “Are the IPCC scenarios ‘unachievable’? ($ubs. req’d) — and people call me an alarmist!]

Second, what’s “new” about the piece, at least in the authors’ minds, is that “the size of this technology challenge has been seriously underestimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, diverting attention from policies that could directly stimulate technological innovation.” But the first half of this sentence, to the extent it’s true, is well known by every energy and technology modeling expert I know. I myself blogged on this very point two days ago in the 450 ppm post. This is a tough friggin’ problem, and the IPCC is a body that inherently understates things. Alert the media! No, seriously, alert the media, because they don’t seem to know the IPCC understates things.

Third, the authors never bother to explain why the clause I put in boldface is true, probably because they know it isn’t. The IPCC’s recent report, though an understatement of the climate problem certainly does NOT divert attention from the policies needed to avoid castrophe. This clause by itself is an embarrassment to Nature (and nature, for that matter) — the IPCC authors are literally begging for action, far more genuine action than Pielke et al advocate (see here and here)! Indeed, Pielke et al. seem to be begging for inaction, but I digress. If the clause were true and if Pielke et al. did explain why, the piece might have a useful point to make. But, as we’ve seen and we’ll see again, this is characteristic of Pielke’s work — he doesn’t define terms specifically enough to make policy-relevant conclusions. “Innovation” can potentially encompass aspects of both R&D and deployment (see below). Since this paper doesn’t define the word “innovation,” it is very hard to tell what precisely the authors’ point is (other than to lead us into the technology trap).

Misleading analysis

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So what does the article say? The article focuses on the nearly three dozen (!) reference scenarios of future GHG emissions that the IPCC uses. These reference scenarios imagine very different worlds, with varying degrees of economic and population growth, energy technology, fossil fuel use, and sustainability efforts. [Note: This is probably one of the dumbest things the IPCC ever did — it confuses the heck out of everybody, and I myself have to go to a reference book every time I see someone modeling a different scenario, like A2 or B1 or A1F1 — yes, A1F1.]

Let me also repeat their definition of a key term:

Decarbonization of the global energy system depends mainly on reductions in energy intensity and carbon intensity. These result from technological changes that improve energy efficency and/or replace carbon-emitting systems with ones that have lower (or no) net emissions.

[Actually, most people I know separate “energy efficiency” (achieving the same energy services using less energy) from “decarbonization” (using fuels that generate less carbon per unit of energy provided), but that is a small point, and, in fact, Pielke et al. mostly treat them separately.]

The central analytical finding of the article:

Here we show that two thirds or more of all the energy efficiency improvements and decarbonization of energy supply required to stabilize greenhouse gases is already built into the IPCC reference scenarios. This is because the scenarios assume a certain amount of spontaneous technological change and related decarbonization. Thus, the IPCC implicitly assumes that the bulk of the challenge of reducing future emissions will occur in the absence of climate policies. We believe that these assumptions are optimistic at best and unachievable at worst, potentially seriously underestimating the scale of the technological challenge associated with stabilizing greenhouse-gas concentrations.

Sounds serious. The authors certainly “believe” what they are saying. But just how true is it? A major problem with this analysis is that the baseline Pielke et al use to reach this finding is

a ‘frozen technology’ baseline, which assumes that future energy needs are met with the technologies available in some baseline year (the technologies are ‘frozen’ in time).

Well, that seems odd. Technology isn’t “frozen” in the real world. Energy intensity tends to improve (decrease) over time, certainly it did over the last century, and, so did carbon intensity. The key word in that last sentence is “did.”

The authors rightly point out, as many people have, that since 2000, both energy intensity and carbon intensity have been increasing, slightly, with annual increases below 0.5 percent a year. This is such an unusual occurence that not a single one of the IPCC scenarios had even considered it, as their figure shows:


Implied rates of carbon- and energy-intensity decline from the 2000 Special Report on Emission Scenarios, showing six illustrative scenarios. The red marker indicates actual observations (2000 — 2005) based on global economic growth calculated using market exchange rates.

But, of course, this begs the question — Are the last few years anomalous or have they become the new norm? The authors believe they know the answer, but, of course, they can’t prove it. They spend a couple of paragraphs arguing that this is a fundamental shift, because of rapidly developing countries, like China. But, in fact, right now much if not most of the recarbonization is China’s abandonment of its two-decade long marriage to energy efficiency for a torrid love affair with coal, an affair that is literally breathtaking.

For two decades prior to 2000, China had an aggressive energy efficiency strategy and worked hard to avoid inefficient coal use, as I discussed here. Then they stopped. They are trying, admittedly not bloody hard, to go back to efficiency. But they could if they wanted to and it would save them lots of money irrespective of climate concerns. So I’m just not sure you can just put up a graph of the last few years and say that means all the IPCC models are potentially “unachievable.” Like the “stabilization wedges” analysis from Princeton that I discussed a few days ago, this analysis suffers because it doesn’t know what the actual baseline for future energy and emissions growth is (and, of course, that’s why the IPCC has 35 models, to cover lots of different future scenarios).

You can certainly conclude the IPCC models will seriously underestimate emissions growth this decade. Many of us have been saying that for a while. The natural reaction to that would be to argue for more aggressive deployment of energy efficient and low-carbon technology starting immediately. After all, technology advances didn’t stop in 2000 (if anything, they accelerated) — a few countries just stopped adopting them at the normal pace in a frenzy of inefficient and polluting growth.

Well, that would be the natural reaction — if you actually believed the rest of the IPPC report (as Pielke claims to), and especially if you believed the rest of the IPCC report similarly understated the climate threat we face, as I and others have argued. But to come to that reaction you’d have to understand and/or explain why we must stabilize below 450 ppm and stay far, far away from 800 ppm to 1000 ppm. You’d have to say what you believe is an appropriate target and how we get there.

Absent that, your discussion is going to be simultaneously unoriginal and misleading — and your conclusion may end up being embarrassing (to yourself, that is) and dangerous (to the world, that is, if anybody actually listened to you, which they might if you were published in a prestigious journal).

Embarrassing conclusion

For years, people like Pielke (I call them delayers, you can call them climate destroyers, or, if you like, “people who are very wrong”) have been arguing that the IPCC’s emissions models were too pessimistic. That’s right, the climate deniers/delayers/destroyers have been saying that the IPCC was scaring people into unnecessary action by assuming emissions growth was higher than in fact it was.

Yes, I know, if you actually read the Pielke et al piece, that seems hard to believe. They never bother pointing this out. But after a mere 10 seconds on Google, I found a classic example, an essay from the conservative (read denier/delayer/destroyer) American Enterprise Institute titled … wait for it … “New Doubts about the Dominant Climate Change Models.” Oh it gets better. The April 2003 analysis finds (italics in original):

Meanwhile, an Australian statistician and a British economist have blown a huge hole in the methodology by which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made its long-term estimates of man-made carbon dioxide emissions for the twenty-first century. If this critique is correct, the IPCC has vastly overestimated the amount of man-made CO2 emissions and will need to remake its climate change models.

Yes. You read it right. A statistician and economist have debunked the IPCC models, proving that they “vastly overestimated” future CO2 emissions. What is it about papers published in April that makes people so foolish? Just to be crystal clear, the paper found …

Castles and Henderson argue that the IPCC economic forecasts are based on fundamentally flawed economic assumptions that generate huge overestimates of future CO2 emissions … The mean IPCC projection for the 1990s was that worldwide CO2 emissions would increase by about 15 percent. In fact, worldwide CO2 emissions grew by only about 6 percent according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Even the lowest of the IPCC’s emissions projections is probably too high, which means that the projections of global warming may be too high as well.

You just can’t make this stuff up! Well, you and I can’t, but the delayers apparently can. To sum up:

Five years ago the American Enterprise Institute “proved” that the lowest IPCC emissions projection is too high, and they backed up their conclusion with actual 1990s data, whereas Pielke, Wigley, and Green have “proven” that the highest IPCC emissions projection is too low, and they backed up their conclusion with actual data from this decade.

I will say one thing for this AEI analysis — at least AEI drew an intellectually consistent conclusion. If the IPCC were overstating future GHG emissions, then obviously they were overstating future GHG concentrations, and thus obviously overstating future temperature rise, and therefore overstating future impacts, and finally, overstating the urgent need for action now. (And by action, I don’t mean research and development.)

So tell me how Pielke et al can utterly disprove this analysis (sort of) and come to the same exact conclusion that the IPCC has overstated the urgent need for action now? This piece is an embarrassment. In fact, if Pielke et al. were aware of this previous analysis, then this Nature commentary borders on intellectual dishonesty.

Let’s plow through the end of their commentary with my editorial commentary:

Dangerous conclusions

Because of these dramatic changes in the global economy it is likely that we have only just begun to experience the surge in global energy use associated with ongoing rapid development.

[We’ve been surging in global energy use for a long while now — at least 250 years. That’s why we’re in danger.]

Such trends are in stark contrast to the optimism of the near-future IPCC projections and seem unlikely to alter course soon.

[The second half of that sentence is an assumption, no different than the IPCC’s assumptions. Might be right. Might not. It was not at all true in the 1990s, as AEI showed.]

The world is on a development and energy path that will bring with it a surge in carbon-dioxide emissions — a surge that can only end with a transformation of global energy systems.

[We’ve known that for decades. Hmm. Note to self: Be wary of analyses that use the word “surge.”]

We believe such technological transformation will take many decades to complete, even if we start taking far more aggressive action on energy technology innovation today.

[They say that like it’s startling news to anybody on the planet. If they had only defined what they mean by “innovation” here. Presumably they mean development of new technology (rather than exploitation of underutilized “new” technologies like lithium ion batteries for electric cars, solar thermal electric, cogeneration, electric efficiency), especially given their next sentence … ]

Aside: Innovation has lots of related meanings (see here), but probably a good distinction to use is “Invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process, while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out into practice.” That is, innovation is somewhere between R&D (research and development) and deployment (widespread use in the marketplace). This does not seem to be how Pielke et al use it [see next sentence], but it is how most people I know use it.

Enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels.

So they seem to think that “innovation” = “enormous advances in energy technology” = many radically new technologies [Green has previously [PDF] used the phrase “science and engineering-based technological breakthroughs”]. I confess I don’t like having to guess what other people really mean.

[Here is where they take that dangerous high dive into the shallow end of the pool. First, how can they possibly make this statement if they haven’t defined what “acceptable levels” are? Second, even if they defined acceptable levels the way a reasonable person might, how can they know we need “enormous advances” if they haven’t explained the cost of inaction. Suppose the situation is so dire, especially because the IPCC has underestimated near-term emissions growth (and underestimated amplifying feedbacks), that we just can’t wait for advances or breakthroughs that might never come. Suppose we simply need to bite the bullet and deploy every last bit of existing technology as fast as possible to avert unimaginable catastrophe. Note to Pielke, Wigley, and Green — it is that dire.]

If much of these advances occur spontaneously, as suggested by the scenarios used by the IPCC, then the challenge of stabilization might be less complicated and costly.

[I think the word “spontaneously” is misleading here. Countries can choose to embrace efficiency or not — as China proved. Yes, it is more economically expensive to embrace low-carbon fuels — but it won’t be when there is a price for carbon, even without technology advances. And what if the price of oil doubles over the next decade or so? That will also “spontaneously” change the rate of change of energy intensity.]

However, if most decarbonization does not occur automatically, then the challenge to stabilization could in fact be much larger than presented by the IPCC.

[Again, “automatically” is misleading. Countries that recognize how dire the situation is have been decarbonizing. China, obviously, has been doing the reverse — perhaps because they’ve been reading Pielke’s work and concluding the situation is not dire and it can be solve by new technology in the future. Or maybe they read AEI’s work and concluded the situation is not dire … ]

There is no question about whether technological innovation is necessary — it is.

[Again, they say that like it’s startling news to anybody on the planet. ]

The question is, to what degree should policy focus directly on motivating such innovation?

[That is not the question, at least not if you accept the scientific understanding of global warming as reflected in the IPCC summaries. The question is, to what degree should policy focus on accelerating the deployment of energy efficient and decarbonizing technology now? We don’t so much need policies to “motivate” innovation (at least if innovation means R&D), as we need to start spending a lot more money directly on R&D. What we urgently need to “motivate” is technology deployment.]

IPCC plays a risky game in assuming that spontaneous advances in technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions, rather than focusing on creating the conditions for such innovations to occur.

Huh? Shouldn’t the last sentence be, uh, like, clear in its meaning, or even, for that matter, somewhat true? Could they have packed more confusing or misleading thoughts into it?

  1. The IPCC is playing “a risky game”? The IPCC scientists are begging the world to stabilize below 450 ppm. The risky game is Pielke et al.’s pointless pitch for new technology when we have run out of time for such delay.
  2. The IPCC hasn’t been assuming “spontaneous advances in technological innovation. ” They have been assuming varyingly aggressive amounts of technology deployment. Why don’t the delayers understand the difference between R&D and deployment. It takes a long time for “enormous advances in energy technology” to achieve significant commercial success in the market — usually decades (Solar PV was developed here 50 years ago, and it’s now 0.1 percent of electricity production — at least in this country, because we don’t emphasize deployment). If energy efficiency and decarbonization lagged from 2000 to 2006, it’s not because new technology wasn’t developed (or, in Pielke’s language, it’s not because we lacked spontaneous advances in technological innovation). It’s because we didn’t deploy the energy-efficient and low carbon technologies we had.
  3. ” … rather than focusing on creating the conditions for such innovations to occur.” This is similar to the earlier phrase “diverting attention from policies that could directly stimulate technological innovation.” It is similarly nonsense. The conditions for innovation in climate solutions as most people define innovation is a serious price for carbon plus improved regulations (fuel economy standards, appliance standards, utility decoupling, etc.).

Of course we need aggressive investments in R&D — I for one have been arguing that for two decades. We must have all whole new set of technologies ready for mass deployment by 2050, if not 2030, when we need to make deep GHG reductions and ultimately go to zero net emissions, if not lower.

But if we don’t start aggressively deploying the technologies we have now for the next quarter century, then all the new technologies in the world won’t avert catastrophe (and we’ll still need aggressive tech deployment strategies and a serious price for carbon to deploy those new technologies!) — which the authors would have to admit if they ever actually defined what “acceptable levels” of GHG concentrations were.

The entire focus of the IPCC scientists is on creating the conditions for aggressive technology. They write:

There is high agreement and much evidence that all stabilisation levels assessed can be achieved by deployment of a portfolio of technologies that are either currently available or expected to be commercialised in coming decades, assuming appropriate and effective incentives are in place for their development, acquisition, deployment and diffusion and addressing related barriers.

When the Synthesis report was released in November, IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri said “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

How can the IPCC possible be accused of “diverting attention from policies that could directly stimulate technological innovation”? On the other hand, Pielke, Wigley, and Green can be — in fact, that seems to be their primary goal here. They are the ones diverting attention from stimulating innovation (as defined above) and aggressive technology deployment by focusing instead on the need for “enormous advances in energy technology.” This piece is the definitive “technology, technology, technology, blah, blah” commentary .

That is why the piece is dangerous — if anybody actually listens to them, we would be more likely to end up at 800 to 1000 ppm. And that is why it is embarrassing to Nature for giving a veneer of legitimacy to such delayer nonsense.

Note: Nature has an article ($ub. req’d) on this piece, “Are the IPCC scenarios ‘unachievable’?” which draws further unwarranted attention to the piece. I’ll discuss this article later, since it does something that also borders on intellectual dishonesty.

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.