The wheels may be falling off the media’s climate discussion, if a recent L.A. Times piece is any evidence. The piece, “Global warming: Just deal with it, some scientists say,” is really an article about not dealing with it.

The L.A. Times, with the help of the delayer-1000 du jour, Roger Pielke, Jr., has brought to prominence (and fallen for) what I call the “adaptation trap”:

The adaptation trap is the belief that 1) “it would be easier and cheaper to adapt than fight climate change” [as the Times puts it in the sub-head] and/or 2) “adaptation” to climate change is possible in any meaningful sense of the word absent an intense mitigation effort starting now to keep carbon dioxide concentrations below 450 ppm.

Sorry for the long definition, but as we’ll see, the second part is especially critical in what has now become an important emerging policy debate, cleverly devoid of specifics. (Indeed, on his blog Pielke says he was misquoted and denies he believes the first part, which actually makes the LAT piece even lamer, as David shows). And being misquoted doesn’t mean Pielke isn’t very wrong anyway — as we’ll see at the end, Pielke is so confused about adaptation and mitigation that he takes the prize for the most backward analogy in the history of the climate debate, unintentionally proving just how wrong he is.

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You see, as I’ve been arguing, the real question for the world is not whether we can stabilize below 450 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide if we try hard enough and fast enough — of course we can, and at a very low cost, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which self-described “nonskeptical heretics” like Pielke claim to believe.

The real question for humanity is whether we can avoid 800 to 1,000 ppm or more. That is what the delayers and nonskeptical heretics simply don’t understand. At 800 to 1,000 ppm, the world faces faces multiple catastrophes, including:

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  1. Sea level rise of 80 feet to 250 feet at a rate of 6 inches a decade (or more).
  2. Desertification of one third the planet and drought over half the planet, plus the loss of all inland glaciers.
  3. More than 70 percent of all species going extinct, plus extreme ocean acidification.

(I will explore these and other impacts in more detail in Part 2.)

This hell and high water could be “adapted” to by billions and billions of people only in the sense that the citizens of New Orleans “adapted” to Hurricane Katrina or that people in Darfur have “adapted” to their military conflict. Such “adaptation” is better called “suffering,” as former AAAS President John Holdren describes it in talks.

What will it take to avoid 800 to 1,000 ppm? Remember the IPCC bombshell from last year:

Based on current understanding of climate carbon cycle feedback … to stabilise at 1000 ppm this feedback could require that cumulative emissions be reduced from a model average of approximately 1415 [1340 to 1490] GtC to approximately 1100 [980 to 1250] GtC.

That means that to have confidence of avoiding 1,000 ppm, we need to have average annual carbon emission substantially below 11 billion tons a year, or average annual carbon dioxide emissions much below 40 billion tons a year. Note: We’re at about 30 billion tons of CO2 annually and rising more than 3 percent a year. We’ll probably be over 40 billion by 2020. Just staying at the 2020 level for another 8 decades would require immediate action and strong national and global measures for a century.

That, of course, is why I try not to waste a lot of time debating skeptics/doubters/deniers/delayers/”heretics”/climate-destroyers until and unless they answer the question:

“If you were running national and global climate policy, what level of global CO2 concentrations would be your goal and how would you achieve it?”

If you can’t or won’t answer that, then in my book blog you’re a “delayer-1000,” meaning it is time to start recounting the likely impacts of 1,000 ppm and move on, because such a person is not a serious contributor to the climate debate.

I posed the question to Pielke in a blog post over a week ago, but he offered no reply. I have gone through the past few months of his posts — oh, the things I do for this blog (don’t worry; I had plenty of coffee on hand) — and can’t actually find out what, specifically, he would do, which is typical of delayers.

The technology trap

He does endorse analysis by Chris Green, who thinks [PDF] emissions targets are the problem and that cutting CO2 emissions in half by 2050 (which is needed to stabilize at or below 450 ppm) is “for all intents and purposes out of the question” because “the replacement of fossil-based energy systems by carbon-emission-free system to any significant degree awaits science and engineering-based technological breakthroughs.”

Yes, it’s the old “technological breakthroughs” canard, or as I call it, the “technology trap” — the first and last refuge of those who either don’t really want to take action or who understand less about energy technology than they do about the climate. To repeat an as-yet un-debunked point I’ve made many times (most notably here, but also in talks to some of the leading energy experts in the world) — in the energy arena:

  1. Technological breakthroughs hardly ever happen.
  2. Even when they do happen, they rarely have a transformative impact on energy markets, even over a span of decades.

If we had to wait for multiple science- and engineering-based technological breakthroughs to stabilize below 450 ppm (or even below 800 ppm), then we could write the obituary for a livable climate right now. But we don’t. I (and others) have laid out the key solutions many times in my posts (and at length in my book), and I will detail more of them this year. But I digress.

No surprise that Pielke has become a fellow at the Breakthrough Institute — yes, this is Shellenberger’s and Nordhaus’ think tank, which should tell you all you need to know (see here and here and here and here and here). That said, S&N support Obama’s terrific climate plan, so I’d be quite interested to know if Pielke does too, because if so, he isn’t a delayer-1000 (but then again, he wouldn’t be a “heretic” either).

Pielke’s use of the term “nonskeptical heretic,” which he coined, is a clever and wholly unjustified attack on real climate scientists. After all, “Heresy is a challenge to a prescribed system of belief, especially a religious one.” The firm belief in the urgent need for action is not a religious belief. It is a rational response to our scientific understanding of the problem, as I’ve explained, which is based on a well-tested theory and many real-world observations — the opposite of religion.

Pielke isn’t a heretic of anything. He is a delayer, maybe a delayer-1000.

One thing is for certain: Pielke is very confused about adaptation and mitigation. He calls for “rejecting bad policy arguments when offered in the way of substitutes for adaptation, like the tired old view that today’s disaster losses are somehow a justification for changes to energy policies.” This tired old straw man view is not a primary justification for changes to energy policy made by any climate or energy expert I know. Hurricanes and major droughts are used to to indicate the impact of permanent changes like sea level rise and desertification — I make that argument all the time.

The most backward analogy you’ve ever seen

Lots of adaptation is inevitable, thanks in part to the success of the deniers and delayers. The question is whether we are going to have lots of (avoidable) suffering as well, because we failed to do enough mitigation fast enough. And this brings us to one of the biggest howlers I’ve ever seen in the entire climate debate, from Pielke’s recent post:

If mitigation advocates do not like being told that their misleading arguments poorly serve policy debate, well, they should probably try to come up with a more robust set of arguments. Arguing that support for adaptation undercuts support for mitigation is a little like making the argument that support for eating healthy and getting exercise (adapting one’s lifestyle) undercuts support for heart surgery research (mitigating the effects of heart disease). Obviously we should seek both adaptation and mitigation in the context of heart disease.

No, no, no. No wonder Pielke is so confused. He labels adaptation what is actually mitigation, and his idea of mitigation is apparently research into adaptation. This must be the most backward analogy I’ve ever witnessed. He actually makes the best case against himself.

“Eating healthy and getting exercise” are not “adapting one’s lifestyle” — they are changing one’s actions substantially to prevent heart disease in the first place. That is prevention. That is mitigation. Switching your diet is analogous to switching to low-carbon fuels. And if eating healthy means eating less, or eating less of bad foods, that would be energy efficiency. Exercise may be closer an analogy to driving your car less and riding a bike instead.

Heart surgery is adaptation — it’s waiting until the bad outcome has occurred (heart disease) and then trying desperately to save yourself with no guarantee of success. Lots of people die on the operating table, or later from complications. Pielke apparently thinks the best that mitigators can do for people at risk of heart disease is research into methods of better surgery for dealing with it.

The correct analogy is that mitigators want to prevent heart disease in the first place, with things like diet and exercise, since adapting to heart disease may turn out to be impossible for many people, no matter how great our surgical/medical means of adapting is. Some people with heart disease will have to restrict their activity, others will have a shorter life or be in constant pain, and others will simply die of a heart attack or complications from surgery.

Such adaptation is a gamble with possibly catastrophic outcomes — whereas smart mitigation can, with high confidence, dramatically decrease one’s chances of bad outcomes (like heart attacks and death) and dramatically increase one’s chances of good outcomes (a long and healthy life). Sound analogous to our current dilemma? So let’s focus the vast majority of our effort on immediate and strong climate mitigation to minimize suffering and do what adaptation we are forced to by our unconscionable delay.

This is a sufficiently important subject that I will continue the discussion in Part 2, focusing on the inadequacy of adaptation, especially in the face of 800 to 1000 ppm.

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