29 Jul 2009: Opinion

The Folly of ‘Magical Solutions’
for Targeting Carbon Emissions

Setting unattainable emissions targets is not a policy — it’s an act of wishful thinking, argues one political scientist. Instead, governments and society should focus money and attention on workable solutions for improving energy efficiency and de-carbonizing our economies.

by roger a. pielke jr.

Fifty years ago, political scientist Harold Lasswell explained that some policies are all about symbolism, with little or no impact on real-world outcomes. He called such actions “magical solutions,” explaining that “political symbolization has its catharsis functions.” Climate policy is going through exactly such a phase, in which a focus on magical solutions leaves little room for the practical.

Evidence for this claim can be found in the global reaction to the commitment made by the Japanese government last month to reduce emissions by 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The announcement was met with derision. For instance, Yvo de Boer, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, expressed shock at Japan’s lack of ambition, stating, “I think for the first time in two-and-a-half years in this job, I don’t know what to say.” Sir David King, Britain’s former chief scientist and now director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at Oxford University, singled out Japan as a country that was blocking progress toward an international deal on climate change.

Explaining what would constitute an acceptable target, de Boer explained that “the minus 25 to 40 range has become a sort of beacon” — referring to emissions reduction figures presented in the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which were highlighted in subsequent international negotiations at Bali. Perhaps this is also the magnitude of target that King had in mind when disparaging the Japanese proposal. After all, the British government has enacted a law consistent with this range, requiring emissions reductions of 34 percent below 1990 levels by 2022, which would be upped to 42 percent if the world reaches a global climate agreement in Copenhagen in December.

What is missing from the debate over targets and timetables is any conception of the realism of such proposals. If a proposal is not realistic, it
When policy debate detaches from reality, up can become down in a hurry.
is not really a policy proposal but an exercise in symbolism, a “magical solution.” Symbolism is of course an essential part of politics, but when it becomes detached from reality — or even worse, used to exclude consideration of realistic proposals — the inevitable outcome is that policies will likely fail to achieve the promised ends. This outcome is highly problematic for those who actually care about the substance of climate policy proposals.

The U.K. targets are a perfect example of what happens when symbols become disconnected from reality. To achieve a 34 percent reduction from 1990 emissions by 2022 while maintaining modest economic growth would require that the U.K. decarbonize its economy to the level of France by about 2016. In more concrete terms, Britain would have to achieve the equivalent of deploying about 30 new nuclear power plants in the next six years, just to get part way to its target. One does not need a degree in nuclear physics to conclude that is just not going to happen. Colin Challen, Member of Parliament (Labour) and chairman of its All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, has concluded that the U.K. targets are “well beyond our current political capacity to deliver.” Perhaps there is some consolation in the fact that the U.K. targets are symbolically strong.

The Japanese targets are not that much different from those in the U.K., requiring a rate of decarbonization of the Japanese economy by 2020 that is only one percent per year less than that implied by the U.K. target. To meet its 2020 target, Japan expects to do the following: construct nine new nuclear power plant plants and improve utilized capacity to 80 percent (from 60 percent); build about 34 new wind-power plants producing around 5 million kilowatts; install solar panels on 2.9 million homes (an increase of 2,000 percent over current levels); increase the share of newly built houses satisfying stringent insulation standards from 40 percent today to 80 percent; and increase sales of next-generation vehicles from 4 percent (2005) to 50 percent (2020).

Meeting these goals will be enormously difficult, especially because Japan has for decades been at the forefront of improving energy efficiency and has already plucked much “low hanging fruit.” Consequently, if Japan’s proposals are to be criticized, perhaps it should be because they are too ambitious rather than too weak. But when policy debate detaches from reality, up can become down in a hurry.

Political debate over climate policy is such that the facts on the ground often make little difference. Another good example of this dynamic can be found in New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s views on the
Waxman-Markey has symbolic heft but precious little effect on emissions.
cap-and-trade bill now being considered by the U.S. Senate. Friedman recently evaluated the bill as it emerged from the House of Representatives as follows: “There is much in the House cap-and-trade energy bill that just passed that I absolutely hate. It is too weak in key areas and way too complicated in others. A simple, straightforward carbon tax would have made much more sense than this Rube Goldberg contraption. It is pathetic that we couldn’t do better. It is appalling that so much had to be given away to polluters. It stinks. It’s a mess. I detest it.”

He then concludes, “Now let’s get it passed in the Senate and make it law.”

How can Friedman come to such a conclusion based on his judgment that the legislation is a “mess”? Symbolism. Friedman explains, “Rejecting this bill would have been read in the world as America voting against the reality and urgency of climate change and would have undermined clean energy initiatives everywhere.” Friedman’s views about how the bill would be “read” help to explain why it is that climate policy has become about demonstrating one’s strong feelings about the reality and urgency of climate change and not so much about implementing policies that can actually work. A few minutes spent exploring the climate corner of the blogosphere is enough to confirm this claim.

The good news, I suppose, is that the policy process provides plenty of good examples of situations where symbolism and reality get out of kilter with one another, only to be reconciled through the messy political process. One example is the congressional response to budget deficits in the 1980s. At the time it was widely recognized that the growing budget deficits were a problem that had to be dealt with. So Congress passed legislation (Gramm-Rudman-Hollings) which mandated that projected budgets had to be balanced. And what happened? Projected budgets were balanced using rosy scenarios and accounting tricks, and the actual budget was nowhere close to being in balance. For a while the impression was given that something was being done. But when the numbers came in, this particular “magical solution” was judged a failure.

Despite the Byzantine complexity of the process, the mathematics of budgeting are not difficult. To be in balance the money coming in must equal the money going out, and these are controlled via taxes and spending. Budgets did not reach balance until Congress revisited its balanced budget legislation to focus on reconciling taxes and spending. Aided by favorable economic winds, the federal budget was balanced by the end of the 1990s.

Climate policy is in the midst of a dynamic very similar to that in budget policy in the 1980s and 1990s. Policies such as the Kyoto Protocol, the U.K. Climate Change Act, and the U.S. cap-and-trade (Waxman-Markey) bill are each “magical solutions” with considerable symbolic heft but precious little effect (actual or potential) on emissions. The poor actual or expected performance of these policies is presently rationalized in terms of the need to take the first tentative steps to put in place institutions that can eventually be focused more directly on the problem.

Emissions reduction has its own simple arithmetic. In the context of modest economic growth, emissions are reduced when energy efficiency improves and/or when energy supply is decarbonized. A direct approach to
For climate policy to succeed, it must move beyond magical solutions to those that actually work.
efficiency and expansion of low-carbon energy is much preferable to the indirect approach enshrined in current policies. A low carbon tax (priced as high as politically possible) could be used to raise funds to invest in technological innovation and deployment. While there are lessons to be learned from past policies (in places such as Japan on efficiency, France on nuclear power, the EU on wind and gas, and so on), the reality is that no one knows how to rapidly decarbonize a major economy or how fast decarbonization can actually take place. So there is merit in trying different approaches in different places.

Ultimately, depending on the relative success of mitigation policies, we may decide in a few decades to adopt a more brute-force approach to removing carbon directly from the atmosphere. In the meantime, however, we should take advantage of every opportunity to learn from efforts to decarbonize economic activity, with particular attention to realistic approaches and costs, such as contained in the Japanese proposal.

In contrast, policies focused on targets and timetables for emissions reductions avoid questions about the realism and costs of the steps actually needed to reduce emissions. As Stanford’s David Victor explains, “setting binding emission targets through treaties is wrongheaded because it ‘forces’ governments to do things they don’t know how to do. And that puts them in a box, from which they escape using accounting tricks (e.g., offsets) rather than real effort.” Until policies focus more directly on improving efficiency and decarbonizing supply, accounting tricks will dominate the policy response, just as occurred in budget policy.

Symbolism is of course both necessary and important in politics. But when symbolism becomes a substitute for meaningful actions, as shown by the dismissive responses to Japan’s emissions reductions proposal, then policy making runs the risk of becoming nothing more than an opportunity to bear witness to cherished values. For climate policy to actually succeed in reducing emissions, it must move beyond “magical solutions” to those that actually work. This means closing the large gap between aspirational goals and actual policy implementation. The global reaction to Japan’s climate policy proposals indicates that this implementation gap remains very large and unlikely to close any time soon.

POSTED ON 29 Jul 2009 IN Climate Climate Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Asia North America North America 


I didn't read this article. Didn't need to - I've read enough of Pielke Junior to know his agenda - do nothing at all costs. Do nothing that would impact his lifestyle or 'The American Way' (aka 'Consume As Much As You Can Guilt-Free'.

Shame on E360 for giving him a platform. I could go to any denier blog for this type of rhetoric.

Posted by DavidCOG on 29 Jul 2009

That is awfully extreme: Why does questioning the current approach to climate policy garner the label "denier"? Do you think the results thus far — the highly watered-down Waxman-Markey Bill (US) and the unenforceable Kyoto Protocol (international) — are worth celebrating?

That is one of the central tenets of the article: that by allowing politicians to employ "magical solutions", they can get away with continuing the business as usual "American way" that you decry. You actually may agree with Dr. Pielke Jr. much more than you realize.
Posted by Dan Chavas on 29 Jul 2009

So, basically, what Roger is saying is that we don't need targets whatsoever. Heck, we probably shouldn't even bother with the measurements at Mauna Loa, 'cause we shouldn't measure our progress against them anyway!

It's like in business. It's CRAZY to set sales and expense objectives! Only crazy business people would set objectives! Better to just let everybody do their own thing and then tally it all up at the end of the year. Oh wait. Forget the tally-it-all-up part as well.

Thanks for another FAIL, Roger.
Posted by tidal on 29 Jul 2009


I have no problem with targets and timetables, achieving policy goals would be impossible without them. However, I'd much prefer to see targets and timetables for gains in energy efficiency and the expansion of low-carbon energy supply. Targets and timetables for emissions reductions measure an output. Climate policies won't succeed until we focus on inputs, it is that simple.
Posted by Roger Pielke Jr on 29 Jul 2009

"Targets and timetables for emissions reductions measure an output."

The REASON we are even engaged in this discussion is because we have a big problem with this "output". That is the thing we need to focus on reducing.

If, to use the business analogy again, I am looking to increase SALES, I need to measure that against a target for SALES. Sure, you can also measure/incentivize the number of sales calls the reps make, or the number of ads you run, or the frequency of red ties worn. But the bottom line is that you need to measure your success or failure against SALES objectives.

In the case of "emissions in 2020" or whatever, the objectives are only "unrealistic" because the magnitude of the problem - the physics of the problem - is such that they are way, way outside our comfort zone. But we aren't in a position to renegotiate with radiative physics, so they ARE our emission objectives.

Your argument is cute/clever, but it's a total diversion.

We set objectives and measure success against all kinds of "outputs" (as Roger calls them). Patient's blood pressure, company's sales, votes in an election,

We can encourage or "incentivize" - and measure and target - behaviours (inputs?) that go to support achieving the desired "output" objective. But we don't just set targets for the inputs and forget about the larger target.

"Hey! We knocked on more doors than they did! That means we won the election!" or "We made more cold calls than we did last year! Therefore, our sales were larger!" or "I ate less salt last month, therefore my blood pressure is ok."

This is not the way we do things in the real world. It's that simple.
Posted by tidal on 29 Jul 2009


Your article contains no discussion of climate bottom lines. I think it has to exclude them because having advocated for the elevation of "political workability" to the central goal of climate activism, there is no longer a place for physical bottom lines.

Isn't your proposal exactly a "magical solution" in that it completely ignores whether its outcome will solve the problem? Given the very strong scientific consensus that the solution to global warming must keep the warming level below two degrees Celsius, is it not magical thinking to suggest we will "solve" global warming with policies that do not have a two degree goal and will not result in such a limit?

From a broader perspective, your argument fundamentally misses the dialectical nature of political processes. The outcome of a political debate is determined by competing positions, most of which are to the left and right of the final resolution. The resolution is not in opposition to those positions, it is produced by them. What you derisively call "symbolism", is in fact the very real content of political change. It is what creates tension, defines problems, demands solutions, and generally pushes society to take action. Eliminate symbolism, and you eliminate progress.

Of course, nature of dialects is that you can't eliminate symbolism. Advocating its elimination is just another symbolic gesture that feeds the political debate. Luckily, its a gesture unlikely to have much influence. Society has progressed to recognize that most environmental problems bump up against a physical limit, and that acceptable solutions must be expressed--even if imperfectly--in terms of the physical limit.

Finally, note that your ignore-the-scientific-bottom-line, just-do-what-is-technically-socially practical is the position adopted almost universally by industries seeking to avoid regulation. It was the argument against the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. Such tweak-the-status-quo arguments are not likely to find many supporters among those seeking to change the status quo.
Posted by Kieran Suckling on 29 Jul 2009

Tidal and Kieran-

Thanks for these comments. Consider the following analogy:

What if as a matter of policy we decided that advancing human lifespans makes good sense? Should we engage in a debate about whether we want to advance average lifespans to 85.5 years by 2050, or maybe it should be 91.0 years by 2045? Going further should we attempt to set these targets in law as binding goals?

No, that would be nonsense because average lifespans are an outcome of progress on individual diseases and public health. Instead what we do is proceed incrementally, attacking diseases and public health issues directly, making as much progress as we can, as fast as we can.

You can of course conclude that you wish to see climate stabilized at 450 ppm or 350 or whatever but some date in the future, and then back out whatever rates of advances in efficiency gains or deployment of low-carbon supply are necessary to meet those goals. I did exactly that in this paper on the UK:


Progress on achieving those rates of decarbonization will occur only when we focus directly on decarbonization of the economy, and not mainly on targets and timetables for emissions reductions. The analogy to health outcomes is identical -- we will advance human lifespans only when we directly focus on disease and public health, and not before. No binding targets and timetables for advancing lifespans will change that.
Posted by Roger Pielke Jr on 29 Jul 2009

Is anybody reading what he is saying? He says we need to set achievable and realistic emissions goals and have a plan for reaching them if we want to deal with climate change. Setting feel-good fantasy goals that can't be met is not constructive.

What he is saying seems to be nothing more than common sense, unless you think climate change isn't a problem and we don't need a solution.
Posted by Joel Upchurch on 29 Jul 2009

Those special interests wedded to the status quo, e.g., Waxman-Markey, argue "we must do something," "this is a first step and a framework," "the people who oppose the bill are fraudsters," etc. But this does little to address the key problem.

These arguments may make advocates feel better, but they are not geared toward solving the problem. Beware when moralizing, such as we see in these posts, becomes the case for a defending a piece of legislation or course of action.
Posted by Pete Geddes on 29 Jul 2009

I was amused by DavidCOG's comment that he hadn't read Dr. Pielke's article and that he felt he didn't need to. As an academic in the humanities, I'm often embarrassed by the pre-Enlightenment attitudes of my colleagues--their illogic, irrationality, and closed-mindedness. I'm embarrassed largely because I assume things must be much different in the sciences. WRONG.

I hate to say this, but I think it falls to scientists such as Dr. Pielke to come up with an excuse that will permit hysterics to grease their exit from this ludicrous crusade they've been on -- something like an amnesty for late library books. Something that says, "If you stop this nonsense by January 1, 2010, global warming crusaders, we'll pretend it never happened and we won't hold it against you." Otherwise, I fear they will bugger the economy even worse and start threatening those who disagree with them even more severely, all in an effort to save face.
Posted by Frank Lee on 29 Jul 2009

What this author misses is the economic point of the cap-and-trade system. By assuming that a magic number set as a goal will merely serve a symbolic purpose, he gives discredit to the forces that such a cap can unleash. I see no evidence that such a tack won't work, only theoretic pinings about symbolic goals vs practical targets. On the other hand, we have strong evidence that such a cap and trade system can and will work, and possibly beyond our wild hopes - just as it did when a similar system was put in place to lower acid rain polution in the U.S. While the arguments against it were legion ("t will cost too much!" rained in from the right while "you're giving the right to pollute away to the polluters!" came in from the left), the system enacted in the Clean Air Act was a run-away success, costing billions less than industry proponents estimated, and easily beating the very stringent targets that were set.

The main point being: the author suggests that those who set policy should also set the means to achieve the goals, that then government should set the technology and method of deployment to reach conservative, achievable goals. But it is not government who will enact this change. The challenge remains with businesses to figure out how to cut their emissions, and how to do so in a least-cost manner. Placing a firm cap will certainly allow businesses of all types to compete in the race to lower emissions, and those who win, will actually win, due to the tradeability of permits. While such a system is not guaranteed to succeed, it will bring in the best people to get the job done: the entrepreneurs who have been building and driving the economy of the world.
Posted by Jon Gensler on 29 Jul 2009

On behalf of the Japanese government, a team of researchers evaluated scenarios by which Japan can reduce its CO2 emissions by 70 percent by 2050. Their results show that achieving this target is technically and economically feasible. See this link for more information - http://2050.nies.go.jp/

These are not fantasy goals, they are achievable (at least according to the findings of this team).

The decision by Japan to pursue a much lower set of targets in the current round of negotiations is based on political expediency. An extensive consultation process takes place within the Japanese Government, and this takes into consideration the views of the Keidanren (business association). Normally a compromise is reached, which tends to be on the conservative side, rather than the ambitious. So essentially, this is where the realism steps in. Is it politically realistic?

With respect to the ambitious targets set out by the UK government, perhaps the author should look at the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan - National Strategy for Climate and Energy. It outlines just how the UK will reach its targets. http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/publications/lc_trans_plan/lc_trans_plan.aspx

The UK government is also highly consultative when developing targets and strategies. It will have received input from various stakeholders and based on those inputs, it proposed the current targets as being "realistic."

So the whole process of setting targets is essential and valuable, especially when backed by good strategies and supported by strong political leadership. With respect to the level of ambition, it appears that this all boils down to what one considers "realistic" and that is just politics, because technically and economically, we have seen, the targets are achievable.

Posted by Brendan Barrett on 29 Jul 2009


You said, "Given the very strong scientific consensus that the solution to global warming must keep the warming level below two degrees Celsius."

As I scientist, I know that my realm is that of "might" and "could" not "should" or "must" which are social values calls.

Perhaps if scientists are saying this, they are stepping over some line.. I would like to live in a democracy, not a technocracy.
All: one criticism I seldom hear is that a carbon tax would put money into the hands of scientists and engineers developing new technologies and blue collar workers producing them.. while cap'n'trade seems like it will put money into the pockets of analyzers, verifiers and traders. It is open to a high degree of corruption.

Is a successful economy the product of innovators and producers or checkers, verifiers and creative numbers people?
Posted by Sharon Friedman on 29 Jul 2009

"I ate less salt last month, therefore my blood pressure is ok."

To take your analogy further, suppose the doctor's approach was this: Give zero guidance about diet, exercise and prescribe no medicine for the high blood pressure. Then say, "Our goal is to get your blood pressure down to 100/60. Come back once every six months and we'll monitor."

Would this work? Is this what doctors do?

Reality is that on a day to day basis, one makes an achievable (though possibly ambitious) goal, then identifies steps to achieve it. If there are no possible steps to achieve a goal, you might need to modify the goal. Once we have a plan and a goal, we do monitor whether or not the steps are being taken and also track whether we are making progress to the goal.

What we have with magical thinking is setting a) goals that might be impossible, b) criticizing those who set achievable goals c) fuzzy thinking about implementation and worst of all d) plans like Waxman-Markey that are doomed to failure.
Posted by Lucia on 30 Jul 2009

The universal promotion of so-called magical solutions are a sign that politicians do not take the issue of GHG emissions seriously.

If it is true that Britain needs to build 30 nuclear power plants to achieve proposed targets, then the obvious solution is for government to promote accelerated construction. But wait, the most vocal and influential climate change advocates deny that nuclear power is a solution to GHG reduction.

Because there is no push to offer real "shovel-ready" GHG reduction projects via the trillions of stimulus monies, the message to the masses is that climate change is a hoax. The ill considered denialism of Dr. P's thesis in the comments is further evidence that climate change is a means to political ends, not a scientific or engineering problem.
Posted by Howard Whitney on 30 Jul 2009

Kieran and Tidal nailed it. In addition to the lessons learned in the implementation of the federal policies Kieran mentions in his last paragraph, anyone who has spent much time working on environmental issues in local government (me, e.g.) will tell you that both goals and sufficiently detailed implementation plans are needed to get anything done. Roger's suggestion of plans without goals is a formula for failure, and his criticism of goals without plans is an attack on a straw man.

As Joel notes, after all the diversions Roger just seems to be arguing in favor of goals with plans, leaving me to wonder who Roger thinks he's making a fresh point to. No one reading this article, I suspect.

Posted by Steve Bloom on 30 Jul 2009


I would disagree with your environmental model. California established drinking water standards as cleanup goals for gasoline compounds in all groundwater regardless if the groundwater was a drinking source.

The State insurance fund is now out of money due to billions spent on unnecessary cleanup activities that rarely achieved the impossible goal.

The State is now scrambling to implement Risk Informed Corrective Action because the unrealistic goals currently employed are not sustainable. Unrealistic environmental goals results in equalization of all conditions to "red-alert." Monies are then spread thin and the objectively worse sites are not made a priority.

Since most objectively bad sites are located in poor and minority neighborhoods, environmental injustice prevails. This is why community groups in Oakland are more concerned with diesel exhaust and asthma, not global warming or unuseable groundwater contamination.

The magical global warming goals, if implemented (they won't be) would advance environmental injustice on a world-wide scale by keeping poor countries wallowing in environmental squalor and will increase the gaps between rich and poor.

The road to hell...
Posted by Howard Whitney on 30 Jul 2009

Dr. Pielke,

Respectfully, until you explain your views on why (and over what time frame) we need to be “de-carbonizing our economies”, it seems to me that you are putting the cart before the horse with respect to policy response.

I presume you have -- somewhere -- articulated these views.

Please let me know.

Any reasonable person would agree that -- over some time frame -- we need to shift more of our energy consumption away from fossil fuels. To me, the critical questions are:

1) Why?
2) Over what time frame?

My evidence indicates that climate change is not a valid answer to “why”:

My evidence indicates that many decades from now is the valid answer to “over what time frame”:

Clearly, you have more confidence in government policy of any sort than I do. I would strongly prefer for government bureaucrats to make no efforts what-so-ever direct the outcomes. If we leave some semblance of a free market intact, smart individuals will see the needs and develop the solutions -- but, only if we leave the profit motive intact.

At the moment, the profit motive is under withering assault -- and, that means the future of civilization is also under withering assault.
Posted by SBVOR on 30 Jul 2009

The prior commenters do not seem to understand the fundamental difference between a goal and an objective.

A goal is what you want to happen. An objective is a measurable method of getting there.

I.e: a goal is to become a millionaire. An objective is to reduce your overhead expenses by 5 percent this year.

Unrealistic goals are a sign of aspiration (world peace, end poverty). Unrealistic objective are stupidity. Our governments are acting stupidly.
Posted by Ben on 30 Jul 2009

I just want to provide some background on how Japan selected its targets. According to the Japan for Sustainability webzine from which the information is copied, Japan considered two types of approaches to determine its emissions target for 2020. One looked at what reductions could be achieved if certain actions were taken. The other focused on fairness among industrialized countries.

- Option 1: +4% from 1990 (-4% reduction from 2005)
This is a scenario to “continue current efforts” to improve efficiency by making continued progress with existing technologies and continue with current policies (targets for efficiency improvements that promote voluntary efforts, the “Top Runner” program, subsidies, and so on).

- Option 2: +1% to -5% from 1990 (-6% to -12% from 2005)
This approach seeks reduction efforts that are fair for all industrialized countries, by equally sharing the marginal abatement costs of GHG emission reductions, aiming at a 25% reduction from 1990 for these countries. Marginal abatement costs are the additional costs required for additional reductions; this approach considers previous efforts. Japan, for example, has already made considerable investments into energy efficiency improvements, so its marginal abatement cost is higher than in countries that have not done so. (By this approach, the US target will be -19% to -24% compared to 1990, and the EU will be - 23% to -27%.)

- Option 3: -7% from 1990 (-14% from 2005)
Strengthen governmental policies to the greatest extent possible, by enhancing current policies to promote the installation of the most efficient equipment available, introducing new programs promoting the purchase of photovoltaic power as well as subsidies to promote the purchase of eco-cars, and strengthening regulations on energy efficiency housing (annual subsidies of 1.2 trillion yen).

- Option 4: -8% to -17% from 1990 (-13 to -23% from 2005)
Industrialized countries as a whole will seek a target of -25%, but in the interest of fairness among industrialized countries, the cost of emission reduction measures per unit of GDP will be considered. (In this case, the US target will be -7% to -18%, and the EU target -30% to -31%.)

- Option 5: -15% from 1990 (-21% from 2005)
New equipment will all have to be highly efficient, and a certain percentage of existing equipment will also have to be replaced or improved.

- Option 6: -25% from 1990 (-30% from 2005)
To achieve a 25% reduction from 1990, all developed countries will have the same -25% target. For Japan to achieve this, almost all new and existing equipment will have to be highly efficient, and Japan will have to reduce its economic activity (production) by setting a price for carbon (carbon tax, emissions trading).

It may well be the case that Japan is leaving open the possibility of adopting option 6 depending how the negotiations evolve up to and during COP15.
Posted by Brendan Barrett on 30 Jul 2009

Howard Whitney, there are plenty of examples of local environmental programs that failed to achieve their goals due to poor planning. In some instances it's even the case that the goals were unrealistic and had to be adjusted based on experience. As I wasn't proposing that all local environmental programs are successful, it's not clear to me what your point is.

Regarding Oakland, I happen to live there. Don't mistake a current campaign emphasis for a larger view of things. FYI there's a long history here of concern about groundwater.
Posted by Steve Bloom on 30 Jul 2009

Steve :

Thanks for your reply. My point is that environmental programs based upon unobtainable goals often result in bankruptcy and environmental injustice. Poor planning has nothing to do with it: unrealistic expectations fuels emotional reactions leaving rationality behind. QED your straw-man is a straw-man.

Do you live in West Oakland where the rates of asthma and cancers are quite alarming? Are you proposing that the local community groups are whining about nothing?

Shallow groundwater in the Oakland/Berkeley area has been written off years ago by state and local regulators who have lead the way for common sense in California.

I don't understand your point about mistaking "a current campaign emphasis for a larger view of things."

For the environment, I'm much more concerned with the factual impacts of the here and now. It is a foolish mistake to divert our limited resources from concrete problems that hurt real people today to fund a panic fueled over-reaction to a poorly understood situation.

In any event, my own opinion is that the proposed so-called "magical" solutions are signs that there is no serious political concern regarding global warming. It's just a last bone thrown to the faithful.
Posted by Howard Whitney on 31 Jul 2009


Your "Magical Solutions" theory seems quite related to "False Hope Syndrome":

People appear to behave paradoxically, by persisting in repeated self-change attempts despite previous failures. It is argued, though, that self-change attempts provide some initial rewards even when unsuccessful. Feelings of control and optimism often accompany the early stages of self-modification efforts. In addition, unrealistic expectations concerning the ease, speed, likely degree of change, and presumed benefits of changing may overwhelm the knowledge of one's prior failures. It is thus important to learn to distinguish between potentially feasible and impossible self-change goals in order to avoid overconfidence and false hopes leading to eventual failure and distress.


Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001 May;25
Suppl 1:S80-4
Polivy, J, Department of Psychology, University
of Toronto, Erindale Campus, Mississauga,
Ontario, Canada

Thank you for having a level head and thinking
deeply about such matters.
Posted by Matthew Hincman on 01 Aug 2009

Very few of the commentators here seem to have read this article and realised how it attaches to the current debate about GCC.

Governments decreeing something to be true and reality matching that position is not the same thing, or else the Soviet Union would now be the workers paradise it always said it was. That is without getting into the general issue about centrally planned economies and how human ambitions undermine the whole process.

Governments are currently setting targets without explaining to citizens the real cost of those approaches. Nuclear is going to have to be part of the solution as other renewables cannot meet the requirements without significantly greater utility bills (if it was less than 300% I will be shocked).

So basically governments are wishing something into existence. Which they can do and have done in the past (UK Health service in 1946). However, there is a cost to doing so. This will have an impact on society that has been presented as minimal up to this point. And yes I have read Stern and I am an economist - well a macro economist so I am obviously odd.

Goals have been set (good if you want to reach a target) but are they practical and has a plan been laid down to achieve those goals. No they have not, as no-one wants to admit how much the cost will be and what the gain from the cost will be.

When I see a realistic cost benefit analysis then I will take this issue seriously. And that means attempting to enact some currently unpalatable solutions. Let a party go to the polls and say "AGCC is terrible, this is the cost, this is why it is true, and this is what we want you personnally to pay to fix what we believe to be the most important problem in the world. (including transferring >2% of GDP to the developing world).

Anyone who believes that the government can spend your money more efficiently than you can yourself should send me an email as have I got a Nigerian contact for you.

Goals are only as good as the means agreed to reach the targets. I wish to be a multi billionaire, therefore I hereby decree it to bne true in 2050. (here's holing for some hyper inflation).
Posted by Bolt1493 on 01 Aug 2009

Started reading this thread & wondered if the first guys read the same piece I did. My take is:

Japan says it will do X and everybody else laughs because they can do Y (where Y > X)

Wait up - Is Japan is being realistic? No. Even they are promising way more than their track record suggests they can deliver. And yet: US and UK can do much better? Y'right

See http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/07/14/pulling-yourself-off-the-ground-by-your-whiskers/
Posted by Nick Watts on 01 Aug 2009

I agree with Jon Gensler that Cap & Trade (or is it C&C? or Carbon rationing aka TEQs?) or some consensus market mechanism is a promising method to deliver on greenhouse gas emissions. It has the flavour of Adam Smith but also an egalitarianism that appeals to the left.
Posted by Nick Watts on 01 Aug 2009


Thanks for your response. I read the article you posted at http://www.iop.org/EJ/article/1748-

I still think your argument misperceives both the nature of physical limits and the how social
processes work.

Regarding physical limits, your analogy to prescribing targets for longevity misses the key point of the global warming crisis (and many other environemental problems). There is no inherent reason why one target of human longevity is better than another. Nor is there an inherent reason proposed targets should be reached by any specific date. The issue is entirely a matter of societal preference, thus the kind of incremental approach you suggest is fine in that arena. But with global warming (and lead poisoning, etc.) there are hard physical limits which if surpassed will result in catastrophe.

Thus if the goal is to avoid catastrophe, one has absolutely no choice but to set policy within the physical limits. The situation is especially acute with global warming because many scientists are warning that the window of opportunity to take effective action is closing.

On the social side, your position is well-summarized in the linked study: "Policy should focus less on targets and timetables for emissions reductions, and more on the process for achieving those goals." The premise of an opposition between targets and processes is false, not just in terms of global warming, but in terms of societal change generally.

First, the amount of time and money the world is spending on studying and arguing about emission target is inconsequential compared to the resources being poured into the study/implementation of sequestration schemes, alternative energies, tax policies, spending policies, stopping coal-fired power plants, etc.

Thus to suggest that resources spent on emission targets has somehow diverted the world away for carbon reduction activity is just wrong. We are certainly not doing enough carbon reduction, but the reason for it not that we are doing to much emission targeting.

Second, emission targets help spur carbon reduction research, spending, and implementation. The targets create regulatory, monetary, and moral incentives to find ways to reduce carbon. Yes, society will also reduce carbon without the targets because the general need is already part of the social ethos now, but it will do so much faster with the targets. The targets give us a sense of how fast and how far we need to go. They push us to do more than is
comfortable. That is what we need.
Posted by Kieran Suckling on 03 Aug 2009

The premise of the author is that setting targets that are unachievable is an exercise in the "magical solutions" of futility, and the answer is, instead, to focus on efficiency and the "magical solutions" on non-existing, "decarbonizing", technologies.

Yeah, sure.

Putting aside the author's own obvious magical solution, and focusing on efficiency, we can learn that we have become very good at getting more from the same amount of energy. But energy efficiency does not equal energy reduction.

More than a few writers have debunked the myth of energy efficiency, but none so as well as Canadian economist Jeff Rubin.

Rubin details how energy efficiency without a correlating cost for carbon brought us from the family station wagon with one car per family to the hummer and two cars per family and from the bungalow in grid neighborhoods to the McMansion sprawled all over corn fields.

"The same efficiency paradox that has prevented the average car owner from cutting his fuel bill or the average home owner from from reducing her power bill plays the same role in the economy as a whole. Oil per unit of GDP in the US has fallen over 50 percent since the first OPEC oil shock, but total oil consumption has risen by 20 percent nevertheless."
--Jeff Rubin, Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller.

As it turns out then, if nations setting hard targets for CO2 reductions can be considered "magical solutions", they are no less so than the mythical solution of efficiency and far less so than the pretend solution of "decarbonizing" fuel supplies.
Posted by Sean Hurley on 03 Aug 2009

I've been screaming the same message from the rooftop with little result. Any carbon diet strategy would be dependent upon clean coal:

"The vast majority of new power stations in China and India will be coal-fired; not "may be coal-fired"; will be. So developing carbon capture and storage technology is not optional, it is literally of the essence." --"Breaking the Climate Deadlock," Tony Blair, June 26, 2008

But, Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, has estimated that capturing and burying just 10 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted over a year from coal-fire plants at current rates would require moving volumes of compressed carbon d ioxide greater than the total annual flow of oil worldwide -- a massive undertaking requiring decades and trillions of dollars. "Beware of the scale," he stressed."

The world's emissions of the main planet-warming gas carbon dioxide will rise over 50 percent to more than 42 billion tonnes per year from 2005 to 2030 as China leads a rise in burning coal, the U.S. government forecast on Wednesday. China's coal demand will rise 3.2 percent annually from 2005 to 2030, the Energy Information Administration said in its International Energy Outlook 2008. --Reuters, 26 June 2008

"Processes that would normally regulate climate are being driven to amplify warming. Such feedbacks, as well as the inertia of the Earth system — and that of our response — make it doubtful that any of the well-intentioned technical or social schemes for carbon dieting will (work)....The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." --Dr James Lovelock

Posted by Brad Arnold on 10 Aug 2009

The author nails it. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Do you want a 50 percent solution that has a 100 percent chance of being done or a 100 percent solution that has a zero chance of being done?

Politics is the art of the possible. Some of you zealots need to understand that.
Posted by B on 12 Aug 2009

Clearly "B" does not possess the political leadership skills of Sir Winston Churchill who said, "Its no use saying, 'We are doing our best'. You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary."

Posted by Gordon Morrison on 20 Aug 2009

Jon Gensler has it right. The point of combining a tightening cap on GHG emissions with a market for emission permits is that it forces participants in the economy to find the lowest cost solution. Experience with SO2 cap-and-trade is that the market generated solutions at much lower costs than opponents had proclaimed.

Mr. Pielke seems to assume that unless we know all the specific means to achieve the goals and have a government plant to get there, it's magical thinking. But, the huge potential for energy efficiency and renewables by known mechanisms, combined with economic incentives to invent and implement new mechanisms, constitutes far more than magical thinking. It is a plan. If it fails, the targets could be scaled back or delayed.

But it makes no sense to scale back the targets and incentives now, particularly since the needed inventions and incentives are unlikely to ever emerge in the absence of mandates and economic incentives.

Coal and oil will dominate the economy as long as users are free to pollute without cost. Let's get on with charging for GHG pollution until our planet and progeny are safe. Let us not wait for a centralized plan that spells out the specific steps to get there.
Posted by William Penniman on 01 Sep 2009

If Waxman Markey was watered down, the Senate bill will be worse. Utilities are already
looking for more allowances. Time to step up and say kill the bill to save the planet: Worse than nothing is not good enough. Join Climate SOS, here's our latest post from the rails.

Climate SOS Tour to “Kill The Bill” Has Successful First Stop in Bismarck, North Dakota

September 9, 2009, Indianapolis, Indiana. The Climate SOS Heartland Tour Team made its first stop on September 8 in North Dakota and met with the staff of Senators Conrad and Dorgan. “We got a tremendous reception from the Senators’ State Directors and staff,” said Duff Badgley, Tour Leader. “We are looking forward to our meetings tomorrow in Indianapolis with Senator Bayh and Lugar's staff,” he said. “Then it’s on to Little Rock where we will meet with the State Director for Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln, who is the newly appointed Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Senator Lincoln is against cap and trade, and we want her to know she has our support on this issue,” said Mr. Badgley. The Senate Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction over large parts of the Senate climate legislation.

Climate SOS is a grassroots network of environmentalists, scientists, and social justice activists is taking a stand against the upcoming Senate climate change bill and making a four state car-free tour to demand new climate legislation that is grounded in science instead of politics. The group is primarily volunteers – no astroturfing here.

Climate scientist Dr. James Hansen endorses Climate SOS and says a Senate bill based on the U.S. House American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA), will be "worse for the environment than doing nothing."

Climate SOS says cap-and-trade cannot forestall the climate crisis, more effective means are
needed, and social justice concerns must be central to any climate legislation. Climate SOS says a ACESA type cap and trade bill will:

• Prevent the U.S. from making its fair share of greenhouse gas reductions.

• Lock the U.S. into a complex cap-and-trade scheme that benefits fossil fuel utilities, Wall
Street, and agribusiness.

• Use public money to subsidize the most polluting industries, drawing much needed
financing away from real climate solutions.

• Add more polluting smokestacks, especially in backyards of the poor, people of color, and
indigenous communities by grandfathering dirty old coal plants, permitting many new ones, and subsidizing incinerators as a form of renewable energy in the Renewable Electricity Standard (RES).

• Trigger rainforest destruction in Africa, the Amazon, and Southeast Asia by failing to include indirect land use change provisions in the bills biofuel Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS).

Posted by Meg Sheehan on 09 Sep 2009

Quite amusing that a senior Breakthrough Institute Fellow takes others to task for wishing majical solutions into existence.
Posted by Eli Rabett on 22 Sep 2009

Since this article was posted, the new administration in Japan has announced emissions cut targets for 2020 that are substantially bigger than those announced in July: 25 percent from 1990.

One assumption that is not questioned by Dr. Pielke or any of the commenters is that of economic growth. If one removes that as a requirement, then a wider scope of reductions is possible. A policy of de-growth may seem politically impossible in most countries at present, but it's at least the subject of active debate in Western Europe. (See, e.g., the UK Sustainable Development Commission's 2009/03 report "Prosperity without growth?"
http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications.php?id=914 .

Although the new Japanese administration continues to speak about growth, there are a number of reasons why de-growth might be an appropriate policy for Japan.
Posted by A.J. Sutter on 02 Oct 2009

My not knowing the background specifics leaves me thinking the change from "15 percent below 2005" to "25 percent from 1990" (indicated above by A.J. Sutter ) sound like a bit of a political shell game.

And to add some perspective, I understand the United States Congress is debating a bill that would reduce emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels.
Posted by Jake Brumble on 08 Oct 2009

Roger, You are absolutely right.

Enacting policy and laws without enabling technology to put to use is a folly.

We all must be alert to the barriers created over the decades by vested interests to slow the pace of new technologies coming to the market. The effect is to keep the market closed to anybody other than coal and fossil fuel sellers.

Fixed ideas like only funding "proven technologies" is one example to erect an obstacle to innovation and delay implementation of clean technologies.

Old world thinking must be swept aside to change to clean electricity generation rapidly.

Posted by Peter Lionel Griffiths on 02 Nov 2009

Comments have been closed on this feature.
roger a. pielke jr.ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roger A. Pielke Jr. is a professor in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Colorado and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). From 2001 to 2007, he served as director of CIRES’ Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Breakthrough Institute, a Oakland, Calif.-based think tank that, among other issues, focuses on making the transition to a clean-energy economy. He is the author of the book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics.



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