29 Mar 2010

Freeing Energy Policy From The Climate Change Debate

Environmentalists have long sought to use the threat of catastrophic global warming to persuade the public to embrace a low-carbon economy. But recent events, including the tainting of some climate research, have shown the risks of trying to link energy policy to climate science.
By ted nordhaus and michael shellenberger

The 20-year effort by environmentalists to establish climate science as the primary basis for far-reaching action to decarbonize the global energy economy today lies in ruins. Backlash in reaction to “Climategate” and recent controversies involving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2007 assessment report are but the latest evidence that such efforts have evidently failed.

While the urge to blame fossil-fuel-funded skeptics for this recent bad turn of events has proven irresistible for most environmental leaders and pundits, forward-looking greens wishing to ascertain what might be salvaged from the wreckage would be well advised to look closer to home. Climate science, even at its most uncontroversial, could never motivate the remaking of the entire global energy economy. Efforts to use climate science to threaten an apocalyptic future should we fail to embrace green proposals, and to characterize present-day natural disasters as terrifying previews of an impending day of reckoning, have only served to undermine the credibility of both climate science and progressive energy policy.

The Endless Weather Wars

The habit of overstating the current state of climate science knowledge, and in particular our understanding of the relationship between global warming and present-day weather events, has been difficult for environmentalists to give up because, on one level, it has worked so well for them.

Global warming first exploded into mass public consciousness in the summer of 1988, when droughts, fires in the Amazon, and heat waves in
The reality is that both sides abuse the science in the service of their political agendas.
the United States were widely attributed as warning signs of an eco-apocalypse to come. Former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth held the first widely covered congressional hearing on the subject that summer and admits having targeted the hearing for the hottest day of the year and turned off the air conditioning in the room to ensure that the conditions would be sweltering for the assembled media.

Such tactics have only intensified over the past two decades. In the run-up to U.N. climate talks in Kyoto in 1997, the Clinton Administration recruited Al Roker and other weathermen to explain global warming to the public. In 2006, Al Gore used his “Inconvenient Truth” slide show to link Hurricane Katrina, droughts, and floods to warming. And some environmental groups have routinely implied that present-day extreme weather and natural disasters are evidence of anthropogenic warming.

But it turned out that both sides could play the weather game. Skeptics also started pointing to weather events like snowstorms as evidence of no warming. While environmental advocates frequently criticize opponents such as Sen. James Inhofe for conflating weather with climate, the reality is that both sides abuse the science in the service of their political agendas. Climate change models, created in an effort to understand the potential long-term effect of global warming on regional weather trends, can no more tell us anything useful about today’s extreme weather events than last month’s snow storms can inform us as to whether global warming is occurring.

Climate Science Disasters

For more than 20 years, advocates have simultaneously overestimated the certainty with which climate science could predict the future and underestimated the economic and technological challenges associated with rapidly decarbonizing the energy economy. The oft-heard mantra that “All we lack is political will” assumes that the solutions to global warming are close at hand and that the primary obstacle to implementing them is public ignorance fed by fossil-fuel-funded skeptics.

Environmental advocates — with help from pollsters, psychologists, and cognitive scientists — have long understood that global warming represented a particularly problematic threat around which to mobilize public opinion. The threat is distant, abstract, and difficult to visualize. Faced with a public that has seemed largely indifferent to the possibility of severe climactic disruptions resulting from global warming, some environmentalists have tried to characterize the threat as more immediate, mostly by suggesting that global warming was already adversely impacting human societies, primarily in the form of increasingly deadly natural disasters.

The result has been an ever-escalating set of demands on climate science, with greens and their allies often attempting to represent climate science as apocalyptic, imminent, and certain, in no small part so that they could characterize all resistance as corrupt, anti-scientific, short-sighted, or ignorant. Greens pushed climate scientists to become outspoken advocates of action to address global warming. Captivated by the notion that their voices and expertise were singularly necessary to save the world, some climate scientists attempted to oblige. The result is that the use, and misuse, of climate science by advocates began to wash back into the science itself.

Little surprise then, that most of the recent controversies besetting climate science involve efforts to move the proximity of the global warming threat closer to the present. The most explosive revelations of Climategate involved disputed methodological techniques to merge multiple data sets
The use and misuse of climate science by advocates began to wash back into the science itself.
(e.g., ice cores, tree rings, 20th century weather station readings) into a single global temperature trend line, the “hockey stick” graph. Whatever one thinks of the quality of the data sets, the methods used to combine them, or the efforts by some to shield the underlying data from critics, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that those involved were trying to fit the data to a trend that they already expected to see – namely that the spike in global carbon emissions in recent decades tracked virtually in lockstep with a concomitant spike in present-day global temperatures.

Other faulty or sloppy claims in the IPCC’s voluminous reports — such as the contention that global warming could melt Himalayan glaciers by 2035 — followed the same pattern.

Perhaps most problematic of all, with some environmentalists convinced that connecting global warming to natural disasters was the key to climate policy progress, researchers felt enormous pressure to demonstrate a link. But multiple studies using different methodologies and data sets show no statistically significant relationship between the rising cost of natural disasters and global warming. And according to a review sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation and Munich Re, researchers are unlikely to be able to unequivocally link storm or flood losses to anthropogenic warming for several decades, if even then. This is not because there is no evidence of increasing extreme weather, but rather because the rising costs of natural disasters have been driven so overwhelmingly by social and economic factors — more people with more wealth living in harm’s way.

Yet prominent environmental advocates, including Al Gore, have continued to make claims linking global warming to natural disasters. And in its 2007 report, the IPCC — ignoring evidence to the contrary — misrepresented disaster-loss science when it published a graph linking global temperature increases with rising financial losses from natural disasters.

Action in the Face of Uncertainty

It was only a matter of time before such claims would begin to undermine public confidence in climate science. Weather is not climate and linguistic subterfuges, such as the oft-repeated assertion that extreme weather events and natural disasters are “consistent with” climate change, do not change the reality that advocates and scientists who make such assertions are conflating short-term weather events with long-term climactic trends in a way that simply cannot be supported by the science.

For 20 years, greens and many scientists have overstated the certainty of climate disaster out of the belief that governments could not be motivated to act if they viewed the science as highly uncertain. And yet governments routinely take strong action in the face of highly uncertainty events. California requires strict building codes and has invested billions to protect against earthquakes even as earthquake science has shifted its focus from prediction to preparedness. Recently, the federal government mobilized impressively and effectively to prevent an avian flu epidemic whose severity was unknown.

In the end, there is no avoiding the enormous uncertainties inherent to our understanding of climate change. Whether 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, or 450 or 550, is the right number in terms of atmospheric stabilization, any prudent strategy to
Evidence of climate change was never going to drive Americans to demand painful limits on carbon.
minimize future risks associated with catastrophic climate change involves decarbonizing our economy as rapidly as possible. Stronger evidence of climate change from scientists was never going to drive Americans to demand economically painful limits on carbon emissions or energy use. And uncertainty about climate science will not deter Americans from embracing energy and other policies that they perceive to be in the nation’s economic, national security, and environmental interest. This was the case in 1988 and is still largely the case today.

But the danger now is that having spent two decades demanding that the public and policy-makers obey climate science, and having established certainty and scientific consensus as the standard by which climate action should be judged, environmentalists risk undermining the case for building a clean-energy economy. Having allowed the demands of advocacy efforts to wash back into the production of climate science, the danger today is that the discrediting of the science will wash back into the larger effort to transform our energy policy.

Now is the time to free energy policy from climate science. In recent years, bipartisan agreement has grown on the need to decarbonize our energy supply through the expansion of renewables, nuclear power, and natural gas, as well as increased funding of research and development of new energy technologies. Carbon caps may remain as aspirational targets, but the primary role for carbon pricing, whether through auctioning pollution permits or a carbon tax, should be to fund low-carbon energy research, development, and deployment.


Climategate: Anatomy of
A Public Relations Disaster

The way that climate scientists have handled the fallout from the leaking of hacked e-mails is a case study in how not to respond to a crisis. But it also points to the need for climate researchers to operate with greater transparency and to provide more open access to data.
No longer conscripted to justify and rationalize binding carbon caps or the modernization and decarbonization of our energy systems, climate science can get back to being primarily a scientific enterprise. The truth is that once climate science becomes detached from the expectation that it will establish a standard for allowable global carbon emissions that every nation on earth will heed, no one will much care about the hockey stick or the disaster-loss record, save those whose business, as scientists, is to attend to such matters.

Climate science can still usefully inform us about the possible trajectories of the global climate and help us prepare for extreme weather and natural disasters, whether climate change ultimately results in their intensification or not. And understood in its proper role, as one of many reasons why we should decarbonize the global economy, climate science can even help contribute to the case for taking such action. But so long as environmentalists continue to demand that climate science drive the transformation of the global energy economy, neither the science, nor efforts to address climate change, will be well served.


Ted Nordhaus, left, and Michael Shellenberger are the authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and a recent collection of energy and climate writings, The Emerging Climate Consensus, with a preface by Ross Gelbspan, available for download at In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, they have written about what they consider flaws in the cap-and-trade debate and why public concern in the U.S. about global warming has declined.

SHARE: Tweet | Digg | | Reddit | Mixx | Facebook | Stumble Upon


This essay is such a self-serving, shallow, hatchet job that it's possible that Nordhaus and Schellenberger actually wrote it themselves. It is far, far below the usual standards of this fine online journal - not because of subject matter, but from a woeful lack of intellectual rigor.

Posted by David Foley on 29 Mar 2010

The authors go to extraordinary lengths to try to say the science underlying climate change has been shown to be wrong, without saying having the guts to say so. They use a thousand weasel words and tortured sentence constructions to deligetimize the science without putting themselves on the record disputing it directly.

Cf: "whatever one thinks about the quality of the data sets and the methods used to combine them...other faulty claims" - so are you saying the data or methods were faulty? Also:
"connecting global warming to natural disasters... no statistically significant relationship between the rising cost of natural disasters and global warming... This is not because there is no evidence of increasing extreme weather." So do you believe there is or is not a link between climate change and extreme weather events?

They even say, "the danger today is that the discrediting of the science will wash back into the larger effort to transform our energy policy." So are they saying the science is discredited???
This would be an extraordinary claim, of course, and would put the authors at odds with 99% of the scientific community and on the hook to cite evidence to back themselves up. So they get out of that minimum of intellectual honesty by insinuation and innuendo.

Such rhetorical malfeasance is the trade of propagandists and is totally unbecoming of this forum, and does a disservice to the community. So I am saying please spare us from these voices - but not because of the content of their message, but the deeply underhanded and dishonest manner that they use to communicate it.

Although, fwiw, the content of their message is wrong and frankly stupid as well - what "bipartisan agreement has grown on the need to decarbonize our energy" exists that is divorced from climate change concerns? There are energy security concerns, price volatility concerns, maybe conventional pollution and ecological concerns - none of which necessarily lead to "low-carbon" outcomes. In fact, a major push for "breakthrough" energy technology change without a science-based incentive to reduce carbon (as the authors urge) would most likely lead us to coal-based fuels for the next couple hundred years. Maybe methane hydrates as well, and potentially other technologies with significant negative climate impacts. The authors should not be allowed to ignore this fundamental contradiction.

Posted by BT Turner on 29 Mar 2010

"... greens and their allies ... could characterize all resistance as corrupt, anti-scientific, short-sighted, or ignorant ..."

Maybe not all resistance, but a lot of it does appear that way - corrupt, unscientific, short-sighted and ignorant. Your statement represents that "greens and their allies" are misinterpreting the actions of those who oppose them. How would you characterize what those opponents do and who they are?

"Captivated by the notion that their voices and expertise were singularly necessary to save the world, some climate scientists attempted to oblige."

You cast climate scientists in a negative and shallow light. You use pretty language that softens the insults. You help along the notion that climate scientists are a vain and attention-seeking bunch. To be fair, shouldn't you describe the opponents of "greens and their allies" and their tactics?

Posted by Monique on 29 Mar 2010

I think the authors have it spot on and that it is important for the scientists and environmentalists to accept the criticism and start to move forward again. There are many urgent environmental issues that need addressing (including replacement of fossil fuels by renewables), but continual exaggeration and political activism damages the chances that they will be adequately addressed.

Posted by Philip on 29 Mar 2010

The thinking and the outcome of the topic of climate change has been hampered by the over statement of facts. Even if the event is happening, Al Gore's travel log would have been a lot more helpful if he hadn't projected doom and gloom in our life and over stated the data. The main problem with the so-called intellects is that they believe the people they need to convince are a bunch of morons. I wish they would just lay the facts and data out for us to decide.

I want to believe in something concrete and when I hear statements using the word “consensus” it makes me very skeptical. In science there is no such thing as consensus; it is proof. When Albert Einstein released is theory of relativity it was not received with open arms until it was verified.

Posted by Maryjo on 29 Mar 2010

Asserting "that extreme weather events and natural disasters are 'consistent with' climate change," is a practice that, in fact, can often be supported by the science.

See the definitive consensus science report "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States" authored a large panel of scientists commissioned by the Bush Administration in an authoritative assessment led by NOAA:

Posted by Hunter Cutting on 29 Mar 2010

It'a useful to point out that the push to rapidly decarbonize the economy need not be made by climate policy alone.

The authors could have said a bit more here about what alternate forces should be used to make the case. While I know they've made the case elsewhere, this piece would be more satisfying if a bit more was said about why climate science was never sufficient to compel change (ie. even if it was apocalyptic and undisputed).

Respectfully, I think the previous comments miss the point. If N & S agree with environmentalist goals--undertake massive decarbonization and create a truly green economy as quickly as possible, and if you accept that there are fissures and skepticism among some substantial swath of the public about all aspects of climate science, it seems like defensiveness and distraction to try to infer precisely where N & S are coming from beyond their visible argument (though I read their book and one theme seemed to be that climate change wasn't some far off future but something that's already effecting people now). To me, the meat (or more sustainable metaphor of your choosing) seems to be about how to motivate people to act for even more compelling reasons and how to shift our social priorities toward figuting out the innovations we'll need to make the shift.

Posted by C Wilkins on 29 Mar 2010

Despite various comment critiques, the above is a good example of an honest attempt to actually integrate contradictory variety against the grain extant belief systems. Whatever you think of the AGW hypothesis and its potential energy policy implications, the authors show virtue in exhibiting an objectivist POV. A good and thoughtful job under hard circumstances, not unworthy of Yale.

Posted by Bruce M. Albert, PhD, PDRA on 29 Mar 2010

This article is right on. I have become enraged by the constant apocalyptic scares tactics from the pro - AGW community to the point that I feel the need to speak out and get involved.

RE: David Foley - "so are you saying the data or methods were faulty"

the graph in question combined proxy data for the last 1000 years and then dropped that data when decline began (1960's or so) and uses actual temperature after that - because the proxy data shows a decline at the most inconvenient time. Mann admits that that recent tree ring proxy data is problematic. I would consider the graph to be misleading. Why not apples to apples? I would call it faulty and biased and many others do also.

"So do you believe there is or is not a link between climate change and extreme weather events?" - recent peer reviewed papers conclude there is not direct evidence. Period. Some say there is a likelihood that climate change does affect extreme weather events - but that is vastly different than having definitive proof - and is based on hypothesis. How does belief allow one to make direct claims that any current or future weather events are caused by AGW and treat it as accepted fact?

The point the article makes is that apocalyptic scare tactics are creating friction - and it is true. Lies such as from the IPCC, Gore and press do nothing but cement my anger. I get infuriated when the pro-AGW crowd suggest that skeptics are anti-environment or pro oil - I am not. Is science not to be questioned? Is one not allowed to debate? There are plenty of anti AGW scientific viewpoints - where is the objectivity? Oh, I forgot, the debate is over and we should not question it ...

Posted by junkman on 29 Mar 2010

Nordhaus and Shellenberger appear as a prime rhetorical example of the pot calling the kettle black.

Do the climate campaigners distort catastrophic events in an effort to promote their low carbon agenda more than N&S distort recent scientific controversies in order to promote their favorite energy agendas? This is more shame and blame and obfuscation. Let's get beyond it.

There is something that we all can agree about: as the the 21st Century heads toward the unprecedented state of 9 billion human earthlings we have entered the sustainability crisis of providing them with food, energy, clean air, clean water accompanied with some reasonably healthy balance with the myriad beings and forces of nature.

Let's go beyond the "rhetorical malfeasances" by focusing on something that promises to transform agriculture (undeniably "anthropogenic") from an earth depleting and exhausting activity to one that is restorative and renewing and offers great potential for addressing multiple problems such as the need for increased energy production, more food, less
destruction of natural habitats, more conservation of fertilizer and water, less waste pollution of air and water and the added bonus of carbon sequestration.

That's the promise of biochar. The only obvious negative is that it may be kind of tough on the
debaters looking for a climate fight because it offers the potential for full-spectrum post-ideological problem-solving.

Have a look at

Posted by Lou Gold on 29 Mar 2010

"Fossil-fuel-funded skeptics"

The skeptics who have really done most of the heavy lifting - McIntyre, Watts, Bishop Hill, Euro-Referendum - are not in any way funded by fossil fuel interests.

But the CRU at East Anglia was.

Skeptics are just that unless and until you have hard evidence of compromising funding you should not add this sort of incorrect editorializing label.

Posted by Jay Currie on 29 Mar 2010

From my perspective, this article is a pretty solid representation of the view of the typical climate skeptic.

Environmental Advocates should read this carefully to understand this perspective. Skeptics do not want to destroy the world, they just don't want to rush hastily and seemingly blindly down a path that would jeopardize other aspects of humanity. (ie dealing with more urgent issues)

Posted by Reasonable on 29 Mar 2010

There are so many specious assertions in this piece, it is difficult to know where to begin.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger are arguing against a strawman of their own construction. "Greens" in the form of established environmental organizations in the US, have been woefully inept at communicating about climate change and have tended to put climate change on equal footing with other traditional concerns, when in my opinion, it is now of increased importance. Established environmental organizations have been further hampered by advocating for the faulty and potentially disastrous cap and trade system as the main means of supposedly combating climate change. Johann Hari provides a much more trenchant and principled analysis of what is wrong in the approach of mainstream environmentalists in his Nation piece:

N&S have made a career of caricaturing the environmental movement, and portraying themselves as hip connoisseurs of what "the people" really want. Some of their criticism has made sense but it has become for N&S a tiresome and reductive expression of their peculiar public relations "brand" rather than an honest engagement with the goals of what environmentalists are trying to do. The environmental movement DOES need fundamental criticism, but not so much from the perspective of docile pandering to public opinion polling, as seems to be the preference of N&S.

Because of the inordinate emphasis that N&S put on public relations gaffes (as if they were immune from them), they have apparently decided to "give up on" climate science because of a few missteps by Al Gore and others. Apparently they seem to think that we will turn our backs on cheap coal and energy-dense petroleum for other, as yet unspecified, reasons. This appears to be wishful thinking in the extreme.

The lack of moral and professional courage that is demonstrated in this volte-face is baffling. There is a chance that people have become creatures of habit and convenience to such an extent that they will be unable to face climate change. However, N&S are in practical terms blowing off both their feet with a shotgun in the process as people will also be hardly interested in the clean energy revolution which is the goal of their Breakthrough Institute, without an appreciation of climate impacts of non-clean energy. For the next few decades, this is a formula for simply scrubbing fossil fuel emissions of visible "criteria" pollutants using emissions scrubbers and catalytic Breakthrough Institute required.

Posted by Michael Hoexter, (Ph.D.) on 29 Mar 2010

Without the Global Warming bogeyman, what reason is there to focus on managing carbon? If there is such a reason, why should this task be abdicated to central planners who have shown themselves to be corrupt, inept, and only too willing to "play house" with citizens' money and freedom?.

Fossil fuels are the stuff of wealth. Anyone who says we should abstain from using them for our benefit (lacking a compelling reason for the contrary) is either a luddite, or is implementing some strategy to "shoot the moon" and corner the market.

As long as congress and rent-seeking special interests act to suppress price signals, energy resource allocation will be a problem. Why not let the market work?

Posted by Frederick Keady P.E. on 29 Mar 2010

Scientists and reporters are both in the reality business. If greens adopted this strategy, scientists would still issue papers about the dangerous impacts of climate science and reporters would still convey this to the public. And skeptics would still get into debates with scientists.

There is no "off" switch to the science.

Posted by Daganstein on 29 Mar 2010

Environmentalists concerned about climate change haven't kept America from developing a low carbon energy policy. Dick Cheney and George Bush stopped all progress on modernizing America's energy supply for 8 years.

The authors are concern trolls posing as greens. They carefully knock down straw men. Most of us learned that weather is not climate in elementary school. A large number of peer reviewed studies on a diverse range of disciplines from atmospheric physics to geochemistry to glaciology is providing the scientific basis for the scientific consensus on climate change. Weather events, cited by the media, are not the basis for the conclusions reached by scientists.

The authors apparently have not looked at opinion polls very carefully. The only groups people who have changed their minds about climate change are conservatives who have been listening to a steady dose of anti-science propaganda from right-wing media sources such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

Posted by Fish on 29 Mar 2010

Why is "low carbon" supposed to be "green" ? The only excuse for low carbon was the AGW scam.

Why not focus on real issues like low NOx, low SO2, low heavy metals etc ?

Posted by Dr Burns on 29 Mar 2010

It was interesting to read the piece above today and then to see an NY Times piece noting that half of professional meteorologists don't believe in climate change. This gives some added heft to the N & S claim of dissension, confusion, and skepticism.

Posted by c wilkins on 29 Mar 2010

Interesting article, and I agree a broad consensus for action WRT carbon usage really is a possibility, if lots of people have a seat at the table and the proposals are not limited to lifestyle changes, windmills, and solar cells. Even a carbon tax might fly, if it applied uniformly to all carbon emissions, and were held at a low per ton rate for the first 5-10 years.

But wow, the authors sure have courage if nothing else; they have squarely hit the hornet's nest with a stick!

Posted by Steve Fitzpatrick on 29 Mar 2010

This was a well written piece, and refreshing in its even handed approach.

Skeptics are generally portrayed as rejecting the notion that there has been any climate change, which of course is not the case. What they are skeptical about is whether the science shows that the main climate driver is CO2. All the unsubstantiated, exaggerated, apocalyptic claims of imminent disaster convinced me AGW is all hype.

There is still a belief among the believers that most if not all climate scientists hold to the AGW line. It's not really difficult to find some that don't, but they tend to be independent, or to lie low to keep their jobs. And no, they are not funded by big oil.

Energy independence, less reliance on fossil fuels, pollution reduction, energy conservation, and sustainability are things we can all support. Using AGW to act as the driver for Cap and Trade or other draconian measures, which could result in the collapse of economies and the starvation of the world’s underprivileged, is never going to gain acceptance by the skeptics. Now, how do we get the greens to accept nuclear energy?

Posted by C. Fetterman on 29 Mar 2010

A very sensible summation of the position. It has long been obvious that the foundations of environmentalist position that rely on the threat of imminent dramatic and unpleasant climate change are weak. Its only taken the publication of a thousand e-mails from within the inner circle of the 'scientists' involved to make this flaw better known. And a few dedicated researchers to expose the scientific corruption they engineered.

There may well be good, persuasive reasons why a gradual move to a low carbon economy is a good and sensible thing to strive for. And these should be laid calmly and rationally into the public debate. The general public are not the morons that our 'opinion leaders' seem to think we are.

And, like all Doomsday Cults, the AGW scare has fatally lost momentum in the public's mind. Beyond a few dedicated believers it will fade into history as part of the weird zeitgeist of the early years of the 20th century. Ironically it will indeed be the downfall of Mann.

Posted by Stirling English on 30 Mar 2010

Absent CO2/climate worry, what is the reason to "decarbonize" our society? And what will it cost?

Posted by jim karlock on 30 Mar 2010

The authors Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue that the proceeds of auctioning pollution permits or carbon taxes should be used to fund low-carbon energy research, development, and deployment. I agree that there is sound justification for society to apply modest sums of money into legitimate and carefully considered energy related research efforts. However, the record arising from government funding of energy development and deployment is particularly poor.

Nuclear power, coal gasification, and wind power for remote communities are all examples of technologies that have absorbed far more taxpayer dollars than the value those technologies will ever contribute to overall economic welfare. When consumers, not taxpayers, are the ultimate source of funds for energy development and deployment, energy producers are held accountable. Politicians and bureaucrats have a ignoble record of funding silly little energy fads.

Posted by Tom Adams on 30 Mar 2010

"Absent CO2/climate worry, what is the reason to "decarbonize" our society?"

Some reasons:

1) Coal is a huge source of CO2; it is also very pollutant in terms of conventional air pollutants (SO2, NOx, particulate, etc.) and hazardous air pollutants (e.g. mercury, arsenic, hydrogen chloride, etc.).

2) Conventional oil emits carbon. Biofuels don't emit carbon and remove the politics of the Middle East from energy considerations.

3) Wind, photovoltaics, and nuclear fission with thorium all essentially can't be depleted (and also don't emit significant CO2).

Posted by Mark Bahner on 30 Mar 2010

There are plenty of environmental issues to be worried about, and there have been some victories during my lifetime (air and water pollution in many places, including the US, is much less now, not to mention the lack of radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs). Focusing on one issue--human caused global warming--means less focus on other, perhaps more important or more urgent, issues. But blowing up one issue so that it overshadows all others is a mistake, particularly if it turns out the science behind that one issue is wrong.

It's time to find some environmental issues we all (ok, most of us) can agree on.

Posted by Mike Maxwell on 31 Mar 2010

Fish's comment is correct. The authors have made a name for themselves by lecturing environmentalists in the guise of self-appointed "loyal opposition." One may liken them to Mitch McConnell advising Obama on what would be best for Dems in terms of the healthcare bill.

Posted by Dave Harmon on 31 Mar 2010

Ted and Michael, it's a no-holds barred free-for-all out here in the real world of hardball politics. Sounds like you were expecting a rational discussion. If only.

Posted by fwhite on 31 Mar 2010

Hoexter's comments on N&S creating a climate straw man and Fish's comments on who's to blame for our ongoing addiction to fossil fuels are right on target.

Posted by Nancy Anderson on 01 Apr 2010

OK, enough is enough. With this piece Ted and Michael are officially entering their Siegfried and Roy era. I guess someone there at Yale 360 must think that it is necessary to occasionally find opinions that are "out there" in order to keep things fresh and open. And hey, look at the comments. These guys spout ideas that strike somewhere in the middle of the conventional wisdom spectrum, but that says nothing about the quality of their argument, rather it indicates how far the public has been led astray by well funded disinformation campaigns.

This is simply more disinformation by inuendo dressed up as serious commentary. Let's take their strongest thesis. Did Al Gore exaggerate? If you think so, prove it. With scientifically defensible information, not opinion. And no, Bible verses don't count as peer reviewed science.

What did Al Gore get wrong? Real Climate did a review of the science illustrated by his movie. This was done when it first came out and public opinion was solidly behind it BTW. They found that Al Gore got little wrong, and what he did was minor. So what else have Ted and Michael made up? Pretty much everything in their post.

Posted by Andy on 01 Apr 2010

I'm really disappointed that Yale Environment 360 decided to run this piece by Nordhaus and Shellenberger.

The main distortion perpetuated by them is that "climate scientists" and "climate science" are somehow represented by Mike Mann and Phil Jones. These are two scientists out of several thousand who make this their profession. The vast body of climate science is sound, and practiced by the most dedicated, honest, truth-interested people we can imagine.

Furthermore, the hockey stick really has very little to do with the real scientific basis for concern over global warming. The basics are compelling and undisputed: CO2 traps heat, CO2 in the atmosphere has been rising (by more than 30 percent) since the industrial revolution, and carbon isotopes in that CO2 show unequivocally that the increase is due to human causes. The same goes for methane and nitrous oxide. The rest is details.

When the hockey stick is corrected for its well-known flaws, one sees that natural climate variability is considerable. The recent warming hardly rises out of the noise, and that is in some sense unsurprising.

There are many factors that cause climate change, including the sun, volcanoes, and the Earth's orbit. The existence of these other causes does not mean that humans cannot also cause climate change. To assert so is akin to claiming that, just because forest fires can be caused by lightning, therefore they cannot also be caused by careless campers.

Posted by Jeff Severinghaus on 01 Apr 2010

Your assumptions about carbon and decarbonization are also misplaced. Carbon is not even the key problem among the GHG's. Regulating carbon itself was a part of the fraud to justify the grand scale of proposed international changes to commerce. But carbon itself is not even the main problem of GHG pollution. You too have been misled by the false paradigm that "climate science" has wrought.

Posted by Brad Parsons on 02 Apr 2010

N&S are smart, good writers, capable of presenting a persuasive argument. It is too bad that their impressive ability to frame an argument is not nearly as impressive as the argument itself.

To suggest that we should decouple climate change from energy policy, on the basis of persistent attacks against climate science, rests on the false assumption that a focus on *climate science* and *climate change* is the reason why greens have failed to achieve meaningful reform. But climate science/change is not the problem. The problem is that our world -- and its powers-that-be -- are bought into the status quo of fossil-fuel bound system.

If you simply asserted a straight-up "energy policy" argument calling for a rapid shift to efficiency and clean energy, those arguments would, themselves, become the target of attacks. Why should we shift? Why shift so rapidly? What is the appropriate mix of dirty and clean energy? How much should we invest in efficiency? Where should investments be made? The answers to these questions would be subject to attack if the climate change justification was extracted.

Climate science/change arguments are simply the current target of the "business-as-usual" crowd, and near-term public relations difficulties not a good reason to abandon a primary reason we need to get off fossil fuels. Indeed, to disarm ourselves by taking away a key argument would be stupid. Politics and public perception change, and our advocacy should be shaped by where we need to go, not what current poll numbers may or may not say.

N&S *could* provide a helpful "check" on the dominant trends in green thinking and policy. But to me, their articles are almost always interesting but ultimately hollow, resting upon overly-convenient assumptions and conclusions that present an illusion of certainty but, in truth, mask complexity.

This is quite unfortunate, because smart, heartfelt criticism is essential to carry the climate protection movement forward. N&S, however, while frequently sparking good conversations, rarely spark conversations that have any meaningful impact. In my mind, this is because they have unfortunately tripped over their own egos, failing to apply the critical thinking they seek of greens to their own ideas.

Posted by Erik S.G. on 03 Apr 2010

Thanks for a very good and short article on a very complex issue.

In point of fact – there are three compelling additional reasons for acting.

air quality – a recent study in Germany points to 14.4k deaths/year for a population of 85 million from particulates. If true in the US, that would work out to 56k deaths – equivalent to ONE Vietnam War every year. We had riots and destroyed two Presidents over that last issue.

National Security – we have fought 3 wars, and are currently running operations in two countries indirectly because of US addiction to oil. We are warping our economy in terms of a foreign trade deficit because of imported oil. To the degree that oil is technically “optional”, we are warping our economy because of oil. To the degree that the oil we import is controlled by regimes that are an anethama to us otherwise, we are supporting regimes we would otherwise not prop up.

Thirdly, we need to find alternatives for a very simple reason – water. Two energy resources require millions of water a day to operate. The Palos Verde nuclear reactor uses 231 million gallons of water a day. MIT released a study demonstrating that we can only build another 25 such reactors before we have to start choosing between energy, food and showers. The shale NG resources require 8 million gallons per well.

This gives us three reasons for alternatives. Put into perspective, that gives us three more reasons for consituencies to join together, but only if we use these as principles for collective action.

Posted by Jim on 04 Apr 2010

FYI ... everyone in the know knows that the 2035 figure was a stupid typo (all supporting docs on which the number was based put it at 2135) ... should've been caught, yes, but a typo nonetheless.

Shame on Nordhaus and Shellenberger for suggesting it was an intentional scare tactic - what utterly hypocrisy for them to use a typo to forward their own agenda:

Their agenda is to quit. Fed up with the bias, they're promoting nothing less than decoupling policy from the study of facts and reason. They suggest no do-overs, no deeper and more transparent investigations, and no proving/honing of journalistic integrity within the scientific community, They give no recommendations to shore up reliability and confidence from here on out. The claim: politicized science should relegate ALL science as minor considerations in a debate to be decided by largely ignorant politicians who'll do and say anything to get elected.

Yes, Gore's science is a travesty, but the last time I checked how many earths we have I still came up with only one. It's alive or it's dead. Whatever happened to prudence is such matters?

Posted by davea0511 on 08 Apr 2010

quoting from post by Mark Bahner on 30 Mar 2010:

"2) Conventional oil emits carbon. Biofuels don't emit carbon and remove the politics of the Middle East from energy considerations."

Biofuels are hydrocarbons. How do you burn *any* hydrocarbon without emitting carbon?

Posted by William B on 08 Apr 2010

I am amazed that Yale Environment 360 is willing to run such dubious accounts. It seems that these two guys love creating a storm with slim evidence. Nothing was said about bank rolled lying think tanks, the regular insulting emails that climate scientists are bombarded with, or the fact that climate scientists regularly warn against interpreting weather as climate. In conclusion, they advocate a carbon-free economy, but give no independent evidence why we should support it. For a much better account, see my website

Posted by Michael Tuckson on 10 Apr 2010

In a column at Newsweek, George Will makes a very clear case for decarbonization that does not
rely on climate change as the primary motivation. Instead he argues that "cheaper electricity, less dependence on foreign sources of energy," (among plenty of other reasons) is reason enough
to decarbonize America's energy supply. You can read our post on it here:

Posted by Yael Borofsky on 12 Apr 2010

I find it ironic that Nordhaus & Shellenberger accuse climate scientists of "trying to fit the data to a trend that they already expected to see." It strikes me that this is precisely what N&S are attempting to do here... find yet another excuse to slam the environmental community, which seems to be the only song these two seem to know how to play.

What's the point of this article? Why "free" energy policy from the climate debate? How about expand the energy debate beyond a climate-only issue? That may sound like a semantic difference, but it's not.

The truth is that there are a number of reasons why we need to rapidly transition our energy system and dependence upon fossil fuels. Climate change is one, a very important one. But there are other reasons. For instance, the fact that it might be a good idea to leave fossil fuels behind before they leave us.

Also, it's dangerous to separate energy policy from climate policy. Why? Because a focus on transforming our energy system--say, away from dependence on petroleum imports from OPEC nations--might lead us to conclusions like coal-to-liquids. That would be a death knell to a stable climate.

I continue to read and respect Shellenberger and Nordhaus, mostly out of respect for their very valuable "The Death of Environmentalism." But, to be honest, I'm finding it increasingly hard to pay any attention to them.

Posted by Asher Miller on 25 Apr 2010

I am convinced that the masses will never accept climate change as a driver for making sacrifices or dramatically changing their behaviour. I do not think that it has proven to be an effective approach, and it is becoming less impactful with every day that passes.

If gas hits $4+, people will take action. If we get hit by another attack from Middle East-based terrorists, people will take action. If people understand that the oil supply will stop keeping up with demand, people may take action.

Environmental arguments have not gotten it done. Economic arguments and national security arguments would be more effective. An opportunity to call for change was missed with 9/11, but we can still recover and get out the facts that impact people and drive some action. I believe that the release over 150 years of massive amounts of fossil fuels which took hundreds of millions of years to create does have a major impact on global warming. However, I also know that the place I am sitting in NY right now was covered by a glacier a "mere" 20K years ago.

The earth goes through dramatic warming and cooling cycles with or without us. The global warming argument will be too muddy to convince the masses. Focus on things that almost all people care about - money and security.

Posted by Scott L on 29 Apr 2010



Scientists Look for Causes of Baffling Die-Off of Sea Stars
Sea stars on both coasts of North America are dying en masse from a disease that kills them in a matter of days. Researchers are looking at various pathogens that may be behind what is known as sea star wasting syndrome, but they suspect that a key contributing factor is warming ocean waters.

Where Will Earth Head After Its ‘Climate Departure’?
Will the planet reach a point where its climate is significantly different from what has existed throughout human history, and if so, when? In an interview with Yale Environment 360, biogeographer Camilo Mora talks about recent research on this disquieting issue and what it means for the coming decades.

Obama’s New Emission Rules: Will They Survive Challenges?
The sweeping nature of President Obama’s proposed regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants is likely to open his initiative to serious legal challenges. To date, however, the courts have given the federal government wide latitude in regulating CO2 under the Clean Air Act.

How A Small College Launched Divestment from Fossil Fuels
Unity College in Maine was the first in the U.S. to divest all fossil fuel holdings from its endowment. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Unity president Stephen Mulkey talks about why he sees this groundbreaking move as an ethical decision and an extension of the college’s mission.

How Weeds Could Help Feed Billions in a Warming World
Scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere are conducting intensive experiments to cross hardy weeds with food crops such as rice and wheat. Their goal is to make these staples more resilient as higher temperatures, drought, and elevated CO2 levels pose new threats to the world’s food supply.


Donate to Yale Environment 360