What We Do

November 13, 2009

In a recent post, Roger commented on a paper that was authored by his father and a team of many others. I find the conclusions of his father’s paper interesting, maybe because I’m missing something.  (Am I missing something?) There’s a whole chicken-coop of shitstorms brewing over this paper, but I fail to see what’s so controversial.

For one thing, the idea that there are multiple anthropogenic causes of global climate variability strikes me as nothing new. As a non-specialist, I feel like this has been the narrative for a long time. I don’t know the scientific controversy surrounding this, so I’ll refrain from commenting on that. But isn’t it reasonable to show the many, many anthropogenic reasons why our earth is warming? Why is this controversial in any way?

Is it that it challenges the conclusions of the IPCC? Is it that it is perceived to threaten global climate policy? Is it that it’s not true that there are other causes of global climate change?

From what I gather, it’s some combination of these. What’s at issue is the extent to which policy prescriptions practically follow from (as opposed to “reasonably follow from” or “are conceptually distinct from”) the scientific conclusions. Clearly it’s the case that our public policies should be responding to the actual state of affairs. At the same time, it’s also true that our public policies can be structured to handle several anthropogenic causes at once. If GHGs, or land use, or biochar, or aerosols, or my dad’s stinky socks, are contributing factors to global climate change, then it seems to me reasonable that we should adopt broad-reaching policies that address each of these various causes.

For a long time the thrust of environmentalism was concern over the things that we do, mostly related to wilderness areas. As an ethicist, this is precisely what concerns me: what we do, and whether it’s right or wrong, permissible or impermissible, morally complex or morally simple. I have no particular commitment to carbon, or to SO2, NO2 or even H2O. It’s all twater to me.

In recent years, the environmental movement, as well as the environmental policy community, has gotten caught up in the climate discussion.  In doing so, it has left other important environmental issues off the table. If GHG emissions contribute disproportionately to climate change, and climate change will make or break all of these other major issues regarding forests and oceans and wildlife, maybe that’s as it should be. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder why we shouldn’t also be concerned about the multiple other factors at well. We should, shouldn’t we? All the more so if they are contributing factors to climate variability.


  1. As a philosopher, I’m sure you noticed that RP Jr’s post began with a fallacious appeal to authority.

    As for the substance, this looks like RP Sr’s favourite hobby-horse of regional effects and land use changes. What’s new?

    And if there is a “chicken-coop of shitstorms brewing over this paper” I want to know about it – where is it? It hasn’t made my blogroll’s radar; Eli (http://rabett.blogspot.com/) is generally good a picking this stuff up but hasn’t.

  2. Well, one of the things you’re missing is that there’s not a single new thought in the paper. It’s all stuff that RP Sr. (and I recognize his writing style throughout) was saying over four years ago when he started his blog. None of it made much sense then, either. As it’s all so old hat, I don’t expect a shitstorm, although I’m sure a suitable refutation will appear in Eos.

    FYI RP Sr. has a calculation wherein he tries to demonstrate that CO2 is only 27% of the contribution to global warming so far and that land use changes are as important if not more so. That question is ill-posed in a couple of ways in that it separates CO2 from the other anthropogenic GHGs and neglects that the largest concern about CO2 is its future effect. IIRC Gavin Schmidt showed that the calculation is quite wrong even within its own terms.

    But let’s take a non-science issue that does fall within your expertise: Are hypotheses 2a and 2b actually mutually exclusive as claimed?

    Another failing is that the sort of global risk assessment discussed in the paper must account for more than just climate factors. Indeed, others are already doing just that (see Rockstrom et al). Science marches on, but RP Sr. remains rooted in place.

  3. (Sorry for the partial redundancy, but I neglected to refresh before I posted that and consequently missed William’s comment.)

  4. Yeah, maybe I mis-characterized it as a shitstorm. I probably should’ve said that from the looks of it, as an outsider, this is supposed to be controversial. There’s a fair bit of back and forth going on at RC and at Roger’s blog, over things that are well outside of my scientific comfort zone. (I realize that what’s going on over there has little or nothing to do with this paper, but some of it seems like old battles that are played out over multiple papers.) This paper just seems accessible enough to me that I can understand where it might stir up political passions, while at the same time, if there are political passions stirred up, I’m unclear exactly over what.

    I’m sure that a fair bit of study would get me to a point at which I could assess the legitimacy and strength of the scientific claims, but from my vantage, some of it looks like quibbling over fine details, over details that, in the end, aren’t the kind of controversy I feel should warrant the intensity of comment.

    What I really mean this post to say is that I’m confused by the whole thing. Since I know Roger fairly well, and see him many days during the week, I do have an opportunity to ask him what’s going on. I know him to be a sincere researcher, and when I talk to him, he seems well informed about all of these issues. I don’t know his dad, but the cited paper doesn’t strike me as raising ludicrous conclusions. (Again, I’m not a scientist, and I don’t want to pretend to be.)

  5. Well, RP Sr. wants CO2 de-emphasized, and for years has been unsuccessfully trying various angles in a fruitless attempt to convince others of that. As with the lack of a clear dividing line between 2a and 2b (again, please do have a look at those), while when read carefully the paper doesn’t really say much of any substance, including what emphasis the various forcings should have, it’s written to imply an awful lot.

    Re both Pielkes, I don’t suppose you’re unaware that they share a certain reputation for obtuseness.

  6. BTW, my impression is that the major arguments over at RC and elsewhere have been largely about Klotzbach et al, of which both Pielkes are co-authors, not the Eos paper.

  7. This is congruent with my understanding of things. I guess my next question is twofold. Is it about de-emphasizing CO2 or about broadening the focus of environmental policy? Broadening the focus of policy, obviously, might serve to dilute the policy pool, as it could be interpreted in a Rovian fashion (e.g. sending out a platter of mislabeled and cockamamie environmental policies all at the same time, and therefore de-emphasizing the focus on any one cockamamie environmental policy), but I’m not sure it has to be.

    Also, what really hangs on de-emphasizing CO2 anyway? If climate policy ends up requiring fixes across a range of GHGs, or maybe even modifications to our forestry practices or our consumption of certain goods, isn’t that the sort of thing we should be seeking information on?

    I’m not being glib here. I’m very concerned about many environmental issues. The climate is just one of them, even though it’s a very big one.

  8. The shit storm has passed. Been there, done, that, RPs are trying for two bites at the apple.

    The really funny thing is Jr. is hawking a paper that says that land use changes have been overestimated, because it says “that the airborne fraction of carbon dioxide has not changed with increasing emissions, suggesting that the Earth system may have a greater capacity to take up carbon than previously thought”

    Of course if you read the abstract it

    a) also says that the land use effect is lower than was generally thought, which means it was a LOT lower than Dad thinks, and

    b)”…the trend in the airborne fraction since 1850 has been 0.7 ± 1.4% per decade, i.e. close to and not significantly different from zero.” but, slightly positive

  9. It’s about de-emphasizing CO2, which is what RP Sr. is *always* about. Note that the Eos paper could have talked about the imnportance of those other forcings without downgrading CO2. In addition, the implication of some sort of zero-sum game for forcings is unsupported in the paper and IMHO is false.

    Re seeking information on other forcings and in particular GHGs, that’s happening apace. Relative to the state of the science in mid-2006, I don’t think it can be said that the IPCC underplayed any of the forcings. Looking at the big picture, CO2 and methane are the ones that would play a major role in ice sheet melt and so ought to get the most attention, with CO2 having the priority since methane comes into play primarily as a feedback. Add to this CO2’s role in ocean acidification and it’s truly no contest.

    Another thing worth noting that the single most important measured effect of global warming, the poleward shift of the atmospheric circulation, is about as far from regional as one can get. Tellingly, RP Sr. doesn’t give it a mention. (Just out of curiosity, Ben, are you aware of this?)

  10. And speaking of the ice sheets, we have this week’s news. It’s not so good down south either. The evidence would seem to be that 350 ppm is probably enough for at least a (relatively) slow continued melt of the GIS and WAIS. It amazes me how RP Sr. can ignore this stuff.

  11. SB: I’m not aware of much of the back-and-forth in the scientific literature. Most of my work and research is in ethics, which means that I’m looking primarily at questions about what we should do, what we’re obligated to do, or what we’re permitted to do. Usually it steers pretty clear of all of the empirical literature.

    From my vantage, I don’t need the data to tell people that they ought to try to reduce their carbon footprint, or that they ought to use efficient, alternative energies. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I don’t think that the science, the models, and the targets are what justify or don’t justify our actions.

    Clearly, sometimes we justify our actions by appeal to the data: if I need a washer and a bolt for my sink, I need to determine which washer and which bolt I need, and then I buy that washer and that bolt.

    But when it comes to many moral problems, I don’t need extremely robust science. I don’t need to know the physiology of killing, for instance, to know that I ought not to kill.

    It is true also that sometimes it may be very helpful to know the science — I don’t want to put that bottle (of amphetamines, say), in that cup of tea (belonging to that cardiac patient, say) — but even in these cases we rely on previous or prior justifications — that it is wrong to kill, say.

    So far as emissions are concerned, it doesn’t matter to me whether those emissions bring the atmosphere to 350 ppm, 450 ppm, 1000 ppm; or whether sea levels will rise or fall by twenty feet. What matters is that we’re doing something; and this something is very, very difficult to justify.

  12. I’m now very confused. What is this post about?

    “There’s a fair bit of back and forth going on at RC and at Roger’s blog” suggests it is about Klotzbach, as does Eli’s comment.

    But K isn’t an author on the AGU paper, which the vast majority of us, being non-AGU members, can’t read. So is the “interesting” part of the AGU paper the 3 competing hypotheses (in which case the other relevant interesting piece of philosophy / rhetoric is the way RP Jr tries to fool us into thinking that we’re obliged to chose at least one of them as correct).

    As I say, I can’t read their paper. But if this is indeed about the 3 hypotheses, then (a) this is RP Sr pushing his “there are more things in climate change than your CO2, Horatio” stuff again (b) its yet more turf wars stuff (supported, I think, by a very brief analysis of the author list): as global climate change has become more important, the mirco-met people have become less important (you can see similar stuff in the way the geologists often lead the skeptic charge). So I don’t think you can understand it purely from the science; this is politicking.

    @SB: we’re past 350, so it isn’t interesting. 350 would probably melt Green land in the long run, but that too is uninteresting to the Great Unwashed because the timescales are too long.

  13. The post is, loosely speaking, about Klotzbach, as well as the paper I link to above. At the same time, it’s not really “about” either of them. I don’t know much about and I don’t follow the scientific debate, as I’ve said. More than anything, the post is about what we do, about what we need to do. If we have some indication that there are more factors at play in climate change, we should also be focusing on those factors. I think the carbon case is pretty well established at this point. We ought to do what we can to reduce our carbon emissions. Ought we also to curb deforestation? Or engage in more sustainable agricultural practices? You betcha. We ought to, and not just for reasons that have to do with carbon sinks or whatever the climate argument du jour is. We ought to do so for moral reasons — because the greater footprint we leave, the larger our impact, the more we impinge on the lives of others.

  14. Ben, completely off topic, but do you have stuff about the ethics of closed and open peer review??

  15. William, the Eos paper is here in all its glory.

    Re 350: 😦

  16. I don’t have anything sitting on my hard drive, but you might try looking here:


    Also, you could look in some of the bioethics journals. There are somewhat different questions in those journals (related, for instance, to life-saving drugs), but I suspect you can extrapolate from some of those points. Bioethics-y journals to look in include the Journal of Medical Ethics, the American Journal of Bioethics, Bioethics, the Hastings Center Report, among many others.

  17. Fair enough, Ben, although it becomes a bit difficult to grapple with the likes of the Pielkes if you don’t know what they’re leaving out.

    Re the Eos paper, thinking about it more there is a bit of a novelty, which is that a batch of geezers signed on to the idea that a broader environmental context is important for considering climate change, notwithstanding that they did nothing with it even though others already have (mentioning Rockstrom et al again). On another level it was still an excuse for RP Sr. to squeeze in his anti-CO2 pitch, and as William points out a pitch for greater priority for research that’s declined in prominence of late.

    I’d make a friendly amendment to the latter idea, though, which is that for some of the signers it may have been a chance to express solidarity with a fellow senior scientist who’s been rather roughed up of late (notwithstanding that it’s all been own goals). I don’t think it can be said that William Rossow, e.g., isn’t involved in work (aerosols) that’s widely considered to be important and cutting-edge.

    But returning to the main focus of this blog, what about those hypotheses?

  18. Ben-

    You hit the nail on the head with this question:

    “Is it about de-emphasizing CO2 or about broadening the focus of environmental policy?”

    For some people (see this thread) these clauses cannot be connected with an “or” because if you talk about “broadening the focus” you must somehow therefore be “de-emphasizing CO2.” For better or worse the distinction between EOS hypothesis 2 a and 2b is played out in the political arena.

    I think that William is also correct that there is some micro-politics of science going on here (across different disciplinary traditions, e.g., many of the AGU folks on the EOS paper are experts in hydrology and ecology).

    There is also a fair bit of personal animosity involved (see Klotzbach et al. debate) in which some folks see their job to attack the guys they have decided that they don’t like (for whatever reasons) simply because, well, they don’t like them.

    Add that together and you get the set of comments that you see on this thread and those that I’ve posted.

    Finally Ben, I see that you wrote,

    “we have some indication that there are more factors at play in climate change, we should also be focusing on those factors. I think the carbon case is pretty well established at this point. We ought to do what we can to reduce our carbon emissions. Ought we also to curb deforestation? Or engage in more sustainable agricultural practices? You betcha. We ought to, and not just for reasons that have to do with carbon sinks or whatever the climate argument du jour is.We ought to do so for moral reasons — because the greater footprint we leave, the larger our impact, the more we impinge on the lives of others.”

    What is with the anti-CO2 agenda anyway? Are you a denier? 😉

  19. Thus RP Jr. advocates for his father’s faked-up zero-sum game for dealing with anthropogenic forcings.

    • The zero sum meme seems to be popular with more sophisticated deniers, Lomborg being exhibit A.

      I have nothing against having a more broad based approach to environmental policy, but it should not be at the expense of dealing with what is obviously the major driver of climate change. Of course dealing with CO2 emissions will also deal with black carbon, which seems to be mainly from coal, by forcing coal burning plants to clean up their act.

      Most of the other issues dear to the Pielke’s are more regional in nature and need to be dealt with on a regional basis. Indeed an issue such as deforestation is being dealt with, both by governments and NGOs at the appropriate scales.

  20. James Annan weighs in re Klotzbach et al. The authors are made to look like incompetent sailors trying to patch leaks in a sinking boat.

    But anyway, how exactly does a political scientist end up as the primary defender of a science paper? Indeed, one wonders as to the nature of his contribution to it.

  21. Just for the record, here are the mutually exclusive hypotheses:

    Hypothesis 1: Human influence on climate variability and change is of minimal importance, and natural causes dominate climate variations and changes on all time scales. In coming decades, the human influence will continue to be minimal.

    Hypothesis 2a: Although the natural causes of climate variations and changes are undoubtedly important, the human influences are significant and involve a diverse range of first- order climate forcings, including, but not limited to, the human input of carbon dioxide (CO2). Most, if not all, of these human influences on regional and global climate will continue to be of concern during the coming decades.

    Hypothesis 2b: Although the natural causes of climate variations and changes are undoubtedly important, the human influences are significant and are dominated by the emissions into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases, the most important of which is CO2. The adverse impact of these gases on regional and global climate constitutes the primary climate issue for the coming decades.

    2a (RP Sr.’s preferred one) is a weaker statement than 2b, but there’s nothing in it contradicting 2b. Thus they are not mutually exclusive. One doesn’t need to be a climate scientist, a philosophy professor or even an English major to spot the fallacy. Why make the claim?

    My hypothesis: An actual contradiction would have lost RP Sr. most of his co-authors. Vagueing out like this allows him to claim their support for a view that many of them do not hold.

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