Redefining the Global Warming Debate

How politics brings action on climate change to a standstill.

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Climate change is no longer merely a scientific theory; it is a political football, as prevalent in stump speeches as in ecology textbooks. Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, argues in The Climate Fix that politicization of science has brought action on climate change to a standstill. In his opinion, Americans need to alter their perceptions about climate change or face the phenomenon's uncertain and potentially disastrous effects. Excerpts:

What is "the climate fix"?

The title of the book is supposed to be an inkblot because "fix" can mean a solution, it can mean a really messy problem, [or] it can refer to geo-engineering. There's no one thing we ought to be doing, but a set of things. At the very highest level we have to change our thinking about this problem. What, conventionally, people think about when they think climate change is that we use too much energy, and we have to increase the cost of fossil fuels. We have to change that almost entirely around. We need vastly more energy, and we have to bring down the cost of alternatives to fossil fuels. It's not a problem that has a solution; it's a problem for which we can do better or worse. If you really understand the nature of the challenge, you realize it's one of those things like international conflict or poverty or healthcare in that we never solve it, but we always try to do better.

What was your goal in writing this book?

To empower readers to understand this issue on their own terms rather than relying on appeals to different sorts of expertise.

Your book does not address the debate over the existence of climate change. Do you think this debate is unimportant?

I think we should be past it. There are a lot of policies that make sense to adopt, irrespective of one's views on the specifics of climate science. And that level of agreement is certainly enough to get us started in this direction of accelerating decarbonization of the economy. So if people come to this issue because they're worried about long-term climate change, then great. But if they're worried about American competitiveness and jobs, that's great too. And if they're worried about energy access in the developing world, that's also great.

Is there enough political will to make climate legislation a priority?

In the book I cite several studies that have looked at public opinion at the time that major legislation was passed: the [Troubled Asset Relief Program] that the Bush administration set through in the last months of his administration with 28 percent public support; and the Iraq War, [which had] something like 52 percent public support. If you take a look at public support for action on climate change, it's well within that range. [But] while people support action, it's not intense in the sense that it's not near the top of people's priorities. The climate community has gotten itself in some trouble in trying to ramp up intensity of the issue by elevating the notion of a threat or concern. That's just not sustainable over what really is going to have to be decades that this challenge is taken on. The reality is that governments deal with topics that are 10 through 50 on the priority list all the time. Not every issue can be No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3.

What are your thoughts on cap-and-trade?

There's nothing wrong with cap-and-trade in terms of economic theory. The problem with cap-and-trade is that it fails to meet the test of political reality. The point of cap-and-trade is to put a price on fossil-fuel use, and that price creates economic pain or discomfort, which in theory is going to motivate people to search for different sources of energy. The problem is that there's this commitment to economic growth. And people certainly do not want to experience economic pain and discomfort. So a big part of cap-and-trade legislation is to create complex mechanisms to get around the cap, so as to avoid that economic discomfort. The lesson we ought to take from cap-and-trade is that we need a much more direct focus on innovation rather than trying to create these very complex schemes of incentives.