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Roger Pielke Sr.: Towards Climate Science Pluralism–and Starting Over With Climate Policy

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- December 11, 2009

Roger Pielke Sr. is a well respected climatologist and professor. His blog is a top go-to place on the Internet for those searching for the happy middle of the contentious climate-change debate. (His son, Roger Pielke, Jr., also has a must-read blog for Climategate students.)

Here at MasterResource, Chip Knappenberger covers climate science. Knappenberger is skeptical of ultra-skepticism and trenchantly challenges exaggerated science in the service of climate alarmism.

In this tradition, I recently read a very interesting post on Pielke senior’s blog, titled “Three Distinctly Different Climate Science   Perspectives,” that is worth sharing with MasterResource readers. Here is what he wrote, and my critical comment is at the end.

There needs to be recognition that there are three distinctly different viewpoints with respect to the extent that humans alter the climate system.

(This subject is discussed in our paper: Pielke Sr. et al., Climate change: The need to consider human forcings besides greenhouse gases. Eos, Vol. 90, No. 45, 10 November 2009, 413.

I have listed the three viewpoints below:

  • 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.

This is the “skeptics” viewpoint.

  • 2) 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.

This is the viewpoint that has been mostly ignored in the climate science/policy discussions.

  • 3) 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.

This is the 2007 IPCC viewpoint and, therefore, the focus of the 2009 Copenhagen Conference….

As we discuss in our EOS paper, in our view, the first and third viewpoints presented above have been refuted.  Thus the plans being made in Copenhagen will necessarily be inadequate to address the diversity of the climate issues that society and the environment face in the coming decades. What are needed is a multiple pronged approach to address the different types of natural and human climate forcings as articulated in one of my son’s posts (see) where he wrote

“As the community begins to realize these significant, multi-faceted and hideous complexities, it would not be a surprise to learn that a policy framework design 20 years ago is now somewhat out of step with current scientific understandings. The upshot is that as presently designed, international climate policy is both too complex and too simplistic. It is too simplistic because it is built upon a set of scientific perspectives on climate change that are increasingly seen as outdated and appropriate only for dealing with a narrow set of very important human influences — long-lived greenhouse gases. It is too complex because in trying to deal with added complexity it has become unwieldy and clearly impractical from the standpoint of not just implementation but the politics of even reaching an agreement about implementation.

Climate policy can be improved by reconstructing climate policy from the bottom up. This process should begin by recognizing that no single policy instrument will ever deal with “climate change” (human caused or otherwise). An approach to climate policy that is decentralized and more focused in its elements will be better able to adjust as science evolves (and it will continue to evolve, to be sure) and allows for progress to be made incrementally along a set of parallel paths. The all-or-nothing approach to climate policy that dominates the present agenda is incapable of keeping pace with evolving scientific understandings as they relate to policy implementation, and from a pragmatic perspective, pretty much guarantees the ‘nothing’ outcome.”

A Critical Comment

Pielke Senior seems to assume that the human influence on climate cannot be good but only bad, a position that rests on the notion that nature is somehow optimal. But CO2, the green greenhouse gas, has demonstrated benefits, not only costs, to the environment and general economy.

If the models are overpredicting climate sensitivity, and I believe the balance of accumulating evidence shows that they are, then the painstaking bottom-up work of Robert Mendelson and others comes into play to reverse the verdict of the human influence on global climate. (The break-even point for 2x concentration is about 2–2.5 C, according to Mendelsohn.) A moderately warmer and wetter world, with CO2 fertilization, is a better world. Game-set-match for policy inaction and from the ‘alarmists’ viewpoint, adaptation over mitigation. This is what I call the happy middle–for it is good news from state-of-the-art multi-disciplinary thinking.

The rethink being inspired by Climategate should only begin with the science. It should continue with climate scientists learning more about economics and political economy. So far the debate has centered around market failure; the real debate must also include analytic failure and government failure. All three are equally important to get from sound science to sound public policy.

Appendix: Pielke Corrects the New York Times

This post by Pielke Senior is important.

There was an article in the New York Times on December 6 2009  by  Andrew C. Revkin And John M. Broder titled “Before Climate Meeting, A Revival Of Skepticism”.

The text attributed to me is

“Roger A. Pielke Sr., for example, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado who has been highly critical of the United Nations climate panel and who once branded many of the scientists now embroiled in the e-mail controversy part of a climate “oligarchy,” said that so many independent measures existed to show unusual warming taking place that there was no real dispute about it. Moreover, he said, “The role of added carbon dioxide as a major contributor in climate change has been firmly established.”

I want to correct a significant misstatement in one part of the above text.

There are “many independent measures existed to show unusual warming taking place that there was no real dispute about it”  is not my view. The sentence should read “many independent measures existed to show human caused climate change taking place that there is no real dispute about it”. The warming (and cooling) we see in the observations is not unusual.

Two very different things indeed.


  1. Jon Boone  

    Thanks for posting Pielke Sr.’s correction about The Times article, which of course subverts John Holdren’s position that “climate is changing in highly unusual ways….”

    The issue for me isn’t a zero sum situation between adaptation versus mitigation but rather optimal doses of both. From the evidence I’ve seen, climate science is so incipient that it’s nearly inchoate. Many of the models assume a closed system, which doesn’t exist. Still, annually dumping over three billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere beyond the earth’s usual transpiration/chemical processes, may have negative consequences we don’t fully understand at present. At such a scale, the precautionary principle out to apply; and therefore, until we do understand the situation better, we ought to seek reasonable mitigation efforts.

    Such efforts should be responsive to practicality and good science–and not include shoot-from-the-hip technological bromides that (a) can’t work , (b) are so incredibly regressive that energy becomes much less affordable, and (c) occlude investment in far better technologies.

    The lost opportunity costs stemming from the way government is picking winners in the climate change technology marketplace is enormous.


  2. Michael Gersh  

    We can see human effects on the environment. There is no objective reason to believe that all of these effects are necessarily negative. CO2 in particular, and a modest warming in particular, may well be net positive factors to earth’s being hospitable to humans.

    If we are to invoke the precautionary principle, we should remember that a global cooling is the worst possible climate change, and we should avoid it if we can, while warming may be a net benefit to humanity.


  3. Jon Boone  

    I don’t disagree with what you say here, Michael. If the climate continues to warm, as it has for the last 10,000 years, it likely will benefit many denizens of the earth. But none of us know what the consequences will be for dumping so much CO2 into the air; the science is far too incomplete just now to tell us with clarity. Our ignorance of specific causality should not therefore be used as an excuse for continuing a widescale practice that, in the fullness of time, could be a major factor in making the planet less habitable.


  4. Henry Buttal  

    While I think the appeal for pluralism is the correct and one most likely to produce realistic assessments, the unfortunate nature of the IPCC is that, largely because of the politics of science (and governance), the assumptions became increasingly simplistic and skewed toward alarmism, even in areas that seem irrelevant and that there was no attempted benchmarking, not even with a hockey stick! Climategate is the bellwhether for this – the IPCC used the information simplistically; compare this with CRU and the government saying it will take several years to recreate the results. However, there are other areas where IPCC was equally cavalier – there are 400 plus consumption models, they used two; there was an IPCC estimate of species that would become extinct, ignoring we discover new species every year.

    The outcome was inevitably going to be skewed – the result here was an overemphasis on CO2, and the politics of environmental extremism. I noticed that, after many years of thumping the marketing drum on CO2, Al Gore recently rediscovered methane. This, unfortunately, is a little late in the political process, as the current Administration and the EPA have decided to impose mandates on the U.S. without democratic process. Thus, will even though I believe man has an impact on his environment, choice 1) in the above article is as much a response to current marketing/politics extremism as it is to the minor failures of statistics in science.


  5. Jon Boone  

    Thanks, Henry. The politicalization of science, in this case “climate science,” an incredibly complex multi-disciplinary inquiry seeking to identify, quantify, qualify, and interrelate billions of variables into meaningful information that permits long term prediction, has unleashed a whirlwind of nonsense. Governments now no longer feel that it is sufficient to set strategic energy objectives; they seek also to decide the means by which to meet those objectives, picking winners and discarding losers without regard to reality. There is a creepy aspect to the actions of the IPCC redolent of the way Church politicians bent the direction of European science in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, which of course had an ultimate effect on the economics of the time.


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