Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. has penned a Pandora’s box of assertions and questions in an attempt to get some reality-based discussion going in the summer 2018 edition of ISSUES. I quipped to him in an email “If they didn’t hate you before, they will now.”.
He’s kindly shared the document with us at WUWT for your reading pleasure. I’ve made some excepts, and provided a link to the entire article.
Opening Up the Climate Policy Envelope
Fudged assumptions about the future are hampering efforts to deal with climate change in the present. It’s time to get real.
Roger Pielke Jr.
Policy action is required to mitigate and adapt to human-caused climate change, but current efforts to develop a global climate policy cannot fly. What the world’s leaders have been able to agree on will not prevent the steady increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the risks of climate disruption that will result.
For an aircraft to fly it must operate within a flight envelope, the combination of conditions such as air-speed, altitude, and flight angle necessary for successful operation. For a specific approach to climate action to succeed, it must operate within a policy envelope, the combination of policy design and political, economic, technological, and other conditions necessary for the approach to be effective.
If aircraft designers sought to improve the performance of a poorly designed aircraft not by improving its design, but by rejiggering their claims about aerodynamics, or airfoil design, or jet fuel combustion thermodynamics, to match the aircraft performance they desire, it is obvious that the aircraft would still perform badly. In the case of climate change, policy-makers and climate experts are doing something similar. In the face of ongoing failure to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, they are rejiggering the way they define the climate change challenge as if that will somehow allow policies that have been failing for over 25 years to become successful.
Understanding the unexplored dimensions of a policy envelope can be particularly important in situations of policy failure or gridlock. Sometimes new options are needed in order to break a stalemate, enable political
compromise, or create new technological possibilities. The exploration of options can also give confidence that the policies being implemented do not have better alternatives. Thus, an important role for policy analysts, especially in the context of wicked or intractable problems, is to understand the ever-changing dimensions of the policy envelope in a particular context to assess what might be possible in order for progress to be made, perhaps even expanding the scope of available actions.
The failure of global climate policies to date suggests that new policy options should be explored— that we may need a significantly expanded policy envelope to begin to make satisfactory progress. But rather than exploring such options, we have instead been protecting the current policy envelope from critical scrutiny. One mechanism of such protection is via scenarios and assumptions that underlie the authoritative policy assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Climate denial of another kind
Some observers have pointed out the obvious. For instance, in 2012 Robert Socolow warned, “No one appears to be preparing for a time—possibly quite soon—when a consensus develops that a peaking of emissions in the 2020s will not occur and that therefore (at least in this meaning) ‘two degrees’ will not be attained.” Yet rather than open up discussion of climate policy to new possibilities, the main response to such observations has been climate denialism of another sort, manifested in the Paris Agreement’s call for a more stringent target (1.5°C), made seemingly feasible by the incorporation of assumptions about the future that are at best wildly optimistic.
We need to break free of such assumptions in order to recognize that the current policy envelope does not contain the pathways to meaningful progress, but rather is an obstacle to discovering such pathways.
If the IPCC is unable or unwilling to consider a more expansive climate policy envelope, then others in leadership positions might explicitly take on this challenge. It won’t be easy. Business-as-usual climate policy has a large and powerful political, economic, and social constituency. Repeated policy failures, most obviously the Kyoto Protocol, have been insufficient to motivate a change in thinking or direction. Although the Paris Agreement helpfully abandoned pretentions of a top-down fix, it did little to change thinking about how its targets were to be achieved.
And whereas it’s easy to blame the intransigence of the United States for lack of progress, such a tack is just another way to try to protect business-as-usual policy, for the fact is that the rest of the world isn’t making progress either.
The work on the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report looks to be similar in form and function to that of past reports, designed to support the UNFCCC but certainly not to open up new possibilities that might require different institutional arrangements.
An expansion of the boundaries of a climate policy envelope is different from a search for specific solutions to a narrowly defined problem. Rather, it represents a search for circumstances under which alternative, effective policy interventions might be possible. In the best cases such an exploration can result in practical options previously not considered, and in new coalitions of actors coming together in new political arrangements to seek progress.
What might an exploration of a more expansive climate policy envelope look like? Below are some questions that push toward an expanded set of options, but once we set our collective attention to the task, no doubt a dramatic expansion of ideas and possibilities would multiply quickly.
- What do climate policy options look like if BECCS is not assumed in scenarios and models?
- What happens if we abandon the 2°C temperature target? Oliver Geden observes: “Worldwide, there has been almost no questioning of the parties’ intention to hold the temperature increase to below 2 or 1.5°C.” What alternative long- or short-term targets might be used to track climate policy progress?
- One possibility might include a commitment to the expansion of carbon-free energy in national energy mixes, as achieving zero emissions will require that almost all energy consumption come from sources that are carbon neutral. The world currently is at less than 15% carbon-free energy consumption.
- What might a technology-focused climate policy architecture focused on targets and timetables for the adoption of carbon-free energy sources look like (rather than emissions or temperature targets)?
- Succeeding in the stabilization of carbon dioxide at low levels in the atmosphere will require a massive reduction in the use of fossil fuels. There has been essentially no serious international policy focus on how this might actually be done. Consider that the world consumes more than 11,000 million metric tons of oil equivalent (MTOE) of fossil fuels each year, according to the multinational energy corporation BP. If this number is to approach zero, then the world would need to retire and replace about 1 MTOE each day until 2050. That is the equivalent of more than a nuclear power plant’s worth of carbon-free energy, every day. How might the world decommission such a magnitude of fossil fuel energy? The UNFCCC policy envelope has been an exercise in avoiding this question. What would it mean to get serious about answering it?
- The massive scaling of technologies that do not yet exist or do not exist at scale would require a commitment to dramatically enhanced national and international innovation policies. What policy options would support innovation at the scale needed to transform the global energy system? Are there innovation investments or practices that would be amenable to targets and timetables? Above all, what magnitude of investments is likely to be necessary for a massive scale-up in carbon-free technologies?
- Climate policy discussions have tended to emphasize worst case scenarios of the future. What might climate policy look like if scenarios expected to represent more likely futures are placed at the center of climate policy discussions? How might costs and benefits look under such scenarios? What new policy options might become politically plausible with changes in predicted costs and benefits focused on central tendencies and not extremes?
- What might climate policy look like if costs and benefits of proposed policies are not calculated over decades and longer (e.g., under assumptions of future spontaneous decarbonization), but instead are examined from a perspective of one or several years, so as to be more consistent with political calendars?
These a just a very few possibilities for the sorts of questions that might be asked that would lead to an expanded climate policy envelope.
Full report here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1GrcmbqnQ89GfaXY7gvO1O4-YzderjiXJ/view