Climategate: The Scientist Speaks

Testimony from Dr. Phil Jones (the former Director of the CRU) before Members of the British Parliament earlier this week, illustrates the limits of science in politics. Thus the limitation can best be summarized by the following relationship: The scientific process requires uncertainty in deriving outcomes about the natural world while politics demands certainty in its conclusions before taking action on a particular problem.

From watching his statements one thing is clear. Even though Dr. Jones may be right about climate change, one would hope that policymakers do seek out multiple perspectives on the issue before accepting his theories and weigh the consequences associated with them before taking action on climate change.

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A look at the policy process and budgeting: EPA Budget Hearings

Over the next couple of days, the Senate Environmental Public Works (EPW) committee will conduct hearings on the EPA’s budget for fiscal year (FY) 2011. What’s interesting from the hearings is that it provides an inside look at how policymakers are not only debating the issue, but also how they are constructing arguments on facts that best suite their existing positions on climate change. This is nothing new in terms of the political process, but does highlight some of the challenges where science and politics converge in developing public policy.

Highlights of the request include:

  • The overall request for FY2011 is approximately a $10B budget for the EPA.
  • The request includes a reduction to overall agency funding by about $300M from FY2010 while reallocating about $56M (includes new funding of $43M) for programs to regulate and control greenhouse gas emissions.
  • There have been concerted efforts led by Senator Linda Murkowski (R-AK) and Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) to introduce legislation to strip from the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.  The budget process for the EPA serves as a forum for these legislators to block, or water-down, regulatory efforts by the EPA.

Nevertheless, from watching the hearings there are many questions left unanswered:

  • Should the EPA regulate carbon dioxide or is it the role of Congress?
  • Why do EPW senators provide such differing causal arguments about climate change ?
  • How does the public perceive the arguments for or against climate change? Do public perceptions matter?
  • How can we redefine this issue beyond the current rhetoric (e.g. partisanship, personal attacks, binary divisions in the global context of “us versus them,” etc.)? Has the debate become too cavalier?
  • Do you feel the EPW and EPA are representing our interests or the interests of special groups who would benefit from this type of legislation?
  • Should government regulate industries over environmental issues or develop markets and provide subsidies for industries to compete in environmental markets?
  • What are some of the limits of environmentalism in shaping environmental policy?
  • Why does Senator Inofe have an issue with political scientists?
  • How important is using political arguments around scientific certainty in order to develop competing policies to regulate carbon dioxide?

Outliers from Snowmageddon

In between shoveling snow and staying warm on this snowy day, I found a few posts worth checking out.

  • “Cap and Trade” has already become a campaign issue for vulnerable Democrats in the upcoming 2010 midterm elections. A student of mine who came across this video produced by the VA GOP targeting Democratic members of Congress Rick Boucher (VA, 9th ) and Tom Perrillo’s (VA, 5th) who both supported the Waxman-Markey bill this past summer and who represent districts that John McCain won in 2008.
  • Ben Profferror writes about the benefits of civility in debating global warming.
  • The NY Times finds the recent winter storms hitting the mid-atlantic region are a result of global warming patterns.
  • Kathy Nieland discusses the push by the SEC for companies to disclose the risks of climate change associated with current business practices.
  • Christina Larson finds the apparent “green-tech war” between the U.S. and China is a bit overblown.
  • Lastly, Audi provides a tongue-in-cheek approach to the greening of America

The Politics Over The Process of Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

Over the past few months, the politics surrounding climate change continues to heat up . Recent efforts by global warming opponents have sought to disclaim the work, and credibility, of groups like the IPCC and CRU.  Opponents have been successful in their efforts to disclaim the work by these institutions by shifting the debate towards claims of cover ups and the mishandling of data by prominent climate scientists as proof of malfeasance. The goal of these efforts by global warming opponents is to redefine the debate over climate change.

By attempting to reshape the public’s perceptions of this issue, climate change opponents are attempting to provide an alternative explanation about some of the problems with the scientific consensus on global warming. This is a shift from previous attempts by global warming opponents to claim that climate change is either not happening or not a result of human activity. This strategy focuses on creating doubt among the public over the entire process in which scientific consensus was reached on this issue. Thus far opponents have done this in two ways. First, opponents have been successful in disclaiming the CRU. This led to the resignation of its Director, Phil Jones, over  leaked email messages that global warming opponents claimed was evidence of a corrupt peer-reviewed system by which scientific evidence on climate change was based.  Second, opponents have begun to discredit the IPCC over glacier-gate. Opponents claim the process that resulted in glacier-gate (faulty predictions over the melting of Himalayian glaciers) typifies a flawed process by which the IPCC makes their assessment on climate change; namely the IPCC’s process is driven by a political agenda and bureaucratic incompetence.  So, where does this leave us? Well, we should expect to see  global warming opponents up the ante in their efforts to challenge the process by which scientific consensus is reached over climate change.

Environmental Outliers

Today’s Environmental Outliers:

  • Reuters discusses the likely policy alternatives for Congress in dealing with climate change legislation in 2010.
  • Environmental ministers from BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries met in India to discuss the post Copenhagen scenario on climate change.
  • Pew finds global warming ranks last in immediate priorities for the U.S. government to tackle.
  • The lead climate change negotiator from China notes he has an “open mind” on whether climate change is caused by humans .
  • Bill Gates discusses his concerns that funding for climate policies will come at the expense of health funding.
  • Amy Harder gives an assessment of President Obama’s efforts on energy and environmental policies.
  • The Wall Street journal opines on the continuing glacier-gate controversy

Glacial Politics: The IPCC and Climate Change

A slow-moving storm is brewing over a recent apology from the IPCC due to  an erroneous climate prediction of Himalayan glaciers melting by 2035. As this story unfolds there are multiple perspectives for what caused the controversy:

Dr. Murari Lal used the claim to pressure governments into action.

Dr. Syed Hasnain, who was the source of this info, was misquoted and the IPCC process for disseminating information on climate change is driven more by political considerations than it is by scientific evidence.

Nevertheless, politics appears to be behind claims made by the IPCC as well as by critics of the process. Further, an important lesson from this case is that it exemplifies some of the problems policymakers face when trying to shape public policy based on scientific evidence. No matter how certain the politics may be around this issue, the uncertainty principle continues to be a major factor in developing policies that relate to climate change.

Copenhagen Climate Conference and Carbon Prices: A Look At The Policy Options

One of the policy options being discussed at the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, is the link between carbon prices and greenhouse gas emissions. The basis for this policy option is an efficient price of carbon serves as an effective means for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. And the rationale for using carbon pricing is that carbon emissions are considered a negative externality, a negative effect on a party not directly involved in a transaction, which results in a market failure.

Setting an appropriate price floor for carbon is not an easy task. The difficulty in setting a carbon price is that if it is too high, or too low, the unintended consequences of such an action results in an inability of government being able to protect many consumers who would be affected by this pricing scheme. In some cases, an inappropriate pricing mechanism can actually hurt the individuals who were intended to be protected. The problem of trying to set a carbon price is that it distorts the allocation of resources where prices that are too high tend to cause surpluses and prices which are too low tend to cause shortages.

To get a sense of carbon prices and emissions reductions, I have outlined a table that summarizes the work of William Nordhaus, a leading environmental economist at Yale whose Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy (DICE) estimates the cost-benefit of various policy proposals for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

The DICE model focuses on the economics of climate change that links factors affecting economic growth, CO2 emissions, the carbon cycle, climate change, climate damages, and climate-change policies. The underlying assumption of the model is that it views the economics of climate change from the perspective of growth theory; that is, economies make investments in capital, education, and technologies, thereby abstaining from consumption today, in order to increase consumption in the future. I have listed the results of few policy options that have been estimated using the DICE model in the table below.

The first policy option listed in the DICE table is the business-as-usual approach; this means no restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions. The estimated damage of doing nothing amounts to approximately $23 trillion in current dollars by the year 2100. The second kind is the “optimal policy,” judged by Nordhaus to be the most cost-effective, with a worldwide tax on carbon emissions adjusted each year to give the maximum aggregate economic gain as calculated by DICE. The third and fourth approaches are options based on the Stern and Gore approaches. The Stern policy option imposes severe limits on emissions that are much stronger than those included in the Kyoto Protocol. The Gore approach results in dramatic emissions reductions which reach 90 percent of current levels before the year 2050.

The economic problems with the Gore and Stern strategies, though they both have high emissions control rates and carbon prices, is that the high emissions controls (80-90% for 1990 levels) require carbon prices which range from $600 to $900 per ton of carbon. The total cost of the Stern Plan is $37T and the Gore Plan is $44T in 2005 dollars. The dislocations involved from either option results in prices that are extremely large, which result in severe economic costs.

So from these options, where do the two major proposals circulating in the U.S. Congress stand regarding carbon pricing? The Waxman-Markey and Boxer-Kerry have estimated carbon prices of about $20 per ton where 85% of the emissions permits would be given away to polluters and the Boxer-Kerry bill is about $15 per ton to at least 2019. Currently the recommended price is about $40 per ton with it doubling in 40 years. Unfortunately both U.S. bills do not provide adequate price floors to curb emissions. More to come…