Roger Pielke Jr

Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. He has published in The Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly and is often cited in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He is author of The Honest Broker and The Climate Fix.

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Roger Pielke Jr

Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. He has published in The Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly and is often cited in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He is author of The Honest Broker and The Climate Fix.

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Tell me why we’ve got Human Impacts on Weather and Climate.

Actually, that is a book that’s co-authored by my father, and in my book, The Climate Fix, the first chapter is entitled Dinner Table Climate Science and I explain how growing up I was taught all sorts of things by my father, who was a leading atmospheric scientist, and his colleague, Bill Cotton. They worked together at Colorado State for several decades and they have written this book that provides a thorough and comprehensive look at human influences on the climate system, which includes carbon dioxide but goes far beyond just carbon dioxide. If people want to understand the issue of climate change it’s important to understand the diversity of influences that people have on the climate system. You could point to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Survey, but that’s a monumental tome that is not really written for the layperson.

We have monumental tomes on the site.

Well, I would have a hard time recommending a thousand-page academic survey.

I would have a hard time reading it. But this one is readable, is it?

Yes. It’s not written for the broad public, but anyone could pick it up and learn something important about the climate system and why it is so complicated to make accurate predictions and the wide range of influences we have.

What are some of the human impacts on weather and climate, apart from the obvious ones?

A lot of attention is paid towards carbon dioxide but there are other greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide and methane, and then there are trace gases, some of which are human produced, like chlorofluorocarbons and their derivatives that also have effects.

How do we produce those?

Sometimes they are waste products from producing refrigerants, some of them are the refrigerants themselves.

You mean the chemicals that make refrigerators work?

Right. And there’s an irony, which of course there always is in human actions, that some of the chemicals that are problematic from the standpoint of their climate influence, were introduced as a solution to chemicals that ate away at the ozone layer in the 70s and 80s that led to the Montreal Protocol. So one generation’s solution became the next generation’s problem. When we burn anything it releases particulates into the atmosphere which scientists call aerosols, and these can change the amount of sunlight that hits the earth and they can precipitate out and, for example, change the colour of snow.

Oh God, really?

Yes. This can lead to accelerated melting and can change the reflectivity of the snow. When people change the land surface, by turning forests into crop land, they can change weather patterns that have a regional and, perhaps, global effect.

So it sounds as if we can’t do anything without changing the climate.

Well, people have a big footprint on planet earth and Mike Hulme, the author of another book I’m recommending, eloquently explains that climate change is not a problem that can be solved but it’s one that we can manage for better or worse.

How Many People Can the Earth Support?

This book is from the middle of the 90s and it’s a fantastic book because the title is very provocative and, if you’re concerned about our impact on the planet, one of the things you want to understand is why there are so many of us and how many people can actually inhabit the earth in a sustainable way.

How many can? We had a book called Feeding The Ten Billion on the site recently.

The answer that Cohen comes up with is something between a hundred million and a hundred billion and the reason why it’s such a large range is that he says it depends on which kind of world you want. A lot of the choices we make with environmental impact are now choices we make consciously. We can ask what kind of world we want.

But we’re very unlikely to decide not to have children. It’s such a mammalian instinct. If everybody alive has a child we’ll hit an unsustainable point quite soon.

This is one of the issues that Cohen comes up with. The definition of what’s sustainable may not be governed by hard physical limits but by the world we wish to inhabit.

So we could sustain a huge number but it would be horrible?

Right. But again that puts it well into the realm of society and politics. One of the interesting things about population is that efforts to explicitly manage global population have fallen out of favour and predictions now are for the world population to peak and then actually decline without coercive policies.

Why? Are we all going to be wiped out by a meteorite?

No. The assumptions are that as people get wealthier they have smaller families and in some places, like Germany, Sweden, Italy, people are reproducing at a rate lower than the replacement. In Sweden and Germany the government is creating tax incentives to get people to have more children, an irony that wouldn’t have been envisioned 30 years ago.

So we might not have to panic?

Certainly not. There are things that we control and things that we don’t and right now it seems that global population is outside of direct control. The idea is that if you empower women and we see a growth in prosperity we will see a slower population growth.

Seeing Like a State.

This is a book that talks about the perils and limitations of policy wonk hubris – the idea that we are capable of large-scale top-down designs on society to have specific effects. It goes through a number of cases, such as urban planning, where the most well-intended thoughtful interventions don’t lead to the desired effect and sometimes have exactly the opposite effect. I would say an example would be global population policies, such as the Chinese one-child policy. It’s a good lesson for people thinking about climate change, whether to create a global policy for carbon dioxide emissions – we’ve seen that lead to corruption and mischievous accounting rather than emission reduction.

Sorry, do you mean people shouldn’t try to reduce global warming because it will do it by itself?

No, not at all. We should be trying to reduce it, absolutely, but to think that we can do it comprehensively with a single treaty or a large-scale policy instrument may be fanciful thinking. He talks about urban planning and efforts to manage agriculture. I give a simple example in my own book, which is the introduction of cane toads into Australia. They had cane beetles that ate sugar cane and led to crop damage and loss of revenue, so someone had a bright idea that they would introduce these toads that like to eat cane beetles. The idea was that here’s a natural intervention. But it turned out that the toads didn’t prefer to eat the beetles but they found other delicious things to eat in Australia and they didn’t have any predators. So now if you go to Australia there are 300 million cane toads. Intervening in complex systems can lead to negative outcomes that are wholly unexpected. The Global Carbon Market sounds great on paper but may in fact be counterproductive. More direct, simple approaches focusing on cause and effect would be more effective. If we’re really worried about burning fuel that produces carbon dioxide, we should come up with energy sources that don’t produce carbon dioxide.

Energy at the Crossroads.

Vaclav Smil is one of the world’s leading figures on energy. This book provides a basic grounding in the mathematics of energy – where we get our energy from, the momentum of the global energy system and the scale of change we might be talking about if we want to alter that system and take it in a different technological direction. One reason our policies on climate change have run aground is that many people have underestimated the scale of the challenge. A few years ago it was easy for people to think: ‘I’ll change my light bulbs and I’ve made my contribution.’ You don’t hear a lot of talk like that from Al Gore and others any more. I think there’s an awareness that it’s not just the policies that are challenging, those are difficult enough, but at its core there’s a significant technological challenge that’s monumental.

I’ve always thought the opposite. That the problem is so huge that changing the light bulb won’t make any difference so you just get overwhelmed and do nothing.

At some level there’s very little that individuals can do. This may be common sense but there’s a lot of messaging about what you or I can do about climate change. The reality is that you and I can do very little to alter the global energy system. It doesn’t mean throw your hands up and do nothing, but it does mean that those sorts of policies on the large scale are what’s important. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded, incorrectly, that we have all the technologies that we need to reduce emissions to these very low levels and that, I think, has set back the case for action. This is what Smil does very well, is set out that we clearly don’t have the technology on the scale we need to achieve the monumental task.

We have an interview on the site with someone who is researching ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and he seems confident they’ll be able to do it.

Yes. That has potential. In every sector you find people who are very optimistic about the potential of their technology to make a big difference and I think that’s great. That’s the view we want technologists to have, but we know from history that not everything pans out. We need a large portfolio. We should invest in taking carbon out of the atmosphere, but also wind, solar, advanced nuclear power, tidal power and so on. We don’t know what the winners are going to be. The historical record of governments and others trying to pick winners in the technology race is not very good.

Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

This is by Mike Hulme who has, in his own career, taken quite a journey from being a scientist producing climate models to someone who is engaged in the cultural and political aspects of the issue. He explains not only why we have disagreements about climate change but why it’s important that we have such disagreements.

Why is it inevitable?

Because climate change at its core is a bit of an inkblot. It means different things to different people. Even in our conversation we’ve used phrases like sustainability and population growth. People map on to climate change their own vision of what kind of world they’d like to live in and these views embody our values, our culture, and just like on any big issue we have fundamental disagreements across society about the answers to those questions.

But we’re not still disagreeing about whether or not it’s happening.

No. The issue has become so politicised that for some people the term ‘sceptic’ is viewed as a badge of honour, though it doesn’t represent a well-considered view of science, but rather it’s something they associate with their cultural or political stance. If you look at data on public opinion on climate change, it has its ups and downs but it’s very strong in that most people feel that human impact on climate is a bad thing and we should reduce emissions. The level of support for action on climate change is well within the zone in which major action has been taken on a lot of different issues. I view the debates over the science like the debates over evolution.

So, some people are just a bit mad.

Yes. The debate on evolution is not an obstacle to getting good medical care.

And it’s not really a debate. There are just some nutters.

Right. And I think Mike Hulme says in his book that, given that climate change represents so many other issues beyond the science, it’s important that we air those out and see what’s at the core of our views. Usually when people argue about science it’s just a façade.

If there were to be some immediate legislation put into place tomorrow, what would you like it to be?

I think the world should invest a significantly larger amount in energy innovation. It’s not just for carbon dioxide. We want cheap energy. We want secure energy. In the US there’s a desire not to have gasoline from foreign dictatorships. There are 1.5 billion people in the world who lack access to energy because it costs too much. They have a right to enjoy the availability of energy. The way we normally do things with respect to energy is that everybody gets a veto. People who don’t like nuclear power, windmills or coal take them off the table. You then wind up with no energy at all. I suggest the opposite. If someone wants their energy source in then they are obliged to let me have my technology too. We don’t know what’s going to work and we have to choose our poison in the end. Nuclear waste or carbon dioxide emissions. Germany apparently doesn’t want any energy source – solar, nuclear, coal, wind. If we’re going to get where we want to go we have to innovate because there is one thing everyone agrees on – we don’t want the lights to go out.

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