28 August 2013

The Bet: Paul Ehrlich vs. Julian Simon

Over at The Breakthrough Institute I have a review up of The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and the Gamble over Earth’s Future by Yale University historian Paul Sabin. It is an excellent book. Here is an excerpt from my review:
The bet was over the price of five commodities over a decade – chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. Ehrlich thought that resources pressures would inexorably drive up their prices, while Simon believed that greater abundance resulting from economic forces would result in lower prices. Both sides believed that the bet was not really about commodities, but rather, about two competing views of the world and our role in it – they were betting on scarcity versus abundance.

Simon famously won the bet but Sabin explains he “had also been lucky.” Sabin cites research that shows that “for every ten-year period between 1900 and 2008 … Ehrlich would have won the bet 63 percent of the time” but this was due largely to the post-World War I collapse in commodity prices. At the same time Sabine argues that “Ehrlich and his colleagues only tenuously understood economics and commodity markets.” It turns out that the five commodities prices over a decade were not a particularly good proxy for betting on scarcity versus abundance.

Looking back at the bet and its consequences it seems clear that Simon’s optimism resoundingly defeated Ehrlich’s pessimism in terms of public opinion and political commitments. No one seriously questions economic growth and over-population concerns have all but disappeared from public debate. Yet, it would be a mistake to declare the end of Malthusian thinking. As Herman Daly once quipped, “Malthus has been buried many times … anyone who has been buried so often cannot be entirely dead.”
The Bet would be an excellent introduction to more comprehensive and challenging works such as Matthew Connelley's Fatal Misconception, Nick Cullather's The Hungry World and Björn-Ola Linnér's The Return of Malthus. One day I hope to teach a seminar on this topic and these four books would be the core readings.

My review can be found here. The Bet can be found here. Comments welcomed.

Environmental Journalism and Environmental Activism

With the above Tweet, motivated by Leo Hickman's announcement that he was moving from The Guardian to WWF, I walked into a bit of a Tweet storm this morning.

My colleague here at Colorado, Tom Yulsman replied via Tweet by asking me to provide names of people who had gone through that revolving door, one way or the other. Via a reply I provided him with 4 names of people who have moved between environmental NGOs and professional media. That such a revolving door exists should not be controversial. It does.  Tom however did not like either the question or my examples.

I think it was Tom's follow up tweet -- completely misrepresenting my question -- that got a rise out of a few people:
Each of the three responded.

Lauren Morello of Nature magazine, formerly of Climate Central, replied with some considerable anger that the question was being asked and that she was given as an example of someone who had moved from an advocacy organization to a news organization:
Andrew Freedman, of Climate Central and the Washington Post replied with a more substantive pair of tweets:
Michael Lemonick of Climate Central replied substantively as well:
The relationship of science and advocacy is a topic of considerable attention these days, well beyond issues of climate science. Journalists would do well to ask themselves similar questions, which are perfectly fair to be asked.

In journalism, as in science, advocacy is not a dirty word. Our role as advocates (and we all are) should be openly discussed.

Making Energy Access Meaningful

In the current issue of Issues in Science and Technology, published by the US National Academy of Sciences, Morgan Bazilian and I have a new paper out on global energy access. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
Our distinctly uncomfortable starting place is that the poorest three-quarters of the global population still only use about ten percent of global energy – a clear indicator of deep and persistent global inequity. Because modern energy supply is foundational for economic development, the international development and diplomatic community has rightly placed the  provision of modern energy services at the center of international attention focused on a combined agenda of poverty eradication and sustainable development. This priority has been expressed primarily in the launching of the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative (SE4All). Still, areas of tension and conflict within such an agenda demand further attention, particularly in relation to climate change, as we discuss later in this essay.

Compounding the difficulty of decision-making in such a complex space is that the concept of “energy access” is often defined in terms that are unacceptably modest. Discussions about energy and poverty commonly assume that the roughly two to three billion people who presently lack modern energy services will only demand or consume them in small amounts over the next several decades. This assumption leads to projections of future energy consumption that are not only potentially far too low, but therefore imply, even if unintentionally, that those billions will remain deeply impoverished. Such  limited ambition risks becoming self-fulfilling, because the way we view the scale of the challenge will strongly influence the types of policies, technologies, levels of investment and investment vehicles that analysts and policy makers consider to be appropriate.
You can read the whole thing (free!) as a PDF here. Comments welcomed!

Bazilian, M. and R. Pielke, Jr. 2013. Making Energy Access Meaningful (full version with figures). Issues in Science and Technology Summer:74-79

21 August 2013

Follow Up Q&A From Senate EPW

Today I submitted responses to the questions posed by two Senators on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, following up on my testimony last month. Such questions for the record are a standard part of participating in Congressional hearings.

Below are the questions (italicized) and my answers (inset). If you are interested in my original testimony, it is here and my advice for those asked to provide evidence to policy makers was the subject of my latest column for Bridges.

Replies of Professor Roger Pielke, Jr. to Questions from Senate EPW
21 August 2013

Questions from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse:

1) In your written testimony, you stated:

“It is misleading, and just plain incorrect, to claim that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or droughts have increased on climate timescales either in the United States or globally. It is further incorrect to associate the increasing costs of disasters with the emission of greenhouse gases.”

In your opinion as a science-policy expert, is it also misleading, and just plain incorrect, to claim that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people?
PIELKE REPLY: Yes. Both such claims are misleading and incorrect.
2) Who funds your research currently? Please supply a full list for the record.
PIELKE REPLY: I currently have one active grant. It is a small grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation for a project looking at the role of philanthropy in policy and politics (it has nothing to do with climate or extreme events), drawing on an engagement model I proposed in my book, The Honest Broker (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Also, at the University of Colorado, I am a Fellow of CIRES (Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences) which is a NOAA Joint Institute.
Questions from Senator David Vitter

1) Dr. Pielke, as I read Mr. Nutter’s testimony, he appeared to be trying to tell us that businesses face a disaster that is happening now. But according to a recent Lloyd’s of London survey of almost 600 corporate executives about the risks faced by their business, they ranked climate change #32 behind “piracy” but ahead of “space weather.” High taxation was ranked #1. Regulation was ranked #5. Why do you think they placed climate change at #32?
PIELKE REPLY: Human-caused climate change likely ranks low in the Lloyd’s 2013 Risk Index because the vast majority of impacts associated with such changes that would be of direct concern to global businesses in 2013 are presently small or even undetectable at present in the context of historical climate variability, as discussed in my testimony.
2) Dr. Pielke, do you agree with comments made during the hearing that the weather here in the U.S. has fundamentally changed as is evidenced by an increase in hurricanes, droughts, floods, and tornadoes? Do you agree there is “strong evidence” that extreme weather events in the U.S. have become more frequent and intense?
PIELKE REPLY: A range of evidence summarized in my prepared testimony indicates that, on climate time scales in the US or globally, there has not been an increase in hurricanes, droughts, floods or tornadoes. The evidence for this claim is strong and is well-supported in the peer-reviewed literature, data collected by the U.S. government’s research agencies and the recent report on extreme events by Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change.
3) Dr. Pielke, to reiterate your points debunking claims that weather events in the United States are “extreme” in that they are increasing and more intense I would like to ask you a series of questions and provide you the opportunity to answer each.

a) Have United States landfalling hurricanes increased in frequency or intensity since 1900? Have they increased globally? Has damage, adjusted for more people and property, increased in the US or elsewhere?
PIELKE REPLY: As presented in my testimony, the US has not seen an increase in hurricane landfall frequency or intensity since at least 1900, nor in measures of damage, normalized for societal change. In fact, the US is presently in the longest stretch without a Category 3+ hurricane landfall since at least 1900.
b) Has United States flooding increased on climate timescales? Globally? Have United States tornadoes increased? Has United States drought overall increased?
PIELKE REPLY: As presented in my testimony, the US has not seen an overall increase in flooding, nor has such an increase been documented globally. The same holds also for tornadoes and drought.
c) Has the cost of disasters increased globally as a fraction of GDP?
PIELKE REPLY: As presented in my testimony, the cost of disasters as a fraction of global GDP has actually decreased since 1990.
4) Has anyone taken you up on your June 27th twitter invitation to defend President Obama’s claim? (“Open invitation: Does anyone wish to defend the Obama claim that worse extreme weather is increasing disaster costs?”)
PIELKE REPLY: No one took up the challenge.

14 August 2013

Some Advice on Advice

My latest Bridges column is just out, and in it I provide some advice on giving evidence to policy makers, fresh off my Senate testimony last month. Here is how it begins:
Last month I was invited to testify before a hearing of the US Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works on the science of climate change. It is a privilege to be called upon to share one's expertise with policy makers. Yet most experts, and certainly most academic experts, receive little training in how to engage effectively with policy makers in a formal setting such as an evidentiary public hearing. I am fortunate to have had excellent mentors over the past several decades, who shared with me some key advice for engaging effectively in the policy process. I would like to pass along a bit of their advice, which I have come to appreciate.
To read the rest please go here. Please feel free to come back and offer your comments or critique. Thanks!

12 August 2013

The Problem with Apollo Analogies

Last week I had a letter in the FT, commenting on the latest call for a new Apollo project, this time for solar energy. I explained that Apollo is a poor analogy for difficult challenges:
Going to the moon was easy by comparison

From Prof Roger Pielke, Jr.

Sir, David King and Richard Layard (“We need a new Apollo mission to harness the sun’s power,” Comment, August 2) call for new spending on solar energy technology of the magnitude that was spent on the Apollo moon missions in the 1960s and 1970s: “To match the spending on the Apollo project would require only 0.05 per cent of each year’s gross domestic product for 10 years from each G20 country.”

Over the next 10 years, assuming an aggregate 4 per cent gross domestic product growth rate across the G20, this new spending would equate to more than $430bn. However, in 2013 dollars the Apollo moon mission cost a relatively paltry $130bn. What they are really calling for is spend more than three times the cost of the Apollo missions.

The problem with Apollo analogies is that going to the moon was easy in comparison to the challenge of doubling or tripling global energy supply, while at the same time all but eliminating carbon dioxide emissions. Sir David and Lord Layard are in the ballpark on the scale of investment that is needed. They just have their analogy wrong.

Roger Pielke, Jr, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, US