Accepting climate science vs. climate policy

To continue musing why some people don’t’ accept climate science, I wonder if part of the blame lies with those of us who want legislative action. We’ve convinced ourselves that climate science definitively, inexorably, and without any doubt leads to climate policy. I get the logic, and have a fair deal of sympathy for it. But since our argument often takes the form: science says x, thus implement cap-and-trade, it’s not too surprising when the science is attacked. Can we really expect otherwise? There are people out there who oppose regulation, taxation and environmental stewardship. Given the way the debate plays out, asking everyone to agree with the science is just a sneaky  way of asking those people to agree with regulation, taxation, and environmental stewardship in the first place.

As I speculated ages ago, it’s possible climate science denial has increased precisely because wait-and-see isn’t viewed as a legitimate response. Perhaps more people would accept climate science if it were decoupled from climate policy, and if our argument instead took the form: the science says x, which means very little for anything else. It’s possible that maintaining the purity of the science means compromising our core argument. (If it’s any consolation, at least one climate policy expert believes wait-and-see can be a reasonable stance.)

Now I’m not arguing (as Roger and Breakthrough do) that we should decouple the science and policy because it will advance the policy. I have no clue what will move climate policy, and I actually agree with David Roberts’ critiques of the Breakthrough approach. But for people like me who aren’t that emotionally invested in the issue, separating the science from policy can bring its own rewards. Despite some of my caveats, I really do want better public science literacy. If muting the link between science and action also mutes some of the intrinsic opposition to climate science, that’s a win in my book.


  1. I can offer a thought on what would advance climate policy.

    If we could de-carbonize the economy, by replacing our carbon based power stations (for example) with cheaper non-carbon power stations – that would make climate policy much easier, and would greatly advance climate policy.

    The non-carbon options currently available are much more expensive than existing carbon based power generation (coal, natural gas and oil).

    This is the main hold-up on climate policy.

    Huge certain cost – for an uncertain but potentially small benefit.

    Hence my wait and see attitude.

    I like nuclear – as that technology exists now, is baseload (not dependent on wind or sun), and is non-carbon. Still more expensive than coal (I believe based on my reading) and in addition there is large opposition to nuclear, not to mention the problem of waste.

    Still, I would advocate investing some money in non-carbon energy production, in an effort to drive the cost down below coal energy production.

    Then the market would work in favor of phasing out coal and replacing it with the cheaper alternative, and non-carbon energy would be a by-product.

    This is not a fast solution – but would be something to work on while we “wait and see”, gather our better data, and further refine our climate models (which are still overestimating the future projected temperature rise – compared to observations).

    1. Thanks for your comment Rick. I agree we need to replace carbon-based power generation with non-carbon based. But…isn’t that what cap-and-trade (or a carbon tax) supposed to speed up? If the cost of coal included environmental factors, then non-carbon based sourcs would be more cost-competitive. Just musing some more…

      thanks again!

      1. Your right. If coal included all the environmental costs, it would make non-carbon more cost-competitive.

        However, it doesn’t.

        Cap-and-trade and/or a carbon tax are a legislative way to attempt to make coal more expensive, and therefore non-carbon energy production more competitive.

        This legislation failed in Congress – and is dead for the foreseeable future.

        However, a legislative solution is forcing the cart up-hill (i.e. it takes energy).

        If a genius could invent a small fuel-cell which you poured water into, and clean power came out, to run your house AND if it was cheaper than a furnace (say $1000) – then lots of people would buy one, to save on the monthly cost of natural gas.

        In other words, if the non-carbon energy technology was cheaper than existing technology, the cart naturally rolls downhill (no energy required – in fact it takes energy to stop it from rolling downhill).

        No legislation would be required to force people to pay more, because people (i.e. the market) will naturally migrate over to the cheaper solution. That is why we buy goods from China – they are cheaper.

        So, our government would be better off funding basic research on fusion, fuel-cell, energy storage, safer fission (thorium), room-temperature superconductors, etc., to invent solutions which are non-carbon AND cheaper than existing carbon based energy production. Everybody would want to buy that technology.

  2. The government could fund research. One way it might do this is to enable Industry to fund research and development itself (controversial, I know). It could do this by creating a lower-bound price on the cost of electricity. In the case of oil, when the price dips below $XX/barrel, the difference could be taxed. I suspect after not long, tax collected would be zero because the price of oil would no longer dip below $XX. But more importantly in sustaining a higher price it would substantiate technologies that are not economical at a lower cost, and provide *certainty* that they can remain viable despite a volatile market. I am not sure if the price of coal, nuclear, wind are stable prices or not, so I do not know if this oil example would translate. I am also not clear on what else mucking with economics like this would do. However, it seems to me that defining the amount of carbon-production a company is allowed to produce is sort of arbitrary and doesn’t translate into supporting and developing the best new technology anywhere as well as a pervasive market price.

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